A couple weeks back when the Grammys announced their 2018 nominees, a familiar complaint rang loud and wide: Why is the rock representation so terrible? Whether it was strangely placing an artist like Leonard Cohen among them or recognizing acts like Kaleo or Nothing More that ring hollow to even the most vigilant rock fans, the Grammys seemed once again out of touch with the genre. Hell, even well-established nominees like Metallica, Foo Fighters, or Avenged Sevenfold were hardly bringing their finest work to the table in 2017, and their recognition felt like the committee was simply at a loss for other worthy artists that captured wide attention.
Enter Los Angeles radio station KROQ and their annual Almost Acoustic Christmas. The charity event functions a bit like a festival, except it’s in an arena (The Forum) and has a revolving stage, meaning there is literally wall-to-wall music for six hours on two separate nights. The bill is a cross section of alt-rock stars from throughout the decades, and the throughline is that the bands are all pushing recent or upcoming material they hope makes a dent on radio, enough that they are willing to play the event without their typical fee. It’s the kind of situation where everyone wins, particularly the fans who are lucky enough to nab tickets to the sold-out event.
For 28 years, KROQ’s Almost Acoustic Christmas has been a class act of holiday programming for the Los Angeles area. It’s where I saw David Bowie in the late-90’s in what would end up being the only time I’d ever get to see him, and in recent years the event has managed to book acts like Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Linkin Park, Modest Mouse, Lorde, and Green Day. U2 was even supposed to headline a few years back until Bono crashed his bike. And this year is no different, offering up the likes of The Killers, Muse, Queens Of The Stone Age, 30 Seconds To Mars, Run The Jewels, Phoenix, Prophets Of Rage, and Weezer.
They even booked a canceled Morrissey set. It’s a hell of a show for even the casual rock fan, complete with a primo stage production, tons of holiday decorations, and plenty of surprises (unfortunately the biggest surprise this year was when Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme kicked a photographer in the face, sparking a major backlash against the band).
Taking in the festivities, it becomes a bit of a wonder that rock music is viewed by many as an obsolete art form. Let’s forget the wealth of smaller artists that we’ve championed on our year-end lists that are still under the radar of the radio world, acts like Japandroids or Waxahatchee or even more mature leanings that have seen some radio (and Grammy) attention like The War On Drugs or The National. The artists that play for KROQ veer towards the mainstream (strangely, the two biggest alternative rock crossovers of the year, Imagine Dragons and Portugal. The Man were not on the bill, and both were chosen as Pop acts for the Grammy nominations and not Rock), and many of them are shrugged off by the critical world. The event plays a bit like a State Of The Union for the alt-rock community, giving a glimpse into what still works on the radio waves, and whether there is indeed a healthy genre in spite of what is up for trophies at the year’s biggest music awards show.
Interestingly, radio is all about the song. Sure, being an established artist and the relationships established by your representatives help, but this year alone, we’ve seen acts like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry stumble with radio, and it is no different in the rock world. Every act on KROQ’s lineup has a song that they are pushing or riding in on, and that matters a lot more than their name recognition. That provides a good entry point to examine this year’s crop of alternative rock thoroughbreds.
The Band: Judah & The Lion
The Song: “Suit And Jacket”
The Verdict: Woof. Twenty One Pilots are just the latest alternative band to infuse hip-hop into their rock, a move that seems more natural in the iPhone generation than any other. So, it’s not a surprise that this Nashville band follows suit, but juxtaposing it with some Mumfords-influenced instrumentation makes for a particularly unsettling concoction. “Suit And Jacket” and their earlier hit “Take It All Back” are virtually the same song, shining a flashlight on ho-hum lyrics that bemoan maturity, making them one of the few current crop of KROQ bands that are a hard sell for me anytime I hear them on the radio. The songs are catchy and not surprising that they are hits, but we can do better.
The Band: Cold War Kids
The Song: “Love Is Mystical”
The Verdict: Surprised. The career arc of these Orange County natives is completely fascinating. Their first albums came out in the aughts and were downright abused by blogs like Pitchfork, but the band was still able to earn a pretty big following in part because the times were so kind to most indie rock, and their blue-eyed soul take on it didn’t get lost in the pack. But as their popularity started to wane, it appeared like the group wasn’t going to make it. Then their 2014 soaring anthem “First” became the kind of hit that careers are made of, topping the alt charts and never really leaving radio rotation, earning them a second life as a more mainstream artist.
So when the group attempted their follow-up early this year with single “Love Is Mystical,” my instant reaction was that it wasn’t quite as strong as “First,” retreating to the hooky soul rock that the band had been spawning for a decade. Still, the song is another big hit, securing their place as a formidable alternative rock force. The story of Cold War Kids felt like “First” was an apparition, but it’s proved to be something much more, and it’s hard to be mad at a hardworking band that has fought uphill for their entire career that has found their earned success. And it should be noted that on the first night of KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, they were the only band to really attempt something special, bringing out local sensation Bishop Briggs for a couple songs in a move that highlighted the extreme lack of women on the lineup.
The Band: Run The Jewels
The Song: “Nobody Speak”
The Verdict: *Makes a fist and gun with hands* The history of rap on rock radio is pretty thin. Cypress Hill works. Eminem has shown up in the past. I heard Post Malone one time. Jay-Z got some play when he hooked up with Linkin Park. But yeah, fans at the KROQ event were just as surprised as the self-proclaimed “black sheep” to hear such a traditional hip-hop set at the rock event. The song that radio is picking up on is a DJ Shadow single that features RTJ, and it’s hard to say what makes this song stand out as a “rock single” more than any of their others. The thing about Run The Jewels is that they’ll impress any audience they are put in front of, even a skeptical bunch of 30 Seconds To Mars fans. The song won’t be a huge hit, but it could pave the way from one of their more beloved tracks to storm alt radio.
The Band: Prophets Of Rage
The Song: “Living On The 110”
The Verdict: *raises one fist in the air* Okay, with Prophets Of Rage and Run The Jewels on the same bill, KROQ has likely booked more people of color than ever for this event. No matter what, this is a good thing for alternative radio.
Prophets Of Rage’s current radio single, “Living On The 110,” sounds better in LA than anywhere else in the world, and it makes sense considering what Rage Against The Machine means for this city. Throughout the lifespan of this new project, it’s been a pleasure to hear the old Rage songs next to Public Enemy and Cypress Hill tunes at their live show — it ultimately feels like a bunch of legendary musicians having fun and focusing on crowd-pleasing. Music rarely is that generous. Yeah, the song isn’t going to become as ubiquitous as any of the band member’s past successes, but the new tunes fit perfectly with the old ones both thematically and aesthetically at a show like this.
The Band: Rise Against
The Song: “The Violence”
The Verdict: Worthy. Rise Against’s career has a foundation in political activism, but that hasn’t really played a big part in their success at radio. They’ve spent more than a decade landing punk tempos and huge choruses on the airwaves, always with at least a vague sense of social importance. But this year’s “The Violence” suffered not at the fault of Rise Against, but just because rock radio is moving away from songs with a harder edge. “The Violence” is as sturdy and memorable as anything in their catalog, and KROQ has given it more love than most places, as the Los Angeles, radio station still trades in the sounds of nostalgia. The tune played great in concert and might prove to have a longer life on the radio than most. If anything, at least it proves that the band still knows the formula that’s found them success in the past, and might just need to wait around for the audience to come around again.
The Band: Queens Of The Stone Age
The Song: “The Way You Used To Do”
The Verdict: Danceable. That’s what they’re going for, right? The band opened with the lead single to Villains on Saturday night and have made it clear that the Mark Ronson-produced jam is part of an attempt to embrace their more fun side. And, it is a fun song, even if it isn’t a hit. It suited the attitude of the night, too, in which frontman Josh Homme seemed a little more toasted and smiley than usual, even happy to explore the stage’s miniature catwalk. Live, in concert to start a hit-filled set is probably the best way to experience “The Way You Used To Do,” where you can get caught up in the groove and dance along. Stuck in traffic on your nightly commute, it just doesn’t play quite as well. Regardless, it is admirable to see a band as established as Queens Of The Stone getting out of their comfort zone.
Of course, this performance was marred by a well-reported incident in which Josh Homme violently kicked a photographer. Queens’ set was unhinged to begin with, with Homme at one point asking the audience if they were excited for Muse, then responding, “Fuck Muse.” He also gashed himself in the face at some point, visibly a bit looser than normal on stage. Homme has since apologized, but it will take a while to fix the band’s reputation after this.
The Band: 30 Seconds To Mars
The Song: “Walk On Water”
The Verdict: Holy. Complete with a massive Jesus beard, Jared Leto is happy entering the Christ portion of his career. But the band that has landed a number of hits veering more towards radio-ready screamo found a successful pivot this year with a tune that embraces the same over-produced maximalism that has also swallowed up Fall Out Boy of late. Still, the song is as big of a hit as they come, almost instantly becoming the backing track for ESPN’s college football advertisements as soon as it was released. Live, Leto does everything except turn water into wine, performing in the audience, employing flag wavers, launching confetti and giant balls, and getting a shitload of fans on stage with him. Success in music often hinges on adaptability, and 30 Seconds To Mars’ return on 2017 revealed a band adept at just that. Not surprising coming from an Oscar winner.
The Band: Muse
The Song: “Dig Down”
The Verdict: Unholy. “Dig Down” performed quite well on alternative radio this year, even if KROQ didn’t play it a ton. It was a prime example of how a band can do when given the benefit of the doubt based on prior success. It’s got a big choir chorus that gets away from the emotional urgency that Muse does best. Fortunately, at this show, the band did focus on what they do best, delivering a larger than life set full of hits and the star power that rivaled the literal Hollywood star that performed ahead of them. Neon Kanye West glasses, guitars that glowed, and plenty of leaping theatrics characterized the set, which stood in contrast of a single this year that was, well, just kind of boring. Live, Muse is one of the best bands on the planet, and it’s nice when the music matches their bravado.
The Band: Vance Joy
The Song: “Lay It On Me”
The Verdict: Triumph. The Australian songwriter started his career with a cosign from Taylor Swift and a massive hit in the form of “Riptide.” Still, there was some skepticism as to whether he could successfully follow that up. “Lay It On Me” is everything there is to love about alternative radio in a single song, bucking a typical verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of a steady build that explodes with a mammoth hook and joyous horns. As the best alt singles do, it has crossover potential, especially since Joy has had success in the past. But the song serves as a reminder of the potential of a standout single, standing next to Bleachers “Don’t Take The Money” and Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” as some of the best reasons in 2017 to turn on the radio. Plus, he oozes amiability while on stage, which is always a welcome thing.
The Band: Phoenix
The Song: “J-Boy”
The Verdict: Strong. It’s become clear that Phoenix will not be returning to the formula that landed them on the radio’s radar in the first place with the pair of eventually ubiquitous singles from their 2009 effort Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, but it’s also clear that they are more than okay with that. Sure, they’ve gone from headlining Coachella to playing in the middle of the pack at this event, but their music is as cohesive as ever, banking more on vibe than hooks. It actually makes their songs feel remarkably contemporary and forward-thinking — particularly the silky “J-Boy” — even if it doesn’t provide a great fit for the radio. Phoenix are one of the great bands of our time that hasn’t necessarily shunned commercial aspirations. Rather, they are just remaining true to their own interests and tastes. And that’s about as admirable as it gets.
The Band: Weezer
The Song: “Feels Like Summer”
The Verdict: Depressing. There’s a point when you hear “Feels Like Summer” for the first time that, if you are a fan of the band, is one of the saddest musical moments of 2017. It’s during the pre-chorus, when the anonymous vocals give way to reveal Rivers Cuomo’s unmistakable tenor. It’s the moment you realize that this is a Weezer song and not one of the dozens of flash-in-the-pan young rock radio acts that appear suddenly and slink away like that Homer Simpson in the bush meme. It is kind of amazing how Weezer, more than 20 years after the debut, can still sound perfectly in place with the rising artists of their time. It would just be better if the artists they sounded like were, like, good. If there is a bright side, though, it is the fact that Weezer are coming off of two pretty enjoyable recent albums and always have a habit of finding their way back to the reason we liked them in the first place. Hopefully, “Feels Like Summer” is just a wrong turn.
The Band: The Killers
The Song: “The Man”
The Verdict: Las Vegas’ finest band has delivered a handful of the best alternative radio singles of this century. But the Bowie-esque, strutting “The Man” isn’t exactly something anyone saw coming. It felt like a gamble when it was first released, in that it was a new sound for the band and a bit funkier than anything currently on rock radio. But it has worked, landing as a love it or hate it moment in a culture that garnered the band more attention than most mid-career singles do. With the release of their underrated Wonderful Wonderful this year, The Killers will never curry favor with critics or Grammy voters. But in the atmosphere of a radio music festival, this is the atmosphere that they thrive. They are a band of the people, and “The Man” works perfectly as a working-class singalong.
Tasked with closing the event after Morrissey canceled, The Killers went ahead and covered a couple of his best-known songs in a generous move that has become something of a trademark of the band (the did the same thing at other festivals for Kings Of Leon and Muse respectively). On a weekend full of ups and downs, The Killers were the perfect band to end the show in a sort of unity. With such a diverse offering of rock music, the fact that it all can find a place within the umbrella of rock radio is pretty amazing. Of course, there is a lot more to rock music than what was on display, but it was enough for mainstream rock to feel healthy and in a good place, and that is getting unfortunately overlooked to far too many.