In Remembrance of Mainstream Rock
I think everyone has a period during their relationship with music where they think everything on the radio sucks. I’m not necessarily talking about pretentious hipsters, but music listeners in general. I think it’s a common sentiment. I’ll admit it’s somewhat warranted (there’s a reason I rarely listen to the radio). However, it’s also kind of immature. You’re free to dislike what you dislike, but at some point every hardcore music fan should at least acknowledge the talent in artists like Lady Gaga, Adele, and Justin Bieber. These days, making that leap from I hate popular music to some popular music is great in an un-ironic way is difficult. Ten years ago, I don’t think it was.
The 10-year anniversary of The Killers’ Sam’s Town was this month, so I’ve been listening to their early stuff. Along with Hot Fuss, those early Killers albums are still genuinely enjoyable to me. They’ve stood the test of time well. I wasn’t very old when these albums were popular, but I was old enough to remember everyone loving them, hearing them all over the radio, and seeing artists like The Killers win Grammys. I suddenly realized that this doesn’t happen much anymore, at least in the rock world.
What happened to all the great mainstream rock?
I decided to figure out when things stopped. I’m positive there used to be extremely popular, critically acclaimed, award-winning rock music, and I had to prove it. In my mind, this golden age occurred from 2002 through 2008. I set a strict criteria. I wanted to find albums that:
Were released by a group and commonly considered “rock”
Released between January 1, 2002 and January 1, 2009
Achieved RIAA multi-platinum status
Received a favorable score from critics (via Metacritic)
Received a favorable score from listeners (via Metacritic users)
I also wanted to simply find albums that I like. It must pass my personal test.
Here is a chronological list of all albums that fit that strict criteria:
Dave Matthews Band — Busted Stuff, 2002, 2x platinum, 7.8 Metacritic, (8.3 user)
Switchfoot — The Beautiful Letdown, 2003, 2x platinum
Green Day — American Idiot, 2004, 6x platinum, 79 Metacritic (8.8 user)
The Killers — Hot Fuss, 2004, 3x platinum, 66 Metacritic (8.5 user)
Coldplay — X&Y, 2005, 3x platinum, 72 Metacritic, (7.8 user)
Red Hot Chili Peppers — Stadium Arcadium, 2006, 3x platinum, 73 Metacritic (9.1 user)
Maroon 5 — It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, 2007, 2x platinum, 66 Metacritic, (6.8 user)
Coldplay — Viva La Vida, 2008, 2x platinum, 72 Metacritic, (8.2 user)
I’m not saying everyone should like these albums. Personally, I’ve never been a huge Dave Matthews or Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, although I do enjoy these albums. I’m also not saying these are my favorite albums. None of these would make my personal Top 50. However, I found it interesting that in each year during the 2002–2008 time frame there was a popular, critically acclaimed rock album. Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown in 2003 didn’t register on Metacritic, so you’re free to debate its qualifications. But even still, 2004 had both Green Day and The Killers, making it the best year for mainstream rock since the ’90s.
Contrast that with 2009 through today. Since times have changed, I’ve tweaked the search criteria this time around. Albums don’t sell as much and there has simply been less time to sell them, so I’ve lowered the bar to simply going platinum once. Here’s the same list as above, containing single-platinum albums, but released from 2009 to October 2016:
There aren’t any. I’m not kidding. There is not a single platinum rock album released since January 1, 2009 that I like, critics liked, and the masses liked. I easily found eight from 2002 through 2008.
This isn’t an exact science. It’s possible my taste just changed — although I listen to rock in 2016 much more than I did when those earlier albums were coming out. It’s possible that single-platinum is still too high to set the bar — although I d0 want to make sure I’m getting mainstream music only. It’s also possible that I’m simply an idiot or the RIAA’s site isn’t flawless and I’ve forgotten albums altogether. However, I feel pretty confident about my research on this.
Another important consideration is that popular rock music has splintered and drifted into other genres. Most of what you hear on Top 40 radio these days is some blend of pop, hip-hop, dance, and electronic. Any rock music that wants to “make it” in 2016 has to reach out into one of those genres, it feels like. To that extent, there are some recent popular “rock” albums I liked:
Mumford & Sons — Sign No More, 2009, 3x platinum, 68 Metacritic (7.8 user). This is indie folk or indie rock. Definitely closer to rock, but not quite stereotypical Rolling Stone fodder.
Foster the People — Torches, 2011, 1x platinum, 69 Metacritic (8.5 user). This album is really indie pop, and would be a stretch to call it rock.
The Lumineers — The Lumineers, 2012, 1x platinum, 73 Metacritic (7.5 user). Like Mumford & Sons, this is indie folk. It’s probably not even indie rock.
Those are three pseudo-rock albums that fit my adjusted criteria. (I would’ve included Some Nights by Fun, but it received only a 60 on Metacritic and missed the cut. Like Foster the People, that one is probably considered indie pop.)
I don’t know if mainstream rock is dead for good, but it sort of feels like it ended in 2008 with Coldplay’s Viva La Vida. It may be over, but does it matter? Music is more widespread and democratic than ever before. While it’s much harder to become a huge rockstar these days, it seems much easier to build a loyal following thanks to social media and widespread access to an endless sea of music on Spotify. Heck, if it weren’t for Spotify, I probably wouldn’t have been listening to The Killers this week in the first place, and this article wouldn’t be here.
I think we’re past the days of massive rock groups. There was a time when Green Day was critically revered, all over Top 40 radio, popping up on episodes of TRL, and plastered on the cover of Rolling Stone at the same time. They were everywhere.
I think rock music is doing just fine without any of that, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t kind of miss it.