No Alternative

Every one of these Anniversary stories is celebrating a bygone moment, of course — that’s the nature of looking back on an album a decade or two after its release — but few if any subjects seem so firmly, inextricably lodged in the past as the 1993 compilation No Alternative, which turned 20 years old on October 26. If you were around at the time of its release, you’re almost certainly familiar with the CD’s striking cover (two versions of which were available, boy and/or girl), if not at least a handful of the songs included therein. Furthermore, there’s a pretty good chance you haven’t heard or even thought about most of those songs — say, Soul Asylum’s cover of “Sexual Healing” — in at least 19 years. As such, some combination of that image and those sounds will likely provide for you a powerful jolt of nostalgia, transporting you directly back to that autumn, wherever you were, whatever you were doing. Go ahead; give it a shot:

And if you weren’t there when it was released, then you probably have no idea what No Alternative was, or why it might be celebrated 20 years later. Sure, assuming you’ve been inside an independent record store at some point during your young life, you’ve almost certainly seen that album cover in the used bin, and you might even know some of the songs — the most famous of them today is probably Nirvana’s “Sappy,” which has made appearances on several posthumous Nirvana collections since being featured on No Alternative. But you’re less likely to know that “Sappy” wasn’t included on No Alternative’s tracklist — it was an uncredited 19th song, a hidden track. (Fun fact: Because the song was uncredited, many fans mistakenly called it “Verse Chorus Verse,” believing it to be a famous unheard Nevermind outtake. It wasn’t till years later that the actual “Verse Chorus Verse” was unveiled and the title “Sappy” applied to the No Alternative track. Many outlets still misidentify the song.) Heck, if you weren’t around for No Alternative, you probably don’t even remember the practice of “hidden tracks,” but let me tell you, they were fucking inescapable in the early ’90s.

Also inescapable were star-filled compilation CDs in general, a trend that seemed to get its start with the 1992 Singles soundtrack (featuring Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins … ), but went supernova in late ’93, with such collections seemingly being released on a bi-weekly basis, each one offering exclusive new music from Alternative Nation’s biggest names. It almost seemed as though there were more compilation CDs than there were bands to fill them. To wit: No Alternative was a benefit album, a portion of whose proceeds went to AIDS research; it was released within months of Born To Choose (a portion of whose proceeds went to pro-choice groups) and Sweet Relief (a portion of whose proceeds went to help pay the medical bills of singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis). Moreover, Pavement, Sugar, Soundgarden, Soul Asylum, Lucinda Williams, and Buffalo Tom contributed songs to two of those three compilations, and Matthew Sweet was represented on all three.

But there’s a reason we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of No Alternative, while those other comps’ birthdays came and went without mention: because it captures the American alternative scene at its commercial, cultural, and critical peak. (To be fair, there are three non-Yank acts on there — Canadian Sarah McLachlan, and Kiwis the Verlaines and Straitjacket Fits — all of whom seem like anomalies even today.) It featured previously unreleased songs from some of the hottest bands in the world, including Nirvana (whose In Utero was a month old), Smashing Pumpkins (whose Siamese Dream was three months old), Pavement (whose Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain would be released three months later), and Soundgarden (whose Superunknown would be released five months later). It’s got one of Uncle Tupelo’s last songs, a solo track from Bob Mould — whose Sugar was at the height of their monstrous powers — and a Matthew Sweet rocker from his Altered Beast sessions. It’s also got stuff from songwriters’ songwriters like American Music Club, Buffalo Tom, and Barbara Manning, and live tracks from the Beastie Boys and the Breeders — whose most recent albums at that time were, respectively, Check Your Head and Last Splash — along with Alternative Nation founding mother Patti Smith.

This wasn’t just a wealth of talent; it was a wealth of talent all peaking at once, all just overflowing with songs, enough to donate excellent material to whichever cause happened to ask. Even the badly dated stuff on No Alternative — the Soul Asylum song, the Urge Overkill song — is pretty great in some respects. Only the Goo Goo Dolls’ cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Bitch” — performed with Buffalo lounge singer Lance Diamond — feels like an utter throwaway. (This was two years before the Goo Goo Dolls achieved any sort of mainstream success, and five years before they specialized in deplorable pap like “Iris” and “Slide.”) No Alternative is an apt representation of the era and a stunningly well-preserved time capsule, sure, but it’s also a really good collection of songs, some of which are actually essential pieces of their respective authors’ catalogs.

When it was released, No Alternative was a pretty big deal. It was tied to a week of promotions with MTV, capped off with an hourlong special on the compilation and AIDS awareness. Remember when MTV used to look like this?

Seems impossible today, 20 years later. You can watch the whole special below — featuring videos from the album, interviews with the musicians involved, live performances, AIDS statistics presented artfully against images of naked bodies, etc. What I find most striking about the program, though, is the teenagers interviewed, who share their thoughts on how AIDS has altered the lives and futures of their generation. There’s nothing in particular about what they have to say or how they say it that’s especially revealing; I’m just struck by the realization that the 17- and 18-year-old kids in this video are now pushing 40. And as quickly as those songs and images time-warped me back to ’93, that cold fact drops me hard into the here and now.

Wild, right? Anyway, let’s talk about No Alternative and all those old ’90s alt-rock comps in the comments. What was your favorite track? Mine was “Glynis.” Man, that thing was incredible. Still is.

Comments (37)
  1. I remember when I got my copy of this album from the used wrack at Bull Moose probably circa 94′/95′. Such a great compilation, thanks for reminding me.

    And “Glynis” is probably in my top 5 Pumpkins songs, it’s incredible…

  2. weird to the orginal smashing pumpkins line-up and billy when he still had hair…

  3. Glynis still ranks as one of my all time favorite Pumpkins songs. I remember being psyched to find a tab of it on OLGA (what, you guys remember the Online Guitar Archive right?) so I could play it on my Squire Strat.

  4. Yup. that was pretty much my bible. I even bought it on tape, which had a Sonic youth track on it instead of the Nirvana track, which I still call “Verse Chorus Verse”

  5. Seriously Michael Nelson and Stereogum, articles/pieces like this (and the recent ones as well) are what make the ‘Gum incredibly special. Whatever direction you’ve set path on is working. And for the record, Glynis is INCREDIBLE. The early 90′s were incredible. MTV playing bloody videos was incredible. What an era.

  6. Glynis by far is my fav. I cant hear that song now without immediately hearing “Can’t Fight It” in my head right after it ends and that Bob Mould song’s lyrics kill me everytime….That Pavement song is hilarious though.

  7. First of all, “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.” Second, I love being transported back to ’90s MTV, with its social consciousness and its awareness raising and its Bill Bellamy and what not. Those were good times.

  8. This legend gets repeated so often, so I’ll say it again: “SAPPY” WASN’T MISIDENTIFIED. FANS DIDN’T ‘MISTAKENLY’ CALL IT THAT.

    The band had already given up on the song “Verse Chorus Verse”, so Kurt reused the title for “Sappy” when it was released on No Alternative. They specifically called it “Verse Chorus Verse” in at least one interview/press release for the album.

    It was only long after the fact (once “Verse Chorus Verse” from an L.A. soundcheck and the older unreleased versions of “Sappy” showed up on bootlegs) that people ‘corrected’ the song titles. But, at the time of No Alternative’s release, this was the only known version of either song – it was “Sappy”, but it was called “Verse Chorus Verse”.

    Honestly, I think it may actually be mentioned in the liner of With the Lights Out. (I don’t have it in front of me, but I vaguely recall a note under “Sappy” that says “Originally released as ‘Verse Chorus Verse’.)

  9. TIME AFTER TIME, WAS MY LEAST FAVORITE SONG!!!

    Nice write-up.

  10. Glynis. That’s my only remaining memory of this compilation.

  11. A slap on the wrist to you for failing to give credit to the non-profit Red Hot Organization for putting this album out. They continue to do great work, such as the “Dark Was The Night” compilation from a few years ago.

    • I initially had a note about Red Hot — this was the third comp they put out, and they continue to release benefit albums today, most recently Red Hot + Fela earlier this month — but I cut it because it was getting real wordy up in there. But your point is well taken.

      • Hi Michael –

        Thanks for the thoughtful reappraisal of No Alternative, 20 years on. I forgot that the anniversary was right around now. We released a limited edition double vinyl on Record Store Day in April….(which apparently sold out in the first 10 minutes).

        No Alternative was a fun album to make. It was my first for Red Hot (or anyone for that matter). It’s rewarding that people bought it when it came out – and that they still remember it today.

        Many of the songs were not only specifically recorded for No Alternative – they were written specifically for the album. Of course some of the choices were a bit quixotic, like the Goo Goo Dolls, but, that was part of the roller coaster ride of making it. At the time the Nirvana track was only ever called and referred to as “Verse Chorus Verse”.

        And – yeah – in regard to the exclusion of any mention of Red Hot’s AIDS Benefit work and mission – well, thanks to Ohyoko for bringing it up. We gave away over $1 million dollars from the proceeds of No Alternative, some of that went to worthy charities that were suggested by the artists themselves. That may seem like an amount from another (pre-internet) era, when records actually sold in larger quantities, but we managed to top that with the proceeds from Dark Was The Night. Red Hot’s model may be a bit of a 90s throwback, but it can still work!!

        Thanks for taking the time to give it a look after 20 years!!

        Paul
        http://www.redhot.org

        • Great stuff right there…much thanks goes out to you and a great reminisce, Michael. Loved Dark was the Night, as well. I always felt like Late Night Tales comps would be a great extension of this original idea of music benefiting a cause. It is such an incredible avenue to get people aware.
          Like was said above…man, I miss that era, too.

  12. “All Your Jeans Were Too Tight” by American Music Club was my favorite after the Pavement song. Incredible band.

  13. i remember the soul asylum cover of Sexual Healing coming on the radio and my mom saying it was awful and making me turn it off.

    Has DGC Rarities Volume 1 already turned 20? That was the alt rock comp nearest and dearest to my heart, with Weezer’s Jamie, Beck’s Bogusflow, and the only Counting Crows song I really like, Einstein on the Beach.

  14. My favorite on that album was Unseen Power of the Picket Fence. I *still* love that song.

    “And they’re marching through Georgia!”

  15. I feel so freakin’ old now. Thanks, Stereogum.

  16. I will happily take the minority position that Uncle Tupelo’s blistering cover of CCR’s “Effigy” is *THE* track that puts this comp over the top. (And yet somehow only warrants a dismissive mention in this article?)

  17. I was a big fan of Nirvana and most of the bands on this comp but I also think the Uncle Tupelo cover was the best song on the album. Also the unwarranted bashing of the Goos on a collection that featured several bad to mediocre recordings is kind of odd. Yeah “Iris” sucks but “Superstar Car Wash” is an underrated power-pop gem. Ironically, the Soul Asylum track you mentioned(& featured) was particularly loathsome(google the reviews) and cemented their legacy of never having another hit CD. Regardless, this is one of the best charity projects ever.

  18. I picked up the No Alternative companion VHS tape (!) at Orpheum Records in Seattle (RIP). After watching the first few minutes I was amused to see it was a parody of Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance”, another cultural nugget I associate with that time. Fifteen minutes later I was less amused, and more annoyed and perplexed by how far they were going with this gag. I mean, fun’s fun, but enough with the dance shit, where’s the music? Turns out it was dance shit all the way down. The moment I walked back through the Orpheum door holding the No Alternative VHS, the guy at the cash register shouted “Lord of the Dance!” Apparently there was a run of mis-printed tapes. Kind of wish I’d held onto it. Kinda don’t.

  19. “Time after time is my least favorite song!”

  20. My favorite track is still Uncle Tupelo covering CCR on “Effigy”… Not that I knew it was a cover way back when.

  21. Glynis was amazing. I remember that standing out and was already on a Siamese Dream high. But those Deal sisters voices always take it for me.

  22. So happy for the “Glynis” love. I didn’t get “No Alternative” until about 1997, so I had kind of missed the boat on the original alt-rock wave, but man did this weird, beautiful record thrill me.

    “Alternative music is on par with Elvis sightings and good airline food.” Heh. :)

  23. Really nice to see so much love for Glynis. Great song.
    A shame that it was only ever played live that ONE time.

  24. I’ll put in another nod to “Glynis” – nothing else like it in the SP catalog and it’s just sublime. Corgan was just unstoppable back then.

    Uncle Tupelo, Bob Mould, Buffalo Tom, Urge Overkill, Pavement, and, yes, Soul Asylum’s “Sexual Healing” cover are the others ones that always really did it for me on here.

  25. I’ve always had a weird fascination with “Heavy 33″ by the Verlaines. It sounded like nothing else here, and it still seems like hardly anyone else remembers that band. For the record, their greatest hits collection is pretty stellar, and I never would have found it had I not heard them here first, many, many years earlier.

    Besides that, “Glynis” and “Effigy” rule pretty hard.

  26. Aaron Cunningham  |   Posted on Oct 30th, 2013 0

    “Glynis” for sure. “Effigy” without a doubt. “And there stands R.E.M.”

    But “Iris” (The Breeders’ song) still kills and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “Oh, c’mon, nobody wants that…” to someone (and then in my head added, “Sister… sister… OH, OH, OHHHHHHHHHH!”

    We pour hour by hour, man… We pour hour by hour…

  27. I reviewed this record for my high school newspaper – it might have been the first and the last one to ever appear. Big ups to whoever had the thought to send us a promo copy.

    Those Pavement and Matthew Sweet tracks ended up on a lot of mixtapes I made, but to this day I’ve never owned an album by either one of them, and Soul Asylum’s cover is the only tune of theirs I have ever liked.

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