The Anniversary

No Alternative Turns 20

By Michael Nelson / October 28, 2013 - 1:55 pm

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.