When I heard that the theme on the Bleader this week was to be “No Alternative,” the first idea that popped into my head was that I should write about the 1993 alt-rock compilation No Alternative. I pitched it at least half as a joke, seeing as the album—which collects live tracks, cover songs, and what often seem to be recordings otherwise destined for the B sides of Japanese CD singles—hasn’t garnered much critical respect since it was released.
But despite its flaws, the record remains a fascinating document of a strange time in pop-music history, when members of a stubbornly antisocial subculture found themselves suddenly gaining power over the mainstream, but before they’d completely hardened into cynicism as a result. Nirvana (who contributed the “secret” track “Verse Chorus Verse,” better known to bootleggers as “Sappy”) and the Smashing Pumpkins (“Glynis”) had recently broken through to the pop charts, and for a second it didn’t seem too outrageous an idea that Uncle Tupelo (“Effigy”) or the Verlaines (“Heavy 33”) might follow. For all of Gen X’s trend-piece-inspiring snarkiness, there was a genuine feeling at the time that weirdo underground bands showing up on the pop charts meant something, and the “counterculture summit” aspect of No Alternative—it includes not only Nirvana and the Pumpkins but Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, and Soundgarden—combined with the fact that it was a benefit for AIDS awareness charity the Red Hot Organization gave it considerable philosophical weight, at least to impressionable teenage fans such as myself.