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The State of Rock at KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas 2016

on December 13, 2016, 6:00am
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Last week, the Grammy nominations were announced, and one of the talking points prompted by the list of nominees was the sorry state of rock music. When Beyoncé and Disturbed are chosen as representatives of the genre, what does that say about the health of a sound that finds it harder and harder to stay critically relevant?

The operative word here is “critical.” Because, in truth, rock music isn’t really doing as badly in terms of commercial sales. A couple weeks ago, Metallica managed to outsell Bruno Mars during their debut weeks, while Green Day and Kings of Leon have also topped the Billboard 200 this fall. Live, Coldplay can still fill stadiums as well as Bey, even if the prestige of the latter is much greater. And then there’s Twenty One Pilots, easily the biggest breakout act of the last couple years, who’ve managed a string of top 10 singles on the Hot 100. And with acts like Arcade Fire, Foo Fighters, and Radiohead all showing up as 2017 festival headliners, it’s hard to argue against a certain vitality in rock.

kroq aac 01 2 The State of Rock at KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas 2016

If you’re going to get a barometer for where rock and roll registers in any given year, there is no better place than the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, taking place at The Forum in Los Angeles over the weekend. Running annually since 1990, the annual Christmas concert has evolved from an actual acoustic series to its modern incarnation. Early years didn’t don the “almost” and featured stripped-down sets from the likes of Social Distortion, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Smashing Pumpkins. Over the years, though, the tradition was lost, with artists like Sonic Youth, Arcade Fire, David Bowie, Portishead, Coldplay, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails all plugging in at various Los Angeles venues. With all the proceeds going to charity and fans finally putting faces to the names that they hear between the songs on the radio, it’s always one of the best parties of the year, standing as a sort of state of the union for rock music.

Looking over this year’s crop of artists, which was headlined by Green Day, Blink-182, Beck, Kings of Leon, Weezer, and Jimmy Eat World, the obvious concern is that all but KoL have roots dating back to the ’90s. It doesn’t take more than one afternoon of listening to KROQ to hear just how indebted the station is to that decade, with Nirvana, Sublime, and Red Hot Chili Peppers still among the most played acts. But every year there is new blood injected into the scene, too, and though none were headlining this year, it isn’t hard to recognize that The Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, and Coldplay are also pillars of the genre.

So with 15 bands over two nights, we dove into what each act on the KROQ bill offers to the alternative rock scene. There are still the same issues with diversity and equal representation as always, but in terms of the actual music and potential, where does alt rock stand in 2016?
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The Strumbellas


The Song: “Spirits” hit the top of the alt charts in May and is one of the biggest breakout singles of the year. It was an obvious hit from first listen, boasting a big sing-along chorus that could have been released at any point in the last 15 years.

The Potential: At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the Canadian six-piece as being late to the stomp-clap party that saw The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe, and others sweep into the alternative scene, complete with suspenders, mustaches, and newsboy hats. But when you consider that those bands are still massively popular and that The Strumbellas can write an earworm, as evidenced by their second single, “We Don’t Know”, the band could have legs. It helps that they pack some charm, too, with frontman Simon Ward flubbing a song with a capo on the wrong fret early in their set, and the band managing to laugh it off together.
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X Ambassadors


The Song: “Unsteady” has been X Ambassadors’ big follow-up to their smash “Renegades” (which conquered both radiowaves and Jeep commericals). It’s made a dent at pop radio as well as alternative, regardless of the fact that frontman Sam Harris emotes with the dramatic flare of ’80s cock rock.

The Potential: X Ambassadors’ success isn’t inexplicable. Beyond the hits, the band seems schooled in rock star tropes, no matter how uncool and self-indulgent (at one point Harris gave a self-righteous speech about, no joke, being yourself). And they’ve even got some famous friends, including collaborators Rihanna and Tom Morello, the latter of which showed up to close out the performance on Saturday night. Technical difficulties made Morello’s appearance less of a slam dunk than it should have been, and it ended up highlighting that pantomiming the qualities of a rock star is no substitute for being an actual rock star. At that, it’s hard to imagine the band sticking around long after the hits slow down.
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M83


The Song: Uh, what song? Did anyone hear a radio single on Junk?

The Potential: The joke here is that radio station Christmas concerts are usually played for free by the bands to curry favor for said radio station to support their music. But for M83, it’s hard to imagine that performing will help the cause of getting anything from their recent flop to the airwaves. That said, the band still rules live, using their brief appearance to build a vibe rather than worry about showcasing their newest material. That included the epic “Sitting”, an extended instrumental jam that should have informed the arena that M83 was the most talented group playing at AAC on Saturday. But unless Anthony Gonzalez goes into his next album trying to replicate the success of “Midnight City”, their relationship with alt radio is not long for this world.
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AFI


The Song: “Snow Cats” is one of two new songs that AFI premiered in late October, and it’s the one with the most likely radio legs, even if it lacks a great hook. That said, it’s a three-minute nugget of emo nostalgia, situating AFI as one of the few groups that rose to prominence in the aughts to still be plugging away at the sound. That’s got to be worth something.

The Potential: AFI were performing their first concert in two years on Saturday night and gave both “Snow Cats” and “White Offerings” their live debut. If these are the most accessible from AFI (The Blood Album), then AFI won’t be able to replicate the success they found with “Miss Murder” and “Girl’s Not Grey”. The good news for AFI is they are still a live force, showcasing their punk and post-hardcore roots in a set that is made for large audiences. And their history guarantees them a fanbase anytime there is new material to unveil. It’s just that their style hasn’t evolved and seems a bit dated for the current musical climate.
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Jimmy Eat World


The Song: “Sure and Certain” is currently sitting at number 10 on the alternative charts, right about where it belongs. When Jimmy Eat World writes a hit, it punches you in the face, but “Sure and Certain” isn’t that kind of song. It’s the kind of song that gains success if a band is already in your good graces, benefiting more from the group’s past than from any sort of inspired effort.

The Potential: We’re more than a decade removed from Jimmy Eat World’s biggest hits, but the likes of “Pain”, “A Praise Chorus”, “Sweetness”, and “The Middle” all served as some of the biggest sing-along moments of the weekend. The fact that Jimmy Eat World have had this sort of longevity speaks to both the strength of their older material and their ability to remain as relevant as necessary with subsequent efforts. As a live band, they aim to please, and that included a cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas”, one of the few holiday tunes audiences were gifted over the weekend. They’re not the future of alt rock, but alt rock is better when Jimmy Eat World are a part of it.
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Kings of Leon


The Song: “Waste a Moment” is the biggest song on alterative radio at the moment, and it’s deserving of the spins it’s getting. Keep in mind this is something of a comeback song, as the group’s previous album, Mechanical Bull, failed to produce a big radio hit. The song doesn’t try to tame singer Caleb Followill’s southern bark, letting it roam free and wild until the number’s big chorus lands with sweeping harmonies.

The Potential: The band opened with “Waste a Moment” on Saturday night, but the showcase featured four cuts off recent release Walls. Two of the three, the stylish mid-tempo jaunt “Reverend” and the up-beat anthem “Find Me”, have legs for radio as well, making these kinds of appearances for KoL all the more important. They’ve got the back catalog for a strong two-hour set (even if they lack much live charisma) and hold the distinction of being the only top-billed act to have formed in this century. With all these things considered, Kings of Leon are the closest to their prime as any of the weekend’s headliners and are proof that the alt rock genre is in good hands.
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Blink-182


The Song: “She’s Out of Her Mind” is the second hit from Blink-182’s first post-Tom DeLonge album, California. It’s significant that the group has still been able to manufacture hits with their new guitarist, Matt Skiba, and even more significant that they parlayed that into their first Grammy nomination in band history. As songs, both “She’s Out of Her Mind” and “Bored to Death” are undeniable, sitting comfortably in the band’s canon among their biggest successes.

The Potential: Twenty years after Blink-182 first became alternative radio staples, the music still has a vitality to it that spans generations. Despite the massive technological advances, it’s not that different being a teenager in 2016 as it was in 1996 when Dude Ranch was being written. Kids still like skateboarding and dating and being jackasses, and Blink-182 still provides a great soundtrack to that. Now, it’s music that can be shared by parents and children (particularly in Southern California), which is really fucking weird when you consider how sophomoric Blink have always prided themselves on being. And with a set that offered endless hits, including their breakthrough “Damnit”, “All the Small Things”, “I Miss You”, and “What’s My Age Again”, Blink-182 are comfortable in their role as a legacy band. It’s a look they wear well.
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The Head and the Heart


The Song: “All We Ever Knew” isn’t the first song from The Head and the Heart to be considered a success, but it’s certainly connected on a different stratosphere than any of their previous material. It was the No. 1 song on alt radio for the week leading up to this event — a perfect concoction of the group’s folky, melodic sensibilities and hooks begging for mass consumption. It’s a great song and 100% deserving of the attention that the group have received.

The Potential: If there is more where “All We Ever Knew” came from on their recently released Signs of Light, The Head and the Heart weren’t using this show to highlight it. Faced with only a 25-minute set (“probably the shortest set we’ve ever played,” according to frontman Jonathan Russell), the Seattle band instead filled their set with older tunes, showcasing their strong career leading up to this point. The Head and the Heart have a number of songs in their repertoire that could have been massive hits and are already a group that commands thousands of fans for each performance. Whether that continues to translate into mainstream appeal remains to be seen.
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Bishop Briggs


The Song: “River” emerged as an unexpected smash hit this year, despite the fact that Bishop Briggs doesn’t even have an album out. The star of the song is Briggs’ booming vocals, produced without much gloss and allowing for the moodiness of the song to standout.

The Potential: Basically, every song that Briggs has is up to the caliber of “River”. Right now, “Wild Horses” is making its way up the charts, and her live sets reveal a number of songs with equal potential. Briggs is also a charmer, taking deep breaths between songs to fight nerves and smiling with deserved satisfaction at each audience roar. Already with a stadium run with Coldplay under her belt, there’s plenty of reason to think that Briggs can be a success across genres. In a rock world that doesn’t make it easy for women to find success, this is great news.
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Phantogram


The Song: “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” is the second hit of Phantogram’s career, almost matching the success of 2014’s “Fall in Love”. Both songs are loaded with attitude and vision, to the point where it’s clear why Big Boi sought to collaborate with the duo and why they were buzzy for years before actually landing these hits.

The Potential: Whether as Big Grams or on their own, Phantogram are more than comfortable in the spotlight. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter don’t have to try to be cool; there is an effortless quality to them when they are on stage. When the concert’s revolving stage spun them into the crowd’s view on Sunday evening, Barthel was completely amused by the experience, showing no qualms with letting go of the act’s mystique. And when so many of the artists in rock are tied to a certain persona, there’s something to the fact that Phantogram are comfortable in their own skin and fine to let their music stand on its own. They’re still a couple more hits away from really breaking out, but all the pieces are there.
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Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness

andrew mcmahon and the wilderness 02 The State of Rock at KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas 2016
The Song: “Fire Escape” is the lead single from the Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin frontman’s next album, but with the seamless run since Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness’ last album (2014’s self-titled affair), there hasn’t been any time for McMahon to recede from the spotlight. “Fire Escape” is as cloying and schmaltzy as ever, so much so that it’s a surprise that the song isn’t a bigger hit.

The Potential: McMahon has made a career out of not being very cool, to the point that you kinda start believing in his sentimental drivel. Somewhere along the line he’s become a fixture of rock, and his live show displays an unabashed love of the spotlight. Who knows if the audience’s goodwill toward his projects will continue for years to come, but for an artist that so firmly aligns as one of the good guys, it’s hard to root against him.
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Bastille


The Song: “Good Grief” was a clear hit from day one, juxtaposing lyrics about the grieving process with an upbeat tone in a way that would even impress Morrissey. And like their previous big hits, it’s not limited to alternative radio, with the English band appealing almost as strongly in the pop world as they do in the rock one.

The Potential: Once Bastille revealed they weren’t a one-trick pony with the success of “Good Grief”, the sky became the limit. Their hits aren’t cheap ones. Both “Flaws” and “Pompeii” are robust anthems, to the point that when leader Dan Smith went into the audience during the former track, it was no doubt how he’d be received out there among his fans. Sure, Bastille aren’t a muscular band, but neither were some of rock’s most esteemed outfits, particularly in the ’80s. And when a band can craft radio-ready hits like this, muscularity is overrated.
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Weezer


The Song: Eh, it’s tough to say exactly what single Weezer are promoting at the moment, though “King of the World” was the last one to make an impact. Weezer’s actually played the last three KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmases, all with a pretty similar setlist, so their performances represent more of a long-lasting relationship with KROQ than working any song in particular.

The Potential: The tactic makes sense for Weezer as they are one of the most played artists in KROQ history. Even though none of the singles from The White Album were massive national sensations, they all got plenty of play locally, which is generally the case when Weezer releases new music. In terms of where Weezer is at career-wise, their last two albums were about their best collections since their first two albums, with the songwriting still capable of producing huge singles. Yes, it would be nice if Weezer would shuffle up the setlist at AAC, but judging from the huge reactions they received from the audience, there weren’t a lot of repeat attendees in the pit.
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Beck


The Song: “Wow” is one of the worst Beck radio singles of his career. In fact, “Wow” is such a poor radio release, it seems like the main reason it has received support at KROQ is because he is playing shows like this. That isn’t to say the song is without its merit. As the soundtrack to a recent Acura commercial, the track’s backing music is highlighted, revealing a sturdy skeleton.

The Potential: Just a year ago, the opposite happened when Beck offered up “Dreams”, his best radio single in many years. And just a couple years removed from his Album of the Year Grammy for Morning Phase, Beck’s stock is rightfully as high as ever. It’s unfair to expect him to produce anthems like “Loser” or “Where It’s At” more than 20 years into a career (both of which figured into his set on Sunday night), but his viability as a commercial artist is still as strong as it is as a critical one. For all the accomplishments of his career, it was great to see Beck humbled to perform for the first time ever at the Forum (he noted the last time he was in the building was to see Prince) and to end his set shouting out Los Angeles neighborhoods. Rock and roll is more than crunch guitars and long hair when it’s in the hands of Beck. It’s possibilities are limitless.
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Green Day


The Song: “Still Breathing” is currently rocketing up the alt charts, making it the second success from Green Day’s recently release Revolution Radio. It’s a stronger cut than “Bang Bang” and likely doesn’t need the wheels greased in order to make it a success. If anything, Green Day have the radio programmers to thank for giving their first single such a strong push when it paled in comparison to many of their previous endeavors.

The Potential: After a pretty miserable run of Uno, Dos, and Tre, Green Day’s return to making hits is a relief for fans that worried that the band had lost it. On stage, the band looks happy and healthy, taking joy in a performance that actually broke the script that they’ve been sticking to in live sets for the past several years. Opening with “American Idiot” and “Holiday” injected more life into the Forum audience than any other band over the two-day event. And despite a trio of songs from their new collection, every song in the Green Day set was a hit that at some point in the last 22 years featured on KROQ. Even more so than Beck, Blink-182, Kings of Leon, or any of the others, the history of Green Day is closely tied to the radio, just as the history of alt radio owes a major chapter to Green Day. When combined with some of the emerging artists featured at the event (from Bishop Briggs to Phantogram to The Head and the Heart to Bastille), the mix of legendary vets and rising talent at KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas 2016 signifies a health in the genre, even when it’s much cooler to be talking about Drake and Adele. Maybe alternative is, well, alternative again.

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