100 & Single: Gotye And fun. Help Alternative Rock Go Pop Once Again

Categories: Gotye

Consider this six-pack of rock acts: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Big Audio Dynamite, the Psychedelic Furs, U2, R.E.M. and Julian Cope.

My dream Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Not quite—it's a list of the first six artists to go to No. 1 on the chart Billboard launched in the fall of 1988, then called Modern Rock Tracks, now called Alternative Songs. The titles of these first six chart-topping alt-rock hits were, respectively, "Peek-a-Boo," "Just Play Music!" "All That Money Wants," "Desire," "Orange Crush" and "Charlotte Anne." Except for U2's smash "Desire," none of these songs made the pop Top 40.

Truthfully, not all of these songs were totally great. But it's a very respectable list—short of including such '80s mope-rock favorites as the Cure or Morrissey, this is about as representative a list of what we used to call "college rock" as one could hope for. These acts would form an awfully good vintage Lollapalooza lineup.

Now, regard this sixer: Sinéad O'Connor, Barenaked Ladies, Crazy Town, Nickelback, Coldplay and fun.

Um... next year's Coachella? Hardly—I doubt you'd pay good money for that lineup. Rather, these are the first six artists in history with songs that reached No. 1 on both the Modern/Alternative chart and Billboard's flagship pop chart, the Hot 100. They were, respectively, "Nothing Compares 2 U" (1990), "One Week" (1998), "Butterfly" (2001), "How You Remind Me" (2001), "Viva la Vida" (2008) and "We Are Young" (2012).

This is, to say the least, an odder list. Most of these acts are still with us in some form—O'Connor even released an acclaimed album this year. But even if we could reunite Crazy Town, these acts would front a festival too jumbled even for Bonnaroo.

These two lists of artists and songs say something about where Billboard's first chart to track indie-style rock wound up, after a fairly auspicious beginning: sonically coherent at first; later, identity-challenged. Those long gaps between songs that crossed over to the top of the pops suggest that "alternative rock," however it's been defined over the years, is pretty parochial and isolated from the larger culture.

Well, at least it was. This week, a seventh song is added to the all-time alt-to-pop crossover list—just one week after the sixth.

Gotye's devastating breakup lament "Somebody That I Used to Know," featuring duet partner-cum-foil Kimbra, moves into the Hot 100's penthouse after selling a stunning 542,000 digital tracks. In reaching the top of the big chart, the Belgian-Australian born Wally De Backer evicted another Alternative Songs chart-topper, fun.'s megasmash "We Are Young" featuring Janelle Monáe, which headed the list for six weeks.

This is the first time we've had back-to-back U.S. No. 1 pop hits that were also Alternative chart-toppers—yes, ever. On the Alternative chart, ironically enough, the same two songs did the opposite do-si-do: After seven weeks on top, Gotye's "Somebody" was replaced by fun.'s "Young." That happened only last week—so these two songs were added to the all-time list of double-chart-toppers just in the last fortnight.

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