Bands in the mainstream: Is this the worst it's been in 25 years?
A look into Adam Levine's claim that bands are a "dying breed" and an investigation into the most popular songs of the last 25 years to see if bands where ever dominating the charts.
As a fan of indie and alternative bands, it can be tempting to lament the contemporary pop charts and artists achieving mainstream acclaim. It can also be tempting to get all misty-eyed about the past, claim that what was popular was better "in my day" and have it in your mind that bands used to constantly produce the most popular songs of the year.
Is this really the case though? Bands may be nowhere to be seen in the charts today, but is it right to say that the charts were more guitar-friendly in the recent past?
These arguments were fuelled again last Thursday (3 March 2021) when Adam Levine, lead singer of American pop band Maroon 5, was interviewed by Zane Lowe on Apple Music to discuss his bands new single 'Beautiful Mistakes'. It wasn't the promotion of the new song that got everyone talking though, rather his statement about the lack of bands.
In the interview he said:
It’s funny, when the first Maroon 5 album came out there were still other bands. I feel like there aren’t any bands anymore, you know? That’s the thing that makes me kind of sad, is that there were just bands. There’s no bands anymore, and I feel like they’re a dying breed. And so I kind of, in a weird way, as far as … I mean, there still are plenty of bands, and maybe they’re not in the limelight quite as much, or in the pop limelight, but I wish there could be more of those around.
These words brought on a harsh reaction from many quarters. The statement was widely mocked and the irony pointed out that he, in fact, is the lead singer of a very successful band himself. The immediate response from many (and I'll admit I fell into this camp at first) was to feel like he was on the attack, ignorantly forgetting band X and band Y. Some went as far to suggest it was as a slur on the indie/alternative scene altogether.
In this article, I've decided to compare the charts over the past 25 years using information from the UK Music Charts website to see if he has a point. Firstly I investigate whether bands are still coming through (spoiler: they are) and then analyse the most popular songs over 6 separate years (1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015 & 2020), to measure the success of bands in the top 100 most popular songs.
Was there ever a year where bands dominated the charts or is that just a myth? Where there more bands at the top of the list in 1995, 2005 or 2020? Lets investigate!
The case for bands
We begin with an assessment of Adam's statement that bands are a "dying breed". Does he have a point?
Firstly, no. No, he doesn't. Though for this, as many have done, I'm deliberately taking those two words out of context.
To call bands a "dying breed" has clearly gotten music fan's backs up. As a massive fan of indie and alternative music, I wouldn't be doing my duty if I didn't take the time to report that there's still a healthy dose of bands out there producing brilliant music.
Take my Albums to look forward to 2021 article I produced back in January for an example of the exciting new music being produced from bands like Shame, London Grammer, The Snuts, Royal Blood and The Lathums. These are young British bands all established in the 2010s who've gained plenty of exposure in the UK's music press and have already achieved millions of plays on Spotify (Royal Blood's 2014 hit 'Figure It Out' has 150 million plays, for example).
In January I also looked rumoured new music by more-established bands such as Arctic Monkeys, Radiohead and Arcade Fire, bands who appear as popular as they ever were. For example, Arctic Monkey's 2013 hit 'Do I Wanna Know?' is currently sitting on 1 billion Spotify plays, which is, in fact, more than than any single song by Drake or Rihanna. Not bad, eh?
The Sheffield band also have 20 million monthly listeners on the platform. Ok, so that isn't quite Taylor Swift (47 million), Justin Biefer (63 million) or The Weeknd (75 million) numbers, but lets not forget this is a band on an indie label (Domino). With a new album reportedly in the making, those numbers will only increase.
The truth is I could easily write down an endless list of contemporary bands that have some level of popularity and are producing brilliant new music. To do would be pointless, but the point is there's still many bands on the edges of the mainstream with the ability to sell out venues and festivals across the UK. The "dying breed" comment doesn't stack up.
Admitting Adam Levine has a point
Now I've made my defence, I have a confession. I'll admit that I took the "dying breed" part of Adam's quote out of context and ignored the rest of his point about him talking about bands in the pop world. I've done my bit, so it's now time for me to agree with some of what Adam Levine is saying.
Whilst some of the headlines of his interview were designed to outrage people at his ignorance, it's important to recognise that he does say "there are still plenty of bands, and maybe they're not in the limelight as much, or in the pop limelight...". Taken with the rest of the sentence, his "dying breed" comment isn't as ridiculous as first feared.
To discover whether Adam Levine had a point I decided to conduct a little bit of research over the past 25 years to see if there's been a decline of bands in the pop world. This is a topic that could've been a dissertation in itself, so I've decided to stick just to the top 100 songs of each year (1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015 & 2020) to see if Adam is right.
Looking for bands in the most popular songs, 1995-2020
To judge Adam Levine's argument, I decided to look at the prominence of bands in the most popular 100 song lists of the last 25 years. I started by looking into the most played songs of 2020 on Spotify, then looking at the most popular songs in the Official UK Charts every five years from 1995.
It's of course important to note that Adam Levine is American and naturally would be talking from a US perspective. I, instead, am looking at the UK, where the success of bands can be radically different (for example, the impact of Britpop bands was radically different in the UK as it was in America). Still, his point about the lack of bands today does still resonate on both sides of the pond.
As a 33-year-old indie fan, growing up there felt like three particular scenes that stick out for the success of bands; firstly Britpop in the mid-1990s and latterly the indie rock revival of the noughties (2001-2008). Sandwiched in between is 2000, a year which, to many, was defined by the success of American pop-punk and nu-metal bands and saw a rapid decline in the British indie scene.
Before going into this research I was expecting a healthy showing in those three years by bands in the top songs of those years. It was exactly what my memory was telling me was going to happen, but was this an unrealistic expectation? To compare, I've also looked at the years 2010 and 2015 to see how far back the decline goes.
Firstly, I took a look at the weekly Top 50 Spotify list from 5 March. And to be honest, my suspicions were confirmed when I saw that only two bands featured; The Killers 2003 hit 'Mr Brightside' (number 36) and Glass Animals' pop single 'Heat Waves' (number 21). Instead, you find a host of songs from solo artists, singers and rappers, from The Weeknd to Olivia Rodrigo.
Maybe taking one week on Spotify isn't a fair reflection. Let's instead take a look at the End of Year Singles Chart Top 100 for 2020. There has to be more bands in there, surely?
The top five songs of the year were as follows:
The Weeknd - 'Blinding Lights'
Tones & I - 'Dance Monkey'
Saint John - 'Roses',
Lewis Capaldi - 'Before You Go'
Joel Corry ft MNEK - 'Head & Heart'
This was hardly a shock. Any sign of bands though?
Predictably the first band we come across is Maroon 5 themselves at 28 with 'Memories' and after that makes for grim reading, again only 'Mr Brightside' by The Killers (number 61) sees a band in the top 100.
Though, with only two bands in the top 100 songs of 2020, and only two bands in Spotify's most-streamed songs for last week, I'd be lying if I said I was surprised.
Surely things were better for bands in previous years? It really couldn't be hard.
My first task was to look at 1995. In the most popular hits in the UK singles chart for that year, the top 5 was taken up by Celine Dion, Robson Green & Jerome Flynn, The Outhere Brothers (in positions 3 and 4) and Coolio.
When we go further down the list, surprisingly (FYI I'll be using that word a lot) the first band to appear was Mick Hucknall's pop and soul band Simply Red with their hit 'Fairground' at number 9. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't shocked, I was expecting the top 10 to have a few Britpop bands!
Thankfully, as you make your way down some more familiar names begin to appear; Blur at number 20 ('Country House'), Pulp at 25 ('Common People') and Oasis 'only' at number 29 ('Wonderwall'). Oasis make up for this 'low' appearance by then featuring another couple of times in the top 100, the highest of any artist on the list. This makes complete success considering how wild the country went for them around this time.
Despite this, only 14 of the top 100 songs are singles by bands. As mentioned three of the songs were by Oasis, two from Pulp, whilst veterans Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Queen and The Beatles also appear.
The full list of bands to appear were:
Simply Red - Fairground (9)
U2 - Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me (12)
Blur - Country House (20)
Pulp - Common People (25)
Oasis - Wonderwell (29)
Supergrass - Alright (30)
Oasis - Some Might Say (38)
Def Leppard - When Love and Hate Collide (44)
Pulp - Mis-Shapes/ Sorted for E's and Wizz (57)
Queen - Heaven For Everyone (61)
Oasis - Whatever (76)
The Beatles - Free As A Bird (87)
Bon Jovi - This Ain't A Love Song (89)
Wet Wet Wet - Somewhere Somehow (99)
What is noticeable is the overwhelming dominance of pop groups (East 17, Boyzone, Take That) and solo artists (Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Shaggy), many of whom I had automatically erased from my childhood memory. Going back through the list was a bit of a rude awakening.
I must be honest and admit I was expecting more of a dominance of Britpop songs rather than the singular entries from Blur and Supergrass, whilst the likes of Radiohead, The Verve and Elastica were nowhere to be seen. Though, as you'll soon discover, 14 bands in the top 100 really isn't too bad a feat, all things considered.
With the millennium came the year 2000 and it's another one remembered for the popularity of bands, albeit a very different kind from five years prior. The Britpop party was over and for a few years - with the exception of Oasis - British bands stepped aside. The band scene was soon dominated by bands from across the pond.
2000 is a year remembered for an influx of nu-metal and pop-punk bands from America; Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Blink-182 to name but a few. For me this year marked my brief descent into the "mosher" teenage scene, one characterised by baggy, dark clothes, skateboards and the type of "rebellious" American bands I've mentioned above. On the completely other side, it also saw the beginning of Coldplay, the English band exploding following the release of their debut Parachutes.
Similar to 1995, no band featured in the top 10 most popular songs of that year. The top five is taken up by Baha Men ('Who Let the Dogs Out'), Sonique ('It Feels So Good'), Eminem ('The Real Slim Shady'), Gabrielle ('Rise') and All Saints ('Pure Shores')'. The first band to appear is Bloodhound Gang (number 16) with their pop-rock cross crossover hit 'The Bad Touch'.
The bands to appear are:
The Bloodhound Gang - The Bad Touch (16)
The Corrs - Breathless (25)
Limp Bizkit - Take A Look Around (37)
Blink-182 - All The Small Things (66)
U2 - Beautiful Day (69)
Bon Jovi - It's My Life (76)
Oasis - Go Let It Out (79)
REM - The Great Beyond (82)
Toploader - Dancing In The Moonlight (98)
Tellingly there are only 9 songs by bands in the top 100, a decline of five from 1995. These would include Blink-182 and their cover of 'All the Small Things', Limp Bizkit with Mission Impossible II theme tune 'Take A Look Around' and REM with 'The Great Beyond'.
Again, the year is dominated by pop groups (S Club 7, Steps, Westlife) and solo pop singers (Craig David, Robbie Williams, Ronan Keating). It's also characterised by a rise in dance artists (Darude, Spiller, Zombie Nation) producing club anthems. This largely overshadowed the number of bands on the list. Again, it's not what I remembered at all.
In 2005, Maroon 5 won a Grammy for Best New Artist after the success of their debut album Songs For Jane. In the UK, indie-rock was seeing a revival harking back to the Britpop days. In 2001, New York band The Strokes found success with their debut album Is This Is, and in the next few years there was an influx of garage rock bands on both sides of the Atlantic. You had American bands like The White Stripes and Kings Of Leon finding sudden popularity, whilst the UK scene was represented by The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand. Soon - it seemed - every teenager was picking up a guitar and starting a band in ode to the above favourites.
By 2005, the indie rock bands were cool again and the year felt like a particular high point for bands with the breakthrough of Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs, and album releases from The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand. Were such bands dominating the charts though?
The initial reading of the top 100 most popular songs was not good. The top five was made up of James Blunt, Tony Christie, Daniel Powter, The Pussycat Dolls and Crazy Frog. Ok, I didn't see that coming. Again I'd just erased most of those songs from my brain.
Before long, things began to look a little better. Damon Albarn's Gorillaz were the first band to appear at number 7 ('Feel Good Inc') and again at number 14 ('Dare'). Immediately following them is Arctic Monkeys hit 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor' at number 15. I'm not going to lie, I expected higher considering my fondness for the band and the buzz the single received at the time, but 15 certainly isn't a number to sniff your nose at for a new indie band.
In total, the top 100 features a total of 18 bands such as Green Day, Oasis, Kaiser Chiefs, Stereophonics and Coldplay. The full list of bands were:
Gorillaz - Feel Good Inc (7)
Gorillaz - Dare (14)
Arctic Monkeys - I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor (15)
Razorlight - Somewhere Else (35)
Stereophonics - Dakota (37)
Green Day - Boulevard of Broken Dreams (38)
Oasis - The Importance of Being Idle (39)
Jay Z / Linkin Park - Numb / Encore (43)
Coldplay - Speed of Sound (44)
Green Day - Wake Me Up When September Ends (49)
Coldplay - Fix You (54)
Oasis - Lyla (58)
Kaiser Chiefs - I Predict A Riot (67)
Foo Fighters - Best Of You (70)
U2 - Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own (72)
Phanton Planet - California (85)
Kaiser Chiefs - Everyday I Love You Less and less (91)
The Killers - Somebody Told Me (96)
Knowing how fondly Britpop is still revered, I was somewhat surprised that bands were fairing slightly better in 2005 than 1995. However, I did anticipate a higher number of bands in the list, so imagine my surprise when the list was again dominated by solo artists (James Blunt, Akon, Sean Paul), pop groups (Sugababes, Pussycat Dolls, McFly) and novelty hits (Crazy Frog, Is This The Way To Amarillo).
Moving into the 2010s, my expectation levels for the popularity of bands in this decade was not great. Noughties indie received a backlash by the end of the decade following the high number of disposable "landfill indie" songs on the radio.
What seemed like a gritty, exciting and authentic movement now didn't appear quite as genuine. Certain bands were churning out uninteresting, watered down attempts at radio hits (The Kooks, Fratellis, The Ting Tings, The Automatic) and the quality of popular band releases fell drastically after 2005. Though, having said that, Kings Of Leon's 2008 global hit 'Sex On Fire' proved its staying power two years after release.
The indie-rock popularity bubble had burst. A couple of years on from doing so, would this be reflected in the top songs of the year? Were the bands about to disappear altogether?
In 2010, there's a drop from 17 bands to appear (in 2005) to only four bands in the top 100. These included veterans Journey (thanks to the TV show Glee), Mumford & Sons, Kings of Leon and Scouting For Girls. It appeared that bands just weren't as popular anymore and the general public had lost their appetite for them.
The bands to appear on the top 100 songs were:
Journey - Don't Stop Believin' (3)
Scouting For Girls - This Ain't A Love Song (45)
Mumford & Songs - The Cave (51)
Kings Of Leon - Sex On Fire (67)
As before, solo artists (69) dominated the chart with Alicia Keys 'Empire State of Mind' taking the top spot and Tinie Tempah's Pass Out' in number 2.
Personally, my favourite releases that year was from bands you simply didn't expect mainstream success from, rather gathering more of a niche audience. These included The National's High Violet, Arcade Fire's Suburbs, Frightened Rabbit's The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Foals' Total Life Forever and Vampire Weekend's Contra. So whilst I berate the lack of success of bands in this year, there was still a brilliant alternative underground producing brilliant music. It just appeared that bands were no longer chasing the pop charts any longer.
Going into 2015, I wasn't expecting a better performance from bands, rather confirmation that the lack of bands in the pop world hasn't been confined to the last couple of years.
In 2015, the top five most popular songs were; Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars ('Uptown Funk'), Hozier ('Take Me To Church'), Major Lazer ft. MO & DJ Snake ('Lean On'), Omi ('Cheerleader') and James Bay's 'Hold Back The River'.
With 2010 having with four bands on the list, there would be a further drop to only two bands in the top 100 most popular songs. Unsurprisingly, Maroon 5 are on them with their song 'Sugar', the other being Walk the Moon's hit 'Shut Up and Dance'.
To be honest, it's hardly a surprise that the numbers of bands at the top end of the chart were so low. Unlike 1995, 2000 or 2005, this year is hardly known as one to spawn an influx of hits from bands. However, Foals, Chvrches, Wolf Alice, Catfish and the Bottlemen and twenty one pilots did have minor hits proving it wasn't all doom and gloom on the band front.
So what do we take from that then?
Looking up the top 100 songs for every five years from 1995 to today, the following number of bands appeared:
1995: 14 bands.
2000: 9 bands.
2005: 18 bands.
2010: 4 bands
2015: 2 bands.
2020: 2 bands
What does this tell us then? As you can see above, as suspected, both 1995 and 2005 had significantly more bands feature in the top 100 songs of their respective years, though the drop over the next fifteen years maybe isn't as surprising as first thought.
Does Adam Levine have a point then? I suppose he does, this has been going on for a long time. In 2005, there was a healthy dose of bands competing at the top end of the chart. Arctic Monkeys stormed into number 1 and later had the most successful debut album of all time in 2006, whilst bands like Kaiser Chiefs, Gorillaz and Oasis had numerous big hits.
In the following few years, however, the British mainstream turned it's back on bands big time. What began as a fresh indie movement in the early to mid-noughties, felt like a tired one by the late 2000s and this resulted in a backlash.
With The Killers 'Mr Brightside' taking up a position in last year's Spotify list, it's clear that that the mid-noughties period still holds a lot of nostalgia for many people, though there's little sign that this 'heydey' for bands will reappear anytime soon. Is this necessarily a bad thing though? As I've demonstrated, there were still brilliant albums being released in 2010, 2015 and 2020, it's just that the audience is far more niche.
Let's be honest, guitar music is as far from the mainstream as it has been in over 25 years, but let's also not pretend there was ever a time that bands were overwhelmingly dominated the charts. In 1995, 2000 and 2005 - years which are fondly remembered as being big years for hands - the chart was still dictated by solo artists, exactly as it is today.
Despite our happy memories of Britpop chart battles, Blur and Oasis were nowhere near the top 10 singles of that year. This, of course, is surprising considering the way people talk about the era. They were just two artists of many that had mainstream success, granted their longevity has been greater than most artists on the list (though pop music, is, in essence, disposable).
As 2000 and 2005 also show, the chart has been overwhelmingly dominated by pop singers, groups and novelty hits for some time now. It's really not the modern phenomenon that people like to make out and this is something we can easily forget.
A thriving scene over the mainstream
What's more important than streaming numbers and chart success is the existence of a healthy underground indie and alternative scene.
1995 had Oasis and Blur battle it out for the top of the chart and 2005 saw Arctic Monkeys have a number 1 with 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor'. However, these two years - certainly in the last 30 years - are the exception to the rule for bands (ok, Oasis did have a couple more number 1s in later years) rather than the standard. As I hope I have proved, solo singers and pop groups have dominated the most popular lists for the past 25 years (and longer) so it's not worth getting upset that this is still the case.
Whilst it may be more difficult for bands to gain exposure these days in the mainstream, the abovementioned young bands - Royal Blood, London Grammar, The Snuts and The Lathums - show that there will always be a stream of bands coming through. Likewise in 2020, my best of albums list of the year revealed one of the best years of new music, featuring bands like Fontaines D.C., IDLES, DMA's, Future Islands, The 1975, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Sports Team.
In the past week, Maximo Park's new album Nature Always Wins debuted at number 2 on the UK Official Albums Chart and this followed the number 1 Scottish band Mogwai had achieved a week prior.
Having said that, liking indie and alternative bands shouldn't be about number 1 hits and being plastered all over the mainstream. Occasionally a band or a movement will gain chart success, but this will always be temporary exposure and not the norm.
Adam Levine is right, there are fewer bands having popular success, but look a little harder and you'll see there's still plenty to get excited about. There are still big bands around and brilliant new bands coming through.
Lets not lament the fact that bands aren't dominating the charts, it never was the norm and it shouldn't be about that anyway.