Here are the five rock albums that cracked the Top 50 of the Billboard 200 this week: Coldplay, who made a pop album with Rihanna’s producers; the Beatles greatest hits album from 2000; and three albums by David Bowie, an icon whose biggest hits came out before Adele was born. What is the sound of rock music in 2016, anyway?
This question may be answered by the team behind Now That’s What I Call Music!, the iconic, zeitgeist-mining pop music compilations that have sold millions since their American debut in 1998. The very first Now That’s What I Call Rock! album is being released today, and its wide-reaching, “big tent” attitude could change the way music listeners think about a genre that, in its 65th year, is still beloved by millions but currently in the commercial doldrums. Over 18 tracks, Now That’s What I Call Rock! makes room for bands with future-minded EDM textures (Bring Me the Horizon, Fall Out Boy), summer festival blues-rock chug (Royal Blood, Cage the Elephant), arena alternative (Walk the Moon, Imagine Dragons, X Ambassadors), post-Tool hard rock (Seether, Breaking Benjamin), triumphant psych-pop (Florence and the Machine, Børns) and cosmopolitan retro experiments (Elle King, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats). In short, completely different bands marketed to completely different audiences, all under one roof to celebrate a shared love of electric guitars and high energy performance.
Jeff Moskow, Now head of A&R since 2000, and co-producer Cliff Chenfeld talked to Rolling Stone about the ambitious project that successfully fits the mess of contemporary rock music into a neat package.
What was the genesis of this project?
Moskow: Rock has played a significant role in Now over the years. Probably a bit more so in the beginning, and then there was obviously a pretty significant lull. As we sort of noticed things coming back in rock, we looked at things culturally and we said, you know, this could really be a good moment to tell the story of what’s happening. … It seems to be escalating and increasing in its popularity again. … Frankly, I missed it, you know? I missed having rock represented.
The other thing we really wanted to do is sort of create a big tent for rock. The fact that we’ve got things on this record — artists like Børns and Elle King and Walk the Moon on the same record as Bring Me the Horizon and Shinedown and Royal Blood and Fall Out Boy and Seether — is because we really want to show that rock is a big tent. … There’s so much going on with rock, you know, “alternative rock” and “active rock” is still “rock.” And, you know, that message I think comes through loud and clear on this project.
Chenfeld: This genre that we are now calling “rock” in 2016 is really almost counter-programming on some level to what’s going on in mainstream pop. It’s still bands that are, you know, slightly less produced and slightly more guitar-centric, so you got a situation where people are kind of working in a genre that has been around for awhile, taking it to new places, but still maintaining some connection with what’s always made rock great for 50 years. … There are heavier rock bands, there’s alternative rock bands, there’s bands that are called rock that are more singer/songwriter; and part of what we were trying to do was use this collection to kind of bring rock up to date in terms of what people think rock is, as opposed to using a term for rock that might have defined what rock was in 1994 [or] 1979.
Pop music is already a big tent: Here’s Katy Perry and here’s One Direction, but both can be at Jingle Ball. However Bring Me the Horizon and Børns are marketed completely differently.
Chenfeld: Part of this is a means of introducing some of those bands to that broader audience who I think would embrace it. … We just kind of felt that there was now this kind of critical mass of great stuff that people had heard some of and some of it they haven’t heard as much of, and this would be sort of a way of connecting those dots. There’s also, frankly, an issue with the rock genre, which they’re a little bit too much in camps at times. And, and a little bit too tribal at times, and this is also an opportunity to kind of not have things as stratified. Great rock bands are great rock bands. The people who like Bring Me the Horizon should get some opportunity to get connected to Børns and vice versa.
Since it is so tribal, were there bands or managers that were resistant to be a part of a project like this?
Chenfeld: Jeff’s obviously been the Now guy for all these years, and I’m kind of coming in as “Rock Guy Who Helps,” but isn’t it also true, Jeff, that there’s just a certain category of artists that are not going to be on compilations, pretty much no matter what?
Moskow: Yeah, that’s true.
Chenfeld: And we didn’t really have a situation where people said, “We don’t want to be on a rock compilation.” I’ve known Jeff for years, and he’s always telling me, “This Now record’s great, but two people won’t be on it.” So there’s always people who just don’t want their music presented that way. But in terms of people going, “Oh, we don’t want to be associated with a rock compilation,” I don’t think we got any of that.
Did you two invent rules — whether written or unwritten — about what could go on there? About what qualifies as “rock”?
Chenfeld: Jeff and I didn’t create guidelines, but obviously we talk a lot. I would say that it had to come from a certain attitude and perspective, right? It could have electronic aspects to it, but it could not be primarily something that was a … you know, it had to have people playing instruments. It had to have an aesthetic that sounded like these were kinda personal songs sung by people that were not kind of generic, more instrumentally oriented. It had to have some energy to it. We could not have things that were incredibly mellow. This is not a rock ballads thing, this is not a banjo rock collection. It had to have some bottom to it, it had to have some energy to it. It needed to have people who were influenced on some level by rock I think, and were at least coming from some aspect of what we think of historically as “rock” and kind of extending it on some level. Bring Me The Horizon has electronic stuff going on. That’s great. It’s just, if the entire song is that, then I think that that’s not what this compilation is.
Five Finger Death Punch — who aren’t on the album — are an example of a wildly successful band. But it seems like their aggression would be a bridge too far.
Chenfeld: Well, without dissing particular bands, I think that if you want to put them on one side and, you know, Hozier on the other side … I think both are great artists, and I’d like nothing more than to have Five Finger Death Punch and Hozier on my label [Razor & Tie] … I think that the Hozier song is probably a little too mellow, and the Five Finger Death Punch is probably a little too aggressive for what this thing was.
Having dug so deep into what’s connecting with people right now. What conclusions can you draw from where rock music is going?
Chenfeld: I think that Bring Me the Horizon is a really interesting band. I think the bands that can combine a little bit more of a traditional rock swagger with songs have a really good shot right now. That kind of energy, that sort of aggressiveness with really good songs. … [There are bands that] kind of understand the aesthetics of what’s going on today but understand that being a rock star is not the same thing as being a pop star. And kind of have a bit of that kickass attitude, but understand that if you want the people who like to listen to Miley Cyrus to like you, you better have hooky great songs. I see that coming down the pike. On some level, by the way, you know, you could argue that Nirvana did that 20 years ago, right? And the other good thing is that they have the ambition to do that. They don’t wanna just talk to a rock audience. They wanna play be on Z100, they wanna be in a Now collection, they wanna be playing in arenas not, you know, 5,000-seat theaters.
Jeff talked about the “lull” in rock bands being on Now. Why do you think it’s been so long?
Chenfeld: Rock turned very inward over the last 10 years. And I think that as the internet developed, and as festivals developed, and as you can market directly to your fanbase … a lot of rock bands created a very solid career for themselves by catering to people who liked them and had certain expectations of them. And a lot of these rock bands concerned that if they tried to do something that had the potential to be much broader, that they were going to put off their core fanbase and then they would be left just trying to be a pop band and they would lose the whole thing.
And so, you had this ability to kind of be a moderately successful band and never kind of go for it. … You know, Bono had some quote about five or six years ago where he said something like, “Does any new band really wanna go for it?”