Arcade Fire, Radiohead Signal That Rock Is (Finally) Rising

Clearly, something is happening, and just in time for the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind, in Bigger Than the Sound.

In January, fresh off a year in which albums by mainstays like Linkin Park and My Chemical Romance stiffed, and efforts by up-and-comers like MGMT mystified, we published an article that wondered, rather matter-of-factly, “Is Rock Dead?”

At the time, it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. After all, for all intents and purposes, rock music was dead in 2010: Nickelback’s Dark Horse was the year’s best-selling rock album (even though it was released in November 2008), lumbering bands like Alter Bridge, Disturbed and Shinedown continued to dominate radio, and even the chart-topping successes of indie acts like Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire were dismissed as little more than flukes: They only reached #1, the argument went, because there were no hip-hop or pop albums released that same week.

And with absolutely zero big-ticket rock releases on the horizon, things were looking equally bleak for 2011. But in the six weeks since we originally published that article, something pretty amazing happened: Rock proved that, much like Jason Voorhees, it can be drowned, stabbed, dragged to hell and cryogenically frozen, but it cannot be killed.

At the end of January, the Decemberists’ The King Is Dead inexplicably debuted at #1 on the Billboard albums chart. Last Sunday, at the 53rd Grammys, the Arcade Fire shocked pretty much everybody (except, it should be noted, me ) by besting Eminem, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry to win Album of the Year . On Monday, we learned there would be a brand-new Radiohead album arriving in our inboxes in less than a week. Couple all that with a fantastic new album from Bright Eyes (The People’s Key, go buy it), the Foo Fighters’ hotly anticipated Wasting Light (which reteams former Nirvana mates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic with producer Butch Vig ) and new albums from the Strokes, Death Cab for Cutie, Coldplay and Blink-182 looming on the horizon — not to mention genuinely great releases from new bands like Warpaint, Smith Westerns and Yuck — and, all of a sudden, rock music doesn’t appear to be dead at all.

This isn’t meant to be some “Rock Is Back!” piece (I think we reached critical mass on those sometime around 2002), but it probably could be. Rather, I’m hoping it comes across as nothing more than the blissed-out rejoicings of a long-suffering rock fan. Because, to be perfectly honest, that’s the only angle I’m taking this week. I have worked at MTV News for nearly seven years now, and in that time, I’ve watched as rock and roll lost its grip on popular culture. Bands came and went, nostalgia acts did their victory laps, and nobody — outside of me and a few others — took notice. Rock had been lapped by the likes of Eminem and Lady Gaga, and it didn’t look like it was ever going to overtake them. Maybe it never will. And I don’t care, because, for the first time in a long time, I can unequivocally say: Damn, it feels good to be excited about rock music once again.

And given the circular nature of things, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of rock’s last great uprising: the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, which quickly thrust the genre back into the spotlight and kept it there for most (OK, like, seven years) of the decade. I’m not suggesting that the Arcade Fire winning Album of the Year is a watershed moment on par with Nevermind overtaking Michael Jackson’s Dangerous atop the Billboard chart (as it did in January 1992), but, shoot, it could very well end up that way. Nor am I expecting that, by year’s end, I’ll be writing laudatory pieces about the return of rock. But again, I very well might be.

That uncertainty is key, because it contains within it a shred of hope. You never know. And for the first time in a very long time, I can almost trick myself into believing that. Clearly, something is happening, that much is certain. Maybe it’s just natural evolution, or the stars aligning, or just my blind optimism, but in 2011, rock music appears to finally be pulling itself out of its watery grave, machete in hand, ready to cut down innocent campers. And, man, does it feel good to write something like that. It’s been a long time coming, after all.

Do you think rock is on its way back? Let us know in the comments!