I’ve Always Loved Adult Album Alternative Music. I Just Didn’t Know What It Was

Do you ever have that experience where you really like a whole bunch of related things, and you feel like there should be a name for the type of thing they are, but there isn’t one? Or at least, you didn’t know there was?

My favorite music was like that for me.  

A rock band playing music. This image is generated by Open AI.
An adult album alternative band. Whatever that is. Generated by Open AI.

I, for sure, have a favorite type of music. I could list hundreds of artists, albums, and songs that fit into this type of music. And in my head, they all go together. As if they were a particular genre. 

Except they aren’t a particular genre. 

Examples of my favorite music span a whole variety of different genres including pop, rock, rap, country, and more.

What I didn’t know was that there actually is a name for this type of music – it’s called “Adult Album Alternative” music. And this name has existed for decades now.

News to me!

As it turns out, adult album alternative music – also known as “AAA” or “triple-A music” or simply “adult alternative” – is not a genre, but rather a radio format.

If you’re asking yourself what the heck the difference is between a genre and a radio format, well, I also asked that question. So let me explain it to you now.

What Is A Radio Format?

A radio format is different than a genre. But there is some overlap. Both a genre and a radio format are a way of grouping music (or other types of media) together by certain similarities. But the similarities that a radio format and a genre pick out are not quite the same. They may be similar, but at the very least there will be a difference in emphasis.

I think the best way to define a musical genre and differentiate it from a radio format is that a genre classifies music according to its inherent musical qualities, traditions, or conventions. Maybe it’s related to the compositional qualities, instrumentation, lyrical themes, etc. But, these similarities are based on the music itself.

On the other hand, when it comes to a radio format, the grouping has less to do with the inherent qualities of the music itself, and more to do with marketing and the appeal of the music to a certain audience or marketing segment.

Apparently, that audience or marketing segment is me. And people like me.

Because AAA music has more to do with people and less to do with the music, artists from very different genres like Lorde (pop), A Tribe Called Quest (rap), Dave Matthews Band (rock), and Jason Isbell (country) can all belong to this radio format. As the theory goes, there is a certain segment of audience that will likely enjoy all of these musicians and many similar artists, albums, and songs as well. 

This checks out for me. 

At the very least, I like all of these artists. And never really knew how to group them together before. 

My musical taste never fit in anywhere else, any particular genre or even sub-genre. I was never a super indie rock guy, a  trap hip hop head, an intelligent dance music man, or an outlaw country buff.

And yet, I liked particular examples from all of these genres that seem to have certain qualities in common with the music of other genres that I also liked.

So it turned out my favorite type of music has a name: adult album alternative.

Which is… what, exactly? Let’s discuss.

What Is Adult Album Alternative (AAA) Music?

Adult album alternative music lives on the mainstream fringes of the most popular genres like pop, rock, and country. A sort of goldilocks musical categorization – not too hard, not too soft, not too commercial, not too out there.

The kind of music that can be played in your average cafe, supermarket, or sports bar without offending anyone except maybe your most devoted musical snobs.

It’s less commercial than your standard top 40 playlists. A bit more subtle, a bit more mature. Focused more on organic songwriting or nuanced instrumentation.

It can be intellectual without being alienating or overly weird. And it can be fun and casual without devolving into mindless party music.

If we can consider Katy Perry and Drake extremes on the one hand (mainstream pop and rap) and your average speed metal or hardcore punk on the other (very niche), adult album alternative music is the Aristotelian golden mean of popular musical genres.

Historical Origins and Examples

The historical origins of the triple-A radio format trace back to the album rock stations of the 70s. As well as the alternative music format that sprouted in the 80s and then exploded in the 90s when Nirvana smelled like teen spirit.

Musical selections in the genre are influenced by genres like post-punk and new wave, acoustic folk, early alternative rock, anthemic stadium bands, roots reggae, outlaw country, or conscious hip hop. But it pulls from many other genres and subgenres beyond these.

Examples of artists you’ll find on an adult album alternative radio station include:

  • Cage The Elephant
  • Sara Bareilles
  • Feist
  • Gorillaz
  • Dave Matthews Band
  • Pearl Jam
  • Jason Isbell
  • Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes
  • A Tribe Called Quest
  • The B-52s
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela

The “album” part indicates that sometimes you’ll hear album tracks rather than just the hit singles on triple-a radio stations. That is because the AAA format tries harder to appeal to their target market by being more broad and expansive than the ultra-repetitive commercial pop, rock, country, and hip hop stations’ top 40 stations.

I’ve been talking a lot about radio and radio formats. But that raises a kind of funny question. Has radio gone the way of the dodo bird? If so, does this format still exist?

Does Radio Still Even Exist?

Actually, yes! You may not have known it. But if you turn the dial to FM radio in your car while you drive to the grocery store, it’ll work.

Of course, like you, I’m usually listening to my favorite Spotify playlists of the month. But the announcement of the complete and utter death of commercial and noncommercial radio is (at least a little) premature.

Popularity of the AAA Format

So how popular is adult album alternative as a radio format then? It’s not top 40, which boasts tens of millions of listeners. But triple-A still has millions of listeners as well. And you can catch the format on at least one radio station in most major American cities.

AAA as a format isn’t just limited to commercial radio. Did you know that 7.5 million Americans listen to AAA on public radio every week? And that around 300 AAA stations Broadcast in the United States? 

I Sure didn’t. Because I didn’t even know that adult album alternative was a thing.

Another cool thing about the format is that it is often used as a testing ground to break emerging artists that have some commercial appeal. An example of this is the pop star Lorde, whose #1 hit song “Royals” first broke ground in the United States on AAA radio before emigrating to its star status on top 40 radio.

So, the format is somewhat popular. But who listens to it? Who are these other Lil Ginges rocking out to Counting Crows and De La Soul and Radiohead and Maggie Rogers?

Who Listens to Adult Album Alternative Music?

As it turns out, Lil Ginge is not the only person who enjoys / loves this type of music. There are lots of us. We are an army. Maybe. Kinda. 

But how can you identify us? After all, we aren’t all short gingers like me.

When the format was created in the early 90s, it appealed to boomers who were looking for a more expansive selection of music on the radio than they could find on top 40 radio stations. 

But the format is hardly limited to boomers.

Many types of people listen to this music. But if you had to wheedle it down to one certain stereotypical type of person, it is probably someone to whom you could apply at least two or three of the following terms: 

  • Birkenstocks
  • Crunchy
  • Granola
  • Hippy
  • Stoner
  • fraternity or frat adjacent (read: either in a frat (sorority), or cool enough to go to frat parties on occasion, not cool enough to be in a frat) types

If more than one of those words applies to you, there’s a good chance you’ll love Adult Album Alternative music. Just like I do, and always have.

Who knew? Not me!

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