On November 19, Atlantic Records released The Best of Nickelback Volume 1, which follows — not very closely — on the heels of their 2011 double-platinum album Here and Now.
A few mind-boggling stats: Nickelback has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide and has charted with 19 singles. All The Right Reasons, which was released in 2005, has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, spending 112 consecutive weeks in the top tier of the Billboard Top 200. It won an American Music Award, helped the quartet snag three Billboard Music Awards and a couple of Junos (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys), and led to Billboard magazine calling Nickelback its “group of the decade.”
So, why is Nickelback still a punch line?
For a while, it was cool to be snarky about Nickelback. (Here’s even more.) When that seemed overly mean, there were a few dissenting voices (including one in our sister publication). Personally, I always wondered what it was about the music itself that invited criticism. I began listening to every Nickelback album I could find, and I ultimately found a few musical characteristics — chord changes, melodic contours, formal devices, and so on — that kept popping up. I created a spreadsheet, tallying up those elements. The sum of those features, which I’ll discuss below, is what I call the “Nickelback Factor” (or NB Factor).
(Chad Kroeger, Nickelback’s lead singer, is also fond of musical dissection: In 2001, Kroeger, according to Wikipedia, said he did his own analyses, “studying every piece, everything sonically, everything lyrically, everything musically, chord structure… I would dissect every single song that I would hear on the radio or every song that had ever done well on a chart and I would say, ‘Why did this do well?’”)
The Nickelback spreadsheet contains (to my ears) an accumulation of certain tics and quirks that make up the Nickelback sound, which reached its apex (not surprisingly) with All the Right Reasons (and beyond, to 2008’s Dark Horse). (I didn’t get into the lyrics, sadly, but it’s probably worthwhile.)
I listened to seven albums — The Curb (1996), The State (2000), Silver Side Up (2001), The Long Road (2003), All the Right Reasons (2005), Dark Horse (2008) and Here and Now (2011) — for a total of 76 songs. Here’s some of what I heard, over and over (in some cases). (I’m sure mistakes were made, and for that I apologize.)
Soft-Loud-Soft or Power-Ballad Form. Nirvana and other bands, probably inspired by the Pixies, adopted this dynamic strategy: take it down for the verses and ramp up in the choruses. You don’t want to blow your wad. In 76 songs, Nickelback did this 37 times, spread evenly and consistently throughout their career (including 7 out of 11 songs on All the Right Reasons).
Four-Chord Chorus. A huge percentage of pop-rock choruses written after, say, 1995 seem to be built on a sequence of four chords, in a few different configurations (I won’t get into the details). Not surprisingly, Nickelback did this a bunch, especially toward the back-end of their catalog: six times on All the Right Reasons, seven examples on Dark Horse and another six on Here and Now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the consistently is certainly noticeable.
Grunge Melody. This one’s a little more abstract. But if you dissect the melodies of, say, Nirvana, Pearl Jam or other early-’90s rockers, they seemed to be awfully fond of what you’d call mixolydian-mode melodies, which essentially gravitate toward the third and flatted-seventh scale degrees. (It’s sort of like major, with one little “non-chord tone” (that seventh) to keep it off balance. (See, for example, the melodies of “All Apologies” by Nirvana or Pearl Jam’s “Evenflow,” the first two melodic notes of which are the third and flat-seventh.) (See also: The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”)
Nickelback, and other groups, consciously or not, picked up on this sound and emulated it, but less often than I would have thought. For Nickelback, the use of Grunge Melody peaked on 2001’s Silver Side Up (three times). It’s understandable why this device showed early promise but ultimately got eclipsed by other factors: it’s too mystical, too ambiguous, not enough to hang your hat on, and not nearly bro-ish enough.
Half-Time. Occasionally a song’s beat gets cut in half, for dramatic effect. It happened on two songs from The Long Road (2003) before it was abandoned.
Guitar solo. Not surprising when they show up, but still worth pointing out that they are important to the Nickelback sound. Roughly half of their songs (or less), it seems, have guitar solos (short ones).
The Instrument Drop-Out Bridge. By far, this is the most common characteristic of Nickelback’s sound, occuring in 56 (!) of the 76 songs I listened to. It’s that moment after the song’s second chorus when everything drops out, leaving Kroeger’s voice to deliver a lyrical punch. It’s another device you might use to introduce variety, but it’s possible to overuse it, as Nickelback shows.
Acoustic/Piano Somewhere. Another way to mix it up within the confines of a short rock song is to alternate between acoustic instruments (usually an acoustic guitar or piano) and electric ones. It adds variety. Nickelback started using this effect more and more as time went on (and as they crossed over further from alternative rock to the mainstream). Nearly half the songs on each of their last four albums drop the acoustic-bomb somewhere.
Bro-Beat. Ah, the bro-beat: We’ve all heard it, the sound of handing an acoustic guitar to someone who’s ready to get the emotions flowing. It’s a characteristic groove that, in some ways, mimics the kick-snare alternation a drummer might use in a rock texture. (Listen to “Photograph” from “All the Right Reasons” for an example.) Nickelback seems to have limited their use of bro-beat to one song per album, which is admirable. (Hootie might be the bigger offender.)
The two albums with the highest Nickelback Factor are All the Right Reasons and Dark Horse, but the band’s been remarkably consistent over the years. When Nickelback releases a new album, hopefully soon, we’re likely to hear these factors again. Formulas exist for a reason: they work. But if they lead to further criticism and punch lines, I guess nobody will be surprised.
The Spreadsheet. Not for the meek. (Scroll all the way to the right to get to the NB Factor for each album.).