Saturday, September 24, 2011

Twenty Thoughts on Nirvana's Nevermind at 20

1. Nevermind is easily my favorite ever made. If I were to attempt to think of one's that are close, the only ones I would be able to come up with are Beck's Odelay, The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, Radiohead's OK Computer, and maybe Daft Punk's Discovery. But clearly Nevermind is the best and most complete album I've ever heard, and that includes the Beatles entire catalog, anything by the Rolling Stones. You name it. It is quite simply an exceptional recording even if you were to strip away all of its historical importance.

2. First reason would probably be the choruses. There isn't a song on the album that doesn't have a hummable chorus. The only album that compares in this area in my opinion would be The Strokes' Is This It?

3. Due to his importance from a generational perspective, Kurt Cobain has never really gotten his due as a pure musician. His guitar work is particularly unheralded. However, on this album it is continually inventive and captivating.

4. Meanwhile, his vocals are at turns vulnerable, pleading, urgent, brutal, even tender. While he could never be accused of having Freddie Mercury's pipes, his nasally, scratchy chords were just the right sound for this band. This says nothing for his songwriting, which was obviously masterful in a totally simplistic way. "Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, instrumental breakdown, chorus" never sounded so consistently adventurous. Brian Wilson? Bob Dylan? Lennon and McCartney? No way this guy wasn't on their level.

5. Krist Novoselic is easily the most overlooked member of the band, and listening back to the album for this piece, it becomes really easy to figure out why. Sometimes, it is difficult to decipher what's guitar and what's bass because Novoselic's work was frequently distorted to suit the band's sonics. But it is Novoselic's bass that creates the signature lead-up of "Come As You Are." It is his distorted instrument that provides the dark, churning fuzz that fires off "Breed." His more natural bass sound enlivens both the beginning, the chorus, and the bridge of "Lounge Act." It's tremendously vital work.

6. Dave Grohl's work here is especially legendary. With one album, he catapulted into the pantheon of the Top Five drummers of all time. Keith Moon? John Bonham? Neil Peart, of course. Maybe Sheila Freakin' E? Then, Grohl has to be there. His work here is violent, rhythmic, and especially heavy on cymbals. To this day, I have heard no one else punish the metal the way Grohl does here. Of course, it would be blasphemous to suggest that he was a one-album wonder behind the kit. For another example of his prowess, check out Queens of the Stone Age's Songs for the Deaf, one of the best-drummed album of the last ten years.

7. I don't want to sound too cool for school here, but if there is one song I skip over frequently it is probably "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But I don't think that's because it is not an incredible song. It is, whether they stole the Boston "More Than a Feeling" guitar riff or not. I think it is simply that I had heard it ten bazillion times when I was starting off in high school. Any song listened to that many times will become annoying. I mean, try listening to "Hey Ya" right now!

8. If pressed to name a song that I felt was the best on the album, I would undoubtedly say "Come As You Are." It is simply perfect. From the opening bassline that sounds like it's emerging from the depths of Hell to Grohl's nimble, understated kitwork to Cobain's wounded wail to the intricately cut-up guitar oddities during the bridge to the unhinged theatrics of the chorus right up to what is probably Cobain's greatest lead guitar work, a wobbly, out-of sorts solo chocked full of stylish reverb. Absolutely no doubt about it: it's the best song on the album.

9. But...if you MADE me pick another, I would probably have to go with "Stay Away..."

10. Or maybe "Drain You..."

11. But then there is Cobain f*cking around in the studio at the end of the album with "Something in the Way"...

12. Did I mention "On a Plain?" No, dammit, I'm going with "Come As You Are."

13. As for the voice of the genration stuff that is unfortunately attached to Cobain, I have to say that I never really bought into it. I just thought that they were a really, really, really terrific band, and I wanted to hear a lot more music from them. When I heard that he killed himself, I was at the park playing basketball. I wasn't crushed. I didn't cry. I was just really bummed that they weren't going to be making another album. I didn't even miss my next turn on the court. Life goes on, I guess. (Although the fact that I am now listening to it for the tenth time today suggests that maybe I was more affected by it than I want to let on.)

14. It may be a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument (after all, it seems like you are only ever recognized for your album cover if you have made a classic album), but the baby in the water has to go down in the Top Five of all-time album covers. I'm putting it in there with Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Beatles' Abbey Road, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, and The Clash's London Calling.

15. Since I have said that this is my favorite album of all time, the next statement should not be a surprise: it is the best album to come out of the early 90's grunge movement. The Top Five is Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, Nirvana's In Utero, Pearl Jam's Vs., and Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream. There was a time where it seemed like there were two types of people: those who liked Nirvana, and those who liked Pearl Jam. While I feel that Nirvana was the superior band, it is easy for me to say that Ten was an incredible album, with great songs like "Jeremy," "Once," and my personal favorite "Evenflow." I guess the big difference to me would be that when I listen to Ten, it takes me back to the time when it came out. When I listen to Nevermind, I am completely engrossed in the music. In other words, Ten is more nostalgiac while Nevermind is completely timeless.

16. Since I love lists: the five best grunge songs (with no bands repeated) are "Come As You Are," "Evenflow," Temple of the Dog's "Hunger Strike," Stone Temple Pilots' "Plush," and Soundgarden's "Outshined."

17. Food for thought: Nirvana is frequently given credit for running bands like Poison, Cinderella, Ratt, Whitesnake, and others off the map. But think about the bands that probably never would have existed were it not for the success of Nirvana. They would include Creed, Staind, Nickleback, and many more. I'm just saying.

18. In my above list of great grunge albums, I didn't even list Nirvana's MTV Unplugged album, which many would argue is their best piece of work. I didn't list it because I don't consider it to be a clear indication of what grunge was. But make no mistake about it: the thing is spectacular. I'm going to call it the best live album ever made and hope that I am not missing anything obvious that could be immediately tossed in my face by an intrepid reader.

19. Being that I was not even 18 when Kurt Cobain died, I never got the chance to see Nirvana live. As a result they were sort of frozen in my mind as a studio act. That is, until I saw their Live at Reading DVD. If you have never seen the band live and are suitably interested, seek out this disc. You will be amazed at the sort of noise that a three-piece band can churn out. Well...four, if you count the guy that they have up there to dance maniacally through the entirety of their set.

20. In closing, the top five moments on the album in no particular order are: 1) the opening six-second guitar riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit, 2) the demented, reverby guitar solo that Cobain tosses off at the 1:59 mark of "Come As You Are," 3) the tweaked-out bass-drum combo that begins "Breed," 4) the extended build-up of "Drain You" that begins at the 1:34 mark and ends with Cobain's guttural scream at 2:33, and 5) the Grohl drum roll at the beginning of "Stay Away."


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