With the second half of our grunge blockbuster, we have the large-scale debut from Nirvana, “Nevermind”, with their classic lineup of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl on drums. With some similarities and some distinctions in sound, Nirvana helped to reinforce Seattle as the epicenter of grunge rock in the early 1990s. Their sound was much more punk-based than many of their peers, both in the guitar playing and vocals from Cobain. Even so, this album was a massive mainstream success and is one of the best-selling albums of all time. It is rated as the #6 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and is the #2 grunge rock album of all time as rated by loudwire.com.
Even though it quickly devolved into a song Cobain hated to perform and be associated with, the lead track “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of the most definitive and recognizable songs of the decade. A mix of simple power chords, Grohl’s powerful overt drumming and Cobain’s angry lyrics of generational confusion, the shift from mellow to intense drives an unforgettable hit. The second song on this album, “In Bloom”, an ode to deranged and obsessive fans, is my favorite Nirvana song of all time. Again, the guitars and drums blend perfectly around the bass line from Novoselic, and Cobain’s voice rages over what still is a very catchy chorus and hook. If you want to hear a very unusual but amazing cover of this song, check out the country-flavored version by Sturgill Simpson.
A third timeless hit follows, with the eerie and inviting “Come as You Are” again reinforcing the magnetic intensity of this trio. “Breed” is a fairly straight-forward punk grind, and then we have the fourth successful single from the album, “Lithium”. Even on this album, Cobain never shies away from the darkness of mental health decline, depression and the potential for violence and tragedy. Like the other three big hits, “Lithium” was omnipresent on rock radio during the run of this album, and they all remain timeless tracks to this day.
The rest of the album is a blend of sheer punk rock and more traditional guitar rock. My tastes tend to lean towards the less intense tracks, and I particularly like “Lounge Act” and “On a Plain”. Both songs represent really good guitar rock, no matter what label you want to assign. Some of the other songs, like “Territorial Pissings” and the last track, “Endless Nameless”, which is like the punk version of “Revolution #9” from the Beatles or “Third Stone from the Sun” by Jimi Hendrix, are just a little too abrasive and extreme for my tastes, although I’m sure they line up perfectly with the most devoted of Cobain fans.
These exceptions aside, this is obviously another remarkable album, and it is impressive how many of these bands did their best work within a very concentrated window of time. Cobain’s voice is distinctive and pained, and it boils down to the songwriting for me. His voice isn’t as naturally compelling as Layne Staley or even Eddie Vedder, but his place as a rock icon is firmly secure with this album, even with more great music still ahead.