Nirvana went further in the span of three studio albums than most bands go in their lifetimes. Not quite overnight successes, but after their second record 1991’s Nevermind basically set the standard for what the last meaningful period of FM radio would play throughout the 1990’s the band were looked to as the spokespeople for their generation whether they wanted this fame or not. Singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain definitely had a talent for turning his angst into a sort of universal desire, not though difficult or psychedelic lyrics or concepts but by keeping it very personal and introverted. More importantly, he wore his influences on his sleeves and while quoting from the known classics like The Beatles or Black Sabbath he also celebrated the small, more under-heard artists in a time when here was no Internet or outlet for discovery. His constant covers and tongue in cheek references were gobbled up by the avid record collector and media critic alike, making his word the gold standard for what is worth hearing in underground music. There never was another alternative breakthrough like Nirvana’s, though because they managed to do it and survive just long enough to prove it viable, there is always hope that a good band can actually be a POPULAR band as well.
Kurt Cobain – Vocals, Guitar
Kirk Novoselic – Bass
Chad Channing – Drums (Bleach)
Dave Grohl – Drums (Nevermind–Unplugged in NY)
Best Album: In Utero
Biggest Influences: Pixies, Husker Du, The Beatles, The Vaselines, The Meat Puppets
1989 – (4 / 5)− Bleach
1991 – (4.5 / 5) − Nevermind
1993 – (5 / 5) − In Utero
Bleach − (4 / 5)
On their first jolt into the music scene, Nirvana fair very well, fitting in with their Seattle contemporaries Green River, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, and The Melvins. The heavy sound of the guitars is immediately noticeable, and many songs on the second half threaten to blur together. What keeps this from being a generic album is Kurt Cobain’s melodic talent and approach to singing. Detached but yearning, the way Cobain sings the melodies on several songs (“Big Cheese”, “Love Buzz”) immediately establishes the group as impressive. The opener “Blew” repeats the mantra “you can do anything” which is unusually hopeful for this sludgy rock music. “About a Girl” and “School” are simple songs for sure in the vein of REM, but they also have an old fashioned kind of accessibility that is bound to help the band in the future. There are plenty of stand outs, but the best songs retain that kind of reckless attitude somewhere between punk and heavy metal – “Floyd the barber” which tells a childhood story of getting a haircut akin to an Alfred Hitchcock movie; “Negative Creep” which owes something to childhood as well, perhaps telling owing more to the demented side of rock a la the Soft Boys’ “Old Pervert”. Bleach was recorded in a somewhat of lo fi setting and careless approach, which helped define much of the music of the coming decade more than the general heaviness found on many tracks. Whether accidental or part of a grand scheme in Cobain’s mind, Nirvana was bursting with ideas on their first album and many years later it’s a good debut that sounds of its time and also fairly modern.
Greatest Tracks: Negative Creep, About a Girl, School, Floyd the Barber
Nevermind – (4.5 / 5)
While their first album sold well locally, the second album quite literally changed the world. Nevermind (a title homage to The Sex Pistols spiritual breakthrough in 1976 Nevermind the Bullocks) was the real deal, an album that rocked hard but also contained many radio friendly singles that blended together like a classic 1970’s arena rock album; something old but also something very modern, which again is the band biggest strength. Simple but effective, the album resonated a chord with the record buying public and became the biggest selling album of the year and opened many closed eyes to the emerging post-punk styles of the Seattle sound (now deemed “Grunge rock”). The first half record is basically all verse chorus verse single ready songs, ranging from brooding ballads with self–deprecating lyrics (“Come as You Are”, “Lithium”, the acoustic “Polly”) to blistering punk metal fusions (“Breed”, “In Bloom”, the band’s ultimate anthem “Smells like Teen Spirit”). “Smells like Teen Spirit”, a song destined to make an impact but made one far larger than anyone could have hoped, was the epitome of Nirvana’s new sound that had a lot of attitude (punk) but slower, distorted tempos (sludge metal) but was also very repetitive and hummable, hence a major hit. This was not a new idea by any means, in a lot of ways the band was just taking ideas by 80’s college rock bands like Pixies, Husker Du, and Sonic Youth, but taking out all of the abrasive qualities like ear-splitting noise and maniacal screaming, so even a child could sing along.
The second half fairs pretty well, with “Drain You” paying homage again to Sonic Youth and the orchestrated closer “Something in the Way” proving the band can do a straight up ballad and not have it come off as cheesy. Cobain’s often abstract but simple lyrics drive most of these songs home, even making “Territorial Pissings” and “On a Plain” sound like well thought out ideas when lyrically they are kind of one note. Minor consistency issues also appear on “Stay Away” and “Lounge Act”, which are the only two filler tunes on an otherwise genius singles collection. Last but not least, Butch Vig produces the album, turning in a slick and streamlined sound that gives the record a kind of sheen that Bleach sorely lacked and helped Nevermind achieve its worldwide success (odd, because Vig was best known prior to this for producing hardcore punk Aussie bands such as King Snake Roost, Feedtime as well as Midwest USA’s extreme acts Laughing Hyenas and Killdozer, none of which would I define as “smooth”). A touchstone of alternative rock for sure, when talking about the best albums of 1991 form a historical perspective Nevermind is somewhat overrated (this was the year of Slint’s Spiderland and My Valentine’s Loveless, just to name a few) but when talking about albums that had a direct influence on its time, Nevermind is obviously a milestone.
Greatest Tracks: Lithium, Polly, In Bloom, Smells Like Teen Spirit
In Utero − (5 / 5)
Building on what he perceived as negative criticism for the commercial slickness of the overproduced Nevermind, Cobian went the opposite direction and got Steve Albini to produce his next studio record. Albini is known for using live studio recordings and less-is-more approach to making albums while being a great musician in his own right (see the acts Big Black and Rapeman for proof). One thing Albini is really good at in my opinion, is making albums sound timeless instead of dated, with productions that hold up very well (see Pixies’ Surfer Rosa for the most obvious example of this time). On top of a great producer choice Cobain has his best batch of songs to date, effortlessly blending pop catchiness (“Rape Me” which seems like a classic but also effortless, “Very Ape”, “Serve the Servants”) with rowdy, uncontrollable abandon (“Scentless Apprentice”, “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”, “Tourett’s”) even though the subject matter is always disturbing and complex. Cobain writes his best ballads on this record as well, reaching a depth beyond what he has even attempted previously with breakout hit “Heart Shaped Box”, the pensive “All Apologies”, and the king of all Nirvana songs, the touching “Dumb”. On these songs Cobain achieves a kind of cathartic sound that crowns him as the most meaningful artist of the early 90’s and refuses to adhere to any kind of pre conceived notion of rock music of the time.
Cobain’s lyrics are at their most poignant on this release as well: “You can’t Fire Me because I quit/throw me in the fire and I won’t throw a fit“, “Teenage angst has worn off well/now I’m bored and old”, “She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak”. The rhythm section of Novoselic and Grohl is tighter than ever, due to constant touring of the years before I am sure. There are some tunes that while still enjoyable don’t quite reach the highs of Nirvana’s classics (the overlong “Pennyroyal Tea”, and the moody “Milk It” which I have to really be in the mood for to make I all the way through sometimes) but they blend in to the overall feel of the record and if nothing else, add to the albums disturbing personality. All of the fame that Nevermind gained was truly earned on In Utero, which was the band’s greatest achievement and sadly due to Cobain’s suicide the next year, their last.
Greatest Tracks: Dumb, Scentless Apprentice, Heart Shaped Box, All Apologies
Compilations (Live albums, Ep’s, B-Sides, etc.)
Insecticide – (4 / 5)
A collection of B-sides and unreleased tracks, Insecticide basically plays like the album that comes after Nevermind chronologically, and that is pretty much how I view it. It has a ton of great songs on it and increases the diversity of the group by playing different styles of music. The traditional Nirvana is here, with the catchy and menacing “Dive” and the soul crushing “Aneurysm”, which plays with song structure for the first time in the band’s history. Cobain is sweeter than he has ever been with the two Vaseline’s covers “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun”, but also on his personal childhood odyssey “Been a Son”, which is one of the better pop songs of the 1990’s. He is also more meaning than ever, on the aforementioned “Aneurysm” but also on the vocal experiments of “Beeswax” which recall Jesus Lizard and on “Silver” where he quite literally screams himself hoarse, as well as “Hairspray Queen” which is an odd mix of Primus and Pere Ubu. As the longest collection of Nirvana tunes, there are some ideas that could have stayed unreleased: “Downer”, “Mexican Seafood”, “Aero Zeppelin” (funny little), and “Big Long Slow” don’t add anything to the legacy even as latter tracks on a b-sides collection; they play more like Bleach-era left overs. Though an alternate version of “Polly” shows the more hard rock direction that song could have gone in, the original version fares better. In all Insecticide exists as a sort of transitional album between the bands dual masterstrokes, and so chances are it is worth collecting for the completest as well as casual fan of the group because it contains many of their wild ideas and a couple of their fiercest tracks.
Greatest Tracks: Been a Son, Aneurysm, Dive, Hairspray Queen
Nirvana on MTV: Unplugged in New York – (4.5 / 5)
Taking the stripped down approach, Nirvana prove once and for all that they excel being merely a “grunge band” on this album, the last thing the band ever released during Cobain’s lifetime. Building off of a sound that was already growing in the band’s discography in tunes like “Dumb” and “Pennyroyal Tea”, the band has an acoustic setting for their songs and their favorite covers; half of this album is cover songs. The Meat Puppets get to come on stage and play three of their songs from their Meat Puppets II album: “Oh Me”, “Pleateu”, and “Lake of Fire”, the latter being the definitive version of the song henceforth (much better singing here than on The Meat Puppet’s version, sheesh!). also covered is David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” which gets a beautiful treatment as well, and I find myself listening to this version more often then Bowie’s as well. The Vaseline’s who Cobain covered previously on Insecticide get an immortal version of their song as well in “Jesus don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”, which is slower and more dynamic than the version by the original artists (though not necessarily better in this case). The final cover, of Leadbelly’s “Where’d You Sleep Last night”, was obviously influenced by Mark Lanegan covering the tune on his 1990 album The Winding Sheet, and the version by Nirvana is not different enough to realty stand out.
As far as their own songs go, “About a Girl” was probably the most popular and a more assured vocal performance makes it a definitive version for sure. Songs like “On a Plain” and “Something in the Way” are nice but hardly essential. Really the main draw here is to see the band covers these amazing songs and expose the Nirvana fan club to artists like David Bowie, Vaselines, and Meat Puppets, not really “grunge” bands but people that effected Cobain in his songwriting for sure. You have to only wonder where the band could have gone from here. Combining their many influences into something less abrasive but profoundly beautiful, Nirvana made a one of a kind live album.
Greatest Tracks: About a Girl, Lake of Fire, Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam, The Man Who Sold the World