Sunday, September 19, 2021

Hark! A Ranking of Nirvana Albums

Nothing ages a Generation Xer faster than the realization we've aged into Baby Boomer levels of nostalgic anniversary awareness.

For example, waking up the last couple of months to realize that the albums that truly defined our generation - Pearl Jam's Ten and Nirvana's Nevermind - have reached their 30th year anniversaries.

(Suddenly, all the hair turns white or falls off) (A wheelchair appears and knocks the Gen Xer into the seat) (one of those giant megaphone cones that people used before the invention of hearing aids shows up as a prop in one hand) What's that sonny? "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is on the radio? TURN IT UP! Not because I can't hear it mind you, actually yeah because I can't hear so good anymore...

I kid. Most of us Xers are still able to hear things at high decibel output as well as operate heavy machinery, trust us.

Still, the reality that it's been thirty years since the great generational awakening - the moment in the early 90s when we (speaking as a White Boy) as a demographic moved into early adulthood and our own decision-making, away from the gaudy, glamor-filled, gleaming 80s - when our musical tastes moved into the more cynical and caustic Grunge movement (or the more cynical and caustic Gangster Rap movement with the rise/fall of NWA and their spinoffs Ice Cube/Dr. Dre). Our tastes in cinema and television were also turning darker, but into their own elements that would require other deeper essays to express (you could glance at my take on the Matrix anniversary for an idea how our cinema was changing even by 1999).

It seems funny that the spearhead of this shift were bands like Soundgarden and Mudhoney, well-regarded bands in the own right whose Seattle Sound was turning attention away from L.A. hair metal, but it was the "debuts" of bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana that launched Grunge into the upper atmosphere to turn a status-quo music industry on its head. And while Pearl Jam's Ten is considered a masterpiece in its own right, we still look to Nevermind as the cultural keystone, the one big thing that shattered standard operating procedures and sent a lot of record label studios across the planet looking for the next Nirvana to feed off the growing Grunge scene.

As for Nirvana the band itself, I had already written a few words about that when I wrote about their frontman Kurt Cobain. Lyricist, guitarist, singer (more like screamer on half the songs), Cobain was the essential man of the lineups. Alongside bassist Krist Novoselic, the two would go through a cycle of drummers - notably Melvins' drummer Dale Crover, and Chad Channing which whom they recorded their first album Bleach - before hooking up with Dave Grohl (who impressed the two when they saw him drum for another local band Scream). That was the lineup that ended up recoding Nevermind... and entering music history forever.

I still can't fully explain to you the impact Nevermind had on the cultural landscape. It was like overnight the bright neon shininess of the 1980s was turned off and the half-lit moodiness of the 1990s dominated every media outlet. Lyrics about mental health, dysfunctional relationships, coping with an uncaring world even started showing up in pop songs.

But it wasn't all doom and gloom. A weird sense of whimsy was still on display, a kind of haphazard "well, we gotta live with this" mentality came through all the weirdness. 

Not to mention the sudden dominance of flannel shirts in the fashion stores.

And as I wrote, that whole moment... just seemed to last that moment. By 1994, Cobain had become jaded and cynical enough, burned out by the sudden celebrity status, and strung out by his bad drug habits, that he took his own life in April and sent whatever made up the Grunge movement into its own death spiral. In some respects, the hard rock scene never fully recovered (the musical landscape is now covered with pop divas and hip-hop).

The impact of Nirvana's brief moment upon the global stage can't be overlooked, however: Reflection and Respect must be paid. So into that, I bring you another ranking of albums by a band I follow, and so Hark upon this friends.

Given the shortness of Nirvana's actual existence and the few studio albums they released during Cobain's lifetime, there isn't a real way to rank one album greater than another. So I present this brief listing in chronological order.

Ranking Nirvana Albums

Epic to Epic

Title: Bleach

Reasons: Nirvana's first album in 1989 was an Indie release via a local (Seattle) label called SubPop, which had also been instrumental in 'finding' other Seattle bands like Soundgarden and Mudhoney that were key to the emerging Grunge scene. Recorded with drummer Chad Chadding (with previous drummer Dale Crover on several earlier recorded songs), Bleach's overall sound is one of distorted, fast-riff guitar noise over incredibly simplistic lyrics even by Cobain's usual standards (Kurt later admitted he wrote the lyrics in a rush right before studio time and was in an angry mood when he did). Pressured into conforming to what the early Grunge sound was like in the Seattle scene, the album was meant to be a shift away from Nirvana's original output... but that attempt didn't work. Even in this full rookie effort, you can see the style Nirvana will get noticed for: Punk-earnest lyrics mixed with hard-rocking up-tempo beats and working with a distorted noisy grind that harmonized into its own. 

After the band got big (and after Cobain left us), the re-releases for Bleach included several other songs such as “Big Cheese” and “Downer” to fill out the history of Nirvana's rise from SubPop to everything

Epic Song(s): About a Girl, Negative Creep
Great Song(s): Blew, Love Buzz, Scoff, Swap Meet, Big Cheese
Good Song(s): Floyd the Barber, School, Downer

Title: Nevermind

Reasons: I catch myself using the phrase “blew the doors off everything” when describing certain albums, like the Beatles Please Please Me (and Rubber Soul, and Revolver, and Abbey Road, and...), or U2's Joshua Tree, or Van Halen's self-titled debut. But that's because those albums DID hit the world like a storm, with an impact that other artists couldn't ignore and with a sound or voice we've never heard before.

Nevermind was such an album. For the entire music industry, this was a Before/After break in their history.

Starting with recordings with SubPop on their next album, Nirvana shifted gears when Chadding left forcing Cobain and Novoselic to find another drummer, which ended up with Dave Grohl when his band Scream had recently broken up. With Grohl in place, Nirvana then shopped for a new studio when SubPop was facing financial difficulties, ending with the DGC label under Geffen Records. With that settled, they got the album completed by June for release a few months later. Unhappy with the initial recordings, the band and producer Bruce Vig brought in more professional help to smooth out the takes, which ended up making the album sound much like the current “hair metal” bands of the 1980s. Ironically, this may have helped the album reach more audiences...

Nevermind arrived on the scene in late 1991 at a moment when reforms in album sales tracking – which had been over-promoting pop sounds like Madonna and Michael Jackson at the expense of rock bands that people did listen to – opened up the chances a lesser-known band could see better sales numbers to encourage more radio play, meaning more listeners to notice them. Combine this to a shift in audience choices – Gen X – for college/alternative style sounds (why yes, we WERE in college or heading there at the time), and that all turned this album from a minor introduction into a global phenomena. Sales overwhelmed the expected best-sellers for that year, and carried over in 1992 as the Grunge movement crossed over to other similar bands with their own seminal releases. What was expected to sell about 200,000 copies ended up selling 1,000,000 (Platinum level), and then 2x, and then... well, by then everyone heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

As mentioned before, Nevermind brought with it a punk mentality in the lyrics with a more up-tempo yet melodic sound. Influenced from Ramones to the Pixies to R.E.M. (the Alpha and Omega of College Sound), the sound was less on the distorted guitar noise (you can still hear it on “Breed,” “Lithium,” and “Endless Nameless”) and more on basic guitar chords that could shift from stanza to stanza. Cobain's anger in most of the song lyrics seemed more inward, cynical and self-deprecating, but offered with a grin as though no harm done (Sadly, not really). 

As far as great albums go, Nevermind is still an uneven work where some songs fall flat where others shock you with how far they can rise: not fully polished like Joshua Tree or Revolver or any of the other respected masterpieces, but arguably more impactful with the songs that do reach you hitting you years after you've heard them. For a generation, what Cobain expressed in this album reflected a lot of the anger, cynicism, despair, and hope we had for ourselves.

Epic Song(s): Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are, Lithium, On a Plain
Great Song(s): In Bloom, Breed, Polly, Drain You, Something In the Way
Good Song(s): Territorial Pissings, Lounge Act, Stay Away

Title: Incesticide

Reasons: When Nevermind turned into a behemoth, the record studio DGC/Geffen reached out to grab anything Nirvana that they could repackage to sell while the Grunge going was great. This meant regional EP (extended play mini-albums) released overseas, Indie singles, and unreleased demos and cover songs saved to tape somewhere. The result was this, a compilation album of every leftover that could get repackaged as Filet Mignon. 

As a result, it's not the best-sounding album released while Cobain was alive, but it does provide context and understanding of how his lyrical style developed and how the band's overall sound evolved. This is arguably the hardest album to listen to, not because of any lyrical dissonance – this is Nirvana/Cobain, it's ALL lyrical dissonance! – but because a lot of these songs weren't released earlier for a reason (okay, Kurt, you like feedback, we get it...).

Epic Song(s): Aneurysm
Great Song(s): Sliver, Son of a Gun, Aero Zeppelin
Good Song(s): Dive, Stain, Been a Son, Hairspray Queen

Title: In Utero

Reasons: The follow-up to a breakthrough album, Cobain and his bandmates were caught in a moment where expectations were greater than they'd ever known. Pressured to release an album to sell to the masses yet trying to stick to their own artistic bents, Cobain in particular wanted to push back against those expectations to make an album he'd respect. In some ways, the sound self-sabotaged by going back to the earlier distorted noise prevalent in Bleach: A rawness to the chords, an uneven rhythm to the backbeat, more of Cobain screaming into the void. The lyrics and attitude matched the noise: Songs like “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” (an obvious punch-back at how the music industry was over-hyping the band and the Grunge scene) were anything but friendly for radio play.

Even with that, In Utero impressed the fanbase and sold well, extending the band's fame. In spite of the distortion, traces of melody still got through. The simple direct wording of Cobain's lyrics still expressed complexity of emotions. Fans got “All Apologies” and “Dumb” and understood where the self-deprecation was coming from. This isn't as fun to listen to as its predecessor, but it's just as self-reflective, and in some regards more haunting because of what came after... 

Epic Song(s): Heart-Shaped Box, Rape Me, Dumb, All Apologies
Great Song(s): Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, Very Ape, Pennyroyal Tea
Good Song(s): Serve the Servants, Milk It, Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

Title: Unplugged in New York

Reasons: Added to this list as one of Nirvana's final recordings, done when the band performed for MTV's popular “Unplugged” series of acoustic performances by artists of the day in November 1993. With Cobain's death in April 1994, this concert became one of the last that we knew Cobain had done, and so an album was crafted from the broadcast and offered as the swan song to Nirvana as a band (the two surviving members Novoselic and Grohl wisely broke up, knowing any attempt to continue would be demeaning of Cobain's memory). 

Anyone listening to this album will likely know this backstory, and likely will listen with an ear to seek out clues to every haunting, haunted song performed here. There is still a beauty to this work, however: Away from the loudness that the studio albums and normal live shows go for, this album is more low-key, focused on the melody, played at a more reflective, introspective pace (It still has distortion because Cobain could not go full acoustic and had brought an effect pedal as a “security blanket”). Covering all parts of Nirvana's brief history, with haunting versions of “About a Girl” all the way up to an orchestral-like “All Apologies,” and intermixed with cover tunes that the band enjoyed playing, the Unplugged album remains with us like a ghost, reminding us of the musical potential the band had, especially Kurt... 

Epic Song(s): About a Girl, Come As You Are, The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie cover, and oh was Bowie pissed afterward because clueless Nirvana fans kept thinking he had covered them), Dumb, Polly, Plateau (Meat Puppets cover), Lake of Fire (Meat Puppets cover), All Apologies
Great Song(s): Oh Me (Meat Puppets cover)
Good Song(s): Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Lead Belly cover)

And... that was it, everyone. Nirvana in a brief moment of our lives...

“Fuck you all, this is the last song of the evening.”
- Cobain before singing Lead Belly's “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on Unplugged.


dinthebeast said...

As a long time, hard core Meat Puppets fan, one thing I can say about Mr. Cobain is that he did more for the career of the Meat Puppets by lifting his lighter and saying "We're big fans" than they had managed with fifteen years of relentless touring and honing their craft.
Also, the Meat Puppets are still out there playing and making records.

-Doug in Sugar Pine

Denny in Ohio said...

You have a talent for these kinds of reviews, Paul. As I said the last time you did this, please do more.


All I have is "Meat Puppets II" and "Mirage", can you suggest some things they have done since 1987?