I know there is absolutely nothing that screams amateur music blogger/critic/journalist/whatever more than writing a reflection on Nevermind, but for the album’s 20th anniversary, just indulge me this once.
Unlike most of those reflections, there’s no story of 1991/1992 me listening to stooge music like Guns ‘N Roses, seeing the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video on MTV, having my mom drive me to Sam Goody, buying Nevermind on CD (or cassette), listening to it in my Sony Walkman, and seeing life as I know it get changed. Truth be told, Nevermind was my third or fourth Nirvana album (Nirvana and MTV Unplugged are a definite first and second, I can’t remember if I bought it before or after In Utero), and I didn’t buy it until 2006.
But on some level, it didn’t matter if you found Nevermind in 1991 or 2006, because it did for me what it did for a lot of kids: it made you want to find more like it. On one level, that’s a huge chunk of Nevermind‘s legacy; in alternative/indie rock’s nearly 30 year expanse, it’s still the genre’s flagship album in terms of mainstream popularity. Combine that with Kurt Cobain’s penchant to name drop influences, and your new Nirvana fan can do some digging and find The Vaselines, Pixies, and labelmates Sonic Youth. Interested in Seattle bands? Go ahead and give Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains a spin. Fans of Nirvana’s poppier side would do well with R.E.M. or some indie pop. Love the way thatNevermind sounds? Then look up producer Butch Vig’s other alt. rock gigs with The Smashing Pumpkins, Tad, L7, Urge Overkill, or his band Garbage. There’s a dozen or so bands you could find off one album. Nevermind opened the doors for a lot of people to music they never knew existed, and on some level, I don’t think that’s too different from today; most 15 year olds today that haven’t heard of Nevermind also haven’t heard of Dirt,Siamese Dream, Garbage, or Doolittle.
Nevermind‘s impact on kids goes beyond simple record finding and into inspiration. Pearl Jam’s Ten was loaded with Mike McCready’s classic rock solos. Jerry Cantrell and Kim Thayil of Alice in Chains and Soundgarden respectively had their own sludgy, effects covered riffing and solos. Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, meanwhile, wrote huge rock songs that easily reached the six to eight minute mark. Nirvana, on the other hand, brought rock back to the garage; that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff is “why didn’t I think of that?” basic, and songs like “Breed”, “Stay Away”, and “Territorial Pissings” could be replicated by a good garage band. Combine Cobain’s powerchord riffs and noisy leads, bassist Krist Novoselic’s muddy but tuneful basslines, and Dave Grohl’s furious drumming, and you have an album that made most upstart musicians thinking “Shit, I could do that”.
Let’s not discredit Nevermind as simply being a cultural touchstone; it’s a kickass album. Cobain had a knack for writing songs that synthesized sloppy punk rock energy with poppy hooks and honest to God melodies (for my money, I still consider “Drain You” to beNevermind‘s best song). The songwriting is tight and the lyrics are deft; these songs stay with you. And Nevermind has style: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still hits hard, but deeper cuts like “Breed” and “Stay Away” have riffs loaded with cool.
Alternative rock’s been through a lot in the last twenty years, but Nevermind still holds up. Without it, I don’t think there’d be half as many music nerds in the world, or any sense of alternative on the modern music map. The songs are great, but at the end of the day, what makes Nevermind approachable is that it’s a human album; beneath the crashing drums and waves of distortion, there’s just three guys riffing out good music. Anguished, angry, and more than a little weird, Nevermind at twenty is still as great as Nevermind at one.