Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#19)


Continuing the countdown today with #19.

“If you die you're completely happy and your soul somewhere lives on. I'm not afraid of dying. Total peace after death, becoming someone else is the best hope I've got.”
--Kurt Cobain

nirvana1It’s hard to overstate the importance of Nirvana. You could be one of those increasingly prevalent persons that snaps at the chance to dismiss or slander Cobain and the band for various hipper-than-thou or scurrilous reasons, but this charge is no opinion about the greatness of their music. Sure, there’s the obvious, like how Nirvana effectively killed the various breeds of flashy, soulless hair metal and cookie-cutter glam pop, or how seismic it must have seemed at the start of 1992 when some loud, unkempt post-punk band no one had heard of a year prior unseated the King of Pop at the top of the charts, or how both grunge and alternative rock leaped into the mainstream thanks almost entirely to a song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But even if you don’t kneel before the altar of the late, great Saint Cobain (to borrow from Vernon Reid’s Mistaken Identity), there is no denying just how much the world of pop music shook, flipped and transformed because of some little group from Aberdeen.

But even if Nirvana had been as “small” as Cobain’s various underground musical heroes, from Pixies to the Raincoats, the Vaselines to Wipers, Nirvana still would have been an incredible rock band. Forget about all that “voice of a generation” stuff that would have likely disgusted Cobain had he lived to see it virtually chiseled in stone. Forget about the fact that after Nirvana broke, every alt-rock band in the world thought they had a chance to achieve overnight success. Forget about how every record label shook the bushes to scare out every grunge-y band they could find in order to sign them and cash in on the craze. Forget about how the band members tried hard not to sell-out while thousands of underground outcasts screamed sell-out accusations at them. Forget about Cobain’s lyrics, either brilliant or empty or simultaneously both. Forget about how much they openly borrowed not just from the aforementioned little-known acts but also huge rock star institutions like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, AC/DC, the Stooges, Black Sabbath, and, of course, the Beatles. Just look at the songs: whether played rough and sloppy or professional and spitshine slick, they’re just amazingly structured and inventive melodies. Simply wonderful.

It’s really tough to make songwriting seem easy. Even the weakest, most derivative material in all of pop music requires some skill, whether it just be knowing the low standards of its audience or how to cop a lick or ABCB formula from a much better number. Nirvana made it look simple. Fans nirvana3gobbled up every last little B-side and cover and demo they could find, and it all felt so raw, unfinished, as weirdly fetal as some of the In Utero art. They were created as affection, borrowed piecemeal, and shuffled with ingenious originality. I didn’t hear the obvious influence when I first started listening to Nirvana because I knew jack about Pixies and didn’t even own a Sabbath or Queen record. I didn’t much hear it after “finding” a lot of his inspirations because I was so fixated on its trebly roughness and Cobain’s voice and lyrics, which are so his that it’s nearly impossible to convincingly copy or accuse of liberal theft. But no one wrote a song like Cobain did because no one reasonably could—heavily-influenced and dispassionately passionate, it just was Kurt Cobain.

Not many groups have ever made anti-pop so cheerfully pop before or after. Plenty of people dismiss Cobain as a guitarist; for that matter, almost no one explicitly influenced by punk rock gets a fair shake. But his down-tuned guitar sound shaped modern rock. Its dissonant roar was a shock of infuriated noise that compelled his humanly unrefined vocals into a shattered scream. Meanwhile, even at their most crumbled and confused, the gentler figures that comprised many of his verses were produced imperfectly but were so melodic, whether urgent, hesitant or simply runny. And whether hitting those choruses with a surge of rage or ruminating sleepily on wavering intros and bridges, the songs were loaded with hooks both obvious and so hidden as to resemble the subliminal. If waxed and polished just right, they could have been reimagined as candy pop. Instead the music retains that rough, rankled growl and hiss even at the group’s most enormously nirvana2infectious (as if such a charge is a bad thing). It still cracks me up today when people say that Butch Vig made them too glossy and commercial for Nevermind—are these the same people who hysterically say that Guy Stevens made the Clash too slick on London Calling?

They didn’t start at Nevermind, and while those who weep over indie music’s “purity” may try convincing the world that the band never topped Bleach, they’re stretching pretty far out on a limb if they claim those are better songs. Luckily, Nirvana didn’t just sort of stumble into the role of accidental rock gods either. Formed by Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic in 1987, they played with a steady rotation of drummers during their early years, signed with the grunge-promoting Sub Pop label, and released their Bleach debut in ‘89. Although it was not a significant seller by mainstream standards, it was considered a modest underground hit. In 1990, two important developments led them towards the opportunity for big success. First, they auditioned former Scream drummer Dave Grohl, where he became a permanent member almost immediately (of Grohl, Novoselic said, “We knew in two minutes that he was the right drummer”). Second, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth convinced the group to sign with the major label DGC, which had recently released their own album Goo to solid sales for a noisy alternative rock band. Nirvana’s breakthrough was now on the horizon.

nirvana4After Nevermind proved a major game-changer, it would have been easy for Nirvana to be contented, to continue making powerful, memorable rock songs that were palatable for a widespread audience. But instead, they rejected Butch Vig’s more lustrous production technique for their follow-up in favor of Steve Albini’s rougher, drier approach (Albini engineered Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, an album that was enormously influential on Cobain). Their third (and final) studio album, In Utero, was jarring for its astonishing new patterns. It was louder, heavier, angrier, more anxious and swollen, bitter and outburst-prone. Still, the biggest surprise was in the lyrics. Cobain had always scoffed at people trying to interpret his words, not just because of their pseudo-Freudian approach to a foreign mindset but also because lyrics always came last for him when writing songs, and on Nevermind and (especially) Bleach, he’d often come up with something just before recording—early demos of numerous Nirvana songs would confirm this where the melody and most of the key changes are all in place but Cobain mumbles or screams completely different phrases as placeholders. But with In Utero, he wrote some of the smartest, funniest, most incisive, and most profound lyrics of his career (much as he would abhor anyone describing his messages and one-liners as being “profound”). On some days, I honestly believe it’s actually their best album.

Amidst all the furor over Cobain the songwriter, Cobain the lyricist, Cobain the singer, Cobain the guitarist, we sometimes forget the importance of the other pieces. Men like Vig, Albini, Bob Weston, and more helped find the perfect sound for their records, mixers and recordists that understood when the Big Muff should blast and when it was time to fine-tune the raw material into something that sounds bleak but absolutely divine (just listen to the stripped-back approach + subtle overdubs that make “Something in the Way” and “Dumb” transform into almost jaw-dropping audio). Novoselic’s bass is always underrated, including by me, because it “doesn’t get in the way”; today I hear that bulging sound guiding the rhythm as much as the drums, especially on the typically quiet and drained verse sections. And don’t sleep on the observation that nirvana5Grohl’s addition on the drumkit not only supplied propulsive power but also tightened up Cobain’s songs, providing the band with more “radio friendly unit shifters” than they probably would have had otherwise.

I wasn’t a big enough Nirvana fan in April of 1994 to have felt the impact of his suicide. I was only just then starting to get into popular music, and Nirvana was more of a name I knew than an obsession I felt. But there’s a reason why he’s been canonized by so many in the rock community, be they performers, journalists or just fans. I don’t really subscribe to that “voice of a generation” theory myself, though he did seem to perfectly capture the principle of enthusiastic insouciance, a type of person who feels so much but can’t be more than apathetic about a confused and cynical world. Cobain wasn’t a cynic, no matter how much frustration he felt—it was born out of idealism that would never be realized. The music machine chewed him up and spit him out, he sought out drugs to numb his disillusionment and they consumed him, he was always sick and in pain and could find no cure. The only outlet was his music. Any insistence of symbolic martyrdom sounds like bullshit to me—it was what he did in life, not the destructive finality of death, that inspired thousands. Even a shotgun has limitations.  It ended a man but not a movement.

Spank Thru
If You Must
About a Girl
Love Buzz
Negative Creep
Even in His Youth
Verse Chorus Verse
Been a Son
Molly’s Lips
Scentless Apprentice
Heart-Shaped Box
Very Ape
Milk It
Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
All Apologies
You Know You’re Right
…and the album Nevermind

Also endorsed: Mudhoney, the Vaselines, L7

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Matt Medlock


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