500 Greatest Albums of All Time

17

Nirvana, 'Nevermind'

Geffen, 1991

The overnight-success story of the 1990s, Nirvana's second album and its totemic first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," shot up from the nascent grunge scene in Seattle to kick Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard album chart and blow hair metal off the map. No album in recent history had such an overpowering impact on a generation – a nation of teens suddenly turned punk – and such a catastrophic effect on its main creator. The weight of fame led already troubled singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain to take his own life in 1994. But his slashing riffs, corrosive singing and deviously oblique writing, rammed home by the Pixies-via-Zeppelin might of bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, put the warrior purity back in rock & roll. Lyrically, Cobain raged in code – shorthand grenades of inner tumult and self-loathing. His genius, though, in songs like "Lithium," "Breed" and "Teen Spirit" was the soft-loud tension he created between verse and chorus, restraint and assault. Cobain was a pop lover at heart – and a Beatlemaniac: Nevermind producer Butch Vig remembers hearing Cobain play John Lennon's "Julia" at sessions. Cobain also fought to maintain his underground honor. Ultimately, it was a losing battle, but it is part of this album's enduring power. Vig recalls when Cobain was forced to overdub the guitar intro to "Teen Spirit" because he couldn't nail it live with the band: "That pissed him off. He wanted to play [the song] live all the way through."

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