Nevermind, For 20 Years

On September 24, 1991 — 20 years ago, today — Nirvana’s Nevermind was released.  From its classic cover, with the naked, floating baby reaching for the dollar bill on the fish hook, to the gritty, stunning music it contained, Nevermind burst onto the musical, and cultural, scene with the force of an A-bomb.

Nevermind brought grunge music to the forefront of the national consciousness and drove a stake through the synthesized, increasingly formulaic music of the ’80s.  Twenty years after Nevermind‘s release, the flannel shirts and disheveled haircuts favored by grunge rockers of the early ’90s are out of fashion — but the music of Nirvana unquestionably holds up.  The tracks on Nevermind are as fresh and and awesome and funny and thought-provoking today as they did 20 years ago.

Nevermind just proves, once again, that good, honest music is timeless, regardless of when it was recorded or when you listen to it.  If you haven’t put Nevermind on the CD player lately, it’s time to haul it out and rediscover some tremendous music.

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The Best American Band: Time To Vote!

We’ve published a number of posts with our thoughts on the Best American Band, and we’ve given everyone time to think about that extraordinarily weighty issue. Now, it’s time for you to vote. We’ll check back in a week and declare a winner. Please, vote for just one of the candidates.

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake

The Best American Band: Experiencing Nirvana

Nirvana

Nirvana

I lost touch with current music in about 1987 and stayed out of touch until 1994 or so. We had moved back to Columbus, Richard and Russell were infants, then toddlers, then little kids, we didn’t have a lot of money to devote to CDs or concerts, and life just seemed too crowded to pay much attention to the latest trends. I listened to NPR while commuting and, when I listened to music, I listened to “classic rock.” It was not until shortly after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 that my friend Dr. Science ripped me for living in the past and encouraged me to reconnect with new music. I grudgingly had to admit that he was right, so I started listening to CD-101 and buying CDs — one of the first of which was Nevermind by Nirvana. That one, exceptional album was enough to reignite my interest in current music.

There’s lots to like about Nirvana’s music. For one thing, it is about as stripped down as you can get — lead guitar, bass, drums, vocals — and it produces great power rock. In my view, Nirvana’s best songs have tremendous musical “hooks” that make the music impossible to resist, like the meandering intro to All Apologies, or the quiet, minimalist beginning of Something in the Way. Then, you had Cobain’s extraordinary, raspy, emotionally charged vocals singing lyrics that were different from the standard fare — sometimes troubled, often amusing, and almost always thought-provoking. You’d listen to a song like Heart Shaped Box and wonder what the hell those lyrics really meant. Many of their songs left me, at least, with lingering questions at the same time I was enjoying the beat.

The faithful Ipod includes 19 Nirvana songs. My favorites are Heart Shaped Box, Rape Me, All Apologies, Mr. Moustache, Lake of Fire, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Lithium, On a Plain, and Something in the Way, and Smells Like Teen Spirit is one of those rare songs that has become a bit of an anthem of a time and place. Nirvana wasn’t around very long, but it had a big, and I think continuing, impact.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!