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Source Material

Source Material: Nirvana, Nevermind

by Stephanie Benson

Source Material: Nirvana, Nevermind


You already know the story: two decades ago, Seattle, Sub Pop and grunge became regular topics of conversation among music geeks, rock writers and those most fickle consumers of all, teenagers. It can be argued Nirvana were not the first to do whatever it is "grunge" did. They weren't the first to bring alternative music to pop radio. They weren't even the first to have a naked baby on their album cover. But firsts don't really mean a damn in the scheme of things (nor do charts, necessarily: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" never even cracked the top five of Billboard's Hot 100), and Nirvana are rightly credited as the straw that finally broke the 1980s' sleek and well-coiffed back, ultimately reinventing pop radio in 1991.

When Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl (plus former drummer Chad Channing, whose work on "Polly" made the final Nevermind cut) and producer Butch Vig bridged two extremes of outsider music self-deprecating indie rock and embittered punk rock they didn't expect or even intend to kick Michael Jackson off his throne and revolutionize pop music. But soon their mugs were all over MTV, and even the most remote 13-year-old kid suffering through raging hormones and a growing distrust of authority knew something pretty cool was happening.

Beyond its indelible place in pop culture history, though, Nevermind is simply an incredible album. Try, try listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Breed" without feeling your body boil in a rush of anarchic adrenaline, or "In Bloom" and "Territorial Pissings" without uncontrollably flailing your hair and unironically wondering whatever happened to moshpits, or "Come As You Are" and "Lithium" without cranking your mouth into a sinister sneer, or "Something in the Way" without sensing Cobain's uncomfortably numbed pain.

Cobain and Co. were never shy about the inspirations behind Nevermind they used their fame as a platform to recognize and honor their fellow musicians and influences. Cobain wore Daniel Johnston T-shirts, permanently inked a K Records logo on his arm, covered Meat Puppets and Velvet Underground tracks, championed smaller indie bands like The Vaselines and the Melvins, and frequently praised the Pixies for informing Nevermind's sound. (From a 1993 Rolling Stone interview: "I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.") When Cobain became king, the popular kids never stood a chance.

Below, read about and listen to the definitive albums that helped define the iconic sounds of Nevermind, this year celebrating 20 years of wreaking havoc on pop music and terrifying parents who just don't understand.