What makes an album truly influential? That it inspired the birth of new bands and shaped their sound? That its musical fingerprints can be found on the airwaves for decades to come? That its place in the cultural lexicon and conversation increases with time? Or because it was the catalyst of a pop flashpoint? Few releases check all those boxes. But Nirvana‘s sophomore album Nevermind — released Sept. 24, 1991, 25 years old this week — does.
Nevermind was the release that toppled a King (of Pop), ending Michael Jackson’s reign on the Billboard 200 Chart with Dangerous. It killed off hair metal, and sparked a cultural revolution across the globe. It was a musical about-face: Instead of the chest-beating, coke-blowing, women-objectifying macho rock star of the ’80s, Cobain popularized (or re-invigorated) the image of the sensitive artist, the pro-feminism, anti-authoritarian smart alec punk with a sweet smile and gentle soul. But, at first, Nirvana was just another band with long hair and flannel shirts from Seattle, WA, alongside groups like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, both of which had released popular albums that same year.
But Nirvana, who’d released their debut Bleach on local stronghold Sub Pop in ’89, had tired of the sludgy, down-tuned sounds of the Seattle Scene. They even admitted to caving into pressure to produce that sound on their debut, at the behest of Sub Pop label honchos, who wanted to push their sonic brand on a voracious audience. So, in what would become their hallmark style, Nirvana pulled a fast one and backlashed for LP two. They used Sub Pop funds to record demos, then shopped those to major labels — to, as they’d say, cut out the middle man. The band ultimately inked with Geffen offshoot DGC, at the suggestion of Cobain’s good pal, Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. Nevermind is, in a way, a middle finger to the entire Seattle grunge scene. Hi, we’re Nirvana, we’ll do things our way, thanks.
Nevermind took Nirvana to an entirely different plain. It’s heavy, yes. It’s loud and aggressive, too. But it’s the songwriting and glossy pop production courtesy of Butch Vig that set this album far apart from its contemporaries. Cobain’s innate sense of melody was front and center; his punk, you-can’t-fire-because-I-quit ethos were in your face; and the loud-soft dynamics served as barbed hooks, drawing listeners into his world. The lyrics were personal, opaque, and often dark, but also playful, and this dynamic gave Nevermind a familiarity to listeners, who felt as if they knew Cobain.
But Nevermind wasn’t an out-of-the-gate smash. From Sept. 24 through Christmas ’91, the album slowly gained steam — thanks in large part to MTV’s constant airing of the music video to opening track “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It finally topped the Billboard 200 on Jan. 11, 1992, and once the juggernaut was rolling it, wouldn’t stop until Cobain’s tragic death in ’94.
Nirvana released only three studio albums in their short tenure, and Nevermind is the magnum opus and centerpiece — everything before it led to its creation; everything after was a response to its impact on culture at large and the members’ personal lives. Bleach led to the pop ambitions and gloss of Nevermind; its success led to In Utero, a more rough-edged LP that, Cobain hoped, would reinstate their underground cred and assuage fears of being “sell-outs.”
Nevermind is a masterstroke. Like much of his visual art, Cobain’s Nevermind is a musical collage: It’s grunge, the underground music scene, his parents’ divorce, childhood disillusionment, riot grrrl feminism, Beat literature, punk ethos, Lennon/McCartney-esque pop melody and songcraft, ABBA-sized sing-alongs, Cheap Trick anthems, and so much more. It’s highly personal subject matter from a 24-year-old man, packaged for mass consumption — and it worked on a scale Cobain never thought possible. Fans ate it up — there’s a reason Cobain wanted to originally title the LP Sheep — and the media, from CNN to MTV, Sassy to Rolling Stone to Time to Teeny Bopper magazines — couldn’t get enough.
Only a few artists have been called “The Voice of a Generation.” Legend has it that Bob Dylan once saw Nirvana play live in concert. “That kid has heart,” he said. Nevermind is that heart’s beat.
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
It’s the song that changed music for Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, and the world forever. While Nevermind would go on to sell more than 9.4 million albums in the U.S., per Nielsen Music, this album-opening single was the LP’s only No. 1 hit (it topped the Alternative Songs chart, and peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100). With its pep-rally-from-hell music video in heavy MTV rotation, “Teen Spirit” became Nirvana’s calling card, something Cobain and Co. ultimately disdained. It’s been covered (or referenced) by hundreds of artists, from Patti Smith to Girl Talk to Jay Z, and its lyrics — especially the line “Here we are now, entertain us” — is ingrained in our cultural consciousness.
2. “In Bloom”
This is among the album’s best examples of Cobain’s pop smarts. The opening blast of guitar and drum breaks. The simple melody and quiet step back to just vocals, bass and drums. Then the full sprint to the chorus: “He’s the one / Who likes all our pretty songs / And he likes to sing along.” Fans followed instructions. Also, while Nirvana and Cobain are frequently used synonymously — like he’s a one-man-band or something — “In Bloom” flaunts the power of the Grohl-Novoselic dynamic, the sheer propulsion of which makes this song.
3. “Come As You Are”
It’s Cobain’s mission statement: “Come As You Are” became a rallying cry for acceptance and tolerance. The album’s second single, whose catchy riff was soon a standard for all upstart guitarists, became the band’s second top 40 hit, reaching No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its watery, fluid sound — thanks to the use of various effects pedals — came to life in the band’s popular music video. Also, the sign upon entering Cobain’s hometown reads, “Welcome to Aberdeen. Come As You Are.”
Crank the volume — this is Nirvana at their most punk and propulsive, while also maintaining tight song structure. Novoselic’s fuzz bass drives the tune, originally titled “Immodium” after the diarrhea medicine. It opens with a wall of guitar feedback and a barrage of drum and bass, which plays in a hypnotic loop, as Cobain’s guitar swirls and he spits, “I don’t care / I don’t care / I don’t care” and “we could plant a house, we could build a tree, I don’t even care, we could have all three.” Domestic bliss!
It’s Nevermind‘s middle-fingers-in-the-air anthem for a lonely misfit generation, delivered via the Pixies-esque loud-soft dynamic the Seattle trio mastered. “I’m so happy because today I’ve found my friends / They’re in my head / I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, ’cause so are you / Sunday morning is every day for all I care.” This, of course, is followed by a so-simple-it’s-genius sing-along chorus of “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” This is angst delivered with a big wink and a smile.
This is one of Cobain’s earliest ventures into straight up pop music. An acoustic ditty dating to 1988, yet left off Bleach due to stylistic differences with the remainder of that fuzzy LP (remember the Seattle Sound-centric Sub Pop execs), this tune is the only from the first sessions to make the album, making it the only appearance of drummer Chad Channing (he was replaced by Grohl and the band returned to the studio with Vig to record or re-record the entire LP). The track, Novoselic has said, was inspired by the Tacoma, WA, abduction, torture, and rape of a 14-year-old girl in 1987. It’s dark, tragic, and musically naked, a balance to the otherwise loud album, and it further reinforces Cobain’s focus on the plight of women (again addressed in In Utero‘s “Rape Me”).
7. “Territorial Pissings”
It opens with a wise crack on the hippie generation. In a high, silly voice, Novoselic recites the lyrics to The Youngbloods’ iconic ’67 tune “Get Together,” an ode to love, peace, and togetherness: “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody loves one another, right now.” But from then on, it’s a full attack, as if the trio is beating that idealism to death with shrapnel-guitars and rumbling drum and bass. “Just because you’re paranoid,” Cobain sings, “Don’t mean they’re not after you.”
8. “Drain You”
It’s one of, if not the, best track on Nevermind. It opens with Cobain strumming his electric guitar solo: “One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you.” Relationships are complicated, okay? Then comes the loud distortion and thunderous drum and bass combo. Yet it’s so tight and perhaps the Nevermind tune with the poppiest, most tightly-wound songcraft. In another context, it could be translated to any number of genres — but on Nevermind, it’s perfection.
9. “Lounge Act”
This tune, cleaner and more direct than other Nevermind jams, heats to a scathing screed of jealously and insecurity at Cobain’s ex-girlfriend, Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, according to producer Vig. “Truth!” he screams in the final verse, “covered in security / I can’t let you smother me / I’d like to but it couldn’t work… I’ll keep fighting jealousy / Until it’s fucking gone.”
10. “Stay Away”
Like “Breed” and “Territorial Pissings,” this is another pedal-to-the-metal punk blitzkrieg with a so-basic-it’s-unforgettable distorted guitar riff. A barrage of drums and bass lift Cobain’s screeching: “Stayyyy, stayyyy awwwwaaayyyyyyyyy.” The production is nifty, too, with Vig adding a layer of Cobain’s vocals that sounds like an all-together different instrument. Then the frontman goes on the attack: “I’d rather be dead than cool,” he sings. “Fashion shits fashion style.” He’d spend the rest of his career (and life) attempting to convince the world he was neither cool nor fashionable.
11. “On a Plain”
Musically, this catchy tune is another example of Cobain’s pop ambitions, filtered through a distortion pedal. Lyrically, it’s a paradox: “I’ll start this off without any words,” he opens, then, in a possible hint at his then-budding heroin addiction, he adds, “I got so high that I scratched ’till I bled.” This, of course, is followed with a chorus that’s just irresistible: “I love myself better than you / I know it’s wrong so what should I do?” It’s a tangle of opaque meanings, but, damn, it’s so catchy.
12. “Something in the Way”
Nevermind revived rock music, but its tender moments are just as powerful. Ostensibly about Cobain’s teenage tenure living under a bridge along the banks of the Wishkah River in his hometown Aberdeen, WA, (this apparently didn’t happen; he couldn’t have survived the tides, though he could have hung out there) this crawling, deep-tuned acoustic gem finds the frontman exercising his tender side. The original track was with recorded with Cobain’s guitar slightly out of tune — a challenge for the cello player, who added beautiful accents.
13. “Endless, Nameless”
The Hidden Track is a lost art, mostly confined to the pre-streaming world of the ’90s. Here, Nirvana goes wild, jamming on a nightmarish shrill with Novoselic’s speaker-blown, fuzz-apocalypse bass, Grohl’s earthquake drumming, and Cobain’s welding-shop guitar playing. Then, at the end, you can hear Cobain actually smash a guitar in the studio. It’s a fitting curtain call.