Nevermind is one of those albums that I heard almost all of before I actually sat down and listened to it. The singles — “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are” and “Lithium” — are still played regularly today on alternative rock radio, and “Breed,” “Polly,” “Drain You” and “On a Plain” are played on occasion. When I finally did listen to the album in its entirety in high school, there wasn’t much new to discover, to say the least. So while Generation X became defined by how they experienced Nevermind in 1991, I was three years old, left to sift through the leftovers years later like a fish at the bottom of the ocean. When I first heard most of these songs, I didn’t know they were by Nirvana. I had no working knowledge of music history, and I sure as hell didn’t know what grunge was. All I knew was what was current.
What I didn’t know when I was listening to alternative rock radio was that they were mixing in the classics from years past that had helped define the format. (Nevermind brought alternative rock into the mainstream, you see.) So when I became more of a student of music in high school and bought Nevermind, I kept thinking, “Hey, I’ve heard that!” as I listened through it. It’s a completely different kind of listening experience for me than it is for most people who bought Nevermind. Most people I know talk about how it blew their minds. I think about how I remember hearing it in pieces when I was younger, which is really the worst way to be introduced to an album. And so that’s why one of music’s most beloved albums is so low on my list. Of course, Nirvana has its detractors. My Uncle Todd hates Nirvana and bashes them at every opportunity, informing me, “I can yell into a microphone.” But even he is willing to admit that music is generational, since he claims his dad used to say the exact same thing about the Rolling Stones, his favorite band. Personally, I like Nirvana a lot, but I like their Seattle peers — Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, even the Foo Fighters — more.
For some reason, the bands I just mentioned mean more to me than Nirvana. Part of me says it’s largely because Nirvana is associated so much with a generation that isn’t my own. Another part of me argues it’s because Kurt Cobain really isn’t a particularly talented guitarist. But when I bought Nirvana’s Live at Reading CD/DVD a couple years ago, I was absolutely astonished at the show they put on — the energy was just incredible. I seriously have never been able to hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the same way again. I really wanted to put Live at Reading on the list, but I ran out of room for it. Same with MTV Unplugged in New York. In Utero I never particularly cared for save for a few songs until relatively recently. I listen to it a lot more now than Nevermind, now that I think about it. (“Dumb” is actually my favorite Nirvana song.) At any rate, Live at Reading and MTV Unplugged in New York are honorable mentions, that’s for damn sure.
Nevermind is frequently cited by audiophiles as a record with outstanding production, and with good reason. In hindsight, the band would criticize it for being too polished, but I’m not sure I can imagine it sounding any other way. They recently released a “super deluxe” box set for the album’s 20th anniversary that traces the album through every stage — demos, rough mixes, the original album remastered, and a whole bunch of live tracks — across five discs. I bought the iTunes version several months ago — the limited edition CD/DVD set appears to be sold out now — and I have yet to really sit down and listen through it. As a fan of music and as a grunge enthusiast, I love owning it, but I can’t help but feel that the original CD sitting on my shelf is enough. Especially since, in my case, I didn’t discover most of the album’s songs on the album; I discovered them on the radio.