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Bleach

Color-reversed image of a band playing on a studio.

Nirvana

1989

Obviously this album does not hold up to anything released after it, but taken on its own accord, it's actually a pretty good alternative sludge-metal album.  Perhaps "metal" may not be the best term, but it's definitely sludgy and occasionally thrashy at times.  You can headbang and mosh to it, so naturally I like it.  The production is pretty bare bones, but it honestly works pretty well with the style of music, which itself is pretty stripped-down, blunt, but often infectious.  There are good sludgy riffs/rhythms to be found here, not to mention a handful of good melodic songs to boot.  It's not quite a classic, but it is a good debut album from what would turn out to be a one of the greatest bands of all-time.

8.6

Nevermind

Nirvana

1991

1991 was a big year for music, namely, alternative rock.  The seeds for the alternative rock revolution had been planted in the prior years by bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, NIN, and Faith No More, each contributing classic albums with their own unique, dymanic sound.  Alternative rock wasn't quite mainstream when 1991 started, but by the time the year was over, it had exploded onto the scene thanks in large part to Nirvana's breakthough album Nevermind.

Prior to 1991 and the release of Nevermind, Nirvana were largely unknown outside of the Seattle grunge circuit.  They released their debut album Bleach in 1989, which was largely ignored in the press and received very little acclaim as a result.  While Bleach was certainly not a bad album by any means, it wasn't great either, toting the line between Melvins-inspired alt-rock and lunk-headed pop-rock, it was a sloppy, somewhat abrasive album by a band that showed some potential, but sounded too raw to create anything particularly brilliant, let alone classic.

And perhaps that is one of the reasons why Nevermind sounds so fresh and engaging.  Where it's predecessor was harsh, jagged, and blunt, Nevermind is polished, smooth, and laid-back.  Even when the album rocks-out hard, it sounds easy and effortless in the process, giving it an accessible quality admist the fuzzed-out, murky backdrop.  It's all apart of Nirvana's unique style, a style best encapsulated in the classic opening track "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

This song almost single-handedly blew the door of the proverbial hinges of alternative-rock, catapulting the band and the scene into the national mainstream.  For such a popular song, it's surprisingly heavy for the most part, but it also sports a tossed-off, slacker quality that effectively channeled the disenfranchised Gen-X vibe that was so prevalent at the time.  Overall, it's a great song that is a classic in pretty much every critical circle imaginable.

But what really makes Nevermind such a great album is it's lazy, mid-tempo groove, and no song better captures that feeling than "In Breed".  It rocks hard, yet it's steady and easy, sporting it's own unique vibe that is unmistakably Nirvana.

Aside from the steady groove that dominates the majority of the album, there is also a fair amount of variety as well.  There are a few up-tempo, punk-rock infused songs that add a sense of fun to the album, i.e. "Breed", "Territorial Pissings", and "Stay Away".  All of these songs rock hard, but not in a threatening way.  There's not really a sense of anger or rage in these songs, it's more a sense of earnest, propulsive grit that drives the songs forward, a style that is distinctive to Nirvana's sound.

The other side of Nirvana's sound, and what truly made them a special band, was their ability to create uniquely personal and authentic ballads.  Ballads may not be the best description of such classics as "Come As You Are" or "Lithium" as they are not traditional cheesey ballads, but they do have a sing-along, laid-back quality that make them unique to Nirvana.  Kurt Cobain had a special ability to sound incredibly sincere in his singing, with his natural, un-forced delivery, a delivery that really shines through on those two classics.

The album closes with the haunting acoustic number "Something In the Way" which is quiet and spare in tone, similar to the other other acoustic track on the album "Polly".  Both of these tracks give the album a sense of solace admist the fuzzy, thrashy backdrop that dominates the majority of the album.  They give the album variety and an added sense of weight.

Nevermind is universally praised and recongized as one of the most important and influential albums of the 1990s, and is often considered to be one of the best albums of all-time in most critical circles.  With such lofy praise, you might expect the album to sound larger than life, or epic, or grand in sound and structure. 

The truth is it doesn't sound like that at all.  It sounds laid-back, smooth, and polished.  What really makes this a classic album is Kurt Cobain's honesty and sincerity, which really pours out of every song on the album.  Not only that, but it's Nirvana's unique vibe, a sound that compliments Kurt's authentic style, a style that would be often imitated over the years, but never duplicated.

9.4

Incesticide

 

Nirvana

1992

This is a collection of b-sides and covers Nirvana recorded between Bleach and Nevermind.  It was released after Nevermind due to their exploding popularity, which resulted in increased demand for material.  And while you might expect a B-sides album to be underwhelming, Nirvana were not your average band, and Incesticide is actually probably a tad bit better of an album than Bleach.  It's more uptempo, spunkier, and less sludgy.  The songs here are all pretty satisfying and infectious, as Incesticide definitely has more in common with Bleach than Nevermind, as the production is kind of thin and the sound is less glossy, but this is a fun album, filled with surprising number of really good songs.  Captures Nirvana at their most loose and upbeat...good stuff.

8.7

In Utero

Nirvana

1993

In Utero was somewhat of a departure from the slick and glossy sounding Nevermind, the album that broke Nirvana into the mainstream.  And that was the point.  The band was looking to record a much more raw album here, and they certainly succeeded on that front.  Generally speaking, In Utero has a more abrasive sound, as the album sounds choppier in parts compared to Nevermind's smoothness.  Take "Milk It" for example, or the hard hitting "Scentless Apprentice" and the all too brief "Tourette's".  Those songs definitely showcase the heavier side of the band's sound, while still managing to sound original and unmistakably Nirvana.  But In Utero is not entirely a hard-hitting affair, as songs like "Dumb" showcase, and there are certainly a fair share of smooth tracks on the album as well ("Rape Me" "Pennyroyal Tea" for example.)  But perhaps the most predominate vibe on display here is that of pain and darkness, and no song better captures that feeling than "Heart Shaped Box", a truly wicked tune and one of the band's best songs.  There's a lot of anguish in Cobain's voice on In Utero, as he was dealing with his newfound fame (which he loathed), drug addiction, depression, and a trumulturous relationship with Courtney Love.  The latter fact being on full display on the gut-wrenching "All Apologies", which closes out the album on a fittingly bleak note.

Less than a year after the release of In Utero, Kurt Cobain would commit suicide, so In Utero would prove to the last studio album from Nirvana.  So while In Utero can be a somewhat difficult listen at times, it can also be one of the most rewarding albums from the band, and is ultimately quite compelling for what it represents: Kurt Cobain's final artistic statement as a musician.

R.I.P. Kurt.

9.0

Unplugged in New York

Nirvana

1994


Prior to 1994's legendary unplugged performance in NYC, Kurt Cobain had already made a profound musical and cultural impact on the masses (much to his chagrin).  With the massive success of Nevermind and In Utero, everybody knew that Nirvana rocked, had originality, etc, but it wasn't until this intimate live performance that people realized that they were truly something special.

Truth be told, the suicide of Kurt Cobain a few months later really drove that point home, and casts an eerie and haunting shadow over this performance.  Hearing Nirvana in a stripped down, acoustic, and intimate setting adds a new layer of depth to some of their best songs.  There's a certain poignant and penetrating sadness to most of these performances, something almost magic that demands your attention and sucks you into the songs, the earnest and melancholy feeling of them.

But the real standouts are in fact the numerous covers to be found here.  The one-two punch of "Jesus Don't Want Me For Sunbeam" and "The Man Who Sold The World" convey a profound sense of mournful beauty and wicked despair.  These songs are coated in a haunting, brooding atmosphere that is incredibly compelling to listen to.  But perhaps the best set of covers found here are those of The Meat Puppets, which appear on the last 3rd of the album.  The trifecta of "Plateau", "Oh Me", and "Lake of Fire" are all absolutely fantastic.  The solemn and earnest vibe in these songs is palpable and penetrating, not to mention the fact that they executed to perfection and end up blowing the original versions out of the water (with all due respect to the Pups).

The album closes on a fittingly gut-wrenching note with "All Apologies" and another haunting cover "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", the latter of which is particularly striking.  Kurt's classic "shiver" line, and the brief pause that follows it never fails to send chills up my spine.  The man could convey such anguish and feeling in his delivery, he was truly an amazing artist.

Obviously Kurt Cobain had some severe addiction and depression problems, and through these performances, he effectively projects that subtle and deep pain onto the listener.  You not only hear the songs, but you feel them, or at least I do.  I feel the mentality of them, the anguish, the charm, the despair, the soul of them.  To this day, Nirvana's Unplugged album is a powerful, sad, yet comforting listening experience.  It's unassuming, but so incredibly heartfelt, earnest, beautiful, and of course, haunting. 

R.I.P. Kurt.

9.4

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