It should go without saying, but sometimes it’s okay not to like something as much as people tell you that you should do. This applies many multiple times over for music.
So why am I pointing out the obvious? Because since the widespread use of the internet, there are more and more opinion pieces on why you should love album ‘A’ by act ‘B’, I know, because I’ve contributed to the ever growing pile myself. The thing is, there are certain albums by certain acts which it seems that you are not allowed to criticise, and in doing so you are crossing some sort of cultural line from which there is no return. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Astral Weeks, What’s Going On, The Dark Side of the Moon, Horses, London Calling, Thriller, The Queen is Dead, OK Computer – these are all albums which numerous ‘lists’, TV shows and general popular opinion tells us are the towering achievements in terms of album-length musical statements, they’re all hugely important in regards to the evolution of popular music and any article questioning just how good they are will raise at least a few eyebrows, if not leave you open to severe criticism. But do you have to like them?
This month sees the 25th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, the second album by grunge power-trio Nirvana. It was an album which had a seismic effect on teenagers at the time, as lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, engaged my generation in a way that little in the way of rock music had done previously, and it has since become considered to be one of the key albums in the evolution of popular music. From its iconic artwork, to the immortal lead single (still one of the most thrilling examples of rock music you are likely to hear), to Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain’s dragged-of-the-street appearance, to the unarguable angst-rock anthems, to the hidden track at the end of the album (something that would later become a staple of 90s rock albums, but still a novelty at this point), Nevermind is from top to bottom a classic album. It’s just one I’ve never connected with.
Is Nevermind a great album? Yes, undoubtedly. Do I have a decades long appreciation of rock music? Yes, I certainly do. So why don’t I like Nevermind? I actually do like Nevermind, I just don’t like it as much as other people do. Maybe it’s because it was a favourite album of the chest-beating alpha-male guys I didn’t get along with particularly well in school (the irony being of course is that Kurt Cobain later went on record to say that he’d rather have socially awkward quiet kids in his audience, than chest-beating alpha-male types), maybe it’s because that Cobain’s angst-fuelled howl made it difficult to make out the lyrics, maybe it’s because Nirvana only released three studio albums during their career, of which Nevermind was by far and away the most accessible, causing it to unfairly overshadow the other two, or maybe it’s because, by Nirvana’s own admission, sometimes they were just “ripping off the Pixies”.
What you cannot take away from Nevermind is how it is now part of the DNA of rock music. There are hardly any acts featuring loud guitars of the last quarter of a century who don’t owe something to Nirvana. It’s a great angst-rock statement and it altered the course of louder rock music and became the shiny and polished spearhead of the grunge movement. In the decades since its release, it has become common knowledge that Cobain himself didn’t like Nevermind, feeling that the remix and production polish that record label Geffen demanded effectively neutered the album, rendering what he and his bandmates intended to be a savage and uncompromising album far too commercial and accessible to their ears. Whether Nevermind would have dragged Nirvana to mainstream attention if it hadn’t been given a lair of “candy ass” production (Cobain’s own description), is debatable, but it certainly would have taken a longer time to do so. For all its polish, it’s still a raw album that combines the strands of alternative, punk and hard rock that really hadn’t crossed over that much in the mainstream before. It gave a lot of teenagers a soundtrack as they tried to negotiate the perilous, and often miserable, pathway to adulthood, and for that reason alone, it’s considered to be a classic album.
If Nevermind had never existed, then someone would eventually have released an album that connected with my generation as teenagers in the same way, but the evolution of rock music would have pretty much stalled until that point. It’s unarguably an important and massively influential album, and should be rightly celebrated as such, but is it impervious to criticism? No. Because no album should be.