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8 Reasons Nirvana's 'Nevermind' Is The Most Important Rock Album of All Time

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's magnum opus. Here's why it's better than any of the rest.

Not the  White Album. Not Gimme Shelter. Not Are You Experienced. Not even  The Fabulous Little Richard. Those albums are all canonical, and surely there are other very important records in the history of rock 'n' roll that are contenders. But none of them are Nevermind, the breakout album of a previously little-known trio from the working-class logging town of Aberdeen, Washington.

Other albums might have influenced the sound of music in certain ways, might have been important to rock’s trajectory. But none of them changed the culture at large so vastly, so roughly and so immediately. Even the hippies of the ‘60s counterculture weren’t influenced and changed so distinctly as those of us living in a post-Nirvana world. In a way, the strange epoch we’re stuck with now is both a reflection and a result of the way Nevermind affected us; we are living the chaotic meaninglessness the album prophesied, even more than the shitshow that was the 1990s. If Nevermind was an existential statement, we’ve been blasted into the apocalypse.

Nevermind was released 20 years ago next week, on Sept. 24, 1991, the result of two separate recording sessions conducted in Van Nuys and North Hollywood, California. Its nice-weather locale defied its intent: scuzzed with the desolate, dispirited lyrics of Kurt Cobain, not yet addicted to the heroin that would lead to his suicide, the album was all grit and dark days. We have lived for so long with the sound and aesthetic of “grunge” that it’s hard to imagine life without it, but back then it was not even invented. All anyone knew was that Nirvana was bucking the rock trend toward hair metal, which was about objectifying women and cocaine and gross excess. Nirvana wore Washington-typical flannel shirts, more necessary for the damp weather of Cascadia than fashion statement. Long before Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain had dated Tobi Vail, a drummer in the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill who spent her free time making feminist fanzines. Their whole existence would soon be a revolution.

In December 1993, my best friend’s parents drove us to see Nirvana’s last tour, one of the first and certainly most memorable concerts of my young life. Their tour T-shirts featured a glow-in-the-dark seahorse, with a message on the back explaining that the animal is remarkable because it's the males, not the females, who carry the young—a welcome flip for a budding young feminist. At that time, Frances Bean Cobain had been alive for a little over one year. I bought the shirt, but ended up giving it to my good friend Steve Paul, a Nirvana fanatic who hadn’t seen the concert. By April, as everyone knows by now, Kurt Cobain was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A few years later, my friend Steve was killed in a freak accident on a construction site. Everyone who was alive when Nevermind came out and cared has a story or memory associated with the album—it dug itself into your subconscious no matter how old you were.

On Sept. 24, 2011, Jon Stewart will interview the surviving members of Nirvana (and producer Butch Vig) for two hours on Sirius Radio. While the two might seem unrelated, it was in fact a brilliant move to ask Stewart to host: Nirvana’s impact was inherently political, and Stewart’s humor is inherently Gen X. In honor of the most important rock album of all time, here are eight ways that  Nevermind changed the political and cultural landscape of America.

1. Disenfranchised Kids, Winning

The dominant narrative in this country, even now, is that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and you will be rewarded with great riches, power and popularity. That is, of course, untrue—something that Nirvana explored in its lyrics. But something unexpected happened: they blew up. Their music resonated deeply with everyone who’d been disenfranchised by the voracious, greedy ‘80s, and there was a revolution rooted in ‘60s counterculture and ‘70s punk rock. Anarchist cheerleaders were suddenly on television, moshing. Nirvana were the depressive weirdos, and suddenly the depressive weirdos were the dominant narrative. Even if you’re used to being the underdog, sometimes it’s nice to be on top.

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