Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ at 20: Change kept coming after album that changed everything

September 23, 2011

Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” the album that steamrolled pop music in 1991, turns 20 years old this weekend. To celebrate, Universal Music will issue a deluxe edition that promises to pour a fresh layer of cement atop the mythology of “Nevermind” as the Last Album That Changed the World.

It’s not.

Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic blew America’s unwashed hair back when Nirvana’s major-label debut arrived on Sept. 24, 1991, but “Nevermind” wasn’t the last album to profoundly change popular music. Dr. Dre and Garth Brooks were already reshaping the landscape alongside the Seattle trio. Even if “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” failed to make the same rumble as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the tectonic plates of culture were still grinding.

But “Nevermind” will be remembered as the game changer — or perhaps the game ender — for as long as its heroic narrative still excites: Three poorly postured guys wearing Salvation Army scraps explode into a new decade by articulating the disenchantment of a generation, shoving Michael Jackson from his throne in the process.

It happened so quickly. Watching “Nevermind” exert its whiplash gravity on young America was like witnessing a flock of birds instantly change direction mid-flight. Raised in the boomer shadow of classic rock, that generation now had a future classic to call its own.

Twenty years later, the echo chamber is working overtime to remind us of all this. In addition to the keystrokes piling up online, Cobain’s face recently adorned the cover of Spin magazine and Novoselic performed at a “Nevermind” tribute concert in Seattle on Tuesday.

The chatter might change the way we think about “Nevermind,” but the anniversary rerelease will not. It includes some previously unreleased alternate recordings and plenty of previously peddled B-sides. The cash cow isn’t being milked; its ashes are being snorted.

And it lands in a climate that couldn’t feel more distant from the world Nirvana shocked. “Nevermind” broadsided America because there was still a mainstream for it to broadside, a video-playing MTV for it to colonize, influential airwaves for it to conquer.

But as music migrated to the Internet, sales plunged and taste splinted, sending the record industry into a dizzy death spiral. Important pop music is still being made, of course, but even the most significant post-“Nevermind” recordings have wielded their influence much less spectacularly — like whirlpools in the soup.

That doesn’t mean their import can’t be felt. Below is a list of 10 albums that have changed pop since Nirvana’s breakthrough (or, in the case of Brooks’s “Ropin’ the Wind,” 14 days before it).

Please don’t misread this as a list of the best albums since “Nevermind.” It’s not. Instead, these are some of the most consequential pop recordings of the past 20 years — releases that marked a pivot, a warning, an inversion, a perversion, a rebirth, a death rattle. And they each changed the cultural and economic value of pop music in a way that can still be felt.

‘Ropin’ the Wind’
Garth Brooks
Sept. 10, 1991
“Nevermind” replaced Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” atop of Billboard albums chart in January 1992, but it sparred for the top spot with Brooks’s third album, a megahit that paved the platinum highway for pop-oriented superstars that country music had previously never seen.

‘The Bodyguard’ soundtrack

Nov. 17, 1992

Forget Simon Cowell. It’s hard to imagine “American Idol” without “The Bodyguard.” Whitney Houston belting “I Will Always Love You,” from the highest-selling soundtrack album of all time, defined what “good” singing sounds like for better or (probably) for worse.

‘The Chronic’

Dr. Dre

Dec. 15, 1992

Before the cults of Biggie and Tupac, “The Chronic” ensured that hip-hop had a cult itself, completing rap music’s metamorphosis into pop music. The Compton rapper and producer’s debut album and “Nevermind” became sibling efforts that would define an era.

‘Brown Sugar’

D’Angelo

July 3, 1995

Time wobbled with the release of the Virginia soul man’s debut, a harbinger of the nostalgia to come. In addition to kicking off the neo-soul movement that gave rise to an entire class of artists — Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Maxwell — it gave lasting credence to the idea of looking back.

‘. . .Baby OneMore Time’

Britney Spears

Jan. 12, 1999

Britney’s big debut arrived during the record industry’s last hurrah, selling millions of albums alongside the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync. But long after the boy bands crashed back to Earth, Britney soldiers on, with Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber all prospering in her footsteps.

‘Garden State’soundtrack

Aug. 10, 2004

If you’re searching for the corpse of rock-and-roll, try New Jersey. This soundtrack features oodles of indie rock — most notably the Shins’ “New Slang.” After appearing here and in a McDonald’s commercial, it proved that rock acts could survive by soundtracking advertising.

‘Dedication 2’ mix tape

Lil Wayne

May 2006

Five years ago, when the froggy-voiced rapper was doing his finest work, it was appearing on mix tapes, downloadable albums released without the blessing of a record label. It created fan loyalty that helped Wayne’s 2008 album, “Tha Carter III,” go platinum upon arrival.

‘In Rainbows’

Radiohead

Oct. 10, 2007

One of the planet’s biggest bands goosed the industry by asking fans to pay whatever they thought its seventh album was worth. The experiment didn’t establish a new universal distribution model. It confirmed that there will never be a new universal distribution model.

‘Fearless’

Taylor Swift

Nov. 11, 2008

Swift connected with her young audience by honoring country music’s greatest (and frequently compromised) virtue: honesty. And that audience has been massive. Nashville has rallied around her success, banking on it bringing a new generation to the genre.

‘808s & Heartbreak’

Kanye West
Nov. 24, 2008

If Eminem predicted the Internet at its ugliest and most unruly, West’s “808s & Heartbreak” captured the loneliness and vulnerability of our collective digital hangover. Influential both sonically and thematically, it might be the closest anyone has ever come to a “Nevermind.”

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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