100 Best Albums Even now, years after you first felt its edges, the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still sounds too dangerous—too loud, too ugly, too upset—for any mainstream. And yet Nevermind’s opening salvo didn’t just mark an unlikely breakthrough for the Seattle trio, it upended popular culture in ways we haven’t seen since. Punk became pop, grunge became global vernacular, industry walls broke into rubble, and lead vocalist Kurt Cobain was anointed the reluctant voice of a generation in need of catharsis, all seemingly overnight. But what makes Nirvana’s second album special isn’t its rage, but its innocence. For as haunting and corrosive as it can often be, it was never at the expense of melody or songcraft or humanity. The old guard was actually still alive and well: Both Metallica’s Black Album and Guns N’ Roses’ two-volume Use Your Illusion famously came out within weeks of Nevermind. And while the album went on to sell about as well as those—even displacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as the best-selling album in the United States for a brief moment in 1992—Nirvana’s influence extended well beyond sheer economics, cutting a path for generations of forward-looking artists that stretches from Radiohead to Billie Eilish. They presented themselves not as rock gods, but ordinary (and highly sensitive) mortals. As an alternative to the pin-up in leather pants, they offered the proud feminist, screaming until his voice gave out (“Territorial Pissings”). In place of the glossy power ballad, they delivered something fragile and raw (“Polly”, “Something in the Way”). Nirvana’s angst didn’t only come across in the lyrics, but in the delivery. None of Cobain’s wisdom or fury would have resonated in the culture-shaking way it did if not for the sort of tunefulness that has always had a way of making wisdom and fury go down a little easier.

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