Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.
Klinger: Hey Mendelsohn, remember the 1990s? What a crazy time! What with the Friends gang and the heroin chic and that hilarious guy Bill Clinton making mischief in the White House. Woo! Well, here it is, crystallized in musical form!
Mendelsohn: Ah, the 1990s. I remember that decade (vaguely). It was a simpler time, an age of innocence. You could still carry water bottles on airplanes and tell airport security screeners where they could stick that metal detector wand without fear that you might end up in Gitmo. Plus, grunge was everywhere. Depressed, apathetic kids, looking for an out from the system. They were angry and authentic. Not like emo children. Deep down, all the emo children want is a hug from mommy. Back then, all the grunge kids wanted was heroin—the only real existential escape from their existential hell. Albert Camus would have been proud. Or completely indifferent. Probably completely indifferent.
Klinger: Yes, Camus practically crackles with frissons of indifference. And now we come to Camus’ modern-day equivalent, Kurt Cobain (That’s right, teenagers writing research papers, I said it! Include me in your bibliographies!).
What’s your take on Nevermind coming in at number three on our big list, Fresh? Above Bob Dylan, above the Rolling Stones? It strikes me as a little odd that rock critics the world over have placed this album so consistently high. Are they just trying to prove that even aging, doughy, bespectacled rock nerds are down with the modern sounds, or is this album as groundbreaking as this ranking would have you believe?
Mendelsohn: Well, I’m happy to finally be talking about an album that was made in my lifetime. On the other hand, I’m shocked—SHOCKED—that Nirvana’s Nevermind is in the Top Five all-time, let alone Top 100. There are only two possible explanations for why Nevermind is held in such high esteem.
Possibility 1: A secret cabal of music critics got together and decided to take some no-talent garage band from Seattle and elevate it to super-star status just to see if they could do it, a la the Murphy/Aykroyd vehicle Trading Places. Obviously, it didn’t work out so well for Mr. Cobain.
Possibility 2: Music critics finally came around after a decade-long cocaine bender only to realize that the music they helped to make so popular in the 1980s (i.e. hair metal) was a horrific affront to humanity. In an attempt to atone for such a grievous mistake, the music critics lifted grunge from the gutter, effectively wiping hair metal off the music map for the next decade.
Nevermind’s place at number three is just a reminder for future music critics not to make the same mistakes. And just to prove my theory, the only hair metal albums (or as close as I could get to it) in the top 1000 albums are Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction at number 60 and Def Leppard’s Pyromania at number 758. Hair metal is the crazy wife the music criticerati keep locked up in the attic. Sure, she looked good at the time, but now she wants to burn you alive.
Klinger: I was under the impression that rock critics were opposed to hair metal, but you seem to have done your homework, so I won’t question you.
I also thought you’d be happier to see a record from the modern era score so high. Weren’t you a young person in the 1990s? This should be the soundtrack to your sullen angst and bad teenage mustaches. Why are you so down on this record? If VH-1 and Rolling Stone are wrong about this, what else could they have lied to me about?
Mendelsohn: Music critics despise hair metal, but as Rick James once said, “Cocaine makes you do funny things.” How else are you going to explain the immense (former) popularity of Poison, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Skid Row, Nelson, Whitesnake, etc., etc., ad infinitum? I guess what I’m trying to get it is this:
Nevermind’s place at number three is simply a reactionary measure against hair metal. Nirvana was foisted upon the public as music’s savior, despite an obvious lack of talent, because they were the antithesis of the hair farmers roaming the Sunset Strip.
Sure, I grew up with this album, but I didn’t like it when it came out, and I don’t particularly like it now. Ripped-off garage rock hooks, unintelligible lyrics, a dearth of melody and harmony, and enough nihilism to drown all the stray cats in New York City. I’m not suggesting that this album doesn’t have its merits, but I think placing it at number three is a travesty.
Klinger: I can see both sides of the debate here. I can see how you can say that it’s undeserving of its hype, but I can also see how it was a transformative record in pop history. The late ’80s were a ghastly time for music—a living, breathing 8-Ball jacket. It felt like Kid ‘n’ Play had vomited all over everything. I was a musician in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and before Nevermind, we would get kicked off stage for being too punk. After Nevermind, we were being feted by labels (a little). Crazy.
Nevermind is probably also the last time that a rock album will attain both critical adulation and massive commercial success. Of course, the album has a lot to answer for, up to and including the recent Creed reunion. And even after saying all this, I should mention that I’ve listened to this album more in the last week than I have in the last 15 years.
Mendelsohn: I think that might be my real problem with this album—all the crap that it has inspired in the last two decades. But when you get right down to it, this album just isn’t all that fun to listen to. Stand Nevermind up next to Pet Sounds and Revolver, I don’t think there is much of a comparison. Pet Sounds and Revolver blow Nevermind away. Musically, lyrically, sonically—Nevermind just does not compete. Sure, it racked up tons of acclaim, but after cleaning the Kid ‘n’ Play puke off of your turntable, what respectable rock critic wouldn’t love this album?
Klinger: So why is Nevermind number three on this scientifically-verified list of the Greatest Albums of All-Time? In the end, I think it comes down to three factors:
1. The cultural shift that the album represents, as detailed above. Sure, Nevermind made the world safe for countless wallet-chained flannel enthusiasts, but it also changed the culture. Not many albums can say that.
2. Critics do want to sound relevant, and Nirvana gave them an album that was the right mix of noise and hooks. Years from now, they’ll likely canonize Jack White for the same reasons.
3. It’s actually a pretty good record.
On the strength of its songs alone, does it merit a number three position? Probably not, but taking all three factors into account, I can’t call it too surprising. Plus, Cobain’s suicide sealed the deal.
Mendelsohn: I didn’t want to touch on that, but without Cobain’s early demise, I don’t think this record would be so highly regarded. Now all of a sudden, he gets lumped in with Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, which helps build the rock mystique cachet regardless of what the record sounds like. I’m going to let it go because you made three very valid points, but I would like to formally submit my objection to Nevermind’s place on the list.
Klinger: Very well. I’ll fax the forms over to you. Fill those out and get them back to me ASAP. Expect to see a registered letter acknowledging your objection in the next four to six weeks. Attached to that, you’ll find another form that you’ll fill out, detach, and return to us by the deadline on page eight. After that, it should be about seven to ten business days before Courtney Love is badmouthing you on Twitter and sleeping on your lawn.
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This article was originally published on 23 September 2010.