1993 Was The Greatest Year In Music But I’m Just Going To Write About Nirvana

For my tastes at the time it was the alternative rock and grunge music that stood out. Not that I was angsty. Not really. Just in the “I’m such a moody 14 year old” kinda way that makes adults roll their eyes.

Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I’m bored and old

“Serve the Servants” – Nirvana (In Utero)

I’ve been on a nostalgia kick lately and I’ve dragged my kids along thanks to a curated Nirvana station on Pandora. My oldest, Sammy, routinely requests “Peaches” by Presidents of the United States of America, though it’s usually because he wants to fight like the ninjas at the end of the music video. But that was 1995.

NPR has a series of articles they run every few months asking “XX Years Later: Was YEAR The Greatest Year In Music?” Last month it was 1993’s turn, and the answer is: Yes, 1993 was the greatest year in music.

Was 1993 the greatest year in music? Ask that question to someone who was in high school or college that year, and the answer might be yes. To those of you now in your late 30s and early 40s, grunge is your classic rock, and Snoop Dogg’s Doggstyle and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), are your go-to hip-hop classics. That year also saw the release of some watershed debuts including Exile In Guyville by Liz Phair, Tuesday Night Music Club by Sheryl Crow, August and Everything After by Counting Crows, Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, and Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) from Digable Planets. Alt-rock was still hanging on as the flavor of the moment with The Breeders’ Last Splash, In Utero by Nirvana, Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam’s Vs., and U2’s Zooropa.

For my tastes at the time it was the alternative rock and grunge music that stood out. Not that I was angsty. Not really. Just in the “I’m such a moody 14 year old” kinda way that makes adults roll their eyes.

The Fall of 1993 was peak grunge with the release of Nirvana’s “In Utero” and Pearl Jam’s “Vs.” within weeks of each other and the chart just chock full Seattle based and derivative acts. Washington Post has a fascinating oral history of the time, including the probably overblown “rivalry” between Nirvana and Pearl Jam:

Thayil: There’s definitely different ways that a band like Pearl Jam managed their success compared to how Nirvana did. What came out of that was our understanding of how well Pearl Jam managed their situation, to keep it within the bounds of where they would like to be in their career, to not let things get ahead of them, or let the situation become unmanageable.

Steve Turner (guitarist, Mudhoney): [Nirvana was] already kind of struggling when we toured with them. There didn’t seem to be anybody in charge. It didn’t seem like there was a lot of communication between management, band and the important people involved. It just seemed like it was kind of happening, regardless of what the guys wanted.

When we went on tour with Pearl Jam, it was kind of night and day. Pearl Jam was really organized and really friendly and fun, and they were really stoked with what was going on, and they surrounded themselves with good people. It made me look at the Nirvana thing even more like, “Man, it’s a shame they can’t get their [act] together like Pearl Jam.”

Billig Rich: Everybody thought they were like, against each other, and there was negativity, and that’s so not the case at all. They were all cut from the same cloth.

Novoselic: I don’t know if there was a rivalry. We just kind of did our own things.

And in this moment of Peak Grunge, Nirvana would record for MTV Unplugged in November, 1993, perhaps the pinnacle of the Unplugged series and one of the best performances out of the ’90s:

Cobain subtly subverted the format, which usually featured acts playing stripped-down versions of their hits, by filling the set list with cover songs. He also invited two of his musical heroes, Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the little-known Meat Puppets. The lead singer even helped design the set, asking for it to be decorated with stargazer lilies and black candles.

The room’s haunting vibe later led the event to be described as sorrowful, but despite Cobain’s well-documented struggles at the time, the evening was far from dour. As the show progressed, those in attendance began to realize that what they were watching would become legendary.

“You knew for sure that history was being made,” said former MTV executive Amy Finnerty, who worked closely with Nirvana. “No doubt about it. You’re lucky if you get to be at something like that once in your lifetime.”

The whole The Ringer piece is worth a read: how the show came together, the anxiousness, and the moments where Kurt Cobain opened up in ways not typically seen in his performances, the emotion throughout, especially in the close with their cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” by Lead Belly.

In the words of Amy Finnerty, a former MTV Executive, on the pause in the end: “The breath in between the breath. He made time stop. Time just stopped.”

Novoselic: 1991 to 1994, for me personally, what was that, three years, but it seems like a 10-year span, because there was so much going on, and then it ended in a disaster. I think of 1993, and I was in this bubble.

Washington Post

Six months after recording Unplugged Kurt Cobain would commit suicide at the age of 27.


One last Nirvana related read, Thomas Beller chronicled his 2 year old’s introduction to Nirvana in The New Yorker and how he got his kid through what can be some scary music:

Nirvana’s music, in its anguish and energy, is scary. “Nevermind” is scary. But the break in “Drain You” is especially scary. I either had to turn it off or find a way to make this work. I didn’t want to turn it off. Instead, I turned it down an infinitesimal amount and addressed my son’s concerns.

“Alexander,” I said, bending over to talk near his face. “This is the part where they are in the swamp. The water is dark and murky, and the trees are low. They’re walking through the wet mud in the dark underbrush of the swamp.”

He looked at me with wide eyes. The colored lights added to the discotheque-meets-haunted-house mood. I worried that he would have nightmares, and that I would rue the night I played “Drain You.” People would shake their heads and say, “What were you thinking?”

My four-year-old Sammy loves music. Whether dancing, banging on instruments, or just listening in the car, this kiddo will sit and focus and imitate and ask questions about new words or sayings or even the emotions of the singer, a level of depth that continues to fascinate me.

When he first heard “Serve the Servants,” the opener on In Utero, he started with the close listen and about half way through started with the questions:

Sammy: “Who is that?”‬

‪Nirvana, buddy. That’s Kurt Cobain singing.‬

Sammy: “He doesn’t sound angry, he sounds sad.”‬

‪You have no idea, kiddo.‬

I Think I Thought I Saw You Try

I was twelve when the musical world expanded for me. It came during a day at a friend’s house that involved destroying cans with a BB gun, riding a bike into a tree, and listening to music I’d never heard before.

There is a time in each of our lives when we finally realize there is good music beyond the tastes of our parents. Or that our parents’ taste in music isn’t much to our liking.

I was twelve when the musical world expanded for me. It came during a day at a friend’s house that involved destroying cans with a BB gun, riding a bike into a tree, and listening to music I’d never heard before on three tapes:

1. Dr. Demento’s 20th Anniversary Collection – It was absurd and stupid and crazy and exactly what a 12-year-old boy would enjoy. Some of it I’d heard before, Weird Al’s “Eat It”, Steve Martin’s “King Tut”, but songs/skits like “Star Trekkin'” and “Ti Kwan Leap/Boot To The Head” (now “Nah nahhhh” is ringing in my head) were brilliant comedy to a young Jason.

2. They Might Be Giants Flood – I mean, c’mon. This album was written for the young and the young at heart. By this time TMBG weren’t entirely new to me – the Tiny Tunes Music Television episode featuring “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” had aired earlier that year – but to hear the entire album, start to finish, was an eye opening experience. Flood continues to be one of my top 20 albums and is something I’m excited to play for my boys.

3. REM Out Of Time – It’s not REM’s best album, but at the time and in my world it was their only album and it was amazing. “Losing My Religion” was a song Casey Casem talked about every weekend as it worked its way around the Top 40 but wasn’t something I’d given a serious listen to before being able to hear it again and again. This was my first favorite song independent of the tastes of my mom or my brothers. This was when I fully realized there was a whole world of music out there beyond light hits of the 70s and 80s and Michael Jackson.

The thing about “Losing My Religion” is the song didn’t have much meaning for me for many years. The music video was to me a work of art full of religious iconography. Michael Stipe’s jerky motions were about how I imagine I looked dancing (to this day). The song was sad. And not in a George Jones country music kinda sad, but in a way that didn’t directly tell a story that a 12 year old fully got. But I knew it was sad.

It was one of the first songs I tried learning on the guitar when I first picked one up at 16 (that and Oasis’s “Wonderwall” which has always been one of my go-tos when playing the guitar but now it’s an “Anyway, here’s Wonderwall” meme that makes me feel like a chump, thank you very much, internet). Simple but building and still sad but I was 16 and naive and hadn’t really experienced anything to make it click.

And then, nearly a decade later, I had my heart truly broken and it clicked.

The title phrase of “Losing My Religion,” a song about romantic expression, Mr. Stipe said, is a common Southern expression that means being at the end of one’s rope.

The Pop Life – New York Times March, 1991

Of course 12-year-old Jason didn’t get it. 16-year-old Jason wasn’t nearly as deep as he believed he was (like all teenagers) and while he’d fallen for girls he hadn’t really been hurt by any. Not yet.

The emotion in the song rings most true when you can put yourself there, when you feel that pain, that loss, that wit’s end leading into anger and a jumble of feelings.

Where you say too much, but you haven’t said enough.

Where all these fantasies come flailing around.

I think I thought I saw you try.

But that was just a dream.

Just a dream.

Dream.

I’m better now, of course.

But it’s a song that’s stuck with me and evolved over the last twenty seven years. A song like this couldn’t Top 40 these days (though a song like this wasn’t likely to Top 40 those days either). It’s an art form that’s been kinda lost lately, a song that takes on a meaning far beyond its literal lyrics and can stand the test of time and evoke emotions decades later.

It’s still among my favorites, still something I’ll play a bit on the guitar when I’ve got the time, something I’ll share with my boys when they’re a bit older but not too old to think their dad’s musical tastes are lame. Hpefully they’ll never truly feel the meaning behind the song the way their dad did, though I know they probably will. And it’ll click.

List 10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a TEENAGER, but only one per band/artist. Don’t take too long and don’t think too long.

  1. Nirvana – In Utero
  2. Alice In Chains – Unplugged
  3. Son Volt – Trace
  4. Oasis – What’s the Story Morning Glory
  5. REM – Document
  6. Pearl Jam – Ten
  7. Dave Matthews Band – Under The Table And Dreaming
  8. Violent Femmes – Add It Up (1981 – 1993)
  9. U2 – Joshua Tree
  10. Ben Folds Five – Whatever And Ever Amen

Icky Thump

I’ve dug White Stripes since they broke big with “Fell In Love With A Girl” back in the day. Icky Thump is their third album since White Blood Cells and, while fun, it and the two before it (Elephant and Get Behind Me Satan) just aren’t nearly as good as their first three. Still a great album, to be sure, but there’s something about the first three albums that just has a lasting impact that the last few seem to miss. Perhaps it’ll grow on me the more I listen (Get Behind Me Satan failed to impress me until I listened to it for a while), but if you’re not sure about the White Stripes, listen to their first few albums first, get to be a fan, then grab this one.

Choice Tracks: “Icky Thump”, “Rag And Bones”, “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues”

The Gift Of Music: Ben Folds

In late 2003 through early 2004 Ben Folds churned out three EPs under the radar. Speed Graphic, Sunny 16 and Super D each contain five songs, mainly originals with a few covers mixed in.

ben here. i just finished an EP. it’s called “speed graphic”. it has 5 songs on it. it is available now and i’m currently working on finishing another EP called “sunny 16”, to be released in september. a third EP will be recorded (no name yet) for release in november. a trilogy of EP’s. a full length cd will come out at the beginning of the year, for those who don’t like EP’s. i have 24 hour access to a studio now, so i’m using it.

quietly releasing my music as EP’s allow me to get it out there as i finish it. with a minimum of hype. it’s for people who buy my music anyway. it won’t be sold in the big ass chains, because that puts the price up and starts the big ass machinery – press, radio etc. then i have to pose naked at the piano, and really, i’m not a piece of meat, you know. the music will be available at gigs, and online, and on vinyl in some smaller stores.

The only song off of these EPs to make it to his next album, Songs For Silverman, was “Give Judy My Notice” off of Speed Graphic. So most of these songs you can’t get anywhere else.

I’m a pretty big Ben Folds fan but I missed these. I heard “Rent A Cop” off of Super D through Pandora and thought it must have been a b-side. Nope, entirely separate EP, which also contains a cover of The Darkness’s “Get Your Hands Off Of My Woman” and Ray Charles’s “Them That Got”. “Rent A Cop” is a great little diddy about a mall security guard and funny as hell.

All three of these give a good musical transition from his first solo effort in Rockin’ The Suburbs to his latest album Songs for Silverman. And if you’re not a Ben Folds fan, well, please, try and listen to something other than “Brick”. 90% of folks I talk to that don’t like Ben Folds specifically name that song as why and, well, I can’t blame them. Overkill at its finest.

Another Ben Folds find I’ve made as of late comes off of the Rockin’ The Suburbs EP. About six years back I caught Ben Folds Five live at an Earth Day festival down here in Richmond. Guster played as well as did a very crappy band that took up what I guess was the second stage and played really horrible songs. Pre-Irish-rip-off Carbon Leaf. Ugh.

Anyway, during their set, BFF played a song about a gentleman who wanted cream of wheat and then went on this late night urban adventure. Great song. But I had no idea what the name was and went years without finding the tune.

About a year ago I was poking around the web for music and such and came across a site of rare Ben Folds songs. They’d offer a few at a time, sweet stuff. One was a song called “The Secret Life of Morgan Davis”. Jackpot.

So I give to you “Rent A Cop” and “The Secret Life Of Morgan Davis”. These are hardly representative of the full joy that is Ben Folds but it’s a start.