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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Column: Smells Like the ‘90s

THE Albums of the Nineties

The ‘90s were the Golden Age of alternative rock, with MTV and powerful radio stations like Los Angeles’ KROQ delivering to large audiences music that didn’t fit into mainstream formats.

Now with the benefit of years of hindsight, it’s a good time to look back and appreciate what I believe are the two best “alternative” albums that came out in the ‘90s.

2. Nirvana — Nevermind (1991)

Very few albums in rock history can match the enormous impact of Nevermind. It wasn’t a tiny stone rippling the placid waters of the record industry — it was a massive boulder that sent waves crashing in every direction, completely altering the trajectory of alternative music. Suddenly, anything out of Seattle, any raw, visceral garage band with a sense of melody, was signed to a record deal.

Alternative radio shifted toward more edgy material. The key to Nevermind’s impact are songs that are melodic and accessible while still smoldering with an amazing potency. Kurt Cobain’s fierce vocals and guitar, Krist Novoselic’s versatile bass and Dave Grohl’s thunderous drumming together create a sound that blows the doors off your stereo.

They had influences, sure — plenty of them. They were not the first to make this kind of music. It was just a matter of filling a void, of being the right band with the right song at the right time. Nirvana was able to distill their influences and present their material in such a way that it had an electrifying impact on an entire generation who wanted something new and exciting (even if they didn’t know they had wanted it).

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an anthem for the disillusioned — the boredom and apathy, the sardonic humor, the relentlessly dour outlook, the restless pent-up energy. It resonated so strongly, particularly with young adults and adolescents who understood the song’s message to the core of their being because they were living it.

The rest of the album is great as well, with plenty of strong hooks. “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are” and “Lithium” are all undisputed classics. Album tracks like “Drain You,” “Polly,” “On a Plain” and “Breed” all received airplay and are every bit as strong as the singles. Nevermind is a time capsule of sorts, as it vividly captures the era in which it was released. But it’s also timeless, because the desperate call for something … anything … in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is never going to lose its relevance.

1. Radiohead — OK Computer (1997)

Fitter … Happier … More productive … The angst and apathy that Kurt Cobain expressed in his jaggedly cathartic sonic blasts have much in common with the gripping tales of cold isolation that make up Radiohead’s epic masterpiece OK Computer, but the method of delivery is quite different.

Radiohead wraps their forlorn, heartsick pieces in majestic grandeur, sometimes punctuated by bursts of searing guitar to allow momentary release from the pent-up tension. There are moments of unsurpassed beauty amongst the disillusionment — consider the chiming guitars and sublime multi-tracked harmonies on “Let Down” or “No Surprises,” a gorgeous but haunted lullaby that’s taut with repressed anguish.

There is the chilling and obsessive “Climbing up the Walls,” and the space-rock majesty of “Lucky” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” “Karma Police” is sheer genius — unsettling and utterly fascinating. Most compelling of all is their multi-part epic “Paranoid Android,” the album’s first single and signature song. The disillusionment alternately seethes under the surface and breaks through in moments of manic catharsis.

Radiohead has always used dramatic changes in dynamics to their advantage, and it’s a device they use time and time again on OK Computer. Listen to Thom Yorke’s unhinged vocal during the one brief segment of “Exit Music” in which he allows the anger and despair to escape untethered.

OK Computer is an album that becomes more relevant with each passing year. The struggle for an individual to connect on a personal level in an increasingly digital world, the search for meaning among the meaningless, the desultory routine of everyday existence, the ease with which we can retreat into an outwardly emotionless shell — OK Computer is a masterpiece of unsurpassed beauty and power. As a complete piece of work, no other album in the ‘90s can match it.

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