2011 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and the 25th anniversary of R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant.
Lifes Rich Pageant has already seen a deluxe reissue featuring the now-expected remastered album, plus assorted demos, alternate versions and other miscellany. A similar reissue of Nevermind comes out later in the year. These kinds of reissues tend to receive more attention and acclaim than they deserve: the remastering often adds little to the listening experience (though with LRP, as with other older albums, there’s certainly an added crispness to the sound), especially in the age of digital music files, and the rarities were typically unreleased for a reason. Even reissues as meticulously packaged and lovingly prepared as Pavement’s recent run of deluxe sets add little to artists’ histories. Hardcore fans probably had all the worthy material in the first place, and what they haven’t heard amounts to little more than novelty.
But anniversaries and reissues still offers us the excuse to reflect back on albums that signified their eras, and to decide if they remain culturally significant decades down the road. And Lifes Rich Pageant and Nevermind represent crucial albums to two of the most important bands of the last 30 years.
* This year also marks the respective 20th and 25th anniversaries of Ugly Kid Joe’s As Ugly As They Wanna Be and Peter Cetera’s Solitude/Solitaire. We will not be addressing these anniversaries in this post.
Lifes Rich Pageant and Nevermind share much in common, as do their authors. Both R.E.M. and Nirvana are generation-defining bands, led by poetic, charismatic, inscrutable frontmen. Both are beloved critically and made major breakthroughs commercially. Both saw their music evolve artistically over the course of their careers — though Nirvana obviously saw considerably less change given that its run was cut short after half a decade.
And both Lifes Rich Pageant and Nevermind served as major shifts in the bands’ lifetimes. Both albums can be seen as an emergence of sorts. Nirvana cleared some of the muck and sludge away from Bleach and their early singles, and left behind their punkier instincts, to create an album that sounded made for modern rock radio. R.E.M. brushed off the kudzu from their first three albums and moved toward a sleeker, more robust sound with LRP. Michael Stipe’s vocals were louder and cleaner, and his lyrics were less impressionistic and more literal. Both albums benefitted from producers who had not previously worked with the artists, and who possessed clear commercial instincts: Butch Vig for Nevermind, and Don Gehman for LRP. These two gentlemen pushed the bands into cleaner, more confident sonic spaces.
Of course, Lifes Rich Pageant never became the sensation that Nevermind did, but it grew R.E.M.’s audience exponentially, and set the stage for the success of their next four albums.
In our recent discussion of the year in music thus far, David Simon Cowell wrote:
To me, there’s a huge problem now in attaching music to particular years. Maybe this will eventually filter to all other art forms, but the lure of the release date has completely disappeared from music. Even for bands that I love, I don’t pay attention to what day an album is scheduled to drop. One reason is that I often can find it before that. But the other is because music no longer permeates mass pop culture in the way it used to, it doesn’t fucking matter… I can get to an album whenever I want. It’s moved into a space that’s more like books than movies or TV… it may mean more to me personally, but it is almost invisible socially. Beyond a small group of like-minded friends, I know that it is pointless to even discuss music or books, because the odds of the other person having even heard of, let alone heard, what I’m talking about is extremely small.
This raises an interesting point as it related to our two birthday-boy albums: once you’ve discovered an album or other piece of music, does it matter how you first experienced it? Like a lot of people my age, I experienced LRP and Nevermind in completely different ways.
I’m part of the Nirvana generation. I was in high school in 1991, and distinctly remember the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio. I remember buying Nevermind at a shitty record store in a shitty suburban mall. I remember driving back to a friend’s house and listening to the full album for the first time. Perhaps more than any other album of my lifetime, Nevermind represented a communal experience.
Nirvana was a band for us. They were a repudiation of the terrible music of the 1980s, and of the Baby Boomers’ insistence that music would never again be as good as it was for them in their youth. Everybody watched specials about the band on MTV and talked about them the next day. Everybody fell in love with songs on the album in the same order: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” went ton mixtapes first, then “Lithium,” then “Drain You” and “Breed.”
Nevermind wasn’t just an album, it was a cultural touchstone. To DSC’s point, it served as a marker of time, place and class. 1991 will always be associated with that band, that album, that song. While not on quite the same level as The Beatles, Nirvana served to unite a large chunk of people and gave them some common ground.
Again, like many people my age, I came to Lifes Rich Pageant after the fact. I first started listening to R.E.M. somewhere between Green and Out of Time, then tracked down their back catalog en masse. Even among great albums, LRP stood out as the band’s best to that point. I fell in love with “These Days,” “Swan Swan H,” and “I Believe.”
Because I first stumbled upon LRP on my own, instead of collectively taking it in with several million of my closest friends, it holds a different place in my musical life.
Listening to the two albums now, 20 and 25 years on, Pageant feels more personal. It means more to me, and I get more out of listening to it today than I do out of Nevermind. However — that doesn’t mean that David Simon Cowell was wrong that it’s troublesome that we don’t experience music as a community anymore. To the contrary, even though Nevermind might mean less to me, it’s a rarer thing than LRP is. And arguably a more important thing.
Great albums are plentiful. Albums that are deeply personal, that speak to you in a meaningful and lasting way, are more rare but still abound. Albums (and songs and bands) that meant something culturally, that united people or changed tides or disrupted the status quo, those are not as easy to find. Delving into the pleasures of a piece of music at the same time as other people are doing so undoubtedly adds something — a spirit of connection.
The possibility may no longer exist for music to have as broad an impact as Nevermind had. You may experience that kind of connection in micro form — among your group of friends, or with a few hundred people who turn out at a club to hear an up-and-coming band play. But the idea that the United States can be united or changed or even affected in any large way by music is essentially dead.
So on that depressing note, we say happy birthday to Nevermind and Lifes Rich Pageant. We thank them both for everything, but we make particular note of Nevermind as the last of a certain kind of Mohican.
Yes, I know Achtung Baby is also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. One thing at a time, people!