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Nirvana, Nevermind 

Twenty years ago, on September 24th, 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind.  Butch Vig produced Nevermind and fascinatingly reminisced about its creation on an episode of Sound Opinions earlier this year.

“I got a call from Jonathan at Sub Pop [a record label], and he called and said, ‘You’ve got to work with this band, Nirvana. They could be the next Beatles.’ I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, right. I’ve heard that before.'”

The record label representative was no false prophet.  Nirvana became the most important rock band since the Beatles.  Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl seemed aware of the importance of their cultural moment.  They even poked fun at the Beatles comparison in the music video for the song, “In Bloom.”          

Nirvana staged a Seattle invasion and popularized alternative rock.  In January of 1992, Nevermind toppled Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the ascendency of the Billboard 200, eventually abdicating the top spot for Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind.  That’s a testimony to the band’s cultural influence:  Nirvana made the music of miscreant youth competitive with mainstream commercial acts like Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks. 

Two years later, Nirvana’s cultural moment was punctuated with the most significant music tragedy since John Lennon’s assassination in 1980:  on April 8, 1994, an electrician found Kurt Cobain dead of a self-inflicted wound.  If Nirvana was a reincarnation of the Beatles, Courtney Love, Cobain’s inimical spouse, seemed destined to play the role of Yoko Ono.  Yet, it was Cobain–his own Mark David Chapman–who destroyed Nirvana.    

So, Nirvana never really became the next Beatles; who could achieve that accolade, anyway?  The band can be credited, however, with setting the agenda for alternative rock for the next twenty years.  An indicator of Nirvana’s creativity and influence is its continued radio play.  Scan through the stations on your FM dial until you find a Nirvana song.  You will most probably end up on either a modern rock station or a classic rock station.  If you stay on the classic rock station, you will wonder, “How does Nirvana belong on this station?”  If you stay on the modern rock station, the Nirvana song will seem quite at home with the other entries on the playlist.  The explanation for these phenomena is that Nirvana innovated a genre that hasn’t changed much in twenty years. 

The Strokes, Is This It  

It’s an anniversary of sorts for the debut album of the New York City band The Strokes.  Technically, Is This It debuted in the United Kingdom on August 22, 2001, and in the United States on October 9, 2001.  The US debut of the album, however, was originally scheduled for release on September 25, 2001.  The 9/11 attacks forced a delay in the album’s release.  

The UK version of Is This It featured the cheeky track, “New York City Cops.”  The song’s refrain contains these lines:  “New York City cops / They ain’t too smart.”  The song is not a diatribe against New York’s finest; yet, The Strokes, probably wisely, decided to replace the song on their debut album with “When It Started.”    

The band’s publicist released this statement:  “The band stands by ‘New York City Cops,’ but feels after witnessing the valiant response of the [NYPD] during last week’s tragedy, that timing was wrong to release it during these highly sensitive times.” 

Reviewing the release of the band’s fourth album earlier this year, Jack Hamilton wrote, “The Strokes were supposed to change everything, until they didn’t, until they kind of did, by which point nobody was expecting it.”  He is exactly right. 

The originally scheduled US release date for Is This It coincided with the ten year anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind.  (In the popular music industry albums are customarily released on Tuesdays; so, Is This It would have to settle for the day after Nevermind’s tenth anniversary.)  The Strokes were the new Nirvana.  However, just as Nirvana could not live up to Beatles-esque comparisons, The Strokes were lessor heirs to Nirvana.  The Strokes’ garage rock revival never gained the traction or the cultural relevance of grunge.  

Whereas Nirvana wanted to challenge the sonic preconceptions of its audience—for instance, in the track “Radio Friendly Unit-Shifter”—The Strokes embraced an easily accessible format.  None of the tracks on Is This It—or their second album, Room on Fire—exceeds four minutes.  Nirvana’s lyrics were intellectually meaningful, whether they critiqued generational stereotypes, as in Smells Like Teen Spirit, or struggled with concept of authority and dependence, as in Heart Shaped Box.  On the other hand, the vast majority of The Strokes’ lyrics—almost exclusively written by lead singer Julian Casablancas—depict the privileged and decadent social scene enjoyed by the son of a business tycoon and international model. 

Though less enterprising and influential than Nevermind, Is This It is fine rock art.  The rhythm and lead guitar partnership between Albert Hammond and Nick Valensi is nonpareil in modern rock.  Casablancas’ voice—which is filtered on The Strokes’ early albums—does not impressively span octaves, but has an intriguing range of intensities. 

It only takes 35 minutes to listen Is This It, and I must have made that half-hour round trip hundreds of times.  For several months after discovering the album, I listened to it every unoccupied moment at my disposal.  It was the soundtrack of my commutes, yard work, and household chores.  The album’s most popular tracks “Someday” (see clip below) and “Last Nite” are hardly its best, a fact which gives my favorite songs on the album the appeal of an intimate secret.    

The Strokes did not live up to the Nirvana hype, just as Nirvana did not live up to the Beatles hype, but that won’t stop me from savoring Is This It.  It deserves to share an (approximate) anniversary with Nevermind.  I refuse to let any terrorist—or even the actual facts—take that away from me.

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