The first three CDs I ever bought were by Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots, and Counting Crows, but by the time I bought them at the end of October, 1994, they'd all been out for several months. On November 1, 1994 (twenty years ago yesterday), I bought three new CDs that were released that day, the first time I'd ever bought an album the day it came out. The first two, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Out in L.A. and Aerosmith's Big Ones, I don't have anymore. The Chili Peppers album was terrible, just a clearing house of bad outtakes for their old record label to try and cash in on the band's new breakthrough success. Big Ones was a good compilation of Aerosmith's comeback hits for Geffen Records in the late '80s and early '90s, but I've since replaced it with a better, more complete compilation. The third album that came out that day, Nirvana Unplugged, ended up being a milestone album for my generation, and one of the greatest live albums ever released.
Few live albums, and especially few posthumous releases, ever have the ability to change the way we collectively look at an artist, but Nirvana Unplugged did just that. The track list of lesser known album tracks redefined the depth that we associated with Cobain's songwriting catalogue, the arrangements reframed what we sonically thought Nirvana represented, and the choice of covers (and the appearance of former Germs guitarist Pat Smear) more firmly placed the band as champions of the musical underground. By the time of the album's release, Nirvana had essentially ceased to exist for six months, but the way we've thought of the band in the twenty years since has been forever altered by this unplugged performance. The album begins with Kurt Cobain introducing the opening song, "About a Girl," by saying "This is off our first record. Most people don't own it."
Just in that first line, and especially in the 14 tracks that follow, Nirvana draws attention to the idea that there's so much more music out there than the hits, and that much of it is great. At the time Cobain wrote this song, he'd been listening a lot to the early '60s Beatles and contemporary R.E.M., and he wanted to write a song that fit in with the pop sensibilities of those styles. He was initially concerned about putting the song on 1989's Bleach, because it melodically stood out from the rest of the record. Here, not only does it stand out, but it sets the tone. The acoustic arrangement sounds perfect, and recasts the chords and vocals Nirvana was famous for as something far more tender and timeless. Who knows what impact this album might have made had Cobain still been alive for its release. Maybe the vulnerability it exhibited would have felt out of place in a world that wasn't looking at him as a tragic martyr for the dark underside of fame. But we didn't get that world, we only got this one. For all of the sadness associated with this recording, it's also the greatest eulogy any pop star has ever written for themselves.
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