These albums came out a little too early for me to pay attention to them at the time, when I was just 10. But when I started getting into music and playing guitar a few years later, these were two of the very first albums I got, and they both shaped my approach to music.
They're both the kind of album you listen to straight through, over and over, not skipping over any tracks, because each one feels essential, from the hits to the songs you might have forgotten about but are happy to hear when they come on (Nirvana's "Lounge Act," RHCP's "My Lovely Man").
When I made a list of "the 40 greatest grunge songs," I ranked "Lithium," from Nevermind, #1.
Back then, I wrote:
The band members themselves assumed that this would be the song that would break them into the mainstream. They never expected it to be overshadowed by you-know-what . . .
What really makes this song for me is Krist Novoselic's bassline. While the guitar part in the verse starts at the bottom and climbs upward, the bass starts at the top and descends. He wasn't generally a flashy bassist, but he clearly gave this song some extra attention. He also does some tasteful noodling in the "I'm not gonna crack" section.
The chorus of "In Bloom" is brilliantly self-referential in mocking the whole idea of a band with fans, while being much more lovable than that concept sounds. "He's the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along . . . but he knows not what it means . . ."
"Drain You" was one of Kurt Cobain's favorite Nirvana songs. My favorite part is how in the place where you might expect a conventional guitar solo, they instead do an eerie instrumental interlude with disorienting guitar noises and dissonances, culminating in a frenzied crescendo that leads back to the beginning. Grunge genius.
Meanwhile — that same day! — the Red Hot Chili Peppers were putting out a 17-song funk masterpiece, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. "Give It Away" captures the essence of the band: gleefully sexual, deceptively simple, rhythmically infectious.
"Breaking the Girl" is an uncharacteristically acoustic Chili Peppers song with an electrifying percussion break (starting at 3:03). Chad Smith's propulsive drum beat gives a remarkable momentum to the song.
"Under the Bridge" is a haunting portrait of heroin addiction. I get chills when I hear the choir-like backing vocals start to sing: "Under the bridge downtown . . ." The beautiful interplay of the guitar (John Frusciante) and bass (Flea) at the end is worthy of comparison to George Harrison and Paul McCartney in the Beatles' "Something."
"Power of Equality" kicks the album off with an urgent note of social awareness ("American equality has always been sour"). The Chili Peppers' singer/rapper, Anthony Kiedis, was clearly self-conscious about his white band being deeply indebted to many black musicians: "My lily white ass is tickled pink/When I listen to the music that makes me think." He makes his call for racial equality explicit: "Death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan!" The song ends with an earnest lament:
People in pain, I do not dig it
Change of brain for Mr. Bigot . . .
Misery is not my friend
But I'll break before I bend
What I see is insanity
Whatever happened to humanity?