The prior installment of my infinite and punishing “Fifteen Albums” series focused on Nirvana’s 1991 classic Nevermind, and the impact said album had on my life. After that column was published, Press Editor-in-Chief Robbie Woliver said that I might as well discontinue my “Fifteen Albums” series right then and there—after album No. 5.
“How can you top Nirvana?” he asked. “Isn’t it all downhill from there?”
In a sense, he was absolutely right: I can’t think of any album released during my lifetime more important than Nevermind, and there is certainly no album that more significantly shaped my life. Were I not writing about these albums in chronological order, I surely would have saved Nevermind for last, because it really is The Big One.
But that would have been a mistake, I think, because you could also say that Nevermind is not the end of anything; rather, it is where everything began.This is a list of the 15 albums that shaped my life, but in a lot of ways, I didn’t understand how to listen to music till hearing Nevermind. Prior to that, my choices were governed by slavish musical allegiances and the sway held over me by narrow-minded peers. I was a kid—impressionable and uninformed. In large part, Nevermind shaped my life by opening me up to most of the music that would shape my life from that day forward.
Of course, I’m also overstating the case here: My life would have changed with or without Nevermind. I was 17. I loved music obsessively. And it was 1991—music was in a supernova phase; it was exploding and being reborn and the dust still hasn’t settled.
As such, it is not easy for me to decide what belongs in this spot on this list, because so much was happening at that exact moment in history: Pearl Jam’s Ten, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish…all 1991 releases that went a long way in shaping me, all of which deserve the next opening on this list. But there is only room for 15, so I have to be brutally honest about what shaped me, and how I was shaped.
6. Pavement – Slanted & Enchanted (original release date: April 20, 1992)
One of the more tumultuous changes effected in my life by Nevermind—maybe the single most important element of my life shaped by Nevermind—was that I stopped relying on Metal Maniacs, Metal Hammer and Metal Edge as my primary sources of music journalism—I started reading The Village Voice, Rolling Stone and, most notably, Spin Magazine. Those aforementioned metal mags (and their ilk) are great, but they’re not especially substantial: They’re mostly glossy posed pin-up photos and press releases dressed up as artist profiles. And Nevermind made me hungry for something more. I wanted real analysis of music, I wanted to explore the unknown—I wanted to once again find the high I had experienced when I first heard Nevermind. And that meant searching in new places, relying on new sources and streams of information.
To that end, I paid intensely close attention to everything covered in Spin during this time. Spin loved Nirvana too—and Soundgarden and Mudhoney and Teenage Fanclub—so I trusted their choices, and I would buy just about everything given a positive grade in the magazine. My devotion was rewarded time after time: More than any other source, Spin shaped my taste in music; its writers helped me find my own voice.
The magazine’s review of Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted was especially tantalizing: a glowing, breathless, exciting piece that ran some five months or so before the album was released, and was based on a dubbed cassette copy of the album obtained by someone at the magazine.
Coincidentally, I too ended up first hearing a dubbed cassette copy of Slanted, which only added to the album’s cast-off, discordant, thrift-store charm. A friend of mine made me a tape of the album, backed with Monster Magnet’s excellent (and very psychedelic) debut, Spine of God, and the two albums played on loop in my cassette deck through the tail end of spring semester ’92, as I sat in my dorm room in a thick swirl of bong haze, paranoia and wonderment.
Immediately, like a spectral vision or a ghost, Slanted sounded to me like my childhood, like fading suburban memories distorted by time and nostalgia. The music was all reverb and feedback and guitars and tape hiss, and amid that noise were these lovely, effortless, timeless songs. I felt an eerie and powerful sensation, a connection to the music that I was unable to understand. Much later, I learned that Slanted’s “Trigger Cut” borrowed a melody from Jim Croce’s “Operator,” a favorite of my father’s, and a song I had heard hundreds of times in early childhood, which surely played a large part in my spooked reaction to the record.
Slanted & Enchanted would later kind of become shorthand for indie rock—for me, at least—and indie rock would become the genre of music with which I would most closely identify, the genre that led me to writing about music, to writing in general. Those decisions were not made in that smoky dorm room, but they were born there, amid those weird, familiar melodies, those memories struggling to find the surface, and me trying to figure them out, trying to make sense of them, of everything.