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Music

The cult albums Kurt Cobain thought everybody needed to hear

Kurt Cobain is one of the most important figures in rock history. Through his sharp lyricism and ability to pen anthems that appeal to the masses, Cobain galvanised a generation and became the spokesperson of Generation X overnight.

However, this wasn’t a position Cobain was ever comfortable with, nor was he satisfied with the astounding level of fame that the band gained after the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in September 1991. These elements have been attributed to the Nirvana frontman’s suicide, as the life of a rockstar seemed to be the antithesis of his humble nature. His death was an immense tragedy, but owing to his genius musical ability, he’ll live on long past the day when we are nothing but dust. 

This modest, everyman nature is what really endeared Cobain to fans. Aside from his drug use, he defied the stereotype of the rockstar. He wasn’t concerned with promoting himself and constantly stayed true to his convictions, and it was this that brought him into conflict with Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses. Another embodiment of this came when the Nirvana leader refused to do an encore after 1993’s MTV Unplugged as he thought the band “sucked” which, of course, wasn’t true. 

Apart from being the most authentic rockstar the world has ever known, before all else, Cobain was a lover of music, just like you and I. He wasn’t afraid to spread the gospel of his favourite music, and it’s something that he’ll always be remembered for. Back in 1992, in a conversation with Melody Maker (via NME), he was kind enough to prescribe 6 albums that he thought everybody should hear, and explained why they’re so important. 

Find them listed below.

The albums Kurt Cobain wanted everybody to hear:

The Shaggs – Philosophy of the World (1969)

The Shaggs are one of the ultimate cult bands. An all-female outfit formed as a trio in 1968 in New Hampshire by the Wiggin sisters, Dorothy, Betty and Helen, before their sister Rachel later joined in on the fun, their story is a remarkable one, and you can read more here

Philosophy of the World is the band’s only studio album and is a must-listen for any rock fans. Cobain expressed: “They were all sisters, with their evil uncle making plans for them. I heard this one live song – a Carpenters song, maybe? – where they must have been playing a day centre, and the screams in the background are louder than the music. The Shaggs are another archetypal K band. Am I a Calvinist (named after Clavin Johnson, leader of Beat Happening and founder of K records in Olympia, where Kurt used to live)? No”.

Jad Fair – Great Expectations (1989)

Jad Fair is an alternative rock hero. He’s a founding member of the celebrated outfit Half Japanese, and has had an accomplished career, to say the least. When he released Great Expectations, he was still in the band and it was a great indicator of his power as an artist outside of the confines of the band. 

Of the record, Cobain explained: “I like to listen to Jad Fair and Half-Japanese with headphones on walking around the shopping malls, in the heart of American culture. I just think that, if people could hear this music right now, they’d melt. They wouldn’t know what to do, they’d start bouncing off the walls and hyper-ventilating. So I turn up the speakers really loud and pretend it was blasting through the speaker on the malls”.

Shonen Knife – Burning Farm (1983)

Japanese punk legends, Shonen Knife, need no real introduction. Burning Farm is their first album, and only ‘Twist Barbie’ on the original release is in English. It features best-loved cuts such as the title track and ‘Parallel Woman’, and is a staple of punk, so for punks out there who haven’t heard it, I implore you to. 

“Eventually, after a week of listening to it every day, I just started crying. I just couldn’t believe that three people from a totally different culture could write songs as good as those. Because I’d never heard any other Japanese music or artist who ever came up with anything good. Everything about them is just so fucking endearing I’m sure that I was twice as nervous to meet them as they were to meet us,” the Nirvana frontman said. 

The Wipers – Is This Real? (1980)

It is well known that Kurt Cobain loved The Wipers, and he constantly made us aware of it. Another incredibly influential cult band, they inspired a lot of the groups who would go on to become the most prominent proponents of grunge. Is This Real? is their debut album, featuring their most famous song, ‘Alien Boy’. 

“The Wipers were a Portland punk band who started in the late ’70s by Greg Sage and released maybe four or five albums. The first two were totally classic, and influenced the Melvins and all other punks rock bands. They’re another band I tried to assimilate. Their songs are so good. Greg Sage was pretty much the romantic, quiet, visionary kind of guy. What more can I say about them? They started Seattle grunge rock in Portland, 1977,” Cobain stated.

Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth (1980)

Short-lived post-punks Young Marble Giants are one of the most important bands of the era, which is a testament to their skill given that their first run only lasted two years, between 1978 and 1980. Featuring lauded vocalist Alison Statton, you’ll never have heard anything like it. 

Cobain said: “This music relaxes you, it’s total atmospherics. The drum machine has to be the cheesiest sound ever. I had a crush on the singer for a while – didn’t everyone? I don’t know much about them. But I first heard ‘Colossal Youth’ on the radio, after I started getting into K music when I live in Olympia. It was a year before I put out the Bleach album. At the time, I was just painting and doing art stuff. I still do, but now I use oils because I can afford them. I like Goya a lot – I use animated dolls a fair amount”.

Leadbelly – Last Sessions (1948)

Any fans of Nirvana won’t be surprised to see folk hero Lead Belly included on this list, as he was, by all accounts, and his admission, Kurt Cobain’s favourite artist of all time. Cobain famously made his thoughts on Lead Belly clear when the band covered ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ as part of their iconic MTV Unplugged set. 

The ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ mastermind explained: “Burroughs said that if you want to hear true, honest music with passion, then you should hear Lead Belly. The songs are just amazingly heartfelt. Lead Belly was this poor black man in the early 1900s who went to jail a few times for wife-beating and robbery and getting into fights and bootlegging liquor. While he was in prison, he started playing the guitar. He sang so well that the governor started to like him and let him out of jail”. 

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