I’ve gotten into a habit of just calling him ‘Cobain’ at the moment. When writing Dark Slivers I bounced appallingly between Kurt Cobain, Kurt and Cobain depending on topic, mood and inclination — it took hours during the review phase to try and make some kinda sense of it. Please bear with me as I work through my typing tics and foibles.
Hand’s in the air if you HAVEN’T seen the list of Kurt Cobain’s Top 50 Albums? Yep, as I suspected, it’s only those miners in Chile who were stuck underground. Alas, in this visual age, what I rarely see is any real discussion of it beyond using it as an excuse to link to pre-written reviews of some of the albums mentioned or to blurb about the bands on the list — it’s easy space-filling fodder.
What interests me about the list is two elements; the nature of the bands present and secondly the eras shown. To start with, here’s the original list of albums, with the years appended. Please note immediately that the list can be positively identified as having been written sometime after the release of PJ Harvey’s Dry in June 1992 making it a relatively good indicator of what Kurt viewed as his key albums looking back across his still-young life:
Now, here’s the list rearranged chronologically from earliest to latest:
There’s no way to definitively connect the year of an album’s release to the year Cobain first heard it, but there are definite peaks in the eras to which he looked for pleasure and felt worthy of note on his extensive list:
It’s neatly poetic that the first phase of sustained musical interest commences the same year as Cobain’s parents divorced. I’m unsure, however and alas, whether I believe nine year old Kurt salved his woes in Aerosmith’s Rocks; it’s a possibility that the album marked a significant event, the Cobain family was certainly steeped in music as a mode of emotional expression, but it’s not definite.
Again, though it’s impossible to prove which years Cobain first listened to albums in, its notable that the peak of his preferences arise in the years immediately preceding and including 1983-84 when Buzz Osbourne was feeding Cobain the tapes of U.S. punk and underground music that Cobain describes as his epiphany. Even in 1992-1994, whenever he wrote this list, that period of music remains of critical importance to him with 1981-1984 yielding 19 of his favourite albums, well over a third of his entire list and matching precisely the most critical spell in the evolution of this teenager into a would be punk musician.
The lull from 1985 through 1987 could perhaps be put down to an absence of ground-breaking albums but it simply wouldn’t be true; numerous underground legends were kicking off in those years or burnishing their credentials so why the lull? To some extent I credit age and the inevitable aftermath of a revelation — after so many new discoveries its maybe inevitable that there might be a couple years where things felt a little ‘samey’ or more like reinforcement. Was 1986 really an off year for interesting music? All opinions welcomed on this point!
An alternative presents itself. I looked back to a previous piece from this site (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/01/28/life-long-latchkey-kid-kurt-cobains-homes-part-1/). Essentially, while preceded by a long spell of dislocation and movement between family members, from April 1984 onward, 17-year-old Cobain’s life enters a truly rough spell punctuated by three spells of temporary homelessness, a brief return to his father and an extended period as a guest of the Reed family. Cobain had left school, he was in paid employment for certain lengths of time, those few years simply weren’t suited to get to grips with music or absorbing new discoveries.
Finally, in April 1987, Cobain benefitted from the longest period of stable home-life he had experienced in many a year and, in fact, the final time in his life he would spend a year in a single location (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/01/29/life-long-latchkey-kid-kurt-cobains-homes-part-2/.) From that month, he moved in with girlfriend Tracy Marander, living in the same block, though two different apartments, and with Dave Grohl after Tracy moved out, right the way through until July 1991.
This coincides with and perhaps is a key factor in the second spell of new discoveries with the years 1987-1990 yielding twelve further albums from the Cobain Top 50, plus the Leadbelly record too. It’s easy to point to these years as ones in which Cobain was surrounded by fellow music-lovers and able to cherry-pick new discoveries and new moments…
…One thing I’ve underrated, however, is simply the matter of age. Really all I’ve shown is that Cobain’s years of maturity from age fourteen to age twenty four saw the majority of his musical favourites, in other words, that he was a perfectly normal young man in terms of the time in his life when music really meant something to him.