This article was originally published on February 20, 2009.
February 20 marks what would have been Kurt Cobain’s 42nd birthday. He died almost fifteen years ago, on April 5, 1994.
Since the year 2000, Cobain’s journals have been published, a Nirvana box set was released, Gus Van Sant made a movie about a very Cobainesque rock star, and Michael Azzerad released a documentary. And that’s just the beginning.
It doesn’t feel like he’s been gone that long.
But at the same time, he always felt like a specter. When Nevermind was released, I was into baseball and WWF wrestling instead of angst-fuelled rock. I was only twelve when Cobain died. I’m pretty sure I didn’t read a magazine article about Nirvana until after he was dead. All of which is to say that Cobain the person and Cobain the rock hero/walking tragedy/myth have long been intertwined in my head. It’s hard enough to understand rock stars when they’re alive. Good luck doing it when they’re dead.
But one way we can get a line on the man is through the music he loved. Like so many of us music geeks, he compulsively wrote lists of his favorite bands, which ranged from the Pixies to N.W.A. to Aerosmith.
I work for a music magazine, which means that I have a stake in rock’n’roll myth-making. So below is my best guess of which current bands Cobain would get a kick out of. Let me know what you think.
1. Vivian Girls
As “Smells Like Teen Spirit” showed, Cobain was a master of molding ragged punk energy into refined, highly melodic songwriting. The Vivian Girls, an all-girl trio from Brooklyn, do something similar, though with an even greater emphasis on skuzzy sonics. Also, Nirvana covered the Vaselines on their MTV Unplugged album. That Scottish outfit is an obvious antecedent of the Vivs’ noisily charming indie-pop.
2. Fucked Up
As those who’ve seen their rowdy, clothing-optional live show know, Toronto hardcore hellions Fucked Up love getting in people’s faces. But their music is more than just an aural raspberry. The psychedelic layers of overdubs on last year’s The Chemistry of Common Living makes the album one you can zero into or zone out on. The band’s blend of anti-social aggression and compositional ingenuity occupies an unnamed space between the polished Nevermind and its more confrontational follow-up, In Utero.
3. Oxford Collapse
This Sub Pop (Nirvana’s first label) trio has a knack for working class guitar anthems firmly in the Credence Clearwater Revival tradition, though with a nervier, less bluesy edge. Cobain and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic played in a CCR cover band called the Sellouts.
4. Bon Iver
Leadbelly was a hero of Cobain’s — there’s a spoken interlude on the Unplugged album where he tells a story about wanting to acquire a guitar that once belonged to the legendary folksinger. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon is, for my money, the strongest folkie around, a composer of beautifully melancholy music and gifted with a gorgeous, humble voice. His music is perfect accompaniment for the dark moods with which Cobain was, as we all know, intimately familiar.
Cobain was a metalhead. Nirvana covered Black Sabbath’s “Hand of Doom,” and the dude hung around with Pacific Northwest sludge masters the Melvins. Miami’s Torche combines oozing riffs with intermittent melodic sunbeams in a manner that sounds like it could have been recorded any time between the early ’70s and the grunge era.