On being a teenager and the greatest albums in the world

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I've long believed that the music that you listen to as a teenager has the most chance to stick with you, remaining at or near the top of your list of favourite bands for the rest of your life. More specifically, from the ages of fifteen through to around eighteen -- and regardless of the subjective quality of the music -- the bands you discover at that time will never leave you.

Luckily I had the foresight to be born at the tail-end of 1974, which meant that I came of musical age in the early 90s, during a period of possibly the greatest concentration of seminal rock and metal albums ever released.

1991: Redefining metal and the invention of grunge

Although Sepultura's Arise (2 April) had already set the thrash bar pretty high, it was Metallica's eponymously titled "Black Album", released in August that year, that set the standard for metal bands for the rest of the decade. Moving away from their thrashier style with slower, more melodic songs, plus the massive international hit single Enter Sandman, Metallica proved that it was possible to make heavy music while appealing to a broader cross-section of fans than their super-fast thrash band contemporaries managed at the time.

At the same time as thrash bands were becoming more listenable, the hair metal bands I loved were getting heavier. Skid Row's Slave To The Grind album (11 June) featured the extremely fast and heavy (for them, at least) title track, which was a revelation to me the first time I heard it. My tastes were expanding beyond the big choruses and big hair of bands like Bon Jovi and Poison, and I was ready to try something new. Maybe heavier, faster rock was that new thing? But then an album came along that changed my life.

Although the Temple Of The Dog side project had come out without much fanfare back in April, the ex-Mother Love Bone project hadn't really made an impression on me at that point. I had loved Alice In Chains' debut, Facelift (August 1990), so when the music papers started talking about other new music coming out of Seattle I was all ears. Pearl Jam's debut album Ten (27 August) came first, full of inventive riffs and grooves that felt as if they had nothing holding them together yet still sounded like the tightest of tight things. And then, less than a month later, Nirvana's Nevermind (24 September) landed, and nothing was ever the same again. As Weezer's Rivers Cuomo would later put it:

Had a baby on it, he was naked on it

Then I heard the chords that broke the chains I had upon me

It's hard to overestimate the effect that Nevermind had. Instead of failing to play like Slash or sing like Axl, Nirvana showed kids that you can do more with three chords and a distortion pedal than just play angry punk songs. I remember playing the final track, the haunting two-chord Something In The Way, over and over at the tail-end of a houseparty shortly before moving to London to start a band. It gave us hope. Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, released a month later, completed the Seattle grunge triumvirate. Music had changed, and songwriting was no longer just for the virtuoso.

Speaking of Slash and Axl, Nirvana weren't the only band to release an album in September; reigning hard rock royalty Guns N Roses finally released the twin Use Your Illusion albums, complete with epic 10-minute tracks like November Rain and Estranged. The separate-but-double album release posed something of a problem for cash-strapped teenage fans; I remember deliberating for a not insignificant amount of time as to which one to buy first. (For the record -- no pun intended -- I went with Use Your Illusion II, generally agreed to be the better of the two.)

1992: Experiments, Acoustics, and rapcore

While it's hard to top 91's roster of genre-defining albums, 1992 had more than its fair share of great releases.

Together with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the fourth wheel on the Seattle grunge juggernaut was Alice In Chains. While they would go on to release their second full-length album, Dirt, later in the year, they surprised many fans by quietly putting out an almost entirely acoustic EP first. Sap (4 February) contained four brand new songs, guest vocals by Heart's Ann Wilson, and was for many rock fans the first taste of what acoustic hard rock could be; it was to be a path taken by many other bands in the following years (including Pearl Jam, who were featured on the relatively new MTV Unplugged show in March of 92).

Although grunge seemed poised to take over the world, there were interesting things happening at the other fringes of rock music. Experimental funk metal merchants, Faith No More, followed up their Grammy-nominated The Real Thing album with the even more experimental Angel Dust LP (8 June). As a self-avowed metalhead, I was generally pretty dismissive of anything the least bit dancey when it came to music, so to find myself singing along to the needle scratch and "Woo! Yeah!" EDM-style interjections in lead single Midlife Crisis was something of a surprise.

1992 had one final surprise in store, in the shape of LA hip-hop-metal band Rage Against The Machine. Their debut, self-titled album was released a day before my eighteenth birthday, and once again took my conception of what exactly rock music was in a brand new direction. Zach de la Rocha's angry leftist raps combined with the mind-bending guitar contortions of Tom Morello was so unlike anything I'd ever heard before that it was hard to even encompass it within the wider hard rock landscape -- all I knew was that I liked it and wanted to hear more.

Of course, there were so many other great albums released in 1992; Manic Street Preachers debut, all rock and roll bluster; Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power was pure thrash; Bricks Are Heavy by all-girl grunge outfit L7; The Black Crowes bluesy follow-up to their best-selling debut, the Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, was a much more mature record; Screaming Trees Sweet Oblivion hinted at the greatness to come in singer Mark Lanegan's future; and Stone Temple Pilots' debut Core are just a few of the amazing albums that arrived within a few months of each other.


I suspect that I'm not alone. Many (if not most) music fans will be able to name similar albums that were ingrained on their consciousnesses during that period; your late teens are when you are deciding exactly who you are, music is a way we define ourselves, so it's only natural that our formative experiences in music leave a lasting mark.

And of course there were many, many great album releases in these two years that I didn't discover until years later. Afghan Whigs, Tori Amos, Arrested Development, The Lemonheads, Sugar, Dr Dre, Pixies -- they all released albums that I have subsequently come to appreciate as I became older and my tastes broadened.

If you're interested in reliving my spotty headbanging youth, I've put a selection of the songs and bands mentioned here into a Spotify playlist -- enjoy!

Matthew Pennell

Designer, developer, writer, runner, gamer, devil's advocate, INTP. Senior designer for Booking.com. Founder, Refresh Cambridge.
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