Smells Like Teen Critics: Rating Spin’s Nirvana Tribute Album, ‘Newermind’

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nirvana‘s Nevermind, Spin recently released Newermind, a tribute with one band covering each song from the game-changing grunge record. Tribute albums are always a risky undertaking, especially when you’ve got the ghost of Kurt Cobain and the mammoth shadow of the band that changed a generation hanging over you. So how does it hold up? We’ve decided to break down Newermind track by track.

For each song, we awarded a score of one to five sticks of Teen Spirit (one being the equivalent of Britney Spears’(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” travesty, five being as close as you can get to making Cobain proud). It’s science.

Before we officially begin, let’s talk about that title. Really, Spin? Newermind? Was Neverevermind taken?

Album Title Score:

1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Meat Puppets

If you can get over Curt Kirkwood’s wavering voice, it’s kind of cool to hear an acoustic version that forgoes the loud/soft dynamic of the original and instead adds atmospheric, echoing reverberated guitar. But that voice–oof. Not to mention they’ve removed the original’s sense of danger. We know the Meat Puppets were one of Kurt’s favorite bands, but this wasn’t the best way to kick things off.

2. “In Bloom” by Butch Walker & The Black Widows

The heavy poppiness of the Nirvana single has been pared down to make for a funkified, rootsy sound.

(plus one for us for saying “funkified.”)

3. “Come As You Are” by Midnight Juggernauts

This one is a total reinvention, trading in the overhanging sense of dread and murky low end for spacey electronica that echoes Outkast at their weirdest.

4. “Breed” by Titus Andronicus

The most kick-ass, propulsive Nevermind song gets a well-executed, workmanlike cover from these post-punkers. No flash here, they just let the energy of the song do the work.

5. “Lithium” by The Vaselines

The Vaselines are the second of Kurt’s favorite bands to appear on this album. Their take on “Lithium” is sparse, and in a bold move they blanket the “yeah-ahh-yeah” chorus with a church organ dirge. Alright.

6. “Polly” by Amanda Palmer

If there’s one song on this album that manages to retain the aesthetic of the original while simultaneously showing the artist taking complete ownership of the song, it’s this one. Somehow, it’s even more haunting than Nirvana’s take.

7. “Territorial Pissings” by Surfer Blood

We were so excited to hear this one when it was announced, since it paired the most hardcore song of the album with these energetic garage rockers. It was a valiant effort, but while the original was the sound of controlled chaos, this version just sounds controlled.

8. “Drain You” by Foxy Shazam

Welcome to “Drain You: A trippy, bombastic, slightly unhinged rock opera!” It’s hard to think that anybody else could conceive of and pull off this version of the song. Plus it matches Nirvana’s infectious energy.

9. “Lounge Act” by Jessica Lea Mayfield

The short-haired songstress accentuates the twang heard in Cobain’s original vocals and creates a song all her own that evokes late-night cigarettes and southern dive bars.

10.”Stay Away” by Charles Bradley & The Menahan Street Band

“Stay Away” has gone from punky to retro soul, bringing to mind Brothers-era Black Keys. And it works.

11. “On a Plain” by Telekinesis

According to Spin, Telekinesis was a last-minute substitute, and it sort of shows. It’s almost too faithful of a cover, leaving you to wonder why you’re not listening to the original instead.

12. “Something In The Way” by JEFF The Brotherhood

This is probably the most challenging cover of the album, since there’s nothing to hide behind on this song. For the first chunk of this version, the up-and-coming rock duo turn out a standard cover, but the enveloping, twisted solo at 2:50 makes it their own.

13. “Endless Nameless” by EMA

Another difficult cover, because Nirvana’s version epically smothers the listener. But EMA pulls it off. Her iteration is just as aggressive, just as noisy, and somehow sounds even messier (in a good way) than the original.

Overall album score:

Newermind is¬†leagues above the Led Zeppelin tribute, Encomium, which is the standard-bearer of tribute albums gone wrong. Every song here is no worse than serviceable, all are impeccably executed, and a handful are completely re-imagined but still retain the raw spirit of the source material. We don’t think the surviving members of the band will take any offense, and they might even enjoy it. After all, Dave Grohl seems like a pretty cool guy.

Photo: Spin