SG: Hey, I'm with you on Nirvana. Not only were they the defining band of that decade, their ceiling was higher than anyone else's ceiling at the time. But that doesn't change the fact that Cobain's death was the best possible thing that could have happened to them. Looking back, Nirvana was a little like Lorne Michaels, who always gets credited for making sketch comedy popular on television. As John Landis pointed out in the recent SNL book, there were sketch comedy troupes flourishing all over the country at the time. Michaels was smart enough to realize that this format could translate to TV, and he was the first one to pull it off ... but it would have happened at some point. Yes, he deserves some credit; just not all of it.
Same goes for Nirvana and alternative rock. Too many people mistakenly credit Nirvana with launching the grunge genre in 1991, when the reality was that dozens of grunge/alternative bands were thriving in Seattle and Los Angeles at the time they broke through, stemming back to Jane's Addiction's success in the late '80s. For instance, Pearl Jam released "Ten" (their first album) on Aug. 27, 1991, four weeks before "Nevermind" (Nirvana's breakout album), and yet most people mistakenly believe that Pearl Jam piggybacked Nirvana's sound and rode their coattails.
College radio stations started playing Nirvana's album right away because they had credibility from their first two albums, but Pearl Jam's album took nearly six months to gain any momentum. When it finally did, "Ten" was just as big as "Nevermind," with the big difference being that "Ten" was rollicking and enjoyable, whereas "Nevermind" felt like a grander achievement, like something had happened. Nirvana was like John McEnroe; Pearl Jam was Jimmy Connors. That's the best way I can describe it. Connors was great, but he was no McEnroe.
(As for the Pumpkins, they released "Siamese Dream" in July of 1993, one of the best albums of that entire decade and something that still holds up 12 years later. Just a kick-butt album. Their big mistake happened two years later, when they released "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" as a two-disc album when it had maybe nine good songs on it; if that had been 12 songs and one disc, everyone would have loved it. Whatever. I've written this before, but the best career move Billy Corgan ever could have made was blowing his brains out like Cobain did. Instead, he became a raving self-parody and it affected the way people remembered his music. I still remember seeing the "1979" video and thinking, "Uh-oh, we're in trouble ... ")
Anyway, Pearl Jam released "Vs." (their second album) in October, 1993, one month before Nirvana released "In Utero" ... and absolutely crushed Nirvana with it. Look, I was there. People were disappointed in "In Utero" at the time; everyone loved "Vs.," which sold more records, received superior reviews and had twice as many good songs. By any criteria you can come up with, Pearl Jam was the biggest rock band in the world in 1993 and 1994. Meanwhile, Nirvana was teetering along because Cobain was slowly going crazy because of his destructive relationship with Courtney Love, his drug problem, his death wish, his aversion to fame capped off by the mediocre "MTV Unplugged" album in December of '94, which actually made me sad when I watched it for the first time. It was like the end of an era.