Nirvana Topped the Billboard 200 25 Years Ago, But Garth Brooks & MC Hammer Still Dominated the Charts
The Washington Redskins were on their way to winning their third Super Bowl in ten years, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was about to spend a month as the nation's top-grossing film and President George H.W. Bush had just thrown up on the Prime Minister of Japan. And on the Billboard 200 albums chart dated January 11, 1992, a symbolic changing of the guard was taking place within the pop world, as Michael Jackson -- arguably the most iconic artist of the '80s -- was knocked off the top spot by Nirvana, the band that would go on to define so much about the '90s.
The story of Nirvana's Nevermind toppling MJ's Dangerous atop the Billboard albums chart has taken on near-mythic lore in the band's biography, and also in the decade's general narrative: This was the moment when alt-rock officially took over the mainstream, ushering in an era of flannel shirts, Buzz Clip videos and quiet verses followed by loud choruses. But of course, the real story of Nirvana and grunge's temporary ascension to pop primacy was not nearly so straightforward -- as browsing through that week's Billboard 200 and accompanying charts will tell you.
Here's a quick look at what else was happening in the music world the week Nirvana took over.
Garth Brooks stayed lurking. A panned-out look at the album charts at the end of '91 and '92 reveals that it wasn't Nirvana, Michael Jackson or even U2 (whose classic Achtung Baby reigned briefly before Dangerous) that really dominated that period's sales -- all were basically flirtations distracting from America's love affair with Garth Brooks, who had the No. 2 album on Jan. 11 with third album Ropin' the Wind. Nevermind only ruled the 200 for two non-consecutive weeks, which served to break up another ten-week reign for Garth, after the set had already topped the charts for eight weeks the year before. By year's end, a new Garth LP (The Chase) would spend another eight weeks at No. 1, giving the country superstar by far the biggest market share in 1992 pop music.
MC Hammer was still enormous. The same week that Nevermind hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the album's legendary lead single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" hit its ultimate peak position at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sandwiching "Teen Spirit," however, were two singles by Oakland rapper MC Hammer, whose Too Legit to Quit album was perhaps a mild disappointment compared to the Diamond-certified success of 1990's Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em, but was absolutely massive by any other contemporary MC's standards. The album ranked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 that week, with its title track and the Addams Family soundtrack contribution "Addams Groove" flanking the Hot 100's top 10.
British indie dance was breathing its last gasps. It's practically been lost to history by this point, but before Nirvana's breakout, perhaps the biggest thing in '90s alternative rock came from overseas, where U.K. bands were laying thick guitar hooks over funky drum grooves and scoring massive hits on both sides of the Atlantic. But by January 11 of '92, the mini-British Invasion was badly in need of reinforcements, with breakout albums like Jesus Jones' Doubt (No. 103) and EMF's Schubert Dip (No. 112) starting to fade from view. One of the era's final success stories came with Ned's Atomic Dustbin, whose God Fodder debuted on the 200 that week at No. 164 and began climbing from there -- but peaked at a middling No. 91, with Americans ultimately deciding that they preferred sludgy guitars to James Brown drum breaks.
American alternative was creeping up from behind... The albums chart from the week Nirvana assumed the throne doesn't paint a portrait of a pop society totally overthrown by the grungers, but it does look like one where mini-insurrections were starting to pop up all over the place. The only alt-rockers in the top 50 on Jan. 11 were previously established '80s acts like U2, R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but look a little deeper, and you can see future stars like Soundgarden (Badmotorfinger, No. 88), Nine Inch Nails (Pretty Hate Machine, No. 94), Pearl Jam (Ten, No. 143) and Alice in Chains (Facelift, No. 163) starting to poke their heads out -- as well as Nirvana's own heroes the Pixies (Trompe Le Monde, No. 193). By decade's end, all of 'em would score No. 1 albums of their own (except the Pixies, who broke up shortly after), and you could see the seeds being sown for their future dominance here.
...but alt-rock radio was still playing The Ocean Blue and Enya (!!). Ironically, the Billboard 200 on Jan. 11 was a much better indicator of the sound of rock radio to come than the actual alternative charts. Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, NIN, Alice in Chains -- none were to be found on that week's alt-rock listings, then known as the Modern Rock chart. Instead, the chart was led by megastars U2 and Nirvana, and then by forgotten Hershey, PA janglers The Ocean Blue ("Ballerina Out of Control," No. 3) and new-age maven Enya ("Caribbean Blue," No. 4), then considered modern rock for lack of a better radio classification. The rest of the year's Modern Rock No. 1s -- mostly from '80s holdovers like Peter Gabriel, The B-52's and Morrissey -- show just how long it took alternative radio to catch up to Nevermind's revolution.