Though they’ll always be synonymous with grunge, Nirvana’s music has an indefinable magic that survives the ravages of time. The Seattle trio’s career was brief yet astronomical, and while they attained superstar status after their colossal second album, Nevermind, frontman Kurt Cobain’s death, in 1994, tragically curtailed the story of one of rock’s most singular bands. Nonetheless, they were here, they entertained us and they left us a body of work to cherish – as the 20 best Nirvana songs make abundantly clear.
20: Love Buzz
Nirvana’s first single may have been a cover of a song by Dutch psych-rockers Shocking Blue, but the band made it over entirely in their own image. Released as the first of Sub Pop’s exclusive Singles Club releases in November 1988, “Love Buzz” was limited to 1,000 copies, but succeeded in getting the band on the world’s radar. UK weekly Melody Maker’s review sagely noted, “Nirvana are beauty incarnate. A relentless two-chord garage beat which lays down some serious foundations for a sheer monster of a guitar to howl over.”
With the exception of the sublime “About A Girl,” Nirvana’s 1989 debut album, Bleach, primarily drew upon metal, punk, and the sludgy, proto-stoner rock of Seattle contemporaries Melvins to alchemize a formidable hybrid the wider world later dubbed “grunge.” A prime example of Bleach at its best, “School” was built around Kurt Cobain’s looming, cyclical riff and a supremely angsty chorus. As the storming version the band performed during their triumphant Reading ’92 reveals, it remained a fixture of their live set.
18: Been A Son
Originally a highlight of the Blew EP, issued post-Bleach, in December 1989, “Been A Son” was one of Kurt Cobain’s earliest commentaries on sex and gender. Its pointed lyrics (“She should have died when she was born/She should have worn a crown of thorns”) referred to what Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad described as “the plight of a girl whose parents would have preferred a boy.” In contrast to its tortured lyric, the infectious pop-punk of the music (producer Steve Fisk recalled the song’s “total Lennon harmonies, right out of Rubber Soul”) presaged what Nirvana would achieve with Nevermind.
17: Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
To the uninitiated, the idea of Nirvana recording one of the definitive Leadbelly songs might seem anathema, but as early as 1988, when he briefly formed a short-lived Nirvana side-project with Mark Lanegan, Kurt Cobain spent much of that band’s rehearsal time enthusing about the great country-blues man. Five years later, Nirvana concluded their widely-lauded MTV Unplugged appearance with a transcendent cover of the traditional song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” diligently following Leadbelly’s arrangement. Years later, hearing Cobain’s voice crack as he sings the final line, “I would shiver the whole night through,” is still utterly spine-chilling.
As believers in rock’s unwritten law which decrees that you can judge a band by the quality of their B-sides, Nirvana often saved their finest moments for their flips. A case in point is the formidable “Aneursym,” which – if it hadn’t been tucked away on the reverse of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – would surely have been a monster hit. The song’s chorus (“Love you so much it makes me sick”) reputedly relates to Kurt Cobain’s relationship with ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail, but whatever the truth of the matter, it’s a ferocious slice of bruising rock’n’roll.
Reputedly recorded in just an hour, standalone single “Sliver” (which Cobain later told Michal Azerrad was “fast and raw and perfect”) was Nirvana’s final release for Sub Pop, before they signed with Geffen. Captured prior to Dave Grohl joining the band, the song features Mudhoney’s Dan Peters on drums and it was released before Nirvana set out on their second European tour, during the autumn of 1990. Featuring a seemingly autobiographical Cobain lyric about being left with his grandparents for the day, “Sliver”’s inherent power emerges after a few listens.
14: Pennyroyal Tea
“Pennyroyal Tea” became one of the stand-outs from Nirvana’s third album, In Utero, from 1993, but it actually dated back to 1990 and was first performed live at Seattle’s OK Hotel in April 1991, at the same gig at which Nirvana also debuted “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Despite its wracked, angsty lyric concerning acute depression, “Pennyroyal Tea” was nonetheless highly tuneful, with a memorable, Beatles-esque riff and the quiet-loud dynamics Nirvana perfected. Intended to be released as In Utero’s third single, the song was remixed for radio by R.E.M. producer Scott Litt, but withdrawn after Kurt Cobain’s death in April 1994.
As with “Pennyroyal Tea,” “Dumb” can be traced back to 1990, when Nirvana sporadically began to feature it in their live set. Accentuated by guest cellist Kera Schaley in the studio, this low-key song represents the gentler, more reflective side of the band’s work, and it provides an essential oasis of calm on the otherwise visceral, Steve Albini-produced In Utero. Also a highlight of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged recording, “Dumb” was a confirmed band favorite, with bassist Krist Novoselic describing it as “a beautiful song” in a 2006 interview.
One of the numerous highlights from Nirvana’s game-changing second album, Nevermind, “Polly” features Kurt Cobain playing a five-string pawn shop guitar he bought for just $20. However, this stripped-down acoustic track (which was also performed in full electric mode live on occasion) is one of Cobain’s finest. Having read the true story of a young hitch-hiker who was kidnapped, brutally raped, and tortured with a blow torch, Cobain took the original 1987 newspaper article as his starting point and created an emotional backstory with real power which is accentuated by the restraint of his performance.
11: About A Girl
The first fully-fledged example of Kurt Cobain’s potent songwriting ability, “About A Girl” came from his love of the classic pop records – such as The Beatles’ Meet The Beatles! and The Knack’s Get The Knack – he was listening to in the run-up to recording Bleach with producer Jack Endino. “About A Girl” is frequently cited as that album’s peak, yet peer pressure almost prevented Cobain from putting it on the record. “To put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky,” he told Rolling Stone in 1993.
10: All Apologies
“All Apologies” first entered Nirvana’s live set during the British leg of the band’s tour following the release of Nevermind in the autumn of 1991, but it wasn’t until February 1993 that the group finally nailed it in the studio, with producer Steve Albini. As with the reflective “Dumb,” the hypnotic “All Apologies” contrasted starkly with much of the aggressive, nihilistic material making up the bulk of In Utero, and the song – which Cobain described as representing “peaceful, happy happiness” – has retained its otherworldly allure.
9: Serve The Servants
In Utero’s opening track, “Serve The Servants,” quickly dispelled the widespread pre-release rumors that Nevermind’s long-awaited follow-up would be aggressive to the point of being unlistenable. Largely autobiographical, the song addresses Cobain’s dysfunctional early family life and the pressures of fame (“Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old”), but the track itself is vigorous and energizing, with Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl all delivering impressive performances.
8: On A Plain
The line “One more special message to go/Then I’m done and I can go home” referred directly to the fact that Cobain had only just completed the lyric for Nevermind’s “On A Plain” just prior to recording it. Despite that, there was nothing dashed off about the performance of this superb pop-punk track, which simply smokes from start to finish and also features highly adept high-harmony vocals from Dave Grohl. Looking back on Nevermind in a 2004 interview, producer Butch Vig later referred to “On A Plain” as simply “a great pop song.” We can only concur.
7: Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle
Another of the more linear tracks from In Utero, chugging rocker “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle” was directly influenced by William Arnold’s Shadowland, a biographical novel based upon actress and television host Farmer, whose life was blighted by mental health issues and who was committed to an asylum against her will. Of the song’s anger and pathos-fuelled lyric, Cobain told Rolling Stone, “I guess that’s my way of letting the world know that bureaucracy is everywhere and it can happen to anybody and it’s a really evil thing.”
6: Drain You
Superficially a dynamic and anthemic rocker, Nevermind’s “Drain You” takes a few unlikely twists and turns along the way. For one thing, it was a love song written from the point of view of two babies sharing the same hospital bed, with lyrics like “I travel through a tube and end up in your infection” presaging the medical themes Kurt Cobain would explore more thoroughly on In Utero. Also, during the instrumental section, Cobain eschewed a regular guitar solo in favor of a highly effective Sonic Youth-esque noise breakdown which further ramped up the tension already inherent in the song.
5: In Bloom
A great example of Nirvana’s quiet-loud dynamics, Nevermind’s “In Bloom” is held in almost as high a regard as the album’s three monster singles. Switching adroitly between moody, bass-driven verses and euphoric choruses, the song has all the hallmarks of a classic anthem performed by a band at the very top of their game. Cobain’s lyric (“He’s the one, who likes all our pretty songs”) was intended as a dig at those who began jumping on the grunge bandwagon after Nirvana’s profile began to rise. To the millions who were seduced by Nevermind, however, it just sounded like the greatest of celebrations.
4: Come As You Are
“Come As You Are” circles around a riff akin to both Killing Joke’s “Eighties” and The Damned’s “Life’s Goes On,” but that’s where the similarities end. Indeed, the song is a moody alt.rock anthem driven by a band performance that simply explodes when it hits pay dirt come the chorus. Geffen were undecided whether to release “Come As You Are” or “In Bloom” as the follow-up to the phenomenal “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but in the end the former got the nod, duly rewarding Cobain and company with their second US hit and their second UK Top 10 success.
3: Heart-Shaped Box
Arguably In Utero’s pinnacle, its lead single, “Heart-Shaped Box,” was initially inspired by a box of a similar design given to Kurt Cobain by his wife, Courtney Love. The Nirvana frontman later told biographer Michael Azerrad that the song’s visceral lyric was also influenced by documentaries about children suffering from cancer, but rumors persist that it’s really a love song (albeit an obscure one) from Kurt to his high-profile spouse. All speculation aside, “Heart-Shaped Box” is an absolute tour de force and its striking Anton Corbijn-directed promotional video won two awards, including Best Alternative Video, at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards.
Due to its shifting tempos, “Lithium” was reputedly the song that was hardest to nail during the Nevermind sessions, but the effort was worth it, for it’s an absolute stunner. Full of light and shade, with the deceptively jazzy verses running up against storming choruses, all topped off with one of Cobain’s most impassioned vocals, “Lithium” is as close to perfection as pop-tinged punk gets. In a 1992 interview with Flipside, Cobain revealed that song’s lyric (“I’m not scared/Light my candles in a daze/’Cause I’ve found God”) concerned a guy who turns to religion after the death of his girlfriend “as a last resort to keep him alive.” But the song’s aura of mystery has remained thrillingly intact.
1: Smells Like Teen Spirit
It’s inevitable that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would top this list of the best Nirvana songs, but even now the dust has long since settled, it’s hard not to marvel at this remarkable track. It’s true the strange title came from a throwaway jibe Cobain’s friend Kathleen Hanna made about a deodorant, and it’s equally well-documented that the music was influenced by Pixies’ loud-quiet dynamic, but none of the minutiae dilutes the fact that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is simply one of the great rock songs of all time and an anthem for a generation. “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” Cobain told Rolling Stone in a January 1994 interview. Guess what? He did.
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