When looking back through the annals of rock and roll you have to take your interest back to the golden age of pop music in the 1960s to find an artist as influential as Nirvana.
Not since The Beatles broke out on The Ed Sullivan Show and, as Ozzy Osbourne once said, gave “everything colour”, has a band had as much of a seismic impact on pop culture at large. The reality is when the dusky oranges of Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ video hit MTV it sent a similar shockwave across generations, territory borders and the world as a whole as to when the four lads from Liverpool stepped on to Sullivan’s stage.
Ever since they burst onto the worldwide scene in 1991 with their seminal album Nevermind and their set of Gen-X grunge anthems Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl have had a habit of informing a whole heap of music that came after them. There isn’t a decent rock band in the world worth one’s hard-earned salt who wouldn’t cite Cobain’s pop subversion on that record, and others, as one of the crowning moments of alternative music in the last 30 years.
It’s easy to get lost in the mythos of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Whenever a pop idol loses their life earlier than expected, it is a tragedy that is felt beyond the parameters of their fandom. But when that loss of life comes at the singer’s own hands, then the situation’s gravity feels inescapable. Of course, Cobain went one step further and saw fit to blame the increased fame and pressure as the central reason for killing himself, leaving his fans crushed in more ways than one.
It has meant that we were never afforded the opportunity to see what kind of music Cobain and the band would have made when they eventually grew out of the grunge scene as their contemporaries did. Would they have become a softer version of themselves or would their punk notions have come to the fore? Sadly, we’ll never know
However, we are still lucky to be able to enjoy the plethora of classic grunge anthems that the band did make during their brief period at the top of the music pile. Below, we’ve picked out 20 of our favourite Nirvana songs.
Nirvana’s 20 best songs:
20. ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’
The fifth song on 1993’s In Utero tells the tale of Frances Farmer, a 30-year-old film star who was demonised in the press and eventually incarcerated and subjected to electric shock therapy and other forms of abuse that intended to rid her of her mental illness.
As it transpires, the true story had a profound impact on Cobain, who saw parallels between how Farmer had been treated and how his wife, Courtney Love, was treated in the press in the early 1990s.
‘Polly’ is yet another excruciatingly haunting release from Nirvana. Released as the sixth song on Nevermind, the song tells the tale of an unfortunate rape victim escaping her attacker. The idea of the song allegedly came from a newspaper article about a real-life attack during which a young girl was tortured with a blowtorch.
To add to the disturbing nature of the song, the narrator in the lyrics is the rapist himself, who appears helpless. The line that lingers in the sickening stomach is: “She caught me off my guard, amazes me the will of instinct”.
‘Lithium’ is among Nirvana’s most memorable tracks from their masterpiece Nevermind. The narrative for the track presents a man who has found god following the death of his girlfriend. His religion brings him comfort at the difficult juncture in his life, just like a dose of the Lithium-based antidepressant medication.
“I’ve always felt that some people should have religion in their lives,” Cobain said of the track in an interview with Michael Azerrad. “That’s fine. If it’s going to save someone, it’s OK. And the person in [‘Lithium’] needed it.”
17. ‘You Know You’re Right’
This track was debuted live in October 1993 in Chicago during a live performance. It was later recorded in the studio during the group’s final recording session in January 1994 before Cobain’s death in April.
The song, therefore, gives us one of the clearest indications of what we might have expected had Cobain not died, and Nirvana had continued to make their fourth record. The sound is a little less abrasive than much of the music heard on In Utero but still continues the haunted, brooding sound the group identified with.
16. ‘Mexican Seafood’
‘Mexican Seafood’ is one of the earliest releases Nirvana recorded, appearing on their first demo tape. The raw and choppy number seeps with gore and depravity; what it lacks in the haunting qualities of some of the group’s later material, it makes up for in repulsion and gore.
With lyrics like “Now I vomit cum and diarrhoea / on the tile floor like oatmeal pizza,” and “Stained dirt, vaseline, toe jam and booger / Stomach acid worms that dance in sugared sludge.” It’s clear that Nirvana were setting out to attain a certain shock factor in their music.
15. ‘Milk It’
Nirvana’s music is well known for its shock factor and audacious statements. Their back catalogue is packed with unsightly themes, including gore, innuendo, rape, drugs and self-harm. It can sometimes be hard to remember that Cobain had a great, albeit twisted, sense of humour.
The messages are put forward semi-seriously throughout much of the group’s music – often, the humour is mildly apparent. But in ‘Milk It’, we hear one of Cobain’s more earnest and obvious cries for help: “look on the bright side, suicide.”
14. ‘Territorial Pissings’
This classic from Nevermind is a clever and unforgiving jab at the listener. The lyrics are provocative and destructive, just as any self-respecting rock track should be. The lyric that sticks out particularly is one of Cobain’s finest: “just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.”
The energetic performance seen below seems to encapsulate the middle-finger-to-convention-and-authority attitude the group identified with at the time as they looked to defy Jonathan Ross’ introduction. Ross introduces the band announcing that they will be playing ‘Lithium’; instead, they break out into the choppy and confrontational ‘Territorial Pissings’.
13. ‘Come As You Are’
‘Come As You Are’ is one of Nirvana’s most loved and accessible tracks, thanks to its instantly recognisable bass line. The song received ample air-time on US radio waves and helped to buoy the 1991 album Nevermind to number six on the US Billboard chart. Besides ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the track was the only other Nirvana single to reach the top ten.
The song beautifully resembles Nirvana’s classic “loud-quiet-loud” style, which Cobain openly derived from the Pixies, whom he adored. The MTV Unplugged version below is particularly arresting with the repetition of “I don’t have a gun” sending a shiver down the spine.
12. ‘Something In The Way’
‘Something In The Way’ marks one of the more memorable of Nirvana’s slower haunting tracks. The depressing, mournful ballad was purportedly written about Cobain having lived for a short period under a bridge in the midst of his famous struggles with addiction.
According to Butch Vig, the producer of Nevermind, the track was recorded with Cobain lying with his back on the studio floor while playing an out-of-tune five-string acoustic guitar.
11. ‘All Apologies’
‘All Apologies’ was initially released on In Utero, the group’s third and final studio album. However, the version that sticks in our memory the most was on the group’s live album MTV Unplugged, recorded at the famous unplugged concert in November 1993.
The already eerie song was made all the more chilly following Kurt Cobain’s death. The lyrics appear almost as an early suicide note musing regrets and internal battles. “I wish I was like you, easily amused” he sings, then later “Married/ Buried/ Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”.
10. ‘Serve The Servants’
The opening track on Nirvana’s third album, In Utero, ‘Serve the Servants’ has been a fan favourite ever since the Seattle trio released their third and final studio album in September 1993. Featuring one of Kurt Cobain’s best riffs, it is one of the best blends of pop melodies and punk attitude that Nirvana ever made. Cobain’s guitar solo is vintage, and the cues it took from Neil Young’s work Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere are clear.
The chorus is also stellar, and you instantly press replay as soon as the song has finished. Slightly languid in pace, with dissonant elements thrown in for good measure, this is classic Nirvana.
Written by frontman Kurt Cobain, ‘Blew’ is the album opener from the band’s 1989 debut, Bleach. One of the band’s sludgier moments, this is the track that is perhaps the closest to the sound of their grunge peers Alice in Chains, and the heavy detuned riff that carries the song was clearly influenced by their good friends Melvins.
In 2009 bassist Krist Novoselic explained that the song is his favourite from the album because “it has a groove, and again, it’s the sole survivor of the Doom Pop experiment.” Alongside ‘Scentless Apprentice’, it is the rawest cut the band ever released, and its pounding groove has you moving instantly.
‘Aneurysm’ has long been coveted within Nirvana’s back catalogue. It was first released as the B-side to the band’s thunderous breakthrough hit ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in September 1991, before being released as part of the rarities compilation Incesticide in December 1992.
There’s so much to love about this track. The introduction, the way it segues into a different rhythm, and the constantly evolving dynamics of the song keep you on your toes, and duly, it is one of the most refreshing songs Nirvana made.
The opening lyrics are nothing short of iconic: “Come on over, do the twist, aha / Overdo it and have a fit, aha / Love you so much, it makes me sick”.
7. ‘Scentless Apprentice’
Famously, the riff of ‘Scentless Apprentice’ was written by drummer Dave Grohl, an early indicator of the quality of his songwriting prowess, something he confirmed when the Foo Fighters broke out with their second album, The Colour and the Shape in 1997. Ostensibly a hardcore punk riff, this In Utero track harked back to the trio’s roots in the scene.
Blending the manic attitude of My War-era Black Flag with Nirvana’s penchant for a melody, it’s songs like these that make us wish Nirvana had produced more tracks that were concerned with the heavier side of music, as they did it so well. Cobain’s totally loses it towards the end of the track, and his vocals make it sound like he’s about to combust. We love it.
6. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’
The ninth track on In Utero, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ starts acoustically before it kicks in, and Cobain screams, “sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea”. Bordering on euphoric, this is one of the rare Nirvana songs that simultaneously evokes an emotional response but also makes you want to break something.
It also features one of Cobain’s best guitar solos, short sweet, and an earworm, those who discredit Cobain’s guitar playing are so wrong. He wasn’t the most technically proficient guitarist, sure, but he did have a knack for writing quality riffs. The song was set to be released as the third single from In Utero in April 1994, but was recalled following Cobain’s death that month.
5. ‘On a Plain’
I don’t care what anyone says, ‘On a Plain’ is one of the ultimate Nirvana songs. The way it kicks in, with one of Cobain’s signature chord progressions before jumping into the pre-chorus line “I love myself better than you” and then the anthemic chorus is incredible.
You get some of Krist Novoselic’s best work here too, and his slinky bassline carries the whole thing, linking up with both Cobain’s guitar line and the drums to create one of the band’s most electrifying moments. Released as a promo single after ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and becoming a moderate hit in its own right, it’s songs such as these that confirm why Nevermind continues to be so lauded.
This is one of the best examples of Cobain’s ability to fuse pop melodies with punk energy and augment them with sardonic lyricism, and it doesn’t disappoint. Even the way it fades out at the end, with the repeated “ooh ooh”, is legendary.
4. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Although ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ has plenty of detractors, which is understandable for a song so overplayed, I don’t think anyone can doubt just how game-changing Nirvana’s breakout single was when it hit the airwaves in 1991. Borrowing the quiet-loud-quiet dynamics that Pixies had popularised in the alternative scene during the late ’80s, overnight ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ reasserted the dominance of guitar music and killed off hair metal in an instant.
Be it the lyrics, the riff, Krist Novoselic’s bassline, Dave Grohl’s drumming, the guitar solo, this song has everything, and in many ways, it was Nirvana at their best. Cobain’s vocal melodies and guitar lines combine in an intoxicating manner, and there’s no surprise that Generation X was galvanised when it first heard the track. A crossover hit, with a timeless appeal to the jaded and dejected everywhere, we’ll still be hearing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in years to come.
3. ‘In Bloom’
We’ve all heard the original version of ‘In Bloom’ that featured drummer Chad Channing and it has nothing on the Dave Grohl version. Another testament to Grohl’s skill as a drummer, the slight tweak he made to the song is indicative of how much one part can alter the complexion of a piece entirely.
Grohl added that iconic double kick on the bass drum, which filled in the space that Channing left in the original. Linking up with Krist Novoselic’s droning bassline in the verse, it gives the track the constant pull that we all know and love.
‘In Bloom’ is an anthem in every sense of the word. Utilising the quiet-loud-quiet dynamics that Nirvana made their own on Nevermind, as soon as Cobain starts so scream “and” before the chorus, you know you’re in for a treat.
Then we have the guitar solo. Drenched in chorus, creating a real swell, it is just so good. Full of energy and angst, this was Nirvana at their creative zenith. The stars aligned for them when making Nevermind, and on ‘In Bloom’, this is clear.
2. ‘Drain You’
An absolute banger. Another masterclass in fusing pop melodies with the raw power of punk, ‘Drain You’ is a thrill from start to finish. Totally dynamic, and a sonic reflection of Nirvana at the peak of their powers, before fame and all its trappings had taken a toll, this was the Seattle sound at its finest, bolstered by the brilliant yet polarising work of Butch Vig.
The middle section is one of my favourite parts in the whole of the band’s discography. Sinister, noisy and dissonant, it pulls you in, submerges you in the atmosphere, and you don’t know where it’s headed.
Cobain’s reverb-drenched screams then tell you exactly where you’re going. For another round. It then jumps back into the verse, where Cobain sings, “it is now my duty to completely drain you”.
The chorus, which features the overdubbed vocals of Cobain, gives it a thickness, a warmth that really stands out in Nevermind. A wholly underrated track of the band’s, it’s about time it gets more plaudits.
1. ‘Heart-Shaped Box’
It was a hard decision to make, but it had to be ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ that got the top spot. The first single from Nirvana’s In Utero, it was released in August 1993 and marked a much darker and heavier direction for the band. The album was produced by legendary musician Steve Albini, and the visceral sound he employed in Shellac and Big Black, was now fused with Nirvana, creating a marvellous racket.
Cobain wrote the song in early 1992, and forgot about it until he and wife Courtney Love moved into a property in the Hollywood Hills in 1993. In a 1994 interview, Love recalled that she heard Cobain working on the main riff, so she asked him if she could use it for her band, Hole. Allegedly, the Nirvana frontman responded: “Fuck you!” and closed the door.
The song’s lyrics are particularly dark. Cobain said the song was inspired by documentaries about children with cancer. He told biographer Michael Azerrad, “Anytime I think about it, it makes me sadder than anything I can think of.” He also stated that the song’s chorus of “Hey / Wait / I’ve got a new complaint” was him sarcastically discussing his portrayal in the media.
A gargantuan song that retained Cobain’s pop melodies, but reinforced them with Steve Albini’s metallic production, it alludes to the direction that Nirvana were heading in prior to Cobain’s death. The bridge between where they came from and where they were heading, everything about ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ is iconic.