“With Kurt Cobain, you felt you were connecting to the real person, not to a perception of who he was — you were not connecting to an image or a manufactured cut-out. You felt that between you and him there was nothing — it was heart-to-heart. There are very few people who have that ability.” – Lars Ulrich, Metallica.
Aptly described as an “international phenomenon” by former manager Danny Goldberg, Kurt Cobain spearheaded a wave that defined a generation. Formed in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1987, Nirvana would go on to soundtrack Generation X’s perpetual struggle against the perceived ills of their parent’s generation and the societal pressures neoliberal economics had placed on them.
An incredible songwriter who blended the pop melodies of The Beatles with the visceral ethos of hardcore punk bands such as Black Flag, Cobain tapped into a pulse that hadn’t really been touched since The Beatles first arrived on the scene in the early ’60s. Indeed a cultural phenomenon, Nirvana provided a soundtrack for the jaded and misunderstood everywhere.
Frontman Cobain quickly gained iconic status, a level afforded to him because of his musicianship, much-publicised relationship with Hole frontwoman Courtney Love, and, later, his tragic suicide in April 1994. As the chief songwriter, Cobain discussed themes covering parental abandonment, childhood isolation, heroin addiction and depression.
There is no doubt about Cobain’s dark genius. Nirvana kicked down the door for alternative music in the ’90s, and the massive scope of Cobain’s influence is still heard today. Contemporary heavyweights such as Lana Del Ray, Muse and Machine Gun Kelly all cite him as an enormous influence on their music. Either directly or by proxy, Cobain’s character lives on throughout the musical realm.
He is often noted for his guitar playing, and whilst not technically the most proficient, he created a style of playing that went on to establish the blueprint of all alternative guitar players moving into the future. However, he also had a totally unique voice, which without, Nirvana would not have been the same. Whilst lacking the operatic register of Seattle contemporaries Layne Staley and Chris Cornell, what Cobain delivered in his vocal melodies was passion, a fire that came straight from his soul.
Furthermore, due to his cigarette smoking and drug use, it is almost certain that if Cobain had lived 0 and continued not looking after his voice – it would have lost its raw power as has happened with many of rock’s other hedonistic creatures, including Iggy Pop and Axl Rose.
Regardless, Kurt Cobain‘s voice was nothing short of iconic. At points a soft, introspective whimper, and at others a defiant growl, if we look at the disparity between the feel of ‘Something in the Way’ and ‘Scentless Apprentice’, you see that Cobain was a very versatile vocalist. Fittingly, Cobain had a wide variety of favourite vocalists. Just like the eclectic array of musicians that influenced his guitar playing, Cobain’s favourite vocalists hailed from far and wide.
Whilst he never gave a definitive list of his favourite vocalists, there is plenty of discourse that exists surrounding his favourite artists, and from this, we’ve compiled a list of just ten artists who it is safe to say would have ranked highly on Cobain’s list.
Where else to start than with one of his earliest influences, The Beatles? It’s harder to find people that the band’s frontman John Lennon hasn’t influenced in comparison to the innumerable amount he has. In fact, the 1965 Beatles track ‘In My Life’, from Rubber Soul, held such a special place in Cobain’s heart that it was played as part of his funeral service. A year earlier, in 1993, Cobain also revealed to Rolling Stone that he found a kindred spirit in the life and music of Lennon. He said: “John Lennon was definitely my favourite Beatle, hands down. I don’t know who wrote what parts of what Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney embarrasses me. Lennon was obviously disturbed (laughs). So I could relate to that.” In fact, on a personal level, there are so many parallels that can be drawn between Lennon and Cobain. Whilst musically very different, Lennon’s impact on Cobain cannot be understated, and even drummer Dave Grohl has mentioned on various occasions the critical impact the Beatles had on Cobain and Nirvana.
Another honourable mention has to go to Buzz Osborne of Seattle sludge pioneers Melvins. The fuzzy-haired frontman also has a unique vocal style that has flecks of both Robert Plant and Black Flag-era Henry Rollins. Embodying a somewhat unhinged vocal style totally of the left-field, Cobain was a staunch fan of Osborne and the band. This was so much so that he helped produce their magnum opus, 1993’s Houdini. Unwilling to conform, there can be no doubt that Osborne’s visceral vocals influenced Cobain.
Furthermore, a band that needs discussion are the Scottish cult heroes, The Vaselines. Fronted by couple Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, Cobain’s inner softness was touched by their songs concerning love and harmony. The Vaseline’s massive soul touched a nerve with Cobain, and one would wager that all of his most honest vocal points, ‘Polly’, ‘About a Girl’ and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, all contained the influence of Kelly and McKee.
In 1992, Cobain said: “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I just think it’s a really amazing thing when a couple can get together and write some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. They’re kind of sharing their life with people. Eugene and Francis are the Captain & Tennille of the underground.” This spirit Cobain would continue to embody throughout his career, and his vocal lines are embued with the honesty of the Vaselines.
Another band that had a critical impact was Portland heroes, Wipers. In Cobain’s famous list of his 50 favourite albums of all time, he mentioned not one or two but three different albums from Wipers. Understandably, Cobain was explicit about their influence. He said: “The first two (albums) were totally classic and influenced the Melvins and all the other punk rock bands. They’re another band I tried to assimilate,” admitted the singer, who was never shy to magpie his way through the archives of rock. “Their songs were so good.”
Cobain had a particular affection for Wipers’ leader, Greg Sage “(He) was pretty much the romantic, quiet, visionary kind of guy. What more can I say about them? They started Seattle grunge rock in Portland, 1977.” When you compare the vocal styles of Sage and Cobain, there are many similarities. Angry and defiant, it is safe to regard Sage as somewhat of a proto-Cobain. Snarling and powerful, Sage’s vocals are heard not just within Cobain’s but in a lot of the grunge scene’s other frontmen.
As you can tell from just four of these vocal influences outlined, Cobain was a dense character, a Gordian knot of emotions, who took from across the musical sphere. The other main vocal influences on him range from Lead Belly to Buzzcocks’s Pete Shelley and Daniel Johnston. Furthermore, Cobain would not have possessed such a fluctuating vocal style without the equally as impressive techniques of dynamic Pixies frontman, Black Francis, the power of the Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood, and the ephemeral artistry of David Bowie.
He once labelled his lyrics “a big pile of contradictions.” This sentiment can also be ascribed to his vocal range, which, like the band’s sonic dynamics, were an ever-changing flurry of emotions. The late Nirvana frontman was nothing short of a genius. He knew when and how to propel emotion, and as Lars Ulrich’s statement attested at this piece’s inception, this is what really endeared him to fans.
His musical ability was totally unique and was a rich tapestry of many contradictory genres and artists. This density made recognise something of themselves in him, and without his legendary vocal style, Nirvana would not have been the same.
One of the most influential vocalists of all time, no one can argue with the massive impact Cobain has had on informing rock’s vocal sensibility’s moving forward. Do you really think modern alt-rock heroes such as Wolf Alice or even Yungblud would exist as they do without the overarching impact of Cobain? Find below a complete list of Kurt Cobain’s favourite vocalists of all time as well as an introductory playlist too.
Kurt Cobain’s favourite vocalists:
- John Lennon
- Buzz Osborne
- Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee
- Greg Sage
- Lead Belly
- Pete Shelley
- Daniel Johnston
- Black Francis
- Curt Kirkwood
- David Bowie