Kurt Cobain’s record collection has been a point of adoration for fans ever since his top 50 albums of all time were listed as part of a book that documented all of the Nirvana singer’s notebooks and journals in 2002. At the time, the book arrived with some controversy as fans debated the moral legitimacy of printing confidential material from a deceased icon’s most sacred scripts.
However, the list of Cobain’s 50 favourite albums of all time was widely received as a fascinating insight into the Nirvana frontman’s life and his penchant for punk rock. The list provided a straight line from his inspirations to Nirvana’s most significant work. It showed that Cobain could walk the grunge walk as he selected a myriad of underground and unheard bands. It was music to the ears of his fans.
The only trouble with the list we all know, love and listen to is that it offers very little reflection on the records from Cobain. A host of different artists and genres are covered but without much clarification as to why they were selected in the first place. Their names simply appear beyond any reasonable connection or influence.
Thanks to a 1992 edition of Melody Maker, however, we are allowed to read Kurt Cobain opening up about ten of his favourite albums from that well-worn list, or as they call it, the ’10 albums that changed my life’. The fact they happen to be the more underground LPs speaks of Cobain’s willingness to highlight such bands, and his passion for the record cannot be underestimated.
One of the first albums he spoke of is Breeders’ classic record Pod, an album that can boast a host of impressive fans. Cobain is undoubtedly part of their supports, and, discussing the album, he stated: “It’s an epic that will never let you forget your ex-girlfriend”. He clarifies his point, suggesting that the band’s strong personalities are what seals the deal: “I love their attitude. ‘Doe’, the song about where a girl gives a boy head and he pats her on the head like a doe, is very funny,” he said. “They’re strong women, but it’s not that obvious. They’re not militant about it at all. You can sense they love men at the same time.”
Another classic that will be forever aligned with Cobain is the Pixies seminal album Surfer Rosa. “A die-cast metal fossil of misplaced craft, with or without the fucking production,” claims diehard fan Cobain. But aside from the production and the great songs, for Cobain, the album changed his way of thinking, “I was completely nihilistic up until about four or five years ago, when I first heard this. It changed my attitude. It made me finally admit, after being into punk rock for so many years, that I liked other styles of music as well. It made me finally admit that I’m a music lover.”
Moving through the defining collection of records, The Vaselines are another band that remain intrinsically linked to both Cobain and Nirvana, least of all because they covered ‘Molly’s Lips’ and most of all because Cobain simply adored them. The duo of the band, which Cobain typifies with “Eugene + Francis = documented love,” offered up a harmonious image that endeared the Nirvana singer to the band. “Could I imagine myself and Courtney ever doing something like that? Absolutely. We play together all the time,” admitted Cobain. Sadly, that will never be.
Elsewhere, opening up about The Shaggs and their record Philosophy of the World, Cobain offers up a little history lesson on the group: “They were all sisters, with their evil uncle making plans for them. I heard this one live song – a Carpenters song, maybe? – where they must have been playing a day centre, and the screams in the background are louder than the music. The Shaggs are another archetypal K band. Am I a Calvinist (Calvin Johnson, the leader of Beat Happening and founder of K records where Cobain lived)? No.”
It would seem that Cobain hit upon a theme, and the singer selects some more confrontational avant-garde punk as he explains the appeal of Jad Fair’s record Great Expectations: “I like to listen to Jad Fair and Half-Japenese with headphones on walking around the shopping malls, in the heart of American culture.”
Walking around such vacuous places with this kind of music has a habit of developing an impenetrable disdain for Joe Public: “I just think that, if people could hear this music right now, they’d melt, they wouldn’t know what to do, they’d start bouncing off the walls and hyperventilating.” With that, Cobain employed a plan to make that happen: “So I turn up the speakers really loud and pretend it was blasting through the speaker on the malls.”
Another K Records alumni featured on Cobain’s list is Shonen Knife, a Japanese band, and their record Burning Farm. “Eventually, after a week of listening to it every day, I just started crying,” confides Cobain. “I just couldn’t believe that three people from a totally different culture could write songs as good as those, because I’d never heard any other Japanese music or artist who ever came up with anything good.” For Cobain, “Everything about them is just so fucking endearing I’m sure that I was twice as nervous to meet them as they were to meet us.”
However, with all things considered, it perhaps one band specifically that had the greatest influence on him on this list; The Wipers. Their record Is This Real? influenced swathes of musicians in the Pacific North West, and Cobain was undoubtedly one of them. Speaking with Melody Maker, Cobain said: “The Wipers were a Portland punk band who started in the late ‘70s by Greg Sage and released maybe four or five albums. The first two were totally classic, and influenced the Melvins and all other punks rock bands.
“They’re another band I tried to assimilate. Their songs are so good. Greg Sage 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,” that very scene would give birth to Cobain’s own launchpad and cement the north-west as a place of creative fertility.
However, it wasn’t all about turning up the distortion and trying to fuzz people out of their minds; for Cobain, experimenting with music was essential. One album that seemed to satisfy that need without the buzzsaw riffs was Colossal Youth from Young Marble Giants: “This music relaxes you, it’s total atmospherics,” he commented. “The drum machine has to be the cheesiest sound ever. I had a crush on the singer for a while – didn’t everyone?”
While Cobain loves the song, he admitted beyond that he knew very little about the band. “I don’t know much about them. I first heard Colossal Youth on the radio, after I started getting into K music when I live in Olympia. It was a year before I put out the Bleach album.”
The same cannot be said for his next pick, the brilliant Leadbelly and his famous Last Session. For Cobain, Leadbelly represented the crowning achievement of music, and much of that was down to the advice of beat writer William S. Burroughs. About the record, Cobain said, “Burroughs said that if you want to hear true, honest music with passion, then you should hear Leadbelly.”
“The songs are just amazingly heartfelt. Leadbelly was this poor black man in the early 1900s who went to jail a few times for wife-beating and robbery and getting into fights and bootlegging liquor,” he adds. “While he was in prison, he started playing the guitar, and he sang so well that the governor started to like him and let him out of jail.”
There is one big statement left to be made, however, as Cobain selected the Sex Pistols album Nevermind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. While the selection isn’t surprising, his assertion is that it’s “a million times more important than The Clash.”
“How do I explain that? Hmm, Both were the original punk bands, but The Clash were always a bad imitation of The Rolling Stones, in love with America. But at least they took their girlfriends on tour with them (The Slits). Their music was terrible, though,” Cobain said, before adding: “The Pistols album has the best production of any rock record I’ve ever heard. It’s totally in-your-face and compressed. All the hype The Sex Pistols had was totally deserved … they deserved everything that they got. Johnny Rotten was the one I identified with, he was the sensitive one.”
Whether you can agree with Cobain’s assertion or not, the facts remain that the Nirvana singer had a different outlook on life compared to many people. His deliberate non-conformism and love for the avant-garde made him the perfect record recommender. It’s too easy to say, “hey, guess what, London Calling is a great album, you should listen to it.” Instead, Cobain was keen to highlight the weirder and more wonderful moments in music and celebrate their peculiarity.
Below, we’re doing just that with a stellar playlist of the ten albums that changed Kurt Cobain’s life.
Kurt Cobain’s 10 favourite albums:
- Pod – Breeders
- Surfer Rosa – Pixies
- Dying For It – The Vaselines
- Philosophy Of The World – The Shaggs
- Great Expectations – Jad Fair
- Burning Farm – Shonen Knife
- Is This Real – The Wipers
- Colossal Youth – Young Marble Giants
- Last Session – Leadbelly