Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Nirvana
Nirvana are undeniably one of the most significant rock bands of the last century. Together, they shaped a new way of interpreting alternative rock and became both music and cultural references for many of us born in the late period of generation X. It goes without saying that the Nirvana phenomenon was catalysed by the charisma of Kurt Cobain, the band’s lead singer who left this world too early.
Together with Krist Novoselic on bass and Dave Grohl on drums (original drummer Chad Channing left after recording their debut album), Nirvana brought a revolution in music, sealing the post-punk scene for good in the late 1980s and prepared the ground for letting grunge becoming an overwhelming chapter of alternative rock. The combination of blending pop song structures with heavy and bass sounds favoured the outburst of grunge into the mainstream music scene in an unprecedented way.
It is immensely onerous to objectively portray Nirvana through six different songs and the reasons are manifold. Their limited music production consists of three studio albums, one live album and one compilation album but was lately enriched by a copious quantity of bootlegs, live records, anthology albums, interviews and post-mortem biographies.
Among the records related to the main discography, there are so many of their songs that are indisputably great tracks. In light of this, we picked the most six representative tracks from their studio albums with the purpose of seeing Nirvana from 360 degrees.
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Nirvana’s six definitive songs:
‘Dive’ – Incesticide
This song first appeared as a B-side of ‘Sliver’, the non-album single issued back in 1990 but the song is better known as the first track of the compilation album Incesticide. It marked the first time the band would collaborate with Nevermind producer Butch Vig.
This song, with its heavy and rough bass, is the perfect example of the unconscious transition between the early days of grunge and the creative explosion and success of Nevermind. It is also rumoured that this was Courtney Love’s favourite Nirvana song.
‘School’ – Bleach
In this song, there is a lot of Kurt Cobain expressing his childhood and teenagehood school bullying. School, as other Bleach songs, exemplify how the American post-punk scene was coming to an end and leave space to the sound of Seattle or Grunge. According to Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt, this number was the first song in Nirvana’s set during their 1989 tour.
‘School’ is a wonderful example of a typical Nirvana song. From the initial riff, who listens is prepared to blast when the drums and bass attack.
‘Heart-Shaped Box’ – In Utero
Next up is ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, the main In Utero single.
The band’s final studio album features the signature of Steve Albini, the well-known and acclaimed producer, who declared after the record was ready that “everything that followed came from the fact that they were dealing with creeps and assholes”. This song was written back in 1992 and was affected by Cobain’s marriage with Courtney Love.
Cobain told Michael Azerrad in the Nirvana biography that the song’s ‘basic idea’ was about children with cancer, a topic which made him unbearably sad. But very likely Cobain was pulling his leg as the song describes metaphorically his tumultuous relationship between both Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. The descending riff played across the verse, build in intensity to the emphasis of the chorus.
First played live in 1990 at the Off Ramp Café in Seattle, Washington, ‘Aneurysm’ is one of the few Nirvana songs accredited to all three band members.
The record was then included as a B-side, which was unexpectedly undermined its accompanying A-side of the history’s most popular grunge single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘.
‘Aneurysm’ is an exuberant song, summoned by the change of tempo, which seizes the opportunity to fire off all Cobain’s frustrations. This song is about his former girlfriend Tobi Vail and, likely on his increasing dependency on heroin.
‘Come As You Are’ – Nevermind
‘Come as You Are’, previous to its recording in 1991 for Nevermind, was included in a demo tape the band sent to producer Butch Vig.
The song was the second lucky single of Nevermind and alternates a moody alternative rock verse with an exploding chorus. This musical approach, used in may of Nirvana’s songs — dynamic changes between song verses — perfectly match the lyrics, which as declared by Cobain in an interview: “The lines in the song are really contradictory.”
He added: “You know, one after another. They’re just kind of confusing, I guess.”
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – Nevermind
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is almost thirty years old and it is very tempting to leave this song out from this selection. The track, nowadays, is considered commercial, overfamiliar and overused. Nonetheless, by removing the song from this list, we would provoke an injustice, given the impact the song had. In fact, Nevermind’s first single was the business card to an uncommon commercial success, not only for the band but also for the record company, the producer and many others surrounding professionally Nirvana.
Initially, the plans were to sell — if everyone would have worked hard — 250,000 copies and aim at album certified gold a year after. Four months after the album was released (i.e. September 1991), the album was selling 300,000 copies a week and Nevermind replaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous in the Billboard charts.
Unexpectedly, a song that sings: “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido,” turned the music world upside down. This song comes up with one of the all-time great riffs and became an anthem for apathetic kids of Generation X and beyond. This song allowed the alternative rock scene to become mainstream, for a while at least.