Nirvana are rightly considered done of the most influential bands in musical history. The group, led by Kurt Cobain and completed by Krist Novoselic on bass and Dave Grohl on drums, remain one of the most highly-referenced bands in memory. Considering their output was so comparatively small, only releasing three albums, it is a testament to how potent their message was.
Having such a small back catalogue also means that reducing their music even further into ten essential songs by the band should be easier to do. However, thanks to the aforementioned stringency of their songwriting, picking out ten songs to showcase the very best of Nirvana was as hard as ever. Below, we’ve done just that and are bringing you ten of their very best efforts.
While they have always been touted as a grunge band built on punk rock sensibilities, it is hard to ignore the pop sonics that permeates their output. Cobain’s writing process would see him always nail down the melody of a song before anything else and it is this process that allowed the band’s sound to truly develop. It enabled the trio to craft songs that would reign over the radio, whatever the station you dialled into. Once that was in the bag, the singer would focus entirely on his lyrics. It is here that Nirvana put themselves in a new category of rock and turned the music scene on its head.
Nirvana, unlike any other band, acts as a lynchpin between so many genres of rock and roll. From punk to heavy metal, Nirvana display it all within their music and Cobain’s lyrics. Using visceral imagery and benevolent messaging, the band carved out a place on the Mount Rushmore of rock almost immediately.
Here, we’re giving you ten reasons why.
Nirvana’s 10 best songs:
10. ‘All Apologies’
Another moment on the Nirvana’s final album sees fans of the band and Cobain wince as the singer seemingly apologises for his inability to live a normal life on the song he wrote for Courtney Love and his daughter.
Reflecting on the song years later, Drummer Dave Grohl explained that the song was “something that Kurt wrote on [a] 4-track in our apartment in Olympia.”
Adding: “I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘God, this guy has such a beautiful sense of melody, I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time.’” A painful reflection of a troubled soul.
9. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
The song I blame for all my early and entirely unsuccessful attempts at being a rock star. Riff ripped from ‘More Than A Feeling’ and ‘Loui Loui’, surely a non-accidental nod to all the bands he didn’t want to be in, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hurtled the band into the mainstream. However, the biggest doesn’t mean the best.
It is a monster track though, there’s no getting away from that. A songwriting masterclass in dynamics, performance and recording. It was destined to be a smash hit from the moment it was written and Cobain knew it and, somewhat strangely, disowned it as soon as it was released claiming it a Pixies rip-off. Despite his disdain for the track, he continued to play it live with the same aplomb he gave all his music.
8. ‘Lounge Act’
Written about Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, Kurt’s girlfriend before that girlfriend, ‘Lounge Act’ is every amateur singer/guitarist/frontman’s worst nightmare. Written with a simple three-chord structure, the simplicity is the secret weapon.
A melody so lovely, and so progressively attacked, it deceives you into thinking you can perform it until Kurt goes up a key and his wild vocal abandon leaves you screaming out of key into a microphone wishing you’d decided to learn the bass. OK, this is from personal experience, but Cobain’s performance on this wonderfully simple song is of the type that his reputation hangs.
Kurt Cobain, despite what many people believed in 1991, had been making music for many years before Nirvana blew up. And one song that had been sketched and re-sketched for years before its release is ‘Sappy’. A bonafide fan favourite, the track was originally released as a bonus song on a 1993 AIDS relief compilation No Alternative.
Down to the track’s cagey conception, the song was originally titled ‘Verse Chorus Verse’, sharing the name of another NIrvana song. It soon became known to fans as ‘Sappy’ and while Cobain was never quite happy with the song, it found its way back on to their setlist in 1994 and became a firm favourite.
6. ‘In Bloom’
Aware of his growing popularity and more aware of the hypocrisy of the type of people that began to show up to Nirvana shows than ever, Kurt Cobain loved to poke a finger at the Jocks and Jockettes that constituted part of his newly acquired fanbase. Here now were the gun-toting rednecks, ignorant to the foundations of his world view and swaying their heads to the songs he was writing about the isolation that, he felt, those same people had forced upon him.
“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/ And likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun/ But he knows not what it means,” sings Cobain, taking aim at the newfound fans who had begun making their underground shows feel like surface-level crap.
Again, through his frustration and anger came melodic writing that would make Neil Finn blush. This is nothing but a stone-cold classic pop song. Charged with Cobain’s intensity and flourished with the performance of the rest of the band, it’s hard to not enjoy sticking this one on full blast.
5. ‘Drain You’
“I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good [as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’],” Cobain told Rolling Stone back in 1993. “Like ‘Drain You.’ I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as ‘Teen Spirit,’ I wouldn’t like it as much.”
One of Kurt Cobain’s favourite Nirvana songs, and possessor of one of the greatest drops in popular music. Fitting, because it’s about possession and a kind of parasitic love. ‘Drain You’ is a lighter, more tuneful precursor of ‘Milk It’ from the third album, In Utero, which revisits a similar theme from a much darker corner.
Known for its blistering live performances, this represents everything that was peak commercial Nirvana. Deceptively light with dark undertones; furious and brilliant. A good clue to just how great a rock song is, falls at your feet when the acoustic version of the song is just as impressive as the plugged-in one.
Kurt Cobain, it would seem, threw himself and his art into his personal relationships. The singer chose to write songs that reflected his reality and, for a time, Bikini Kill lead singer Tobi Vail was his reality. They shared the kind of relationship that only happen in grunge dreams and Vail can attest to have had a hand in some of Nirvana’s best songs.
As well as being a pivotal figure in the making of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Vail was also at the centre of the B-side ‘Aneurysm’ too. “Love you so much it makes me sick,” sings Cobain, noting the duality of his dependence on Vail “She keeps it pumpin’ straight to my heart.” It was this kind of juxtaposition that would underpin most of Nirvana’s best songs.
The track never appeared on an official album release but has grown and grown in popularity. It became a fan favourite while Cobain was dating Courtney Love and remains a bountiful piece of songwriting to this day.
3. ‘Come As You Are’
Sometimes songs can send chills down your spine and ‘Come As You Are’ is certainly one of those songs. Not only did it provide Cobain’s hometown with the perfect slogan for their welcome sign, but it also offered a sense of hope to a generation of kids who suddenly felt more detached from society than ever.
That ethos is one that typifies Nirvana as a band. Their ability to transcend geography and genre made their songs anthems for a disenfranchised generation. It also showed the band’s delicate use of light and dark to make their music, something exemplified on ‘Come As You Are’.
Robust and yet fragile, ‘Come As You Are’ has always been considered a masterpiece but, as time goes by, the sentiment of the track feels more and more heavily weighted. It showcases the core values of Nirvana and the talent they had at hand.
2. ‘Heart Shaped Box’
Some of Cobain’s most intensely visceral lyrics find their home on ‘Heart Shaped Box’ and it makes it one of the band’s best songs. A song that was written by Cobain while he was hiding in a closet, the band encountered a number of issues in the recording studio as the enigmatic frontman attempted to relay his vision to the band. “I was trying to wait for [bassist Krist Novoselic] and [drummer Dave Grohl] to come up with something but it just turned into noise all the time,” he later commented.
After contemplating scrapping the track amid their struggles, Nirvana persevered and “finally realised that it was a good song”.
Aside from the brilliant refrain “Hey! Wait! I got a new complaint”, the song is dripping with vivid imagery. As he prods at the idea of stardom with a red-hot fire poker and also makes allusions to the track being written about girlfriend Courtney Love’s vagina.
About as perfect a description of manic depression as has ever been put into song, ‘Lithium’ is amongst the most rousing and affecting songs Nirvana have ever released.
Lyrically it is some of Cobain’s finest work: “I’m so lonely, that’s OK, I shaved my head and I’m not sad/ And just maybe, I’m to blame for all I’ve heard, but I’m not sure/ I’m so excited, I can’t wait to meet you there, and I don’t care/ I’m so horny, that’s OK my will is good.”
At four minutes and 17 seconds, its epic scope and range of emotion make it feel twice the length and ten times the size. Sad, angry, funny. All utterly convincingly. Again, utilising the Pixies quiet/loud dynamic seen in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but to greater effect—this is a pop song of truly breathtaking quality. Due in large part to Butch Vig’s production, Nirvana sound every inch the ‘biggest band in the world’ here.
A vocal performance that defies imitation, Cobain demonstrates an ability to emote and stay in tune whilst singing with astonishingly reckless abandon. I can only think of one other band who uses the word ‘Yeah’ so effectively, and that’s high praise indeed.