In November 1988, Seattle’s Sub Pop label inaugurated its seven-inch-vinyl-only Singles Club with the debut single by a new, unheard-of band hailing from the logging purgatory of Aberdeen, Washington. By that point, Sub Pop was already a label of some renown, both in the Pacific Northwest and on college-radio playlists nationwide, thanks to releases from acts like Soundgarden and Green River and an overall aesthetic cutting ’70s classic rock with ’80s hardcore, spraying cheap beer over all of it, a sound that would soon be called “grunge.” A mix of reverence and irreverence, it was a series that saw grunge bands covering Black Flag, as well as former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins covering Cheech & Chong. For the first year of the series, the Sub Pop Singles Club released music by underground luminaries like Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and the Flaming Lips, bands that have remain touchstones in alternative rock ever since.
Those bands were cool, but it was “Love Buzz,” the first single from Nirvana, that proved to be seismic, wholly shifting the paradigm of ’90s culture. Thirty years later, we can still feel the band’s aftershocks, even though Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and a rotating cast of drummers (that fortuitously landed on the mighty Dave Grohl) only lasted seven years and made three studio albums before Cobain decided it was better to burn out than to fade away.
Like Elvis, the Beatles, and Easy Rider before them, Nirvana instantly inverted the status quo. They flipped the axis on what mainstream and alternative meant, usurping the likes of Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Guns N’ Roses at the top of the charts. Seemingly overnight, the music industry was suddenly chasing down the likes of Royal Trux, Steel Pole Bath Tub, and the Jesus Lizard so as to hand them suitcases of cash. For a few years, corporate rock had to pretend to be college rock. Fashion laughably wrapped itself in flannel and heroin chic, Hollywood set a rom-com in the midst of Seattle’s music scene, while a Sub Pop receptionist outed the “lamestains” in the “lamestream” media and Cobain graced the cover of Rolling Stone with a T-shirt reading “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.” Nirvana pulled back the veil to reveal such major institutions to be the hapless fools they were then and still are now.
Musically, Nirvana was a cagey mix of ludicrously macho classic rock, scummy punk, irrefutable pop hooks, and precocious indie twee. The band remains a gateway for new listeners, a bridge between generations and extremes. Cut your teeth on the Beatles and Nirvana can quickly usher you toward Flipper and the Melvins. If you’re into your older sister’s Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin records, Nirvana could open you up to Bikini Kill and Daniel Johnston.
Teenage angst paid off well, as Kurt Cobain once humblebragged, but we fans received something in return, something that it took decades for many of us to fully appreciate. Tucked away in Journals, Kurt Cobain wrote a letter to his ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail (of Bikini Kill) about how he perceived his band in the American cultural landscape. “It’s almost impossible to de-program the incestually-established, male oppressor, especially the ones who’ve been weaned on it thru their families … like die-hard NRA freaks and inherited corporate-power mongrels … But there are thousands of green minds, young gullible 15-year-old boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what they’ve been told of what a man is supposed to be, and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment.”
In 2019, Nirvana still feels eerily powerful, cathartic, and prescient. This list celebrates the band’s emergence, 30 years ago this week, with the release of their 1989 debut album Bleach. There were no real hard and fast rules for assembling the list, though the albums and singles are so formidable that I felt there was little need to comb through the demos, rehearsal tapes, and songs never officially released (if Cobain didn’t feel the urge to properly record “Pen Cap Chew” or finish “Opinion,” then I didn’t really see the need to rank them). And aside from the unfulfilled promises and future sounds to be explored on their enchanting Unplugged set, I also left off their furious and messy live albums like From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah and Live at Reading Festival, sets that have been released over the years.
So without further ado, here’s our ranking of every Nirvana song, from worst to best.
72. “Do You Love Me?” Hard to Believe: A Kiss Covers Compilation (1990)
When Nirvana recorded its Kiss cover for the C/Z Records compilation of songs by the ’70s rock icons, it was laughable to think the band in any way would approach the rock-star lifestyle of limousines, private planes, backstage-pass queens, and uh … money. Here Nirvana rubbed elbows with such unmemorable late-’80s bands as the Hard-Ons, Smelly Tongues, and Chemical People, and this cover is just a sloppy, drunken goof. Two notables, though: It’s the lone appearance of future war hero Jason Everman on guitar and the only time Cobain and Novoselic harmonized (like two hands raking across a blackboard). There’s also the joke on every track that the participants would never, ever approximate anything even close to Kiss-level stardom. So ludicrous was the idea of achieving financial stability by playing music that Cobain replaced the word money in the line “all the money that I make” with Mudhoney. The joke would soon be on Nirvana.
71. “Mexican Seafood,” Teriyaki Asthma (1989)
Another entry for a comp on Seattle’s C/Z Records label. For decades, I just chalked up the song title to a not very clever play on fish taco and thought the grunted, haughty, English-accented chorus was about performing cunnilingus “until I pee.” An online search for lyrical clarity unfortunately makes the song even grosser than my bodily-fluids-obsessed teenhood could ever have imagined. “Now I vomit cum and diarrhea / On the tile floor like oatmeal pizza / With a toilet bowl full of a cloudy pus” is an early instance of a theme — the body and its attendant horrors — that would run through Cobain’s later lyrics. But it’s still repugnant.
70. “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip,” B side (1993)
An In Utero noise jam relegated to the B side of “Heart-Shaped Box” and tacked on to the end of certain pressings of the CD, “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” is akin in concept only to Nevermind’s notorious “Endless, Nameless.” Instead, the band reveals a level of slackness rivaling that of its peers in Pavement, right down to Cobain’s spot-on Stephen Malkmus impersonation. The band clearly gives zero fucks, as at one point Cobain laughs, asks about taking yet another aimless solo, and then flails about. “Strip” is unfocused and, most damning, drained of emotion.
69. “Hairspray Queen,” Incesticide (1992)
Recorded in 1988 for the band’s first studio demo tape — with a weirdly rubbery bass line from Novoselic, Cobain’s choppy, slashed guitar chords reminiscent of the Minutemen, and a line in the chorus about a “disco goddess” — “Hairspray Queen” could, in an alternate universe, have been Nirvana’s funkiest moment. At least until Cobain does his best impersonation of comedian (and future In Utero liner-notes writer) Bobcat Goldthwait’s screechy delivery and adds some thrash-metal growls that thoroughly trash the song.
68. “Downer,” Bleach CD bonus track (1990)
Soon after Cobain dropped out of high school, he formed his first band, Fecal Matter, with his friend Dale Crover from the Melvins on bass; fellow Melvin King Buzzo later lent a hand. They released a demo entitled Illiteracy Will Prevail, but the band didn’t last long because the Melvins’ members soon focused on touring for their own debut EP. Along with songs like “Bambi Slaughter” and “Anorexorcist,” the tape shows Cobain’s early Frankensteinian attempts to graft Black Sabbath riffage onto Black Flag rage. But until the archives were culled for every last scrap of tape on With the Lights Out, one of the only songs to survive the demo in early Nirvana set lists was “Downer.” A bonus track on the Bleach CD and included on the B-sides comp Incesticide, it’s a furious thrasher with a political message that for some reason Cobain delivers with a stuffy-nosed British accent. Soon after, he would find a way to capture his rage at the cultural landscape, but he doesn’t quite have a handle on it here.
67. “Beeswax,” Incesticide (1992)
On this track — recorded during Nirvana’s first session with Jack Endino, the George Martin of grunge — Cobain’s unhinged feedback and shrieks make for a potent combo alongside Dale Crover’s pummeling on drums. They almost cover up lines about Cobain’s “dingaling” and jacking off in polyester, as well as this machismo-skewering corker of a chorus: “I got a dick, dick — hear my fucking hate!” Stowed away on a Kill Rock Stars comp released just a month before Nevermind, the band appears with idols such as the Melvins, Bikini Kill, and Jad Fair (not to mention the other Courtney Love). Slight as it is, it presents a far more prickly punk iteration of the band for those investigating beyond Nevermind.
66. “Moist Vagina,” B side (1993)
A curious yet ultimately underwhelming In Utero B side seemingly built out of little more than Cobain clearing his throat and yowling, “Marijuana.” He winds down with a minute of croaking, yet the song somehow was covered by the likes of Sonic Youth and former Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist John Frusciante, though the keeper belongs to Yelawolf, who sampled that yell for his song “Marijuana.” But for those grimly combing over Kurt’s lyrics for omens of his demise, one could do worse than the original title for this song, which Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross noted was: “Moist vagina, and then she blew him like he’s never been blown, brains stuck all over the wall.”
65. “Spank Thru,” Sub Pop 200 (1989)
The third Nirvana song to be released (on the Sub Pop 200 compilation) is refreshingly jangly and corny in the face of grunge. Rescued from the Fecal Matter demo, it’s the song that first made Novoselic suggest that he and Cobain form a band. They say “write what you know,” which means Kurt knew a lot about masturbation. Juvenile as it was, it continued to pop up in the band’s live sets well into the Nevermind era.
64. “Mr. Moustache,” Bleach (1989)
As Nirvana began to gain a following, the band found itself stuck between two worlds: Seattle’s dude-heavy grunge scene and Olympia’s precocious, naïf indie one. K Records founder Calvin Johnson was the college town’s unofficial mayor, his band Beat Happening the champions of unlearned, awkward, and childlike twee-folk. The group advocated for women and the queer community, and the scene itself was a safe space for people of all stripes. Cobain found himself both attracted to and annoyed by the “Calvinists,” as he deemed them, yet nevertheless got a K Records tattoo. This early Nirvana number walks a fine line between Seattle’s latent redneck machismo, with its by-the-numbers riff, and the self-righteous vegetarians in Olympia, with the funny admission “Yes, I eat cow / I am not proud.”
63, 62. “Sifting” and “Scoff,” Bleach (1989)
By the time Nirvana was gearing up to go into the studio for Bleach, Cobain still didn’t have set lyrics for many of the songs. As Michael Azerrad wrote in Come As You Are, “The night before the sessions … Kurt sat down and wrote into the wee hours.” But while he came up with plenty of choice words for the album, even Azerrad admits that by the time Cobain got to “Sifting” and “Scoff,” “it was very late, and Kurt was getting burned out.” It sounds like it.
61. “Here She Comes Now,” B side (1991)
As lifelong Melvins fans, Cobain and Novoselic saw the chance to be on a split single with their idols — covering the Velvet Underground, no less — as too good to pass up. In choosing the one hushed moment from VU’s unhinged White Light/White Heat, they revealed the pop heart hiding under all their layers of flannel. Yet for all their aptitude for finding new emotional nuances in their covers, this one falls flat. Nirvana toggles between clean toned and fuzzed out, unable to kick into a higher gear.
60. “Curmudgeon,” B side (1992)
Four months after toppling the King of Pop from the top of the charts, Nirvana was left to try to assess just how to move forward in the wake of Nevermind. Holed up at Laundry Room Studio in West Seattle, they tossed off a few new ideas; one was “Curmudgeon,” which landed on the B side of “Lithium” three months later. But most songs from this era emphasize a few ludicrous guitar effects, Cobain’s knack for turning primal screams and mumbled mewls into something resembling hooks, and Dave Grohl’s ability to muscle just about any drumbeat out of the fucking park. The phase-shifting effect on “Curmudgeon” is downright nauseating, but I’ve always loved the laugh at the beginning and the tossed-off, born-again-baiting line “I love Santa / I meant God.”
59. “Paper Cuts,” Bleach (1989)
From the demo with Dale Crover on drums, this is the most Melvins-like of the bunch. The lyrics are drawn from the lurid real-life story of — as Azerrad writes — “an Aberdeen family who kept their children locked up in a room with the windows painted over, opening the door only to feed them.” But it’s hard not to hear autobiographical angst in lines like “The lady I feel maternal love for / Cannot look me in the eyes / But I see hers, and they are blue / And they cock and twitch and masturbate.” Cruel as that is, the song wanders, winding up with Cobain saying his own band’s name a few times. Still, the way he howls the word nails conveys the absolute fear of being buried alive in a single agonized syllable.
58. “Aero Zeppelin,” Incesticide (1992)
As the title plainly states, this early Nirvana composition is an ode to Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. When hunting for a new drummer, Cobain and Novoselic cited both bands in an ad they placed in Seattle rock mag The Rocket. By that point in 1988, the Boston band Aerosmith had survived a decade of bad puns and insane amounts of drugs (as well as bad puns about doing drugs) to become rock elder statesmen, starting off another run at the top of the American charts. While an outlier in Nirvana’s oeuvre, this song’s heavy riffs, downer vibe, and intensifying build reveal that even if the band had just remained yet another grunge act from the Pacific Northwest, they would have stood apart from the rest of the Sub Pop roster.
57. “Verse Chorus Verse,” Nevermind reissue (2011)
A confusing title in that the secret Nirvana song that appeared on the No Alternative compilation in 1993 was sometimes also referred to as “Verse Chorus Verse” (for the purposes of this list, that song is called “Sappy”). Cobain often tried to utilize the phrase — a running joke about the formulaic pop music he was accused of making — and it was often jotted in his notebooks. The phrase was even the working title for In Utero (a song with that name appears on the album’s original track list); it then became the working title for a planned double live album to be released in the wake of Cobain’s suicide in 1994.
This particular “Verse Chorus Verse” begins with the lines “Neither side is sacred / No one wants to win” and first popped up on recordings made with Butch Vig for Nevermind. It was soon overshadowed by another song with a much stronger verse-chorus-verse: The final time the band played it live, they followed it with the debut of a catchy new song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
56. “Stain,” Blew EP (1989)
A profound sense of self-loathing seethes through the entirety of Nirvana’s catalogue from Cobain’s earliest demos to his final recorded utterances. And as often as gun imagery crops up in his lyrics, so too does the image of a stain. Call it his version of original sin or the mark of Cain, but it’s a sign of worthlessness, failed potential, life as little more than a stigma — which is basically how most teenagers feel about themselves at some point, a nadir Cobain could put into words. There are deeper, more depressing wallows to be found than this Blew B side, though, and the song is basically just one verse repeated three times.
55. “Return of the Rat,” Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers (1992)
“If there is a ‘Seattle Sound,’ it came from Portland, Oregon, in the early ’80s by a three piece band named the Wipers.” So Kurt Cobain wrote in his Journals. Yes, classic ’70s rock hangs over Nirvana but just as vital were Greg Sage and the Wipers. In 1979, they dropped their debut, Is This Real? Its punk velocity and heavy riffs anticipated grunge by almost a decade.
When it came time for a clutch of PNW bands to pay tribute to Sage in the form of the 1992 four-by-seven-inch boxed-set comp Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers, Nirvana was onboard (as were the likes of Poison Idea and Cobain’s new girlfriend’s band, Hole). They had recently covered Sage’s “D-7” for a John Peel Session and were going to just submit that, but due to licensing entanglements, the band decided to tear through another Wipers song instead. Furious and loose, this is an incredibly faithful take on Sage’s version with just a little bit of its desperate, quivering edge lost in the process. According to producer Barrett Jones, Nirvana nailed “Return of the Rat” in one or two takes despite having never played it before, but you can tell Cobain had listened to it thousands of times.
54. “Big Cheese,” B side (1988)
With a feedback swell that replicates the Jaws theme, “Big Cheese” was the B side for Nirvana’s first Sub Pop single. Though still up-and-coming, the band was already bristling at the powers that be — in this case, Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman, the subject of this song. Poneman may have been overbearing and obnoxious; per Cobain, he was “so judgmental about what we were recording.” But soon after, Nirvana would have no shortage of bigger cheeses — in the form of David Geffen shareholders — to answer to. The band conveys the impotent rage almost any artist can feel in a marketing or business situation, but songs bemoaning “the industry” are, for me, a chore to listen to no matter the genre. For my money, Nirvana best exacted revenge on Sub Pop with this early T-shirt, which put the faces of Poneman and the label’s other co-founder, Bruce Pavitt, on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s naked Two Virgins pic.
53. “Big Long Now,” Incesticide (1992)
“I think we sound like the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath,” Kurt Cobain once quipped about Nirvana’s mix of candied pop and acidic sludge. He’s not wrong: The grinding gears of “Big Long Now” evoke Black Flag dirges like “Nothing Left Inside.” It moves like it’s driving down the highway at 70 mph while stuck in second gear, but, as always, Cobain endows even the heaviest Nirvana song with a beckoning hook.
52. “Tourette’s,” In Utero (1993)
In one of his journal entries, Cobain explains this minute-and-a-half blast as a parable about old men being turned into birds “to scream at the top of their lungs in horrified hellish rage every morning at daybreak to warn us all of the truth … screaming bloody murder all over the world.” There’s a righteous amount of screaming here against a fun, if derivative, punk chord progression. That Nirvana faced an ungodly amount of corporate groupthink scrutiny for In Utero is a given, so in hindsight this “Tourette’s” seems less like a bone thrown to the band’s “punk” fan base and more like a thumb in Big Cheese’s eye. It’s a high-energy if frivolous throwaway, and one wonders what a full song would have been like instead.
51. “Swap Meet,” Bleach (1989)
Very few Nirvana songs serve as “slice of life” character studies, but this cut is the rare exception. While no doubt having some roots in Cobain’s own experiences with the arts-and-crafts scene in small-town Washington, the song is powered by a catchy riff and depicts a couple making their folk art out of detritus like “seashells, driftwood, and burlap” (a detail carried over from the older Cobain song “Mrs. Butterworth”). The chorus of “Keeps his cigarettes close to his heart / Keeps her photographs close to her heart” reveals a sense of affection for such cast-offs.
50. “Even in His Youth,” B side (1991)
In no uncertain terms, toxic masculinity and what fathers pass down to their sons over generations is incredibly fucked. With this emphasis on physical dominance at a cost of emotional repression, any young boy or man who is in touch with his emotions can find himself faced with gruff correctives. The resulting bitterness fueled many early Nirvana songs, but in a catalogue full of such themes, “Even in His Youth” relentlessly wallows in self-pity and the chord changes remain stuck in place. But few Nirvana songs slash like its cutting refrain, “Daddy was ashamed.”
49. “Oh, the Guilt,” B side (1993)
Kurt Cobain admired Austin creep punks Scratch Acid; after that band broke up, a few members relocated to Chicago and emerged as ’90s heavyweights the Jesus Lizard. Nirvana shared a bill with them in 1990, and mutual fandom resulted in this split single, which was released deep into Nirvana’s post-Nevermind success. But woe to the band that tried to go toe to toe with the Jesus Lizard in the early ’90s — its brawny “Puss” obliterates Nirvana’s side here. “Oh, the Guilt” flashes the heavier sound the band would further hone on In Utero, but it’s lurching stop-start rhythms can’t hold a candle to the brief but daunting drum solo on the Jesus Lizard’s A side.
48. “D-7,” Hormoaning EP (1991)
Pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea not only gives his name to Greg Sage’s label but is also a reference in this Wipers song. Recorded by Nirvana for a John Peel Session and included on the Australian tour EP Hormoaning, it’s fairly faithful to the original. Zeno was fond of using paradoxes to illuminate his teachings, none more perplexing than his Arrow paradox. In Nirvana’s brooding take, you have some of the band’s standard tropes, from antisocial urges to queerness (“Not straight, not so straight / Reject, reject”), but you also have topics the band never again broaches, namely Greek philosophy and science fiction (with lines about “astro borders”) and the furious chorus about “Dimension Seven.”
47. “Very Ape,” In Utero (1993)
Beyond punk and classic rock, Kurt Cobain curiously had a fondness for the itchy early-’80s New Wave perfected by Devo and Oingo Boingo. But outside of covers and Peel Sessions spontaneity, this love didn’t always manifest in his own songwriting. Originally known as “Perky New Wave Number,” the crunchy, squiggly “Very Ape” is as close as Nirvana ever got, while also dishing out slapdash broadsides at masculinity and ignorance. And it allowed Cobain a chance for a self-dig: “The King of Illiterature” is directed at himself.
46. “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience (1993)
It’s a joke. It’s a suicide note. It’s the title of our new album. It’s a joke. Cobain often explained away “I hate Myself and Want to Die” in interviews, and after his death, hot-takers took it as a portent. “We knew people wouldn’t get it; they’d take it too seriously,” he told Rolling Stone. “It was totally satirical, making fun of ourselves.” Originally kicked to The Beavis and Butt-head Experience comp (where Nirvana found itself alongside “peers” like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Aerosmith, and Megadeth), it’s as catchy as it is unmemorable. Or, as Cobain put it, “We could write that song in our sleep.”
45. “Stay Away,” Nevermind (1991) /”Pay to Play,” DGC Rarities: Vol.1 (1994)
What a difference a drummer makes. While original drummer Chad Channing provided the whirling snare pattern on “Pay to Play,” not until Dave Grohl took over did the drum part become a ferocious helicopter blade of a beat. “Chad wasn’t the most solid drummer … but he came up with really, really cool stuff,” Grohl said of his predecessor. In Grohl’s hands, those cool beats were infused with plenty of punk fury and raw power for a song that mocks corporate rock culture. Recorded with Channing as “Pay to Play,” the song found the band on the outside looking in at corporate rock; they recorded it again with Grohl and Butch Vig a few months later as “Stay Away.” A few months after that, the meteoric rise of Nevermind would have the band furiously trying to keep its distance from the trappings of such success.
44. “Been a Son,” B side (1992)
The ardor Nirvana showed for the cheeky late-’80s Scottish indie-pop band the Vaselines was profound: It was strong enough for them to reunite to open for Nirvana in Edinburgh, enough to have Sub Pop reissue their entire catalog, enough for Nirvana to cover three of their songs, and enough for Nirvana to serve as boosters for Vaselines front man Eugene Kelly’s next band, Eugenius. Cobain even tried his hand at writing a Vaselines song with the guileless “Been a Son.” He did a decent job, right down to copying their intrinsic undertones of Catholicism with its theme of repressed womanhood, lingering guilt, and crown-of-thorns imagery.
43. “Marigold,” B side (1993)
As the newest member of Nirvana, Dave Grohl had no intention of giving up the job anytime soon, but perhaps to play it safe he taped a few songs with himself playing every instrument. Under Grohl’s unassuming pseudonym Late!, the tracks found their way out on low-key indie imprint Simple Machines in the midst of Nirvanamania. The most charming song of the batch was a hushed number called “Color Pictures of a Marigold.” The next year, it reappeared on the B side of “Heart-Shaped Box,” its title shortened to “Marigold.” It’s the first time Grohl played front man, with Novoselic on bass and no Cobain. Instead there’s what sounds like a chair being dragged across the floor. Perhaps the line “He’s scared in case I want it all” proved telling: Not long after, Grohl found himself without a band and formed what would become the multiplatinum alt-rock warhorse Foo Fighters.
42. “Floyd the Barber,” Bleach (1989)
In the realm of fan fiction, there’s nothing quite like “Floyd the Barber,” wherein characters from The Andy Griffith Show gang-rape Cobain, and then the likes of Opie and Aunt Bee take turns slicing him up into Alpo-size chunks. It’s funny to imagine the milquetoast Mayberry characters as sadists, yet the claustrophobic small-town terror feels earned.
41. “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” In Utero (1993)
An early draft of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” dates back to the pre-Nevermind era, but it took on more baggage in the years after, becoming a carryall for Cobain’s disgust at major-label bean counters and the media. (It almost got the title “Nine-Month Media Blackout” in response to Lynn Hirschberg’s notorious Vanity Fair hit piece about Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love.) Even his newfound and newly scorned fan base gets the lash: “Nothing to do with what you think / If you ever think at all.”
That’s a lot for one song to handle, and Cobain’s anger feels ineffectively scattershot. But the image of blankets scarred with cigarette burns from Kurt and Courtney on the nod chills, that bridge is undeniable, and the wicked guitar noise still feels like a spool of razor wire running through the whole thing.
40. “Love Buzz,” single (1988) and Bleach (1989)
This is where it all started — with some kids from the backwoods of Washington State covering a deep cut from Dutch psych-pop Jefferson Airplaners the Shocking Blue. Just two years prior, British pop sweeties Bananarama had taken another Shocking Blue cover, “Venus,” to the top of the charts in seven countries. But Nirvana’s cover emanates from a decidedly mossier parallel universe. Their take is effectively a disco edit, lopping off extra verses to emphasize the chorus and lengthening the instrumental break to give Cobain space to indulge in some Eastern-tinged guitar shredding. You can hear him affect an odd European accent on “my heart,” mixing it with some primal howls. Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt heard the band’s future promise in this cover, a buzz-sawing cut that revealed a keening pop sensibility.
39. “Polly”/“New Wave Polly,” Nevermind (1991)
First called “Hitchhiker” and then “Cracker” before “Polly,” this harrowing song dates back to the Bleach era, though its minor-key folk melody was even more of a grunge outlier than “About a Girl.” It’s “ripped from the headlines” subject matter slots alongside “Paper Cuts”: Cobain took as inspiration the local story of a 14-year-old girl abducted after a punk-rock show at knifepoint by the serial rapist and kidnapper Gerald Friend. Trapped in Friend’s mobile home, the girl was raped and tortured with implements like a blowtorch before finally escaping.
Kurt knew well the dark, brutal side of masculinity, and at times in his self-scrutinizing songwriting he wholly embraced his own inner creep, but singing “Polly” from the rapist’s vantage puts the song in a lineage with the likes of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and In Cold Blood. “Polly” remains singular among Diamond-certified rock-album tracks. Plenty of female artists have approached the topic of sexual assault (NPR compiled a formidable #MeToo list), but it’s almost unprecedented for a man — no matter his feminist bona fides — to make it into a palatable pop subject.
38. “Turnaround,” Hormoaning (1991)
In his 1993 interview with The Advocate, Kurt Cobain declared, “Out of all the bands who came from the underground and actually made it in the mainstream, Devo is the most subversive and challenging of all.” And while Cobain professed a love for New Wavers like Oingo Boingo and the B-52’s, he made his love for Devo clear with this delectably buzzy take from Nirvana’s 1990 Peel Session. The band’s latent humor didn’t always break through Cobain’s overcast skies, so it’s still a treat to hear him take on that twitchy Devo vocal effect and shout things like “Poppycock!”
37, 36, 35. “Lake of Fire,” “Plateau,” and “Oh Me,” MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
Thumb through Cobain’s journals and you’ll see he loved making lists of his favorite albums, an ever-shifting roster that praises the likes of Lead Belly’s Last Sessions, the first Raincoats LP, the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, the Vaselines’ Pink EP, and numerous underground punk albums. One that doesn’t crop up, however, is the Meat Puppets’ II, a slice of mystic country from sunbaked Arizona punk brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood. While their own major-label signing predated Nirvana’s, the Meat Puppets got a boost from the band and soon found themselves on tour with them in 1993. And when Nirvana went to New York to record the Unplugged set, the Kirkwoods joined them for Nirvana’s rendering of no less than three songs from II (making for a Curt, a Kurt, a Krist, and a Cris all on one stage). MTV was nonplussed at the choice of guests, and tensions ran high throughout the rehearsals, so much so that there was speculation that Cobain might not show up.
The Kirkwoods’ songwriting style stands in stark contrast to Cobain’s: surreal and enigmatic, one part folk wise, the other part stoned philosophy major. Yet these three Unplugged covers are captivating. The songs remain pretty much intact as Cobain cops the Kirkwoods’ strangulated yips and deadpan drawls, yet he digs beyond the cartoonish, corny deliveries of the originals to find the pathos beneath the desert dust.
On the didactic Bosch-scape “Lake of Fire,” his voice soon embodies and howls along with these damned souls frying in hell. The subtle finger-picking ditty “Plateau” is a skewed musing about the afterlife, with Cobain’s murmurs as uncertain as the song itself. And then there’s the pompous, narcissistic bore at the center of “Oh Me” who formulates infinity and stores it deep inside himself. Leave it to Cobain to plumb these depths and find the dissatisfaction stored within.
34. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” In Utero (1993)
Although Kurt Cobain read Shadowland, a biographical novel about the star-crossed actress Frances Farmer, when he was in high school, her tragic life and death came back to him 15 years later thanks to the fallout from a Vanity Fair article on Courtney Love. In the wake of its ensuing scandal — the story claimed Love had used heroin while she was pregnant — Cobain’s new family had to deal with Child Protective Services and a legal minefield just to retain custody of their daughter, Frances Bean (who was named for the Vaselines’ Frances McKee, not the actress).
The Kafkaesque specter of a bureaucracy taking over one’s life weighed on Cobain, and in the case of the Hollywood starlet, Farmer’s alcoholism and Benzedrine habit led to a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and her involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital, where she received electroshock treatments that quickened her demise. In the parable, Cobain saw plenty of parallels with himself and Love. Farmer’s ghost hangs over this splenetic, feedback-pierced song, and the plaintive “I miss the comfort in being sad” remains one of the band’s most wrenching choruses.
33. “Lithium,” Nevermind (1991)
Cobain’s contempt for born-again-Christian mentality is evident almost anywhere you look. The Nevermind liner notes, for instance: “The second coming came in last and out of the closet.” The third single from Nevermind, “Lithium” is as much about manic depression as it is about those who blindly follow religious dogma, and it blurs the lines between the two types of mental illness. It’s an exquisite example of the band’s ability to whisper and combust in an instant. At the chorus, “I’m not gonna crack,” Cobain voices both a mind on the verge of a crack-up and a deadened, drugged headspace. Ultimately, the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic was perfected elsewhere, but after Nirvana’s infamous MTV Video Music Awards performance of the song, it’s hard to not hear: “Maybe I’m to blame for all I’ve heard / But I’m a turd.”
32. “Blew,” Bleach (1989)
A standard grunge trick is the sound of drop-D tuning, i.e., taking the low E string and tuning it down a whole tone, and Nirvana deployed it for the first song on Bleach. But the band didn’t realize they were already tuned to it, so they dropped down again — this time to a low C — making “Blew” feel like codeine cough syrup. Novoselic called this groovy little number “doom pop,” and the bass line brings to mind the throb that opens the Wipers’ “Potential Suicide,” which isn’t too hard to imagine, since Nirvana covered the band often.
31. “Serve the Servants,” In Utero (1993)
Twenty-six years later, I remain of two minds about In Utero. It’s scabrous and sweet, furious, and kinda half-assed, with Cobain lashing out at everyone around him yet hating himself a hundred times more. It still sounds so delectably rancorous — engineer Steve Albini captured the brute beauty of Grohl’s hits, the subtle yet crucial glue of Novoselic’s bass work, and every contour of Cobain’s fraying voice and mind. It’s the sound of a band sloughing off its old skin to find a new vein of their sound, and of a rock star desperately trying to dissolve his ego in a vat of stomach acid. “Serve the Servants” rambles through a number of targets: the media, the fans, those who criticize Cobain’s wife. But it’s just withering and sarcastic enough to tuck in a sincerely devastating kiss-off to his father.
30, 29, 28. “Son of a Gun,” Hormoaning EP (1991); “Molly’s Lips,” Hormoaning EP (1991); and “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
R.E.M. covered no less than three Velvet Underground songs on Dead Letter Office, and while Cobain was a Michael Stipe stan, his band’s touchstone forever remains the Vaselines: Awkward, sincere, cloying, sassy, and endearing, the Scottish duo of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee seemed the band least likely to succeed, much less to get revived in a new century. But their discography was compiled no less than three times since the early ’90s, and they even re-formed to release two playful new albums in the 21st century.
Nirvana’s buzz-saw pop-punk cover of the Vaselines’ first single, “Son of a Gun,” captures the group’s giddiness, with Grohl’s boisterous attack basically throttling the song. They similarly capture the unbridled breathlessness of love and infatuation on “Molly’s Lips,” about the Scottish actress Molly Weir. Sweetest and most bittersweet of the three covers is “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” which gives the briefest of glimpses into where Nirvana might have gone after In Utero (the band was known to cover it often in concert as well). The keening meld of Lori Goldston’s cello and Novoselic’s button accordion suggest a folksy, jangly turn in the future, one in which Nirvana unabashedly and unashamedly embraced its inner R.E.M.
27. “Lounge Act,” Nevermind (1991)
For most of my own “teen spirit” years, this was my dark-horse favorite on Nevermind, and it remains visceral and thorny after all this time. It’s about Cobain’s girlfriend during the Nevermind recordings, Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, but beyond that, it’s hard to say. In an unsent letter to her (as seen in the Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven), he admits as much about the song, “which I do not play, except when my wife is not around.” It’s about an overwhelming, all-consuming relationship with obsessive and jealous behavior ultimately disintegrating its bonds. As to whom Cobain screams about in the quasi chorus “I’ll go out of my way / To prove I still / Smell her on you,” it remains vague. And much as he would do at the end of “Moist Vagina,” Cobain gets a real kick out of making those guttural creaks into the mic, leading into what might be Novoselic’s most nimble bass line on the album.
26. “Rape Me,” In Utero (1993)
A parallel-universe version of that ubiquitous “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff, cagily rearranging the E-A-G-C to A-C-E-G. The band first teased it during their 1992 MTV Video Music Awards appearance, nearly getting MTV execs to cut to commercial (before the band veered into “Lithium”). Nirvana staged benefits such as the Bosnian Rape Benefit Concert in 1993 to raise money for rape victims, spoke out on violence against women, and believed them, yet Cobain still had to explain, across multiple interviews, that songs like “Polly” and “Rape Me” were anti-rape. In the decades since his death, most aspects of American culture remain willfully obtuse and oblivious to sexual violence, yet Cobain’s ability to make the blunt and harrowing catchy is evidenced here; every shredded, double-tracked vocal cord shrieking of that defiant plea at song’s end still sends shivers.
25. “Come As You Are,” Nevermind (1991)
“No one else could use that chorus pedal and still be punk rock,” Kim Gordon wrote about the shimmering guitar intro to “Come As You Are.” With its repurposed Killing Joke riff (or is it a Damned riff?), both band and management imagined that this moody, Goth-y, Siouxsie and the Banshees–esque number would be the track to catapult them to the upper echelons of 120 Minutes fame (the glass ceiling for such bands in the early ’90s). Vague and watery (thanks to that pedal), the song uses a string of clichés (“The choice is yours”) and the imagery of opposites (mud and bleach, friend and enemy) to frame its theme of the uncertainty of people and the gulf between our expectations and reality. It’s ethereal and haunting, like a fading memory, yet it carefully pressurizes and bursts forth like a broken dam at the chorus, a sensation still visceral after all these years.
24. “Dumb,” In Utero (1993)
It’s a common theme of the teen years: looking at all the adults around you and knowing the truth that “I’m not like them / But I can pretend.” Rage gets masked just to fit into society, and Cobain puts a Beatles-sweet haze over that state on “Dumb,” a song that dates to before the band signed with a major. It made an early debut on Calvin Johnson’s KAOS-FM radio show, already exploring themes of confusion and doubts about feeling true happiness. The guitar chords are very close to those of “Polly,” and whenever I hear Kera Schaley’s cello line, the Butthole Surfers’ “Rocky” springs to mind. Cobain always admired these Texas weirdos (and front man Gibby Haynes was one of the last people to see Cobain alive when both were in rehab at Exodus Recovery Center in L.A.), so maybe it was a subliminal lift?
23. “Breed,” Nevermind (1991)
Leave it to Nirvana to take what’s basically a Grunge 101 riff and turn it on its head in making the band’s most carnal cut. Originally named “Imodium” — after tour mates Tad’s front man Tad Doyle’s diarrhea meds — the greasy, go-go churn of “Breed” is early-’90s hookup culture at its grimiest, the stench of Marlboro Reds (back when smoking in bars was standard) and cheap beer oozing out of its every pore. Written after Cobain’s breakup with Tobi Vail, “Breed” bears the nauseating sensation of being newly single and at a bar again, repulsed by the meat market yet intent on getting smashed enough so as not to go home alone. It also has the best single-syllable ending: “She saaaaid … duh.”
22. “You Know You’re Right,” Nirvana (2002)
Cobain’s final completed song with the band, it’s one that at times has the feel of the last silver bullet in a werewolf movie. Make that a platinum bullet, as the song represented one last chance for, if not Nirvana, then Nirvana, LLC, to return to the top of the charts a decade after Cobain’s suicide. As Courtney Love’s management put it when she sued to prevent Novoselic and Grohl from releasing it, the song was a “potential ‘hit’ of extraordinary artistic and commercial value.” And it did top Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart when it finally saw daylight.
Just before the band left on their ill-fated European tour, they recorded “Right” in one night, on January 30, 1994, in a taste of what could have been the band’s fourth album. Played live just once before, they nailed it after two run-throughs, then Cobain was out the door, the lines “Never speak a word again / I will crawl away for good” eerily capping his career. Finally heard in 2002, it still sounds like a message from beyond the grave as Cobain embodies a lifetime of physical and emotional agony in every single utterance of the word pain. I’m not one to parse Nirvana lyrics for clues about either Cobain’s suicide or the state of his marriage, but the slide from the title to “You know your rights” always felt particularly damning.
21. “Scentless Apprentice,” In Utero (1993)
If only books on tape sounded like this. The lyrics recast the premise of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, about a perfumer with no scent of his own who murders others to create the perfect fragrance. The lone Nirvana song for which all three members received writing credits, its ever-ascending guitar riff still electrifies.
The song was written in 1992, the year Frances Bean Cobain was born, and I think she’s a deep influence on it. Newborns’ sense of smell is the most developed of their senses (which start to develop some 28 weeks in utero) and is the means by which they learn to identify their mother and father once they are out in the world. Babies who smell like butter, images of frightened wet nurses, not to mention the stenches of gas fumes, mushrooms, and semen, all give this song a visceral bouquet. And Cobain’s scream of “Go away” is as raw as a newborn’s primordial cry.
20. “Sappy,” No Alternative (1993)
With Jack Endino at Reciprocal Recording, with Butch Vig at Smart Studios, and with Steve Albini at Pachyderm, Nirvana tackled “Sappy” at every turn and considered it for all three of their albums before finally punting it to No Alternative as an uncredited bonus track. As Novoselic opined, Cobain “had some kind of unattainable expectations for it,” and it deserved a better fate. Summarizing a smothering, abusive relationship —with the chilling imagery of the woman being akin to a pet turtle (the one pet Cobain could care for) kept in a box with breathing holes and covered with grass — it mocks the very structures of pop. Yet it also masters them, tucking an acute sense of abuse and dysfunction into the seemingly simple lines. It’s one of Cobain’s most concise and acerbic “verse-chorus-verse” songs.
19. “Pennyroyal Tea,” In Utero (1993)
“I wrote that song in about 30 seconds,” Cobain told Michael Azerrad about “Pennyroyal Tea” during the winter of 1990 with Grohl and a four-track. “And I sat down for like half an hour and wrote the lyrics, and then we recorded it.” The song goes through a laundry list of Cobain’s ailments — physical, chemical, mental — which were all still haunting him when the song was recorded for In Utero. Its lyrics fit the album’s themes: disease, a search for recovery, finding a way to “distill” and preserve the redemptive qualities of life rather than fall victim to the squalid parts. Cobain’s death squelched plans for the song as the album’s third single, but its quiet-loud-quiet dynamic on In Utero doesn’t do full justice to the song’s qualities. Stripped down to just Cobain and an acoustic guitar, switched to a higher key nearly outside his register, the song was much better served on the MTV Unplugged in New York performance, revealing a hushed anguish and a fraught plea in the lines.
18. “On a Plain,” Nevermind (1991)
“That song came out too clean,” Cobain confessed to punk zine Flipside in an interview about “On a Plain” soon after it was accused of sounding like Cheap Trick. “It should have been a lot rawer … I’ll admit I like Cheap Trick.” Like many of Nevermind’s lyrics, its toggle between nonsense and clarity, between being willfully mystifying and struggling to be coherent. The song is as whimsical and sarcastic as it is candid and is made all the sweeter by the honeyed harmonies the singer nails with Grohl. Cobain openly cops to his heroin use, nonchalantly offers up a horror like “my mother died every night,” and then reveals that his art is “to write off lines that don’t make sense.” As the song creeps higher toward its glorious peak, Cobain regards its other lines and shrugs: “What the hell am I trying to say?” It’s by turns a confessional, self-obfuscating song, not to mention the only instance of self-love for Cobain — though “love myself better than you” may not mean much from someone who hates the world.
17. “Negative Creep,” Bleach (1989)
Another instance from Bleach of Nirvana’s taking a standard grunge riff and turning it into something that falls outside the range of most other bands of the era. It also shows how much potency Cobain could impart in just a few words, something that would change as the band evolved. The admission “I’m a negative creep, and I’m stoned” is at once blunt, livid, sinister, and funny, with a ludicrously gruff bellow of a vocal driving the point home.
16. “Endless, Nameless,” Nevermind (1991)
There’s a handful of RIAA Diamond-certified albums (meaning they sold over 10 million copies), and none of them — not Cracked Rear View, not Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em, not even *NSYNC — carry a profound sense of the void, a physical sound that signifies the true atrocities of human existence. Stare into the abyss of Nevermind long enough, and after ten minutes of silence after the album ends, you’ll encounter the glorious perdition that is “Endless, Nameless,” a noise jam that’s the bitter fruit of a prolonged “Lithium” recording session.
Cobain took his frustrations out on the only left-handed guitar in the studio, re-creating the band’s infamous instrument-trashing concert finales in the studio walls with tape rolling. “Death / Violence / Excitement” goes one blood-boiling scream, thrilling and nihilistic at once. Sure, it’s a sound you can easily find on obscure Japanoize titles, on a Slayer album, or at the climax of a David Lynch film but in few other places in American pop culture. Chaos, degradation, rot, unbridled rage, hate — it’s a revolting sound that Nirvana brought to bear on millions of Middle American homes. If you bought it on CD, it surfaced like a nightmare, a cherry bomb in a disc changer, Cobain’s stomach pain manifested in sound. It’s the kind of ugliness the band would soon irreparably weld to their songs by the time they went into the studio with Steve Albini for In Utero, melding their sweet hooks to something far more acrid.
15. “The Man Who Sold the World,” MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
By 1993, David Bowie was all but washed up in America. A run of underwhelming ’80s albums, a cringeworthy Beach Boys cover, and other missteps had all but sunk him Stateside, at a time even he agreed was his nadir — which is not to suggest that Nirvana’s snaking, astounding take on this early deep cut revived Bowie’s career, but it did set the stage for a greater appraisal of the Thin White Duke for a new generation.
It’s a faithful cover, yet Nirvana’s version subtly but emphatically changes the song’s emphasis. “That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you’re young, when you know that there’s a piece of yourself that you haven’t really put together yet,” Bowie said of the track. “You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are.” But in Cobain’s reading, it’s less a search than a means to escape, a commentary on fame, on the rejection of the world and worldly possessions. That missing piece of self for Cobain is a ghost (which harks back to Bowie’s original inspiration, the poem “Antigonish”), giving the song a spectral feeling that would soon come to pass. It’s impossible to listen and not think that it’s Cobain encountering the self that “died alone / A long long time ago.”
14. “All Apologies,” In Utero (1993)
Depending on the version you hear, “All Apologies” is either a song of unbearable tragedy or ultimate deliverance. In demo form, it comes across as a jangly, bright lost song from R.E.M.’s Out of Time. As In Utero’s closer, it features Cobain’s voice scoured on every first syllable, the signal moving from distorted to clean on each line, guitar feedback twining with gorgeous cello. The song captures Cobain and all of his contradictions — sweetness and scorched earth, innocent and forever damned. In the nearly three decades since it was laid to tape, it feels like a gut punch and a blessing. And as the penultimate song in the band’s Unplugged set, “All Apologies” finds Cobain hushed and attaining a state that feels like redemption.
13. “Territorial Pissings,” Nevermind (1991)
“Territorial Pissings” remains as furious and funny as it was the day Nirvana laid it down in one take with Cobain’s guitar jacked right into the mixing desk. His tone remains brittle and jagged, like a smashed wine bottle, and the song sports his sharpest one-liners: “Never met a wise man / If so, it’s a woman.” The band also knew how to use the song as a cudgel, deploying it instead of another single on high-profile performances like on Saturday Night Live and Tonight With Jonathan Ross to start a riotous mosh pit right in your living room.
12. “Something in the Way,” Nevermind (1991)
As close as Nirvana ever got to Pink Floyd, an acoustic murmur that’s bone-chilling in its gloomy ambiance and despair. Cobain told Azerrad it was a fantasy of sorts, “like if I was living under the bridge and I was dying of AIDS, if I was sick and I couldn’t move.” The song was rendered in the control room of Sound City Studios (where Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was recorded), with all phones and air-conditioning turned off so Butch Vig could capture Cobain’s hushed performance. It’s a haunting, burdened, one-of-a-kind moment in their discography (and the doom-laden version they cut at the BBC is incredibly heavy).
11. “Milk It,” In Utero (1993)
In a 1993 Spin cover story, Kurt pulls out a copy of Public Image Ltd’s harrowing, heroin-ravaged third album, The Flowers of Romance. “This is a great record; it’s just totally uncompromising,” Cobain raves. “It’s a bunch of drumbeats, Johnny Rotten yelling over it all, but it works somehow.” That template carries over to the Steve Albini–approved art-rock rubble of “Milk It,” with an anti–guitar solo that sounds like a rat is scurrying along the fret board. And that laugh!
There’s something to this skeletal song that again reminds me of those first fraught months of parenthood — sleep cycles ruptured by screams, bodies turned into feeding mechanisms for newborns. “Milk It” refines a Cobain theme to a whetted tip, wherein intimacy is inherently equated with parasitic relationships. While most of In Utero’s songs are increasingly wordy, “Milk It” returns to the simplicity of Bleach-era tunes, with Cobain able to stuff an entire Saw movie’s worth of repulsion and terror into just four words: “Doll steak / Test meat.”
10. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nevermind (1991)
What more can be said about something that shifted an entire decade’s musical landscape, a noisy guitar song that flip-flopped the status quo? What other song could make corporate rock suddenly — and laughably — have to pretend it was alternative rock? What other song sent the band to the soaring heights of fame and weighed it down like an albatross? What other song could topple the King of Pop while also inspiring a “Weird Al” comeback? What other song could claim to rip off both ’80s underground kings the Pixies and the studio-polished ’70s perfection of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”? Who else could make an antiperspirant into an anthem?
Like its ludicrous, trenchant lyrics themselves, “Teen Spirit” revels in polar opposites and tries to have it both ways — to be the “ultimate pop song” and a bratty, noxious outburst, a reflection on the manic depression of its creator. Dissonant and slick, disengaged and violent, the song takes itself seriously, shrugs, and even mocks itself within its own guitar solo in a Gen-X level of sarcasm and snark that remains unmatched.
9. “Dive,” B side (1990)
The first signal that Nirvana had perfected a balance between metal’s immensity and pop’s effervescence. No longer beholden to the likes of Led Zeppelin and the template of grunge, “Dive” pile-drives, hypnotizes, uplifts, and drifts with total assurance. Cobain wrings every shade of emotional devastation out of his voice, conveying the pain and alienation of childhood and the futility of conformity in school and society at large, while also — as writer Jenn Pelly puts it — “tacitly pulling you out from beneath it … making the sunken feeling soar.” With its burnished-steel groove, “Dive” leaves you steamrolled and galvanized.
8. “About a Girl,” Bleach (1989)
To grasp just how far afield “About a Girl” was when it first hummed to life on Bleach, try scrolling through the back catalogues of Sub Pop stalwarts like Green River, the Supersuckers, Tad, Big Chief, or the Reverend Horton Heat to find a single sweet song you can put on a mixtape for your new crush. Or even a song that turns crashing on your girlfriend’s couch into high romance. “To put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky,” Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1994. For as muddy and hasty as the songwriting can get, a 21-year-old Cobain allowed sweetness, sensitivity, and sincerity to peek through Bleach’s murkiness.
7. “In Bloom,” Nevermind (1991)
Novoselic said the earliest version of “In Bloom” sounded closer to Bad Brains, but Cobain took that same punk energy and refined it into something as infectious as cotton candy and STDs. While “Teen Spirit” could be obfuscating and marble-mouthed, Cobain’s lyrics for “In Bloom” are perfectly drawn and efficient, and the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic here is as profound as anything Cobain’s idols the Pixies ever pulled off. The “he” who likes to shoot his gun is not the millions of jocks the band would soon convert into fans, but rather Cobain’s good friend Dylan Carlson. Regardless, that steely hook indicts whoever sings along with that chorus next.
6. “School,” Bleach (1989)
On this rager and longtime concert staple, Cobain conveyed the inner circle of hell that is high school. In fact, it was a lived experience from when recent dropout Cobain wound up working as a janitor at Weatherwax High School. But the band also wanted to call the song “The Seattle Scene,” quipping, “If we could have thrown in Soundgarden’s name, we would have.” Taking a simple grunge lick and a repetition of lines worthy of the blues, Cobain finds the existential angst latent on the playground, at your local music venue, or before thousands of adoring fans onstage. It remains as furious as the first time I blasted it in high school, and it will be that cathartic for the next teenager who cues it up on her playlist. It’s an example of Cobain’s ability to convey unbridled anguish and futile rage in just 15 words.
5. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
In much the same way that Cobain’s name-dropping an artist in any interview led his fans to seek out their work, when he happened upon Beat legend (and future collaborator) William S. Burroughs talking about Lead Belly, Cobain sought out his music. “It’s something that I hold really sacred to me,” he told Azerrad. “Lead Belly is one of the most important things in my life.” In 1989, that fandom led him to jam some Lead Belly songs with Screaming Trees front man Mark Lanegan, Novoselic on bass, and the Trees’ Mark Pickerel on drums. Only “Where Did You Sleep” (a traditional murder ballad that stretches back at least to the 1870s) made it to Lanegan’s solo album The Winding Sheet (another Lead Belly cover popped up on With the Lights Out). But it seethes with a murderous rage, and Cobain’s backing vocals are as unhinged as a man chasing that girl through the pines. It rules.
Four years later, Cobain was deep into the dark night of this song of infidelity, depression, isolation, doubt, fear, and decapitation by train. Coming at the end of an inspired set from the band, with 14 songs done in one take, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” caps the performance with an intensity that still haunts. By the seventh verse, Cobain’s increasingly fraught voice finally breaks with a skin-freezing shriek at the word shiver. What follows is the most penetrating stare and exhale in rock history.
4. “Sliver,” single (1990)
To an almost cosmic degree, “Sliver” arose thanks to some ridiculously auspicious circumstances. Made with drummer-for-one-show Dan Peters (while his other band, Mudhoney, was on hiatus), bashed out in a few minutes at practice one day, and laid down in an hour on July 11, 1990, with Jack Endino while the band Tad was on a dinner break, “Sliver” captures Cobain’s songwriting aptness in just over two perfect minutes. “I decided I wanted to write the most ridiculous pop song that I had ever written,” he confessed. It barely tops two minutes and uses barely more than two chords, but it’s a perfect merger of noise and guitar pop. Cobain deploys short-story-like details to convey the full emotional roller coaster of childhood: the innocence, moodiness, weird exaggerations, peculiar notion of time (“I fell asleep and watched TV”), inchoate anger, and violent urge to want to be alone. Cobain makes you feel both the instant relief of being in your mother’s arms and the tantrum of that chorus.
3. “Heart-Shaped Box,” In Utero (1993)
Courtney Love was friends with Dave Grohl first, though she confessed to having a crush on Kurt and gave Dave a parcel to pass along to him like a furtive high-school note, which Come As You Are describes as containing “little seashells, pine cones, and a tiny doll … all packed into a small heart-shaped box.” Cobain never replied to the gift but soon found himself amid Love’s heart-shaped-box collection.
“Heart-Shaped Box” gets to the, ahem, heart of the final Nirvana album. From the album art — angelic and offal filled (the back counterbalanced by orchids and aborted fetuses) — to the haunting last video the band made, In Utero deals with life and rot, the beauty and despair that frame our existence. The song is exquisite and grotesque, claustrophobic and free, its four minutes vacillating between feeling comforted and being filled with ominous dread: Novoselic’s stomach-churning bass, Grohl’s heart-bursting toms, and that lacerating guitar line from Cobain that snakes through the song as spellbinding as a torso-length scar. How better to say I love you forever than “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black”?
2. “Aneurysm,” B side (1991)
A song about the heart-bursting rush of new love or a song about the surge of euphoria from mainlining heroin? The raw power of “Aneurysm” plays it both ways, with Cobain deploying platitudes worthy of a teeny-bop ’50s sock hop (“Come on over, do the twist”). The song is devastatingly simple but with an intensity that would have been inconceivable with Chad Channing behind the drum kit. Vertiginous feedback and ever-scaling dissonance from Cobain’s guitar, paired with a massive drum attack from Grohl as intense as the title suggests, makes for the most thrilling, visceral high imaginable, tourniquetting in tension until it explodes. Grohl’s smooth backing harmonies on the Mark Goodier session (off Incesticide) reveal that beneath the squalor is a total pop confection. The chorus turns into an exorcism, proving that love is the drug.
1. “Drain You,” Nevermind (1991)
“I think there are so many other songs I’ve written that are as good as, if not better than, [‘Teen Spirit’], like ‘Drain You,’” Cobain told Rolling Stone. Nearly three decades later, “Drain You” remains the pinnacle of all of Nirvana’s powers, a summation of Cobain’s songwriting brilliance and an encapsulation of the band’s awe-inspiring might. Beyond the zeitgeist and Greek tragedy, their genius can be gleaned on a deep cut from a multi-platinum album, in a song that stands slightly apart from everything else in their catalogue.
“Drain You” inverts Nevermind’s well-worn formula of quiet-loud-quiet as Grohl bashes out what a drummer friend once called “a punk cha-cha-cha.” It has no clear-cut chorus, instead stretching a bridge into something that resembles one. It features more guitar overdubs, vocal takes, and studio wizardry in one song than can be found on any other Nirvana album, yet it still delivers a direct blow to the heart. It’s orchestral (Grohl called it the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of the album), a little silly (cue the rubber-ducky, squeaky-mouse, hair-spray-can, and wind-up-monkey sound effects), unhinged, and insanely focused. And Cobain’s scream at the climax razes everything in its path.
The themes that course through Nirvana’s discography and define their greatest songs can all be found in spades on “Drain You”: childhood innocence and puppy love; In Utero–anticipating imagery of medical devices, bodily fluids, decay, and infectious diseases; and infatuation, codependency, and the all-consuming notion of love as vampirism. That utterance of “I like yewwww” is equal parts sweetheart crush and psychotic obsession. Cobain’s genius lies in voicing these extremes so that each sensation hits all at once. The song imparts to the listener all the heart-bursting highs of a first kiss and new love while emotionally sucking you dry. Then “Drain You” fills you up once again.