Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain in particular, left the world far too soon. The band and the songwriter, however, left a wealth of content to sift through – even if it is content that’s somewhat exploited by labels in the last decade for ‘deluxe’ and ‘super’ releases. For the purpose of this top ten, we’ll be digging into core music from the three main releases from the group, save three extraneous, but necessary inclusions.
# 10 – ‘Here She Comes Now’ – ‘Nevermind – Smart Sessions’
When Nirvana kicked off recording their sophomore, and perhaps most notable effort, Nevermind they were working at Smart Studios in Wisconsin. Only one tune from that session made the cut, though, and they ended up recording the remainder of the album at the famous California studio, Sound City.
In one of those aforementioned ‘deluxe’ releases, the sessions recorded at Smart Studios were unveiled. Amongst the loose demos is a rendition of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Here She Comes Now.’ This lo-fi endeavor through 1967 is delightful and a beautiful insight into Cobain’s deep, enigmatic influence. Yes, it’s a cover. Goodness, though, it’s one of the most remarkable recordings in the Nirvana catalog.
# 9 – ‘Sliver’ – ‘Incesticide’
‘Sliver’ was released as a single in 1990 and it was included on ‘Incesticide,’ a compilation that would drop two years later of demos and radio recordings of Nirvana from the era. ‘Silver’ offers a lighthearted look into Cobain’s songwriting psyche. It’s such an early teenage song. Getting angry about being unloaded on grandparents so parents can have a night out? It’s actually a bit comical in hindsight, but also speaks to how Nirvana connected with an angst-driven generation like no other grunge group.
# 8 – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nevermind
In 1992, Time magazine described ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ as an “anthem for apathetic kids.” Just earlier this month, Alice Cooper remarked in Rolling Stone that it’s one of the songs he wishes he’d written. The song is so synonymous with Nirvana that it’s the first video on YouTube under the “Nirvana” search with over 359 million views. Yes, the song was, and still is, a pretty big deal.
Why is that? Historically, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the perfect single for the perfect time. Generation X was getting sick of 80s hair metal; it felt polished and ostentatious to them. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is wholly real. It’s passive aggressive, perpetually annoyed, and a triumphant return to wham, bam, thank you, ma’am three chord rock and roll structures. It’s exactly what a generation needed.
# 7 – ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ – ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’
Five months after Nirvana recorded their historic entry into the MTV series ‘Unplugged,’ Cobain committed suicide. Thus, the release of the show was the band’s first after his death. One could argue that the renditions of the Nirvana classics on ‘MTV Unplugged New York’ stand just as tall, if not taller than their album counterparts. The ending of the show, however, is a special moment in rock history.
To close the show, Cobain performed a raw, delicate, and passionate cover of Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night.’ The inclusion of a second cover on this list is very intentional – these two covers gave dramatic insight into Cobain’s songwriting. He recorded a Velvet Underground cover and later a Leadbelly cover – that’s incredible. His passion for music was so vast outside of grunge. He even tried his hand at some Beatles material, as we learned last year courtesy of HBO and their documentary ‘Montage of Heck.’
That may be the secret sauce behind why Nirvana was so successful and popular. It was grunge music fueled by the Beatles, delta blues, avant garde rock and roll, and everything in between.
# 6 – ‘Serve The Servants’ – In Utero
The success of Nevermind was bittersweet for Cobain. Nirvana became the most important band of the decade – international superstars. He finally got a massive platform, but in doing so, he became actively afraid of becoming too commercial, and thus, falling victim to everything Nirvana was inherently opposed to.
In Utero the band’s final masterpiece, is a giant middle finger to anyone who thought Nirvana would become commercial. The song ironically toys with the teenage angst that Nevermind capitalized off of, all while making it abundantly clear that Cobain couldn’t care less about it. Then, Cobain simultaneously writes off his anger for his father and the media’s affinity for stereotyping him because of it.
# 5 – ‘About A Girl’ – Bleach
Bleach isn’t Nirvana’s finest effort. It’s a debut album that stretched Cobain’s songwriting chops a bit before burying them deep into ‘Nevermind. That said, it does have its moments. ‘About A Girl’ is one of the most lovely moments of the Nirvana catalog. Paul McCartney and John Lennon could have written this song in 1962. It’s a grunge love ballad tinged in Fab Four influence.
# 4 – ‘Rape Me’ – In Utero
If ‘In Utero was a middle finger to people who feared Nirvana would become too commercial, ‘Rape Me’ is a slap in the face. That’s why it’s simply fantastic. It’s so blatantly offensive. Or is it? Critics don’t even know. Was Cobain attacking the media? He once remarked he was actually attempting to empower rape victims. Retailers were up in arms about it and MTV was deathly afraid it being played on air.
It’s great because it’s the furthest Cobain ever pushed the envelope. Its bizarre place in musical history is compelling – is it an obtuse statement of contempt or one of political origin? Either way, Cobain is at his most passionate as he slowly moves from whispers to screaming. It’s quintessentially Nirvana.
# 3 – ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ – In Utero
Kurt Cobain should always be given ample credit not just as the frontman of Nirvana, but as an elegant songwriter in his own regard. Yes, elegant. His style of songwriting was stunning in its simplicity. It’s brevity was abruptly refreshing, and at times, surprisingly poetic. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ is one of those tunes. Instrumentally, it’s one of Nirvana’s more intriguing pursuits. It’s very dynamic. Lyrically, its depth is even greater, exploring depression in a frighteningly relatable way.
# 2 – ‘Lithium’ – Nevermind
Despite Nirvana’s recordings sounding pretty raw and unedited, some tracks were a cow to record for the band. ‘Lithium’ was one of those songs. Cobain’s producer, Butch Vig, frustrated the Nirvana frontman immensely by essentially forcing Cobain to play methodically, but loosely. As a result, ‘Lithium’ turned out to be a signature sound for the band. Despite its free sound, though, the track is rather disturbing. Kobain injected some of the pain into it that probably lead to his eventual suicide. Sadly, that also makes the emotion particularly authentic.
# 1 – ‘All Apologies’ – In Utero’
‘All Apologies’ is one of Nirvana’s absolutely pivotal masterpieces. The composition is immensely interesting – it combines distorted grunge rock with melodic riffs, catchy lyricism, and increasingly more epic and anthemic instrumentation. There’s even hints of a stringed instrument and echoes of Cobain singing harmonies.
It’s a gorgeous tune. Even lyrically, it’s host to some of the most poetic musings of Cobain’s career. “All in all is all we are,” he murmurs into oblivion as the song dissipates. It’s a perfect mix of everything Nirvana was – melodic, but distorted, apathetic, but passionate, and poetic, but straight-forward.
Updated: August 20, 2020