As we mark 25 years since Kurt's death, TOM HOWARD takes on the challenge of ranking every Nirvana song in order of greatness.
Having done nothing but listen to and write about Nirvana songs for three really quite intense days in a row, I can say without any doubt in my mind that they are the greatest band of all time. It helps, of course, that they no longer exist, so they never had the chance to get shit and everything they ever did has taken on the status of a precious fossil. But given that Kurt’s songwriting just got better as he got older, and given how good the tracks are that he was tinkering around with in 1994, for what would’ve been the fourth Nirvana album, I reckon they had years of greatness ahead of them.
It’s a tragedy that we’ll never know. But it’s a blessing to everyone out there who’s been touched by Kurt, Dave and Krist’s unique blend of power, fragility, passion and pain that they were ever around. So here is every track they ever did (that we could find), ranked for your pleasure. Disclaimer: every tune from 2015’s ‘Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings’ has been discarded, apart from ‘And I Love Her’, because there’s only so much muck-raking Nirvana fans can handle. Enjoy!
102. Escalator To Hell (1988)
A YouTube comment on this track from 2017, from a man called Ryan Clark: “I love pretty much every sound Kurt Cobain has ever made with his mouth or guitar (and even bass or drums). This, however, does not interest me in the least…” Ryan Clark knows what he’s talking about.
101. Big Long Now (1988)
A ‘Bleach’ reject and, to be honest, you can hear why. It’s too long. It’s too slow. Kurt doesn’t sound like Kurt. It barely sounds like Nirvana. Skip!
100. Grey Goose (1989)
An instrumental cut from the Nirvana and The Screaming Trees doing Leadbelly sessions, which winds up sounding a helluva lot like Black Sabbath. An enjoyable stoner plod.
99. Bambi Slaughter (1988)
Yes you’re right, Kurt Cobain’s first band Fecal Matter have a song called ‘Bambi Slaughter’. But this song is not that song. This song is a four-track demo of Kurt pretty much whispering, over a rapid bassline. It’s okay.
98. Beans (1988)
Nirvana missed a trick by not making this high-pitched madness the secret track on ‘Bleach’ (apparently Sub Pop overlord Jonathan Poneman said no). It’s not that hard to imagine 20,000 fans in a stadium somewhere singing “Beans, beans, beans / Japhy ate some beans” right back at the band is it? The name Japhy comes from the lead character of the Jack Kerouac book The Dharma Bums, which the song is based on.
97. Montage Of Heck (1987/8)
A half hour mashup of going to the toilet noises, vomiting on the floor noises, film audio, Beatles songs, Public Enemy samples, bird song and even a bit of KISS. There are no actual tunes in it, but it’s a good insight into Kurt’s mind when he was a 20-year-old man, and deemed an important enough artefact for Brett Morgen to name his 2015 film about Kurt after it.
96. Black And White Blues (1987/8)
Kurt Cobain playing the blues. A strange thing, but a nice thing.
95. Do You Love Me? (1989)
Hold on a minute, this sounds like… Nirvana having fun! They’re all (apparently) pissed on red wine, they’re covering KISS, Jason Everman is in the studio with the band for the only time ever and Krist is a allowed to sing a bit. Easily the coolest thing that’s ever happened to Gene Simmons.
94. The Other Improv (1993)
The big question: what is the first improv referred to in the title? Well, given when and where ‘The Other Improv’ was recorded (January ‘93, Brazil) it was ‘Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip’, which ended up as the secret track on ‘In Utero’. They chose the right improv. This track’s legacy is the lyric “my milk is your shit”, which found its way onto the far superior ‘Milk It’ once this tune was popped in the bin.
93. Help Me, I’m Hungry (1987)
“Help me, somebody help me / hold me, I’m fucking hungry / help me, I’m right here, who are you?” One of the misconceptions of Kurt is that success destroyed him, but various accounts of the guy suggest he quite liked aspects of being famous, particularly the being rich bit. And when you listen to tracks like ‘Help Me, I’m Hungry’ you realise that success didn’t destroy him, at all. He was a troubled soul way before he got famous.
92. Heartbreaker (1987)
A pleasingly fat version of Led Zeppelin’s 1969 classic, played at a house party in 1987 (otherwise known as Nirvana’s first ever gig). It’s interesting that Kurt liked Led Zep, and you suspect he was disapproving of their extracurricular activities. But you cannot argue with that riff.
91. Anorexcorcist (1985)
What a title! The song: not so good. But here, on a track from Kurt’s 1985 ‘Fecal Matter’ demos, you’ll find the origins of the riff that would later destroy souls in the form of ‘Negative Creep’, and an early example of Cobain singing about guns (which, you’ll notice, he did a lot): “Protector of your gun, everyone plays with your gun.”
90. Mexican Seafood (1988)
As was perhaps made clearer than ever in the 2015 film Montage Of Heck, Kurt Cobain was obsessed with bodily functions. ‘Mexican Seafood’ – a deeply simple punky little number that appeared on Nirvana’s first ever demo – is an early glimpse into that obsession. Here are three examples. 1) “Now I vomit cum and diarrhoea / on the tile floor like oatmeal pizza.” 2) Fill my toilet bowl full of a cloudy / puss, I feel the blood becoming chowder rust 3) “Stained dirt, vaseline, toe jam and booger / stomach acid worms that dance in sugared sludge.” Elsewhere, there’s a killer riff at the 1.15 mark that’s straight from the Jimmy Page school of guitar playing.
89. Pen Cap Chew (1985)
One that began life on Kurt’s 1985 Fecal Matter demos, and he’s clearly already all over the sludgy sound that would dominate ‘Bleach’. Fun fact: this and ‘Negative Creep’ are the only Nirvana songs that fade out, and ‘Pen Cap Chew’ does so because the band ran out of recording tape when they were in the studio in 1988.
88. Mrs Butterworth (1988)
No further evidence is required to prove that Nirvana’s first drummer, Aaron Burckhard, knew his way round a kit. Kurt probably never wrote another song as hectic as this. It is fast and raucous, and features the sort of references to flea markets and burlap that would pop up later in on “Swap Meet’. Mrs Butterworth, by the way, is an American syrup brand.
87. Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip (1993)
Seven and a half impromptu minutes of stream-of-consciousness weirdness over a Krist and Dave jam sesh recorded in January 1993 in Brazil, and plonked on the end of ‘In Utero’ as a secret track. Lyrical highlights include “she’s only been five months late, even though we haven’t had sex for a week”, somebody else already used the word aurora borealis” and “it didn’t just singe the hair, it made it straight”.
86.Token Eastern Song (1989)
A version was recorded on New Year’s Day in 1991 – Dave Grohl’s first time in the studio with Nirvana – that’s never been released. But there’s a no-Grohl version (in the seat: Chad Channing) doing the rounds – recorded in 1989 at the ‘Blew’ EP sessions – that’s well worth a listen, mostly for Kurt’s “hold it in your GUT” yelps in the chorus.
85. Old Age (1991)
This is a Hole song, that first came out in April 1993 as an acoustic b-side for the single ‘Beautiful Son’. A full-band version was then recorded in October 1993 during the sessions for Hole’s ‘Live Through This’ album, but left off and used as a b-side for their 1995 single ‘Violet’. Then, in 1997, Courtney Love told Melody Maker that ‘Old Age’ was “partly someone else’s composition” but didn’t say who. The following year someone gave Seattle newspaper The Stranger a cassette of Nirvana rehearsing it in 1991. ARE YOU STILL FOLLOWING? If not, here’s the tldr version: it’s a good tune but Hole do it better.
84. Immigrant Song (1987)
It’s very important to watch the video of Nirvana covering Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, because Kurt sings the whole thing directly at a wall. Gives it a weird edge, don’t you think?
83. Don’t Want It All (1988)
Maybe just maybe, if Kurt had made it to middle-age, he would’ve calmed down a bit and broken the band up so he could enjoy his money and his family and some nice dinners, and maybe just maybe he would’ve looked back on tracks like this (sometimes also known as ‘Misery Loves Company’ or ‘Seed’) and reworked them into wise and broody acoustic pop gems for the first of many career-defining solo albums.
82. Scoff (1989)
Notable, mostly, for the drum beat delicately borrowed from ‘My Sharona’ by The Knack. Otherwise it’s a grunge-by-numbers sludgeathon starring textbook FUCK YOU, PARENTS lyrics (“In your eyes, I’m not worth it”). But, credit where credit’s due, the chorus is fun, as Kurt screams “gimmie back my alcohol! gimmie back my alcohol! gimmie back my alcohol! gimmie back my alcohol!” over and over until someone passes him a damn beer.
81. Beeswax (1988)
Early Nirvana, when they still kinda just copied the Melvins, with mixed results. Plodding sludge-rock with lyrics that are either meaningless (“like Pepe Le Pew would say / hey, hey, hey! — then we clash!) or about castration (“I got my didilly spayed”). You decide.
80. Raunchola / Moby Dick (1988)
Some sort of funk-metal mash-up from the early early early days that is both danceable and moshable, and fairly effortlessly morphs into a cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1969 monster ‘Moby Dick’.
79. Hairspray Queen (1987)
Weirdest Nirvana song ever? A very early Kurt song, and you can hear that as he takes his voice into some unrecognisable places, and it’s kinda odd when he starts barking at the end. There is, in the drums and bass, a heavy Gang Of Four influence.
78. White Lace And Strange (1987)
Nirvana were often at their most fun when Kurt freed himself from the misery of his mind and decided, instead, to tear into someone else’s tune. This Thunder And Roses cover is big dumb fun and the live versions (for they are the only versions that exist) are the sound of a band having a good time working out who they want to be.
77. My Best Friend’s Girl (1994)
Nirvana opened their last ever show, in March 1994 in Munich, with a very unhappy sounding version of this Cars song. One month later Kurt killed himself, so the track has a poignancy it possibly doesn’t deserve. Maybe he was sending a message to someone, maybe he wasn’t.
76. The Money Will Roll Right In (1992)
Nirvana busted out this cover of Fang’s biggest tune five times in the summer of 1992, most famously at their Reading Festival headline set. In September that same year he played guitar for Mudhoney when they covered it at a show in California. The Butthole Surfers and Metallica have covered it as well, but Nirvana’s is the best version obviously.
75. Sifting (1989)
The longest song on ‘Bleach’ is a sludgy and gruelling fuck you to authority, given a slightly tinny feel by the way-too-prominent use of the ride cymbal. There’s an oppressive heaviness here that was completely stripped out of Nirvana’s sound for ‘Nevermind’.
74. Swap Meet (1989)
A perfect example of Kurt’s highly observational early lyrics. The setting is a flea market (“the Sunday swap meet is a battleground”), the stars of the show are a modestly entrepreneurial couple (“they make their living off of arts and crafts / they kind with seashells driftwood and burlap”), and Cobain’s take on this humdrum existence is, naturally, peppered with disillusionment (“keeps his cigarettes close to his heart / keeps her photographs close to her heart / keeps the bitterness close to the heart”). Over chunky metal riffy and light ‘n’ loose drumming you can hear his determination to not go down a similar path.
73. If You Must (1987)
One of the fascinating things about early Nirvana demos is hearing the ideas that Kurt revisited later on. On the heavy churn of ‘If You Must’ there’s a faded out scream at the 1.10 mark that he recycled at least once.
72. Oh, The Guilt (1992)
A suuuuuuuper heavy monster, and one of those Nirvana songs that everyone’s forgotten was actually released as a single, albeit a split single with The Jesus Lizard’s ‘Puss’ on the other side. It rocks so hard. The end.
71. Seasons In The Sun (1993)
Kurt’s favourite ever song, apparently, released in 1974 and written by Terry Jacks. Every Nirvana version features Kurt drumming and singing, and Dave Grohl on guitar. It’s disarming to hear KC sing such happy words.
70. Talk To Me (1991)
Played live a little bit during ‘91 and ‘92 (Kurt’s “do you know how much money we have?” intro for it at this show is particularly him), ‘Talk To Me’ is allegedly a tune that Kurt was tinkering with in his basement in March 1994, just before he died. It could’ve been a contender.
69. They Hung Him On A Cross (1989)
Kurt takes on the death of Jesus Christ on a song that began life as a spiritual folk song called ‘He Never Said A Mumblin’’ word in the 1930s, and was then covered and renamed ‘They Hung Him On A Cross’ by Cobain fave Leadbelly in 1945. This tune came out of a joint session between Nirvana and grunge band Screaming Trees, who got together to call themselves The Jury and sing some Leadbelly songs because they all loved him so much. This is the only track that Kurt did solo.
68. Mr Moustache (1989)
Here are two very different readings of this song. 1) It’s one of Kurt’s many pisstakes of macho men who shoot animals for fun and want their kids to be boys, not girls. Evidence for this interpretation can be found in THIS comic strip that Kurt once drew. 2) It’s a take on people’s reaction to his vegetarianism: “Fill me in on your new vision / wake me up with indecision / help me trust your mighty wisdom / yes I eat cow, I am not proud”. Could be both. Could be neither. God bless you, Kurt.
67. Marigold (1993)
AKA the one that Dave Grohl sings. He wrote it too, so really, this is the spark that lit the fire that would go on to fuel the Foo Fighters. Short and sweet and perfectly formed, it’s a little gem.
66. Return Of The Rat (1992)
One of the most endearing things about Kurt was how open he was about the bands he loved, and how often he covered their songs. Here he pays homage to a key influence for a ‘92 Wipers tribute album ‘Eight Songs For Greg Sage And The Wipers’.
65. Aero Zeppelin (1987)
From the ‘Incesticide’ press release, written by Kurt: “Christ. Let’s just throw together some heavy metal riffs in no particular order and give it a quirky name in homage to a couple of our favourite masturbatory Seventies rock acts.” He means Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, and this is sound of early underdeveloped Nirvana. Still rocks though.
64. Curmudgeon (1992)
Monstrous heaviness on one of the first tracks Dave Grohl played in the studio with Nirvana. He //obliterates// his kit, while Kurt’s throat sounds like it’s ripping itself to shreds as he screams his way through typically dark and doomy lyrics: “Sheared at the seams, Cheat on me.”
63. Moist Vagina (1993)
‘Moist Vagina’ began life as a b-side to December 1993’s ‘All Apologies’ single, and has slowly gathered cult status. Why? Because it’s funny, basically, to hear Kurt howl “MARIJUANA!” over and over again for two minutes. Five years later Sonic Youth covered it, with Kim Gordon on vocals, and added lyrics including “I particularly enjoy the circumference, I’ve been sucking the warts of her anus”.
62. Blandest (1988)
At some point in the early 90s, while Nirvana were putting together ‘Incesticide’, Krist Novoselic gave Jack Endino (‘Bleach’ producer) a call and asked if he had a recording of ‘Blandest’. Endino said no because he had, at the band’s instruction, recorded over it with something better. So that plan was scrapped, but somehow a very weird and hissy version turned up on ‘With The Lights Out’ boxset in 2004. It’s lyrically intriguing, with a very obvious dig at someone Kurt’s not got a lot of time for: “I need you around / To remind me what not to become.”
61. Here She Comes Now (1991)
The result of a 1991 split single of Velvet Underground covers, on which Nirvana covered ‘Here She Comes Now’ and The Melvins did ‘Venus In Furs’. They just tear it up in the studio and go home, and it sounds good.
60. Downer (1989)
“I was trying to be Mr. Black Flag punk-rock guy,” said Kurt about the slightly political vibe to ‘Downer’. “I didn’t know what I was talking about.” For example: “Slippery pessimist hypocrite master / Conservative communist apocalyptic bastard.” He’s got a point.
59. And I Love Her (unknown)
A Beatles cover discovered in 2015 by director Brett Morgen as he went through Kurt’s stuff while doing research for his film Montage Of Heck. By performing it acoustically and, crucially, solo, Cobain creates an atmosphere of stifling isolation.
58. Endless, Nameless (1991)
Back when secret tracks on albums were still a thing, ‘Endless, Nameless’ blew the ears off anyone who kept ‘Nevermind’ running for 13 minutes and 51 seconds after ‘Something In The Way’ had finished. It’s a wild and heavy impromptu jam that that occured after a bad take of ‘Lithium’. Raw frustration never sounded so good.
57. Floyd The Barber (1989)
Supposedly, when Kurt killed himself, a TV in the same room as him was showing re-runs of The Andy Griffith Show on loop. That same show is the inspiration for ‘Floyd The Barber’, except Kurt takes what is a very wholesome sitcom centred around a barber shop and turns it into a story about torture, murder and kidnapping.
56. Spank Thru (1985)
Quite simply: a song about wanking (“I can feel it I can hold it I can rub it I can shape it / I can mold it I can cut it I can taste it I can spank it”.) Charmingly, maybe, it was this track from Kurt’s early demos that convinced bassist Krist Novoselic to start a band with his pal.
55. Clean Up Before She Comes (1988)
Not a huge amount is known about the downbeat finger-picking of ‘Clean Up Before She Comes’. First a fact: it was first released in 1995 on a bootleg album called ‘Dressed For Success’; now some conjecture: it’s a fairly common point of view among fans that Kurt wrote about living with his girlfriend Tracy Marander; and finally a rumour: apparently he re-recorded shortly before he died, but there is no evidence for that whatsoever.
54. Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam (1991)
According to Kurt Cobain at MTV Unplugged, Nirvana’s version of this Vaselines tune was “a rendition of an old Christian song”. Which is sort of true, but the full story is that The Vaselines version is a parody of the Christian children’s hymn ‘I’ll Be A Sunbeam’. Kurt did probably know this clued up guy that he was It’s most famous for its appearance at MTV Unplugged, but it regularly featured in Nirvana sets from 1991-1994.
Another Peel Session cut that made it onto ‘Incesticide’, this cover of a 1980 track by new wave champs Devo works perfectly as a Nirvana track, thanks to its perfect-for-Dave-Grohl tempo and lyrics that fit perfectly into Kurt’s world view: “Take a step outside the city, and turn around / take a look at what you are, it is revolting”.
52. Oh Me (1993)
A dreamy Meat Puppets cover played at MTV Unplugged, featuring the well-timed lyric: “I don’t have to think, I only have to do it, the results are always perfect, but that’s old news”. Which, at the time, probably wasn’t far off how some people regarded Kurt’s talent.
51. Son Of A Gun (1990)
Originally released in 1987 by Glaswegian indie heroes The Vaselines on an EP called ‘Son Of A Gun’ that Cobain once said was in his top five albums of all time, then lovingly covered by Nirvana in 1990 at a live session for Radio 1 DJ John Peel. Pure punk pop, full of charming singalong vibes: “The sun shines in the bedroom when we play, the raining always starts when you go away”.
50. Plateau (1993)
The first of the three Meat Puppets tunes Nirvana played at their 1993 MTV Unplugged show, most notable for how really quite sweet it is is to hear Kurt sing “an illustrative book about birds” in a really high pitched voice.
49. (New Wave) Polly (1991)
It’s ‘Polly’, but fast, recorded for a Radio 1 session with Marc Goodier. It’s good, but not as good as the original. Next!
48. Big Cheese (1989)
It begins with a simple guitar line that sounds very much like the Jaws theme, and becomes a straight up challenge to authority figures everywhere: “big cheese, make me”. Once again, Kurt’s anger is directed at powerful men: “Black is black straight back, need more enemies, show you all what a man is.”
47. Stain (1989)
Growing up, Kurt felt unwanted, unloved, disapproved of and worthless. All these things are encapsulated in ‘Stain’: “I’m a stain, I’m a stain, I’m a stain, I’m a stain.” It’s a sad fucking song.
46. Stay Away (1991)
Drum roll please! And then: the worst song on ‘Nevermind’. But still better than most songs ever written, so go figure. ‘Stay Away’ began life as a song called ‘Pay To Play’ that was a moan about the culture at the time of small bands having to shell out cash to play gigs.
45. Paper Cuts (1989)
A slow and dirty sludge-fest, with lyrics inspired by a real-life story from Kurt’s hometown of Aberdeen about a family locking their children in an attic. He sings from the perspective of the kids, honing in on the bleakness: “Black windows of paint / I scratched with my nails / I see others just like me / Why do they not try to escape?”
44. D-7 (1990)
Punky as fuck cover of the classic Wipers tune that first popped up in a 1990 Peel session, then sporadically appeared in live sets up until 1993. (BTW: the album it’s from – 1980s ‘Is This Real?” – was number 46 in Kurt’s famous list of his top 50 albums.) There’s no way you can stop yourself dancing when the thrash kicks in at 1.30.
43. Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle (1993)
Frances Farmer was a 30s film star who was demonised in the press and then institutionalised and given electro-shock therapy against her will, and Kurt saw similarities between that and how his wife Courtney Love was being treated in the press. So he wrote this magnificent song.
42. The Man Who Sold The World (1993)
In 1971, David Bowie wrote ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and stuck it on an album of the same name. According to Kurt’s journals, that album is Kurt’s favourite Bowie album (and his 45th favourite album of all time), so he did the decent thing and played a magical acoustic version at Nirvana’s November 1993 MTV Unplugged show. Maybe just maybe, Bowie and Cobain are jamming it together in heaven.
41. Pennyroyal Tea (1993)
Every now and then Kurt Cobain wrote lyrics that were so incredibly sad it’s hard to see them written down, but here we go anyway: “I’m so tired I can’t sleep / I’m a liar and thief / Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea / I’m anaemic royalty”, and then a little later on in the song: “I’m on warm milk and laxatives / Cherry-flavored antacids.” Intense.
40. Lake Of Fire (1993)
The best of Nirvana’s Meat Puppets covers, thanks to Kurt barely being able to hit the high notes in the verse. Everybody join in now: “Where do bad folks go when they diiiiiiiiiieeee?”
39. Been A Son (1989)
Released on 1989’s ‘Blew’ EP, ‘Been A Son’ stands out for being one of Kurt’s earliest statements about sex, gender and the patriarchy. “She should have died when she was born, she should have worn the crown of thorns, she should have been a son” he goes, supposedly inspired by his dad, Don, saying that he’d have liked his daughter Kim to be born a boy.
38. Opinion (1990)
Only one rough and ready recording of ‘Opinion’ exists, from a solo acoustic session Kurt did on Olympia WA KAOS FM on September 25 1990. It’s a rant about sensationalist media (“Congratulations you have won / it’s a years subscription of bad puns / and a make-shift story of concern / and to set it off before it burns”) that, according to Kurt when interviewed immediately he’d played it, sounds like ‘Taxman’ by the Beatles.
37. Rape Me (1993)
A song with multiple interpretations. 1) It is, as Cobain frequently said, an anti-rape song written from the victim’s point of view. 2) It is also, as Cobain said less frequently but occasionally touched on, a song about his own feelings about the intensity of fame, which makes a lot of sense given that ‘Rape Me’ rips off the opening chords of ‘Smell Like Teen Spirit’ and features the lyrics “I’m not the only one” sung over and over. As an aside, there’s also a dig at a still-unknown member of another band who Kurt thought was telling journalists nasty things about him and Courtney Love: “My favourite inside source, I’ll kiss your open sores”.
36. Ain’t It A Shame (1989)
Jonathan Poneman, founder of Sub Pop (Nirvana’s first record label), reckons this is “one of Kurt’s greatest vocal performances”. And yeah, there’s an infectious wildness to it. In fact, there’s an infectious wildness to the whole song, a Leadbelly cover that came out of a session with Screaming Trees where all they did was play Leadbelly songs. Another great example of Kurt sounding free and fun on someone else’s tune.
35. I Hate Myself And I Want To Die (1993)
People take this song way too seriously because, y’know, Kurt Cobain hated himself and wanted to die. But it was written at a time when Kurt felt jolly enough to mock the public perception of him, is really quite surreal (key lyric: “most people don’t realize, that two large pieces of coral, painted brown and attached to his skull, with common wood screws can make a child look like a deer”) and only got left off ‘In Utero’ because the album’s heavy songs quota had already been filled. ‘In Utero’ was, in fact, almost called ‘I Hate Myself And I Want To Die’, which would’ve been hilarious.
34. Lounge Act (1991)
A paranoid (“I smell her on you”) and insecure (“truth, covered in security”) end-of-relationship anthem, inspired by Kurt’s break-up with Bikini Kill hero Tobi Vail. Easily the chirpiest sounding song on ‘Nevermind’.
33. Even In His Youth (1992)
An ideal track for playing Kurt Cobain Lyrics Bingo. Reference to bad childhood? Tick. Mention of shame? Certainly. Hints of a bad relationship with his dad? Oh yes. Fleeting mention of death. You bet! The results are absolutely wicked, of course.
32. On A Plain (1991)
First there’s: “I got so high I scratched til I bled.” Then there’s: “Love myself better than you, I know it’s wrong so what should I do?” Followed by: “the black sheep got blackmailed again”. And finally: “what they hell am I trying to say?” Classic Kurt.
31. Molly’s Lips (1990)
A song The Vaselines say they wrote about Scottish actress Molly Weir, which seems less innocent in Nirvana’s hands when you consider Kurt’s drug problems. “She said she’d take me anywhere, as long as I stayed clean,” he sings optimistically. Kurt didn’t much like the version that got released as a single in 1991, so I guess we’ll have to disagree on that.
30. Dive (1989)
The opening track of 92’s legendary b-sides album ‘Incesticide’ is so simple, but oh so effective. The bassline churns and the drums pump while Kurt tackles loneliness (“pick me, pick me yeah / Live alone, lone single) and rejection (“hit me, hit me yea / I’m real good at hitting”) in that uniquely oblique and half-glass-empty way of his.
29. Polly (1991)
A moody acoustic tale of a rape victim escaping her attacker, told from the point of view the assailant. The idea came from a newspaper article about a real-life attack during which a young girl was tortured with a blowtorch. The line that brings tears to the eyes is, of course: “She caught me off my guard, amazes me the will of instinct”.
28. Something In The Way (1991)
Legend has it that the lyrics for ‘Nevermind’’s quiet moment of haunting desolation have something to do with Kurt living under a bridge for a period of his life. It’s unclear if this is true or not. Legend also has it that he recorded the song lying flat on his back in the studio and playing an out of tune five-string acoustic guitar. Butch Vig told Rolling Stone about it in 1992, so that one probably is true.
27. Sappy (1993)
Also known as ‘Verse Chorus Verse’, ‘Sappy’ was popping up in Nirvana’s sets in the late ‘80s, but didn’t get an official release until it appeared on a 1993 AIDS benefit album called ‘No Alternative’. As is so often the case with Kurt’s songs, a dark tale lurks within the poppy melodies, this time about a toxic romantic relationship: “And if you cut yourself you will think you’re happy, he’ll keep you in a jar, then you’ll make him happy”.
26. You Know You’re Right (1993)
‘You Know You’re Right’ was played live for the first time on October 1993 in Chicago, then polished off at Nirvana’s final ever recording session in January 1994, with producer Robert Lang. This, then, is the clearest indication of where Nirvana would’ve gone on their fourth album, had Kurt not died. It’s a moody thing, less angry but more brooding than anything on ‘In Utero’, with lyrics (“Nothing really bothers her / she just wants to love herself”) that seem directed at Courtney. If you were trying to write a Nirvana parody song, you might accidentally come up with this song’s chorus (“things have never been so swell, I have never felt so well, paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaain”) but actually, delivered like this, it bangs.
25. Love Buzz (1988)
It makes a lot of sense that Nirvana’s debut single was a cover. Firstly because Kurt Cobain was a bona fide music obsessive, always seeking new sounds to be inspired by. Secondly because, as the band’s career proved, they are the greatest covers band of all time (discuss!). This take on Dutch rock dudes Shocking Blue’s 1969 track is deliciously cheeky, psychy and trippy, and a whole load of fun.
24. About A Girl (1989)
A song about Kurt’s then girlfriend Tracy Marander, and the lyric “I can’t see you every night for free” is about her getting annoyed with him being a wannabe rock star and just bumming around her house watching TV all day. Sweet and simple, with melodies inspired by a marathon listening session of the album ‘Meet The Beatles’.
23. Dumb (1992)
Pop perfection about stupid people who have bad jobs, no money, no friends, no lovelife and no hobbies and yet… are happy. “I’m not like them, but I can pretend,” Kurt sings. You wonder if he envied them a bit.
22. Do Re Mi (1994)
Two versions of this exist, both recorded early in 1994, just before Kurt died in April. This and ‘You Know You’re Right are the clearest indications of where Kurt’s songwriting was heading. But whereas ‘YKYR’ is sarcastic, bitter and broding, ‘Do Re Mi’ is sweet and warm and Beatles-level melodic. It’s amazing. Another version was recorded at Kurt’s house on March 25 that year, with Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear and Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson, that’s never come out. And check out what Smear said about Kurt’s voice at the time, in a 2002 interview with nirvanaclub.com: “Kurt and I were suffering from bronchitis, and his voice was sooooo gone. But instead of trying to conserve it, he seemed to delight in pushing it.” Oh maaaaaan that sounds even more amazing.
21. Blew (1989)
Nirvana started recording their debut album on Christmas Eve in 1988, and ‘Blew’ was the first track Kurt got his vocals right for. Easily one of the poppiest and best tracks on ‘Bleach’, and stayed on the band’s setlist right up to their last ever show in Munich on March 1 1994.
20. Tourette’s (1992)
Debuted at their Reading Festival headline slot in ‘92, and introduced as a new song ‘The Eagle Has Landed’, ‘Tourette’s’ is the heaviest song to make it onto a Nirvana album. It’s ‘In Utero’’s thrashiest moment, full of indecipherable lyrics, furious screams and drums that go so hard they could burrow out a mine shaft. It just. Fucking. Pumps.
19. Drain You (1991)
There is a clip of Nirvana performing this complete and utter classic on the French TV show Nulle Part Ailleurs in 1994, two months before he died. In it, Kurt Cobain puts down his broken guitar and sings the second half of ‘Drain You’ (after it breaks right down and builds right up again) without holding his instrument. It is, to this writer’s knowledge, the only example of him doing such a thing, and is therefore a rare treasure to tell all your friends about.
18. Come As You Are (1991)
On November 25 1991 at a venue in Amsterdam called the Paradiso, Kurt Cobain played this second single from ‘Nevermind’ on an out of tune guitar and sang it like he hated it more than he’d ever hated anything in his entire life, and it’s amazing. Watch it here. You are welcome.
17. Negative Creep (1989)
Crippling self-hate has never sounded so goddamn energetic: “I’m a negative creep, a negative creep, a negative creep… and I’m stoooooned!!!!!” There’s possibly a Mudhoney (who Kurt loved) reference here, as the line “daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more” bears similarity to “sweet young thing ain’t sweet no more” (from the track ‘Sweet Young Thing’). At its best played live, particularly here.
16. Sliver (1990)
Kid gets dropped off at his Grandparents’ house, kid doesn’t want to be there, kid eats dinner, kid rides his bike, kid stubs his toe, kid has some ice cream, kid falls asleep, kid wakes up in his mother’s arms, kid finishes the song with: “Grandma take me home, I wanna be alone”. This non-album single is a sad enough tale as it is, but when you consider that Kurt Cobain feeling rejected by his parents was one of the root causes of the misery that ended up killing him, it takes on an air of tragedy, all sung over the jauntiest bassline Krist Novoselic ever came up with.
15. Heart-Shaped Box (1993)
A comeback single released in August 1993, when Nirvana were the biggest band on earth, featuring insights into Kurt’s obsession with both body parts (“throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back”) and disease (“I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black), and some deep obnoxious trademark sarcasm: “forever in debt to your priceless advice”. The original version of the song (before Steve Albini’s cut got remixed by Scott Litt to go on ‘In Utero’) featured a guitar solo that, according to bassist Krist Novoselic, sounded “like a fucking abortion hitting the floor”. Someone needs to leak that.
14. All Apologies (1993)
The final track on Nirvana’s final album (‘In Utero’) is comforting (“in the sun I feel as one”), insulting (“I wish I was like you, easily amused”) and doom-laden (“married, buried”) all at the same time. For Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged show Kurt changed the lyric “all in all is all we are” to “all alone is all we are”, and the sadness in his voice is excruciating.
13. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter (1993)
This slice of heavy rocking squawking mayhem was almost called ‘Nine Month Media Blackout’ and is every bit as grumpy, disillusioned, pissed off and belligerent as that title suggests. The best bit is when, out of nowhere Kurt just goes “all of a sudden my waters broke”. The most disturbing bit is, of course, when he just keeps repeating: “What is wrong with me?”
12. Territorial Pissings (1991)
As with many Nirvana songs, ‘Territorial Pissings’ has become a symbol of everything the band were about thanks to the live performances. Take this clip from a 1991 chat show hosted by Jonathan Ross (who, brilliantly, introduces the song as ‘Lithium’ because that’s what the band were supposed to play). It’s primal, destructive, bratty, unforgiving, disobedient, short, sharp, sweet, genius. And Kurt’s lyrics are bang on: “just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you”. Look after yourselves.
11. Serve The Servants (1993)
After ‘Nevermind’ Nirvana became the biggest band in the world and Kurt Cobain the most talked about rock star on earth. His issues with heroin, mental health, parents and his new found status as an icon for a generation were written about constantly, and not always nicely, as was his marriage to Courtney Love and the birth of their daughter Frances Bean. For all these reasons and more, the follow-up to ‘Nevermind, 1993’s ‘In Utero’, was the most hyped rock album for decades. It was hard and weird and heavy and petulant, and it took people years to realise it’s actually better than ‘Nevermind’. Crucially, ‘Serve The Servants’ features the best opening line to any album ever: “teenage angst has paid off well, and now I’m bored and old”. Kurt was self-aware to a fault, and this is a prime example. It’s an added bonus that the track is an admirably obnoxious hard rock banger.
10.Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (1993)
Nirvana’s best cover version, and the finale of the November 1993 MTV Unplugged show that’s taken on a near-mythical status. Surrounded by candles, lilies and bandmates, Kurt creeps his funereal way through the Leadbelly song ‘In The Pines’ before, three minutes in, unleashing a howl that Neil Young once described as “unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable”. Then he stops and sighs, and forces the last two words out of his tiny body. Spine-tingling, every single time.
9. In Bloom (1991)
Massive massive massive massive. A giant wall of riffs, crushing anything dumb enough to get in their way. Those lyrics, about the fans the band were attracting who were not entirely welcome by the band: “He’s the one/ Who like all our pretty songs/ And he likes to sing along / And he likes to shoot his gun / But he don’t know what it means”. And a video for the single release featuring Kurt in a dress. This is quintessential Nirvana.
8. Very Ape (1993)
A number once known as ‘Perky Or Punky New Wave Number’ that clocks in at under two minutes, is about the masculine men Kurt found particularly objectionable, and features the magnificent lyric: “if you ever need anything please don’t hesitate to ask someone else first”. Rocks extremely hard.
7. Milk It (1993)
Kurt Cobain had an underrated sense of humour, and when he wrote songs like ‘I Hate Myself And I Want To Die’ he was sort of dicking about. ‘Milk It’, though, is super dark. The riffs and drums bludgeon and bruise and the solo is best described as twisted beyond belief, and given what happened to Kurt it’s hard to see the lyric “look on the bright side, suicide” as anything other than some kind of cry for help. Harrowing, but awesomely powerful.
6. Lithium (1991)
There is no better example in Nirvana’s discography of the quiet LOUD quiet songwriting method that Kurt Cobain was very honest about stealing from the Pixies. There’s also possibly no better example of why Kurt’s lyrics touch so many people. This song is a mockery of religion (“I’m so happy because today I found my friends, they’re in my head”). But it’s a song that also works very well as an antidote to pain, misery and heartbreak (“I like it, I’m not gonna crack / I miss you, I’m not gonna crack / I love you, I’m not gonna crack / I kill you, I’m not gonna crack”). Plus: it fucking rips live.
5. Scentless Apprentice (1993)
Featuring: the best intro to any Nirvana song, the best drumming on any Nirvana song, one of the best riffs on any Nirvana song (written by the guy on the drums, Dave Grohl), Kurt’s greatest ever studio recorded screaming (“go awwwwwwwwwwwAAAAAYAYAYAYAYAYYYYYyyy”) and some really weird lyrics inspired by Patrick Suskind’s 1985 novel Perfume (“I lie in the soil and fertilize mushrooms”). Perfection.
4. School (1989)
A song Kurt wrote to express his dismay at feeling like the Seattle music scene was like being a bitchy cliquey teenager again (“you’re in high school again”). “If I could have thrown Soundgarden’s name in I would have,” he once said. Excellently, the lyrics only have 15 words in them. Also excellently, it’s the song Nirvana played most times live (283, if you must know). It’s the premium example of Nirvana doing a lot with a little.
3. Breed (1991)
A track of legendary status thanks to all the monstrous live versions. Nirvana played it more than any other tune on ‘Nevermind’ (224 times, to be precise), which tells you everything you need to know about how much Kurt dug it. It’s a love song really (“We could plant a house / We could build a tree / I don’t even care / We could have all three”), but mostly it rocks so hard it makes walls shake.
2. Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
It is inarguable that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is the Nirvana song that had the biggest impact, positive and negative, on the band, the world, the next 15 years of rock music and the mental health of the man who wrote it. Plus, it was responsible for one of the most exciting live TV moments ever seen. But given that by the time Kurt died he sort of hated it, and given that no hardcore Nirvana fans ever pick it as their favourite song, and given that 98% of people reading this have heard it waaaaaaay too many times, let’s knock it off its perch. Oh well, whatever, nevermind. Perhaps the most interesting way to approach it in 2019 is to enjoy the myriad ways Kurt found to fuck it up when playing it live, like these deliberately bodged guitar parts and the ‘More Than A Feeling’ intro at Reading Festival in 1992, or this Jim Morrison crossed with Morrissey impression on Top Of The Pops in 1991. These acts of self-sabotage are what made Kurt so preposterously cool.
1. Aneurysm (1991)
Although it was written at the same time as songs like ‘Drain You’, ‘Lithium’ and ‘Lounge Act, it makes sense that ‘Aneurysm’ was left off ‘Nevermind’. For a start the intro is too long (it takes 79 seconds for Kurt to kick in). But crucially, I think, it’s the song that is the bridge between ‘Bleach’ and ‘Nevermind’ and wouldn’t have belonged on either. It has the simplicity of, say, ‘School’, but Kurt’s words have the sensitivity that he only really developed after Nirvana’s debut album. It exists in a bubble and is all the more powerful for it. The sound is simple, edgy, dark, poppy, punky, troubled, dark, angry and fuelled by the unholy power that Kurt, Krist and Dave were able to conjure when they played together.
The lyrics, however you choose to interpret them, cover all of Kurt’s primary concerns at the time: his relationship with Tobi Vail appears (“love you so much it makes me sick”), as do his preoccupations with fucking (“come on over and do the twist / overdo it and have a fit”), smack (“come on over and shoot the shit”), masturbation (“beat me out of me”) or, if you look at “beat me out of me” a different way, self-loathing. All of them, of course, are sung so hard it hurts. Then there are the live versions. Watch this from 1993 in Rio, when he’s wearing a dress and he’s got brown hair and a goatee and an air raid siren goes off when the song breaks down at 3.14.
Or this from 1991 in Seattle for the awesome intensity of the intro.
But most of all watch this from 1991 in Amsterdam because it’s the greatest band of all time at their peak, and it’ll keep them pumping straight to your heart.