10 Best Nirvana Songs
Picking the Best Nirvana Songs isn’t easy, given the quality of the group’s output, but at least there’s not much music to sift through. For all their influence, Nirvana didn’t release much in the five or so years they were around.
Three studio albums, a couple live records and a handful of EPs and singles make up their entire discography. Of course one of those albums is ‘Nevermind,’ the 1991 classic that revolutionized music. It’s easy to understate the album’s importance today. Yeah, it killed hair metal, as the guys in Warrant will tell you, but back when it was released, alternative music was left-of-the-dial underground fare that seldom broke through to the mainstream. After ‘Nevermind,’ it was much easier for fringe bands to receive airplay and sell some records. After ‘Nevermind,’ great new music walked out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Our list of the 10 Best Nirvana Songs includes three cuts from that masterpiece.
For some reason somebody thought a song called ‘Rape Me’ would make a fine single. No surprise that it didn’t receive much airplay or do all that well on the charts (it never even placed in the U.S.). But this track from ‘In Utero,’ Nirvana’s abrasive followup to ‘Nevermind,’ pulls together the best of the band’s playbook: the quiet-loud dynamic, a meaty guitar riff and lyrics that go deeper than they let on.
‘The Man Who Sold the World’
It’s not exactly unplugged, but Nirvana’s cover of David Bowie’s 1970 song does offer a more stripped-down view of a band whose modus operandi was plugged-in rage. It also showed a side of Kurt Cobain that rarely surfaced in his own songs. He sounds more open and vulnerable paying tribute to one of his heroes.
‘You Know You’re Right’
Nirvana didn’t leave much unreleased work when Cobain died on April 25, 1994. This gem was the last song they recorded together, less than three months before Cobain’s death. ‘You Know You’re Right’ is the only new track on the 2002 compilation ‘Nirvana,’ which gathers 14 songs from the band’s short career. It’s a sad, but great, reminder of what may have been.
‘About a Girl’
Nirvana’s debut album is kinda spotty — a handful of cuts are little more than punk throwaways — but hints of Cobain’s genius surface in the select songs that turn down the fury. ‘About a Girl’ is the best of them. The track was also the opening number in the band’s great ‘Unplugged’ set (see Nos. 9 and 2 on our list of the 10 Best Nirvana Songs), where it gained even more resonance.
The third single from the breakthrough ‘Nevermind’ album perfected Cobain’s quiet-loud-quiet template (see No. 10 on our list of the 10 Best Nirvana Songs) and set the tone for the few remaining songs the band would write before his death. Krist Novoselic’s rolling bass line steers the song, but Dave Grohl‘s thundering drums and Cobain’s raspy-throated howls follow close behind.
Here’s a neat trick: Cobain’s attack on the casual fans at the band’s shows who “like to sing along” to only the group’s “pretty songs” features one of Cobain’s prettiest and immediately likable melodies. And yes, it’s great for group singalongs. But more than that, ‘In Bloom’ proved that Nirvana weren’t just about the rage, the distortion and the noise. Beneath all of that were some truly terrific hooks.
This stand-alone 1990 single (which later showed up on the rarities compilation ‘Incesticide’) was a sign of things to come. Recorded and released between their debut album ‘Bleach’ and their world-shaking followup ‘Nevermind,’ ‘Sliver’ packs a monster hook and a story of childhood angst (though this one is a little more nostalgic than most). Plus, it features one of Cobain’s all-time best vocal performances.
Following ‘Nevermind”s surprising and overwhelming success, the fame-shunning Nirvana returned to the studio with producer Steve Albini, best known for pressing “record” on the console and letting bands play what they want without much interference. The resulting album, ‘In Utero,’ was a blistering assault on the clean, room-shaking production of its predecessor. The LP’s first single is buried in a distorted mix, but its rousing chorus rings crystal clear.
‘All Apologies’ originally appeared on ‘In Utero’ as its closing song, a head-bowed rumination on the past, fame and life itself. But we prefer the stripped-down live version found on ‘MTV Unplugged in New York,’ where the song’s inherent pain and defiance tear through every word that leaves Cobain’s lips. It’s a sad, somber performance, which turned out to be a requiem for both Cobain and Nirvana.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Is it any wonder why ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ tops our list of the 10 Best Nirvana Songs? It not only introduced the band to the world, it also launched the alternative revolution. Without this song, ‘Nevermind’ never would have become a monster hit. From its opening riff (the greatest of the past 25 years, by the way) to the chorus’ howls of alienation to Grohl’s stomping drum rolls, ‘Teen Spirit’ is the sound of a generation finding its voice. It’s the sound of everything great that’s followed it. And it’s the sound of rock ‘n’ roll reinventing itself.