The 10 Worst Nirvana Songs

Nirvana's Kurt Cobain
(Image credit: Frank Micelotta\/Getty)

There’s so much half-formed Nirvana material – live stuff, demos, bedroom recordings – that’s been made available since Kurt Cobain’s death that it would be a pointless exercise to include these often unfinished musical sketches in a rummage through the grunge leaders’ dirty laundry. So instead, let’s cast a critical eye over the band’s ‘proper’ recordings…

10. Rape Me

This has to be on the list, but not because it’s a terrible tune. It’s not. Rather, Rape Me sounds like a 1993 carbon-copy In Utero album re-tread of Nevermind’s 1991 winning formula. Soft/heavy guitar chugging, ‘almost pop’ melody, disturbing, antagonising lyrical provocation. It’s perfectly acceptable from a melodic point of view. But the tune sums up vocalist and guitarist Kurt Cobain’s ever-growing frustration with the corner Nirvana had painted themselves into by unwittingly becoming the most-loved losers in America.

9. Endless Nameless

A curious mix of out-and-out rage and introverted hurt, Endless Nameless was the hidden track on Nevermind that captures Cobain’s mood well enough over its six minutes and 43 seconds. But it feels like the musical equivalent of the sulky teenager. It’s a song that’s mad as hell, but it kinda revels in its own misery and actually doesn’t want you to help it by actually listening.

8. Downer

The only tune from Cobain’s 1985 Fecal Matter demo to make official album status when it was included on the CD version of 1989’s Bleach, it features a fast and furious hardcore-inspired rant about all sorts of barely intelligible stuff. “Slippery pessimist, hypocrite master, conservative communist apocalyptic bastard.” An adrenaline rush that fades away as fast as it first came along.

7. Hairspray Queen

A previously unreleased tune that was included on 1992’s Incesticide compilation album. Kurt said he regretted not putting it on Bleach. He shouldn’t. This is the sound of a band trying to be deliberately difficult as Cobain pulls out screechy vocals and nondescript funk licks, then crashes them into Krist Novoselic’s obtuse bass-walking. Fun to play maybe, but not fun to listen to.

6. Tourette’s

A one minute 35 second primal scream from In Utero, again designed to kick Nirvana’s status as mainstream ‘alternative’ into touch. It has an interesting, almost eastern-sounding riff going on, but its punk thrashing is designed to be dumb, to refute any labels people might have wanted to put on the band. The trouble is, this sounds like anger without any useful outlet.

5. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

A case of Nirvana biting the hands that feeds. After the phenomenal success of Nevermind, the band – and Cobain in particular – had a hard time processing their unplanned move from difficult outsiders to media darlings. This deeply unhappy lyric from ‘93’s In Utero feels uncomfortable, like you’re spying on someone’s private grief. The song is forgettable noise, but you can only assume that was entirely the point.

4. Scoff

Not an out-and-out awful song from Bleach, but probably something that would be summarily dismissed on first listening were it not attached to the Nirvana legacy. The tune operates on a weird axis between sludge rock riffing, post punk disharmony and the kind of simple chord changes that Cobain would have heard on early Kiss records. It’s odd and only gets odder as Cobain screams “gimme back my alcohol” time and again.

3. Aero Zeppelin

A song from Incesticide whose title promises more than it delivers. You can sort of see what Cobain is driving at here. The discordant guitar licks sound like Joe Perry, though simply not as good. The fast riffing has the feel of Jimmy Page wigging out, but without his innate sense of élan. An angry punk band that had grown up listening to these two rock giants would sound like this. Well, who knew?

2. Curmudgeon

Released as a B-side to Nevermind’s Lithium, this is a typical piece of a spittle and anger from Cobain. Despite a (cynical) laugh at the start of the song, there seems to be nothing funny about the singer’s mood here. But despite a few deliberately primitive-sounding effects designed to add an aural curveball, there’s no getting away from the plodding, uninspired riff that sits at the song’s core.

1. Beeswax

Beeswax appeared on 1991’s Kill Rock Stars compilation and to be fair, it’s no surprise Cobain wasn’t arsed about keeping this riff-tastic rant for himself. It’s just not very good. The lyrics are pretty disturbing, though, as Cobain seems to wrestle somewhere between outright libido and sexual self-disgust. “I got a dick, dick. Hear my fucking hate.” This is clearly not a happy boy.

The Nirvana baby is now 25 years old. Do you feel old yet?

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Howard Johnson is a music writer based in France. The editor of Rock Candy magazine, he's also written for Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, RAW, Q, MoJo and Japanese rock magazine Burrn!, and is a French football correspondent for World Soccer mag. He has also written a book on AC/DC, Get Your Jumbo Jet Out Of My Airport.