In September 1991, three socially-awkward slacker kids from Seattle changed the world. It’s genuinely difficult to overstate the impact Nirvana had – not just on music, but on popular culture as a whole – when their second album, Nevermind, dropped in the autumn of that year. Not since a certain Liverpudlian quartet had a phenomenon torn through the mainstream with such power; that bandleader Kurt Cobain had formed Nirvana with the idea of “mixing really heavy Black Sabbath with The Beatles” is no coincidence.
Flanked by Krist Novoselic on bass and Dave Grohl on drums (original drummer Chad Channing left after recording their debut album), Nirvana released three studio albums in their seven years together (1989’s Bleach, 1991’s Nevermind, 1993’s In Utero). Along with their MTV Unplugged live album and ‘92 B-sides compilation Incesticide, Nirvana created some of alternative music’s most fundamental touchstones. With the help of their quiet-loud template – which Cobain famously admitted to stealing from The Pixies – they made good on the promise that all you need is three chords and the truth, distilling disaffected teenage angst into art, and influencing everyone from Weezer to Tori Amos and Take That.
“I think Kurt was a great songwriter, because it’s not easy to take something simple and make it sound interesting,” Chad Channing told us in 2016. “If you can put together a song that has three or four chord changes in it and keep people interested, that’s a trick. It’s a trick to make things simple sound good. And one of his best qualities was his writing. Not just musically, but vocally; he had great vocal melody ideas. And that to me is key, in any good songwriting. You can have a really cool-sounding song, but you also need a really good vocal melody. He was really good at coming up with that sort of stuff in Nirvana.”
With all Nirvana’s songs important in their own right, picking out their 30 best was always going to be a struggle. So, we deferred to the wisdom of the public, and asked our readers what they thought. From a long-list of all of Nirvana’s 102 recorded songs, these are the tracks our voters designated the jewels in the band’s crown. Like always, there are worthy omissions of songs that just didn’t quite make the cut, but in a back catalogue as influential as Nirvana’s, there just wasn’t space for everything. As our self-appointed judges judge, it turns out teenage angst really did pay off well...
30) Love Buzz
Nirvana covered a whopping 64 songs in their time as a performing band, a dozen of which made it onto record. The band lavished their covers with open-minded innovation, and this version of Shocking Blue’s 1969 album track is no different. Released as Nirvana’s debut single in 1988, the song set out the band’s musical stall, drenching the acid-laced original with fuzzed out guitars and Cobain’s signature drawl – and marked the first time Nirvana were noticed by the UK press when it was made Single Of The Week in Sounds. It also showcased the band’s now famously esoteric tastes, plucked as it was by Krist Novoselic from the back catalogue of an obscure Dutch psych-rock band.
Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt told Song Facts (opens in new tab) about the track: “Kind of a little-known fact about the band is their first appearance in Seattle was actually at the Central Tavern – at this little showcase that they did for us in April of '88 that nobody really showed up for. In listening to their whole set, Love Buzz was the only song that really jumped out, and it was a cover. But, the hypnotic feel of that was kind of an indicator of some of their direction in songwriting. And it's just an incredible recording. They totally nailed it... Nirvana were famous for doing covers. They had good taste. They actively helped educate their crowd as well as promote cool music.”
Allegedly Courtney Love’s favourite Nirvana song on account of its “sexy” qualities, this bass-heavy, rough and ready track from 1992 compilation album Incesticide was originally released as the B-side to 1990 non-album single Sliver, and marked the first time the band would collaborate with Nevermind producer Butch Vig.
“In 1991 Sub Pop included the track on the label compilation The Grunge Years, which – in keeping with its penchant for in-jokes about "world domination" – had a pair of important businessmen doing something resembling a big deal on the cover,” wrote Rolling Stone (opens in new tab) of the track in 2015. “That compilation's implied irony would come full circle a few months later, when the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit would debut on MTV.”
Bruce Pavitt said of the song’s power (opens in new tab): “The arrangements, the minimalism of both Dive and Breed and are very, very hypnotic… You would go into a trance during those tracks in particular. It's one of the things that made their live shows so incredible. They were really stepping into their power at that time – it was a pretty awesome time.”
28) Milk It
It’s widely accepted that Cobain’s songwriting showcased a knack for teasing out the ‘pretty’ lurking within even the gnarliest of tunes. But that approach was all but abandoned with this In Utero album track, which went heavy on relentless noise rock, with Cobain himself using it as an example of the more experimental tack the band’s music began to take in the lead up to the In Utero sessions.
Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad noted in his 1993 book, Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana (opens in new tab), that: “The Beatlesque Dumb happily coexists beside the all-out frenzied punk graffiti of Milk It, while All Apologies is worlds away from the apoplectic Scentless Apprentice. It’s as if [Cobain] has given up trying to meld his punk and pop instincts into one harmonious whole. Forget it. This is war.”
Novoselic agreed with sentiments that the song played on the band’s “arty, aggressive side”, telling Rolling Stone (opens in new tab) of the track in 2013: “The aesthetic [was] like the beautiful orchids, and then there's this raw meat around them. It's the same thing. Dumb is a beautiful song. All Apologies is really nice. And then there are songs like Milk It that are completely wicked. There is something for everybody on [In Utero], although it's not for everybody.”
27) Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
Starting off life under the name Nine Month Media Blackout, this song was a fiery, tongue-in-cheek retort to a Vanity Fair article (opens in new tab) about Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love, which Cobain deemed to be such a cynical hatchet job – the sole intention of which was to shift magazine units – that he threatened to split up Nirvana (opens in new tab) in order to protect Love’s reputation. Instead, the band went on a media hiatus for the following months, where interviews where scarce. It’s a bold move to open a song with this title with a wall of squalling guitars and ear-splitting feedback, but then Nirvana were a bold band, and Cobain clearly enjoyed the mischievous juxtaposition.
In Gillian G. Gaar’s 33 1/3 book on In Utero (opens in new tab), she writes: “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter was titled both You Said A Mouthful and Nine Month Media Blackout on the tape box, and elsewhere was referred to as Four Month Media Blackout (though while interviews with the band were limited from 1992 on, there was never any official media blackout). A ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ refers to songs that are both accessible and strong sellers – a hit single, in other words. In any case, the lyrics don’t really reflect any of the titles, and are more reflective of what Cobain insisted was his usual songwriting method – stringing together lines he found in his journals. But there are more than a few lines that hint at a more personal meaning. There’s a pointed reference to privacy, as well as the childbirth imagery (‘my water broke’). And the desperation of the chorus, which repeatedly begs to know what’s wrong, is matched by a bridge that expresses a measure of hopefulness – find where you belong, and the truth shall set you free.
"The song begins with a wailing guitar note, then, as Novoselic admits, ‘There’s just one riff through the whole song! I pretty much just play the same riff through the whole song.’ Nonetheless, the song’s propulsive energy is undeniable, and through Novoselic calls the title ‘cynical, sarcastic,’ there’s also some truth in it – the song has a catchiness that is accessible (something the group recognised by opening virtually every subsequent show with the song). Tellingly, the song didn’t get its final title until after the band’s label had told the group that the album wasn’t ‘radio friendly’ enough.”
26) Serve The Servants
Kicking off In Utero with a blast of discordant noise was a clear a statement that Nirvana could make that their first post-superstardom album was to be precisely as visceral and challenging as anything that came before it. Much has been made of the lyrics of this song, which discuss Cobain’s childhood and take aim at his absentee father. They’re said to be some of Cobain’s most personal writings. He denied that, of course, telling The Observer in 1993 that “For the most part, In Utero is very impersonal.”
But as Michael Azzerad noted in Come As You Are... (opens in new tab): “Serve The Servants also contains a very direct and personal message to Don Cobain that will be heard from Iceland to Australia, from Los Angeles to London. ‘I tried hard to have a father, but instead I had a dad, I just want you to know that I don’t hate you anymore, there is nothing I could say that I haven’t thought before’. The second line is a rather cruel thing to say – that Kurt won’t tell his father what he really thinks of him. The lines got put in at the last minute. ‘They just happened to fit really well’, says Kurt.
“‘I just want him to know that, that I don’t have anything against him anymore. But I just don’t want to talk to him because I don’t have anything to share with him. I’m sure that would probably really upset him, but that’s just the way it is.”
Despite earning its place as Bob Dylan’s favourite Nirvana song, this gently sinister Nevermind album track has become one of the more controversial and misunderstood songs in the Nirvana canon. Based on the grisly true story of a young girl abducted after leaving a rock show in Seattle, you can see why the story disturbed Cobain enough to inspire him to commit it to song – having been snatched from a show on his home turf, the girl was then said to have been held captive in the perpetrator’s mobile home, suspended upside down, raped and tortured with a blowtorch, only managing to escape when her tormentor stopped for gas.
However, the confusion surrounding the song grew from the fact Cobain chose to tell the song’s story from the perpetrator’s point of view, leading some to accuse him of glamourising the crime, or, worse, assuming he had a sort of sympathy for the assailant – despite the fact it was written at a time when Cobain was actively exploring feminist ideas with help from his then-girlfriend, Bikini Kill founder Tobi Vail. The tensions came to a head when Cobain learned two men had raped a woman while singing the song’s lyrics at her, leading Cobain to write in the Incesticide liner notes: “At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records. Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song Polly. I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.”
24) On A Plain
This Nevermind album track is one of the best examples we have of Cobain’s often ramshackle approach to songwriting. The hooks are sturdy but infectious and dripping with poppy sheen, Grohl joining Cobain on an upbeat dual-harmony chorus. But the chaotic, thrown together lyrics – complete with the ‘I start this off without any words’ opening gambit – seem to affirm the fact they were, apparently, written in five minutes before being hastily recorded as the final instalment in the Nevermind sessions. Still, it didn’t harm the song any, confirming Grohl’s assertion that nailing a killer melody was always Cobain’s prime concern (“music comes first, lyrics come second”).
What’s more, Cobain’s sometimes indecipherable lyrics often only added to the weight of the song, allowing room for listeners to add their own interpretations and meaning. Telling British journalist Jon Savage in 1993 that the song was about “classic alienation, I guess,” he also added: “Every time I go through songs I have to change my story, because I’m as lost as anyone else… For the most part, I write songs from pieces of poetry thrown together. When I write poetry, it’s not usually thematic at all. I have plenty of notebooks, and when it comes time to write lyrics, I just steal from my poems.”
“In a lot of ways it parodies the person Cobain became,” wrote Mike Powell (opens in new tab) for Rolling Stone in 2015. “A junkie too lost in his own pain to realise he has control over it, the voice of a generation wondering what the hell he's trying to say.”
23) Scentless Apprentice
Grohl brought this shamelessly Seattle riff to the table, with Cobain telling Michael Azerrad in Come As You Are… (opens in new tab) that “it was such a cliché grunge Tad riff that I was reluctant to even jam on it… I just decided to write a song with that just to make him feel better, to tell you the truth, and it turned out really cool.”
The second track on In Utero, with Cobain’s shredded vocals and its impenetrable bursts of thick, squalling distortion, made clear of the band’s intentions to make their third, and ultimately final album quite unlike anything that had come before it. It shifted the focus onto spontaneous, unapologetic noise rock, upping the lo-fi dirge and unpredictable song structures, and purposefully left the radio-friendly, globally-embraced sounds of Nevermind for dust. But, Cobain being Cobain, he managed to sneak a ton of hooks in under the surface, too.
Inspired by Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer (opens in new tab), in which a Parisian apprentice perfume maker is born without any scent of his own, but with a highly developed sense of smell, which leads him to feel alienated by the general population (and kill a load of women as a result), Cobain admitted to resonating with at least one part of the story: “I felt like that guy a lot,” he told Azerrad. “I just wanted to be as far away from people as I could – their smells disgust me. The scent of human.”
One of the few songs which was written into Nirvana folklore long before it was properly released, this is about as close to a Nirvana deep-cut as you’re likely to get. Versions of this track have been knocking around since as long ago as 1987, before it was officially released as part of AIDS benefit compilation album No Alternative in 1993. Legend has it that Nirvana recorded versions of this song at each of the recording sessions for their three albums, only for Cobain to reject it from the final cut every time.
The final version’s producer, Steve Albini, stated it was left off In Utero’s finished version thanks to the multiple failed attempts meaning the song “wore out its welcome on the band, apparently”. So, he Albini-fied the whole thing: shifted its key, cranked the tempo up, and finally its official version was born.
Novoselic told Gillian G. Gaar in In Utero (opens in new tab) that “We liked to play the song… Something just drove Kurt to keep busting it out. He had some kind of unattainable expectations for it.”
It quickly became a frequently requested song once it received an official release, particularly on the band’s final 1994 tour.
21) Something In The Way
If at least three of your schoolmates didn’t have “It’s okay to eat fish because they don’t have any feelings” daubed onto their rucksacks in Tippex, did you even go to school in the 90s? This Nevermind finale became an anthem for the angstiest of teens across the globe upon its release in ‘91, with its gloomy acoustic guitar, slow tempo, maudlin strings and bittersweet harmonies telling the story of Cobain’s time sleeping under a bridge in Aberdeen.
In Come As You Are… (opens in new tab), Michael Azerrad notes: “[Nevermind producer] Butch Vig says that Something In the Way – written just a week before it was recorded – was probably the most difficult song on the album to record. They tried it a few times with the rest of the band playing along, but it didn’t really work. Finally, Vig called Kurt into the control room and asked how he thought the song should go. Kurt sat down on the couch with his nylon-string acoustic guitar and sang the song in a barely audible whisper. ‘Stay right there,’ Vig said as he dashed out to the office and told them to turn off every phone and every fan and every other machine in the whole place. Vig recorded the song that way.” The rest of the band cut their parts later on.
While the Nevermind cut is the no doubt song’s definitive version, the acoustic version on MTV Unplugged In New York, with all its crackling, intimate intensity, is a worthy contender.