The 30 greatest Nirvana songs ever - and the stories behind them

20) Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle

This In Utero loud-quiet, slow-build masterclass tells the true story of poorly-treated 30s actress Frances Farmer, the song’s protagonist apparently chosen for the similarities Cobain saw between her and his wife, Courtney Love. Much like Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, the song is unapologetically rife with thinly-veiled jabs at Vanity Fair writer Lynn Hirschberg; the journalist responsible for the unflattering profile of Love that almost drove Cobain to abandon his band.

In Everett True’s Nirvana: The True Story, he notes: “The brilliantly titled Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle – inspired by the celebrated story of the Thirties film star, institutionalised after she rebelled against her studio’s star system, and subjected to electroshock treatment – boasts an opening bass line that unconsciously echoed the minimal, spooked sound of Young Marble Giants. It’s an uncomfortable song. Kurt saw parallels between the way the actress was demonised by the mainstream press and the media’s treatment of his wife. ‘The conspirators are still alive and well in their comfortable, safe homes,’ Kurt wrote in his journal. ‘Gag on her ashes. Jag on her gash. Uh, God is a woman and she’s Back in Black.’”

“Before Cobain had lyrics for it, it was an instrumental the trio jammed on in Dave Grohl's basement sometime before In Utero,” wrote Kory Grow for Rolling Stone in 2015. "Grohl has said: ‘When I heard Frances Farmer, I thought, Oh, my God, there's going to be another record.'”

19) Sliver

We at Louder predict that this placing will rankle a few fans, given that this is one of Nirvana’s most jubilantly gleeful pop songs – musically at least – and has become a firm fan favourite. What was perhaps seen as a throwaway, simple pop-punk tune at the time has taken on a life of its own, and was one of Cobain's favourite Nirvana songs, with him noting he “wanted to write more songs like that”. Released as a single on Sub Pop in 1990, while the band was between drummers, it’s the only  recorded track to feature Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters behind the skins.

Everett True wrote in his review of the song for Sounds in 1990 that: “It surprises me that lesser critics are taken in by the seeming slothfulness of bands like Nirvana, and mistake it for some kind of attitude problem, or laziness. Sure, that on its own isn’t an excuse for anything, this the band have so many fucking tunes lurking underneath their outer shell it’s damn near impossible not to trip over them as they flood out of the speakers. Take Sliver, for example. Sure, the vocals are lazily throat splitting, the guitars belligerently grungy, the bass up and out of the place… but check the melodies, damn fools, check the melodies.”

Lyrically, the song is said to channel one of Cobain’s childhood experiences, telling the story of a child who’s left with their grandparents for the evening when his parents go “to a show”, and is defined by its snotty, repetitive ‘Grandma take me home’ chorus.

18) The Man Who Sold The World

Nirvana’s take on this dark, H.P. Lovecraft-inspired David Bowie number, as performed on the MTV Unplugged In New York album, is another prime example of Cobain’s keen ability to take a song and transform it into something else entirely. You can see why the song appealed to Cobain: like so much of his own work, Bowie’s lyrics tap into feelings of social and emotional isolation. Cobain's version shifts in key, but preserves the quintessentially glam arpeggiated bass sequence of Bowie’s ‘70s original, while Cobain trades his eerie synths for mournful acoustic guitars. The song became a live favourite following its release, and Cobain ranked The Man Who Sold The World at number 45 in his now-famous list of his top 50 albums discovered in his journals.

The band discovered this track through original drummer Chad Channing, who told Everett True in Nirvana: The True Story that: “I kind of turned them onto David Bowie. I found a copy of The Man Who Sold The World in perfect vinyl condition that I recorded on to tape and played in the car. Kurt was like, ‘Who’s this?’”

In Nirvana: The Chosen Rejects, by Kurt St Thomas and Troy Smith, Bowie talks warmly about the cover: “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering The Man Who Sold the World… it was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.” However, in Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, Pegg reports years of misunderstandings as having soured his opinion somewhat: “Kids come up afterwards and say, 'It's cool you're doing a Nirvana song.' And I think, 'Fuck you, you little tosser!’”

17) Negative Creep

One of a small number of songs on this list to make it in from Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, is its nihilistic standout Negative Creep: a riff-driven stomper condensed into three minutes of snarling, dirgy grunge. Dubbed the “Sub-Poppiest grunge song ever written” by Chuck Crisafulli in his 1996 book Teen Spirit: The Stories Behind Every Nirvana Song, the reference to Mudhoney’s Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More clearly didn’t evade many. The lyrics were some of the first explicitly spell out Cobain’s preoccupation with being an outsider, social isolation and alienation.  

“Negative Creep is a first-person narrative from an anti-social person,” writes Azerrad in Come As You Are. “‘I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned,” goes the chanted chorus – the kind that hangs out on the smoker’s porch, scowling and sporting long greasy hair and black T-shirts touting dubious metal bands. According to Kurt, that person is himself. ‘I just thought of myself as a negative person’ is his simple explanation.”

Josh Homme told Rolling Stone in 2014: “The first time I heard Bleach, I remember turning to my friends and saying, "We gotta start writing better songs." Listening to Negative Creep and School and Love Buzz, I thought there were three different singers in the band. It was a total perspective-changer – it definitely ripped a sheet of paper off of my mental notepad.”

Buzz Osborne of Melvins also told in 2011, “I think I like this riff of theirs more than any other.”

16) Rape Me

“It’s an anti – let me repeat that – anti-rape song,” said Cobain of this track in 1993. “I got tired of people trying to put too much meaning in my lyrics – it was beginning to not make any sense, so I decided to be really blunt and bold. I just thought it’s kind of a funny just reward for a guy who rapes a woman, violates her, and then he goes into jail and gets raped. I think it’s kind of a justice.”

One of In Utero’s crowning glories, Cobain began work on Rape Me when the band were wrapping up their Nevermind sessions, so it makes sense that this song – and its obvious similarities to a certain worldwide number one – is about as close as the band ever got to recapturing that era again.  

Of course, despite Cobain’s intentions to be as clear about the song’s misogyny-bating message of female empowerment as possible, it was scrutinised by many and misunderstood by some – the eventual result that, at some point down the line, the song’s name briefly got changed to Waif Me.  

In Nirvana: The True Story, Everett True offers an alternative explanation for the song – that it was an attack on the relentless media attention he was struggling with as his music continued to take over the world – the effects of which he eventually referenced in his suicide note: “Kurt started writing its caustic lyrics while the band were still mixing Nevermind – the sweet guitar motif merely served to add poignancy to the song’s dark message to all the fans, the record industry people, the media who Kurt perceived as wanting a part of him.”

15) Pennyroyal Tea

Despite being written around the same time as Nirvana started writing for Nevermind, and debuted at the same show as Smells Like Teen Spirit made its first live appearance, this song didn’t appear on record until its final version was included on In Utero. Like the elusive Sappy, it was another track Cobain was perpetually unhappy with, telling Rolling Stone in 1993 that Albini’s final version still didn’t make the grade: “[It] was not recorded right. There is something wrong with that. That should have been recorded like Nevermind, because I know that's a strong song, a hit single.” Due to be released as the third single from In Utero in April ‘94, the single was pulled following Cobain’s death in the same month – making its plaintive ennui all the more poignant.

Gillian G. Gaar writes in In Utero: “The verses convey a profound sense anomie, with each one mentioning some ailment or at the very least disaffectedness (as in the second verse’s wonderful longing for a ‘Leonard Cohen afterworld’). The final verse, with its references to warm, laxatives and antacids, touches on Cobain’s well-documented stomach problems, which caused him pain throughout much of his life, but were never properly diagnosed… The song’s title refers to a home abortion method, though the lyric extended what Cobain called its ‘cleansing theme’ to a hope it would wash away one’s inner demons, in addition to being a means of eliminating something that was ‘in utero.’ And while the song has the Nirvana formula of quiet verses/loud choruses, Cobain’s vocal during the chorus still has a lugubrious feel… This element was something that would be even more apparent in the Unplugged performance of the song.”

14) About A Girl

Apparently written about Cobain’s dysfunctional relationship with an ex-girlfriend (‘I take advantage while / You hang me out to dry’), this Bleach album track went widely unnoticed until it was chosen as the only single to be released from MTV Unplugged – AKA, the first single the band released following Cobain’s death (as he comments as the song begins, “This one’s off our first record... most people don’t know it”). The song – one of Cobain’s earliest forays into pop-based, Beatlesque experimentation – was easily overlooked in an album that was noted for its riff-driven hard rock, but its posthumous release put it in front of a brand new audience. It also provides interesting insight into his lyrical and personal progression – from shitty, juvenile boyfriend to vocal feminist.  

“Now, Bleach sounds vibrant and buzzing with melody: it’s an album that’s matured well,” wrote Everett True in Nirvana: The True Story. “Back then only the jangling love song, About A Girl, with its plaintive acoustic guitar intro, stood out… ‘I think Kurt felt nervous about putting About A Girl on [Bleach],’ [producer] Jack Endino told Gillian G. Gaar. ‘But he was very insistent on it. He said, ‘I’ve got a song that’s totally different from the others, Jack, you’ve gotta just humour me here, because we’re gonna do this real pop tune.’’ The question was raised at some point, gee, I wonder if Sub Pop’s going to like this, and we decided, ‘Who cares?’ Sub Pop said nothing. In fact, I think they liked it a lot.’”

13) Where Did You Sleep Last Night

Cobain’s chilling take on this bluesy American folk standard is guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine every time. The closer to the band’s MTV Unplugged set, it's said MTV producer Alex Coletti attempted to get the band to perform an encore, only to be rebutted by Cobain telling her ‘I can’t top that last song’. She acquiesced when she realised he was completely right. The version Nirvana were referencing in their Unplugged session is the one laid down by US blues musician Lead Belly, who Cobain describes on the recording as his and the band’s “favourite performer,” before adding “Oh, yeah, this guy representing Lead Belly’s estate wants to sell me Lead Belly’s guitar for $500,000… I even asked David Geffen personally if he’d buy it for me… he wouldn’t do it,” – perhaps a little barb towards his Geffen Records boss, with whom he shared a sometimes tricky relationship.

“When Nirvana appeared on MTV Unplugged back in 1993, the grunge band’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, delivered a song that to their fans would have been not only fresh in their repertoire but also seemed to come from completely out of the left field,” wrote Tony Russell for The Blues Magazine in 2015. “He was introduced to it by a fellow Seattle musician, Mark Lanegan, who played him Lead Belly’s 1944 recording and other Lead Belly numbers from his collection. The two men, with some colleagues, even recorded an album’s worth of Lead Belly songs. It was never issued, but from those sessions Where Did You Sleep Last Night?made it on to Lanegan’s 1990 album The Winding Sheet. This, in turn, provided a template for Cobain’s Unplugged recording three years later, even down to the sudden shift, about two thirds of the way through the song, from quiet storytelling to impassioned screaming. ‘My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me,’ Cobain almost croons over a jagged acoustic guitar. ‘Tell me, where did you sleep last night?’ His straying lover replies: ‘In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines… I would shiver the whole night through.’ It remains a mesmerisingly haunting moment more than 20 years on from the performance; Seattle grunge shading beautifully into Southern Gothic – through the medium of an old Lead Belly song.”

12) Lounge Act

Said by Novoselic to be an ode to Cobain’s former girlfriend, Tobi Vail – the line ‘I'll arrest myself, I'll wear a shield’ referring to the K Records logo Cobain got tattooed onto his arm to impress her – it was from Novoselic’s opening bass riff that the song got its name, reminding the band as it did of the sort of thing you might expect to hear from a lounge band. That’s about as upbeat as you’re going to get here, though, as this song gets increasingly more ferocious as it progresses – both musically, as the last minute devolves into frantic, throaty screams, and lyrically with its focus sharpening on the jealousy and dysfunction of a failing relationship.

In his 2001 book, Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography Of Kurt Cobain, Charles R. Cross suggests that Cobain had composed, but never sent, a bitter letter to Vail about the song in late 1993 – when he was already married to Love – reading: “Every song on In Utero is not about you. No, I am not your boyfriend, No, I don’t write songs about you, except for Lounge Act, which I do not play, except for when my wife’s not around.” Ouch.

“Nirvana have emotion, raw emotion, the sort where the singer bares his soul all the way down the line, and with the use of but a few simple words and phrases, communicates way deeper with the listener than this sort of music is meant to,” wrote Melody Maker in 1991. “Take Drain You and Lounge Act, for example, with the words coming from Kurt Cobain’s cracked, hurt voice almost indecipherable, but dreadfully moving nonetheless. And when he starts screaming, unable to bear whatever demons he sees crushing down on top of him, it’s like your worst nightmares about babies crying and buses crashing and skyscrapers falling come true all at once. Never underestimate the power of a good scream.”

11) Territorial Pissings

C’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now’ comes Novoselic's crazed drawl, dripping in irony – if there’s a better opener in the Nirvana back catalogue, we want to know about it. Cobain and Grohl had a well documented love for the intelligent, high octane punk rock of bands like Husker Du and Black Flag, and this track – a thrashing punk workout, just shy of 2 and a half minutes long – is the best recorded example of that. Its gleeful, rebellious racket captured the imagination of fans, and it also contains some of Cobain’s best and most-referenced lyrics (try moving 5 ft in Camden market without seeing a T-shirt reading ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you’ in the late ‘90s).

“Nirvana made extremely loud statements every opportunity they could get,” writes Shaun Scott in his book A Cultural History Of The U.S From 1982-Present. “Bassist Krist Novoselic began Territorial Pissings with a satirical citation of the Youngbloods’ baby boomer anthem Get Together… Novoselic's interpretation of [that] is the most important part of the song. He distorts the song to make it sound like a piece of bullshit idealism – a hopeless dream, as hippie parents sold out and went corporate just like everyone before and after them. I think the band was saying the carefree times of the 60s are gone, and have left those growing up in the 90s in its wake. ‘Maybe some baby boomers will hear that and wonder what happened to those ideals,’ said Novoselic."

Territorial Pissings was written within an hour or so,” Cobain told Karen Bliss in ‘91. “I had some ideas and I have a lot of notebooks that I can just use as references, and I can take lines out of it, that was written before. I write a lot of poetry and stuff like that. So I use that stuff. I did take my time on ...Teen Spirit. It took me about two days, but I did write them during the week that we were recording the album.”

Briony Edwards

Briony is the Editor in Chief of Louder and is in charge of sorting out who and what you see covered on the site. She started working with Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Prog magazines back in 2015 and has been writing about music and entertainment in many guises since 2009. She is a big fan of cats, Husker Du and pizza.