10) You Know You’re Right
Cobain’s last known composition, this was one of the final songs recorded by Nirvana at their final studio session on 30th January 1994, as the band prepared to lay down a fourth album. Having been available only via various bootlegged versions, it was finally released as the lead single for compilation album Nirvana in 2002. It’s fitting that this song should serve as the final offering from this remarkable band – it distills all their most cherished trademarks into its three-and-a-half minutes, swaying powerfully between quiet and loud, channelling Cobain’s flourishing sensitivity, and devolving into a distortion-drenched feedback-fest for the final minute.
“Unlike most post-mortem rock releases, You Know You're Right is not B-side material or the result of recording studio wizardry – it's a real Nirvana song that was recorded less than three months before Cobain's famous suicide,” wrote Slate Magazine in 2002. “If his life was a mess, Cobain was at the peak of his powers as a vocalist and songwriter – the most gifted and popular writer that rock music had seen since Lennon/McCartney. You Know You're Right is a defiant movement away from the surface softness of ballads like Dumb and All Apologies that he had written for In Utero and then recorded again – softly, with cellos – for MTV Unplugged. It was a song for the kids who grew up in places like Aberdeen, Wash., the logging town where Kurt was born – kids who slept on friends' couches, listened to Black Sabbath, and found work cleaning floors, just like Kurt did before he became famous.”
But celebrated as the song was, it was also emblematic of another, far uglier aspect which came to define the band’s post-Cobain legacy: that of the growing tensions between the band's remaining members and Cobain's widow, Courtney Love. When Novoselic and Grohl suggested releasing the song as part of a box set, Love, on behalf of Cobain’s estate, blocked the release, suggesting it would be a “waste” of a “potential 'hit' of extraordinary artistic and commercial value”. A bitter, and highly publicised, legal struggle ensued. Eventually, a compromise was reached, but not before relations between the parties had irrevocably soured.
9) In Bloom
The irony that this song – a scathing takedown of what Cobain perceived to be the fair-weather fans his band were attracting from the Seattle underground – would appear on the album that catapulted them into superstardom and beyond hasn’t diminished over the years. With its major key pop hooks and singalong chorus making it one the most accessible songs the band wrote, its brazen cajoling of fans who “like to sing along” but “don’t know what it means” seems all the more audacious. But in retrospect, it’s also a slightly wistful listen: as this song was released into the world, Nirvana’s star began to rise beyond anyone’s control, marking the beginning of the relentless media attention – and frenzied fans – Cobain found so difficult to manage.
“The great unspoken fact of music is how uncomfortable musicians get with their audiences,” wrote Michael Hann for The Guardian in 2016. “It’s not that they don’t want to be admired and recognised – rare is the artist who craves obscurity – but more that once their image is formed in the public mind it becomes a straitjacket, or an iron lung, as Thom Yorke put it. It’s what gives them a livelihood, but it’s also what confines and suffocates them. ‘I always assumed it was written about the distance Kurt felt from his fans, as well,’ says writer Everett True, a friend and frequent interviewer of Cobain. ‘I assumed it was directed towards the fans who would show up at concerts with signs saying Evenflow [a Pearl Jam song] on one side and Rape Me – I think – on the other: the fans who did not understand there was a point of difference between Nirvana and other Seattle bands or media representations of grunge. I’ve always associated the song with [In Utero single] Rape Me. Like they’re a pair.’”
Novoselic also used the song to highlight the changes in Cobain's songwriting between Bleach and Nevermind, pointing out to David Fricke in 2002 that "When we first started playing [In Bloom], it sounded like a Bad Brains song" – miles away from the poppy sheen of Nevermind's final version.
Originally going by the name Imodium, after the specific brand of anti-diarrhoea medication their Seattle pals TAD used on the road, this fast-paced, propulsive attack on Republican, middle class America (‘Even if you have, even if you need, I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed’) is one of Cobain’s many jubilant ‘fuck yous’ to the status quo he found so alien. It's also another classic example of Cobain's ability to take a grunge rock stomper and tease out its lurking inner melody.
In Classic Rock Albums: Nevermind, Charles R. Cross and Jim Berkenstadt write: “The tune was designed to capture the mood of many a middle class teen trapped by fear and apathy. To drive this point home, Kurt sings ‘I don’t care’ five consecutive times within a single-note verse. On Nevermind: It’s An Interview, Kurt described the sentiment of hopelessness conveyed in the song: ‘I was helpless when I was 12, when Reagan got elected, and there was nothing I could do about that. But now this generation is growing up, and they’re in their mid-twenties; they’re not putting up with it.’ Kurt’s sentiments about Reaganism support one rock critic’s theory that no landmark album has ever been recorded when the liberal party has been in power in the Uniter States – that it takes a conservative, status-quo government to drive artists to rebel and craft great rock’n’roll.”
“Breed is old-school Aberdeen,” wrote Everett True in ...The True Story. “It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Bleach. [Melvins drummer] Dale Crover’s influence is to the fore, as Grohl hammers his way through several skins in support of Krist and Kurt’s battering rhythm. The guitar solo is twisted and atonal, and out of key. ‘I never practice solos,’ Kurt said. ‘For every guitar solo I’ve ever recorded, I’ve always just played what I wanted to at the time and then just picked the best takes.’”
Sub Pop boss Bruce Pavitt told Song Facts of the track: “Breed was very hypnotic and repetitive and trance-inducing… our audiences would become ecstatic. They were experiencing Nirvana. And when you're experiencing really good, primal rock'n'roll, you break into a trance.”
7) Drain You
Perhaps the closest Cobain ever got to writing a proper love song – though in his own typically askew way – this is said to be one of the songs Cobain wrote for Tobi Vail as their relationship began to disintegrate (opening line ‘One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you’ was allegedly something Vail once told Cobain – other references to their relationship are peppered throughout). Prefacing the bitter dysfunction of Lounge Act, the two songs are generally taken as a pair; Drain You setting up the context of an increasingly difficult relationship, Lounge Act watching it burn to the ground (Cobain’s thoughts on the matter once we reach Stay Away are pretty self-explanatory).
“Hurt and plagued by insecurity, Kurt was in the perfect frame of mind to write more songs,” writes Everett True. “His new numbers were self-indulgent and full of loathing – both for himself and for others, where anyone could make sense of them: angry, petulent and heartbroken. Although it was Kurt who’d broken up with Tobi, he was reacting as if it had been the other way round. The fact the split wasn’t clean increased the misery on both sides. ‘One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you,’ he wrote in Drain You, touching on the way that love can make its participants feel like they’re children again, such is the feeling and wonder of the awe-engendered.’”
As Cross and Berkenstadt note in Nevermind, Drain You was one of Cobain’s favourite songs: “Despite the success Teen Spirit would ultimately enjoy, Cobain cited Drain You as one song that he preferred as a songwriter, telling Rolling Stone, ‘I think there are so many other songs I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song [Teen Spirit], like Drain You.’”
“While I can do a lot by switching channels on my amp, it’s Dave who really brings the physicality to the dynamics,” Cobain told Chuck Crisafulli in 1992 when discussing the song’s power. “Krist is great at keeping everything going along at some kind of even keel. I’m just the folk singer in the middle.”
The B-side to history's most popular grunge single, this gloriously dirgey slice of self-indulgent, gritty grunge-pop was colossally overshadowed by its accompanying A-side until its inclusion on Incesticide the following year. Another song written about Cobain’s former girlfriend Vail – or, if conflicting accounts are to be believed, about Cobain’s worsening relationship with heroin – this was said to be the first time Cobain referenced the relationship in song. You can hear his desperation over the whole situation setting in already, as he shreds his vocal chords over choruses which only increase in intensity as the song progresses – dissolving into pained screams as the final minute mark hits. Despite all the angst, this song's infectious, sleazy hooks make it one of Nirvana's most seductive achievements.
“Aneurysm was one of the first Nirvana songs to address the relationship [between Cobain and Vail], having been written before the break-up,” writes Everett True. “‘Love you so much it makes me sick,’ Kurt pleaded, referring back to the first night he spent with Tobi, unashamed to sound neurotic.”
But Vail herself insisted the song was open to interpretation, telling True: "The songs were confusing… who really knows what they are about? They sound great and some of the imagery is strong, but as far as them being about any one person or thing or situation – it’s not clear, is it?”
“It ain’t Shakespeare, but Aneurysm is Kurt Cobain at his tangled, tortured best – a monument to emotional sickness and depravity, and beloved object of our obsession with the voyeuristic,” wrote SongMango of the track in 2014. “Cobain’s dark, seething artistic voice is deeply personal and reflective, a product of both struggling with – and revelling in – his vulnerabilities, anxieties, immorality and dog-hungry appetite for self-destruction (including a $400-a-day heroin habit). Aneurysm, more than any other song in the Nirvana catalog, captures Cobain’s bedraggled, sullen brilliance: his smouldering, razor-abrasive vocal delivery, his “disheveled junkie” authenticity, and his endearing willingness to bare his soul (track marks and all). Aneurysm gets its name from the artery-swelling medical condition that can be caused by intravenous drug use (among other things)… Whether the song is a brooding ballad to former girlfriend Tobi Vail, or a love-hate ode to heroin, or both, it offers a glimpse inside the mind of grunge’s ‘anti-Rock star’ Rock star.”
5) All Apologies
Perhaps the most vulnerable and beautifully soft song in Nirvana’s back catalogue, it was this track which famously prompted Dave Grohl to tell Harp magazine in 2005: "[This was] something that Kurt wrote on [a] 4-track in our apartment in Olympia. I remember hearing it and thinking, 'God, this guy has such a beautiful sense of melody, I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time.'" Of course, both its proximity to Cobain’s death and its self-effacing lyrics drew many to accept this as Cobain’s most public goodbye.
In Utero producer Steve Albini favoured the track over others on the record, telling Gillian G. Gaar: “’[I really liked] the sound of that song as a contrast to the more aggressive ones on In Utero… it sounded really good in that it sounded lighter, but it didn't sound conventional. It was sort of a crude light sound that suited the band.” Cobain agreed, calling it a representation of “the lighter, more dynamic" sound he wanted Nirvana to adopt in subsequent albums.
“Like Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, the number is deceptively simple, with a single insinuating melodic line played throughout most of it,” writes Gillian G. Gaar in In Utero. “But again, the strength of the performance keeps the song from from sounding repetitive, due in part to the addition of a bittersweet cello line (played by Kera Schaley, the only other musician to appear on [In Utero]).
“Cobain’s lyric and resigned delivery also invest the song with an elegiac quality. In the verses, the singer effectively takes all the problems of the world on his shoulders assuming all the blame, even turning his back on his work, in song that’s wracked with guilt (though Cobain insisted it was ‘a very, very sarcastic song’). As in Dumb, the narrator is caught looking in from the outside, torn between the desire to be included and the urge to maintain the independence of standing alone. It was a conflict Cobain never worked out, and after his death, more than one observer described this song as being akin to a suicide note.”
But Cobain's own feelings towards the song seemed to conflict with the public's subsequent reading. Having dedicated the song to Courtney Love and their daughter Frances Bean Cobain during their turn at Reading Festival 1992, Cobain told Michael Azerrad in ‘93 that: “I like to think the song is for them, but the words don't really fit in relation to us... the feeling does, but not the lyrics. [The feeling is] peaceful, happy, comfort – just happy happiness.”
“Listen to the moving sorry note All Apologies and try denying its effect all these years down the line,” writes Everett True. “‘I wish I was like you,’ sings a jaded Kurt, wanting nothing more than an end to all the shit. ‘Easily amused. Everything is my fault. I’ll take all the blame.’ God, he tried so desperately to believe in Love.”
4) Come As You Are
Even working out this song’s musical lineage is a task in itself – did Nirvana pinch that iconic riff from cult post-punks Killing Joke? Had they, in turn, originally lifted it from The Damned? Listen and decide for yourselves; the real answer, of course, is that it doesn’t really matter – with this track, Nirvana seized on the Zeitgeist they’d fashioned from thin air and ran with it. Sure, ...Teen Spirit lit the fuse, but with Come As You Are the band distilled teen angst and social suspicion with such clarity – the lyrics, Cobain said, being about “people and what they're expected to act like” – that it was with this that the band truly established a place from which they’d change history.
“Come As You Are was another strong yet lyrically confused track,” write Cross and Berkenstadt. “For Nevermind: It’s An Interview, Cobain explained ‘The lines in the song are really contradictory. You know, one after another. They’re just kind of confusing, I guess.’
"The recording, which starts with Kurt’s solo guitar for the first eight seconds, opens with the first verse in a low, moody style, and then the chorus explodes at full volume and locks in the listener. This musical style – dynamic changes between quiet and raucous passages – perfectly complements the conflicting lyrical phrases. It was a style that Nirvana would use on many of their songs.”
It can also, it’s said, be read as an ode to Cobain’s prolonged struggles with heroin addiction. After a campaign ran in 90s Seattle which encouraged heroin users to soak their needles in bleach to reduce the risk of spreading HIV, the tagline of which was ‘If doused in mud, soak in bleach,’ Cobain used it as inspiration for the song’s lyrics. The words ‘As a friend, as a trend, as a known enemy’ seemed to confirm the song’s undertones.
It also prefaced Cobain’s own struggles with his perceptions of how he would ultimately be portrayed by the press, with its pleas to accept people as they are, free of judgment. Cross and Berkenstadt write: “[As] Cobain explained to one journalist, ‘I always knew to question things. All my life, I never believed most things I read in history books and a lot of things I learned in school. But now I’ve found I don’t have the right to make a judgment on someone based on something I’ve read. I don’t have the right to judge anything. That’s the lesson I’ve learned.’ In many ways, Come As You Are represented a newly mature form of songwriting for Cobain, more metaphorical, less direct.”
“Nirvana’s advantage was the songs,” wrote Christopher Sandford in Kurt Cobain. “By the first weeks of 1991 the near-nightly rehearsals in Tacoma had yielded Come As You Are and Smells Like Teen Spirit, both in the accessible mould of Dive and bulging with the promise of mass appeal. ‘We knew that the stuff we were coming up with was catchy and cool and just good strong songs,’ says Grohl.”
3) Heart-Shaped Box
If rumours are to be believed, which they very often aren’t, this furious and haunting In Utero track was in fact written about Courtney Love’s vagina, which gives its original title of Heart-Shaped Coffin a slightly different tilt. Whether or not her genitalia provided its precise inspiration, it is widely accepted that the song was written for Love, originally assumed to be about a heart-shaped box, filled with trinkets and dolls, which Love had given to Cobain before they were married. It was written at a time when Cobain and Love were already firmly ensconced, sharing a writing journal in which they both penned lyrics, and its lyrical style has been said to be largely influenced by Love’s own songwriting – in fact, the title of In Utero itself was lifted from one of Love’s poems.
“Many of the songs Kurt had written in 1992 were affected by his marriage,” wrote Charles R. Cross in Heavier Than Heaven. “As is common in the marriage of two artists, they began to think alike, share ideas, and use each other as editor… Courtney was a more traditional lyricist, crafting tighter and less murky lines, and her sensibility greatly shaped Heart-Shaped Box. She made Kurt a more careful writer, and it is not by accident that these stand as some of Nirvana’s most accomplished works: they were crafted with more intent than Kurt had spent on the entire Nevermind album.
“No song on In Utero ranked with Heart-Shaped Box. ‘I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black,’ Kurt sang in what has to be the most convoluted route any songwriter undertook in pop history to say ‘I love you’. Like all great art, Heart-Shaped Box escaped any easy categorisation and offered many interpretations to the listener, as apparently it did to its author.”
“Cobain wrote the song in early ‘92, but but then had trouble developing it with the band,” writes Gillian G. Gaar in In Utero. “Before putting it aside for good, he decided to have the band jam on it once again and this time it came together, ‘instantly,’ Cobain said.
“Heart-Shaped Box was the Nirvana formula personified, with a restrained, descending riff played through the verse, building in intensity to the cascading passion of the chorus. Cobain told Azerrad the song’s ‘basic idea’ was about children with cancer, a topic which made him unbearably sad. But while the song does reference the illness, the lyrics appear more to address the physical and emotional dependencies inherent in relationships. The imagery is particularly striking, with phrases like ‘tar pit trap,’ ‘meat-eating orchids,’ and ‘umbilical noose’. That these female symbols each hold a potential danger means they all convey a fear that ultimately equates intimacy with a suffocating claustrophobia.”
‘I’m so ugly, that’s okay ‘cos so are you...’ the third single to be released from Nevermind, Lithium’s awkward, insular tale of a man who turns to religion as an escape from depression carried the band's buzz from two-hit wonders to bona fide, world-conquering rock stars. Its soft verses and chaotic choruses perfected upon the loud-quiet template, and it produced not just some of the band’s most iconic lyrics, but also Nevermind’s true outsider anthem – but it took a while to get there.
“The recording session for Lithium was one of the most arduous for Butch and the band,” say Cross and Berkstadt in Nirvana – Nevermind. “The lyrics are filled with images of Kurt’s past, appropriate for a song named after a prescription antidepressant. The protagonist struggles with themes of happiness, insecurity, loneliness, religion and sanity throughout. It was one of the few songs that Cobain would admit he worked hard to complete, approaching it with a greater concern for meaning than other work. ‘[It’s] just a story that I made up,’ he told Patrick MacDonald in 1991. ‘It was one of the songs I actually did finish while trying to write it instead of taking pieces of my poetry and other things. Not only was it a hard song for Kurt to write, it also provided one of the biggest struggles during the recording of Nevermind. Despite the stress and adversity involved in completing this song, the session would yield a song called Endless, Nameless.”
“Kurt wanted to be able to play the guitar very… not methodical,” says Nevermind producer Butch Vig. “It needed to have this space – it had to be relaxed. We’d get a sound for the verse and then work on the chorus sections.”
“Lithium is pure genius with its Big Muff fuzz sound and dark call-to-arms about turning to religion when all else fails,” writes Everett True. “‘In the song, a guy’s lost his girl and his friends and he’s brooding,’ Kurt explained – clearly reflecting his own state of mind. ‘He’s decided to find God before he kills himself. It’s hard for me to understand the need for a vice like that,’ he added, conveniently forgetting his own fondness for heroin, ‘but I can appreciate it too. People need vices.’
“It was during a take of Lithium, where Kurt got so frustrated at his own ability to get his part right that he smashed his guitar on the studio floor, that Vig left the mic running and used the resulting noise as a bonus track, Endless Nameless – put on the finished version of the album, hidden at the end… ‘A cool, loud prank,’ according to Novoselic. The methodology of the song’s inclusion was partly inspired by Kurt’s old friend Jesse Reed: back when the pair were sharing a flat in Aberdeen, Kurt recorded himself one time saying, ‘Jesse… Jesse… I’m coming to get you,’ towards the end of a blank 90-minute cassette. Just as Jesse was about to go to bed, Kurt put the tape into the stereo and pressed ‘play’...”
1) Smells Like Teen Spirit
Okay, okay, we know: topping a list like this with Teen Spirit is boring and predictable and pedestrian – but it’s also the only result that makes any reasonable sense. If we tasked you with naming a song which has bettered – or even matched – the profound effect this one song had on musical history since it was released in 1991, our money says you wouldn’t be able to do it. So for it not to take its place here, as the singularly definitive song to be released by Seattle’s favourite sons, would be misguided at best. It’d also be downright wrong.
The unexpected success of Smells Like Teen Spirit didn’t just make stars of Nirvana, but lit a fire under all of Seattle’s alternative music scene. Seemingly overnight, the goalposts of the mainstream shifted to make space for this messy, awkward, anti-everything trio and all they represented, including the scene they dragged along with them. Record labels were suddenly clamouring to sign alt.rock bands and release their records in the hopes of stumbling across another Nevermind. It’s not hyperbolic to state this record changed everything.
As expected, folklore has all but re-written the story of Teen Spirit. Famously gaining its title from graffiti daubed on Cobain’s wall by Bikini Kill founder Kathleen Hanna (she spraypainted ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’ on his bedroom wall – Cobain, misinterpreting it as some sort of revolutionary slogan, didn’t realise she was referring to the Teen Spirit deodorant her bandmate Tobi Vail used until months after its release), the song became an anthem for apathetic kids of Generation X and beyond. It seemed to spin opaque stories of bored, self-destructive youth, entertaining themselves into oblivion in America’s forgotten suburbs. But, like much of the material that made it onto Nevermind, the song was actually written about Cobain’s ex-girlfriend, Vail.
“Of course, there was Smells Like Teen Spirit with its famous ‘Over-bored and self-assured’ reference to both Tobi and Kurt’s personalities,” writes Everett True. “‘Boredom: the desire for desires,’ as Russian philosopher Leo Tolstoy once wrote. What was there to do in life, now that the adults had grabbed all the fun adolescent stuff for themselves? No point growing up, that’s a crock... The original draft of Teen Spirit included a line later picked up on by his future wife Courtney Love, used to highlight her status as Rock Royalty with her husband – ‘Who will be the the king and queen of the outcast teens?’ Clearly, it was intended for Tobi.”
But the song took on a life of its own, thanks to an initially reluctant US rock radio. Assuming the track would put off daytime listeners, they agreed only to broadcast it during the nighttime slots. The track soon became one of the most requested songs on the radio. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I remember listening to Teen Spirit after Kurt did the vocals,” Novoselic told Charles Cross. “I said to myself, ‘Whoa, this is really raw.’ There was a lot of energy there.”
Ultimately, along with overwhelming success Nevermind brought, the song became a burden for Cobain. “I don't even remember the guitar solo on Teen Spirit,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994, after they quizzed him about his refusal to play it live. “It would take me five minutes to sit in the catering room and learn the solo. But I'm not interested in that kind of stuff. I don't know if that's so lazy that I don't care anymore or what. I still like playing Teen Spirit, but it's almost an embarrassment to play it.”