10 Essential Nirvana Songs
Kurt Cobain was born on February 20, 1967, in Aberdeen, Washington.
The songwriter/guitarist emerged from the nascent grunge movement of the early 80s – an alternative sub genre that incorporated elements of indie, punk, hardcore and heavy metal – to become the reluctant "voice of a generation."
As the frontman for Nirvana, Cobain's esoteric lyrics and ability to craft indelible hooks with a uniquely metallic resonance fueled the band. Backed by the core of Krist Novoselic's steady bass and the thundering percussion of Dave Grohl, Cobain's songs almost single-handedly changed not only the musical landscape of the 1990s, but also the cultural landscape.
Nirvana led a charge that unseated the hedonistic values, flamboyant acts and slick production of hair metal at the top of the rock throne and replaced it with less scripted, more dynamic arrangements, introspective lyrics and more universally identifiable, laid-back style – including a flannel-clad fashion prerogative that was soon adopted from coast to coast, seen everywhere from dive bars to haute couture. Riding on the strength of the anthemic "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nevermind ousted Michael Jackson's Dangerous at the top of the charts. One studio album, In Utero, followed before Cobain was found dead in his home on April 5, 1994, having committed suicide. He was 27. Here are picks for 10 Essential Nirvana songs.
Although technically recorded by Kurt Cobain with musician Dale Crover as Fecal Matter, this is Nirvana genesis. "Spank Thru" was among the first songs that Cobain ever put to tape, and is reportedly the song that convinced Krist Novoselic to start a band with Cobain. The song didn't see official release until 1996, when it appeared on the live recording From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, but it had been a regular on Nirvana set lists from the late 80s through the 90s.
Released in 1989, Bleach was Nirvana's debut LP for Sub Pop. The entire album was recorded for approximately $600 in less than a week, and "Blew" was the opening track. The band had yet to bring Grohl into the fold, so Chad Channing handles drums on most of Bleach, including "Blew." The song was one of the first indicators of Cobain's gift for songwriting, taking a churning, heavy, serpentine groove and injecting it with a catchy melody that separated Cobain from his more one-dimensional songwriting peers.
The third track on Bleach and the lead track on Nirvana's 1994 MTV Unplugged in New York album, "About A Girl" further illustrated Cobain's pop-writing sensibilities and embracing of 60s artists, such as the Beatles. Compared to other recordings – and the Sabbath-esque heaviness and riff-laden rock of many Sub Pop bands – the clean guitar, minor-key strum of "About A Girl" marked a noted departure from the distortion driven sounds of other Cobain originals, and showed a willingness to break from the Seattle scene and sound that had given birth to the band.
Originally recorded in 1991 and appearing on the b-side to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Aneurysm" found a wider release with its inclusion on 1992's Incesticide compilation, which featured a version recorded for BBC radio's Mark Goodier's Evening Session. The song was a staple of Nirvana's live act and for good reason: its towering riffs, stops, starts and Cobain's inimitable howl showcased the band's bombastic motif at among its most raw.
"Sliver" was among the last singles released by Nirvana on Sub Pop prior to their major label move to Geffen (where the single was later released on Incesticide). Novoselic's bouncy bassline launches the song before Cobain's vocals kick in, relating a familiar first-person narrative of being taken to his grandparents while his parents go to "a show." Despite his grandparents' best efforts (allowing him to ride his bike, eat ice cream), the child – by extension, Cobain – wails "Grandma take me home!" repeatedly. The song effortlessly bridges a bubblegum pop storyline and sound with the driving rock and blistering vocals that became the band's hallmark.
Nevermind would become a cultural zeitgeist, and its opening track, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the sonic soundscape that made it possible. The four-chord intro is among rock's most familiar progressions and in just over five minutes redefined any previous notion of what could be a bona fide rock hit. With Butch Vig's production, the songs moved away from the murky sounds of previous efforts and into a more polished wall-of-guitars sheen. With its video gaining extensive MTV airplay – the iconography of which came to be as memorable as the naked baby boy floating on Nevermind's cover – and Cobain's garbled verses and tortured screams, audiences around the globe discovered a new sound and a new voice to guide them.
"Lithium" highlights Cobain's mastery of mood. On the song's verses, Cobain sings in a fittingly reflective, subdued tone to great effect (Sunday morning is everyday / For all I care / And I'm not scared /Light my candles, in a daze / 'Cause I've found God) – a mood echoed in a minimalist guitar line that mimics the melody. The narrative tension explodes in the chorus, as a pummeling surge of distorted guitars back Cobain as he agonizingly screams "Yeah" before the chorus: I like it / I'm not gonna crack / I miss you / I'm not gonna crack / I love you / I'm not gonna crack / I killed you / I'm not gonna crack. It stands as among the most evocative moments in the band's oeuvre.
With the unexpected success of Nevermind, there was great pressure on Cobain to deliver a follow-up album. Released in September 1993, In Utero's first single was "Heart-Shaped Box." It followed Nirvana's quiet verse-loud chorus songwriting approach from previous efforts, but Steve Albini's production was dialed back, giving the Cobain composition the more restrained backdrop it needed. The stark verse arrangement is punctuated with Cobain's chilling lyrics, including the line "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black" – a declaration of love as only Cobain could muster – while the chorus explodes in a wash of melodic noise. It is among the more pop-friendly songs on In Utero, which was conceived in a concerted effort to deliver a more dissonant album than Nevermind.
"All Apologies" was the bookend to In Utero, and closed the album – and ultimately the studio-album output of Nirvana – on a decidedly somber note. That recording featured Cobain tenderly, candidly ruminating: What else could I write? / I don't have the right / What else should I be? / All Apologies. The song had a vulnerability that was brilliantly captured in the stripped-down performance recorded during the MTV Unplugged session.
"You Know You're Right" was one of the last songs recorded by Nirvana in the studio prior to Cobain's death, after which it became the center of a legal battle between former Nirvana bandmates Novoselic and Grohl, and Cobain's widow Courtney Love. The song was officially released in 2002, appearing on the best-of compilation, Nirvana. Cobain's expressive, gravelly projecting, nuanced guitar playing and acerbic wit (Things have never been so swell / And I have never felt this well) became a poignant capstone for one of rock's most troubled and influential musicians.