It only takes one song to start a rock revolution. That trigger, in late 1991, was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” an exhilarating blast of punk-rock confrontation by Nirvana, a scruffy trio from Seattle. “Teen Spirit,” its moshpit-party video and Nirvana’s kinetic live shows propelled their second album, Nevermind, to Number One and turned singer-guitarist-songwriter Kurt Cobain into the voice and conscience of an alternative-rock nation sick of hair metal and the conservative grip of the Reagan-Bush ‘80s. Founded by Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic in the logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, Nirvana were underground stars when they made 1989’s Bleach with drummer Chad Channing. Moving from the indie Sub Pop label to Geffen, the band – with drummer Dave Grohl – packed Cobain’s corrosive riffs, emotionally acute writing and twin passions for the Beatles and post-punk bands like the Melvins and the Pixies into Nevermind. A multi-platinum seller, it included the hits “Come As You Are” and “Lithium” and opened the mainstream gates for Green Day, Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins. In 1993, Nirvana released the caustic masterpiece, In Utero, and gave a historic performance on MTV’s Unplugged. But in April 1994, Cobain – suffering from drug addiction and severe doubts about his stardom – took his own life. Like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Cobain was 27, in his creative prime, when he died. Also like them, he and Nirvana remain an enduring influence and challenge – proof that the right band with the right noise can change the world.
"About a Girl" (1989)
Appearing on Nirvana's debut LP, Bleach, "About a Girl" sticks out on a record that taken as a whole sounds more like the group's peers – a sound eventually dubbed "grunge" – more than hinting at Cobain's knack for pop hooks. "I was heavily into pop, I really liked R.E.M., and I was into all kinds of old ‘60s stuff. … And to put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky," Cobain explained to Rolling Stone in a 1993 interview.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991)
A primordial stomp that spins fuzzily off a basic "Louie Louie" riff, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the opening volley in the rock and roll sea change that was Nevermind. The song articulated the dissatisfaction plaguing Generation X-ers. Cobain's searing, sneering vocal indicted slackerdom even as he desperately dodged the trappings of success.
Borrowing from his alt heroes the Pixies, Cobain punctuated this poem-cum-anthem about turning to religion as an emotional panacea with a penetrating loud-quiet-loud arrangement. Transitioning from a subdued and reflective series of verses to laconic wail – "I love you," "I miss you," "I kill you" – in the chorus helped make palpable the emotional dichotomy of Cobain's narrative.
"Heart-shaped Box" (1993)
Deliberately stark production by Steve Albini, a slow, meandering melody married to harrowing symbolism ("I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black") and signature quiet verse–loud chorus Nirvana sound with a particularly galvanizing cadence made this caustic look at love and hate among In Utero's standout tracks. A visually arresting and cryptic video directed by Anton Corbijn had steady air play helping make it a hit, too.
"All Apologies" (1993)
This subdued respite from the caustic onslaught of In Utero underscores the Beatles/Cheap Trick influence in Cobain's music and showcases his melodic gift to make bearable the emotional turmoil inherent in lines like "In the sun I feel as one / Married / Buried." An especially compelling performance of the song appears on Nirvana's live album MTV Unplugged in New York, released November 1994.
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