The “definitive” word on Nirvana has been written ad nauseam ever since Kurt Cobain ended his own life in harrowing style. We’ve been inundated with countless books (even Cobain’s personal diaries have been pillaged); been sold every out-of-tune song that Nirvana ever recorded as a demo; force-fed every non-essential fact surrounding this important band and every crackpot conspiracy relating to Cobain’s death to demystifying effect. But Cobain’s personal struggles and reluctant stardom as well as Nirvana’s impact on a generation and pop-culture in general aside, it all comes back to the music—which is ultimately what we are left with.
Detailed discussions—and heated arguments—have also taken place over the years as to the bands that inspired Cobain and eventually led to Nirvana’s commercial and critical success. We’ve heard about the Beatles until we were blue in the face; an obvious comparison, especially when you listen to songs like “About a Girl”, “Dumb” and “Pennyroyal Tea”. But delve past the rest of the clear sonic signifiers (Sonic Youth, Kiss, the Pixies, Led Zeppelin, the Vaselines, David Bowie, Devo, Meat Puppets, etc.) and heavier, more menacing influences (Black Sabbath, Killing Joke, Celtic Frost, Black Flag, The Melvins, Flipper, Mudhoney, Earth, etc.) linger around Nirvana’s core.
For this piece, PopMatters finally champions the sonically heavier side of Nirvana’s music. And while it would be easy (worthless) to just slap down 10 picks from Nirvana’s sludgy debut Bleach (an album that could accurately be described as a tribute to metal’s mongrel sons the Melvins), we have instead compiled 10 tracks from Nirvana’s small yet monumentally impactful discography to form the heaviest Nirvana mixtape. If there are songs missing from No Recess that you think deserved to make the cut (“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”, “Big Cheese”, “You Know You’re Right”, “Paper Cuts”, “Dive”, etc.), we suggest that you make your own version and share the tracklist below. At the end of the article, we have provided handy playlists from Spotify and Rdio for your listening pleasure.
No Recess - Side A:
Opening No Recess with one of the most violent song of Nirvana’s back catalogue, “Negative Creep”, seemed like the logical idea. From the chugging riffs that rampage ahead at whiplash pace to Cobain’s self-deprecating yet threatening lyrics delivered with desperation, “Negative Creep” is metal to the bone. Originally found on Nirvana’s 1989 debut Bleach, “Negative Creep’s” brutish tempos stand out like a middle finger amongst the rest of the syrupy sludge. While the disturbing line, “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more,” repeated by Cobain like a murderous mantra, remains etched in your mind long after the song burns out and fades away.
In Utero, 1993
In the same sequencing position for No Recess as it is on Nirvana’s cantankerous swansong In Utero, “Scentless Apprentice” is an indictment of Nirvana at their ground-shaking best. Inspired by the Patrick Süskind novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Cobain weaves the twisted tale (A perfumer’s apprentice born without body odour who kills virgin women to take their scent to create the “ultimate perfume”) around his percussive riffs that bolster the Bonham-esque thump of Dave Grohl’s beats and Krist Novoselic’s thunderous low-end. “Scentless Apprentice” is all about sheer rhythmic force and lyrical unease, and its inclusion here is essential.
The rawest recorded version of “Aneurysm” taken from the B-sides compilation Incesticide finds a home at the midpoint of Side A. Often interpreted as an ode to heroin masquerading as an obsessive love song, Cobain’s sexually charged lyrics and stark vocals add ambiguity to the quiet/loud dynamics of the music. With a rousing intro and enough restraint during the verses to set up the chorus highlighted by Cobain’s pained plea of “Beat me outta me / Beat me outta me,” and later, “She keeps it pumpin’ straight to my heart,” Aneurysm is a startling glimpse at addiction’s lethal grip.
In Utero, 1993
How do you follow up a worldwide smash hit? Well, if you are Nirvana, you backlash by forcing a difficult and often scathing invective upon your fans. In Utero’s skewed art-punk, “Tourette’s”, baffled those expecting a huge sing-along like Nevermind’s “Drain You”. Instead Nirvana created a challenging, noisy outpour of aggression that grinds to a halt before you can gauge what just occurred. Vocally, Cobain turns feral for “Tourette’s” and his screeching voice is key to the bedlam of this track, especially when this power trio rage on to the end with a frenetic energy often aped but rarely attained.
Following the spastic “Tourette’s”, Side A finishes with the sludge trudge of “Floyd the Barber”. Owing an incalculable debt to the Melvins—who besides the Beatles were the biggest influence on Cobain’s creative development—“Floyd the Barber”, which features the Melvins’ own Dale Crover on drums, is another intense inclusion off Bleach. At face value the song appears to be about being sexually violated and butchered in a barber’s chair, but, as is the case with most Nirvana songs, there is probably a more cerebral meaning attached. Either way, “Floyd the Barber’s” gruesome lyrics are matched blow for blow by Novoselic’s bowel-crushing bass-lines and Crover’s cast-iron beats.