If any single group embodied rock music in the 1990s, it was Nirvana. Formed in the logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, in the late 1980s, Nirvana seemed destined to be a footnote in the history books due to its backwoods regional origins (the typically ignored Pacific Northwest of the United States) and its association with an underground genre (grunge) that had already reached the maximum buzz possible in the music press by the end of that decade.
Instead, the ensemble of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl (the last in a long line of beat-keepers for the group and the most integral) abruptly found themselves pried from the indie label ghetto and thrown into the popular consciousness with their second album Nevermind in 1991, rubbing shoulders at the top of the pop charts with the biggest stars in the music industry. After that, all bets were off, and 1990s rock became more vital, jaded, and reflective of the emotions and concerns held by the emerging generation of young people reaching adulthood labeled Generation X than it had been under the reign of baby boomer dinosaurs and shallow hair-metal.
The unprecedented crossover success of such an abrasive alternative rock group and Cobain’s suicide at age 27 in 1994 certainly played a part in the propagation of the Nirvana legacy. However, we wouldn’t still be talking about the group in such reverent tones if it wasn’t for the music. In a body of work that amounted to little more than three studio albums, a rarities compilation, and assorted stray tracks while the group was still active, Nirvana melded heavy riffs, captivating pop hooks, dynamic verse/chorus shifts, and soul-scarred catharsis together into relatively simple songs that expressed contradictory sensations in a way that made sense to those seeking thoughtful musings and moshpit soundtracks equally.
Nirvana made it look effortless, and while the legion of flannel-wearing, distortion pedal-stomping wannabes that sprung up in its wake tried their best to cop the mannerisms and the cut-and-paste lyrics, few could articulate inarticulacy so well in a manner that rocked so hard. This is a look at the ten best songs by alternative rock’s definitive and most influential band. Nirvana may have left behind a small amount of music, but that doesn’t mean ranking their greatest tracks is a simple task.
10. “About a Girl” – Bleach
Nowhere does Cobain’s love of the Beatles and R.E.M. come across clearer than on “About a Girl”, the jangly minor-key folk-rock anomaly amongst the murk of Bleach, Nirvana’s debut album for Seattle-based indie Sub Pop. Written at the behest of his girlfriend at the time, Cobain pines achingly through this number without relying on his standard quiet verse/loud chorus template. Although the original version on Bleach has its fans, the acoustic rendition that opens MTV Unplugged in New York has since become the song’s definitive incarnation.
9. “Sliver” – single
“Sliver” was when Nirvana became the Nirvana we all know and love. Having discovered not long before from the Pixies that noise and pop aren’t antithetical concepts, Nirvana laid down this non-album single with Mudhoney drummer Danny Peters that’s as catchy as it is anguished. Inspired by memories of his broken childhood, Cobain sings about being dropped off at his grand folks’ home by neglectful parents in a sing-song melody that’s betrayed by the full-on rock-out choruses, thick distortion, and the emergence of his pained howls. When Cobain screams, “I woke up in my mother’s arms”, he shatters the twee pop myth of the pristine, innocent youth by revealing it to be a time rife with hurt.
8. “Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” – In Utero
Never mind that many details in the Francis Farmer biography Shadowland (Cobain’s source of inspiration and muse for this song from the band’s third and final album) are fictionalized. What matters is that the troubled actress is a metaphor for Cobain’s feelings of persecution in the wake of a custody battle for his newborn daughter and media speculation about his drug use. In this rather sinister track, the ominous palm-muted rhythm guitar in the verse gives way to the violent power chord bursts, eventually leading to Cobain’s moaning chorus, “I miss the comfort in being sad”, and one killer bridge section riff. Be careful because this victim will come back as fire to deliver retribution to all tormenters.
7. “Drain You” – Nevermind
“Drain You” is the single from Nevermind that wasn’t. The catchiest song from the album’s second half, this simultaneously gross/sweet tale of a symbiotic relationship, was relegated to b-side status on specific versions of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” single. Following the band’s commercial ascendancy, Cobain’s protested that “Drain You” was superior to its A-side. It isn’t that good, but it is a fantastic tune that will have you humming along with unconventional romantic couplets like “With eyes so dilated I’ve become your pupil / You’ve taught me everything without a poison apple.” Special notice goes to the Sonic Youth-inspired instrumental interlude, an excellent demonstration of the powerful chemistry Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl generated together as musicians.
6. “Lithium” – Nevermind
Nirvana had a knack for unforgettable intros, and the instantly recognizable muted single notes and occasional unrepressed double-stops that Cobain plucks on his guitar in the first few measures of “Lithium” are no exception. This joyous/desperate ode to finding religion is among the few Nirvana tunes where the quiet section is more compelling than the loud rock-out bits, as it allows the listener to savor the clever chord progression fully. On the other hand, there’s no denying the instinctual exhilaration that comes from hearing Cobain’s varying exclamations of the word “Yeah”, as if the manner he expresses himself is more profound than the content.
5. “All Apologies” – In Utero
Forget the underwhelming posthumous single “You Know You’re Right”: as the closing track on In Utero, “All Apologies” is the actual final Nirvana song. Based around a sublime droning riff in drop-D tuning, “All Apologies” forgoes tumult and aggression for calm and resignation. You can practically hear the band fade into the ether in the song’s coda as all the instruments gradually drop away until all that is left is weary voices harmonizing the words “All in all is all we all are” amidst the feedback remnants.
4. “In Bloom” – Nevermind
The fourth single from Nevermind is its most metallic, lurching through gnarly chord changes augmented by Dave Grohl’s explosive drum fills. When Cobain says, “Spring is here again”, the song begins to brighten, unveiling a sing-along chorus that pointedly calls out people who join in but “knows not what it means”. A track that achieved added resonance once every macho thick-necked bro began buying Nirvana records, it’s the little touches in the song (Krist Novoselic’s tasteful bassline, Grohl’s strained background harmonies) that validate “In Bloom’s” call to dig a little beneath the surface on a musical level.
3. “Aneurysm” – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” single / Incesticide
Listening to this song, the immediate question is: is it about heroin? Whether it’s about love as a drug or the love of drugs, “Aneurysm” is a powerful encapsulation of all-consuming emotional sickness. Reckless yet controlled, “Aneurysm” moves between extremes of restraint and abandon in the verses as it tries to hold its baser impulses in check, only to give in to temptation during the grinding choruses. Two studio versions of “Aneurysm” were released: its incarnation on the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” single is rougher and ends with one of Cobain’s most memorable screams, but the take included on the 1992 rarities compilation Incesticide hits hardest.
2. “Heart-Shaped Box” – In Utero
In the months before its September 1993 release, rumors circulated that In Utero was Nirvana’s career killer, a calculated anti-Nevermind full of noisy, unlistenable music. The lead single, “Heart-Shaped Box”, put all concerns to rest. Yes, the rough edges of producer Steve Albini’s production are still discernible through Scott Litt’s mix, and Cobain does slip in a concise anti-solo halfway through, but this remains another verse-chorus-verse Nirvana classic, through and through (those abrasive elements do give the track a fascinatingly unnerving edge, though). It’s yet another love song rife with bizarre medical imagery, and its combination of inventive lyrics and one of Cobain’s best riffs means that perplexed rock radio listeners the world over will be forever exposed to the line “Broken hymen of your highness I’m left black” in between fist-pumping fantasies by AC/DC and Nickelback.
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nevermind
Put aside Cobain’s dismissal of the song’s merits following its shocking pop mainstream penetration (you’d hate it too if everyone demanded you play it at every show). Ignore the inaccurate comparisons between this song’s riff and that from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” (they don’t even use the same chord progression). Get over the fact that this is the most overly-recognizable rock song from the last 20 years. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” deserves its hallowed place in the canon of popular music because it’s got great hooks, fantastic dynamics, and a two-bar riff so infectious no one was able to ignore alternative rock ever again.
From the first chord scratch to Cobain’s very last “a denial”, it’s the definitive encapsulation of teen angst: often duplicated, yet to be surpassed. And let’s not forget one final fact: no matter the historical and cultural weight we can justifiably affix to it, a large part of the appeal of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is that it unequivocally, undeniably rocks.
This article was originally published on 9 June 2011. It has been re-edited, updated with new videos, and re-designed for modern browsers.