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, Pixies, Led Zeppelin, the Vaselines, David Bowie, Devo, Meat Puppets), 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. While it would be easy (worthless) to just slap down ten 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 ten 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.
1. “Negative Creep” (Bleach, 1989)
Opening No Recess with one of the most violent songs in Nirvana’s back catalogue, “Negative Creep”, seemed like the logical idea. From the chugging riffs that rampage ahead at a 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.
2. “Scentless Apprentice” (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 odor who kills virgin women to take their scent to create the “ultimate perfume”) around his percussive riffs that bolster the John 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.
3. “Aneurysm” (Incesticide, 1992)
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.
4. “Tourette’s” (In Utero, 1993)
How do you follow up on 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.
5. “Floyd the Barber” (Bleach, 1989)
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 basslines and Crover’s cast-iron beats.
6. “Territorial Pissings” (Nevermind, 1991)
The look of abject horror on the face of TV goon Jonathan Ross as Nirvana aired a surprise rendition of Nevermind’s hardcore-punk number “Territorial Pissings” on his show will live on forever as part of Nirvana’s legend. This volatile song always played the incendiary instigator in the band, trashing the high holy hell out of their instruments live, and a mixtape of heavy Nirvana songs would be incomplete without its anarchic stamp. Following the methodical “Floyd the Barber”, “Territorial Pissings” is just as an effective opener to Side B as it is to Nevermind’s pacing and legacy. Twenty-two years later and this song hasn’t lost a drop of its venomous vitality.
7. “School” (Bleach, 1989)
“No Recess,” screams Cobain wildly during the final track chosen from Bleach to create this mixtape: “School”. It is a powerful statement throughout a song that treads the line between being as emotionally exposed as Nirvana’s acoustic fare (“Polly”, “Something in the Way” and “Rape Me”) and as heavy musically as Nirvana could possibly get. “School’s” sinister sludge bass harbor serious tension only to find a release after Cobain repeatedly whispers, “You’re in high school again,” and the noise swells, and Nirvana bring the song to an emphatic finish. Altogether it makes for an ultimate Nirvana anthem and easily one of the strongest songs to ever roar through Sub Pop’s hallowed halls.
8. “Breed” (Nevermind, 1991)
From his martial snare intro to his punk rock beats that fuel the verses and the way the pace and power of his playing propel the anthemic chorus, Dave Grohl owns “Breed”. The stars aligned for Nirvana when the former Scream drummer landed on their throne, and you can feel the chemistry he shared with Novoselic as Nirvana’s rhythm section as well as his intrinsic gift for hard-hitting, metrical trade-offs with Cobain’s riffs and vocals as “Breed” fires ahead. “Breed” was an integral part of Nevermind’s gargantuan success and remained at the heart of Nirvana’s live show to the end. Its place on this mixtape of heavy is indisputable.
9. “Milk It” (In Utero, 1993)
Alienating the masses that leaped onboard because of Nevermind, “Milk It” is an ear-piercing highlight from Nirvana’s artistic highpoint, In Utero. Cobain’s deranged lyrical imagery and the duality of his delivery — creepy mutterings and ferocious outbursts — really spotlighted the full extent of his troubled genius. With a line like “look on the bright side is suicide” being a portentous indication of Cobain’s frayed psyche at the time — and a lyric given greater significance after his demise at his own hand — this is Nirvana at their disturbed and disturbing best. As horrifyingly extreme a song as you will ever get from a band perched at the top of the mainstream mountain.
10. “Endless, Nameless” (Nevermind, 1991)
Silence follows the end of “Something in the Way”, the last song on Nevermind. Within moments this silence will be splintered by a blaring sermon bestowed the name “Endless, Nameless”. As torturous as any experimental noise/drone band known to man, here, Nirvana wrench slabs of white noise from their instruments during this ritual of abuse and chaos. “Endless, Nameless” is an obstinate emission hell-bent on rupturing the mournful mood left by “Something in the Way”, and there is no better way to end No Recess than this. “Endless, Nameless”: Noise as art or just plain noise? We think you know the answer.
This article was originally published on 13 September 2013. It has been re-edited and re-formatted for modern browsers.