It’s always a sad, strange thing to remember somebody on the day that they died. Of course it’s impossible for memories to replace a living, breathing human being, but at least the fans will always have something just as real: the music.
Today marks 20 years since the world lost Kurt Cobain, so I decided to figure out my 25 favorite Nirvana songs — songs that undoubtedly shaped my life in so many indescribable ways. Nirvana’s music means more to me than any other piece of art.
So I’ve listed my 25 favorites and the record they first appeared on — though for the Spotify links I’ve included my favorite versions, from live albums and what have you. And just as I did on my Top 25 Nine Inch Nails list, there are no cover songs present.
There’s also a complete Joey’s Top 25 Nirvana Songs Playlist you can subscribe to:
Here we go:
“It’s okay to eat fish/’Cuz they don’t have any feelings”
“Something in the Way” is amazing, particularly in context of Nevermind. While Nevermind is a polished record, it’s a furious one — save for “Polly”, taken from a different session entirely — but “Something in the Way” ends the record with almost a whimper. It’s haunting and sad in a way that the rest of Nevermind really isn’t. On the studio version, I love that it’s slightly out of time, famously recorded in the sound booth after a few frustrating tries the traditional way.
But the live BBC version that appears as the last track on the Nevermind deluxe edition is by far my favorite rendition — the underlying guitars and feedback during the chorus add texture that’s missing from the studio version and helps attract attention to the harmonies. It’s beautiful.
“I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black”
Probably some of Cobain’s best lyrics, “Heart Shaped Box” is an example of Nirvana’s melancholy at its finest. It’s also an example of how particular and understated Krist Novoselic’s bass lines are; just listen to it underneath the guitar solo and into the final verse. It makes the entire song, in my opinion. I like the 2013 Mix, mostly because of the more noticeable harmonies all throughout. It adds texture to the vocals that isn’t entirely present in the original mix.
“If I die before I wake/Hope I don’t come back a slave”
Though it’s atypically the same volume the duration of nearly the entire song, I love the simple chord progression and the absolutely catchy melody of the chorus. The lyrics are also pretty revealing, Cobain obviously drawing on his own family life but speaking about it in the third person during the verses before shifting into first for the chorus. It’s just a really interesting tune, from a songwriting point of view, and I think one of the under-appreciated gems of the Nirvana repertoire.
“She likes the time/She owns the time/She borrows time to self-invent”
One of the more memorable riffs from a Nirvana B-side, the funky stop-start rhythm of the verse is something different for the band, and that’s mostly why I like it. It’s the vocal melody that really drives the verses — not to mention the thumping drum accents from Grohl — until the screams are unleashed for the chorus and the guitar riff takes over. It’s a pretty unique offering from the band without undermining their trademarks.
“Light my candles in a daze/’cause I found God”
Despite the chorus just being a series of “Yeahs,” I would say that “Lithium” contains some awfully great lyrics. The verses are honest but contradictory, making them still somewhat guarded. And just like “Heart Shaped Box,” “Lithium” really demonstrates how essential to the songwriting Novoselic’s bass is — just listen to his little fill before the song kicks into its final chorus, not to mention the controlled bit of noodling during the bridge parts.
20. Dumb (In Utero)
“My heart is broke/But I have some glue/Help me inhale/Mend it with you”
For a band known for their louder-than-loud angst, feedback, destruction of instruments, and general punk rock fury, “Dumb” is one of those songs that showed how much more they had to offer. In Utero in general offers a few tracks like this — “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies” in particular — but I think “Dumb” might be the best straight “ballad” that they’ve got. The Unplugged performance is my favorite rendition, mostly because the tempo is just slightly slower than the album version which makes the song’s haunting qualities really stand out.
“I wish I was like you/Easily amused”
What a great closing track. “All Apologies” closes out In Utero with the appropriate kind of melancholy that laces itself through the whole record. I prefer the recently released Steve Albini mix, because it matches the tone of the record without softened vocals and the cello higher in the mix, particularly towards the end of the track. I love the way the song sort of crumbles, instruments dropping out one by one and replaced by feedback. To me, that encompasses everything In Utero does so well.
“Oh well, whatever, nevermind”
I’m not sure there’s anything I can say about this song that hasn’t been said before, and said better. The song that turned millions onto the band and launched them to stardom, it sounds as fresh today as it did in 1991. It’s ferocious, it’s anthemic, and it’s undoubtedly powerful. And it helped thousands of kids pick up an instrument.
“As a trend/As a friend/As an old memoria”
Behind “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are” holds the most well-known guitar riff in Nirvana’s catalog. It’s also one of their most unique songs, though its popularity might let you forget that. The chorus effect that’s laced throughout really muddies the sound (in a good way), giving it a different texture than the rest of Nevermind, let alone Nirvana’s other songs.
“She caught me off my guard/Amazes me, the will of instinct”
“Polly” might be one of Nirvana’s most dynamic songs. Though the Nevermind incarnation (taken from the Smart Studios sessions) is a soft acoustic number, they played it live with the full band while other times it was just as stripped down as the Nevermind version. On Incesticide there’s “Polly (New Wave)”, which I’m not a fan of, that speeds up the tempo and gives it some punk energy. I think it works best when instrumentation is minimal and the harmonies of the chorus are allowed to shine. Any way you slice it, though, it’s a huge accomplishment in Cobain’s songwriting.
It was the song we never thought we’d hear. We knew it existed but the ongoing legal battles between the suriving members of Nirvana and Courtney Love had prevented the release of the box set (which we eventually got in 2004), but this new track on the self-titled Best Of compilation finally gave us “You Know You’re Right” and guess what? It was worth the wait. It shows the promise of a new direction for the band, which only adds to the tragedy of the song. The guitars are a little more wild and experimental, the structure is less rigid than what they were known for. It’s wickedly catchy and deceptively simple.
“I miss the comfort in being sad”
I think this is one of the most underrated Nirvana songs. It’s got a great melody and even better lyrics. There’s no solo to speak of, but the complementary bass/guitar in the breakdown after the second chorus is just dynamite.
“Never met a wise man/If so, it’s a woman”
If there’s a better example of Nirvana’s pure punk rock energy, I’m not sure what it is. One of the few songs on Nevermind where the strain on Cobain’s voice is present in the final mix — one of the few instances without polish — it’s the most aggressive song on the record and ends with such a powerful fury that it’s almost hard to continue on.
“Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more”
From a production and consistency standpoint, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is a pretty disappointing live record — particularly compared with the more recent releases. However, if nothing else, it gave us this absolutely awesome rendition of “Negative Creep.” Most of the songs from Bleach are better live with the backing of Grohl’s drums, but this version of “Negative Creep” is better from every angle — vocals, guitar, drums, bass, the works.
“Afterbirth of a nation/Starve without your skeleton key”
The patented irony of the song’s title coupled with the intense feedback that threads through it is one reason I love it. Another reason is that it’s catchy as hell despite how un-radio friendly it is. Yet another reason are Grohl’s ridiculously rad drum fills and the complete breakdown at the end of the song. “Radio Friendly Unity Shifter” makes a lot of ugly sounds beautiful.
10. Blew (Bleach)
“Here is another word that rhymes with shame”
I have fond memories of playing this song as an example of “grunge” in 8th grade music class, which I chose over the (many) other options from Nirvana’s discography. “Blew” is pure sludge, particularly the live renditions with Grohl’s crazy fills and the heavier bass sound. I love Novoselic’s bass line change during the solo; another example of his understated and melodic playing. “Blew” is gritty and loud, just a little bit sloppy, and utter magic.
“I do pick a number too/I do keep a date with you”
Forget being one of the best Nirvana songs, this is one of the best pop songs ever written. A lot has been said about how this could have been a Beatles song, and I think there’s merit to that. “About a Girl” clearly draws on different influences than not only the rest of Bleach, but really, the rest of Cobain’s repertoire. It’s the Nirvana song that even non-Nirvana fans will like, if there is such a thing.
“Dive, dive, dive in me”
This is a magical moment in Nirvana history when they somehow combined the sludge of Bleach with a totally groovy tempo that you can actually dance to. “Dive” puts Novoselic in the spotlight like too few songs do, but he absolutely carries this one from front to back. I also love the trade off from bass solo to guitar solo before the final chorus. Plus, the drums here are totally fantastic — although played by Dale Crover for the Incesticide version — and a 100% improvement over what was originally recorded for the Bleach sessions (sorry, Chad, but I still think you’re great too).
“And if you cut yourself/You will think you’re happy”
It will forever blow my mind that “Sappy” didn’t make it onto an album proper, though I am happy that it continually gets radio play. It’s one of Cobain’s greatest song writing accomplishments, I think, from lyrics to melody to the guitar solo, and I just wish it wound up someplace other than a compilation and box set. Regardless, I think this is a resounding achievement across the board.
“Bruises on the fruit/Tender age in bloom”
This song is brilliant. The harmonies in the chorus are some of my favorites from the band, and it’s a shining example of how great a rhythm section Novoselic and Grohl are. After the simplistic bass line of “Teen Spirit” on the track before, I love moving into “In Bloom” and hearing the complexities of Novoselic’s arrangement here. This is just a lovely, lovely track.
“Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old”
“Serve the Servants” kicks off In Utero and tells us that this isn’t Nevermind again; not even close. It’s more raw, it’s more honest despite being much more ambiguous. But in a way, being ambiguous was the most honest Cobain could be. Despite the apparently revealing lyrics in this song (“I tried hard to have a father, but instead I had a dad”), the song seems to be more about how Cobain is tired of these subjects as topics for his songs, tired of having that expectation looming. It’s an interesting thing; it makes you wonder if he’s stating truth or if he’s just trying to convince himself.
“Love you so much it makes me sick”
Probably the best example of Nirvana’s quiet-loud-quiet song structure, “Aneurysm” is one of the catchiest tunes in the band’s catalog. I have a soft spot for it from covering it at my 9th grade talent show with my terrible, terrible band, but it’s the melody and Novoselic’s bass that really make this one stand out. Novoselic going into the verse riff just as Cobain’s guitar coalesces in that bridge before the finale; there’s nothing better, man.
“We could plant a house/We could build a tree/I don’t even care/We could have all three”
With the driving bass and erratic guitar, “Breed” is awesome from front to back. It’s heavy as shit with a punk energy but still meticulous in its melody. The fuzz of the bass also lends a nice texture that helps fill out the track. Besides “Territorial Pissings,” “Breed” is Nevermind’s heaviest offering.
“Chew your meat for you/Pass it back and forth/In a passionate kiss/From my mouth to yours/I like you”
In my opinion, “Drain You” is the greatest love song ever written. It plays on Cobain’s fascination of medical procedures and terminology, but the chorus is so incredibly romantic in such a grotesque, childish way that it’s completely endearing — not to mention the best Nirvana chorus for my money. It’s got Cobain’s best lyrics, great harmonies, and precision instruments. Just a great, great song.
“Won’t you believe it, it’s just my luck/No recess”
Choosing this #1 spot was legitimately the hardest thing I’ve done this week. While “Drain You” has my favorite lyrics and my favorite chorus, ultimately “School” is the complete encapsulation of the band. The song is simple, hard-hitting, energetic, and brutal. Grohl’s fills are furious, Novoselic’s bass complements the melody, and Cobain’s lyrics are incisive and effective. Calling back to the very simple despair of losing a day’s recess is imagery of childhood (coupled with the musical intensity) that Cobain would use often, but never as decisively as he does in “School.” The only caveat is that the Bleach version of the song is far less satisfying than the live versions with Grohl.
So there you have it! Please subscribe to the playlist and share the piece with your Nirvana-loving friends. And surely, your list would differ from mine, so leave a comment with your own top 10 or whatever.
Long live Nirvana.