Writing about the top 10 Nirvana songs is difficult because, despite a tragically short career, their oeuvre is full of giants. I could have taken 10 songs from Nevermind and it would have made an incredible list (and possibly superior to any band of their generation or beyond). Don't believe me? Imagine a list with Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are, Lithium, In Bloom, Polly, Drain You, On A Plain, Something In The Way, Breed and Lounge Act - not bad at all, right? That's what happens when you talk about a band that counts among its ranks the best songwriter of his generation, someone who knew how to connect the aggressiveness of punk with pop choruses, without forgetting to round it all off with unforgettable riffs. Kurt Cobain and his bandmates led the last great wave of rock, in their case alternative rock, as a mass phenomenon and, although they would surely be more comfortable with its current marginal position, they were the last great stars of the genre, on a par with its greatest names, such as Elvis or the Beatles.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
If other generations remember where they were the day they heard the King or the Fab Four for the first time, those of us born in the late 70s still remember the first time we heard Nirvana and saw them, through the video of Smells Like Teen Spirit. In my case it was a real shock, there was this guy who looked like Sting - if Sting had gone three days without sleeping and changing clothes, - who was making music that sounded dangerous and highly appealing. I, like most teenagers, hadn't heard Sonic Youth or the Pixies (Cobain's acknowledged songwriting influence for this song), but it was clear to me that my musical diet was going to change forever. Nirvana broke all barriers between mainstream and alternative music, turning the music industry upside down. When on January 10th, on the strength of the song, Nevermind hit number one on the US charts, ahead of Michael Jackson's Dangerous, the 80's gave way to the 90's, a seismic shift that brought with it an aesthetic and cultural change like little seen before. The song was the perfect encapsulation of teenage rage, like My Generation or (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction had been before it, in a four-minute pop pill in which the band played with the Pixies' quiet/loud formula. Despite being a Cobain song, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl got credit for helping with those tempo changes. The blue '69 Fender Mustang with which Cobain appeared in the video became the symbol of a new era.
Come as You Are
When the band finished recording Nevermind their company was pleasantly surprised, as they thought they had a hit on their hands. A hit for an alternative band, of course - their expectations were to sell some 250,000 copies; matching what Sonic Youth had achieved with Goo. The week it was released, September 24, 1991, Geffen had put 46,251 copies out in the US market and 35,000 in the UK, where Bleach, their previous album, had been an alternative hit. The label was sure that Come As You Are was the song with the most potential on the album, but decided to release Smells Like Teen Spirit first to satisfy their alternative base. However, out of nowhere, that single began to climb the charts and stores ran out of copies of the album; by the time it climbed to number one it was selling 300,000 copies a week. In the end Come As You Are was the second single and was again a hit, although Cobain did not have it all his own way as it had a riff very similar to Eighties by Killing Joke, an obvious resemblance that made the English band pretty angry, something which is not entirely understandable as the riff of the song was very similar to Life Goes On by The Damned. What is clear is that among the three, the best was Nirvana's by far, thanks to another of those unforgettable choruses - in which the phrase "And I swear that I don't have a gun" can no longer be heard in the same way after the sad end of Cobain. Nowadays his hometown, Aberdeen, welcomes all those who visit it with a sign with the title of this song.
Of all the songs on In Utero, Nirvana's third and final album, All Apologies is the one that I think is closest to what Kurt Cobain's later career might have been like if he hadn't decided to blow his head off. It is not just that it appeared at the end of the album, being, in a way, his musical testament, but Cobain himself had stated that he saw himself putting out more acoustic stuff, accompanied by a cello, as in this song; so maybe the Unplugged version is the definitive version, although I'm not so sure about that either. The fact is that it is one of Nirvana’s best songs, with another great riff, and another example of his incredible melodic capacity. Cobain composed it in 1990 and began to play it live with the band in 1991. The following year, in his famous appearance at the Reading festival, the singer dedicated it to his wife, Courtney Love, and their newborn daughter, which says a lot about the appreciation he had forthe song. His colleagues in the band also rank it highly, as it was the song chosen to close their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction concert in 2014, with Lorde on lead vocals and Joan Jett, St. Vincent and Kim Gordon as guests.
Going back to the beginning of this article, Cobain was so good at songwriting that a song like Aneurysm ended up as a B-side, without appearing on any official album, although it did appear on that wonderful box of tricks that is Incesticide. The band never forgot it in their live shows, aware of its enormous potential, and in fact, recorded two different versions of it, the one that appeared as the B-side of Smells Like Teen Spirit (the best single in history?) and the one that appeared on the aforementioned Incesticide. Both are huge, although I tend to go for the latter. It’s a great song, from its unnerving beginning to its dirty and liberating riff, everything in it is an adrenaline rush in which Cobain proves again that he is the most intense singer that ever lived. I have no idea why they decided to leave it off Nevermind...
Heart Shaped Box
Often with each album a band sounds better as they become more sophisticated but, at the same time, they also become tamer. However in the case of Nirvana it was not like that and Kurt Cobain reacted to the mega success of Nevermind with a much more raw and rougher album, one in which the guitars sounded more broken, more punk. One perfect example was the single that served as the album's intro, Heart Shaped Box, another tune that was pure pop goodness but was hidden within walls of uncontrolled distortion, which is one of the reasons why they chose Steve Albini as producer. The video was again iconic, with Cobain this time using one of the few non-Fender guitars he had, specifically a Univox Hi-Flier Phase 4. It was also the last song Nirvana played at their final concert, on March 1, 1994 in Munich.
Cobain sang for all the misfits of the world, for all those who had been marginalized and cast aside, so it was a shock when Lithium became a best seller chanted by all those guys who had made his life impossible. That's what happens when you are able to write choruses as imposing as that on Lithium, which is an infectious song until you realize you are singing about a manic depressive where every "I love you" is followed by "I kill you" and every "I’m so happy" is followed by "I’m so ugly"...
It could be said that In Utero is the sum of their first two albums, the aggressive and alternative production of Bleach, plus the melodies and choruses of Nevermind. A great example is Rape Me, a song in which, long before the #MeToo movement, Kurt Cobain was already rasping his throat against the oppressive patriarchy. Like many of the songs on In Utero, the song had been written early and Cobain attempted to sing it at his memorable 1992 MTV party appearance, but after being threatened by the TV company with firing a friend of the band who worked there, the band backed off, but not before singing the sharp chorus of Rape Me before Lithium. On the studio version Cobain used one of his most beloved guitars, his Fender Jaguar plugged into a Twin Reverb.
Nirvana was a great band, beyond Cobain, Novoselic worked his ass off and his bass sounded fat and menacing, while Grohl didn't just play the drums, he attacked them as if he were playing with baseball bats instead of drumsticks. The strength of their performances was incredible, with Cobain adding one of the most expressive voices of all time and a powerful wall of distortion, but beyond that, the songs could pass the acid test just fine. Take a song like In Bloom and try playing it solo with an acoustic, and you'll see how it sounds just as wonderful.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
It's funny the twists and turns of fate. Before starting his incredible interpretation of Leadbelly's Where Did You Sleep Last Night? Kurt Cobain tells the story of how a representative of the blues and folk giant museum had offered Cobain one of his guitars for half a million dollars, Krist Novoselic jokes about passing a basket around to raise funds for its purchase and Cobain says that he personally asked David Geffen to buy it and that he said no, he won’t. The fact is that the guitar Cobain is carrying at the time, his 1959 Martin D-18E, sold last year for 12 times that amount, that is for six million dollars, perhaps making it the most expensive guitar ever. But those figures are meaningless against the interpretation that Cobain makes of the song, which provides one of the most chilling moments of his career, demonstrating that besides being the best composer of songs of his generation he was a unique interpreter, there are no singing schools, nor sufficient Pop Idols to be able to teach how to thrill and shake with the voice like Cobain does here. The moment when he starts screaming is absolutely incredible, as he has a voice that scratches and hurts, especially that moment when he maintains the e of "shiver" to infinity, making everyone stop, then sings in the manner of a 20's bluesman "the whole", sighs, opens his eyes for the first time in the whole song as if he had seen a ghost, and then finishes with the "night through". Seriously, Courtney, where the fuck were you sleeping last night?
About A Girl
For those who still think that Nirvana started with Nevermind, we have to remember that Bleach was already a remarkable album. The thing is that their company, Sub Pop, was the cradle of the heaviest grunge groups like Mudhoney or Soundgarden, and the band delivered an album closer to that sound. Of course, a song like About A Girl proved that Cobain's love for the Beatles was already present in those early days. This was the song that anticipated the choruses of Nevermind and showed that Nirvana was already the future in 1989. The world became aware of it on Unplugged but I think the definitive version is still the original with the electric guitars, as can be heard in the video of their performance at the Paramount in Seattle in 1991, with Cobain wielding one of his left-handed Japanese Stratocasters.