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No Apologies: All 102 Nirvana Songs Ranked

RS tackles the complete catalog of the band that defined the Nineties and made the world a lot noisier

nirvana kurt cobain dave grohl krist novoselic

Paul Bergen/Redferns

We’ve dug deep into the catalog of the chaos-embracing sludge-pop titans who changed the world and tackled a massive task: ranking all 102 album cuts, B-sides, bonus tracks, officially released covers, bootlegger-traded originals, home demos, Peel Sessions, and 4-track experiments we could find, from Nirvana‘s formation in 1987 to their McCartney-assisted reunion in 2013. It’s no secret that the 38 songs on Nirvana’s three classic albums blurred the lines between punk’s most subterranean muck and pop’s highest reaches. But they also left behind a wealth of other material from the shaggy to sublime, from combustible to calm, from coulda-been hits to unfinished sketches. Here it is, from Aero to Zeppelin, and everything in between. (Listen to the full playlist on YouTube here.)

nirvana
102

“Heartbreaker”

After playing their own “Aero Zeppelin” as the opener at their first-ever concert – a March 1987 house party – Nirvana went straight to the source for two impromptu Led Zep jams. “Heartbreaker,” yells a concertgoer. “We don’t know how to play it!” replies someone, but they figured out the riff to the 1969 classic, as well as the one for “How Many More Times.” That fast-and-loose version (easily the earliest recording on this list) made it onto With the Lights Out box, possibly to show how loose and heavy Nirvana were right out of the gate. After trudging through some Jimmy Page steamrollers, Cobain offers up a ragged-throated “Hey fellas, have you heard the news?” and even attempts Page’s trilly showboat solo. And they said they didn’t know it. KORY GROW

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101

“My Best Friend’s Girl”

According to the 1993 Nirvana bio Come as You Are, the Cars’ 1978 new wave hit “My Best Friend’s Girl” was among the very first tunes a young Kurt Cobain learned to play after his Uncle Chuck bought him his first guitar for his 14th birthday. It now also stands as one of the last songs Cobain performed in his lifetime, after he had achieved a level of fame his teenage self couldn’t have fathomed. When Nirvana opened their show at Terminal 1 in Munich, Germany with a ragged-yet-faithful take of the power-pop gem, it represented something of a tragic full circle: The gig, on March 1, 1994, would prove to be Nirvana’s last. RICHARD BIENSTOCK

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100

“Raunchola”/”Moby Dick”

Described by Krist Novoselic as “really raunchy,” “Erectum” (or “Raunchola” as it was variously titled) was an early Nirvana composition that bound together a wobbly bass line, a few mimeographed Seventies punk riffs, some chunky metal guitar and one atonal Greg Ginn-style avant-garde solo. The band revisited their Led Zep love toward the end of a 1988 show, giving then-drummer Dale Crover a license to go Double-Live Bonzo on John Bonham’s signature showstopper (with a little added wooze courtesy of Novoselic). KORY GROW

The Other Improv
99

“The Other Improv”

Among the tracks recorded in January 1993’s pre-In Utero sessions in Brazil was a loose, six-minute-plus jam that has come to be known as “The Other Improv.” The song, which consists largely of Cobain improvising lyrics over a lurching, mid-tempo instrumental groove, remained unheard until 2002, when it was discovered by online MP3 traders. Though the sketch is not much of a song, “The Other Improv” features Cobain repeatedly singing the phrase “My milk is your shit,” which would be reworked for “Milk It.” RICHARD BIENSTOCK

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98

“Don’t Want It All”

Recorded on 4-track at Cobain’s Olympia, Washington residence around 1988, this eerie, oft-bootlegged track was known to collectors as “Misery Loves Company” before given its official title of “Don’t Want It All.” (Even though evidence suggests its real title is “Seed.”) Although it was recorded in the same home demos that produced the ridiculous “Beans” and the inpentrable “Montage of Heck,” these same tapes – featuring early versions of “About a Girl,” “Sappy,” “Polly” – signified the maturation in Cobain’s work. The song’s bluesy mood and atmosphere, similar to the Lead Belly works Cobain would soon discover, is taut while the tuning is so loose: The string rattles with every pluck. However, this song never made it out of the home demo phase, with its lone recording appearing on With the Lights Out. DANIEL KREPS

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97

“Mrs. Butterworth”

Things that remain unknown about “Mrs. Butterworth”: when it was recorded, who actually played drums on it, its actual title, and pretty much anything beyond “It has Kurt and Krist on it.” Jack Endino describes it as one of the last songs found during the assembly of With the Lights Out, coming from Courtney Love’s collection of “Kurt cassettes.” Lights labels it a 1988 rehearsal with Dale Crover; but Endino disagrees, believing it to be 1987 with Aaron Burckhard. (Of the title, Endino writes: “Someone at the [management] office just made it up, as Krist couldn’t remember it, and the tape was unlabeled.”) Cobain doesn’t get a lot of credit for his guitar abilities, but he demonstrates a surprising capacity for Slayer-worthy thrash riffing here – only minus the evil, and plus weirdoes who collect Mrs. Butterworth jars and sell crafts made of out of burlap and driftwood. TOM MALLON

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96

“If You Must”

For enthusiasts, “If You Must” was often the entry point into the fruitful, maddening, mislabeled world of Nirvana bootlegs – it was the first track on the well-circulated Outcesticide. Despite its impact on Nirvana fans, Cobain apparently hated the track, calling “If You Must” “sickening and dumb” in a letter to Crover. After being recorded for Nirvana’s January 1988 demo tape, the song disappeared entirely from future studio sessions and live performances until it was dug out for With the Lights Out. DANIEL KREPS

Cut Me Some Slack
95

“Cut Me Some Slack”

“We walked in; we jammed the song,” Grohl told KROQ about this 2013 rager, the only song that Grohl, Novoselic and touring guitarist Pat Smear have recorded together since Nirvana ended in 1994. “It just came out of nowhere. The best songs happen that way. We recorded it live and put a vocal over it and that was it. It was three hours and it was perfect.” The vocals on this raucous jam for the Sound City soundtrack featured a little-known guest singer named Paul McCartney, whose Sixties-era recordings are said to have inspired the melody of Nirvana’s “About a Girl.” What the three-hour session yielded was honestly not much of a song, but it did win the Best Rock Song Grammy earlier this year, beating Black Sabbath the Rolling Stones and Muse. DOUGLAS WOLK

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94

“Help Me, I’m Hungry”

Nirvana’s midnight in-studio performance for Olympia’s KAOS Community Radio in May of 1987, marked the band’s very first official on-air session – though at the time the band, featuring Aaron Burckhard on drums, was going by the name “Skid Row.” They closed their set with this Pixies-gone-Black-Flag moaner that is commonly known as “Vendetaganist,” but which was later rechristened – no doubt due to Cobain’s repeated moans of “I’m fucking hungry” —with a new title when this performance was issued on the With the Lights Out box. Though “Hungry” is among the deeper of Nirvana cuts, the band actually continued to play it onstage as late as September 28, 1991 – four days after the release of Nevermind. To add to its convoluted history, bootlegs from this gig, at New York City’s now-defunct Marquee, show additional names for the song, including “Come on Death” and “Death Jam” – all fine names for such a negative, anguished churn. RICHARD BIENSTOCK

Immigrant Song
93

“Immigrant Song”

Kurt Cobain doesn’t bother to intone Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant’s Viking wail on this two-minute rehearsal room larf. As seen a video shot at a strobe-lit basement show in Krist Novoselic’s mom’s house, new-hire drummer Chad Channing just launched into the song’s trademark gallop and Cobain let loose a monotonous scream. But for all the hoopla in the years since Nevermind came out about grunge killing metal dead, let the record show that the frontman screamed Plant’s lyrics into the Novoselics’ wood-paneled wall with an accuracy that might get him a passing score on Rock Band. KORY GROW

Black and White Blues
92

“Black and White Blues”

Does Jack White know about this one? Kurt Cobain apparently recorded this brief acoustic guitar ragtime shuffle in the late Eighties, perhaps even before Fecal Matter morphed into Nirvana. It’s not elegant, but it is endearing, with the strings buzzing and a few notes erroneously muted as Cobain tries to untangle the intricate picking patterns and rhythms of the primitive American blues. Warped by the buzz of a tape machine and a cheap microphone, it could even slip into those Paramount Records boxsets White’s been building. Onetime punk rockers who turn toward folk – or, at the least, folk-rock – as they age are legion. That path has long seemed like an obvious one for Cobain, had he survived beyond 27. But “Black and White Blues,” which came long before the year that punk broke, makes his interests in rock & roll’s basics both clear and incredibly frustrating: Cobain might’ve made an incredible aging bluesman, and these two minutes excepted, we’ll never really know. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN

Bambi Slaughter
91

“Bambi Slaughter”

Not to be confused with the crushing “Bambi Slaughter” from Cobain’s 1985 Fecal Matter demo, this early home recording (most commonly labeled as “Bambi Slaughter” or “Creation” or “Bambi Kill”) is little more than the singer and a plodding bass riff. More than any song in the Nirvana catalog, its minimalism brings to mind stripped-down Cobain favorites Young Marble Giants. “I’m heavily influenced by them, he said. “It doesn’t sound like it in our music. But just the emotions they evoked and the feeling, the sincerity and all that.” Never officially released, it remains one of the deepest cuts in the band’s catalog, but recently got a second life via a blissgaze cover by Nirvana acolytes DIIV. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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90

“Anorexorcist”

This growly, Melvins-y grinder has been around since Cobain’s 1985 Fecal Matter demos, but didn’t live too much longer. Cobain reconfigured the riffs and lyrics, sped up the tempo, and began performing it as “Anorexorcist” at some of Nirvana’s earliest gigs and the well-circulated 1987 KAOS session (whose recording ended up on With the Lights Out). Despite its engaging fast-verse/slow-chorus vibe, it met its demise around a 1988 show where the band, billed as Ted Ed Fred, were joined by Cobain’s old Fecal Matter bandmate Dale Crover on drums. RICHARD BIENSTOCK

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89

“Token Eastern Song”

“Token Eastern Song” held a mysterious mythos with Nirvana bootleggers thanks to its inclusion on the track list for Sheep, which Cobain planned as the Sub Pop follow-up to Bleach before DGC came calling. It wasn’t until years later that it was revealed that a live recording erroneously dubbed “Junkyard” was actually the tune; the chorus “Hold it in your gut” hilariously mistaken for “Born in a junkyard.” The track was also recorded on New Year’s Day 1991, Dave Grohl’s first studio session as Nirvana’s drummer. That version has not been officially released; but the Bleach-ier version on With the Lights Out, culled from a September 1989 session with Chad Channing on drums, is a gloriously crunchy Hüskers-via-Sabbath gem. DANIEL KREPS

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88

“Here She Comes Now”

Nirvana’s cover of this Velvet Underground track from 1968’s White Light/White Heatwas more than twice as long as the original, appearing on the Velvets tribute album, Heaven and Hell Volume 1 and as a split single with the Melvins doing “Venus in Furs.” Though they tackle White Light‘ s quietest track, Nirvana’s version rises in action like the album’s noisiest, “Sister Ray” – a fitting tribute to the original architects of pop and feedback. DOUGLAS WOLK

Escalater to Hell
87

“Escalator to Hell”

Recorded in the summer of 1988, in the same studio sessions where Kurt killed time attempting to affix a snippet of his homemade “Montage of Heck” collage to the beginning of debut single “Love Buzz,” “Escalator to Hell” seems to find the frontman playing guitar in Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge – his parts recorded backwards and then the tape reversed. The outtake is experimental to the point of being unreleasable, and as indebted to the Beatles as anything short of “About a Girl.” Once found on various Outcesticide bootlegs, YouTube is now the song’s most reliable home, with videos of the 89-second squall totaling nearly 5,000 plays and a homemade edit that sets the song back to it’s normal direction netting 47. NICK MURRAY

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86

“D-7”

“We learnt everything from the Wipers,” Kurt told an English fanzine in 1990. “They were playing a mixture of punk and hard rock at a time when nobody cared.” Indeed, it’s pretty easy to hear Nirvana’s power-chords-by-a-power-trio roots in this dark tune originally off of the seminal Portland punks’ 1980 LP Is this Real? . As future In Utero producer Steve Albini wrote in Forced Exposure in 1987, “The Wipers’ music is so simple, but so cool, it makes you wonder why anybody thinks doing stuff with tricks is a valid approach at all.” JOE GROSS

Montage of Heck
85

“Montage of Heck”

This half-hour collage is unquestionably the most avant-garde moment to emerge from a band that ended their major label debut with five minutes of squealing feedback. The 1988 track emerged from the same era of “culture-jamming” copyright criminality like Negativland. Cobain went ballistic on his 4-track, mixing scratchy records, Nirvana demos and screams. The mucky tangle connects dots between John Cage’s tape-splice symphony “Williams Mix” to the Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9” to Public Enemy’s sample slaughter It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (one of Cobain’s favorite records, and – if bootleggers can be trusted – released the same month that “Montage of Heck” was recorded). Jarring, unsettling, and darkly nostalgic, it’s pure distillation of the obsessions that would follow Cobain for a career: Childhood (crackly kids records), meta-commentary on music (the repeating word “disco”), KISS (the opening of Alive), homophobia (Archie Bunker) and the human body (puerile toilet noises). CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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84

“Beans”

“He thought it was stupid,” Cobain told Michael Azerrad, explaining why this 93-second quirk-pop gem didn’t end up on Bleach. “[Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman] thought we were retarded.” As far removed from the sewer-scraping sludge of “Blew” as possible, this goofy little song (“Beans, beans, beans / Japhy ate some beans”) was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s beat novel The Dharma Bums and the childlike simplicity of the Vaselines. Cobain, hoping to show off his more avant-garde tendencies, got giddy with the pitch shifter. His chipmunk chirp here look back to voice-altered weirdos like the Residents and Butthole Surfers; and looks forward to voice-altered weirdos like Ween. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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83

“Old Age”

“Old Age” made its first public appearance in 1993 as the B-side to Hole’s “Beautiful Son” single and re-appeared on the “Violet” single two years later – credited to Courtney Love as its sole author. But the song was persistently rumored to have Cobain’s hand in it somewhere. “That’s a Nirvana song. Kurt wrote that song,” Novoselic told The Stranger in 1998, and indeed, With the Lights Out included Nirvana’s Nevermind-era recording of the song (albeit with almost entirely different words). Still, their version is half-formed – it’s the only known original song from that era that the band never played live, and Kurt seemed uncertain of the lyrics he was mumbling. DOUGLAS WOLK

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82

“Beeswax”

Last year, Krist Novoselic discussed the thrill that Kurt Cobain got from collages of seeming non-sequiturs, particularly in visual art. “He would just laugh. He knew he’d made something cool, and he’d be happy about it,” Novoselic said. “He would think he was a blowhard if he explained stuff.” Such enthusiasm and attitude apply to “Beeswax,” one of the 10 cuts Nirvana recorded in January 1988, during their first session with Jack Endino. Like a song-length extension of Sonic Youth’s “confusion is sex” credo, the demented “Beeswax” explores daddy issues and vasectomies, masturbation and pubic hair, ovulation and anal sex, Cher’s breasts and expensive prostitution. This string of images runs the risk of turning into a string of 20-year-old nonsense, but Melvins drummer Dale Crover powers it into a philippic. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN

Seasons In The Sun
81

“Seasons in the Sun”

“I cried to ‘Seasons in the Sun,'” wrote Kurt in his diary, recalling how the maudlin, chart-topping 1974 hit for Terry Jacks (itself a reworking of Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribund”) was the first record he’d ever bought. But while he no doubt felt an affinity for the song, the impromptu cover of it that he and his bandmates recorded during their January 1993 demo session in Brazil hides its existential pain behind a veneer of alt-rock indifference. By switching instruments (Cobain takes over the drums, Grohl grabs the bass, and Novoselic straps on the guitar) the band all but guaranteed that the results would be amateurish – which, in the early 90s, was the socially acceptable way to serve up ’70s cheese. DANIEL EPSTEIN