No Apologies: All 102 Nirvana Songs Ranked – Rolling Stone
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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.)

Mr. Moustache

“Mr. Moustache”

A mustache might be a cool facial accessory in this day and age – but in 1988, when Nirvana recorded this hard-pounding track for Bleach, a moustache was considered (at least in the alt-rock crowd) to be an emblem of hopelessly regressive masculinity. But macho rednecks aren’t the only ones on blast here: Lines like “Help me trust your mighty wisdom / Yes I eat cow I am not proud” sarcastically dig at the hipper-than-thou Olympia scene that, while immensely attractive and inspiring to Kurt, also often made him feel like a hick from the sticks. DANIEL EPSTEIN

Swap Meet

“Swap Meet”

This Bleach track is one of the most tempestuous and restless in Nirvana’s catalogue. The guitar playing is as anxious as sweaty hands, and Chad Channing’s drums race ahead of the action like he’s late for a meeting. The feeling fits the content, in which Cobain sets the scene of two hometown losers too busy exchanging “arts and crafts” to shut up and have sex already. Cobain wasn’t known as a storyteller, but he was known as a Seattle thrift-store fiend (see his guitars and amplifiers) years before Macklemore. This caustic snapshot of life back home, then, works like a snapshot jotted down from one such swap meet, the outsider judging the insiders from the periphery. As Nirvana’s reputation grew, this small-town send-up seemed to fall out of favor, with the band playing it less than almost any song released on an official studio album. Too bad: It’s a musical fistfight. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN



“Out of all the bands who came from the underground and actually made it in the mainstream, Devo is the most subversive and challenging of all,” Kurt said in 1992. “They’re just awesome. I love them.” Originally the B-side of the Akron new wave band’s biggest hit, “Whip It” (as “Turn Around”), this headlong sneer was recorded for Nirvana’s 1990 Peel session, and reappeared as the opening track of their Hormoaning tour EP. Dave Grohl was clearly having a blast channeling Devo drummer Alan Myers’ “human metronome” technique, and Kurt gets to affect a clipped accent that’s not too far off from what Carrie Brownstein would later adopt as her singing voice in Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag. DOUGLAS WOLK



“Plateau” was the first of three songs Nirvana covered from the Meat Puppets’ 1984 punk-country totem Meat Puppets II at their MTV Unplugged date – a major boost to a band that spent the entirety of career underground. “MTV didn’t really want it to happen, as I recall,” bassist Cris Kirkwood told Willamette Week “They were somewhat disappointed we were the guests they chose to take on TV with them.” But Nirvana was just returning a favor: “I owe so much to them,” Cobain once said – a quote that ended up on a sticker tacked to the Puppets’ 1994 breakthrough Too High to Die. Like a lot of II, “Plateau” is mystical but banal and ultimately a little vague – the kind of wisdom proffered by guys on porches at rural gas stations. Still, you can imagine how Cobain – who once wrote the line “All in all is all we all are” – would hear in a rambling, philosophical credo that ends in, “But those are all just guesses / Wouldn’t help you if they could”: The freedom of shrugging your shoulders and letting go. MIKE POWELL



“I didn’t give a flying fuck what the lyrics were about,” Cobain told SPIN in 1993. If “Scoff” sounds like an afterthought next to Bleach‘s more iconic tracks, that’s because it was. In the oft-told “Kurt wrote 80 percent of Bleach‘s lyrics the night before recording” legend, “Scoff” and “Sifting” came dead last, when Cobain was already exhausted. The result was competent but unremarkable grunge-by-numbers: churning riff-rock; a listless fuck-you-parents verse repeated three times verbatim; and a frantic, non-sequitur chorus. Though “Scoff” does mark one of the rare early spots that showcased Kurt’s love of chart-topping pop, though: The drum intro is nearly a direct lift of the Knack’s “My Sharona,” an homage that made more sense when Kurt’s Top 50 albums list appeared in 2002’s Journals: Get the Knack sat comfortably alongside Sonic Youth, Scratch Acid, and Bad Brains. TOM MALLON


“Son of a Gun”

Kurt was famously obsessed with the little-known, short-lived, sex-crazed Glasgow duo the Vaselines. He called Eugene Kelly and Francis McKee “the Lennon and McCartney or the Boyce and Hart or the Ferrante and Teicher of the underworld.” They became so inseparable from Kurt’s fandom that when the Vaselines reunited in 2010, McKee started timing how long it took for interviewers to mention “the N-word.” For the most rocking of the three Vaselines covers they tackled in their career, Nirvana recorded “Son of a Gun,” the opening track from the first Vaselines EP – one verse, one chorus, repeat ad lib. In a letter he wrote to Kelly, Kurt explained that he wanted to release it on a record called Nirvana Sings The Vaselines, Wipers, Devo & Nirvana, which seems to have become 1992’s Hormoaning EP. DOUGLAS WOLK


“Very Ape”

Originally titled “Perky New Wave Number,” Kurt Cobain said he didn’t know what this punky, swinging In Utero hard rocker was about, but here are some clues. “It’s kind of an attack on men in a way and people that have flaws in their personality and they’re real manly and macho,” he said. The lyric, “If you ever need anything please don’t hesitate to ask someone else first,” might be the pinnacle of Nirvana’s alt-rock slackerism. And, according to Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are, the bit about being the self-proclaimed “King of Illiterature” referred to how Courtney Love teased him about not being very well read. KORY GROW


“Oh, the Guilt”

Jesus Lizard singer David Yow recalled to the Village Voice in 2011 that he and Cobain discussing doing a single “first time I saw ’em, first time I met ’em,” at a 1990 Jesus Lizard/Nirvana show at New Jersey’s Maxwell’s. “I was just so impressed because I wasn’t that familiar with Nirvana and I knew it was Seattle and grunge and I don’t like Soundgarden, and I didn’t care much for Mudhoney… But I thought [Nirvana] were fuckin’ great.” While his band donated the careening “Puss” to the split single – which finally arrived three years later – Nirvana returned the volley with a mid-fi blast, emerging in the gulf between Nevermind and In Utero. In contrast to the slick sound on Nevermind, “Oh, the Guilt,” almost D.C.-punkish in its stop-start thud, was recorded in a Seattle basement studio by Barrett Jones. JOE GROSS


“I Hate Myself and Want to Die”

“We could write that song in our sleep,” Kurt Cobain once said of “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” Even if it were a throwaway, it looms large in Nirvana mythology mostly by virtue of its ill-omened title, Cobain’s original name for In Utero. Eventually surfacing on The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience comp (huh-huh), the band buried the lurching piece of infectious sludge-pop because they (rightly) feared that no one would get its black humor. “[It was] nothing more than a joke,” Cobain told Rolling Stone in late 1993. “We knew people wouldn’t get it; they’d take it too seriously. It was totally satirical, making fun of ourselves.” Even in hindsight, “I Hate Myself” doesn’t exactly sound confessional – the demo version on With the Lights Out shows how little the lyrics evolved from melodic grunts to a goofy sketch that Cobain could barely bother to finish with “one more quirky clichéd phrase” (and a nearly inaudible monologue from Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts”). One fan who definitely missed the joke was Noel Gallagher, who claimed that countering the “fucking rubbish” nihilism of the song was one of his motivations to write Oasis’s “Live Forever.” TOM MALLON


“Milk It”

“Well, let’s see, in 1993 I was listening to a lot of the Jesus Lizard,” Dave Grohl told NPR – noting the Austin band whose Steve Albini-produced albums (Head, Liar, Goat and Down) constituted some of the most cathartically feel-bad music of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Nowhere was Nirvana’s affection more evident than on “Milk It,” four minutes of neg-head rhythm riffs and screaming over what sounds like someone throwing a bag of rocks at a barn door. Cobain’s gift was always his ability to smuggle pretty melodies into otherwise ugly situations; while Jesus Lizard scaled back on melody in order to expose the bare power of rhythm: Here is one of the rare Nirvana moments when the ugliness wins. “Completely wicked,” Krist Novoselic called the song late last year – and the song that best embodies the toxic meanness of In Utero. MIKE POWELL



A draft of the lyrics for “Tourette’s” contained just three words: “fuck,” “shit” and “piss.” Cobain’s singing voice, like vocal cords in a blender, yowls in a way that approximates similar frustration. When Cobain looked back on the song, he said, “I didn’t make any sentences or words, I just screamed.” But for all its unfocused acrimony, the song does have one coherent piece of commentary: The clearly spoken words “moderate rock” are a jab at the “modern rock” radio format that had made Nirvana megastars just a few years earlier, nipping at the hand that feeds. KORY GROW


“Lounge Act”

“Drain You” was the literal birth of a relationship and “Lounge Act” its slow erosion and breakup (by “Stay Away,” the restraining orders were being busted out). While the meaning behind Cobain’s songs were often opaque, it was no secret that “Lounge Act” – with its themes of jealously, insecurity, and overbearingness – was about Kurt’s ex-girlfriend, Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail. According to producer Butch Vig, “Lounge Act” earned its title because it sounds like a “lounge song” thanks to its jocular riffs and Cobain’s more-polished-than-usual delivery – but early lyrics for the song in Cobain’s Journals also featured a line about “lounging in the sea.” DANIEL KREPS


“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”

“‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ started life as ‘Nine Month Media Blackout,'” wrote Charles R. Cross in the Nirvana bio Heavier Than Heaven,” the title a joking response to journalist Lynn Hirschberg’s magazine-unit-shifting article in Vanity Fair about the Cobain clan. The song’s final name, it is ironic: Radio Friendly Unit Shifter is about as close as Nirvana got to the corrosive noise-rock of Big Black, In Utero producer Steve Albini’s brilliant mid-Eighties trio; and Killdozer, the Butch Vig-produced band whose heft Cobain wanted Nevermind to match. JOE GROSS


“Even in His Youth”

First recorded with producer Steve Fisk during the 1989 sessions for the Blew EP, “Even in His Youth” (and later re-recorded with Dave Grohl on drums for a “Teen Spirit” B-side) was one of a handful of songs that served as a bridge between the unrefined sludge-punk of the previous year’s Bleach and the brighter, more pop-tinged sound that would come to the fore on Nevermind. Lyrics like “Daddy was ashamed” reference Cobain’s adversarial relationship with his father, though the bile-filled words are contrasted by a buoyant buzzsaw riff. RICHARD BIENSTOCK


“The Man Who Sold the World”

“I was simply blown away when I found out that Kurt Cobain liked my work,” said David Bowie, “it would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking would have been real cool.” Though some thanks should be due to early Nirvana drummer Chad Channing, who introduced his bandmates to David Bowie’s 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World, and to guitarist Pat Smear whose enthusiasm for that album resulted in Nirvana doing an accordion-fueled cover on MTV Unplugged. DOUGLAS WOLK



“Stain” gives “Negative Creep” a run for its money in the self-loathing department, even if it’s not quite up to the same level of musicality. Lines like “He never leaves ’cause he’s got bad luck” and the insistently self-flagellating chorus reflect Kurt’s perpetual “outsider” state of mind, one that derived in part from being harassed by rednecks in his hometown of Aberdeen, while also never feeling quite cool enough to fit in with the Olympia crowd. DANIEL EPSTEIN


“Floyd the Barber”

The young Cobain’s idea of a joke shows that he definitely chose the right path by picking music instead of a comedy. “Floyd the Barber” is a sub-Beavis & Butt-head bit of couch-jockey surrealism, in which he imagines a sexually violent spoof of beloved TV classic The Andy Griffith Show. The Melvins’ Dale Crover played drums here, during their first recording session in January, 1988. “There was no way that I could predict those guys would have sold millions of records,” Crover said later. That’s certainly true here: The thudding, punishing “Floyd the Barber” is about as unfriendly as Nirvana got. JON DOLAN


“The Money Will Roll Right In”

The funny, slow-paced, apolitical Fang weren’t like the other Bay Area punks in 1982; and Nirvana weren’t like the other major label rock bands on the festival circuit in 1992. Feeling alienated by their new life of hopping from giant outdoor stage to outdoor stage on a European tour, the band snarkily added Fang’s venomous, sludgepunk eyeroll “The Money Will Roll Right In” as the opener of their set as they careened through Sweden and Spain. The money had actually rolled in for Cobain, the Nineties’ most accomplished “rich as shit” fame anthropologist, thus making their cover more pointed and hysterical than, say, Soundarden’s cover of Cheech and Chong’s similar “Earache My Eye.” According to James Washburn, the Green Day pal known as Brain Stew, Courtney Love sent all of Cobain’s Fang records to frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN