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.)
That this paean to the type of mindless fan who “knows not what it means” appeared on the album that would eventually catapult Nirvana into the white-hot center of alternative rock is an almost too-delicious irony – especially since, as Novoselic told Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke in 2001, “it sounded like a Bad Brains song” in its earliest incarnations. But Cobain’s workshopping of the track led to its triumphant summing up of what made Nirvana so captivating – morose and surrealistic lyrics married to power chords and gleefully turned-out harmonies. MAURA JOHNSTON
Almost immediately, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” changed the firmament of American culture like no song since Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Legend points to how it was nothing like the wheedle of Warrant or the macro-pop of Michael Jackson, but its sloppy, intensely human contortions were just as far removed from R.E.M. and U2. Dave Grohl’s drums were nuclear and refused to keep a steady tempo, Krist Novoselic’s bass was a zombie plod that would have felt cozy on a Flipper record, Kurt Cobain’s lyrics were incomprehensible and his guitar solo almost mocked the song it was attached to with a strangled simplicity. Whatever you interpreted punk’s promises to be (at that point, 27 years since the Velvet Underground), they were all realized. Art could be unpolished, violence and noise could be pop, weirdos could be heroes, the filthy lucre will roll right in.
Most of its impact can be tracked to passion and drive, but there were no shortage of happy accidents. The song inadvertently tweaked the name of a popular deodorant heavily marketed to teenagers — when Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna spraypainted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall he thought it was an uplifting phrase, not a snarky reference to his girlfriend’s antiperspirant. In addition, Cobain told Rolling Stone that a song, later deemed the anthem of a generation, had far more humble beginnings: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.” Regardless of its origin, it’s staggering to consider the list of icons that may not have reached critical mass without Cobain’s desiccated blasts of feedback blowing open the doors for alternative culture: Beck, Kevin Smith, Green Day, Quentin Tarantino, Radiohead, Mr. Show, Korn, Jon Stewart, Freaks and Geeks, Chris Ware, Patton Oswalt, Arcade Fire, Lena Dunham, Skrillex, and even Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN