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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
13

“All Apologies”

Steve Albini’s recording technique did wonders for the breadth of Nirvana as a band, cutting through the fuzz and guiding each element out onto its own mournful path. “All Apologies” is one of the best examples of the style, on which the rich, isolated sound of the guitar phrase conveys Cobain’s existential despair even more effectively than his voice. Factor in a resignedly weepy string section and some strategically placed vocal distortion – on the high, scratchy notes he sings at the beginning of every second bar on the verse, and it becomes an artifact of dread, even though he intended a warmer mood – “peaceful, happy, comfort,” as he summed up to Michael Azerrad – for wife Courtney Love and daughter Francis Bean. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

Nirvana
12

“Heart Shaped Box”

There was no shortage of dark songs in the Nirvana repertoire, even among the singles, but this late-stage entry was one of the heaviest, Cobain’s vocal tone reflecting his increasing weariness of the rock-star predicament he found himself in. On one hand, the imagery was classic Nineties. “Meat-eating orchids” and return-to-womb wishes, along with spiritual sister song “Doll Parts” by Hole, recall the interior decór of that decade’s punk apartments. But the gravity and drama in the guitars were very specific to this band, a roiling drama that reflected the Nirvana’s tenor at the time. Whether about Love or drugs, it’s not a happy song. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

Pennyroyal Tea
11

“Pennyroyal Tea”

This haunting, surreal song named after an herbal abortifacient (“it doesn’t work, you hippie,” Cobain wrote of it in his journal) came about by accident: “[Dave] and Kurt were getting crazy some night down in that apartment with a multi-track cassette recorder, and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ came out of that,” Novoselic told NPR while reminiscing about the band’s past. The song was slated to be the third single from In Utero, but its release was canceled after Cobain committed suicide in April 1994. Plans for a video were scrapped as well, though Cobain’s stunning solo version from MTV Unplugged – just him and a guitar, his voice cracking on the chorus – ensured that the track got television airplay for quite a while nonetheless. MAURA JOHNSTON

Where Did You Sleep Last Night
10

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night”

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” b/k/a “In The Pines” is a century-old tune known by several names and played in seemingly infinite variations, but loosely concerning a mix of trains, murder, adultery, runaways and low-down depression. The tune had successfully passed beyond the oral tradition, becoming a staple for both bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe and blues great Lead Belly before its alternative life as a cello-abetted, shouted parting shot for a generation’s rock & roll icon. Kurt and Krist helped play it on Mark Lanegan’s 1990 solo album The Winding Sheet with a deliberate intensity that paralleled the doom of contemporaries such as Neurosis. But Nirvana’s definitive version was on MTV Unplugged, where the song builds from sentimental brood to implacable rage, aptly summarizing Nirvana’s own arc. A perfect if tragic endpoint. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN

nirvana
9

“Drain You”

Kurt suggested that “Drain You” was about “two brat kids who are in the same hospital bed.” It’s a song full of medical references, and in some ways the most doctored-sounding thing on Nevermind: According to producer Butch Vig, it’s got more guitar tracks than any other song on the record. And after the second verse, in the place you’d expect a guitar solo, Cobain overdubbed a wide selection of noisemakers – squeaky toys and an aerosol can, among others. “It became an abstract part for 17 bars,” Vig noted. “We just left them all in on the mix.” It’s a section that Dave Grohl has called “the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of Nevermind.” DOUGLAS WOLK

Nirvana
8

“About a Girl”

“Even to put ‘About a Girl’ on Bleach was a risk.” Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1994. “I was heavily into pop, I really liked R.E.M., and I was into all kinds of old Sixties stuff. But there was a lot of pressure within that social scene, the underground – like the kind of thing you get in high school. And to put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky.” Cobain’s legend status makes it easy to forget how young the man taking these risks was – just 21 during the recording of Bleach. And this song, with all its voice cracks and ginger pop chords, belies his inexperience, particularly in the woman-realm —he’s a mischievous paramour trying to get over, but his good intentions come through in the chords. Clearly he eventually got off the couch belonging to the girl in question, Tracy Marander, but deep beneath his sly pleas, you can tell he himself was unsure that he ever would. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

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7

“Lithium”

At its heart, “Lithium” is a curled-lip condemnation of blind faith and the born-again Christians Cobain knew in his youth. According to biographer Everett True, Cobain said the character in the song “decided to find God before he kills himself.” The frontman went on to say, “It’s hard for me to understand the need for a vice like that, but I can appreciate it, too. People need vices.” With its soft and loud sections, the song exemplifies the bipolar pop that made Nevermind great. It’s unruly and unwieldy, and wasn’t easy to record: When Cobain couldn’t get his guitar to sound right in the studio, he threw it during a temper tantrum and began screaming. The cacophony became bonus track “Endless, Nameless.” KORY GROW