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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.)

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30

“Aneurysm”

Dare to attempt a somewhat literal reading of this “Teen Spirit” B-side and the song appears to be about injecting heroin. Dare to take Kurt’s own account of it (as told to roommate Dylan Carlson) and the song is about his vomit-inducing love for Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail. The reality might wind up somewhere between the two: Per Charles R. Cross’s Heavier Than Heaven, Cobain wrote the song in the months following his break-up with Vail – also around the same time that he began experimenting with the new drug. NICK MURRAY

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29

“Polly”/”(New Wave) Polly”

One of Nirvana’s first forays into the more sinister side of social commentary, “Polly” was based on a real-life case in which serial rapist Gerald Friend tortured and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl, who then outsmarted and escaped him by convincing him that she enjoyed it. Written from the eerie perspective of the disturbed perpetrator, both versions convey the song’s ominous nature – whether soft and sludgy on Nevermind or, in “(New Wave) Polly,” frenetic and unforgiving. Though “Polly” is disturbing, it reflects Cobain’s dual fascination with the macabre and extremely sensitive nature, as well as his interest in feminism under the tutelage of his ex-girlfriend, Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail. Though it’s certainly not a protest song, it deftly delves into the mind of a sicko, like a succinct Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and is an example of the thoughtful depths Cobain was willing to plumb. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

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28

“On a Plain”

For a band defined by angst and immortalized by suicide, Nirvana could be uncommonly funny. “Start this off without any words,” Cobain offers by way of an opening here, landing on one of his best refrains: “Love myself better than you/I know it’s wrong, but what can I do?” The riff is chipper, the melody delivered in the singsong of a nursery rhyme. In a lot of ways it parodies the person Cobain became: A junkie too lost in his own pain to realize he has control over it, the voice of a generation wondering what the hell he’s trying to say. Apparently he wrote the lyrics five minutes before recording them. MIKE POWELL

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27

“Molly’s Lips”

The first of Nirvana’s three recorded Vaselines covers initially surfaced in a dodgy live recording on a split single with the Fluid, as part of the deal by which Nirvana were bought out of their Sub Pop contract. As with many of his versions of other people’s songs, Kurt changed the lyrics a little: “She’ll take me everywhere/She’ll take me anywhere/As long as I’m good and clean” became the druggier “She’d take me anywhere/She’d take me anywhere/As long as I stay clean,” for instance.) The title’s not a drug reference, though: The two-chord song is apparently about actress Molly Weir, and MDMA wasn’t known as “molly” until long after it was written. DOUGLAS WOLK

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26

“Lake of Fire”

In a 2013 interview, MTV Unplugged producer Alex Coletti remembers Cobain purposely wanting to perform the Meat Puppets covers in keys slightly out of his range, so his voice would sound strained. See “Lake of Fire,” a surrealistic fantasy about the afterlife whose images are pinched straight from the Book of Revelation, where the pinch in Cobain’s voice makes him sound less like an ambassador of youth than some wizened pappy staring into middle-distance from his rocking chair. An especially canny choice when placed before “All Apologies” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” two songs that made the band sound in touch with evils much older and more mysterious than corporate rock. MIKE POWELL

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25

“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”

Full of jabs at Vanity Fair writer Lynn Hirschberg, who wrote a negative story about Courtney Love, this In Utero rager also paid tribute to Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer, who was committed to an insane asylum against her will. “I guess that’s my way of letting the world know that bureaucracy is everywhere and it can happen to anybody and it’s a really evil thing,” Cobain said. “The story of Frances Farmer is so sad and it can happen to anybody and it almost felt at a time that it was happening to us.” But before Cobain had lyrics for it, it was an instrumental the trio jammed on in Dave Grohl’s basement sometime before In Utero. “When I heard ‘Frances Farmer,’ I thought, ‘Oh, my God, there’s going to be another record,'” Grohl has said. Full of anger and pathos (“I miss the comfort in being sad,” goes the chorus), the final song is one of In Utero‘s most primal – right down to the toy piano Cobain played in the bridge. KORY GROW

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24

“Scentless Apprentice”

“It was such a cliché grunge Tad riff that I was reluctant to even jam on it,” Cobain told Michael Azerrad about the guitar part that drummer Dave Grohl had brought to the band. “But I just decided to write a song with that just to make him feel better, to tell you the truth, and it turned out really cool.” Easily the most rhythm-driven song in Nirvana’s catalog – and handily besting Alice in Chains’ “No Excuses” as having the best “grunge breakbeat” – this prickly, pummeling song is In Utero‘s best place to experience Nirvana as the sum of its parts. (To wit: It’s the only song on the album where all three members have a songwriting credit.) Of course, beyond Grohl’s fleet-footed bass drum pattern and Novoselic’s menacing low-end, Cobain lyrics are some of his most evocative. Inspired by one of his favorite novels, Peter Süskind’s 1985’s violent tale of a super-smeller, Perfume, Cobain pointed out that “Scentless,” like “Frances Farmer,” is a song where he sticks to a theme as opposed to constructing “cut-ups” of poems in his beatpunk style. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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23

“Been a Son”

A two-minute verse-chorus-verse-chorus concoction influenced by the Vaselines’ compact pop-punk template, “Been a Son” first roared to life on 1989’s Blew EP with Chad Channing on drums, appeared later in a Dave Grohl-assisted live performance on the CD single of “Lithium,” and most famously emerged on Incesticide via a BBC session – one of the rare Nirvana songs to be officially released in three different versions during the band’s lifetime. The song (later covered by the Manic Street Preachers) was clearly a favorite of Cobain’s, possibly inspired by his difficult relationship with his father, who would have preferred him to engage in more “manly” pursuits like sports and hunting rather than art or music. DANIEL EPSTEIN

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22

“Blew”

The very first sound we hear on the very first Nirvana studio album – Krist Novoselic’s rumbling seven-note bass figure in “Blew” – is so low-toned as to be almost indecipherable. The reason? Nirvana, like many of their Seattle peers, favored “drop-D” tuning, which involves lowering the bottom E string on a guitar or bass one whole tone. But when Kurt and Krist dropped their lowest strings during the recording of Bleach, they didn’t realize their respective instruments were already tuned down a full step. The consequence was that they went “one lower,” to a positively leaden “drop-C.” Which, in the case of “Blew,” essentially plunged Kurt’s languid vocals and loping melodies into a tar pit. Novoselic later described the resultant sound as “doom pop,” and pointed to Bleach‘s leadoff track as the only C-tuned track to actually make it to the album without being recut. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also called “Blew” his favorite song on the record. “It has a groove,” he explained in Seattle Weekly, “and it’s the sole survivor of the Doom Pop experiment.” Luckily, contemporary bands like Torche seem to have continued his research. RICHARD BIENSTOCK

You Know You're Right
21

“You Know You’re Right”

“This is a song that Kurt wrote… last, last song almost,” Courtney Love said on a 1995 MTV Unplugged before launching into loose-limbed acoustic howl labeled “You’ve Got No Right.” Well, yes and no: Hers had different lyrics, aimed at Kurt’s mother. The real thing floated around on live boots, but the savage studio version – tracked at Nirvana’s final studio session January 30th, 1994, but not heard until 2002 – bombed us back to the alt age. Love sued the surviving Nirvanas over it – she thought it wasted on the “With the Lights Out” box, so they agreed to stick it on a hits collection as well. The whole thing seemed gross at first: How good could the song be? But everyone understood what the big deal was as soon as the unmastered leak started flying around servers. It was all guitar lava, enormous drums and that flinchingly violent chorus “I have never failed to feel pain!” In April 1994, he wasn’t close to done with us; not even a little. JOE GROSS

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20

“Dumb”

“I’ve met a lot of dumb people,” Cobain told Melody Maker in 1993. “They have a shitty job, they may be totally lonely, they don’t have a girlfriend, they don’t have much of a social life, and yet, for some reason, they’re happy.” Coming from a guy who seemed to have everything and yet wasn’t happy himself, you can understand his fascination. Though not officially recorded until In Utero, “Dumb” was performed as early as 1990 – evidence that Cobain was ruminative long before it seemed like he had much to ruminate on. MIKE POWELL

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19

“Territorial Pissings”

To achieve the otherworldly, jangle-crunch for the guitars on Nevermind‘s punkiest track, “Territorial Pissings,” Cobain defied producer Butch Vig’s protests and plugged his instrument right into the mixing desk. He recorded the song in one take. The guitar crackle sets the prickly tone for Cobain’s lyrics about paranoia and a hardly poetic jab at patriarchy (“Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman”). It also contrasts the peachy-keen opening verses that Krist Novoselic swiped from the hippie-dippie Youngbloods tune “Get Together.” “It wasn’t really that thought into,” Novoselic said of his contribution. “I like that Youngbloods song.” But even though the song’s riff sounds particularly mean, not everything about it was so angsty. Regarding the first verse, “When I was an alien,” Cobain has said that, growing up, “I wanted to be from another planet really bad.” KORY GROW

Love Buzz
18

“Love Buzz”

Krist Novoselic, who always had a penchant for psychedelia, brought this 1969 album cut by the Dutch band the Shocking Blue (best known for “Venus”) to the band’s repertoire. Nirvana’s version – which ditches one of the song’s two verses – was a staple of their early live shows, in which Kurt took advantage of its long instrumental break to execute some acrobatics in what Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are calls “a pair of outrageous silver-sparkle platform shoes.” Even though “Love Buzz” was a cover, Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt thought it was “an indicator of some of their direction in songwriting”; in 1988, it became the A-side of Nirvana’s first single and the first volume of Sub Pop’s original singles club, released in an edition of 1,000 hand-numbered copies – if you want a copy today, you better have $2,500. DOUGLAS WOLK

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17

“Come As You Are”

Though the line “I swear that I don’t have a gun” is still held up as a moment of haunting prescience, it takes away from the initial intent of Nevermind‘s second single, a foreboding moment of artistry that summed up Nineties social anxiety maybe even better than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – said Cobain, the lyrics are about “people and what they’re expected to act like.” It also puts the group’s old punk leanings on display, with a Killing Joke-esque riff and Banshees-style guitar tone, transforming disaffected anomie into an unlikely pop hit. In essence, it dismissed everyone as insipid and contradictory, something we could all relate to. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

School
16

“School”

Kurt’s feelings about phonies, jerks, and other unsavory types were well-known to even the most cursory Nirvana admirer, and this blitzkrieg Bleach track – which ends with him moaning “you’re in high school again” over and over, as if he’s recounting a lived nightmare – was a caustic reminder that even life in the seeming paradise of independent rock wasn’t completely free of cliquishness and bullshit. The song was very nearly called “The Seattle Scene,” and Cobain was blunt about its origins to Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad: “We wrote it about Sub Pop. If we could have thrown in Soundgarden’s name, we would have.” MAURA JOHNSTON

Negative Creep
15

“Negative Creep”

“Negative Creep” is one of Cobain’s earliest, clearest statements of alienated purpose. “I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned,” he sings. “The early songs were really angry,” he said later. Indeed, here his vocal is a howl, his sense of abjection and self-hate all-encompassing. The song was unique in early Nirvana songs in that it contained a studio fade-out, rather than just ending when the band stopped playing. A highlight of Bleach, it’s also the album’s best example of textbook grunge – right down to its reference to the Mudhoney song “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More.” JON DOLAN

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14

“Serve the Servants”

The dissonant blast that opened In Utero’s first seconds answered anyone who wondered if Nirvana was going to soften up after conquering the world. The rest of the song is Kurt Cobain spitting in the face of his “self-appointed judges.” “That’s obviously the state I feel right now… not really, but I may as well make some sarcastic comment on the phenomenon of Nirvana,” Cobain told writer Michael Azerrad. In liner notes he wrote (and then crossed out) for “Serve the Servants,” he noted that the lyrics were directed toward his father: “I don’t hate him. I simply don’t have anything to say to him.” DOUGLAS WOLK

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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

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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

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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

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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