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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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75

“White Lace and Strange”

Captured on tape in April 1987 during their first-ever live radio session, the very young band performed a blistering cover of this heavy rocker by super-obscure late-Sixties power trio Thunder and Roses. Only months after Cobain and Novoselic formed the band with original drummer Aaron Burckhard, Nirvana's far-reaching musical taste and scorching attack were already twin hallmarks. Raw though it may be, Cobain's guitar solo might also be the shreddingest thing he ever recorded. DANIEL EPSTEIN

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74

“Ain’t It a Shame” (The Jury)

Kurt discovering Lead Belly through the work of William S. Burroughs ("I remember him saying in an interview, 'These new rock & roll kids should just throw away their guitars and listen to something with real soul like Lead Belly'") and a copy of the singer's final sessions borrowed from neighbor Slim Moon (who would found the Kill Rock Stars label). In turn, he played his music out nearly as much as he mentioned him in interviews. Where producer Jack Endino called this cut from the Nirvana/Screaming Trees four-song double-date session of Lead Belly covers a "throwaway," Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman remembered it as "one of Kurt's greatest vocal performances." NICK MURRAY

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73

“Do You Love Me?”

For Kiss, "Do You Love Me?" was a fairly immodest not-excatly-humble-brag in which Paul Stanley enumerates the accouterments of rock stardom to his sex partner: limos, fancy clothes, backstage passes and, at least for Kiss, seven-inch heels. It's macho, sanguine, ostentatious and a whole heap of other adjectives that never applied to Nirvana. So it's no surprise that Kurt Cobain and his bandmates sound insincere when they asked the song's titular question in the chorus. The boasts were especially unbelievable coming from Cobain because it was recorded in 1989 (one of only two songs recorded with guitarist Jason Everman), months before their debut LP was released: well before "the concerts and studios, and all the money, honey." KORY GROW

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72

“Moist Vagina”

For a somewhat shapeless B-side, "Moist Vagina" has enjoyed a remarkable afterlife. After hearing an early version, Thurston Moore reportedly urged Nirvana to let it lead In Utero, rather than tacking it onto the "All Apologies" single. The band didn't comply, but years later, Sonic Youth recorded and released "Moist Vagina" for a B-side of their own, with Kim Gordon whispering and then roaring the lyrics. Guitarist John Frusciante covered it, too, delivering his best frontman mimesis. Title aside, the song's calling card comes in its one-word refrain, where Cobain – who starts the track only after coughing, as though recovering from a particularly fierce puff – simply howls "Marijuana!" on repeat. He stole so much pot from his mom as a kid that they once smoked oregano together. Years later, Yelawolf borrowed that scream for a toke-happy song of his own on his Interscope debut: "Marijuana / Makes you happy / Feelin stupid / Girls get horny," raps the Alabama redneck, closing a strange circle with Aberdeen's own white-trash hero. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN

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71

“Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip”

One of the weirder things Nirvana ever cut, "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip" is an odd mixture of Pavement-style archness and inebriated rage. A seven-and-a-half minute improvisation recorded during a January 1993 demo session in Brazil, "Gallons" was included as a bonus on some non-U.S. CD versions of In Utero, where it was labeled on the CD's back cover as "Devalued American Dollar Purchase Incentive Track." Repeated references to G.I.T. (the Hollywood-based Guitar Institute of Technology) would seem to indicate that the "Strip" in question is the one on L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard, whose spandexed and poodle-haired denizens had just been handed their walking papers by the success of a certain Seattle band. DANIEL EPSTEIN

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70

“Talk to Me”

Courtney Love has said that the jerky rhythm at the heart of this Cobain tune is a testament to Kurt's love of new wavers like Devo and Oingo Boingo – and is there also a hint of the Rolling Stones' "Get Off of My Cloud" in the recurring drum fill? But while Nirvana occasionally pulled out "Talk to Me" on stage in 1991 and 1992, they never bothered to bring it into the studio. Which is not to say that the song wasn't tagged for potential recording – just that it wasn't necessarily considered by Nirvana. Love and her band Hole tackled it at Hanzek Audio in August, 1993, during early Live Through This sessions, but the track ultimately was left unfinished. It was later offered to Iggy Pop, who replied with a polite thanks, but no thanks. "I do my own music, and I like Kurt's music," he explained to The Big Takeover in 2002. "But I have no interest in doing Kurt's music." RICHARD BIENSTOCK

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69

“Pen Cap Chew”

Nirvana's first ever studio session – January 23, 1988 – was a particularly productive one: Ten songs, recorded and mixed in just over five hours. Known as the "Dale Demo" due to the participation of Melvins drummer Dale Crover, two from this batch found their way onto the original pressing of Bleach, while another five eventually wound up on Incesticide. One of the few that fell by the wayside was the hammering "Pen Cap Chew" – though not necessarily because it wasn't up to snuff. Rather, it had the unfortunate luck of being the last song tracked during the session. Recalled producer Jack Endino, "It was incomplete; the master tape ran out halfway through it and the band didn't want to buy another reel." As a result, the producer had to find his own way to wrap things up, ultimately choosing to add "a fade ending that I did just for their amusement." RICHARD BIENSTOCK

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68

“Do Re Mi”

The last known composition by Kurt Cobain – also known as "Dough, Ray and Me" – was first mentioned in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview with Courtney Love, although it didn’t surface for another decade. Love's commentary on the song is cryptic, but it may explain the line that sounds like "if I may, cold as ice": "I had asked him after Rome" – where Cobain overdosed and fell into a coma a month before his suicide – "to freeze his sperm. So there's this whole thing about freezing your uterus." The song has only been heard as Kurt's acoustic home recording as "Do Re Mi," its title borrowed from the Sound of Music song about the musical scale (note that Kurt plays a descending scale after the chorus). DOUGLAS WOLK

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67

“Verse Chorus Verse”

Kurt really wanted to call something "Verse Chorus Verse." He wrote that phrase on the cover of at least one of his notebooks, constantly used it as a disparaging description of his songs, and briefly intended to use it as the title of the album that became In Utero. When "Sappy" appeared as an unlisted bonus track on the No Alternative compilation, it was referred to as "Verse Chorus Verse" as well. The first song to have that title, though – and the one that kept it – is the one that starts "neither side is sacred." The band recorded a rough version of it during the Nevermind sessions, and it's a lesser variation on other verse-chorus-verse songs they would come up with: To wit, its final live performance was immediately followed by the debut of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." DOUGLAS WOLK

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66

“Sifting”

"Kurt began to attend Sunday service regularly, and even made appearances at the Wednesday night Christian Youth Group," writes Charles R. Cross in his Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven. As a late teenager, Cobain – a troubled kid into drugs and out of school, arrested for purportedly pro-gay graffiti, booted from the house not long after his parents divorced – turned briefly to God for support, searching for anything to replace everything that had gone missing. He gave up drugs and got baptized, but he quickly recanted. "It was a transitory moment out of fear," his former classmate and friend at the time later told Cross. Written only a few years after the spiritual crisis, "Sifting" extends a proud middle finger to teachers and preachers and every rule they'd ever given the budding bandleader – no bed wetting, no sinning, no skipping school. "Don't have nothing for you," Cobain yells a few dozen times, the song's noose-like riff tightening around the drum's own tantrum. "Sifting" is a heavy, menacing bit of Melvins obsession that, though not particularly remarkable for its music, serves as a vivid encapsulation of Cobain's lifelong obduracy. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN

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65

“Hairspray Queen”

One of the oldest pieces of Nirvana's catalog, this track's bouncing bassline and gnarled guitars are a catchy mix of noise and pop: Cobain told Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad that he regretted not including it on Bleach. A 1988 rehearsal of the song collected on With The Lights Out puts the instruments front and center – and ends with Kurt running up to the camera to reveal that he's been playing the guitar with his middle finger. But it would be best known for Cobain's yowled-cat vocals on the version that made it to Incesticide. MAURA JOHNSTON

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64

“Downer”

For a song that he recorded twice and put out three times, Cobain didn't think much of it: "I was trying to be Mr. Political Punk Rock Black Flag guy," Cobain told Michael Azerrad. "I really didn't know what I was talking about. I was just throwing together words." Cobain rarely left his own head (or Aberdeen's city limits) when searching for lyrical material, so one of Nirvana's only attempts at politics, "Downer" is a bit of a sore thumb – a remnant of Cobain's early immersion in hardcore, raging against "conservative communist apocalyptic bastard[s]." "Downer" is the only song from his 1985 Fecal Matter demo to ever land on an official Nirvana album: It was tacked on to the CD version of Bleach, and later appeared again on Incesticide. The Melvins' Dale Crover, bassist and drummer on the original, returns on drums, nearly doubling the tempo and turning a mechanical plod into a breakneck, Devo-esque blast. TOM MALLON

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63

“Big Long Now”

Stylistically, "Big Long Now" is indebted to Black Flag's My War and that LP's polarizing, sludgy, glacially paced Side B. Recorded in one take for Bleach, "Big Long Now" didn't make the track list – it probably lost out to the similarly plodding "Sifting" – but was rescued from the scrap heap when producer Jack Endino lobbied for its inclusion on B-side comp Incesticide. No live performances of the song have ever surfaced, but a video of the Nirvana rehearsing the track at Krist Novoselic's mother's house in 1988 appeared on the With the Lights Out DVD. DANIEL KREPS

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62

“Return of the Rat”

As a tribute to the Portland punk pioneers, Nirvana were invited to take one side of the 7-inch box set Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers, joining covers by Hole, Poison Idea, and Napalm Beach. According to Thor Lindsay, who founded the label that put out the comp, Cobain originally wanted to submit the band's already recorded Wipers cover "D-7," which they had done for John Peel, but Nirvana's label complicated the licensing. So Cobain said, "Fuck it, I'll record another track," and, in Lindsay's words, "basically a DAT tape turned up with 'Return of the Rat' on it." Session engineer Barrett Jones said the group recorded the track along with "Oh, the Guilt" and "Curmudgeon" in one or two takes. More impressive is Jones's claim that they had never even played it before. KORY GROW

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61

“Marigold”

Few would have guessed that the member of Nirvana who'd go on to have six platinum records on his own would be the drummer, but "Marigold" is Nirvana's most significant contribution to the Foo Fighters story. Shortly after Dave Grohl joined Nirvana, he recorded a solo voice-and-guitar version of this hovering, introverted song, then called "Color Pictures of a Marigold." It eventually appeared on Pocketwatch, a cassette-only album Grohl released in 1992 under the name Late! The recording that became a "Heart-Shaped Box" B-side, recorded during the In Utero sessions, featured Grohl and Novoselic – but apparently not Cobain. "Marigold" wouldn't be played live until Grohl resurrected it with the Foo Fighters in 2006. DOUGLAS WOLK

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60

“Endless, Nameless”

Attempting to conclude Nevermind with the CD equivalent of a sound skipping in a run-out groove, Kurt and company instructed engineer Howie Weinberg to follow closer "Something In the Way" with ten minutes of silence and the noisy outtake "Endless, Nameless." An extended jam that often closed concerts, the band recorded the track after the session for "Lithium" went south, the frontman bringing said session to a close by smashing the studio's only left-handed guitar in the middle of the take. Thanks to Nevermind, these sort of hidden tracks would remain popular until WinAmp and its descendents revealed track lengths before the listener pressed play. But Kurt's smashed guitar would hang around even longer, immortalized in a photograph reprinted in Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are and later in a Nirvana exhibition at Seattle's EMP Museum. NICK MURRAY

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59

“Oh, Me”

"Oh Me" was originally cut from MTV's broadcast of Unplugged – hard to imagine given the album's classic status now, but ad time is ad time. Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood – who along with his brother, Cris, wrote the song and joined Nirvana for the session – always said it was his favorite from 1984's Meat Puppets II, and it's easy to understand why: Nowhere else on the album does the band's ragged psychedelia sound so sweet but so dangerous. "My whole expanse / I cannot see," the lyric says – but it sure always sounded like "My hole expands / I cannot see." And like all of Cobain's most indelible songs, it seesaws between smart and dumb, leaving the listener to sort out whether to trust the singer or just let him babble his way into oblivion. MIKE POWELL

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58

“Big Cheese”

If Nirvana had their way, the flipside of their debut 7-inch would have been whole lot blander. Engineer Jack Endino has said the group originally recorded "Blandest," for their Sub Pop Singles Club B-side. "The song is called 'Blandest' for a reason," the engineer said, because they were disgruntled with the fact that Sub Pop big cheese Jonathan Poneman wanted them to record a cover – Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz" – for the A-side. When they were done with the "Blandest" session, they slugged out "Big Cheese," a heavy, hate-filled invective about Poneman ("He was being so judgmental about what we recorded," Cobain said), and the track wowed Endino because it was "livelier." The engineer was able to convince the band to use that as their B-side instead. KORY GROW

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57

“Aero Zeppelin”

Cobain proudly included Aerosmith's Rocks in the famous list of his top 50 albums, and Cobain and Novoselic listed both Zeppelin and Aerosmith in an ad for a drummer they placed in Seattle rock mag The Rocket. But despite the fact that it often appeared in their early live sets right alongside Zep's "Immigrant Song," "Aero Zeppelin" is no mere metalhead homage. Instead it's more an early example of Cobain's hunger to find a middle ground between the thunderous swagger of hard rock and punk's warped idea of catharsis. Its lyrics interrogate what musical fandom means, a central preoccupation of Cobain's, while the music twists Seventies swagger into new, angrier forms. One of the earliest Nirvana songs, it would show up on Incesticide years after they'd stopped playing it. JON DOLAN

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56

“Curmudgeon”

Nirvana's April 7, 1992 session at Laundry Room Studio, located in a yellow house in West Seattle, marked the band's very first post-Nevermind recording work. The date, with Laundry Room head Barrett Jones at the helm, yielded three Nirvana deep cuts: "Oh, the Guilt," a cover of the Wipers' "Return of the Rat" and this song (though demos of "Frances Farmer" and, possibly, "Very Ape," were tracked as well). Of the songs, "Curmudgeon" – which is distinguished by the heavy, at times overwhelming, phasing effect added to Kurt's guitar – was the first to see release, being issued just three months later as a B-side to "Lithium." RICHARD BIENSTOCK

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55

“Mexican Seafood”

"Mexican Seafood," was part of Nirvana's first-ever studio demo, recorded on January 23rd, 1988 with the Melvins' Dale Crover on drums and producer Jack Endino behind the board. Originally released in 1989 on C/Z Records' Teriyaki Asthma Vol. 1 (alongside Helios Creed, Coffin Break and Yeast), the song's choppy guitar chords and Kurt's pseudo-English accent point to a heavy British post-punk influence (Cobain's 50 favorite records included Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd. and the Slits among others). The song's gross-out lyrics, meanwhile, marked the first time that his enduring fascination with bodily functions at their most disgusting made it onto wax. DANIEL EPSTEIN

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54

“Spank Thru”

A good argument can be made for "Spank Thru" as the song that started it all. Dating back to his 1985 Fecal Matter demo, it was the first Cobain-penned song that got Krist Novoselic's attention, thus kick-starting the formation of Nirvana. "One of the songs on [the tape] was 'Spank Thru,'" Novoselic recalled in a 1992 interview with WFNX music director Kurt St. Thomas. "He turned me on to it, and I really liked it, it kind of got me excited. So I go, 'Hey man, let's start a band.' We scrounged up a drummer, and we started practicing. Took it very seriously too." Once the band had mobilized, it became the third Nirvana song to find official release (finding its way on 1988's Sub Pop 200 compilation) and has continued to make appearances on most of their official live albums. DANIEL EPSTEIN

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53

“Paper Cuts”

Cobain bios overflow with stories of how much Kurt idolized the Melvins, and few songs telegraph that love more than the punishing, titanic "Paper Cuts." Nirvana drafted then-and-current Melvins drummer Dale Crover to fill in on a 10-song demo while both bands recovered from lineup implosions; three songs from that demo ultimately ended up on Bleach after failed attempts to rerecord them with Chad Channing. "Paper Cuts" bears Crover's influence the most, infused with his trademark, stop-start concrete thud. The lyrics – inspired by an Aberdeen family who imprisoned their children in a blacked-out room – touch on the suburban atrocities that Cobain would revisit in songs like "Polly," but the band was never this heavy again. TOM MALLON

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