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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

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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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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

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6

“Dive”

Nirvana's final single on Sub Pop – a split 7-inch with the Fluid – is a tense and furtive pop song in spite of itself, its squawking guitars and strangled vocals pushing up against a smooth, almost buoyant bassline, Chad Channing's steady drums, and the clean production of Nevermind producer Butch Vig, who the band was working with for the first time. In 1991 Sub Pop included the track on the label compilation The Grunge Years, which – in keeping with its penchant for in-jokes about "world domination" – had a pair of important businessmen doing something resembling a big deal on the cover. That compilation's implied irony would come full circle a few months later, when the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would debut on MTV. MAURA JOHNSTON

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5

“Something In The Way”

Kurt Cobain told Michael Azerrad that the lyrics to Nevermind's ominously brooding closer were written "like if I was living under the bridge and I was dying of A.I.D.S., if I was sick and I couldn't move and I was a total street person. That was kind of the fantasy of it." Not only reflecting Kurt's fascination with utter debasement, the song also reflects his innate musicality: After attempts to record a full-band version of the song went nowhere, he successfully recorded the core of the track by himself, playing a half-strung, barely-tunable acoustic 12-string while he sang. Producer Butch Vig and the band built the track from there, finishing it off with a string part by cellist Kirk Canning, whom the band had met through their friends L7 while staying in Los Angeles. "We took [Canning] into the studio on the last day and said, 'Here, play something,'" Cobain recalled to Kurt St. Thomas, "and he came up with something right away. It just fell like dominoes, it was really easy." DANIEL EPSTEIN

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4

“Breed”

In the grunge era, this is what passed for game: noncommittal gestures towards playing house as a prelude to just straight-up doing it. There's so much late-night peacocking on "Breed" – the pelvic-thrust of a guitar intro, its mimicking by the bass, the aggressive tom rolls – you can practically smell the cigarette smoke in the bar where the slightly disheveled, greasy-haired couple is meeting before they go home together. It's one of the most alive songs on Nevermind, purely for its deep lust – the band giving into their most animalistic impulses, channeled on distortion in free fall. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

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3

“Sliver”

Cobain called it "the most ridiculous pop song that I had ever written… I wanted to write more songs like that." (He also noted that he'd titled it "Sliver" just because he knew people would misspell it as "Silver.") Childhood was the theme that Nirvana's songs and graphics circled around most, and this was the song in which they tackled it head-on: lyrics that evokes the little indignities of youthful powerlessness (featuring possibly Kurt's best line ever, "I fell asleep and watched TV"), and a monomaniacal tantrum of a chorus. Written and recorded very quickly, it features Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters, who was in Nirvana for exactly one show. DOUGLAS WOLK

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