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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

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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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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 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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