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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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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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