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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.)

nirvana
40

“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”

“‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ started life as ‘Nine Month Media Blackout,'” wrote Charles R. Cross in the Nirvana bio Heavier Than Heaven,” the title a joking response to journalist Lynn Hirschberg’s magazine-unit-shifting article in Vanity Fair about the Cobain clan. The song’s final name, it is ironic: Radio Friendly Unit Shifter is about as close as Nirvana got to the corrosive noise-rock of Big Black, In Utero producer Steve Albini’s brilliant mid-Eighties trio; and Killdozer, the Butch Vig-produced band whose heft Cobain wanted Nevermind to match. JOE GROSS

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39

“Even in His Youth”

First recorded with producer Steve Fisk during the 1989 sessions for the Blew EP, “Even in His Youth” (and later re-recorded with Dave Grohl on drums for a “Teen Spirit” B-side) was one of a handful of songs that served as a bridge between the unrefined sludge-punk of the previous year’s Bleach and the brighter, more pop-tinged sound that would come to the fore on Nevermind. Lyrics like “Daddy was ashamed” reference Cobain’s adversarial relationship with his father, though the bile-filled words are contrasted by a buoyant buzzsaw riff. RICHARD BIENSTOCK

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38

“The Man Who Sold the World”

“I was simply blown away when I found out that Kurt Cobain liked my work,” said David Bowie, “it would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking would have been real cool.” Though some thanks should be due to early Nirvana drummer Chad Channing, who introduced his bandmates to David Bowie’s 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World, and to guitarist Pat Smear whose enthusiasm for that album resulted in Nirvana doing an accordion-fueled cover on MTV Unplugged. DOUGLAS WOLK

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37

“Stain”

“Stain” gives “Negative Creep” a run for its money in the self-loathing department, even if it’s not quite up to the same level of musicality. Lines like “He never leaves ’cause he’s got bad luck” and the insistently self-flagellating chorus reflect Kurt’s perpetual “outsider” state of mind, one that derived in part from being harassed by rednecks in his hometown of Aberdeen, while also never feeling quite cool enough to fit in with the Olympia crowd. DANIEL EPSTEIN

Nirvana
36

“Floyd the Barber”

The young Cobain’s idea of a joke shows that he definitely chose the right path by picking music instead of a comedy. “Floyd the Barber” is a sub-Beavis & Butt-head bit of couch-jockey surrealism, in which he imagines a sexually violent spoof of beloved TV classic The Andy Griffith Show. The Melvins’ Dale Crover played drums here, during their first recording session in January, 1988. “There was no way that I could predict those guys would have sold millions of records,” Crover said later. That’s certainly true here: The thudding, punishing “Floyd the Barber” is about as unfriendly as Nirvana got. JON DOLAN

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35

“The Money Will Roll Right In”

The funny, slow-paced, apolitical Fang weren’t like the other Bay Area punks in 1982; and Nirvana weren’t like the other major label rock bands on the festival circuit in 1992. Feeling alienated by their new life of hopping from giant outdoor stage to outdoor stage on a European tour, the band snarkily added Fang’s venomous, sludgepunk eyeroll “The Money Will Roll Right In” as the opener of their set as they careened through Sweden and Spain. The money had actually rolled in for Cobain, the Nineties’ most accomplished “rich as shit” fame anthropologist, thus making their cover more pointed and hysterical than, say, Soundarden’s cover of Cheech and Chong’s similar “Earache My Eye.” According to James Washburn, the Green Day pal known as Brain Stew, Courtney Love sent all of Cobain’s Fang records to frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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34

“Stay Away”/”Pay to Play”

Somewhere in the muck of rock history, nostalgia and band psychoanalysis, Nirvana’s punk roots often get buried. But on “Pay to Play” (renamed “Stay Away” for its Nevermind inclusion), their pure fidgety energy is out front and you could riot to it. Beyond its mosh factor, Cobain’s screaming about a very specific code of ethics endemic to punk: “I’d rather be dead than cool” and “Fashion shits fashion style.” Too bad for them that they became both, but still a perfect song to slam your bedroom door to. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam
33

“Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”

“I’ll Be a Sunbeam” is the title of a children’s hymn from the early twentieth century, but the Vaselines’ “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” from their 1988 Dying For It EP, owes no more than its first line to it. When Nirvana covered the Vaselines song (with its title slightly altered) on MTV Unplugged, Kurt called it “a rendition of an old Christian song,” and it was generally mistaken for a gospel number, which it couldn’t be less like. In fact, it had been a staple of Nirvana’s live repertoire for years already: They first played it on stage the day Nevermind came out in America. DOUGLAS WOLK

Sappy
32

“Sappy”

“Something just drove Kurt to keep busting it out,” Krist Novoselic told Gillian G. Gaar for her 2006 book about In Utero. “He had some kind of unattainable expectations for it.” The song in question, one of the few white whales of Nirvana’s catalogue, is “Sappy.” Cobain wrote and recorded the lament against the expectations of others in the late Eighties; he then re-recorded it in most every major studio session for the rest of his life, never to be completely satisfied. After nearly making Nevermind, “Sappy” was never released under Nirvana’s name. Various takes and demos bound around the Internet (including a muted and wonderful turn with Butch Vig), but the official version arrived as an uncredited hidden track at the end of No Alternative, the 1993 AIDS fundraiser. That take, with Dave Grohl on drums and Steve Albini behind the boards, is crisp and cutting, with a guitar solo that dips and climbs and vocals that suggest irritation morphing into emancipation. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN

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31

“Rape Me”

Far from its provocative title, “Rape Me” is a double-entendre from jump, as the opening chords are a bizarro-world inversion of those that open Nirvana’s mega-est mega-hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It seemed to refer to Cobain’s disdain for the anti-punk, corporate rock star lifestyle that squashed his spirit so completely that he referenced it in his suicide note. But it was also the closest to an actual Bikini Kill song that he would ever write, using the lyrics as a woman-empowering taunt to show would-be rapists that their victims’ spirits would not be tamped, a bit of riot grrrl infused into those dirty guitar chords that so many have come to associate with men in a vibrant era of tough women-led rock bands. It deserves extra points for its seriousness. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD