Nirvana came to a sudden end 19 years ago this month when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. The group released only three studio albums, but they left behind tons of other material and a huge fan base that only seems to grow as the years go by. Next year they are eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it's extremely likely they will get in on their first ballot. We asked our readers to vote on their favorite Nirvana songs. It got a huge response, and the top 10 goes way beyond the obvious hits. Click through to see the results.
The ninth song on Nevermind hardly sounds like the work of any traditional lounge act, but the group felt that Krist Novoselic's opening bass seemed like the kickoff to a lounge song. Instead, it leads into a Pixies-inspired song about a guy who feels torn between his girlfriend and his band. It was a dilemma that Cobain felt himself when the band's growing success caused tension with girlfriend Tracy Marander. The group couldn't come up with any way to end the song, so they merely slowed down the tape machine.
Kurt Cobain spent years fiddling with "Sappy," recording it over and over again between 1987 and 1993. He was never quite happy with it, though they ultimately released it as a bonus track on the 1993 AIDS relief compilation No Alternative. By this point it had been retitled "Verse Chorus Verse," but there's another Nirvana song with that title. It's caused much confusion over the years, so most Nirvana fans now refer to this as "Sappy." (Got all that?) Cobain never saw "Sappy" as a fully realized track, but the fans loved it and the band brought it back into their set list on their final tour in 1994.
"In Bloom" paints a rather bleak portrait of a rock fan who "sell[s] the kids for food," "likes to shoot his gun" and "likes our pretty songs." The song was written before Nirvana attracted many yokels to their shows, but Cobain was already horrified at the idea of violent thugs taking pleasure in his songs. "In Bloom" was originally a hardcore punk song , but Cobain gave it a much softer edge before they cut it for Nevermind. In a fantastic bit of irony, it was a hit single, and it brought Nirvana many of the fans Cobain claimed to despise. They sang along with it every night, even if they didn't know what it means. To put it mildly, Cobain had complex feelings about fame and mainstream success.
Kurt Cobain's tumultuous relationship with Bikini Kill drummer Toby Vail inspired many of Nirvana's most emotional songs, including the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" b-side "Aneurysm." "Love you so much it makes me sick," he sings. "She keeps it pumpin' straight to my heart." Vail may have given Kurt an "aneurysm," but not long after this song came out he began dating Courtney Love. Despite appearing on no actual studio album, the song was a regular part of Nirvana's live show, and it's become a massive fan favorite.
"All Apologies" originally appeared on In Utero, but the version everyone remembers was recorded in November of 1993 for Nirvana's MTV Unplugged album. Watching the performance after Cobain's death, it's hard to hear it as anything but a suicide note. "I wish I was like you," he sings to his huge global audience. "Easily amused." It ends with him repeating the line "all in all is all we are" 13 times.
Nirvana wrote many of the songs on Nevermind before they began recording the album, but "Drain You" was written on the spot at Sound City Studios during the sessions. Cobain never revealed who inspired the love song, but it was written just three months after he met Courtney Love. Kurt frequently stated it was one of his favorite Nirvana songs, and they played it at basically every show in their final three years. "I think there are so many other songs that I've written that are as good [as 'Smells Like Teen Spirit']," Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1993. "Like 'Drain You.' I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as 'Teen Spirit,' I wouldn't like it as much."
Kurt Cobain was a huge Pixies fan, and he often fell back on their patented "loud-quiet-loud" songwriting method. "I'm getting so tired of that formula," Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1993. "We've mastered that." It was rarely used better than on "Come As You Are," the second single from Nevermind. Radio embraced the track in a huge way, and it helped the group become one of the biggest bands on the planet. The Unplugged rendition is particularly powerful, and the repeated refrain of "I don't have a gun" remains chilling.
In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, Courtney Love recalled hearing Kurt work on "Heart-Shaped Box." "We had this huge closet," she said. "And I heard him in there working on 'Heart-Shaped Box.' He did that in five minutes. Knock, knock, knock. 'What?' 'Do you need that riff?' 'Fuck you!' Slam. [Laughs] He was trying to be so sneaky. I could hear that one from downstairs." He'd been picking away at the track since early 1992, and it ultimately wound up as the first single from In Utero. The album was produced by Steve Albini, but the label worried it wasn't commercial enough, and Scott Litt was brought in to remix "Heart-Shaped Box." Last year, Love claimed the song was written about her vagina.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the song that broke Nirvana and ushered in a new era of music. "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song," Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1993. "I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies . . . It was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or 'Louie, Louie.'" Cobain quickly grew weary of his creation. "It's almost an embarrassment to play it," he said. "Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It's been pounded into their brains . . . I can barely, especially on a bad night, get through 'Teen Spirit.' I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away."
Most people probably thought "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would win this poll, but the third single from Nevermind won by a pretty comfortable margin. "Lithium" is a song about a guy that turns to religion after his girlfriend dies. It soothes him, much like a dose of actual Lithium. "I've always felt that some people should have religion in their lives," Cobain told Michael Azerrad. "That's fine. If it's going to save someone, it's OK. And the person in ['Lithium'] needed it."