Before Nirvana swept onto the scene in the early 90s, the musical landscape was nothing but boy bands, hair metal, Michael Jackson, and some country music here and there. As the prominence of Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic grew, so did the subculture they represented. It was almost a brutal chopping block of everything that came before them.
Today, the 90s is known for its grunginess: the punk Gen X kids, the cynicism, the heavy guitar sludge. And it's all thanks to Nirvana's influence.
Nirvana's landmark album Nevermind just celebrated its 30th anniversary. In honor of the band's astounding musical legacy and impact on pop culture, we thought we'd finally roll up our sleeves and tackle a top 10 list of Nirvana's best jams!
We don't know why we haven't honored the band from Aberdeen sooner, but with Dave Grohl's continued success with Foo Fighters and the recent release of the BBC documentary When Nirvana Came to Britain, we figure it's better to be late than never create a list in the first place. Nirvana was only together for a few years and released just three albums, but their impact on modern rock culture will last forever.
Without further ado, here are Live365's Nirvana picks!
10. "In Bloom"
We find it ironic that the kind of rock fans Cobain infamously describes in this song are the same kind of fans which gravitated to "In Bloom." The song actually became one of Nirvana's biggest live anthems. It's all thanks to "In Bloom's" commercial success, which happened because of a catchy, easy-to-sing-along-to chorus.
Structurally, "In Bloom" is full of power chords and sounds happy on the outside, but very mocking on the inside. According to Cobain, it's a destruction of "rednecks and macho men" who wouldn't be able to understand the band's intellectual art. According to a Krist Novoselic quote from Rolling Stone, "It sounded like a Bad Brains song. One day Kurt called me and started singing. It was the "In Bloom" of Nevermind, more of a pop thing."
Who knew Nirvana could make a two-chord song only 14 words long so great? "School" is a fantastic example of a track that shows more than tells. Part of Nirvana's debut album Bleach, it talks about Cobain's experience of becoming a janitor at his high school just after dropping out. It's elegantly simplistic, and includes a hard-hitting riff with an unmistakable intro.
Kurt Cobain would describe the song as representing the Seattle grunge scene and finding parallels between them and the "cliques" of high school. Towards the end of the band’s 1989 European tour, Cobain was noted as having to "look out in the audience and all he could see were the kind of people who used to beat him up at school." This led to future tracks directed towards this fanbase, including the previously-mentioned "In Bloom."
8. "About a Girl"
Ah, the terrible pain of a relationship on the fritz. No song captures this frustrating feeling better than Nirvana's "About a Girl," which is also from their debut album Bleach. It's the closest the band has come to pop. According to Chad Channing (Nirvana’s drummer before Dave Grohl), Cobain didn’t have a title for the song when he first brought it into the studio. When asked what it was about, Cobain said, “It’s about a girl.”
Specifically, the girl was Tracy Marander: Cobain’s then-girlfriend whom he lived with at the time. The track addresses the couple’s fractured relationship, caused by Cobain’s refusal to get a job, or to share cleaning duties at their apartment (which housed many of his pets). When Marander asked why Cobain never wrote a song about her, he responded with "About a Girl." Ouch.
Although to be fair, Cobain never told Marander that he had written “About a Girl” for her. Marander revealed in 1998 that she only found out after reading Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana.
7. "Something In the Way"
This track has recently come back into popularity thanks to its use in the trailer for the upcoming 2022 blockbuster The Batman. "Something In the Way" is a deep, dark acoustic tune about a stint of vagrancy. It's inspired by the Young Street Bridge where Cobain used to fish, and is the haunting final track to Nirvana's Nevermind (not including the hidden track, "Endless, Nameless").
Many believed "Something In the Way" was autobiographical for Cobain until he revealed in the 1993 biography Come As You Are the concept was supposed to be "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."
We particularly love Cobain's quiet yet vulnerable vocals, producer Butch Vig's choice of recording the song without a full band, and Kirk Canning's beautiful cello solo.
6. "All Apologies"
An acoustic fan favorite, “All Apologies” has Kurt Cobain “apologizing” to the public for his behavior in a cheeky way. Cobain dedicated this upbeat track to his wife, Courtney Love, and their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. "The words don’t really fit in relation to us...the feeling does, but not the lyrics,” Cobain explained in the Come As You Are biography.
Cobain also described the feel of "All Apologies" as "peaceful, happy, comfort." Some other notable things about the track include the mesmerizing use of cello, the band calling out people who use the word "gay" as an insult (which was a pretty brave, progressive thing to do in the 90s), and the famous unplugged album performance: the fan-preferred version of the track that is still played on alternative radio stations today.
“Aneurysm” was recorded on November 9, 1991, on BBC Radio 1 with Mark Goodier. The lyrics "Love you so much it makes me sick" allude to the first time Kurt Cobain hung out with Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill. They eventually dated, but he was initially so nervous he threw up. Music analysts also theorize the lines could reference heroin sickness - particularly Cobain’s heroin addiction.
There's also the "Come on over, do the twist" line, which is a reference to Kurt's idols: the Beatles. A different version of "Aneurysm" was previously released as a B-Side to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in September of 1991. It's hard to get away with an intro over a minute long, but Nirvana does it with ease and grit.
4. "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
We know, we know...you probably thought this song would be #1 on our list, didn't you? If this was a list ranking Nirvana's most commercially successful songs, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would easily be #1. It's that bop non-Nirvana fans can easily distinguish as Nirvana. But because we like to subvert expectations over here at Live365 - and because we have more great Nirvana tunes to talk about - we're keeping this baby within the top 4 range.
The band's lead single off Nevermind, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" catapulted Nirvana into the public eye during the 90s. Rock history claims Kathleen Hanna from riot grrl band Bikini Kill scrawled the phrase “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” in spray paint on a wall and Cobain nabbed the title. In any case, this track contains the same edginess, grit, and energy a teenager would possess.
But what is the true meaning of "Smells Like Teen Spirit?" No one really knows. Cobain admitted in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone that he was "just trying to write the ultimate pop song" and took heavy inspiration from the Pixies. Eventually, Kurt grew tired of playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and removed it from Nirvana's live set as often as possible. To quote the third verse of the song, "Oh well, whatever, nevermind."
3. "Heart-Shaped Box"
"Heart-Shaped Box" was composed when Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain were newlyweds, and Love heavily influenced the composition of the In Utero song. While Love has her own interpretations about what the song means (go do some research, kids), most people understand it as referencing the literal heart-shaped box Love gifted Cobain when she was first dating him.
While the romance between Cobain and Love was the force that fueled this song, the track is anything but romantic. It actually details the battle of wills inherent to a budding relationship when one person doesn’t feel so strongly about the other person. Many love "Heart-Shaped Box" for its iconic and very weird music video, which sees a man in a Santa hat hanging on a cross, a woman in a suit with painted human organs and angel wings, and other wacky stuff.
"Lithium" is a popular Nevermind tune that often gets overshadowed by "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and our #1 pick. It's a perfect, poetic description of the ups and downs that accompany manic depression. Every line is both happy and sad, and there are even some lyrics in the mix that mention religious faith. After all, this song is about a man who turns to religion when his girlfriend dies.
With the religious lines, Cobain is making a point: some people need religion in their lives to keep happy just like others need lithium to stabilize their mood. The Nirvana frontman later revealed the song was inspired by his own personal experiences with breakups and having bad relationships. He also acknowledged the song was somewhat motivated by the time he spent living with his friend Jesse Reed and his born-again Christian parents. For a somewhat upbeat tune, "Lithium" has a lot of depth.
1. "Come As You Are"
There's no better example of Nirvana's famed "quiet loud" formula than their Nevermind hit "Come As You Are." It's a song you can headbang to while also taking a break. It's both energetic and chill, and even sounds amazing when slowed down.
“Come As You Are” was intended to be the main single on Nevermind, but the unprecedented success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" changed the band's plans. Despite the overshadowing, the song had good commercial success, peaking at No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 9 on the UK singles charts.
While the gun lyrics to "Come As You Are" are now eerily ironic considering the manner of Kurt Cobain's suicide, the song is actually about the way in which society views us. Should we be our true selves, or safely fit in with others' standards? It's a cycle of confusion, and Cobain makes points about never knowing who your real friends are while also finding common ground with people who have opposing viewpoints.
As for the distinctive guitar riff, it was heavily borrowed from Killing Joke’s song “Eighties.” The nearly-identical bit made the band hesitant to release the song as a single. In fact, they were expecting to get sued by Killing Joke. While the other band had some complaints, they surprisingly never filed suit.
All in all, we think "Come As You Are" is a perfect anthem of 90s' grunge subculture, and we hope this masterpiece endures for years to come. Rest in peace, Kurt Cobain.
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