Examining Nirvana’s 10 Best Songs, 20 Years After Kurt Cobain’s Death
To commemorate the music of Nirvana and their frontman Kurt Cobain — who took his life 20 years ago on April 5, 1994 — Yahoo Music delves into the stories behind the band's (arguably) 10 best songs. Choosing Nirvana's top five tracks is a no-brainer; putting them into a list in order of quality is more difficult, but manageable. But limiting the band's catalog to 10 great songs is a serious challenge.
Though many of their compositions were structurally simple, Nirvana weren't a one-dimensional band. The real beauty was the group's ability to cross boundaries and combine genres to create incredibly memorable and sometimes skewed numbers that resonated with often contradictory elements of melody, dissonance, empathy, and angst. Nirvana were equally capable of delivering instantly infectious gems like "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "About a Girl," and "Come As You Are" as they were of challenging listeners with heavier and more unconventional tracks like "Curmudegon," "Scentless Apprentice," and "Milk It."
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As great as Nirvana's noisier songs are, the band's most enduring numbers — with a couple exceptions — tend to be the ones that have burnt themselves most indelibly into the collective unconscious of countless listeners. However, even at their catchiest, Nirvana were never shy of confrontational. They certainly weren't Def Leppard or Foreigner.
Looking back, it's incredible how much great material Nirvana recorded in such a short period of time. If only there were another 20 years of material to choose from.
1. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" - OK, we admit this isn't a very daring choice, but when it came out it was a pretty bold song that turned the music world upside-down. Thanks to the success of this breakout single, 1991's "Nevermind" unseated Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" on the Billboard album chart in January 1992, causing a sea change in the way angry, offbeat music was perceived by the mainstream. Suddenly, in an era of political turmoil and youthful frustration, alternative rock ruled the airwaves, and hair metal and slick rock fell into the abyss. For "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Cobain took the vibe of Boston's "More Than a Feeling" and twisted it with an angular strumming attack and a minor key structure, then combined it with a soft-verse, loud-chorus formula he borrowed from one of his favorite bands and biggest influences, the Pixies. Cobain conceived the song's title after his friend, Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna, spray-painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his bedroom wall. Cobain assumed the message was a statement of his rebellious nature, not realizing that Teen Spirit a brand of deodorant his girlfriend Tobi Vail (also of Bikini Kill) used; Hanna was implying Vail's smell (or influence) was rubbing off on him. Cobain remained unaware that Teen Spirit was a hygiene product until months after the song came out.
2. "Lithium" - Some have argued that this "Nevermind" track is a more original and well-crafted song than "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Like many of Nirvana's singles, it features that soft-verse, loud-chorus approach, but the mid-section is heavy as a stack of bricks and Cobain's howls of “yeahhhhhhhh!” are less celebratory than agonized. Cobain named the song after a drug for manic depression, which ran in his family, and the lyrics are self-deprecating but not without humor: "I'm so ugly/That's OK 'cause so are you/We've broken our mirrors." There are also hints of religious discovery: "Light my candles, in a daze 'cause I've found God." In an interview with Michael Azerrad, who wrote, "Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana," Cobain said: "I've always felt that some people should have religion in their lives."