Examining Nirvana’s 10 Best Songs, 20 Years After Kurt Cobain’s Death

Jon Wiederhorn
Yahoo Music
April 3, 2014

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."

[Related: 27 Musicians Who Died at Age 27]

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."

3. "Heart-Shaped Box" - See-sawing between a reflective, near-love song and corrosive fountains of guitar distortion, this "In Utero" single captures the dichotomy of a turbulent romantic relationship. Cobain told Azerrad the line "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black" was about children with cancer: "Any time I think about it, it makes me sadder than anything." However, the rest of the lyrics suggest the song is about the Cobain's turbulent relationship with his wife, Courtney Love: "Hey, wait, I've got a new complaint/Forever in debt to your priceless advice." The lyrics address "Pisces" and "Cancer," Cobain and Love's astrological signs, respectively. Also, after their second meeting, Love reportedly sent a heart-shaped box filled with trinkets to Cobain's hotel room. Love claimed Cobain named the song after her private parts.

4. "Come As You Are" - In light of Cobain's ultimate fate, the standout lyric on the second single from "Nevermind" is "When I swear that I don't have a gun/No, I don't have a gun." But the line seems less a threat than a declaration that Cobain intends to express his discontentment with life through music, not violence. The rest of the song is filled with cryptic and contradictory phrases: "Take your time/Hurry up/Choice is yours/Don't be late" suggests he's stuck in a no-win situation. Interestingly, Cobain was initially reluctant to include the song on the album because the echoey, ethereal guitar line was reminiscent of Killing Joke's "Eighties," which he admitted was in influence. Killing Joke did not sue. "My mum found a Christmas card sent to me in 1988 by this guy Kurt Cobain," the band's frontman Jaz Coleman said in an interview for the book "Louder Than Hell: the Definitive Oral History of Metal." "He must have nicked the music then. We get lawyers coming up to us all the time saying that we can have all this money. We're not interested. I think the Christmas card speaks for itself. As we've said, money is not our God.”

5. "In Bloom" - Written and performed in concert before Nirvana moved from independent label Sub Pop (which released their 1989 debut, "Bleach") to Geffen, this "Nevermind" cut is a simple, infectious song with a brooding, yet sing-songy framework. The typically enigmatic lyrics, which include the second references to a "gun" on "Nevermind," also features the nonsensical line "Sell the kids for food/Weather changes moods." But the song's chorus is the most illuminating, a blatant condemnation of the masses who appeared at Nirvana shows and reminded Cobain of the kids who used to tease him in high school: "He's the one who likes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun/But he knows not what it means." Cobain previously addressed the subject in the simple, crushing "School," in which he compared high school cliques to rowdy grunge concert crowds.

6. “All Apologies” - One of Cobain's saddest and most beautiful compositions, this "In Utero" ballad and "MTV Unplugged" highlight contains delicate guitars and yearning cellos that contrast with blasts of roaring guitars, but the song is more driven by weary resignation than rage. Without a hint of irony, Cobain asks, "What else should I be?/All apologies." and declares, "Everything's all my fault/I take all the blame." He also suggests that, for him, marriage wasn't the key to happiness by screaming, "Married, buried." Clearly, Cobain felt disillusioned by the role he found himself in, questioned why being a successful musician didn't make him happy, and felt ashamed that the only way he could find peace was through heroin.

7. "Blew" - The opening song on "Bleach" is a sludgy amalgam of punk and metal that epitomized the dawn of grunge. The song is especially visceral because before Nirvana recorded it, Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic tuned their instruments down a half step to achieve a lower tone (a common practice at the time). But then they forgot and tuned down again. As a result, the bass is fuzzy and wobbly, and the guitars screech and claw with extra ferocity in conjunction with the Cobain's roaring vocals. Lyrically, "Blew" is vague and indirect, but could be about a sexual encounter. "If you wouldn't mind, I would like it blew/…Is there another reason for your stain." Though if that's the case, it suggests the recipient was less than proud of the results: "If you wouldn't mind I would live to leave/…Here is another word that rhymes with shame."

7. "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" - Another classic example of Nirvana's song dynamics, "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" splits each verse into a soft and loud passage, then cranks up the volume for the chorus. The line "I miss the comfort in being sad" is the standout here, but the song is based on an actress from the 1930s, who had a reputation for being self-destructive and ended up in a mental hospital. In the song, Cobain seems to relate to Farmer's contempt with lines like, "It's so relieving to know that you're leaving as soon as you get paid."

8. "Rape Me" - The jangly guitar opening of "Rape Me" is structurally similar to that of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," suggesting that Cobain thought all he had to do was regurgitate past successes to keep those around him happy, and that he felt soiled and debased by the demands of the music industry. He especially hated doing interviews and being asked about his drug habit, which he repeatedly denied, even in the throes of addiction.

9. "Aneurysm" - Released with the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" CD single, this "Nevermind" B-side is both catchy and confrontational, illustrating Cobain's gift for writing simple, classic songs and his desire to be a misanthropic punk rocker. He said the song is about his aforementioned ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail, though it's open to interpretation whether the line "Love you so much it makes me sick" is about how he was so nervous when he met her that he threw up, or if he was writing about being lovesick after they broke up.

10. "Breed" - Originally titled "Immodium," "Breed" is a scathing indictment of the American dream, and one of the noisiest, most aggressive and impacting songs on "Nevermind." Nirvana wrote the song around the time they were working on "Bleach" and often played it on tour in 1989 when they first hit the road with labelmates Tad. In his lyrics Cobain addresses feeling trapped and needing to "Get away/Away from your home." In addition, he criticizes those around him who complacently accept life in Middle America: "I don't mind, mind/Don't have a mind." Cobain addressed a similar theme in "Dumb."

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