It goes without saying that anyone familiar with the history of mainstream music will have, in some form, heard the tragic tale of a rock band called Nirvana and the fate of their conflicted but iconic front-man Kurt Cobain, who (allegedly) took his own life at the height of his popularity on April 5, 1994 at the age of 27.
Following his death, Cobain left behind a musical legacy that many fellow musicians, music critics, and fans have since deemed the launching point for the alternative rock and grunge genres. To this day, many have referred to Cobain’s band, Nirvana, as the centerpiece of what is known as “the holy trinity of grunge” which also includes fellow Washington bands Pearl Jam and Soundgarden (though many would consider Alice in Chains one of the key groups as well).
Had Cobain been able to overcome his much-publicized heroin addiction, his inability to cope with sudden fame and success, and his frequent bouts of chronic depression, he would have turned 50 years old on February 20, 2017. In honor of that fact, we’re ranking the ten best songs that Kurt Cobain penned and performed as the reluctant leader of a musical revolution.
However, before we get to the official list:
A Note About “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Of the 102 songs in Nirvana’s limited library, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is, without a doubt, the most popular, well-known, and well-liked song in the history of the band. Despite that, we’re still leaving it off the official ranking.
Why? The answer is simple. This article is in honor of Kurt Cobain, and, eventually, due to its massive success and eventual labeling as “a teen anthem,” Cobain grew to detest this song. Because of Kurt’s feelings on it, it wouldn’t feel right to include it here. That’s not to say that it isn’t worthy, as it’s considered (and rightfully so) to be one of the greatest rock songs ever written. Despite that, however, here are ten other songs that deserve the spotlight just as much.
The song “School” was released as the fourth track on Nirvana’s 1989 debut album Bleach. Like most of the tracks on Bleach, “School” is light on lyrics and heavy on instrumental music, specifically a kind of groove metal that wouldn’t become incredibly popular until a few years later.
As mentioned, the lyrics are sparse (and even a bit comedic), as Cobain simply drones the words “Won’t you believe it/ It’s just my luck” repeatedly before shouting in anguish, “No recess!” as the guitars and drums continue to thrash.
Cobain once stated that the song was written to compare the similarities between cliques in school and the underground music scene at the time, but it seems to be more of a “tongue-in-cheek” observation than an all-out accusation. Despite this, “School” is the kind of early Nirvana music that would eventually evolve into the many songs whose lyrics serve as way to point out hypocrisy in those who enjoy them.
9. “You Know You’re Right”
Although it was written in 1993 as the last composition before Cobain’s death, “You Know You’re Right” wasn’t released until 2002, when it appeared on the band’s compilation album Nirvana, due to legal battles between Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic and Cobain’s widow Courtney Love. “You Know You’re Right” was the very last song recorded by the band.
The song’s lyrics are partially intended to be a sarcastic reference to arguments between Love and Cobain which became more frequent just prior to Cobain’s death.
According to Grohl, “You Know You’re Right” was recorded in 1994 when Nirvana had a spare weekend and was never really intended for release.”We had some time off before a tour, and Kurt wanted to go in and demo some stuff,” Grohl said. “We went down there, and we had three days booked. Kurt came in the last day and we were like, ‘Okay, what do you wanna do?’ And Kurt said, ‘Well, why don’t we do that song we’ve been doing at soundcheck?’ And so we rehearsed it, I think, once, and then recorded it. Kurt did three or four vocal takes, and that was it.”
The song charted at number one on both Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock and Alternative Songs charts, but airplay ended after Nirvana’s label, DGC Records, sent out several cease and desist orders.
8. “About a Girl”
“About a Girl” was originally released as the third track on Bleach, but it later appeared as the first track on MTV Unplugged in New York in 1994 and was re-released as a single that year.
According to Cobain himself, the song was written about a former girlfriend, Tracy Marander, and the strain of their relationship caused by Cobain’s refusal to “get a real job.” Kurt said he penned the song after pulling an all-nighter listening to the album Meet the Beatles! on a loop.
According to an interview with Rolling Stone, Cobain felt that releasing the pop-esque song on a grunge album was a risky move. “I was heavily into pop, I really likedR.E.M., and I was into all kinds of old ‘60s stuff, ” Cobain told David Fricke. “There was a lot of pressure within that social scene, the underground … to put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky.”
“About a Girl” became a big hit in 1994 when it peaked at number one on the U.S. Alternative Songs chart and number three on the U.S. Mainstream Rock chart.
7. “Heart-Shaped Box”
“Heart-Shaped Box” was included as the first single on Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero, which was released in 1993. Cobain began writing the song in early 1992, though he had forgotten about it until years later.
When asked about the meaning behind the song, Cobain told biographer Michael Azerrad that its lyrics were inspired by documentaries about children with terminal cancer. Despite this explanation, many insist that the song is really about the rocker’s unstable relationship with Courtney Love. According to Cobain, the song was originally entitled “Heart-Shaped Coffin” and was inspired by an event in which Love presented Cobain with a heart-shaped box full of odd possessions, including severed dolls’ heads.
As usual, the song was a huge success in 1993, charting at number one and number four on the U.S. Alternative Songs and U.S. Mainstream Rock charts respectively, as well as peaking at number five on the U.K. Singles chart.
6. “Come as You Are”
“Come as You Are” was released as the second single on Nirvana’s genre-defining 1992 album Nevermind. The band debated the release of “Come as You Are” as a single due to its musical similarity to the song “Eighties” by Killing Joke, which it was likely taken from. After persuasion from management, however, the song was released as a single. Apparently, Killing Joke considered taking legal action but decided against it after Cobain’s death, stating, “It’s a short f–king life, mate — we could be going fishing or something sensible.”
According to Cobain, the song’s lyrics are about “people and what they’re expected to act like.” In addition, Kurt stated that the lyrics are intentionally contradictory, just like people. The line “and I swear that I don’t have a gun” added a new edge to “Come as You Are” following Cobain’s suicide.
The song was an international success, charting top ten in seven countries including the U.S., where it peaked at number three on both the Mainstream Rock and Alternative Songs charts. Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington features the lyrics “Come as You Are” as its official motto.
5. “The Man Whole Sold the World”
Originally a David Bowie song, Nirvana introduced “The Man Who Sold the World” to a new audience when they performed it for their 1993 MTV Unplugged appearance and subsequently released it on their 1994 Unplugged in New York album.
Bowie’s original song is undoubtedly a reference to the notion of selling out and forgetting yourself. For that reason, the timing in which Nirvana released their version of the song puts it in a new perspective, as it is well-documented that Cobain’s internal struggles with his fame were a contributing factor in his death.
Bowie himself once went on record praising the cover. “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering [the song],” he said. “It was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”
In 1995, Nirvana’s cover of “Man Who Sold the World” peaked at number six on the U.S. Alternative Rock chart, number twelve on the U.S. Mainstream Rock chart, and even at number one in Poland.
4. “In Bloom”
If 1989’s “School” was a playful jab at hypocrites, and 1993’s “The Man Who Sold the World” was a expression of Cobain’s aversion to fame, then 1992’s “In Bloom” was a combination of these two themes. “In Bloom” was included as the fourth single on Nevermind, though several early versions were recorded prior to that album’s release.
“In Bloom” is one of the few songs that Cobain ever fully explained in detail. According to the vocalist, the song is meant to be a direct attack on “rednecks, macho men, and abusive people” who Cobain felt blindly enjoyed his music while ignoring its true message. The line “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” is indicative of this attitude.
“In Bloom”, while popular, wasn’t the biggest hit for Nirvana, as it peaked at number five on the U.S. Mainstream Rock chart for a brief time in 1993.
One of Nirvana’s most influential songs, “Lithium”, was released as the third single on 1992’s Nevermind, though it was first recorded in 1990. The song is heavy on self-loathing, a characteristic that Cobain was known for later in life.
According to Kurt, the song is about a man who, after the death of his girlfriend, turns to religion “as a last resort to keep himself alive. To keep him from suicide.” Though the narrative is fictional, Cobain stated that he did infuse some personal experiences. Though Cobain may not strike many as being particularly religious, he once stated that he’d “always felt that some people should have religion in their lives.” The song’s title refers to a medication that is used by doctors and psychiatrists to treat manic depressive disorders.
“Lithium” is cited by many rock musicians as a favorite song due to its unique loose musicality. Despite this, the song never peaked higher than sixteenth in the U.S., though it reached number one in Finland in 1992.
2. “Something in the Way”
Perhaps the most criminally underrated song in the Nirvana catalog, “Something in the Way” was released as the final track on Nevermind (excluding the instrumental hidden track “Endless, Nameless”). Painfully, the song illustrates Cobain’s chronic depression and feelings of isolation in musical form. For that reason, many young people identified closely with its message.
Originally, Cobain insisted that he wrote the song during a time when he was homeless and sleeping under a bridge in Aberdeen. However, biographer Charles Cross refuted the myth, saying that Cobain never slept under the bridge for fear of being swept away by the tide of the Wishkah River. Instead, Cobain spent his homeless years staying with friends and sleeping in the waiting room of a local hospital. Allegedly, however, Kurt did frequent the bridge as a hangout, and he often caught fish there, which may have prompted the iconic line “It’s ok to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings.”
Perhaps the most interesting story regarding this song is frequently shared by Nirvana’s producer Butch Vig, and concerns its recording. Allegedly, after several attempts to get the song to sound exactly as he imagined, Cobain grew frustrated and insisted that all the phones, fans, and other noise-making objects be turned off or removed from the studio as he whispered the lyrics into a microphone while playing as gently as possible on his out-of-tune acoustic guitar. Novoselic and Grohl backed this story, claiming that they had difficulty recording their respective parts later, as they struggled to match their aggressive playing with Cobain’s gentle delivery.
“Something in the Way” is the only Nirvana song to feature a cello part, which was recorded by friend Kirk Canning. Reportedly, Canning also had difficulties matching Cobain’s out of tune guitar.
Although the song never charted, it spurred several covers and made several appearances in other media over the years.
1. “All Apologies”
For all intents and purposes, “All Apologies” could and should be considered Cobain’s farewell song. It was released as the second single on In Utero in 1993.
In the rare instances in which Kurt spoke publicly about the song, he dedicated its lyrics and message to his wife Courtney and daughter Frances, stating that its message is intended as an apology for what he perceived as never truly living up to expectations as a husband, father, and pop culture icon.
“All Apologies” received critical acclaim. The song was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 1995, won a Broadcast Music Inc. Award, was listed at number 462 on Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, and was included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” These accolades, coupled with its position at number one on 1994’s U.S. Alternative Songs chart and number four on the U.S. mainstream rock charts, makes it beyond worthy of the number one spot.
Although Kurt Cobain is long gone, the mark he left on modern music can never be understated. We hope you enjoyed our definitive ranking of Nirvana’s Ten Best Songs, and we hope you’ll join us in saying “Happy 50th Birthday Kurt.”