Many of my favorite bands have lost members. This is bound to happen since I am freaking 47 years old. However, most have NOT lost their lead singer. Who was also the lead guitarist. Who was also the main lyricist. I'm sure you know I mean Nirvana. My other favorite bands, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Bad Company still have the benefit of their voice, regardless of whether the band still performs together. And while I know Dave Grohl is a fantastic lead for Foo Fighters (lots of love for that band as well!) after coming from behind the drums, the voice of Nirvana was Kurt Cobain.
It was 22 years ago that Cobain was found dead in a greenhouse above a garage on his property in east Seattle. Here, I am not going to entertain conspiracy theories or wax poetic about his death, I would simply rather remember his legacy as the leader of one of the most influential bands in history. And there's no better way to honor my admiration for his music than to simply talk about the music itself. So here are my favorite Nirvana songs
I've already mentioned my love of this song once or twice on this blog. While many hold Smells Like Teen Spirit in the highest regard as being Nirvana's best song (and they are probably right), I have such an affinity for this song with its simple chords and revealing lyrics. The chorus is a screaming anthem that one simply cannot play softly. I recall reading somewhere (probably more than once) that Cobain was irritated by people always trying to evaluate the meaning of his lyrics when he in fact preferred fans to interpret them as they saw fit, as everyone takes different meaning from them and that is what he enjoyed.
This song is a perfect example of the "famous" style that many Nirvana songs had, with soft verses and loud, grueling yet musically delicious choruses. Lithium is also the song in which producer Butch Vig made drummer Dave Grohl use a click track to maintain tempo while recording. (Yes folks, someone actually told Dave Grohl how to play drums. The nerve!) Nonetheless, the tactic worked and it became their third hit off the Nevermind album.
- Smells Like Teen Spirit
There is not really a lot to say about this particular song that hasn't already been said. It is by far their most famous song and for very good reasons. It is a freaking anthem. It defines the era. Its four chord riff is absolutely simplistic in style but a freight train in perfection. Some time ago, I saw someone wearing a t-shirt that said "Smells like the only Nirvana song you know", which made me laugh at the obvious truth of the statement. People who know no other songs by Nirvana know Smells Like Teen Spirit. Its enough of a song to make you call yourself a fan, though you've never heard anything off the Bleach album and think Dave Grohl was the one and only drummer. Maybe you're not familiar with the band's cover of the David Bowie song The Man Who Sold The World, but by god you've seen the Smells Like Teen Spirit video 407 times! Pennyroyal Tea sounds like something the Queen of England would partake of, right? But give you four seconds of Teen Spirit and you can shout Nirvana! on Name that Tune, right? There was no coming back from profound fame after this song started getting airplay, and was probably the nail in the coffin of Kurt Cobain. But the song really is THAT GOOD!
- Molly's Lips
Yes, I realize you've never heard this song. Unless you are actually a fan of Nirvana. A FAN, I should say. Nirvana, collectively, was a big fan of The Vaselines, a Scottish alt rock band with punk leanings. Several of their tunes were covered by Nirvana over the years, but this one is my favorite for its pure punk sounds not completely unlike The Ramones. It's a fun song, of which really can't be said about a lot of the morose and melancholy renderings we are used to from Kurt.
- Territorial Pissings
"Come on people now, smile on your brother and
everybody get together, try to love one another right now."And so begins Territorial Pissings, with bassist Krist Novoselic yammering the chorus of The Youngbloods' 1966 hit, Get Together, before a barrage of drums and guitars slam into the heart of this mostly punk, entirely energetic song about "finding a better way". With Smells Like Teen Spirit, it was sung on the band's first appearance on Saturday Night Live back in early 1992. They smashed the shit out of their instruments afterward, and it's amazing they were ever asked back. But let's face it, if you were going to trash your set, this is the song to do it to.
- In Bloom
One of the best, if not THE best examples of the soft verse/loud chorus hook that Nirvana became so famous for. And it has to be said that this is surely their best video. Actually the second video shot for this song, its set-up has the grunge trio decked out like a new band at a 60's variety show, with the clean cut group eventually digressing into dress-wearing nut-jobs that destroy the entire set, whilst screaming fans (scenes obviously cut from something along the lines of The Ed Sullivan show) have a fit in the audience. Filmed entirely in black and white, it has a perfect 60's feel to it. Until they go off the deep end, then it's just freaking hilarious. The song itself was the fourth hit off Nevermind and was rumored to be written about one of Kurt's friends, Dylan Carlson. But listening to the chorus talking about 'liking to shoot his gun' just gives me pause, as anything associated with guns and Kurt Cobain is likely to do.
In Utero, Nirvana's third studio album, boasts at least two songs more famous than this one (Heart Shaped Box and All Apologies), but this is my favorite off that album. Written in 1990 but released in '93, Dumb seems like a very personal song for Cobain in which he seems to publicly announce that he's "happy". It sounds like a pop song, perhaps one of the only melodies that truly sounds that way. And the lyrics are short and sweet phrases: I'm not like them. But I can pretend. The sun is gone. But I have a light. My day is done, But I'm having fun. I think I'm dumb. Maybe just happy... Is it foolish to pretend Kurt Cobain was ever happy?
- Come As You Are
I feel like this song, the second single from Nevermind, is the quintessential Kurt Cobain. You can really hear his voice on this one. He's not screaming, he's just singing. The raspy wail we are so used to is no finer than on this particular song. It's also the one that he actually plays a guitar solo in, which we all know was far and few between. Its melody was really radio-ready and by all accounts would appear to be the most commercially foolproof song. And yes, it was entirely popular. But to hear the chorus in which Kurt sings "And I swear I don't have a gun" is kind of a gut-punch at this point, don't you think? It is hard to hear now, and damn if every time I hear it, I am forced to imagine that room over the garage. I wish I could forget that particular thought, but it always comes back. Regardless, this really is classic Nirvana. That voice!!
- Where Did You Sleep Last Night
For the MTV Unplugged special, Nirvana didn't want to just play all their hits without benefit of amps, they wanted to do something different. Straying from most of the songs that made them famous, they chose several covers, with this folk song staple being the final song in the show. It was the best possible way to go out, as it is a piece of art. The raw, melancholy performance of Cobain in this song would cement his legacy as the "tortured rock star" persona that everyone had him pegged as. Also known as "In the Pines" and perfected by Lead Belly in the 40's, the lyrics were changed slightly here to make the "Black Girl" in the opening line "My Girl", but the heart of the old tune remains the same. It is a poignant recording, arguably one of Cobain's best, with the first two verses quite understated, followed by the final verse in sheer agonizing perfection. No one has ever screamed anything quite so eloquently.
- Rape Me
What starts as a great riff quickly makes one pause when the lyrics start. Contrary to what people may think, Rape Me is meant to be an anthem for rape survivors. Cobain was a known feminist, always arguing through his lyrics for women's rights. He wrote the song with the intent that women could say "Go ahead and rape me - you won't win, I am stronger than that." Nonetheless, controversy surrounded the song. MTV almost lost their fucking mind back in 1992 when Nirvana was to play Smells Like Teen Spirit at an awards show but wanted to play Rape Me. They almost left without playing at all but agreed to sing Lithium. However, once on stage, Kurt famously started singing Rape Me before switching to Lithium a few chords in. Defiance was the name of the game.
- Something In The Way
Are there many slow Nirvana songs, you ask? Why no, there are not. But this song is just beautiful. No riffs, no screaming, just pure feeling. The low, barely audible verses combined with the allure of the harmonies (yes, harmonies) of the chorus make this an impeccable ballad. In fact, I use it as my ringtone if you can believe it. They also performed it live for the MTV Unplugged show and it is just as raw and heartfelt.
- About A Girl
I think this is the only song I have on this list from Nirvana's first album, Bleach. It feels so much more like a pop song than a "grunge" song. Word has it that it was written about a girlfriend of Kurt's, and you can kind of hear that in the lyrics. Pressure to stay with his punk leanings and grunge persona, Kurt has said that he felt nervous adding this song to the Bleach lineup as it felt too "Beatlesque". But maybe it's for that reason that it has become one of my favorite songs in the Nirvana catalog. "I'll take advantage while...You hang me out to dry. But I can't see you every night...Free."
What a great song! Written in 1990, Sliver was released in 1992 to support a compilation album, Insecticide. It has relatively silly lyrics and a really pop sound but it's extremely fun and sounds like something a few guys recorded when they were hanging out in their garage. The video feels exactly like that, in fact. Cobain with dark hair is a pretty weird effect, and as they romp around in what looks like a bedroom, all three guys seem to be having a blast. You will too.
- All Apologies
Lastly (because this list is getting long with no end in sight)...All Apologies...a song that was written in 1990 but didn't show up until the In Utero album in 1993. The coarse raspiness of Cobain's voice is on full display here, in its finest form. The lyrics are debatable but he seems to be apologizing for just being himself. Some of the words, like "Married...Buried...." seem to indicate the possibility of being unhappy - but he has more than once said the song was written for Courtney and Frances, so it seems to be a contradiction in and of itself. Regardless of the lyric interpretation, it is a seriously beautiful, melodic song, arguably one of his best. There was no video made specifically for this release, so the MTV Unplugged version is most often used in its place. It's hard not to feel for Cobain while watching this song, or most of this concert, truth be told. He often exhibits a haunting look in his eyes, whether it is from drug withdrawls, his famed stomach issues, domestic unhappiness or just despair brought on by depression, he really comes off as the troubled soul everyone takes him to be. Someone who could not handle fame. Someone who just wanted to play his music and be left alone. If only....
***We still miss you, Kurt.