Nirvana has long been considered one of the most important bands of the grunge genre, which began developing in the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s. Their five-year career produced some of the most iconic songs of the 1990s. Though they disbanded after Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, these top songs are proof of Nirvana’s effect on modern rock.
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
Any list of Nirvana songs has to include Smells Like Teen Spirit. The song, released in 1991, has famously been called the anthem of Generation X. It has also been credited as the track that helped bring grunge music into the mainstream music charts, hitting No. 1 on charts around the world.
Smells Like Teen Spirit is considered one of the most influential songs in rock and roll at the turn of the century. It has been inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. In addition to the track itself, the music video became famous on MTV (in fact, it has broken records as the most-played music video on MTV Europe). The video, which depicted a high school pep rally descending into anarchy, became the blueprint for future music videos.
Dive was released in 1990 alongside the single Sliver. The song is a lesser-known Nirvana classic, having never appeared on an album and rarely featuring in live performances. Nevertheless, it won wide acclaim from critics, who praised its heavy but universal musical mood and strong vocal performance.
It was also noted for having a markedly different feel from most of Nirvana’s songs up until that time. Nevertheless, it had the classic flavor of the early 1990s grunge. It was generally interpreted as a song about the meaningless niceties of society and how they may feel intrusive to someone who doesn’t understand them.
Polly is widely known as one of the darkest of Nirvana’s songs; it has also been called a hallmark song of Cobain’s feminist beliefs. The song, which was written in 1987, follows the story of Polly, a 14-year-old girl who is kidnapped and raped on her way home from a concert.
The disturbing song is written from the point of view of Polly’s attacker, an interesting choice by Cobain. It is based on the true story of the abduction of a teenage girl who was tortured before escaping and calling for help.
The song has been a source of mystery in terms of the lyrics, with some people saying that Cobain used it to apologize for being a man; others have said that it serves as a dive into a twisted mind or a way to call attention to violent crimes against women.
Breed was released in 1991, a cross of punk rock and grunge that proved to be highly successful. The song’s high energy made it ideal for live performances when audiences would get whipped into a frenzy.
The song was a critique of American suburbia and societal expectations, presented with Kurt Cobain’s typical skilled wordplay. It is presented as a conversation between a couple as they decide what they want out of their life; critics have noted that the song’s minimal lyrics contain layers of meaning.
Breed was also noted for its instrumental manipulation, which featured guitar distortion to create a strange, disorienting effect.
5. Come As You Are
Come As You Are was released just two weeks after Nirvana came to international attention with their No. 1 hit, Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The song was a massive success, placing high on charts around the world. However, Nirvana also faced criticism and the threat of lawsuits from several other bands who said the song sounded too similar to their own songs.
The music video for Come As You Are also became well-known for its unique artistry, which included a variety of clips that are open to interpretation, interspersed with clips of the band performing behind a sheet of falling water.
Nirvana usually played songs live many times before bringing them to the studio. One notable exception was Sliver, released in 1990 as a single.
Lyrically, Sliver is much more straightforward than most of Nirvana’s songs, but in this way, some have suggested that it may have been more autobiographical. The song tells the story of a young boy going to his grandparents’ house for the evening while his parents go to a show. He is absolutely terrified and begs his parents not to leave him. Despite his fears, he ends his evening by watching TV, eating ice cream, and waking in his mother’s arms.
Like the boy in the song, Cobain spent much of his childhood feeling like he was in a strange place and wishing he could go home.
Nirvana recorded Sappy many times from as early as 1988. However, Kurt Cobain was never satisfied with the result, so it was not released until 1993. At that point, it was a quick success, reaching No. 9 on the US Alternative charts. It was also a popular request from audiences during concerts.
The song is a criticism of traditional gender roles, comparing the patriarchy to trapping women in a glass jar like a pet. Sappy comes from a combination of the words “sad” and “happy,” which are reflected in the repeating chorus: “You’ll think you’re happy now.”
8. You Know You’re Right
You Know You’re Right became widely known not just for the content of the song itself, but also for the controversy surrounding it. Recorded in January 1994, it was the final song the band recorded before Kurt Cobain died in April of that year.
Consequently, the song was not released, as the remaining members of the band entered into an extensive legal battle with Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, concerning the ownership of the track. During this, the song was leaked onto the internet and was played extensively—while still not having been officially released.
You Know You’re Right was released in 2002, eight years after Cobain’s death. By then, it was already known around the world.
Blew represents the only song left standing from Nirvana’s brief foray into the doom pop genre. While recording for their debut album, the band experimented with playing several songs a half-step down, resulting in an extraordinarily heavy, roaring sound. After listening to the result, they scrapped the idea and rerecorded all the songs, with the exception of Blew.
The song ended up as a kind of memorial to the brief period, especially because of its limited release. It was intended for release on an EP to promote their upcoming debut album, Bleach. However, circumstances led to it only being released in this format in the UK. With only 3,000 original copies, the song was only widely known for a few years.
10. About a Girl
About a Girl was released in 1989 on Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach. The song was rereleased as an MTV single in October 1994, the band’s first release since Cobain’s death in the spring of that year. It subsequently went to No. 3 on the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart.
Cobain wrote the song in 1989 when he was interested in exploring pop music. However, he didn’t share these aspirations with his bandmates, who were heavily focused on the grunge scene (then almost entirely confined to the Pacific Northwest). Cobain drew on influences of the Beatles and other popular music groups of the 1960s to compose About a Girl. The song signaled that Nirvana might have potential beyond the grunge genre.
11. All Apologies
All Apologies is one of Nirvana’s most-acclaimed songs, releasing in 1993 on In Utero. The song climbed to the top of the Mainstream Rock chart and earned two Grammy Award nominations. It has also been named by the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll.
All Apologies incorporated a lighter, pop sound than most of Nirvana’s music up to that point, including a cello accompaniment. The song was quiet in contrast to their more aggressive tracks and had a happier, more peaceful feeling. Cobain dedicated the song to his wife and daughter.
12. Rape Me
Rape Me is undoubtedly a shocking title, and the 1993 song generated controversy. But the song was intended to be a blunt, unmistakable tribute to the resilience of rape survivors. The chorus was not a perverse invitation, but rather a defiant challenge from a victim to her rapist, telling him to do it and watch her survive anyway.
Perhaps because of its shocking content, Rape Me never received significant airplay on the radio. However, it has received praise from some critics for its open attitude about addressing an uncomfortable, often taboo, topic.
13. Drain You
Drain You was released in 1991 and released on Nevermind. Though it wasn’t as successful as some of the other songs from the same album, it has remained a fan favorite, receiving frequent requests on radio stations. Cobain himself said that it was one of his favorite songs and he considered it better than Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The song was reportedly about Cobain’s relationship with Tobi Vail and deals with topics of infatuation and codependence.
14. Something In The Way
Something In The Way was released on Nirvana’s second album in 1991. The song was loosely based on Cobain’s brief experience with homelessness for four months as a teenager. But it also explored a fantasy of other people’s experiences with homelessness, such as being sick and unable to care for oneself.
The song was largely unknown to mainstream music during its initial release; the band rarely played it live and did not release it as a single. However, in 2022, it hit the charts at No. 46 after appearing in the movie The Batman.
Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, has said that she believes “Something In The Way” is not only one of Nirvana’s best songs, but also one of the best songs in the history of rock.
Lithium is one of Nirvana’s best-known songs. It was released in 1991 on their album Nevermind and featured a soft-loud contrast between the verses and the chorus that the band became known for in later years.
Though it was overshadowed by the success of other songs on the same album such as Smells Like Teen Spirit, Lithium remains a fan favorite, not just for its musical elements but also for its deep lyrics.
Cobain wrote the song about a man using religion to cope with the death of a girlfriend. The title comes from the main component found in many mood-stabilizing medications, indicating that the protagonist might not have as much closure as his words suggest.
16. Lounge Act
For most of the time he was composing songs for 1991’s Nevermind, Kurt Cobain was in a relationship with musician Tobi Vail of the band Bikini Kill. Lounge Act, which was included on the album, was written about their relationship. As Cobain was composing the song, someone told him that the backing instrumentals reminded them of lounge music, which inspired the title.
Cobain’s biography, Heavier Than Heaven, contains a letter to Vail, which was never sent. In the letter, Cobain wrote that he didn’t write songs about Vail, with the exception of Lounge Act. The song is about the pressure Cobain felt in their relationship to change himself.
17. Scentless Apprentice
Scentless Apprentice is a track that was included on the 1993 album In Utero. The song is based on the novel Perfume: The Story of A Murderer, by Patrick Süskind, a favorite of Cobain’s. It is a patchwork of references to the story, marked by Cobain’s signature wordplay.
Unlike most of Nirvana’s songs, Scentless Apprentice features a guitar riff composed not by Cobain, but by guitarist Dave Grohl. Though the song did not make a significant impression on the charts during its initial release, it has been praised for its musical complexity, which strayed from the band’s usual style. Some critics have called it one of the most adventurous songs the band ever recorded.
18. Been a Son
Kurt Cobain was known for his outspoken feminist beliefs, which were rarely on better display than in Been a Son. The song was first released in 1989 on the Blew EP. It was rerecorded and rereleased several years later on the compilation album Incesticide, with Nirvana increasing the tempo and intensity of the track.
The song was praised for its pop influences, which took cues from groups such as the Beatles. This struck a contrast to Nirvana’s other early songs, which were more purely grunge.
Been a Son is about a girl whose parents—particularly her father—resent her for not being a boy. The feminist anthem provides commentary on the absurdity of sexism, which discriminates against women for not being born male.
Cobain once told his ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail that he had only ever written one song about her—1991’s Lounge Act. But his biographer Charles Cross contended that there were a number of songs that Cobain wrote about his feelings in the wake of their breakup, one of which was the song Aneurysm.
The song was released as a B-side to Smells Like Teen Spirit, which may have overshadowed its release. Fans and critics, however, have sometimes called it Nirvana’s last great grunge song, as it was released at the time of their mainstream breakthrough. It featured more instrumental manipulation than the band usually did, which was used to create an attention-grabbing, strange effect.
20. In Bloom
In Bloom was one of Nirvana’s many top singles that were released in succession, making the band one of the biggest groups of the early 1990s. The song was released on their album Nevermind and reached the top 10 on the mainstream charts, showing the increasingly blurred lines between grunge and mainstream rock.
In fact, it was this growing popularity that inspired the lyrics of In Bloom; it was intended to be a criticism of shallow people pretending to be genuine fans. After the release of their first album, Bleach, in 1989, Nirvana was at the center of the increasingly popular grunge scene. This resulted in a shift from a largely underground music environment to one that was much more mainstream.
21. Heart-Shaped Box
Heart-Shaped Box was featured on Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero. The song has been subject to many interpretations over the years, with Cobain himself saying it was inspired by his emotional response to television PSAs about child cancer patients. However, the lyrics are much more focused on exploring concepts of emotional dependency and sexual “debt.”
In 2012, Cobain’s widow Courtney Love caused controversy on Twitter when she claimed that the song was written about her genitalia. However, Love deleted the tweets soon afterward and this explanation has never been shared by anyone else.
The song reached No. 1 on the charts when it was first released. Many musical experts consider it the best work Nirvana ever produced.
22. Milk It
Milk It, released in 1993 on Nirvana’s final album In Utero, showed a shift in the band’s focus to a more aggressive, darker sound. Much of this was connected to Kurt Cobain’s struggles with addiction and suicidal ideation, which were compounded by mental issues such as depression and bipolar disorder.
The song describes these struggles as a parasite that lives within the singer, with each one both nourishing and poisoning the other.
Though the song has largely been overshadowed by more famous tracks, Milk It remains one of Nirvana’s best songs of their later era.
23. Negative Creep
Negative Creep was one of Nirvana’s earliest songs, being performed live for several years before it was recorded for their debut album, Bleach, in 1989. The song was noted for Cobain’s vocal performance, during which he sang with such intensity that his own voice was distorted.
The song has been called the most authentic Seattle grunge song the band ever produced—which makes sense, considering that Nirvana was largely still operating within the underground Seattle music scene when it was composed.
Negative Creep is usually interpreted as an angsty song about awkwardness and self-consciousness, though other interpretations have also been suggested. Cobain wrote the song about himself to describe how he had always felt like a pessimistic person who didn’t know where he fit.
Kurt Cobain did not do well in school, dropping out just two weeks before graduation when he realized he could not catch up in time to earn his diploma. He didn’t have good experiences in school, feeling resentful of his teachers and peers, with whom he didn’t fit in.
After dropping out, he took a job as a janitor at his old high school. The experience stuck with him, as he continued to see his former teachers and classmates.
All this came to a head in the song School, released in 1989 on Nirvana’s debut album. As the group moved away from the underground grunge scene and into mainstream music, Cobain felt that their new fans resembled the bullies he had dealt with in school. The song is based on his experiences as a janitor at his former school, feeling like he was trapped back in his childhood—but this, he didn’t even get to have recess.
25. Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle
Cobain saw a kindred spirit in the late actress and Seattle native Frances Farmer, whose battle with schizophrenia and addiction led to her being involuntarily confined to a psychiatric institution throughout the 1940s. He composed the song, Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle, as a tribute to her, including it on Nirvana’s final album, In Utero.
Cobain identified with Farmer not only because of her struggles with addiction and mental health problems, but also because of her mistreatment by the media. The song was released shortly after Courtney Love was accused of using heroin while pregnant with her and Cobain’s daughter.
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