All 100 Nirvana Songs Ranked Worst to Best
Nirvana's influence was so immense, it's easy to forget just how little music they recorded. There were only three official LPs, a handful of EPs, a smattering of singles and one-offs. Sadly, out of the 100 songs we compiled for this list, the highest concentration are from 2004's With the Lights Out, an expansive box set of rare and unreleased cuts.
Here's the thing, though: With very few exceptions, Kurt Cobain didn't write filler. Some of his most iconic moments were actually tacked onto compilations ("Sappy") or even went unreleased ("You Know You're Right") before his suicide at age 27.
Cobain's death on April 5, 1994 shifted rock culture as much as his grunge anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But where does it finish among Nirvana's best tracks? We've taken a look at everything from "Beans" to "Big Cheese," from "Mrs. Butterworth" to "Mr. Moustache" to compile this list of All 100 Nirvana Songs Ranked Worst to Best.
100. "Immigrant Song," With the Lights Out (2004)
Cobain and the boys add a punk spin to this Led Zeppelin classic in rehearsal footage unearthed for a warts-and-all box set called With the Lights Out. It's fun as a completist's gaze into this multi-platinum band's humble beginnings. But the fidelity is so gross that it couldn't possibly be anything but their least essential recording.
99. "Raunchola," With the Lights Out (2004)
This January 1988 live recording finds Nirvana at their most amateurish — pairing rickety punk riffs, noisy guitar spasms, and warbled nonsense about gutters and cocktails.
98. "Beans," With the Lights Out (2004)
Nirvana's debut LP, 1989's Bleach, is defined by its sludgy, de-tuned distortion, so it's hard to imagine how this wacky leftover — 91 grating seconds of pitch-shifted vocals and acoustic pluck — would have fit in. "[Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman] thought it was stupid," Cobain told Michael Azerrad in his 1993 book Come As You Are. In this case, the executive's instincts were spot-on. Kudos to Cobain for trying to showcase the band's quirky, avant-garde side at this early stage. If only he'd written an actual song to accompany the weirdness.
97. "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip," In Utero (1993)
This improvisational demo, a blend of mumbled nonsense and atonal rumblings, was recorded during a January 1993 session in Brazil and slapped onto some CD editions of In Utero as a bonus track. Nirvana's final album mostly harnessed abrasiveness as a weapon (see "Milk It," "Very Ape"). Here, it was a crutch.
96. "Seasons in the Sun," With the Lights Out (2004)
In this Brazil outtake, Terry Jacks' cornball 1974 hit is transformed into an ironic slacker-rock mumble-along. (Though the irony couldn't have been too thick since Cobain once journaled about his childhood affection for the song.) No one was taking this very seriously, as evidenced by the instrument-swapping: Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic churn along competently enough on bass and guitar, respectively, but Cobain's plodding drums are amusingly rough.
95. "The Other Improv," With the Lights Out (2004)
Is there anyone on Earth who cites this ragged Brazil leftover as their favorite song?
94. "If You Must," With the Lights Out (2004)
Cobain accidentally channels Bob Dylan on this dissonant waltz from their January 1988 demo. "Set the mood, something new," he wheezes over the din. "Is it me, or my attitude?" In this case, the latter.
93. "Return of the Rat," Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers (1992)
Nirvana did the Wipers an enormous solid by covering the Portland punk band's "Return of the Rat" for a tribute album. Good deed indeed, but their straightforward version added nothing to the original.
92. "Curmudegon," "Lithium" single (1992)
Cobain references fleas, Satan, and God on this plodding B-side, his ramblings fighting for air under a mountain of fuzz and phaser.
91. "They Hung Him on the Cross," With the Lights Out (2004)
Cobain and Novoselic joined Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel in 1989 for an aborted attempt at forming a modern-day blues supergroup, called the Jury. That resulted in a passive studio session in which they cranked out four Lead Belly covers, including this nauseating take on the Jesus story, "They Hung Him on a Cross," featuring a solo Cobain moaning over an out-of-tune guitar.
90. "My Best Friend's Girl," In Utero reissue (2013)
At age 14, armed with the used guitar he received as a birthday present, Cobain started mining the classic rock songbook — learning the chords of anthems like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," and this 1978 Cars hit. Over a decade later, Cobain went back to his teenage roots, dusting off the New Wave tune to open Nirvana's Munich, Germany gig on March 1, 1994 — in what became their final show. The performance is ragged but charming, with Cobain attempting to ape Ric Ocasek's clipped vocal style before slipping back into grunge again on chorus.
89. "Big Cheese," "Love Buzz" single (1988)
Some high, atmospheric vocal harmonies prove Cobain wasn't afraid of pop beauty early on, despite what the raucous onslaught of Bleach may have suggested. Otherwise, it's by-the-numbers brooding for a band who'd quickly grow out of that one-dimensional phase.
88. "Token Eastern Song," With the Lights Out (2004)
Cobain saw the value (and, based on the title, humor) in rock bands playing around with Eastern melodies. But this 1989 leftover — his most overt exploration in that vein — is more interesting in theory than as an actual song, despite Novoselic's colorful bassline.
87. "Do You Love Me?," Hard to Believe: A Kiss Cover Compilation (1990)
Guitarist Jason Everman makes one of his two recorded Nirvana appearances on this Kiss cover, not that you can tell: It's a demo-worthy afterthought stuffed to the brim with Cobain's wild wails. It's fun hearing the band's undervalued silly side, but it's also painful on the ears.
86. "Ain't It a Shame to Go Fishin' on a Sunday," With the Lights Out (2004)
Cobain rants about fishing, drinking, and spousal abuse on this boogie-rock throwaway from the Jury sessions.
85. "I Hate Myself and Want to Die," The Beavis and Butthead Experience (1993)
The backstory of this Brazil recording, a demented swirl of sci-fi feedback and carnivalesque bass, is much more intriguing than the song itself. Cobain originally wanted to use the title — a joke about his public perception — for In Utero, but he wisely backed off the idea. "Nothing more than a joke," he told Rolling Stone of the name. "And that had a bit to do with why we decided to take it off. We knew people wouldn’t get it; they’d take it too seriously. It was totally satirical, making fun of ourselves. I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked–out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. 'He isn’t satisfied with anything.' And I thought it was a funny title. I wanted it to be the title of the album for a long time. But I knew the majority of the people wouldn’t understand it." The sarcasm flew over the head of Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, who once said the song's "fucking rubbish" attitude inspired him to write "Live Forever." That's one roundabout way to score a hit.
84. "Help Me I'm Hungry," With the Lights Out (2004)
Nirvana, then with drummer Aaron Burckhard, unveiled this abrasive cut during a 1987 in-studio set for Olympia's KOAS community radio station. It's tough to parse Cobain's tortured screams, but he clearly references a man feeding his picked-off scabs to a pigeon. Cool? For reasons that remain a mystery, they periodically dusted it off onstage over the next four years.
83. "Stain," Blew EP (1989)
"He never bleeds, and he never fucks / And he never leaves 'cause he's got bad luck," Cobain observes. The squawking guitar solo is no consolation.
82. "Jam," In Utero reissue (2003)
Novoselic churns out a bluesy bassline, Grohl pummels away at his tom-toms like they owe him money, and Cobain blissfully wigs out on the guitar. This In Utero outtake is the sound of Nirvana's classic trio in full flight — if only they were armed with a song.
81. "Anorexorcist," With the Lights Out (2004)
The grinding "Anorexorcist" dates back to 1985, when Cobain recorded a demo with his short-lived punk act Fecal Matter (featuring Melvins drummer — and briefly tenured Nirvana recruit — Dale Crover). It survived into the Nirvana days and wound up preserved during the KOAS session, but it's only worth exploring as a historical footnote. (Fist bump to Novoselic for his melodic bass part, dancing high above the detuned din.)
80. "Old Age," With the Lights Out (2004)
So much backstory, so little song. "Old Age" started out in 1991 as a loose cassette recording intended to showcase their material for producer Butch Vig (who went on to produce Nevermind); and the band recorded an in-progress take during the sessions for that album. It wound up being developed and finished off by Cobain's then-wife, Courtney Love, in 1993 for the B-side of "Beautiful Son," a single from her band, Hole. (An updated Hole version then emerged two years later.) The credits curiously only listed Love's name, though Novoselic confirmed to The Stranger in 1998 that "Old Age" was a Cobain composition. When the Nevermind version wound up on this massive box set six years later, listening to it felt like voyeurism: Cobain mumbles half-formed lyrics over a clean guitar progression, teasing the Nevermind-caliber rock anthem that never was.
79. "Tourette's," In Utero (1993)
"Moderate rock," Cobain sarcastically announces to open this raw punk surge, which borrows its vocal rhythm, almost beat-for-beat, from Nevermind classic "Stay Away." Except there's no melody, and the riff is a dead-end. In Utero wasn't exactly a "screw you" to radio programmers, but "Tourette's" was the closest they came.
78. "Mr. Moustache," Bleach (1989)
"Yes, I eat cow — I am not proud," Cobain admits over an angular, chromatic riff. Is the frontman defending himself against hipster vegetarians, rolling his eyes at local elitism? "Fill me in with your new vision," he sarcastically begs, probably hoping to never receive the answer.
77. "Floyd the Barber," Bleach (1989)
A twisted nightmare or a failed attempt at midnight-black humor? Either way, it's pretty disturbing. Over shards of palm-muted guitar, Cobain envisions walking into a horrific barber shop and being sexually assaulted by the entire cast of The Andy Griffith Show.
76. "Heartbreaker," With the Lights Out (2004)
During Nirvana's first concert, a March 1987 house party, someone yelled out for this early Led Zeppelin anthem. "We don't know it!" one of the band members fired back. But they lurched into the riff nonetheless — first instrumentally, then with Cobain wildly screaming the lyrics. Extra points to the frontman for attempting the Jimmy Page guitar solo.
75. "Moist Vagina," With the Lights Out (2004)
Cobain was capable of writing gloriously surreal poetry (see "Heart-Shaped Box"). He was also capable of ... this: "She had a moist vagina / I particularly enjoyed the circumstance / I've been sucking walls of her anus / Anilingus." Yikes. Another head-scratching Brazil outtake, this one with the singer yelping over a two-chord guitar vamp and death march drums. Sonic Youth must have been intrigued by the TMI lyrics — they recorded a cover version in 1998.
74. "Turnaround," Hormoaning EP (1992)
In which Nirvana remove the jittery, synth-fueled zeal from a signature Devo tune and bathe it in lukewarm distortion.
73. "Big Long Now," Incesticide (1992)
The Bleach band sounds unsure of itself on this sloppy, dissonant outtake, struggling to maintain a solid tempo. The only noteworthy element is the way the music slows at the end, a clever arrangement trick rarely utilized in rock.
72. "Downer" Bleach reissue (1989)
“I was trying to be Mr. Political Punk Rock Black Flag guy,” Cobain told Michael Azerrad of this bass-propelled cut, which lashes out at a "slippery pessimist hypocrite master" and "conservative communist apocalyptic bastard." “I really didn't know what I was talking about. I was just throwing together words.”
71. "Here She Comes Now," Heaven & Hell: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground (1990)
Cobain channels Lou Reed's signature vocal style on this faithful Velvet Underground cover, stretching out the track to five minutes. Novoselic's bouncy, Tina Weymouth-ish bassline is a particular highlight.
70. "Opinion," With the Lights Out (2004)
Our frontman sneers and snarls over a hotly mic'ed acoustic guitar strum, railing against the media's lazy writing ("It's a year's subscription of bad puns") and seemingly constant negativity ("They have an affect on our heartbeat's tock"). Given its early stage (tracked during the 1990 KAOS radio show), the song shows promise — hinting to the four-chord triumphs he'd perfect soon after.
69. "Son of a Gun," Hormoaning EP (1992)
Cobain was so enamored with the Vaselines that he covered three of the Scottish alt-rock band's songs with Nirvana, including this straightforward pop-punk number. While the other two ("Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam," "Molly's Lips") were destined to become career highlights, "Son of a Gun" fell through the cracks in their catalog.
68. "The Money Will Roll Right In," Live at Reading (2009)
Continuing their mission of exposing the world to obscure bands, Nirvana looked to the California punk band Fang for "The Money Will Roll Right In." In their Live at Reading performance, captured in August 1992, Cobain mumbles eerily over a heavy riff that could easily serve as a spy movie theme.
67. "Aero Zeppelin," Incesticide (1992)
Given that it's the first song Nirvana ever played live, "Aero Zeppelin" is fittingly tethered to their influences — most evident during a cocky, strutting guitar riff that borrows a hint of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." But for a song titled after two hard rock bands, it packs a surprising amount of punk energy.
66. "Scoff," Bleach (1989)
"Gimme back my alcohol," Cobain rails on this sturdy but unremarkable deep cut, which tosses some New Wave swagger (a la the Knack's "My Sharona") into the sludge.
65. "White Lace and Strange," With the Lights Out (2004)
As a guitarist, Cobain was never a master technician. But he was capable of some dazzling moments when the mood struck: See this rabid live Thunder and Roses cover, tracked during their KOAS radio session. The first half of the song is fairly pedestrian hard rock, giving way to a blaring solo that conjures the punky spawn of Tony Iommi.
64. "Mrs. Butterworth," With the Lights Out (2004)
Cobain rants about poverty ("Maybe someday I can get rid of that piss-stained mattress I've been sleeping on"), an overall low quality of life ("My life is shit, shit," "I'm gonna die; who wants to say?"), and his career plans for opening a nest-egg flea market on this haggard but pleasingly heavy rehearsal cut. The reference to his "libido" can't help but recall one of the band's most famous tunes — but "Smells Like Teen Spirit" didn't sound like it was recorded with the microphones inside a trash can.
63. "Beeswax," Kill Rock Stars compilation (1991)
What in the world is Cobain raving about on the juvenile and perverse "Beeswax"? No clue. But his gross-out sex lyrics are somehow immensely entertaining, as he raves about anal intercourse, splayed-out "dingalings," and masturbation. With those lyrics, it was never destined to be a classic. But the arrangement is more intricate than one might expect, with Dave Crover's nuanced, cymbal-heavy drums leading the riffs through sections of 4/4 and 7/8.
62. "Talk to Me," With the Lights Out (2004)
We don't know for sure if Cobain and company ever properly recorded this sprightly rocker, but Hole did track the song during an August 1993 session. They never finished it off, so Love passed the symbolic baton to Iggy Pop, but her late husband's hero politely declined. "I like Kurt's music, but I have no interest in doing Kurt's music," the former Stooges frontman told the Big Takeover in 2002. At least the two were able to meet during Cobain's lifetime: "Iggy Pop is pretty much the only person that I've ever met that I really, really admire," Cobain told Much Music in 1993.
61. "Grey Goose," With the Lights Out (2004)
The verdict is in on thissong by the Jury: It's kinda pointless, an awkward instrumental adaptation of a folk tune famously covered by Lead Belly in the 1930s. Discarding the lyrics (and any real musical development), the bluesy riff just kinda plods on and on. But there's a real charm to the off-hand jam vibe, with the guitarists building mammoth, Black Sabbath-y distortion over Mark Pickerel's tumbling drum fills.
60. "Verse Chorus Verse," With the Lights Out (2004)
The semi-ironic title "Verse Chorus Verse" clearly meant a lot to Cobain — he used it as a placeholder title on different occasions. This Nevermind castaway emerged under that moniker on With the Lights Out as a catchy four-chord rocker. It bears more than a slight resemblance to "Polly," with a simple, four-chord riff punctuated by brief moments of calm.
59. "Mexican Seafood," Teriyaki Asthma, Volume I (1989)
"Mexican Seafood" is the grossest song in a catalog that features many a queasy lyric. "Now I vomit cum and diarrhea / On the tile floor like oatmeal pizza," Cobain recounts. "Fill my toilet bowl full of a cloudy puss / I feel the blood becoming chowder rust." The music is equally insane, full of flubbed bass notes and bizarre accents. The highlight comes around halfway through with a nifty hard-rock guitar breakdown.
58. "Pen Cap Chew," With the Lights Out (2004)
The pounding, metallic "Pen Cap Chew" dates back to Nirvana's first studio session from January 1988. Most of those recordings saw the light of day during Cobain's lifetime, with tracks popping up on Bleach and Incesticide. This one remained on the cutting room floor for years – partly because they never properly finished it. After a barrage of jackhammer riffs, the song ends with an anticlimactic fade-out. (They ran out of tape halfway through the session.)
57. "Spank Thru," With the Lights Out (2004)
Cobain conjures flowers with gingivitis and unfurls masturbation references on the surreal "Spank Thru," which opens with an R.E.M.-leaning jangle-pop riff before switching gears into grunge. (Some fans have joked that the lyric "I've been looking for Day Glo" sounds like "I've been looking for Dave Grohl" — given how mumbly Cobain's lyrics were at this point, I guess we can't write it off for sure.)
56. "Even in His Youth," Hormoaning (1992)
"Daddy was ashamed — he was nothing / Smears the family name — he was something," Cobain sings over a primal two-chord riff and ride-heavy drum groove, tapping into youthful angst the way only he could. The song, a leftover from the sessions of the 1989 Blew EP, lacks the melodic or dynamic focus that flourished on Nevermind. But it proved Nirvana were already rising above their late-'80s murk.
55. "Endless, Nameless," Nevermind (1991)
Ah, hidden tracks: now an adorable relic, then a genuine bolt of lightning through your headphones. Nevermind's secret closer wasn't exactly a masterpiece: It's basically seven minutes of feedback, fuzz, caterwauling, and what sounds like the dying cries of a blown-out synth-bass. But as a jolting grand finale after the tranquil acoustic ballad "Something in the Way," the contrast still retains some of its original excitement.
54. "Forgotten Tune" In Utero reissue (2003)
A mild surf-rock vibe highlights this instrumental In Utero outtake, which is much lighter and less emotionally suffocating than most of that LP. “We found it and were like, what is this song? And I don’t really remember,” Novoselic told NPR. “And [we were], like, what do you want to call it? And I’m like, I don’t want to give it a name, so let’s just call it ‘Forgotten Tune’ and let people make up their own minds what it is."
53. "Don't Want It All," With the Lights Out (2004)
An atmospheric Cobain four-track demo that you wish Nirvana could've developed in the studio, "Don't Want It All" finds the frontman moaning over a post-punk bass line, pitter-putter percussion sounds and random sound effects. Even in its unfinished state, its gloominess is haunting.
52. "D-7," With the Lights Out (2004)
Cobain once again paid tribute to his favorite Portland punks on this droning Wipers cover, which appeared on the Hormoaning EP. The track peaks with a furious instrumental climax and a blaring guitar solo that resembles a short-circuiting dial-up modem.
51. "Hairspray Queen," Incesticide (1992)
This track's discordant, funky bassline and knotty, high-octave guitar riff owe a debt to Talking Heads and the early post-punk field. The vocal is pure insanity — a deafening squall that sounds like a rowdy toddler screaming between bites of food.
50. "Negative Creep," Bleach (1989)
"It’s just general bitching," Novoselic once said of this detuned, palm-muted track. "I'm a negative creep, and I'm stoned," Cobain wails, his tortured howl growing increasingly hoarse. The song's most notable feature is its start-stop rhythmic attack, which offers a strange forward motion.
49. "Aneurysm," Incesticide (1992)
The lyrics have been scrutinized to death by hardcore fans seeking thematic breadcrumbs about Cobain's drug addiction ("Come on over, shoot the shit" / "She keeps it pumping straight to my heart"), but it's widely accepted that "Aneurysm" reflects back on the nervous jitters he experienced with his then-ex-girlfriend Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail. The music itself is a bit slight, but it's fun hearing Cobain shout about doing "the twist" in a bluesy drawl.
48. "Clean Up Before She Comes," With the Lights Out (2004)
One of the most iconic Cobain home demos, "Clean Up Before She Comes" finds the singer murmuring in sleepy three-part harmony over a twitchy, bluesy electric guitar. Lyrical themes include literal filth ("Living in a dusty dump") and surprising dietary choices ("I must be getting old / I'm starting to eat my vegetables").
47. "Lounge Act," Nevermind (1991)
One of the only Nevermind songs that sounds like Cobain knocked off five minutes before recording, "Lounge Act" lacks the immersive darkness or dynamic shifts that define their masterpiece. Using any other standard, it's a solid rock song, built on a spidery Novoselic bassline and Cobain-in-pop-mode hook.
46. "Do Re Mi," With the Lights Out (2004)
This Cobain home demo gained legendary status after Jim DeRogatis included a glowing description in his 2002 piece on the late musician's estate. When it emerged on With the Lights Out, this acoustic bedside recording couldn't help feel a bit underwhelming, with Cobain belting a Beatles-ish melody in a key slightly too high for his quivering voice. But you can hear the seed of a Nevermind-level song here, which only amplifies the sadness.
45. "Love Buzz," Bleach (1989)
For their debut single, Nirvana added a punk spin to this Dutch psych-rock cut from Shocking Blue, a staple of their early live shows. The result, propelled by Novoselic's piercing bass riff, offers far more ear candy than anything else in their Bleach-era repertoire — proving Cobain had yet to fully embrace his melodic side.
44. "Marigold," "Heart-Shaped Box" single (1993)
Dave Grohl had already amassed a back catalog of songs before Nirvana's demise. The haunting, understated "Marigold" was our first glimpse — first appearing on his cassette-only 1992 album, Pocketwatch, under the name Late!, then to wider exposure as the "Heart-Shaped Box" B-side. Grohl's melodic gifts are already in full bloom here, even if he sounds a bit under-confident as a vocalist. Just compare it to the more intense version from Foo Fighters' 2006 live album, Skin and Bones.
43. "Blandest," With the Lights Out (2004)
Recorded during the 1988 sessions that also spawned "Love Buzz," "Blandest" is certainly more interesting than its title suggests. At its core is an angular, chromatic guitar riff and vocal melody that wipes the floor with 90 percent of Bleach. But sloppiness takes it down a few pegs: Channing, in particular, sounds unsure of the song's structure, rushing many of his snare fills.
42. "Oh, the Guilt," With the Lights Out (2004)
It's unclear exactly what Cobain is snarling about on this menacing track, which originally appeared on a split single with the Jesus Lizard in 1993. "She likes to think, she likes to drink / She seems too weak, she takes all the rent / She likes the time, she owns the time / She borrows time to self-invent," Cobain observes over lurching bass and drums, building to a volatile guitar solo.
41. "Swap Meet," Bleach (1989)
The hulking, detuned cousin to the cheerily surreal "Sliver," with a vocal cadence that mirrors that song's childlike rhythm, "Swap Meet" presents a snapshot of the relationship between a traveling couple who sell kitschy arts and crafts for a living. Channing offers one of his standout Nirvana performances, barreling the song forward with his furious snare rolls.
40. "Paper Cuts," Bleach (1989)
Melvins drummer Dale Crover powers the breakneck attack of this metallic deep cut, one of three that began life as a 10-song pre-Bleach demo. The lyrics were inspired by an Aberdeen family who imprisoned their kids in a dark room: "The lady whom I feel maternal love for / Cannot look me in the eyes," Cobain sings. "But I see hers, and they are blue."
39. "Sifting," Bleach (1989)
Cobain rails against teachers and preachers on this paranoid, tightly coiled punk-metal dirge. His voice snaking around a detuned riff, he recalls "[searching] for a church," cutting class, and, um, bed-wetting. Cobain's guitar solo is one of his finest moments as a player — a frightening eruption of tremolo and sustain.
38. "(New Wave) Polly," Incesticide (1992)
Nirvana neuter the cinematic aura of the Nevermind version with this fast, punky take included on Incesticide. But the experiment doesn't dull the magic of the original melody or lyric.
37. "Plateau," MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
The least essential of Nirvana's three Meat Puppets covers, partly due to Cris Kirkwood's shaky harmony vocals. Unlike "Lake of Fire," which Cobain intentionally arranged in a key too high for his voice, "Plateau" finds the singer scraping the bottom of his register, moaning the mystical lyrics over twinkly, psychedelic guitars.
36. "Oh, Me," MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
The dreamiest moment of Nirvana's career, thanks to the gusts of psychedelic arpeggios from Meat Puppet guitarist Curt Kirkwood. Cobain sounds a bit uncomfortable in the song's key, often hovering just outside of tune, but no amount of flubbed notes can disrupt the repose.
35. "Molly's Lips," Hormoaning EP (1992)
"She’d take me anywhere / She’d take me anywhere / As long as I stay clean,” Cobain sings on this absurdly catchy pop-punk anthem, a cover of his beloved Vaselines. "My kids have just got into Nirvana," the band's Frances McKee told The Guardian in 2010. "And my eldest boy — he's nine — turned to me recently and said: 'Mum, we prefer Nirvana's version of "Molly's Lips" to yours!'"
34. "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
Cobain continued his Lead Belly obsession during Nirvana's MTV Unplugged set, reinterpreting this traditional murder ballad with a quiet intensity. Throughout, the frontman bangs away at an acoustic-electric guitar that had seen better days while a cello hums in the background. His shift from soft croon to gnarly scream is a time-capsule moment.
33. "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" In Utero (1993)
Nothing radio-friendly about this growling behemoth. "Use just once and destroy / Invasion of our piracy," Cobain declares, chased by a skeletal bass and drums. "Afterbirth of a nation / Starved without your skeleton key."
32. "Territorial Pissings," Nevermind (1991)
After Novoselic's warped opening variation of the Youngbloods' "Come Together," this Nevermind deep track veers into hardcore punk — the rawness of its arrangement magnified by Cobain's straight-through-the-mixing-board guitar tone. But even within that context, he can't resist coughing up a memorable pop melody (while shrieking himself hoarse, mind you). "Just because you're paranoid / Don't mean they're not after you," Cobain warns, seemingly glancing over his shoulder.
31. "Very Ape," In Utero (1993)
At a succinct 1:55, "Very Ape" makes its case and gets out of the way. Cobain was in no mood to screw around: "If you ever need anything, please don't / Hesitate to ask some else first," he sings snarkily over a fittingly primal punk-metal riff.
30. "Milk It," In Utero (1993)
"We weren't going to have a song like 'Milk It' be the first single, OK?" Novoselic told NPR in 2013. That was a sound strategy. At just under four minutes, "Milk It" revels in the band's ugliest side, full of screaming tantrums and murky, shadowy riffs. Novoselic and Grohl wanted to recruit alt-rocker P.J. Harvey to perform the song during Nirvana's 2014 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, but it didn't work out. “We had always imagined playing [it] with her," Grohl later told Rolling Stone. "It’s a twisted song, almost like something that could have been on her record Rid of Me, which was also produced by Steve Albini. It just seemed to pair up so well. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make it.” A lot of people would have been perplexed by the song selection, but Cobain would have loved it.
29. "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam," MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
The most close-minded of Nirvana's early punk fans likely groaned at the sight of a guest cellist, Novoselic wheezing away on an accordion, Grohl pulling triple-duty on acoustic bass, harmony vocals, and kick drum/hi-hat pedals. But the band's unusual presentation of this Vaselines track — itself a sort of parody rendition of an old Christian hymn — presented a new tonal range for a band that rarely ventured out of the guitar-bass-drums format.
28. "The Man Who Sold the World," MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
"I guarantee you I will screw this song up," Cobain admits before starting this strummy David Bowie cover. "Yeah, like he only screws one up," Grohl fires back — perhaps a sign of their long-simmering inter-band tension. (It also could just be one friend ribbing another — in the Unplugged footage, the singer does appear to crack a smile after that jab.) Fittingly, flubs flow aplenty: Cobain's voice cracking awkwardly and his fingers fumbling toward the right notes on this distorted acoustic solo. Rough edges aside, Nirvana made the song their own, infusing the glam-folk ballad with a palpable dread.
27. "Blew," Bleach (1989)
"Blew" began life as a "doom-pop" experiment: Nirvana were trying to tune their instruments to the standard Drop-D format but didn't realize they were already down a half-step, meaning they accidentally ventured into a midnight-black drop-C. (Novoselic's bass sounds like it emerged from a swamp.) The song itself is mostly mood, but what a mood — from the bluesy main riff to the herky-jerky chorus.
26. "Been a Son," Incesticide (1992)
R.E.M. were once a staple for the young Cobain, and this late '80s classic wears the influence proudly. The breeziness of "Been a Son," with its jangly fuzz-rock riff and hooky vocal harmonies, belies the angst of its lyrics, as Cobain appears to reference a turbulent father-daughter relationship. "She should have stood out in the crowd," he sings. "She should have made her mother proud ... she should have been a son."
25. "Dive," "Sliver" single (1990)
The lyrics aren't much to write home about: "Pick me, pick me, yeah / Everyone is waiting," Cobain wails. "Hit me, hit me, yeah / I'm real good at hitting." But Nirvana's final single for Sub Pop (and their first collaboration with Nevermind producer Butch Vig) signaled their aspirations for a more fluid, sonically rich style. On the instrumental section, Cobain and Novoselic tangle their instruments into a harmonized, psychedelic web.
24. "School," Bleach (1989)
This fangs-out riff-monster began life as a parody of the blooming Seattle grunge scene, but Cobain added a new wrinkle by framing the lyrics around the same concept — using the "school" scenario to vent about the rampant cliques permeating the industry. "Won't you believe it — it's just my luck / No recess!" he screams. "It was a joke at first," Cobain told Michael Azerrad in 1993's Come As You Are. "And then it turned out to be a really good song."
23. "Rape Me," In Utero (1993)
The titular lyric is intended to unsettle, but there's more brewing beneath the surface than those two words suggest: The "rape" in question could refer both to the band's corporate manhandling and the resolve of actual sexual assault victims. The song itself plays like the grimier cousin of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," riding another mammoth, distorted, four-chord garage-rock riff and a violent quiet-loud shift.
22. "Drain You," Nevermind (1991)
Cobain once boasted to Rolling Stone that this Nevermind deep cut (if there's such thing with an album this famous) was "definitely as good as 'Teen Spirit'" — a lofty claim, but he did have reason to be proud. The frontman was probably attracted to the song's hybrid of pop hooks, punk energy, and experimental production (see: the atmospheric bridge full of pulverizing drums and random noises from squeaky toys and other found sounds).
21. "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," In Utero (1993)
Here, Cobain masks melancholy in clever wordplay — taking bleak inspiration from the real-life Frances Farmer, the actress who was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility against her will in the '40s. "I miss the comfort in being sad," he barks on the chorus. But the titular revenge shifts the mood to rage: "She'll come back as fire, to burn all the liars / And leave a blanket of ash on the ground."
20. "Sliver," single (1990)
Cobain tended to mask his lyrics in surreal images and metaphors, but the springy "Sliver" cuts straight to the point with a slice-of-life story about an ordinary kid who's dropped off at his grandparents' house, forced to eat "mashed potatoes and stuff like that," falls asleep and watches TV (in that order), cries repeatedly to go home, and wakes up in his mother's arms. There's a relatable sadness in the story, tapping into the sense of childlike frustration and fear most of us have felt at some point in our lives.
19. "About a Girl," Bleach (1989)
Cobain often vented about Nirvana fans only wanting to hear massive guitar tones and brushing off the band's lighter, more pop-oriented moments. And in an 1993 Rolling Stone interview, he highlighted "About a Girl" as a bold move for its time. "To put [that song] on Bleach was a risk," he said. "I was heavily into pop. I really liked R.E.M., and I was into all kinds of old ’60s stuff. But there was a lot of pressure within that social scene, the underground-like the kind of thing you get in high school. And to put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky." Decades later, the original Bleach version feels like a dated demo, marred by out-of-tune guitars and a sluggish tempo. But Nirvana perfected their first pop classic on MTV Unplugged, dropping the distortion and focusing on the hooks.
18. "Serve the Servants" In Utero (1993)
"Teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old." That's Cobain screwing with us right off the bat on In Utero's Pixies-ish opener. "Serve the Servants" is much more than a pissed-off rant, filled with veiled references to the media's attacks on Courtney Love and direct nods to his tense relationship with his father.
17. "Sappy," No Alternative (1993)
Cobain thought so highly of this jangle-pop tune, which was previously released as "Verse Chorus Verse," that he attempted to record it almost every time Nirvana entered the studio. He kept chasing that elusive perfect version for years and eventually threw up his hands, tacking it onto this AIDS fundraiser compilation as an uncredited hidden track. We may never know the exact roots of his dissatisfaction, but surely it had nothing to do with the song's British Invasion-styled hook.
16. "Scentless Apprentice," In Utero (1993)
When talking about this heavy, trio-written cut in interviews, Cobain alternated between dismissive (“it was such a cliché grunge Tad riff that I was reluctant to even jam on it," he told Michael Azerrad) and enthusiastic ("[it's] a breakthrough in our songwriting," he told Spin). The track originated from a Grohl guitar pattern and developed into a grunge powerhouse with lyrics inspired by one of Cobain's favorite novels, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. (The book's protagonist, a perfumer apprentice, murders virgins to capture their scent.)
15. "Lake of Fire," MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
Cobain goes apeshit on this Meat Puppets cover, wailing on the impossibly high chorus until his vocal cords have seemingly dissolved. The rest of the band builds a bluesy, smoldering atmosphere — the ideal, unobtrusive framework for one of rock's most unforgettable vocal takes. (Audio easter egg: After ending the song, Grohl teases the drum intro to In Utero's "Scentless Apprentice.")
14. "Dumb," In Utero (1993)
With "Dumb," Cobain took aim at the stupidity he observed in everyday life: people content with their dead-end jobs, easily amused by the numbing glow of their TVs. He wanted more from his life, and he couldn't understand the urge to be average. No quiet-loud structure here: The band sails through one of their most laid-back performances, with Kera Schaley's melancholy cello adding to the ambiance.
13. "Come As You Are," Nevermind (1991)
The watery, chromatic guitar line feels like a nod to the psychedelic era — until you realize it's essentially a slowed-down rip of post-punk act Killing Joke's 1984 song "Eighties." Definitely not one of Cobain's most original songs, but its druggy atmosphere is impossible to shake nonetheless.
12. "You Know You're Right," Nirvana compilation (2002)
This song had a protracted birth: Nirvana debuted "You Know You're Right" onstage in 1993 and tracked it during their final studio session, but it languished in the vaults for years, building an almost mythical status among collectors. Courtney Love revamped it for Hole's MTV Unplugged set — hardly a worthy preview of the actual Nirvana version, which finally surfaced on the band's best-of set in 2002. Naturally, the song's world-weariness ("I have never failed to fail") was heightened after Cobain's death. But its droning darkness would have highlighted any Nirvana LP.
11. "Stay Away," Nevermind (1991)
"I'd rather be dead than cool," Cobain sings over barbed-wire guitars and pummeling tom-toms. That sentiment presented a conflict after Nevermind made Nirvana the coolest band of their era.
10. "Polly," Nevermind (1991)
The "New Wave" version of "Polly" shot itself in the foot by piling on the distortion. The superior acoustic take on Nevermind puts the narrative in full focus, with Cobain taking us inside the jumbled thoughts of a serial rapist. The sparse arrangement, with Novoselic and Grohl offering the most minimal of accents behind the singer's vaguely distorted acoustic guitar, only adds to the eeriness. There's nowhere to hide.
9. "On a Plain," Nevermind (1991)
Cobain was known for writing lyrics last-minute, and "On a Plain" comes off like a song about that very process, boasting a number of hilarious lines that feel like self-referential placeholders about writer's block ("I'll start this off without any words," "One more special message to go / And then I'm done, and I can go home," "It is now time to make it unclear / To write off lines that don't make sense"). Framing that lack-of-narrative narrative are some of his most beautiful harmonic moments, from the lush pre-chorus vocals to the unusual chord voicings on the chorus.
8. "Pennyroyal Tea," In Utero (1993)
For several years of his adult life, Cobain struggled with chronic stomach ailments, which often resulted in vomiting blood and struggling to eat regular meals. "Pennyroyal Tea" addresses his fragile state plainly: "I'm on warm milk and laxatives / cherry-flavored antacids," he sings over a stark acoustic strum, building to a cathartic chorus that references an herbal abortifacient. (Bonus tidbit: During a live performance on the French TV show Nulle Part Ailleurs, he changed the lyric from "Give me Leonard Cohen afterworld" to "Give me Leonard Nimoy afterworld.")
7. "Something in the Way," Nevermind (1991)
According to legend, the acoustic-and-cello ballad "Something in the Way" chronicles a period of homelessness for a young Cobain. But it's actually a fantasy narrative about a sickly person dying while living under a bridge in Aberdeen. The recording came about in an odd piecemeal fashion: Cobain tracked his guitar, an out-of-tune 12-string, in the control room, and the rhythm section were forced to overdub onto that existing bed — struggling to tune to and play in time with his part. Somehow this backwards approach resulted in Nirvana's most poignant song.
6. "Breed," Nevermind (1991)
Nevermind's most animalistic, unhinged single — and the one least defined by Butch Vig's slick production style — "Breed" thrives on a bluesy, metallic riff that could pass for early Sabbath. (Fun fecal fact: Cobain originally titled the song "Imodium" as a wink to the anti-diarrheal used by Tad Doyle, frontman of Seattle grunge act Tad, during the two bands' joint European tour.)
5. "All Apologies," In Utero (1993)
Kera Schaley also lends her elegant cello to this swooning pseudo-ballad, adding an airy counterpoint to Cobain's pained vocal and clean guitar melody. Albini's production here is stunning in its simplicity: Grohl's drums, captured with that famous bone-dry clarity, thwack through the speakers, and the frontman's voice explodes with a natural reverb on the first note of each verse's second line.
4. "Lithium," Nevermind (1991)
Cobain had a tricky relationship with religion. He was baptized during his turbulent teenage years and even briefly attended church service. But the phase didn't last, and as a lyricist he frequently blasted organized religion's herd mentality and hypocritical followers. "Lithium," with its signature combo of grunge riffs and sugary pop melody, envisions a man who escapes grief via faith — a sly commentary on faith as a bandage, on its dual capacity to help and harm. "The story is about a guy who lost his girlfriend," Cobain once said of "Lithium." "I can't decide what caused her to die — let's say she died of AIDS or a car accident or something, and he's going around brooding, and he turned to religion as a last resort to keep himself alive – to keep him from suicide. Sometimes I think religion is OK for certain people."
3. "In Bloom" Nevermind (1991)
The rhythm section dominates this Nevermind masterpiece from start to finish: Grohl's open tom-tom flourishes, swooshing hi-hats, and frenetic pre-chorus snare rolls; Novoselic's gurgling bass throughout the verses. And Cobain anchors that muscle to one of most fragrant pop hook, pointing the finger at fans who don't dig deep enough into their tunes: "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 don't know what it means."
2. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nevermind (1991)
"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song," Cobain told Rolling Stone of this larger-than-life Pixies homage. And it's hard to argue against the result. From its dark, enchanting vocal melody to its quiet-loud leap to its signature power-chord churn — a minor-key surge that, like Boston's "More Than a Feeling," inspired countless teenagers to pick up a cheap pawn-shop guitar — there isn't a more expertly crafted rock song to emerge from the entire decade. Due in part to its flannel-heavy music video, itself a definitive moment of the grunge era, "Teen Spirit" swelled into a culture-defining moment that eclipsed Nirvana itself. And the song's ubiquity hounded Cobain for the rest of his career, signifying his conflicted relationship with fame. By the end of their run, he actively resented playing the track live. "I can barely, especially on a bad night like tonight, get through 'Teen Spirit,'" he added to Rolling Stone. "I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away. I can't pretend to have a good time playing it." His pain, our gain.
1. "Heart-Shaped Box," In Utero (1993)
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" may be Nirvana's signature song, the one that changed it all, and an obvious choice to top any and every list. But when you break down these songs to their nuts and bolts, "Heart-Shaped Box" is the most unique, unraveling its surprises over time and rewarding close listening. These are some of Cobain's most vivid lyrics — images of cancer-eating and umbilical nooses, "meat-eating orchids" and cutting oneself on "angel hair and baby's breath." Is it about love? Sex? Death? The "Hey! Wait! I've got a new complaint!" chorus, Cobain has said, is about his perception in the media, quotes being spun out of context to make it look him look like the world's grouchiest, most entitled rock star. And the arrangement is a master-class of the quiet-loud dynamic without ever feeling clichéd: Grohl's subdued drumming in the verses pays off with his bruising attack on the chorus, and Cobain's clean-to-fuzz pay-off could be the most satisfying moment of their career. We're forever in debt.