Nirvana: A Band From Aberdeen, Washington
As a long time fan of the band, Nirvana, they are one of the top gateway bands when kids are entering their teenage years and ready to find something a little more aggressive rock wise while not fully committing to 1970s/1980s era punk rock or more pure heavy metal such as Black Sabbath. One of the best aspects of Nirvana’s sound was the marriage of Kurt’s ideal punk sensibilities with simplistic song writing aimed at being pop. Despite releasing only 4 albums proper, their relevance remains in modern rock music while also being a Godfather of the Grunge genre alongside Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and arguably Alice in Chains.
First an honorable mention: Big Long Now from Incesticide
A track never performed live, which is unfortunate. The song carries a strong sense of dread while Kurt’s lyrics touch on thematic subject matter found in other songs of the era such as Paper Cuts. I can see the sentiment that the song’s a bit too slow but I think that’s part of what helps the charm. It’s also one of the songs from their 1988/1989 era where you can easily see the mixture of Black Sabbath and The Melvins influence on them as a band. The guitar riff almost sounds like a warped jangle rock element and Channing’s drums make the song almost horror movie soundtrackish.
So let’s kick off the countdown!
Number 10: Lounge Act off Nevermind
This is a personal top favorite track of mine largely due to the immediate bass riff from Krist Novoselic. Despite the band thinking of it as a ‘lounge’ band style song, the lyrics reference Kurt’s recent break up along with hiding a very catchy melody that would be somewhat of a trademark of the band itself. The song also stands out as having one of Kurt’s best vocal performances in which he pushes his voice for nearly a full minute overpowering the song so much it almost renders the background instruments mute. One of the few instances where you could ‘hear’ how powerful Kurt’s voice was from a live performance standpoint.
Number 09: Serve the Servants off In Utero
I’ve always admired this track more than most fans probably. It’s a fabulous counterpoint to the entire sound of Nevermind, kicking off the sequel album proper, while again referencing personal subject matter including Kurt’s father. Krist’s bass largely pushes the song along but there’s a great little dour attitude in the belly of the song before the guitar solo breaks down into a sheer cacophony of noise and shrill feedback from Kurt’s guitar that would illuminate what was to come for the rest of the album as well.
Number 08: Blew off Bleach
Much like most of Nirvana’s songs, this one has a great little riff from Krist with surprisingly strong drums from Chad Channing that helped give the song a bit of a weight that the other album tracks lacked for the most part. Kurt’s solo is pretty memorable here and this song really was a rare highlight showcasing the poppier side of the band in 1989, just check out Kurt’s Beatles-esque repeating of the final refrain in the song, a tactic he’d utilize on other Nirvana tracks in the future. While the lyrics don’t really stand out, this song is as close as the band got to a downtuned Power Pop song in their catalogue in my opinion.
Number 07: Come As You Areoff Nevermind
While that watery, shimmery guitar tone is fantastic I have always been kind of lukewarm towards this track. The lyrics serve the song well and although the hook ripped Killing Joke off, it’s a perfectly suitable mid tempo rock song that Nirvana twisted into earworm territory. This song is one of the best examples of Kurt’s contradictory nature throughout his lyrics and Dave Grohl’s drums are a nice highlight throughout as well.
Number 06: Aneurysm off Incesticide
Much like Oasis and their penchant for hiding classic songs as B-Sides and Rarities, this song is an absolutely pummeling gem of a song that would’ve fit right into Nevermind without a blink of an eye. While the lyrics lack much, if any substance at all, the pure ‘fun’ of the song nearly overrides everything. Dave’s background vocals, the running riff from Kurt’s guitar threatening to turn the song into a punk number at any moment, and the quasi-love ballad make this entry a standout to listen to.
Number 05: About a Girl off Bleach
One of the poppiest numbers by the band in that ’88-’90 window, it’s clear that Kurt’s remarks about it being influenced by listening to Meet the Beatles continuously is no joke. From the chiming lead guitar to the sliding bass riff this is just a joy to listen to. The vocals work well in suiting Kurt’s writing ability and despite the heaviness of the guitars, the riff and song itself is hook-laden and an instant classic if you’ve heard it elsewhere such as on Unplugged, which is linked above. The track itself is a testament that in the face of Kurt’s worship of The Melvins early on, he had a knack for the poppier side of rock that was waiting to come out in full force.
Number 04: Son of a Gun off Incesticide
All I can say is that the performance of this cover (originally performed by The Vaselines) just makes me happy. The best way to describe it is fun. It’s a pretty straight ahead punk cover with Kurt’s vocals fitting the track well and the bass guitar tends to shine at various points throughout. Nirvana takes this and makes it almost Beatles-esque if The Beatles tuned their guitars down. Listening to the original, it’s interesting to hear how slow and near 60’s bubblegum pop it comes off yet Nirvana manages to somehow keep the mood of the song while stripping it to punk fashion. In a lot of ways, the pop element hidden underneath the detuned guitars is something that would’ve meshed really well with a Nevermind track like Breed.
Number 03: Lithium off Nevermind
It took me a while to actually warm up to this song when I initially listened to Nevermind but it has since become one of my favorite tracks off the album and from them period. This track helped epitomize the poppy catchiness of Nirvana, including that chorus and refrain, while embellishing Krist’s bass in one of his best bass lines in my opinion. Nearly everything about this song clicks from the pounding of the drums by Grohl to Kurt’s vocals giving out towards the end as he pushes himself to the max to the lyrics serving the tone of the song really well. If you’re interested, Butch Vig has mentioned they had to slow the track down for the album but listening to it live, it provides more of an adrenaline rush than suspected.
Number 02: The Man Who Sold the World off Unplugged
With David Bowie’s recent passing on January 11th, I guess it’s somewhat fitting that this track ranks #2 here despite again being a cover. It’s a testament to Kurt’s songwriting abilities and his desire to make songs his own that Bowie himself started performing this in live concerts the way Nirvana had re-arranged it. While a lot of fans will point to Where Did You Sleep Last Night as worthy of inclusion on this list in terms of cover songs from that show, this track always felt more like a Nirvana track to me from Kurt’s vocal delivery of near weariness to the slightly sped up tempo in the guitars and Krist’s catchy bass riff bobbing up from the surface to remind the listener of the song’s poppier side. Dave’s drums also accentuate the performance really well without overwhelming. While I do like WDYSLN, I always felt that largely rested on the vocals of Kurt rather than the band as a whole.
Number 01: Smells Like Teen Spirit off Nevermind
It’s been played ad nauseum on the radio and I’m sure people are sick of it. With that said, every time I listen to it, I somehow manage to get swirled up in the sheer power of the performance itself. From the inherent teeth rattling power of Grohl’s strikes on the drums to the classic soft verse/loud memorable chorus and of course the memorable, if stolen from Boston, guitar line threading throughout the entire song. The chimes of the guitar ringing out, the almost indecipherable lyrics coming from Kurt, the groovy bass line from Krist, this is probably one of the most perfect hard rock songs from the 1990s.
I probably could have easily made a Top 30 songs and included “necessities” such as Breed, Drain You, Polly, All Apologies, and Heart-Shaped Box but you’ll just have to deal with only getting this Top 10 from me.
Credit to thomassladegaard.dk for feature image