It is a proven fact that there are some things only ‘90s kids remember. One of those things would have to be Nirvana. The grunge band became outlandishly famous seemingly overnight with the release of their second studio album, Nevermind, which turned 25 years old this past September. The trio of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl inspired a generation of long-haired, flannel-wearing teenagers.
I admittedly am someone who is going through their “angsty teen” phase a few years too late. My interest in Nirvana has only peaked very recently, but their music still holds up well even 25 years after the release of their breakthrough album. It’s so incredibly difficult to rank the band’s top 10 songs because everyone is going to have their own list.
These are not necessarily Nirvana’s top 10 best songs, instead it is simply my top 10 favorite songs of the most iconic band of the 1990s.
10. “You Know You’re Right”
The first song on this list is one of the last songs the band recorded together. Recorded in 1994, the song was not released until 2002. Ironically, it has a very early 2000s rock feel to it. The guitar riff is a lot heavier than most other Nirvana songs, giving it a distinct early 2000s feel to it that showed the band’s ability to bridge the gap between the ‘90s and 2000s. Cobain’s constant cracking vocals reflect the pain and frustration portrayed in this song, just over two months before he took his own life.
9. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Unquestionably their most famous song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” single-handedly brought grunge to the mainstream and transformed Nirvana from a small, underground group into one of the most famous bands in the world. The impact of the song is second to none, defining a genre, a decade of music and an entire generation. Everything from the opening to the guitar solo can only be described as iconic.
8. “About a Girl”
Before “Nevermind” and back when Chad Channing was the band’s drummer, “Bleach” was released in 1989 as the group’s first studio album. Most of “Bleach” consists of very raw grunge sounds, but “About a Girl” has a softer pop aesthetic making it stick out like a sore thumb. According to “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” Cobain spent an entire afternoon listening to “Meet The Beatles!” on repeat before recording this song. If The Beatles were still making music in the 90s after years of smoking cigarettes, it would probably sound like this.
The closing song to their 1992 compilation album “Incesticide” is high energy, low fidelity, with Cobain’s shrieking vocals complementing the very rough production on the guitars. Lines like “Love you so much / Makes me sick” recount the story of Cobain’s rocky relationship with an ex-girlfriend. A “Smells Like Teen Spirit” B-side, this song proves that there are plenty of hidden Nirvana gems out there.
6. “Lake of Fire”
Originally a song by the Meat Puppets, it was covered by Nirvana in their live album “MTV Unplugged in New York.” The original song emphasizes a demented rockabilly howl at the forefront, but Nirvana cleans it up and makes it more of a traditional acoustic jam. The cleaner sound puts more focus on the religious, old American folk lyricism.
5. “Serve the Servants”
An underrated Nirvana gem that opens their third studio album “In Utero.” The opening lyrics of “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old” sum up Cobain’s struggle with his unwanted fame. His dynamic lyricism employs two different personas: the caterwauling angst of the verses and the darker, muted vocal stylings of the chorus. The guitar solo harkens back to an old classic rock sound, showing that Cobain understood the roots of his genre even when trying to be subversive.
4. “Territorial Pissings”
“Territorial Pissings” sees Cobain exploring common thematic ground shared with his punk ancestors. Grunge tends to be more introspective in its angst, but Cobain comes across unraveled and furious over crashing, rapid-fire guitars and Grohl’s relentless percussion. The song is decidedly a punk one, but that makes it one of Nirvana’s most unique offerings.
3. “Rape Me”
The title of this song is sure to capture the attention of someone who is not familiar with the band. Nirvana was never a group to shy away from controversy, but this was arguably their most controversial track. The repetition of “I’m not the only one” and lyrics such as “I appreciate your concern / You’re gonna stink and burn” show that “Rape Me” is in fact an anti-rape song with the message of “you can rape me, but you can’t kill me and someday karma is going to get you back.” The classic Nirvana use of jarring crescendos emphasizes the heaviness of the song and the topic it deals with.
2. “Come as You Are”
With its murky production, “Come as You Are” cements itself as one of Nirvana’s gloomier and softer tracks. The chorus of “And I swear that I don’t have a gun” is darkly ironic and prophetic, given the way Cobain’s life ended.
1. “All Apologies”
If Nirvana is known for one thing to casual listeners, it would be Cobain suddenly taking his own life in April of 1994. This song acts as a suicide note to his wife Courtney Love, their daughter Frances Bean Cobain, his bandmates and every single one of his fans. The inclusion of a cello adds to the depressing vibe of the track, while lyrics such as “Married, buried” displays Cobain’s believe that life can have a bleak simplicity to it. “What else should I write? / I don’t have the right” show how fame and fortune ruined the troubled musician’s passion for something that he truly loved.