If you’re just joining us, check out the About This Project link for details. Basically, I make playlists of all the singles by certain musical artists and then try to order them using the guiding principle “do I like each song more than the last song.” I define “single” in a broad enough way to include any song that was released as a purchasable single in any format in any country; as a promotional single in any country; as a video; or generally any song that I know charted anywhere. My main sources are Wikipedia (mostly reliable) and Discogs (reasonably reliable). I welcome editing feedback since sometimes I favor speed over spelling.
I remember seeing Nirvana’s Bleach album arriving at WRBC in 1988 and some of my fellow DJs immediately recognizing that this band was something special. I, on the other hand, dropped the needle one one track and pretty much dismissed them completely. When their next album – the now-classic Nevermind – was released, I was a DJ at KTUH and some other DJ literally forced me to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I was completely floored almost the instant I heard that first guitar riff.
Kurt Cobain was the same age as me and I thought “this is happening – my generation is starting to take over the music world.” That feeling lasted about 20 months. Cobain died, a dozen or more sound-alike bands were on the air with inferior songs and the popular music world moved on to boy bands and bro-rock (“Boy Bands and Bro Rock,” coincidentally, is the name of my new Role Playing Game set in the late 90’s music industry). For a band that released only three albums in their six-year existence, Nirvana has cast a long shadow over the music world. Cobain, for better or worse, because my generation’s Jimmy Hendrix/Jim Morrisey/Janis Joplin – a supremely talented artist who died at the peak of his power and left us all wondering what he would have produced if he’d lived.
Nirvana released 23 singles in various forms. This time, when there are two versions of a song that were both released as singles, I’m only ranking the superior version. I’m also not including the excellent “Cut Me Some Slack” by McCartney.Grohl.Novoselic.Smear – only tracks with Cobain count on this one I’m afraid. Finally, I’ll be linking Rolling Stones’ fascinating ranking of all 102 Nirvana songs frequently.
23. Return Of The Rat
Extremely limited release test pressing released in 1992
Cover of a song originally recorded by The Wipers (1980)
“Return of the Rat” was recorded for a Wipers tribute set called Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers. The Wipers were a Portland, Oregon punk band of some renown and Nirvana had already recorded their song “D-7.” On their ranking of all 102 Nirvana songs, Rolling Stone places “Return of the Rat” at #62 of 102- the second lowest of all the songs I’m considering singles. It’s really not so bad but I don’t think the song itself is quite as high quality as most of Nirvana’s other songs (including most of their covers). It’s also available in a slightly different version of the Nirvana box set With The Lights Out.
22. Rape Me
Second single from In Utero (1993), released as a double A-Side with “All Apologies” in 1993
Nirvana in general and Cobain in specific were feminists. “Rape Me” was intended as an anti-rape song “so blunt that no one could misinterpret its meaning.” Despite lyrics that are, indeed, straight forward, the song managed to be largely misinterpreted anyways. I remember hearing a DJ explaining how Cobain felt he was treated by the music industry. At the time, I thought that interpretation was straight for Cobain. As it happens, Cobain was consistent in stating it was an anti-rape song and was probably at least mildly disappointed that so many people got it wrong. I’m going to be ungenerous an suggest that, perhaps, some men assumed it was about the record industry because they didn’t want to imagine the song was anti-rape. Here’s Cobain in 1994 using the ‘I’m not the only one” refrain to communicate the essence of the #yesallwomen message. If I’m going to be more generous, I guess I could imagine some people assumed the use of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff (reversed) to start the song was a musical anti-record industry message. But I really think it was men who didn’t want to hear the message.
Anyhow, while I applaud the message of the song, it’s just never been a favorite. Maybe it is because my initial reaction in 1994 was a very ungenerous and entirely wrong “ewww, Cobain is using rape to complain about the record industry.” Maybe it’s just because it doesn’t have the hooks that some of Nirvana’s other songs have. I don’t avoid listening to it, but it’s not a top 10 favorite. Rolling Stone places it at #32 of 102.
21. Molly’s Lips
Rolling Stone places this at #27 on their list of all 102 Nirvana songs, which is shockingly high to me. It’s surely not a bad tune (and is arguably better than The Vaselines’ original). Cobain alters the lyrics a bit to make the song about trying to stay off drugs – I like that change. The song is also catchy as heck. I also like that rawness of the production – it was recorded live on the John Peel show. On the other hand, this also seems to be a pretty minor piece of their catalog and isn’t a tune I really ever seek out. I don’t press forward if it’s on. Know what I mean?
20. Pennyroyal Tea
Third (cancelled) single from In Utero (1993), released as a single in 1994
This is a much loved song from In Utero (Rolling Stone ranks it at #11 of 102 of their songs which is nothing to sneeze at) but I confess I mostly only love the “I have very bad posture” part of the studio version of the song. Now, if the MTV Unplugged version of the song had been released as a single, we’d be talking an entirely different ranking. That version has a raw, powerful vocal an something about stripping it down to just guitar improves the song immensely to my ear. The studio version is just fine. It has grown on me a little over the years – I projected this song to be last on the list.
19. Drain You (Live California)
Second single from From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996), released as a single in 1996
Now, unlike “Pennyroyal Tea,” I find the studio version of “Drain You” to be far superior to this live version. Rolling Stone put the studio version of this one at #9 overall. Don’t get me wrong, the song plays well live, but the studio track – with its overdubs and “trippy” sound effects – has always been a favorite of mine (had it been a single, probably top three favorite). I always assumed the lyrics were an extended metaphor on codependency – I’ve had some experience in this area, so it is entirely possible that this is just me mapping my life onto the geography of the song. Allegedly, this song was written about Cobain’s relationship with drummer Tobi Vail (who was the drummer with Bikini Kill around that time). That relationship also led to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” after a fashion, but we’ll address that later. I love the fact that Cobain drops to a lower register on the chorus of this song – so many “grunge” era tunes follow the Pixies’ pattern of lower register verse/higher register chorus that hearing the reverse was a bit of a revelation at the time.
18. Love Buzz
First single from Bleach (1988), released as a single in 1988
Cover of a song originally recorded by Shocking Blue (1969)
I honestly didn’t realize this song was a cover until I started researching the songs on this list, which means I’d been listening to it for nearly 30 years thinking it was simply an atypical Nirvana original. I was familiar with the Bleach version of this song, but only recently heard the single version (the main difference is the sound collage at the beginning). I love Cobain’s guitar work, Krist Novoselic bass is funky and just a little aggressive and even poor ditched drummer Chad Channing is at his best here. This is, basically, some great early Nirvana work. My only complain is that the band doesn’t really sound like Nirvana on this track – it’s just a little too flimsy I guess. Still, great pop song performed expertly by a young and hungry band. (Rolling Stone says #18 of 102)
17. Here She Comes Now
Nirvana recorded and released a surprisingly large and eclectic collection of cover songs as singles. They also join R.E.M and David Bowie on this website on a select group of top-tier bands who chose to cover songs by The Velvet Underground. Now, Rolling Stone ranks this at #88 of 102 but I like it quite a bit more than that. First, it’s just a better song than some of the covers I ranked lower. Second, it’s an excellent match of band to material. Third, the build from quiet to loud on this track – which is, of course, a signature move, is gradual and powerful. Fourth, the lo-fi recording matches this version of the song perfectly. Overall, an excellent version of the song and a worthwhile track to add to your next playlist.
16. Lake Of Fire
Promo single from MTV Unplugged in New York (1994), charted in 1994
Cover of a song originally recorded by The Meat Puppets
With this track, we enter the “indispensable tracks by Nirvana” section of the list. Up to this point, the songs have been good to pretty good. From here on out, they’re amazing to epic.
Nirvana broke punk. They broke it into the mainstream and, in doing so, sort of broke what it was all about. Major labels swooped in to offer (frequently career destroying) record deals to the best-loved punk acts that had been dominating college radio for more than a decade. Bands that had toiled for years found themselves both pushed suddenly into the spotlight or relegated to cult status forever. The Meat Puppets were punk favorites that got swept up in the early 90’s major label rush to acquire punk bands (after ten years recording and touring). By 1995, the touring lifestyle proved to be a poor match for some of the band members’ penchant for substance use and they broke up (though they’ve subsequently regrouped, are touring now, and reports suggest they’re a great act to catch in concert).
Anyhow, when Nirvana was invited to record an episode of MTV Unplugged, they invite the Meat Puppets to join them and the two bands launched into this slowed down, sinister take on the song. Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood is the musical star of this track – his other-worldly guitar work and Cobain’s anguished take on the lyrics (which suggests that he, Cobain, is one of those “bad folks” referred to in the lyrics). David Grohl – looking like a kid in a turtleneck because he was a kid in a turtleneck – contributes fabulously low-key drumming throughout the Unplugged set and you just know in your heart that it’s killing him. Grohl was born to murder drums, not caress them.
Rolling Stone ranks this at #26 of 102. Ok, yeah.
Second single from Bleach (1988), released as a single in 1989
“Blew” was the first track on Nirvana’s first album. Technically, it was released as the title track to an EP promoting Bleach, but it was the featured song and I remember giving it at least one spin back in 1988 at WRBC. If I’d listened carefully to it – which I apparently didn’t – I would have been a huge fan of Krist Novoselic’s remarkable “drop C” bass tuning that sounds less like music than like a harbinger of Armageddon. Furthermore, the lyrics are almost a mission statement – Cobain is happier with his work when he’s not living up to potential. He wants to blow it, he wants to lose. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that massive success was going to at least make him uneasy. Tremendous song and one would be quite right to question what I was listening to in 1988 instead of Nirvana.
14. The Man Who Sold the World
Promo single from MTV Unplugged in New York (1994), charted in 1994
Cover of a song originally recorded by David Bowie (1970)
Bowie’s career was in an odd place when Nirvana chose to cover the title track to The Man Who Sold The World. Then again, Bowie’s career was always in an odd place. He’d just experienced a return to success in the UK with his Black Tie White Noise album but hadn’t had a US hit since 1987. Many of his old fans had checked out on his career after Let’s Dance (and surely after Never Let Me Down). I’d written him off as had many of my peers. Suddenly, Nirvana comes around and plays this cover of an obscure Bowie track and Bowie was everyone’s favorite artist again. I’m not saying it was just because of Nirvana, but the popularity of this tune brought Bowie’s catalog back into the spotlight at a critical time. Bowie recorded a “Live” version of the song and released it as a single in 1995 (#136). Novoselic’s bass work has always been the star of this cover, at least to my ear.
Cobain made a list of his top 50 records. The Man Who Sold the World was #45.
13. On A Plain
Promo single from Nevermind (1991), charted in 1991
“I love myself… better than you” has to be one of the most fun lines from any Nirvana song, especially if you’re singing along. The lyrics of “On A Plain” are among my favorites from any Nirvana song. That first line – “I’ll start this off without any words” – is a brilliant, ironic opener (since the song starts off with this line without any instrumental intro). Cobain allegedly wrote these lyrics in five minutes (and why not?). I’ve read a lot of analysis of this song over the years and the consensus is that it’s about drug addiction and writer’s block. I can’t speak for the addiction part, but I really connect with the feeling of being creatively blocked and not knowing “what the hell am I trying to say?” Musically, the song sounds absolutely, gloriously effortless – like the band showed up and said “let’s record a great song” and just spat this one out. Of course, that’s not how it goes down, but that’s how it sounds. It’s great.
12. Sliver (Single Version)
Stand-alone single released in 1990
Rolling Stone ranks this song at #3 of 102 on their ranking of all Nirvana songs. I can’t go for that (no can do) but I do agree this little sliver of a song is among their finest. Dan Peters (Mudhoney) played the drums on this track, recorded in the post-Channing/pre-Grohl period of Nirvana’s existence. In the lyrics, Cobain tells the very punk rock story of a little kid Kurt having an absolute tantrum because he’s been left at his grandparents house. We’ve all seen little kids having tantrums, right? Isn’t that pure punk? Rage against the powerlessness of being five and having to eat all your dinner? Rage against the green beans. When I first heard it (which was shockingly recently – as in within the last ten years), it connected me right back to every fit I had as a child.
On a different subject, Cobain named this track “Sliver” because he figured people would mispronounce it as “silver.” As a dyslexic person, I can confirm that this worked.
Third single from Nevermind (1991), released as a single in 1992
I thought “Lithium” – a sort of critique of religion as being the opiate of the masses – was an odd choice for a single from Nevermind, but the song was a reasonably big hit. In essence, what do I know? The lyrics are among Cobain’s finest – the opening “I’m so happy…” couplet is one of Nirvana’s most recognizable lines. Novoselic once again nearly steals the show with a simple, perfect bass line – it’s like he’s distilled bass down to its base components. I’ve just deleted a few more uses of homonyms for “bass” and one fish reference. Rolling Stone places this song at #7 of 102 and I get that even if there’s ten more singles that I like more than this one. The highlight of the entire song is – to my ear – Cobain’s primal “yeah yeah” chorus. He could express so much emotion with that glorious scream.
Coming Soon: Spoiler – #1 is from Nevermind.