Nirvana Singles Ranked, 1-10

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.

The one thing I want to add as an intro here (in addition to what I wrote as in intro on the first half of this list) is that listening to this Nirvana playlist for the last few weeks has made me wish there were more songs by Nirvana. I like the Foo Fighters quite a bit, but they’re not Nirvana.

Oh! One other thing. There’s a bunch of Nirvana songs that I love – like “Breed,” “Serve the Servants,” and “Dumb” – that were never singles. This list would be significantly different if it were “my ten favorite Nirvana songs.” Number one would remain number one, but everything else would be malleable.

Oh! Oh! Also, I dig Courtney Love and will be ranking Hole’s songs at some point. Her influence on many of Cobain’s lyrics (both as an uncredited collaborator and as a muse) has both been overstated (and understated) over the years and I don’t feel confident wading too deeply into that debate. I will say that when it comes to interpretation of the lyrics, I tend to believe Love.

10. All Apologies

Second single from In Utero (1993), Released as a double A-Side with “Rape Me” (1993)

“All Apologies” was released a second time in 1994 as a promo single from MTV Unplugged in New York. I like that version slightly better than this one – Kurt Cobain was in fine voice during that performance. Indeed, I think that Unplugged performance demonstrated that all three (four, including frequent touring guitarist Pat Smears) members of Nirvana were fine musicians.

If you were alive in 1993 and a fan of Nirvana, it might be difficult to separate the lyrics of “All Apologies” from Cobain’s death. This was the last song released by Nirvana (along with its A-side companion “Rape Me,” which didn’t get as much airplay) before his death. It made me think of Jim Croce and “Time in a Bottle” – another song recorded in the months leading up to an untimely death. Of course, the reality is that the lyrics were not predicting the future. Cobain stated that this was a “happy happiness song.” He may have intended to convey a feeling of comfort (inspired by his life with Courtney Love and his young daughter), but this song will forever carry the weight of a suicide note to me. Rolling Stone placed it at #11 of 102.

9. Where Did You Sleep Last Night

Promo single from MTV Unplugged in New York (1994), charted in 1994
Cover of a traditional song – there’s many version, notably by Lead Belly (1944) and Mark Lanegan (1990)

This is arguably Nirvana’s finest cover song – even if the arrangement was somewhat borrowed from Mark Lanegan’s version of the song. When Cobain starts screaming at the end? Holy cats, chills. It’s one of the best vocal performances of his career. I’m also positive that when I first heard it, I didn’t know it was a cover. So let’s talk cover songs. When I hear a cover song, I want the band playing it to either do an especially virtuoso job of performing it (like Dexy’s cover of “Both Sides Now” – #19) or to make the song their own (R.E.M.’s cover of The Clique’s “Superman”) – #24). On the other hand, I hate it when the cover sounds like bad karaoke (I’m looking at you Bowie and Jagger – #147). I feel like Nirvana/Cobain took 100 or so years of other versions of this song and nailed it so hard that most people who’ve heard it probably think all other versions are covers of Nirvana’s. That’s some cover. Rolling Stone places it at #10 of 102.

8. Smells Like Teen Spirit

First single from Nevermind (1991), released as a single in 1991

Rolling Stone places this at #1 on their list. It is surely Nirvana’s most famous and most successful song. Weird Al parodied it (with the band’s enthusiastic blessing), covered by many (notably Tori Amos) and cited as the song that broke punk into the mainstream. As a result, I have heard it about 10 million times.

As I mentioned in the original intro to this whole Nirvana list, the DJ from the 9 to midnight show had to literally force me to play this on my midnight to three show at KTUH. When I heard that guitar hook that opens the song, I was intrigued. When Grohl and Novoselic kicked in, I was sold. Grohl is a monster drummer and this should never be forgotten no matter how long he spends as a front man singing and playing guitar. Take a second some time and just listen to the drum track on this song. That drum kit died he hit it so hard while recording this song. RIP drum set.

For many years (decades) this was among my top ten Nirvana songs and it was only while making this list that I realized I just like a few others songs more. Part of this is that these are all great songs, but part of it is surely overexposure. Still, for a song to be played this many times and for me to still love it is a sign that I think it’s a darn fine song. And it is.

7. Oh The Guilt

Split single released in 1993 – A-Side “Puss” by The Jesus Lizard

Rolling Stone almost unforgivably ranks this at #45 out of 102 on their list. This split single reached #12 on the UK charts in 1993 but received no airplay that I recall in the U.S. at all. I was still a DJ at KTUH in 1993 and I would have played the @#%! out of this one if a copy had fallen into my greedy little fingers. I first heard this single when I first listened to the With The Lights Out box set (here’s a picture of my copy). To be fully accurate, there was a chunk of time in 2004 where this box set was all I was listening to and the alternate mix of “Oh The Guilt” (sandwiched between “D-7” and “Curmudgeon”) was central to this habit. I would have ranked the single even higher but I don’t quite like the original version (with prominent light clicks) quite as much. Still like it, though.

6. Heart-Shaped Box

First single from In Utero (1993), release as a single in 1993

“Heart Shaped Box” both managed to go silver and not chart on the US Top 100 (because it was not marketed in any way to Top 40 radio). It was a huge hit all over the rest of the world and on the US Modern Rock charts (Rolling Stone puts it at #12 of 102 on their list). The lyrics are reasonably cryptic which means that I’ve spent a good deal of time agonizing over them and reading different interpretations of them. I don’t often wrestle with lyrics (because I am a fool for a great musical hook in specific, but also just in general) but lines like “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black” demand some consideration (apparently, it was his way of saying “I love you” to Courtney Love). Lyrics aside, the thing that I really love about this song is Cobain’s guitar work. The solo – especially the long-held notes at the end of the solo – is one of the most dramatic moments of 90’s rock. To my ear, it is the sound of ultimate suffering. More than that, it’s the sound of a person raging against ultimate suffering. A remarkable musical moment.

5. Aneurysm (Live California)

Promo single from From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996), charted in 1996

Let’s all enjoy Kim Gordon singing this song with the surviving members of Nirvana at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I will “no true punk” you if you don’t love that version. I have just enough music snob left in me even at age 50 to pull that off. I have no idea why “Aneurysm” wasn’t included on Nevermind – it was released as the b-side to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I love the soft/loud transitions throughout the song especially combined with Cobain’s screamed “aha.” The lyrics are about Cobain’s love for Tobi Vail or possibly about his new love for heroin, but the music and delivery is virtuoso punk. You can’t tell, but I’m kissing my fingers like a chef because the song is just so perfect. Rolling Stone ranks this one at #30.

4. You Know You’re Right

First single from Nirvana (2002), released as a single in 2002

Shortly after Cobain died, rumors starting circulating that Nirvana had a bunch of unreleased songs, some recorded after the In Utero session. As is frequently the case in these situations, there rumors were exaggerated. Nirvana had spent a few days in the studio working on songs for a fourth album, but only “You Know You’re Right” was completed (apparently, Grohl and Novoselic spent two days working on some other songs, but they were Grohl compositions). When the song was finally released in 2002 (after a protracted legal battle), it blew me away. It’s almost impossible for me not to hear to the lyrics through the filter of Cobain’s fate. Cobain was a master at putting words to his depression – and as a person who struggles with depression myself, his lyrics constantly resonate with me. I get what he means when sings “Things have never been so swell/I have never failed to fail.” Yes, everything can be going great and you still feel like a fraud and a failure. It’s insidious. I think this is part of why his death effected so many of us – like if he couldn’t make it with so much apparently going for him, how could any of us (and don’t get me started about Robin Williams)? Of course, I also realize now that fame and success can be incredibly isolating (not from personal experience) and is a terrible situation for a person with severe depression. Anyhow, Rolling Stone ranks this one at #21.

3. Come As You Are

Second single from Nevermind (1991), released as a single in 1991

Did you spend some time contemplating the line “And I swear that I don’t have a gun” from the lyrics in 1994? I did. In context of the whole song, I’ve usually read this as an offer of friendship – “come over here, I mean you no harm.”

The thing I love most about “Come As You Are” is that opening riff. The whole song is great, but that riff just kicks it. I also loved that riff when Killing Joke played something very similar on one of my favorite songs, “80’s.” And when the Damned played it on “Life Goes On.” Honestly, they’re very similar, but there’s only so many ways you can combine notes to create new hooks. Nirvana’s take on the hook is slow, clean and friendly and sounds just a little different from the other two. And anyways, it’s the singer not the song, as the saying goes. You can read all about the legal trouble surrounding this song at the Wikipedia entry. Fortunately, as great as that hook is, it supports a song that is just fantastic through and through – from the distorted guitar solo, to the haunting “memoryyyyyy-a” refrain, to the comparably restrained playing by all three musicians. Rolling Stone ranks it at #17, which is a very respectable rank on that list, but obviously I think it deserves to be ranked a little higher.

As a wee coda, let me mention that this song peaked at #32 on the U.S. Top 40. This was Nirvana’s only other top 40 U.S. hit (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” obviously being the first). This mean they were 8 chart positions away from being a one hit wonder. I submit for your consideration once again that that term is needlessly dismissive of some pretty boss musicians.

2. About a Girl (Live)

First single from MTV Unplugged in New York (1994), released as a single in 1994

Originally an album track from Nirvana’s 1989 début Bleach, the girl in “About A Girl” was his then-girlfriend Tracy Marander. Cobain neglected to tell her that the song was about her and she didn’t learn it was until years later when she read a biography of the band. Dude.

Reports (specifically from producer Butch Vig) suggest that this song was heavily influenced by Meet the Beatles. Yes, I hear that, particularly in the “I do” refrain in the lyrics. In fact, when I think about it, I can hear Lennon singing the chorus and McCartney/Harrison singing the “I Do” part. How much would Cobain have freaked out to know that Sir Paul would later guest with his former band mates on a single? I propose he would have totally, completely freaked out.

I confess, I like the Unplugged version better than the album cut. Not only do the acoustic instruments suit this song better, but also Cobain’s voice and delivery style had matured since 1989. Furthermore, the band had five years of playing this song at almost every gig under their belts. This is about as solid a pop song as you’re ever likely to hear. Rolling Stone places it at #8 out of 102, and I can live with that. This is one of those songs that I could keep on repeat for hours so I could sing along and try in vain and match Cobain’s vocal delivery.

1. In Bloom

Fourth single from Nevermind (1991), released as a single in 1992

Me in 1991: Did he just sing “Sell the kids for food?” He did? OK, sold.

I didn’t know what it meant, but I liked it. I didn’t know what any of the lyrics meant. Hey! “In Bloom” was about me! Oh no, “In Bloom” was about me…

It’s true, though. During my DJ years, I loved a ton of music by a ton of artists because the songs were pretty to my ears. I did jump on bandwagons (sometimes I was the only one on the bandwagon) and I would jump off when the band became too popular (see my discussions of R.E.M. and U2). Sometimes, I wanted more to be associated with liking certain music than I actually liked the music. Other times, I desperately liked a band and wouldn’t admit it because I was afraid of being judged (I love you, .38 Special). Judged by whom? It was pretty egotistical of me to think that anyone cared what I listened to. It mattered so much to me in my late teens and early twenties. I can’t really explain it. On the other hand, the song is also about a certain kind of possibly violent fan (who “likes to shoot his gun”) that is more of a frat bro or a redneck. I’ve never been either of those. The good news, I guess, is the song is therefore only 50% about me and I’m so vain for thinking so.

Beyond the epic lyrics (and they’re more epic if you accept Genius commentator Superlucido’s theory that Cobain cut up a series of couplets, placing all the first lines in the first verse and all the second lines in the second verse), the song is sort of the ur-Nirvana song. You have your rave-up opening, your soft-loud sections, your Cobain scream, your perfect Novoselic bass and your explosive Grohl drumming (following the drum pattern that had already been established by Chad Channing when they recorded the song for the first time in 1990). I get excited every single time I hear that first (yes) grungy guitar riff and now, at age 50, I do know what the song means. And I still think it’s pretty.

Rolling Stone ranks “In Bloom” at #2 of 102, which is primarily why I have been linking a publication that surely doesn’t need the minimal traffic a small-fry blogger like myself can deliver. I am pleased when my taste is validated.

Coming Soon: Bjork. No, seriously, for real this time. Bjork.

Nirvana Singles Ranked – 11-231-10

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