In case you couldn’t tell by the deluge of news of late, including Kurt Cobain’s weeping statue, the Seattle PD being sued over Cobain’s suicide photos, and Courtney Love doing her confusing Courtney Love thing, 2014 is an important year for Nirvana fans. The happy news: the band is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The bad: this Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death.
So like any good Jesus Krist worshiper who doesn’t skip the blank space between “Something in the Way” and “Endless, Nameless,” I’ve ranked what I think are Nirvana’s 20 best songs (note: I didn’t include any live tracks or covers, which explains the absence of “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Molly’s Lips”).
20. “On a Plain”
Nirvana rarely bothered with vocal harmonies, but they’re used effectively here (with either Kurt or Dave, or both, going, “Oooooh”), subtly at first before fading away into album closer “Something in the Way.”
About a Song: one of nine million Nirvana songs that could be about heroin, but probably isn’t.
One of the few songs on this list that doesn’t appear on Bleach, Nevermind, or In Utero, “Dive” shows Nirvana at their poppy sludge-rock best, like the Melvins covering Pixies, which was kind of the point.
About a Song: Courtney Love’s favorite Nirvana song.
18. “Pennyroyal Tea”
In “Pennyroyal Tea,” a song that practically drips with self-hatred, you can hear something Nirvana was able to pull off that most bands couldn’t then and still can’t now. Kurt sounds worn out and beaten down when he moans, “I’m so tired I can’t sleep/I’m a liar and a thief,” but the band as a whole is plugged in when the chorus begins, like they’re being slapped with paddles loaded with electricity. It’s an intoxicating juxtaposition.
About a Song: What is “Pennyroyal Tea”? According to Kurt, it’s a “herbal abortive.”
17. “Negative Creep”
“I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned.” During the live versions of the hard-chugging “Negative Creep” on Live at Reading and Live at the Paramount, you can practically hear the bros in the audience latching onto that line, like it’s something to be proud of and not a living nightmare. No wonder Kurt hated touring.
About a Song: Kurt always thought of himself as a “negative person” and a “creep,” so…
The quiet-loud-quiet aesthetic as its finest? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah.
About a Song: Nirvana began working on “Lithium” in 1990, before signing with DGC Records, but they couldn’t get down a perfect take. In fact, original drummer Chad Channing’s inability to record exactly what Kurt wanted is considered the beginning of the end of his tenure with the band.
15. “In Bloom”
“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 knows not what it means.” Few frontman had as complicated a relationship with his band’s fans as Kurt did, so I can’t imagine he was pleased when “In Bloom” was released as a single and became a minor hit. Maybe he was impossibly trying to have it both ways — to write a song about ignorant poseurs…on a major label album — but from one ignorant poseur to another, at least the MUSIC VIDEO IS AWESOME, BRAH.
About a Song: “In Bloom” originally had a bridge, but producer Butch Vig got rid of it by cutting the master tape with a razor blade.
14. “Come As You Are”
The Scottie Pippen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”‘s Michael Jordan. “Comes As You Are” assists Nevermind‘s biggest hit without ever overshadowing it.
About a Song: the chords are remarkably similar to the ones heard on Killing Joke’s “Eighties.” A lawsuit was mentioned but never filed, and Dave thanked Killing Joke by drumming on one of their later releases.
About a Song: “Love you so much, makes me sick!” is literally about Kurt loving his ex-girlfriend, Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail so much, it made him puke. Gross.
12. “Do Re Mi”
An acoustic deep cut from With the Lights Out, “Do Re Mi” is unfinished and sung by a broken man. Kurt’s falsetto voice sounds weary and strained, like Michael Stipe after a weekend bender, which is pretty much the greatest compliment big-time R.E.M. fan Kurt ever could have hoped for.
About a Song: the title might actually be “Dough Ray Me.” No one’s really sure.
11. “Rape Me”
The most unsettling Nirvana song, and the one that gets misinterpreted ALL the time. Easily offended critics are quick to dismiss “Rape Me” based on its title alone, but an examination more in-depth than HE SAYS RAPE THEREFORE I HATE IT reveals that it’s about justice, or to quote Kurt in Spin, “It’s like she’s saying, Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna f*cking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it.” A message as blunt and powerful as the song itself.
About a Song: “Rape Me” was changed to “Waif Me” in big-box stores like Walmart.