The problem with writing about Nirvana is that many people — rock critics, culture pundits, filmmakers, disc jockeys, your college roommate, every rando on social media — have already said pretty much all there is to say about Nirvana.
There have been multiple biographies written about the band, as well as several documentaries, various compilations and box sets, and deluxe reissues of all the studio albums. All this for a band that existed for only seven years, and was famous for only three before Kurt Cobain’s untimely death. Surely, the number of words spilled about Nirvana have long since exceeded the number of seconds they rocked upon this astral plane.
And yet, with the 30th anniversary of Nevermind coming up on Friday, the time has come to re-evaluate one of the most beloved, iconic, tragic, and, yes, discussed bands ever. I come not to bury Nirvana, but to celebrate them. They weren’t around for long, but they made so much great music that affected millions of people on a deeply profound level. Let’s try to find out how, and why, this happened.
The lights are out, so it’s less dangerous to count down my 40 favorite Nirvana songs. Here these songs are now, they will entertain us.
The narrative on Nirvana isn’t just firmly entrenched; it’s practically etched into the soil, like a faultline. So, we need a palate cleanser. Something that can somehow make this subject seem fresh again. A new angle.
Let’s start with the single dumbest and most incoherent song in their discography. The tune that I used to blast in high school with my friend Mike as we did donuts in his big dumb yellow Ford Saturn. The one in which Dave Grohl earned the right to appear on every awards show in order to “represent rock music” from now until the end of time, because he slams his drums with such awe-inspiring ferocity against Krist Novoselic’s reliably elastic bassline. And then there’s Cobain, the voice of a generation, squealing nonsense like a madman, an individual liberated from inhibition and logic and proper lead singer behavior by unleashing his inner goon.
Listen to this song. Listen to it loud. Nirvana was a rock band. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: Nirvana was first and foremost a rock band. And they were fun! Let me repeat that: THEY WERE FUN. Yes, the Nirvana story is also tragic and profound and culturally momentous. But in the moment, before the context of “the incident” overwhelmed the context of every Nirvana song, people gravitated to this band because they were irreverent and brash. But first and foremost because they were a rock band in the purest and most excellent sense. Let’s celebrate that.
39. “Milk It”
In Utero is my favorite Nirvana studio album. The so-called “confrontational post-fame record,” In Utero is the defining example of a musical act reacting against their own popularity by supposedly making an album so abrasive and noisy that fair-weather fans will hate it (but in reality most of them will end up loving it anyway). There are so many In Utero homages. Pinkerton is Weezer’s In Utero. Kid A is Radiohead’s In Utero. Yeezus is Kanye West’s In Utero. Reputation is Taylor Swift’s In Utero. Happier Than Ever is Billie Eilish’s In Utero (though her version of abrasive is actually going softer). But you can’t top the original In Utero, because this album is not nearly as unlistenable as journalists speculated months before it was released in 1993. Produced by — I mean “recorded” — by legendary indie gadfly Steve Albini, In Utero never gets more obnoxious or gross than “Milk It,” in which Cobain croons with a straight face, “Her milk is my shit / my shit is her milk.” Even as a teenager I knew this was the equivalent of belching in a friend’s face for effect. Which is to say, enjoyably obnoxious and gross. No wonder it was Albini’s favorite track from the record.
38. “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die”
Another sick joke. This one was buried on the 1993 masterpiece The Beavis And Butt-Head Experience, one of the best-selling comedy records ever, along with tracks by Aerosmith, Anthrax, Megadeth, Sir Mix-a-Lot, and Jackyl’s immortal “Mental Masturbation.” Only this joke didn’t age well. And was it actually joke in the first place? “That pretty much defines our band,” Cobain said not long before he actually did hate himself enough to die. “It’s both those contradictions. It’s satirical, and it’s serious at the same time.”
37. “Rape Me”
An even bigger provocation than “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die,” since the band didn’t cave on this one and actually put it on In Utero. Though, depending on where you lived, it might have been listed as “Waif Me” on the back cover. (One of the only good things about the decline of physical media is that Walmart no longer has final say on tracklists for blockbuster LPs.) During his final album promotional cycle, Cobain was asked time and again to explain that “Rape Me” did not endorse rape. (Even in the ironic ’90s, the media didn’t really get irony.) Rather, it was sung from the perspective of a victim defiantly daring her attacker to do her harm, so that karma might eventually do him in at a later date. Upon Cobain’s death, it was also possible to read the song as a comment on celebrity, in which case the listener is implicated as the attacker. Either way, this is only the second best parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on In Utero — the opening riff is total self rip-off — after the album-opening “Serve The Servants.”
36. “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” (Roma version)
After Cobain took his own life, the most popular Nirvana music in my peer group was Roma, a classic bootleg of a concert performed in Rome on Feb. 22, 1994. As far as we knew, this was the final Nirvana show ever, performed the same night that he attempted suicide for the first time by taking 50 painkillers. In reality, the show occurred a week before the final Nirvana show with Cobain, and nine days before the suicide attempt, which did take place in Rome. In our defense, Google didn’t exist back then. Also, we were dumb teenagers who fetishized the death of our hero, and we pored over Roma for clues about why he eventually did what he did. We would get high, pile into someone’s car, and listen to Roma over and over. Clues, however, were not forthcoming, and not only because we were looking in the wrong spot. Roma was simply a pristine recording of a pretty good Nirvana gig that scarcity elevated to the status of sacred text. I still have that tape, which is still mislabeled as “Nirvana’s Last Show!” Even though I know better, the opening track, “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” always puts me on the lookout for potential insight into Kurt’s frayed psyche.
35. “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam”
In the mid-’90s, people joked about Cobain’s suicide like they had about the Challenger explosion a decade earlier. It was such an awful, shocking event that you couldn’t really think about it in an earnest, straightforward way without risking your own trip into the abyss. I think a lot of people felt cheated in the aftermath of his death, and as a coping mechanism they immediately set about contextualizing Nirvana specifically and alt-rock generally as adolescent kiddie stuff that they had outgrown. I remember once confiding in a friend about how Cobain’s death had affected me deeply, and continued to bother me long after the fact. “Oh, you’re one of the mourners,” she scoffed, which prevented me from bringing up Cobain’s name again in public for years. Instead, I just listened in private to MTV Unplugged In New York, the go-to album for all of us mourners, and got choked up whenever this Vaselines cover came on.
At the start of MTV Unplugged, Cobain famously takes a shot at his fans when introducing “About A Girl”: “This is off our first album. Most people don’t own it.” It’s funny because it’s true: Most people still didn’t own Bleach in 1993. (This was back when owning an album was a sign of true fandom.) An album like In Utero would seem unpalatable only to an audience that had never heard “Downer.” In Utero is the sound of a band sounding sloppy on purpose. Bleach is organically sloppy.
33. “Stay Away”
In Lynn Hirschberg’s classic 1992 hatchet job of Courtney Love that ran in Vanity Fair — which prompted Cobain to make a scary recorded threat over drug allegations that proved to be more or less true — there’s a scene nobody remembers in which Kurt sighs over seeing a metalhead dude wearing a Nirvana T-shirt outside of a 7-Eleven. Nirvana’s relationship to metal has always been contentious, and among their many contradictions. Cobain’s small-town upbringing in Aberdeen ensured that Kiss and Aerosmith was implanted on his DNA, but he also associated the music with the bonehead machismo he sought to escape. In retrospect, however, the fact that anyone can enjoy Nirvana as simply a band who kicks tons of ass has helped them to translate to younger generations, including scores of rappers who have connected with Kurt’s messianic posturing and outsider rebelliousness. Started from the bottom, and here we are now, entertain us. Among the rappers in the Nirvana cult is Post Malone, who performed a well-received livestream of covers last year in which he listed this Nevermind deep cut as one of his personal favorites. (He even tattooed it on his face!)
32. “Negative Creep”
Total metal song, and among the finer examples of Kurt in “deranged stoned redneck” mode.
31. “You Know You’re Right”
When Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke met Cobain for the last major interview of his life in the fall of 1993, it was backstage at the self-described “shittiest show of the tour” at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. If only he had gone to the first concert at the Aragon two nights earlier, which included the only live performance of the “last” Nirvana song, “You Know You’re Right,” which was laid down in a studio just about two months later. Judging by the bootleg — which you can find in a few minutes with a simple internet search — the gig actually isn’t too bad, and “You Know You’re Right” is jammy and knotty and seething. It also sounds like a continuation of the In Utero sound, and probably not an indication of where Cobain might have headed had he lived. Though, of course, nobody will ever know for sure.
30. “Scentless Apprentice”
Revisiting old Nirvana interviews, I had forgotten how introverted Dave Grohl used to be. Yes, I mean that Dave Grohl, the mayor of contemporary rock music, the man even Foo Fighters agnostics can’t help but like. Watch a Nirvana interview from 1993 and Grohl barely says a word. Nirvana wasn’t his band, it was merely a band he joined, and you can see him defer time and again to his bandmates. At the same time, when you listen to the second and third Nirvana albums, there’s no question that he ranks among the very greatest late-band additions in rock history. (David Gilmour to Pink Floyd is the only example I can think of that edges him out.) For “Scentless Apprentice,” Grohl wrote the riff, a rare instance for a Nirvana song. (Cobain later hinted that he only used the guitar lick to make his insecure bandmate feel better, and then he liked the final result.) But it’s the drum part that makes the song. If you only listen to the drums, you instantly know it’s “Scentless Apprentice.” The same can be said of so many classic Nirvana songs, and so few other iconic rock tunes. That’s the Grohl effect.
29. “Territorial Pissings”
Another small shock of rewatching Nirvana interviews is seeing how extroverted Krist Novoselic was. He’s usually the funniest and most talkative guy in the band, always quick with a snarky ’70s arena-rock reference or passive-aggressive dig at the media. On stage, his lanky, 6-foot-7 frame swings to and fro like one of those inflatable air tube dancers you see at used car dealerships. He’s the unlikely “most rock ‘n’ roll one” in the band. And then there’s his iconic pisstake of The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” at the start of this song, a rare instance in which his court jester quality was harnessed on record.
28. “Been A Son”
Now when you see Novoselic — which isn’t often, and sadly might involve some weird right-leaning political message — there’s an unmistakable sadness about him. You can see it in this appearance on The Tonight Show from 2014. He’s muted and faded, like he’s no longer a whole person. Maybe he’s no longer accustomed to being in the public eye; maybe it’s something else. “I looked at Krist and Kurt as soulmates,” Grohl once said. “The two had such a beautiful, unspoken understanding of each other. Those two guys, together, totally defined the Nirvana aesthetic.” In musical terms, this meant that Novoselic played the role of a steadying presence, with unflashy playing that could hold a song together with subtly melodic bass lines, as you hear on this track.
The observation always made about Kurt Cobain’s songwriting is about how simple it was. This was by design, as it maximized the catchiness of his songs, to the point where you can sing along with Nirvana tunes by the end of your first listen. But this simplicity also concealed impeccable pop craftsmanship under the guise of punk primitivism. One of his sweetest love songs, “Dumb” is also loaded with clever wordplay and affecting melodicism. “My heart is broke but I have some glue / Help me inhale and mend it with you.”
26. “On A Plain”
A Nevermind song that seems like an In Utero song, at least in terms of the sentiment. This is Kurt saying, “No one I think is in my tree,” a tongue-in-cheek ode to rock-star arrogance written before he actually “got so high, I scratched till I bled.” Then again, maybe it’s not arrogance so much as loneliness and isolation. Before teenage angst can pay off, one must learn to cry on demand, even if you already feel bored and old.
“On A Plain” can also be construed as a drug song, in the same way that virtually every Nirvana tune can be construed as a drug song. And not a “party” drug song, but a seedy, Lou Reed kind of drug song. The influence of this on Nirvana listeners over the years has probably been neutral-to-negative, given the ambivalence toward self-destruction that permeates this band’s music, biography, and iconography. This is not “uplifting” music in the sense of inspiring onlookers to be better people. That’s not a criticism, necessarily, as I don’t think great art has to inspire anything. It’s just recognition that for all the wonderful things about Nirvana — many of which have already been enumerated! — there’s also unresolvable darkness. Which is why Nirvana is a band you visit; you don’t really want to live inside this music. Also, it might be bad luck to name your excellent band after an Incesticide track, just saying.
The Cobain-penned Incesticide liner notes are rightfully regarded as the single most pointed criticism by a multi-platinum band of its own fanbase ever. “At this point I have a request for our fans,” they read. “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” The diatribe was inspired, the notes continue, by a woman being “raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song ‘Polly.'” So, while Nirvana can be toxic in large doses, it should also be noted that Nirvana fans could also be toxic to the band.
23. The Meat Puppets Suite From MTV Unplugged In New York (“Plateau”>”Oh Me”>”Lake Of Fire”)
Of course, Nirvana also had a positive influence on a generation, in that they exposed millions of people to great albums like Meat Puppets II that they might not have otherwise heard. And not only did they evangelize for underground music, but Cobain in particular, in addition to being a genius songwriter, was also a gifted interpreter who could uncover fresh beauty and unexpected emotional resonance in other people’s songs.
On Meat Puppets II, these songs are super-fried hippie-punk anthems that wobble wondrously on trucker speed at 4 a.m. The Nirvana versions draw on the influence of Mark Lanegan’s woefully underrated 1990 solo debut The Winding Sheet, which has a similar vibe of funereal gravitas cut with the high lonesome sound of an early ’70s Neil Young acoustic set. (The Winding Sheet also includes a rendition of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” with Kurt on backing vocals.) Whereas Meat Puppets dance drunkenly around questions of mortality, Cobain cuts right to the heart of the matter with his resigned, unwavering vocal.
22. “Molly’s Lips”
Kurt As Brilliant Interpreter, Part II (Happy Version).
In the Rolling Stone cover story about Nirvana from 1992 — the one where Kurt wears the “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” T-shirt — there’s a digression set in an Aberdeen bar where two yokels talk about Kurt Cobain.
“Yeah, I know the Cobain kid,” one guy says. “F****t.”
“He’s a f****t?” asks the other guy, who then brags: “We deal with f*****s here. We run ’em out of town.”
That’s the place where a song like “Sappy” — a.k.a. “Verse Chorus Verse,” one of Cobain’s most incisive feminist statements, and the greatest Nirvana song never to make a proper album — comes from. In some sense, it seems like he was always trying to tell off the yokels he left behind. “Sappy” lays out the sort of conventional gender roles — man has the power, man keeps woman like an insect — that defined his world as a kid, and that he took a lead in trying to deconstruct as a man with a huge platform in the early ’90s. If only he put it on In Utero.
In case there was any doubt about Nirvana recognizing the similarity between “Smells Like A Teen Spirit” and Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.”
Actually, maybe this is the best song never to make it on a proper Nirvana record. It did appear on Incesticide, but it’s unclear if it was ever in contention for Nevermind, in spite of being one of the earliest songs worked up with Dave Grohl. You basically have to make an album as loaded as Nevermind in order to leave a song like “Aneurysm” off your record.
I’m sure Dave Grohl has no regrets about his life choices. He’s the frontman of one of the only true-blue arena-filling rock bands around. He has directed well-received films, and he’s about to put out his first book. But when I listen to “Breed,” I can’t help but wish that he had remained simply the greatest rock drummer of his generation. I have heard the opening drum roll on this song at least a thousand times and it never fails to shoot my heart 10 feet outside of my chest. It’s not accurate to liken Grohl’s career arc to Ringo Starr turning himself into Paul McCartney; Dave Grohl is like if John Bonham turned into Paul McCartney. That’s an achievement! But I’d still rather have John Bonham.
18. “The Man Who Sold The World”
I have mixed feelings about including the David Bowie cover on this list. Unlike the Meat Puppets and the Vaselines, Bowie was already famous before Nirvana, so it’s not as though “The Man Who Sold The World” appearing on MTV Unplugged made his career. It’s still Bowie’s song. However, it’s also an essential Nirvana track, I would argue, because 1) Cobain used it to express his state of mind at the end of his life and 2) that incredible, droned-out guitar solo. For all the things he’s been praised for, Cobain remains an underrated guitarist. But this particular solo spotlights his ability to put across a complex emotional idea — I think I’m in the process of disintegrating — with just a handful of notes.
17. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”
Speaking of great Kurt Cobain guitar solos, I recommend skipping ahead to the 2:27 mark and listening to 3:05, and then rewinding 20 more times.
16. “Something In The Way”
When Kurt Cobain died, I was 16 and he was 27. I am 44 now. I got older and he stayed the same age. This inevitably has changed my perspective on him. He once seemed wise and worldly; now he seems like a kid who never got a chance to grow up. I look at his behavior in the spotlight now through the lens of a person who remembers (vaguely) being 27 and feels really grateful that I aged out of that period of my life. (It was one of my worst years, as it was for Kurt.)
But I can also appreciate how well he wrote from the point of view of a teenager even as an adult, in a way I couldn’t appreciate when I was an actual teenager. When I heard “Something In The Way” as a kid, it replicated the feeling of being out of place at school, which was my regular state of being at the time. I didn’t understand that this was an affect created by an artist; it just felt real. But when I hear “Something In The Way” now, I can see the art of what Kurt is doing, because the song temporarily fools my 44-year-old brain into believing I’m 16 again. I got older but when listening to Nirvana songs I’m the same age.
Here Kurt was writing from a pre-adolescent perspective, which is far rarer than writing for teens. There are plenty of songs directed at kids. But “Sliver” sounds as if it was written by a kid. That might make it seem like “Sliver” is a cute tune. But it actually captures the terror of being young and stuck in a place where you don’t want to be, and with no way of getting to where you do want to be beyond begging grandma to take you home. The reason why young people still connect with Nirvana is that Kurt Cobain did not romanticize childhood. Kids know that being a kid can really suck, and Kurt wrote about that fact better than almost anybody.
14. “Heart Shaped Box”
The most revelatory scenes in Brett Morgen’s artful 2015 documentary Cobain: Montage Of Heck are culled from home-video footage of Kurt and Courtney hanging out in their Los Angeles apartment in 1992, when Love was pregnant with Frances Bean and they were both shooting loads of heroin. On one hand, it’s a repulsive scene populated by damaged people in the process of falling apart. On the other hand, these clips are surprisingly … sweet? Yes, they are junkies. But they also seem to be authentically smitten with each other. It’s a dynamic that comes across in Nirvana’s most popular love song, in which Cobain captures the repulsive/romantic duality of his marriage when he sings, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” It’s a lyric that makes me want to simultaneously vomit and swoon.
13. “In Bloom”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the most iconic Nirvana music video, but the best Nirvana music video is “In Bloom.” Part of what was so exciting about Nirvana if you were a kid in the early ’90s is that they were the biggest band in the world who also made it clear that they thought mainstream pop culture was stupid. This was not a message you saw all that much coming from your television set at the time. There was a facade of politeness and affability that covered almost everything that people saw. For kids inclined to view this facade as bullshit, Nirvana was more than a breath of fresh air — they reassured you that you weren’t crazy to roll your eyes at sitcoms and talk shows and pop music. In the “In Bloom” video, they even made fun of their own fame, laughing at their insta-phenom status. In the process, with his horn-rimmed glasses and smirky insouciance, Kurt Cobain also accidentally invented Weezer.
12. “Love Buzz”
It was Novoselic’s idea to cover this deep cut by the ’60s Dutch psychedelic band The Shocking Blue, and it’s his bass that drives the song. Listen to the original and you’ll find it doesn’t have quite the same infectious bounce, nor does it have the same manic energy that Cobain brings to his vocal and guitar solo. The best example of Nirvana covering a song and making it completely their own.
11. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Obviously the most important Nirvana song, but I’m not interested in importance, only in what I like. And while this song had a clear impact on me as a Generation X dude who was 14 when Nevermind dropped — of course it was really powerful hearing it on my local Top 40 station that otherwise played only Phil Collins and C+C Music Factory songs — this is probably the last Nirvana track I’m interested in hearing at this point. So, I’m putting it at No. 11 because to rank it any lower would be a crime against rock criticism. But in order to stay true to my own selfish, self-indulgent aims here, I must put it just outside the top 10.
10. “Pennyroyal Tea”
Steve Albini has said that the fallout from In Utero — in which he was blamed for supposedly steering an “unlistenable” follow-up to Nevermind — nearly drove him out of business. Nirvana themselves seemed pleased with Albini, though there were exceptions. “I think there are a few songs on In Utero that could have been cleaned up a little bit more. Definitely ‘Pennyroyal Tea,’” Cobain told Rolling Stone. “That should have been recorded like Nevermind, because I know that’s a strong song, a hit single.” What this confirms is that Kurt cared about having hits, even from his “confrontational anti-fame” record. He might have also had too much faith in American radio ever accepting a song with the lyric, “I’m on warm milk and laxatives.” But he’s right: A strong song, indeed.
If you want to see Nirvana at their happiest, see Dave Markey’s 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which follows Sonic Youth’s European tour in the summer of ’91 that included Nirvana as an opener right before the release of Nevermind. With Grohl now fully integrated, they are fully alive to the possibilities of crunchy and ecstatic rock ‘n’ roll. The crowds were getting bigger but it was still new and exciting. You can see them transform before your eyes from a hopeful indie band into the Nirvana of myth. This is especially potent during the screamingly intense performance of “School,” their first great teen angst anthem, in which Kurt hurls himself into speakers and Dave Grohl’s drum kit and the world at large with joyous abandon.
8. “Drain You”
The Nirvana album I’m most likely to put on now is Live At Reading, which captures them playing for tens of thousands of fans at the end of the summer of 1992, after Kurt’s long wilderness period in the L.A. apartment with Courtney. Grohl has said that heading into the show, they were weary and under-rehearsed, and had no business headlining a rock festival. And yet the Reading performance is an exhilarating triumph, presenting Nirvana as a confident, world-conquering rock band at the height of their powers from the moment they kick in with “Drain You.” This is the Nirvana I like to remember. You can almost forget about what happened afterward if you play it loud enough.
7. “About A Girl” (MTV Unplugged In New York version)
One of the dumbest things ever said about Nirvana was by Rob Zombie, who blamed them for killing the concept of rock stardom. “There seemed to be a trend in the ’90s, when Nirvana came out and these bands, everybody got confused by it and thought we need all our rock stars to look just like us,” he said. “So what happened is was everybody started not looking different, acting different and being larger than life. Everyone was like, oh, all the rock stars are so boring, I don’t care anymore.” Not to contradict the genius behind “Dragula,” but my counterpoint would be MTV Unplugged In New York, in which Kurt Cobain looks amazing from the moment he starts strumming the show-opening “About A Girl.” I’m not sure if it’s how he’s lit or if it’s just his yellow-ish aura, but he literally looks like a golden god on the show. He is not boring. He is larger than life. And he’s only wearing a cardigan.
6. “Lounge Act”
The most complete Nirvana song, in that each member has a chance to shine. Novoselic’s bass sets the scene, and then Grohl’s relentless drums create the tension. Finally, Cobain builds from a croon to a spine-tingling scream in the final verse. One of his greatest vocals on such a beautifully understated and quietly intense song.
5. “Come As You Are”
The most perfect Nirvana single. It’s the one I never tire of hearing, anyway. Not even Dave Grohl turns the channel when it comes on the radio, he recently told Howard Stern. His own daughter, Violet, knew all the words without him ever playing it for her. It’s the first Nirvana song I played for my own kids. I suspect it will be the first Nirvana song they play for their kids.
4. “Lithium” (1992 MTV Video Music Awards version)
As I have said at least 10,000 in my professional music critic career, I love the 1992 VMAs. (I go deep, probably too deep, on it here.) And Nirvana has a lot to do with that. There’s the historic Kurt vs. Axl Rose confrontation that went down backstage, of course, but what Nirvana did on stage was also pretty extraordinary. But, really, the lede here is that Krist Novoselic got hit in the face with his own bass, a moment I am confident will not be replicated in award show history, because so few bass players are allowed at those things anymore.
3. “All Apologies”
The “what if Kurt had lived?” hypothetical is normally treated like a joke. (I am guilty of this.) This is a coping mechanism. It’s more fun to imagine that Kurt would’ve put out a series of underwhelming solo albums or aged into being a Trump supporter than entertaining the disquieting thought, “What if he would have kept on making awesome music?” Because in that hypothetical, we’re all big losers, bereft of a great man’s presence. We know that he wanted to make a post-In Utero record that sounded “pretty ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.’s last album,” as he told David Fricke in that Rolling Stone interview, which would have meant Automatic For The People. (Coincidentally, the album he put on before taking his own life. Or perhaps not a coincidence.) Then again, the last song on In Utero sounds like a man writing his own epitaph: “All in all is all we are.” A capstone.
2. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
Kurt Cobain is one of the best and most influential rock singers ever, and this is his greatest vocal, which means it’s also one of the greatest vocals in rock history. That contradictory alchemy of beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain, transcendence and condemnation culminates here. Each time I hear it I assume it will no longer be affecting, but there are two moments that never fail to slay me — when he screams “I would shiver the whole night through” at 4:14, and again at the very end when he does a short sigh before the final “throooooooough.” As last words on record go, it’s hard to beat that wrenching “throooooooough.“
1. “Serve The Servants”
As I previously acknowledged, you’re supposed to put “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in this slot. But I prefer the first track from the next Nirvana record that makes fun of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Is there a better opening line to an album than, “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old”? No. No, there is not. Is “I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad” also one of his best lyrics? Yes. Yes it is. (I know he borrowed from Paul Westerberg but I think he slightly improved on him.) Did Kurt ever play a better guitar solo than he does here? No. No, he did not. Is this the greatest example of a rock star complaining about his own fame in a way that is compelling rather than merely whiny? Probably. I can’t think of a better one. Does this song make me sad that Nirvana never made another album? Profoundly. Nirvana has such a small body of work that you can’t help but feel greedy for more songs. Maybe there is a cache of lost Nirvana songs as amazing as “Serve The Servants.” Maybe? As it is, I’m somehow not sick of the ones I’ve heard so many times. This song still makes me laugh, and it still moves me. And in those moments, Nirvana feels alive, and so do I.