The 20 greatest Nirvana songs – ranked

From Bleach to You Know You’re Right, we rank Nirvana’s best of the best.

The 20 greatest Nirvana songs – ranked
Sam Law
Chris Cuffaro UMG Press

Rarely in history has so much been written about a body of work so ostensibly slim. Burning unprecedentedly bright and fast, however – riding the dramatic trajectory of a Shakespearean tragedy and explosively reshaping the pop-cultural landscape – Seattle grunge trailblazers Nirvana proved themselves a once-in-a-generation force demanding forensic analysis for as long as their titanic influence endures.

The subsequent divergence of paths for the band’s key players – vocalist Kurt Cobain’s ending abruptly with his suicide in April 1994, bassist Krist Novoselic’s winding into relative obscurity, while drummer Dave Grohl went on to unlikely second superstardom as frontman of Foo Fighters – adds yet another intriguing wrinkle.

As such, each of the 102-odd tracks divided across three studio albums, a handful of stand-alone singles/B-sides and their catalogue of cover versions (excluded from this list) demand individual attention. In boiling down a Top 20, we’ve tried to single out those songs most pivotal to their stratospheric ascent, to that enduring legacy, and to understanding the complex personalities within.

20Dive (Incesticide, 1992)

First recorded at Evergreen State College in spring 1989 before a re-do with legendary Nevermind producer Butch Vig in 1990, Dive was released as a B-side to Nirvana’s second single Sliver, then again as part of 1991 Sub Pop compilation The Grunge Years, and finally as the opening track to their 1992 rarities collection Incesticide. One of their earliest successes in melding the heft of heavy metal and the melodic dexterity of pop, an ebullient bassline drags us along as Kurt lets loose his feelings on childhood alienation and the pointlessness of conformity. ‘Pick me, pick me,’ he begs, before jarringly shifting tone, ‘Hit me, hit me yeah I’m real good at hating.’

19Milk It (In Utero, 1993)

Many critics have noted that, while songs like I Hate Myself And I Want To Die are primarily the product of Kurt’s wickedly self-referential sense of humour, Milk It offers an authentically troubling view into the singer’s crumbling soul. Indeed, lyrics like ‘I am my own parasite, I don’t need a host to live,’ and ‘Look on the bright side – suicide,’ speak for themselves. Musically, the track feels indebted to the feel-bad abrasion of Austin noisemongers The Jesus Lizard, of whom Dave Grohl was an ardent fan. With riffage that is by turns strangulatingly tight-wound and hopelessly slack, it remains the most powerfully uncomfortable song in their catalogue.

18Polly (Nevermind, 1991)

A deceptively jaunty acoustic folk riff disguises one of Nirvana’s most thematically harrowing cuts. Initially titled ‘Hitchhiker’ and then ‘Cracker’ back in the Bleach era, before reaching its final iteration, Polly sees Kurt interpreting the true local story of a 14-year-old girl abducted at knifepoint after a punk show by serial rapist and kidnapper Gerald Friend. Imprisoned in Friend’s home and tortured with a variety of implements including a blowtorch, she eventually escaped to tell her tale. Recounting from the rapist’s point of view (‘Let me clip your dirty wings…’), Cobain confronts the savage side of masculinity with unprecedented frankness.

17Rape Me (In Utero, 1993)

Although blunter in its title, Rape Me is open to much wider interpretation. On one hand, it can be seen as an answer to Polly, but on the other, it can be seen as Kurt’s metaphorical statement on the demands of life in the public eye. Riffing on the opening chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit and lashing out at music-industry gossip (‘My favourite inside source, I’ll kiss your open sores / Appreciate your concern, you’re gonna stink and burn…’), the latter interpretation feels more fruitful. Either way, the repetitive rage of that outro (‘Rape me, rape me / Rape me, rape me’) still feels like one of the most audacious moments in all of popular music.

16Drain You (Nevermind, 1991)

‘One baby to another says, “I’m lucky to have met you” / I don’t care what you think unless it is about me / It is now my duty to completely drain you / I travel through a tube and end up in your infection.’ The catchiest opening on Nevermind unspools into one of its most densely-crafted compositions. Depicting what Kurt described as “two brat kids” sharing the same hospital bed, the track is full of twisted medical references, adding a new slant to the parasitic/symbiotic imagery with which he enjoyed toying. Piled-up with more guitar tracks than anything else on the album and featuring an abstract bridge composed of squeaky toys, aerosol cans and a variety of other bells and whistles, Dave Grohl has referred to it as “the Bohemian Rhapsody of Nevermind.”

15Negative Creep (Bleach, 1989)

Arguably Kurt’s most potent early statement of the howling self-loathing that would go on to define so much of his work, there’s a brutish punk energy about Negative Creep. Rather than directing its ire at any outward oppressor, of course, every bludgeon is directed mercilessly inwards. ‘I’m a negative creep,’ he seethes through a fug of pent-up frustration, casting his own perceived fecklessness through the eyes of others, ‘and I’m stoned!’ There was further self-awareness in its adherence to the emergent grunge sound, with the ‘Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more’ line referencing Mudhoney’s Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More.

14Scentless Apprentice (In Utero, 1993)

Based on Peter Süskind’s 1985 novel Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer – the terrifically tall tale of a psychopath with extreme olfactory sensitivity who captures the fragrances of his victims, and one of Kurt’s favourite books – Scentless Apprentice overflows with strange inspiration. The scant lyrics are, predictably, absolutely wild, declaring ‘I lie in the soil and fertilise mushrooms / Leaking out gas fumes are made into perfume’. It’s the backbeat-driven structure, though, that really stands apart. This is the only track on In Utero on which every member gets a writing credit, and Dave’s fingerprints are all over it. The tortured tone of Kurt’s closing ‘GO AWAAAAAY!’ lingers just as long as any nightmare imagery.

13Breed (Nevermind, 1991)

Probably Nirvana's greatest heads-down banger, even amongst such revered bedfellows Breed became the most-performed song on Nevermind. It’s easy to see why. A swaggering, fret-mangling, speaker-rattling showcase of just how hard the band could go; its 184 seconds feel guaranteed to light the fuse on every mosh within a 100-mile radius. Brilliantly, it’s also one of their more upbeat compositions. The despondency of it’s repeated declarations (‘I don’t care’, ‘get away’ and ‘I’m afraid’) subside to reveal a (relatively) straightforward love-song as Kurt romantically pleads ‘I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed / We could plant a house, we could build a tree!’

12About A Girl (Bleach, 1989)

A jangly guitar-pop song of which R.E.M. would’ve been proud, About A Girl showcased Kurt’s unapologetically melodic songwriting sensibilities with a directness that felt especially daring amongst Nirvana’s more unwieldy Sub Pop labelmates. Written about the 21-year-old singer’s then-girlfriend Tracy Marander, it finds a spiked sweetness in tales of crashing on her couch and taking advantage while being hung out to dry for his slacker lifestyle. The song got a new lease of life as one of the standout tracks and lead single of 1994’s MTV Unplugged live album. ‘This is off our first record,’ Kurt introduces the track with wry knowingness. ‘Most people don’t own it.’ We all do now.

11You Know You're Right (Nirvana, 2002)

First performed in Chicago in the autumn of 1993 and tracked at Nirvana’s final studio session on January 30, 1994 with producer Robert Lang, You Know You’re Right didn’t properly see the light of day until 2002’s self-titled greatest hits collection. Reportedly, Courtney Love – who had performed a reworked version at her own MTV Unplugged in 1995 – had to sue the remaining Nirvana stakeholders to have the song showcased with such fanfare. It seemed like an unashamed cash-grab at first, but as soon as we heard the anguish of that chorus (‘Pain! Pain! Pain! You know you’re riiiight!’) fans realised they were being gifted one last heart-wrenching goodbye – and a tantalising glimpse of where the band might’ve gone next.

10In Bloom (Nevermind, 1991)

The fourth and final single release from Nevermind copper-fastened Nirvana’s reputation as the biggest rock band in the world, but also confirmed the wilting severity of existence in that spotlight. A colossal, lumbering riff and spiralling solo threaten to dwarf the lyrics that goad the blow-in fans who had joined their throng. ‘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.’ They originally filmed a video wandering around lower Manhattan for the Sub Pop Video Network Program compilation VHS in 1991, but it was the Kinescope-lensed, Kevin Kerslake-directed 1992 version – parodying the 1960s’ variety shows – that lives on in our memory.

9School (Bleach, 1989)

Graduating from the bullshit of school to the untold cool of life as a local rock star was meant, as for so many others, to be a turning-point for Kurt. Unfortunately, he found that the Seattle scene was full of much of the same cliquishness and posturing he had endured at Aberdeen High. There’s a snarling disenfranchisement about this Bleach banger – the best on the album – that burns with a vitriol recognisable to anyone who’s ever suffered through gangly adolescence to find the promise of adulthood was a false-finish. Of course, the singer subsequently named his specific targets – so many Sub Pop labelmates, and particularly esteemed peers Soundgarden – but there’s an honest universality about his cry of ‘NO RECESS’ to which we can all relate.

8Come As You Are (Nevermind, 1991)

Repurposing the riff from Killing Joke’s Eighties (a debt repaid when drummer Dave Grohl jumped aboard for the Londoners’ 2003 self-titled LP), the murky goth sound of Come As You Are felt like the ultimate showcase of Nirvana’s expanding dynamism on Nevermind. The deployment of chorus pedal gives the song a dark, surreal shimmer, like some half-remembered dream – reflected in the watery imagery of the album art and music video – that perfectly conveys the ethereal uncertainty of the lyrics. Full of knowing contradictions (‘Take your time, hurry up’, ‘doused in mud, soaked in bleach’, ‘as a friend, as an old enemy’) there is something especially haunting about that unequivocal closing promise: ‘And I swear that I don’t have a gun.’

7Lithium (Nevermind, 1991)

A song as much about the subliminal suffering of manic depression as the more obvious condemnation of that blind faith displayed by the born-again Christians who surrounded Kurt in his youth, Lithium brilliantly blurs the lines between internal and external grievance. Indeed, the song is named after the lithium compounds often used to treat bipolar disorder. There’s a satisfying bluntness to lyrics like ‘I’m so happy because today I’ve found my friends – they’re in my head’ but the quiet-loud songwriting openly indebted to the Pixies more sharply makes the point. There’s repetitive tragedy, too, in seeing such a blatant cry for help and hearing that broken promise: ‘I’m not gonna crack.’

6All Apologies (In Utero, 1993)

The final song on Nirvana’s final album, there is a weariness and wooziness about All Apologies that seems to overflow with sadness in retrospect. Although there is a playfulness in the lyrics that are by turns peaceful (‘In the sun I feel as one’), confrontational (‘I wish I was like you, easily amused’), doomily fatalist (‘Married, buried, yeah, yeah yeah’) and ultimately resigned (‘What else should I be? All apologies’), Kurt commented to biographer Michael Azerrad for Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana that the song represented the “peaceful, happy comfort” he wanted for wife Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean. The MTV Unplugged version is even more poignant, with the lyric ‘all in all is all we are’ changed to ‘all alone is all we are’ and all its suffocating foreshadowing.

5Something In The Way (Nevermind, 1991)

‘Underneath the bridge, the tarp has sprung a leak / And the animals I’ve trapped have all become my pets / And I’m living off of grass and the drippings from the ceiling / But it’s okay to eat fish ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.’ Rumours have swirled around the starkly evocative closing track to Nevermind, with some claiming it chronicles a period of Kurt’s life spent sleeping rough, while the singer himself told Azerrad that it was an imagined “fantasy” where “I was living under the bridge and I was dying of A.I.D.S.” Having failed to pull together a full-band version, the song was eventually recorded with Kurt lying on his back, strumming an out-of-tune acoustic on the studio floor. Kirk Canning’s haunting cello is the icing on a debased cake.

4Aneurysm (Incesticide, 1992)

A song that feels like the bridge between Bleach and Nevermind infamously didn’t find a place on either. Eventually appearing as the B-side to Smells Like Teen Spirit, however, and on the subsequent Incesticide compilation, Aneurysm has found its rightful place as a fan-favourite. Caught between his failing romance with Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail (‘love you so much it makes me sick’) and his new relationship with heroin (‘come on over and shoot the shit’, ‘she keeps it pumpin’ straight to my heart’), the song walks that fine line between anguish and ecstasy. That inherent tension made it a highlight of so many live sets.

3Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nevermind, 1991)

Arguably, no other track in the history of rock has had the instant, landscape-changing effect of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. Equally, few other artistic creations have weighed so heavily around the necks of their creators. Part ’70s classic rock anthem, part ’80s alt. awkwardness, this represented the peak realisation of that quiet/loud dynamic on which so much of Nirvana’s success was built – almost single-handedly killing off glam rock and even knocking Michael Jackson off his chart-ruling perch. Named after a deodorant targeted at teenage girls and full of probing contradictions, it is the ultimate depiction of abstract angst, pushing both gawky introversion and rockstar excess. Kurt hated the song by his death just three years later, and would often deliberately mangle its live performance, even outrageously melding it with Boston’s iconic More Than A Feeling at 1992’s Reading Festival.

2Heart-Shaped Box (In Utero, 1993)

Released as the comeback lead-single for In Utero, when Nirvana were easily the biggest band on the planet, Heart-Shaped Box replaced the easy adolescent bombast of …Teen Spirit with a far more open, unsettling view into Kurt’s mindset. Named after the gift-box Courtney Love had furtively asked Dave to pass on to Kurt after she had first developed a crush, the playful, affectionate curios – sea shells, pinecones and a small doll – once contained within had been replaced by obsession, torment, and a fixation on the fleeting beauty and inevitable decay of existence. In the end, the song is a defining distillation of the themes running throughout In Utero, from the angelic offal of the album’s artwork to the foreboding contrasts of their final music video, between the ideas of messianic sacrifice and the stark reality of wasting away in a hospital bed.

1Sliver (Incesticide, 1992)

Known by Kurt as “the most ridiculous pop song I’ve ever written”, titled Sliver because he knew people would misspell it, and conceived during a practice with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters (whose involvement with the band lasted for just one show), this stand-alone single feels like a finely-balanced moment in time, powered by the frontman’s tortured intelligence but not yet corrupted by the anguish and addiction that would eventually spell his demise. There is darkness in there – its tale of an aimless kid dropped involuntarily at his grandma’s house to bum about, eat ice cream and lounge on the couch was indicative of the parental abandonment he so keenly felt – but there is a playfulness in its simple elastic energy, in its knowing exaggerations (‘I killed my toe’) and contradictions (‘I fell asleep and watched TV’), and in the cathartic freedom of throwing a tantrum. The closing image, of being safe and warm in your mother’s arms yet wanting to be alone, is perhaps the simplest distillation of the existential tension which would ultimately pull Kurt – and the band – apart.

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