The 10 Best Nirvana Songs

The story goes something like this: Sheriff Kurt moseys into town just long enough to purge the spandex-clad outlaws before riding off into the sunset forever, leaving behind the Clinton Administration, Lollapalooza, and lucrative major label deals for flannel-flyin’ underdogs everywhere.

It’s a nice idea. And like most myths, there is some degree of truth to it. Unfortunately, the cultish deification of Nirvana has resulted in a conundrum shared by only a handful of others, including the Beatles and Elvis Presley: when legend and apocrypha impede the enjoyment of a body of work on its own terms, objective analysis becomes difficult, if not impossible; in this context, even playful assessments like “overrated” and “underrated” become inapplicable.

Lawsuits, elaborate conspiracy theories, hagiographic biographies, “biopics,” posthumously-published diaries, tomb-raiding box sets, more lawsuits. Drugs, ulcers, guns. Reams have been written about Nirvana’s legacy, and most of what has been published is disappointingly but necessarily typical, right down to an obligatory “influential wife meddles, destroys band” narrative. For a person who never wanted to be a rock star, Kurt Cobain’s story sure managed to tick all the boxes.

Of course, very few of these things should have much to do with Nirvana’s place on the continuum of rock and roll. All too often, fans and critics evoke Nirvana’s songs in the form of citations supporting elaborate, unnecessary arguments. The songs should be discussed simply because they are good. Some of them are really good.

But this, too, presents another frustrating complication: as tempting as it is to try to de-personalize Nirvana’s–Cobain’s–music and focus on the work itself, such an undertaking is impossible, and anyway, it misses the point: by all accounts, Cobain the songwriter and Cobain the man are the same thing. Like 2Pac, Eminem, or John Lennon after the Beatles, Cobain’s music is intensely, rivetingly personal; even when it wasn’t strictly autobiographical, it still sounded like it was. For misfit teens and pre-teens who couldn’t have possibly related to the things Motley Crüe or Warrant sang about, Cobain functioned as a beacon and necessary alternative, someone they could identify with. Even Nirvana’s lyrics–often nonsensical, cryptic, or just plain dumb–articulated the sort of suburban, post-Reagan nihilism commonly associated with the Alternative Nation. Nirvana’s lyrics are only bad if you’re looking for something Cobain never promised: poetry.

Did Kurt Cobain change your life? If you’re a music fan between the ages of 25 and 40, there is a very good chance that the reason you know about the Melvins, Mudhoney, the Vaselines, Earth, the Meat Puppets, the Wipers, Killing Joke, The Pixies, Scratch Acid, the Jesus Lizard, or William Burroughs is Kurt Cobain. Very few contemporary rock stars–Jack White being one lone exception that proves the rule–have so effusively and enthusiastically sung the praises of their forebears like Cobain. Understanding that Nirvana had the potential to provide his fans with a gateway to the life-changing music that inspired his own, Cobain became a most vocal ambassador of the underground when most others in his position might have put as much distance as possible between themselves and the ideas they stole. To thousands of kids in flyover country–who might not have known Black Flag from Black Oak, Arkansas–Cobain became the surrogate older brother or sister with a stack of well-loved punk 45s, or the record store clerk who talked you out of buying that EMF record and sent you home with a copy Doolittle tucked under your arm instead.

Twenty years ago today, Kurt Cobain died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The band–Cobain, drummer Dave Grohl, and bassist Krist Novoselic–left behind a paltry discography of just over 100 songs, more than half of which remained unreleased during the band’s lifetime. Though Nirvana’s widespread influence remains undiminished–try imagining Cloud Nothings, Deer Tick, or DIIV without them–to call Cobain’s tragic death an incalculable loss is as much an understatement as it is a cliché. We will almost certainly never see another like him.

Many readers will note the conspicuous absence of Nirvana’s most popular and enduring song from this list. For the record, I concede that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a great song (possibly the best song to ever rip off the Pixies), but the fact is, Nirvana recorded better ones. At least ten better, as a matter of fact. Here they are.

10. “School” (from Bleach, 1989)

It is well established that Nirvana milked the “soft-loud-soft” formula for all it was worth. This dynamic trick–whose origins are often attributed to the Pixies–would soon become an alternative rock cliché in the hands of many profoundly terrible bands. But it wasn’t until Nevermind that Nirvana began regularly employing such arrangements; on their debut album Bleach, “loud-louder-loud” seemed to be a more accurate summation of the game plan. Bleach was not the first “grunge” album, but it’s the definitive one, capturing Nirvana–more melodic than Mudhoney or the Melvins, darker than Tad or Soundgarden–in its primitive, nascent stage. While the bargain-basement sound of Bleach offers little indication that the album would soon be followed by the radiant sheen of Nevermind, it does, interestingly enough, predict the noisy, disgruntled In Utero four years later. “School” is a pop song bathed in pathos and bile, constructed from just two riffs and a mere fourteen words. Vocally, Cobain sounds legitimately damaged and dangerously feral. A repeated refrain serves as a verse, setting up a chorus whose only lyric–”No recess!”–expresses shock at the discovery that adulthood is merely a macrocosm of school, minus the swings and slides and sandboxes; a grim and somewhat chilling revelation.

9. “Come As You Are” (from Nevermind, 1991)

There is no need to speculate on Cobain’s influences: other bands were often his favorite interview topic, and he was never shy about pointing out what he ripped off from whom. Cobain was also a gifted pop songwriter who knew the value of the elusive “hook” even when he was singing about lobotomized actresses, herbal abortives, and eating black cancers. Inspiration often came in the form of the catchiest parts of the records he loved. In the case of the great “Come As You Are,” that inspiration was Killing Joke’s song “Eighties.” Cribbing heavily from the tune, Cobain nevertheless proves Oscar Wilde’s evergreen adage: “Talent borrows, genius steals”: “Come As You Are” is one of the most evocative and well-developed songs in Nirvana’s catalog. Cobain’s guitar, drenched in a tacky chorus effect, serves the song’s saturnine, surrendering feel, while a tremulous guitar solo, wet, cold and shivering, lollygags around the song’s indelible melody line. Killing Joke needn’t have been butt-hurt: if imitation is, in fact, the sincerest form of flattery, “Come As You Are” is likely the best compliment they ever received.

8. “Negative Creep” (from Bleach, 1989)

The shadow of the Melvins looms large over Nirvana. Melvins drummer Dale Crover performed on the demos that convinced Sub Pop to sign Nirvana; years later, Melvins frontman Buzz Osborne would introduce Cobain to drummer Dave Grohl. But it is to the sound of the Melvins–grinding, depressive hard rock sludge–that Nirvana owes it’s greatest debt. “Negative Creep” might have been conceived as a thinly veiled homage to the band (though its chorus of “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more” directly references Mudhoney), but Nirvana’s chilling ode to social awkwardness is Cobain at his bloodletting, lung-shredding best. Over a thick palm-muted chug, Cobain, sounding like a cross between Lemmy and a gargoyle, acknowledges his position as a shadowy outsider–even revels in it. The “negative creep” of the song’s title is under no allusions, and offers no apologies; he’s here to weird you out. The entire song sounds like a coal car gathering speed and careening recklessly toward Main Street, with each slide up or down the guitar neck simulating the sudden jerk of a wheel violently nudging some object or person out of the frame. It’s a sound as beautiful as a rock in a cop’s face.

7. “Sliver” (from Incesticide, 1992)

Originally released as a single in late 1990, “Sliver” would later become a highlight of Incesticide, Nirvana’s 1992 collection of singles and rarities. The much beloved song would go on to become one of the band’s most popular non-album tracks. The origins of “Sliver,” recorded on borrowed time and with borrowed gear, are somewhat legendary: When Tad, in the studio with producer Jack Endino, left for a meal break, the members of Nirvana–Cobain and Novoselic plus Mudhoney’s Dan Peters–seized the opportunity by commandeering the band’s equipment and knocking out “Sliver” in an hour. The song is classic verse-chorus-verse Nirvana, and almost a prototype of the more palatable sound of Nevermind: a squeal of feedback advances a loud, repetitive chorus, Cobain shrieks the latter verses in a higher octave, and the whole thing is irresistibly catchy. The lyrics, too, are vintage Cobain: the narrator–a petulant child–pitches a fit that hints at some malefic injustice but omits pertinent details; the only actual discomforts described in the song are an injured toe and some presumably overcooked meat. What transpires, exactly, between the narrator’s postprandial nap in front of the tube and his waking in his mother’s arms? Is it worth noting that the “dad” introduced in the song’s first line never reappears? Cobain delighted in ambiguities, and “Sliver” is one of his more compelling brainteasers. It may also be alt-rock’s finest tantrum.

6. “Lithium” (from Nevermind, 1991)

Say what you will about Dave Grohl, but it’s difficult to imagine the Nirvana of Bleach taking the world by storm. A veteran of the DC punk scene and former member of hardcore band Scream, Grohl, following a tip from Buzz Osborne, flew to Seattle to audition for Nirvana. The three men clicked immediately: in Grohl, Cobain and Novoselic found a drummer sympathetic to the band’s punk roots, but proficient enough to help them realize their fledgling pop aspirations. In fact, a good deal of Nevermind’s distinctive primal power can be attributed to Grohl’s lowercase-classic rock drumming: compare the Nevermind version of “Lithium” to the earlier take recorded during the aborted Smart Studios sessions (officially released on 2011′s extravagant “super deluxe” reissue of Nevermind). The Smart Studios version is distinguished by the presence of Bleach drummer Chad Channing, as well as an acoustic guitar track and a less imaginative, root note-heavy bass line from Novoselic. Most notable, though, are the drums: if Channing beat the drums, Grohl demolished them. Though recorded to a click track, “Lithium” benefits greatly from producer Butch Vig’s meticulous screw-tightening, which turns this song of post-traumatic spiritual crisis into something more Cars than Karp.

5. “On A Plain” (from Nevermind, 1991)

In the context of Cobain’s suicide, a line in the chorus of “On A Plain”–”love myself better than you”–can’t help but take on some degree of retrospective significance. Putting aside the cliché of characterizing suicide as a “selfish act,” persons combing Nirvana’s history for songs or incidents that would appear to foreshadow Cobain’s death were certain to find far more explicit examples than this. And yet, the ambiguity of this simple declaration is difficult to ignore. Does the singer selfishly, narcissistically love himself more than he does anyone else, or does he love himself with greater ability–better–than someone else could? The conspicuous absence of the pronoun “I,” too, implies reluctance to wholly commit, for the same reason it is easier to say “love you” than “I love you.” “On A Plain” is one of the more triumphal-sounding numbers of Nevermind, boasting a great Beatles-y middle eight and some of Grohl’s most aggressive bashing; even the title, perhaps a not-subtle reference to being high, suggests optimism, control, the view from a vantage point. But when the song’s haunting harmony vocals remain as the rest of the song gradually fades, the effect is eerie: the voices appear to get louder as the sound of the band, still playing, becomes distant, before disappearing entirely. I submit “On A Plain” as the spookiest song in Nirvana’s catalog.

4. “About A Girl” (from Bleach, 1989)

As much as he tried to portray himself as a punk, Kurt Cobain always sounded comfortable embracing his inner McCartney. In many ways, it was Cobain’s not-insubstantial strengths as a melodist that immediately distinguished him from the flock. Detractors will often point to the dozens of Nirvana contemporaries who were just as (or more) deserving of the attention being paid Nirvana, but few had songs as classically beautiful as “About A Girl.” Even Cobain seems to have been aware of the song’s power: it remained a staple of Nirvana set lists throughout the band’s career. A snappy tune about relationship turmoil (like many of Cobain’s songs, autobiographical), “About A Girl” remains one of the only openly commercial songs in Nirvana’s catalog. Cobain plays it entirely straight, with no attempts at sabotage and no lyrics about reproductive glands or blowtorches. The jangly, rudimentary guitars aim for R.E.M. but land somewhere closer to Beat Happening, while Cobain’s plangent vocal is blatantly, outwardly sweet, even as it strains. Included on the otherwise prickly Bleach, “About A Girl” sticks out like an overturned bag of Skittles left on the killing field.

3. “Drain You” (from Nevermind, 1991)

Steve Albini called the production of Nevermind a “hack job”; if it was, it was the same sort of hack job that produced In Color, an album by one of Cobain’s favorite bands. Cobain once credited the movie Over The Edge–a masterpiece of juvie-rebellion whose trivial claim to fame is that it introduced the world to a young actor named Matt Dillon–as a key influence; “Drain You” is the closest Nirvana ever got to writing the sort of song that might have fit on that movie’s great soundtrack alongside the Ramones, The Cars, and, yep, Cheap Trick. Recorded at Sound City Studios, the facility that produced Neil Young’s After The Goldrush, Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album, and Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, among others, Nevermind’s commercial shine was no accident. Butch Vig, fresh from recording Smashing Pumpkins’ seminal album Gish, was in many ways the anti-Albini: an auteur, a meddler. Indeed, Vig’s finessing allowed Nevermind to be the pop album it was conceived to be even before Vig got involved. In this way, he became a facilitator, even when it meant resorting to underhanded tactics, like tricking Cobain into overdubbing his guitar on “Drain You” by requesting unnecessary additional takes, and then discreetly piling them on top of one another. The result is one of Nevermind’s best songs, a potent and powerful blare complete with a menacing chorus and a decidedly ‘out’ middle section worthy of Sonic Youth. The winding, unconventional vocal melody is even exonerates the song’s pun-y lyrics (“With eyes so dilated I become your pupil”). If In Utero and Bleach acknowledged the punk ancestry of the band once called Fecal Matter, songs like “Drain You” exposed the lesser-heralded precursors of the band’s sound: glossy power pop and classic rock. Less than two months after it was released, Nevermind would be certified platinum; since then, it has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.

2. “Serve The Servants” (from In Utero, 1993)

“Teenage angst has paid off well / now I’m bored and old” is one of the greatest opening lines of an album in the history of rock and roll. Like John Lennon’s similarly meta “God,” “Serve The Servants” is the sound of ritual catharsis. Anchored by a whirling, ominous riff, “Serve The Servants” finds Cobain famous, disgusted, and naming names; NME might have said it best in Brian Willis’ 1993 cover story: “In Utero is Kurt’s revenge.” The idea of a 26-year old characterizing himself as “bored and old” might seem tragic, but, from Bo Diddley to The Who, it’s a sentiment almost as old as rock and roll itself. In an interview with Flipside published in June 1992, Cobain jokingly likens Nirvana’s overnight success to the Beatles, before admitting that he hoped to “eventually turn into Pete Best–just brush [his newfound popularity] under the carpet and forget about it.” This ill-ease manifests itself as restlessness in the sound of many of In Utero’s caustic, lacerating tracks; “Serve The Servants” even upends the expected Nirvana formula by following a loud, shouted verse with a softer, mellower chorus. Grohl’s drums seem to fill the room, in marked contrast to the punchy, compressed percussion sound on Nevermind. “Serve The Servants” kicks off Nirvana’s triumphant final chapter with an explosion, and one of the best songs they ever committed to tape.

1. “All Apologies” (from MTV Unplugged In New York, 1994)

Though Nirvana will undoubtedly be remembered for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”–a game-changer to end all game-changers–the beautiful “All Apologies” is the Nirvana song that belongs in the time capsule. If “School” was the sound of an alienated young person entering adulthood and finding it a disappointing continuation of high school’s cliques and social demands to conform, “All Apologies” is that same person older and wiser, but even worse off, bleakly reducing adulthood to two simple words: “married / buried.” The reason that the MTV Unplugged performance–later released as MTV Unplugged In New York–endures is twofold: First, having been recorded and then repeatedly broadcast on MTV following Cobain’s death, MTV Unplugged supplies an iconic image to accompany the legend, a visual crystallization of an epoch. The result is a kind of wide-scale synesthesia: for many of us, it is impossible to hear “All Apologies” without picturing Cobain in his grey sweater, hunched on a stool like one of the Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. This nostalgic association, more than any other reason, is why you are likely to hear the MTV Unplugged version of “All Apologies” on classic rock radio instead of its studio counterpart. Cobain leaning into the microphone with downcast blue eyes, his posture more “middle school truant” than “rock star,” is Gen-X’s Kennedy waving from the motorcade, Neil Armstrong bouncing in zero gravity, or Ed Sullivan announcing the Beatles. The second, less cynical reason that the MTV Unplugged version of “All Apologies” endures is that it is simply a superior performance than the one found on In Utero. Taped on November 18, 1993, “All Apologies”–and MTV Unplugged In New York in general–cruelly teases at an alternate future, one in which Cobain survives and Nirvana reinvents itself as a great acoustic band. Even before the subsequent popularity of the MTV Unplugged performance, this trajectory seemed possible, even likely; after all, both the MTV Unplugged and In Utero versions of “All Apologies” feature a cello, an addition to the band’s sound that might have seemed unimaginable only three years earlier. The song itself is one of Cobain’s most lyrically straightforward and revealing: “I wish I was like you / easily amused” could just as easily address his fans as his infant daughter. The MTV Unplugged performance is also notable for a small but significant lyrical ad-lib: On the In Utero version of “All Apologies,” Cobain sings the koan-like lyric “All in all is all we are”; on the MTV Unplugged version, he sings “all alone is all we are.” Less than half a year later, Cobain would be dead at only 27 years old.

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[Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc.]

Comments (167)
  1. No Smells Like Teen Spirit.

    How hip.

    • For anyone not inclined to read the intro, I just want to highlight one section of it, which precedes the list itself:

      “Many readers will note the conspicuous absence of Nirvana’s most popular and enduring song from this list. For the record, I concede that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a great song (possibly the best song to ever rip off the Pixies), but the fact is, Nirvana recorded better ones. At least ten better, as a matter of fact. Here they are.”

      • Sorry but that arguement is as plainly stupid as not having “Like a Rolling Stone” in the top ten of Dylan.

      • I agree with kellstud, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is on numerous lists of top songs of all time. It was huge critical and commercial acclaim. I don’t care that the writer may think it is over hyped, but it is still genre defining. It is not surprising considering their history list controversy.

        P.S. Where is “Polly”?

      • It’s the cheapest form of writing, these Top 10 lists. Making one on the anniversary of Cobain’s death is particularly crass, so go ahead and defile however you like I guess. These lists are shameless.

      • Yeah that was the part I rolled my eyes at the most. Sorry, I love all these songs too but Negative Creep and Sliver aren’t better than Teen Spirit. That song is perfectly structured.

      • By that logic, then “About A Girl” shouldn’t be on here either – even Krist thought it was a Smithereens song when he first heard it. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” may rip off “Debaser” but to say Nirvana “recorded” 10 better songs? And “Serve The Servants” is one of them? I don’t think so. “Aneurysm” belongs up there, or even “Dive” for that matter. (The rest on the list are good choices, I’ll give you that.)

    • High-quality trolling.

    • That didn’t really surprise me whatsoever.

      • With the exclusion of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I think it’s safe to assume that this was is more along the lines of “smells like comment-baiting.”

        • You think it’s safe to assume we hired James Jackson Toth, an acclaimed songwriter (bka Wooden Wand) and outstanding critic in his own right, to write 3200 words on Nirvana … to troll commenters?

          • Well, I’m not allowed to criticize writers here specifically by name anymore (or so that was my takeaway) but I felt the action of leaving off their most popular / iconic song was a sure bet move to garner reaction regardless of the disclosure before going into the list.

          • Your entire argument against michael_’s claim is that you think the dude who wrote the article is super great at writing, which does not really address the claim at all. It’s perfectly reasonable to think, as michael put, that leaving off the most popular and iconic song is a move to get a reaction out of people and thus generate traffic, regardless of commenting.

          • Nah, you have my word — hand to heart — we approached this with no such intention, and James was given no such direction (and to be clear, no writer with whom I’ve worked has EVER been told directly or indirectly to be “more controversial”). I’ll be totally straight with you: In this case, we actually considered asking James to reconsider his decision to leave Teen Spirit off the list, before finally deciding that doing so would have been kind of invasive and dishonest. That said, if I had written this list, Teen Spirit would have been No. 1. But I hold James’ opinions on music in the highest esteem, and they’re presented here unaltered, and they are 100-percent sincere.

          • It seems like every time there’s a best songs or albums list on Stereogum, people immediately claim trolling if the most popular song/album isn’t among the top 3 – not because it’s the “best,” but for pop culture-based reasons. Isn’t that kind of a disingenuous approach for people who consider themselves true music fans to have? Why are we pushing for these lists to play out like an episode of “I Love the 90s?”

          • @Ben: Yeah, it happens every time, and for the first few months doing these franchises, I would always step into the comments and explain that these are always and only assigned to writers who are passionate fans of the artist in question, and we’ve in no way asked them to either follow or reject consensus, but to present a list that reflects their feelings as honestly as possible. I stopped making that address in the comments because it made no difference; people accused of us trolling just the same. The only reason I called out Michael_ is because he’s a longtime reader and a pretty established blogger himself and I think he knows in his heart that we don’t operate that way. But it’s a good opportunity for me to restate our editorial policies, even if they only go read by you and Michael_ and other people who comment here regularly anyway.

          • I feel like I’m being trolled into getting an argument here, which I’m not really feeling.

            I will say this in response to reading M. Nelson’s reply: I think listicles like this that speak in a rather definitive sense should therefore be justified by representing the entire site’s staff opinion and not just the one single person writing it.

            So this is not really ‘The 10 Best Nirvana Songs’ according to Stereogum. It’s ‘The 10 Best Nirvana Songs According to the Wooden Wand Dude,” to which I say either put it on a personal blog or on Buzzfeed, because at least everyone knows not to take it seriously.

          • “a pretty established blogger”

            LOL x 1000

            For a good laugh, let me show you my site traffic sometime. Nobody reads what I write and most bands will recognize my posts with a “Favorite” on Twitter at most while RT-ing every other site under the sun.

          • @Michael_: Definitely not trolling you, didn’t mean to offend you. I think your feeling is totally valid; it’s just not the way these lists are assembled/produced by us. And it’s not analytics that establish a blogger, but words, and you’ve published a lot of ‘em. I say that with the sincerest respect. WITH THAT SAID I am jumping out of these comments now, because the work is piling up over here. Thanks for listening!

          • Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

          • That’s fair. If the guy doesn’t think Smells Like Teen Spirit is among their best, then he shouldn’t have to put it up there. I was more reacting to the response seeming to dodge michael_’s initial claim, which rubbed me the wrong way for some reason.

          • I think you might catch less flack for these lists if you guys billed them as “10 favorite songs” instead of “10 best songs.” They read that way anyway and that designation would be more consistent with the subjectivity of the exercise.

    • I loved the exclusion. Couldn’t agree more with Toth, and I’m not even trying to be hip. That song, Come As Your Are, and Stay Away are the weakest on the album for me; Drain You, On A Plain, and In Bloom are light years better. I’ve been having this argument with people for a long time now, no troll.

      The “10 Best-Known Nirvana Songs” this isn’t.

      • I respect the idea that a given writer’s opinion excludes a given artist’s song, but the subjective and objective are mixed like water and oil when a list, which really only serves as SEO fodder, is written subjectively and is the author’s opinion, but calls itself “the best” of something.

        Mindful of that, Smell Like Teen Spirit is not only an amazing song, but there has not been a song in popular music since its release that has so dramatically impacted the musical landscape. To leave it off this list is reckless and poor journalism. Had the list been entitled “James Jackson Toth’s 10 favorite Nirvana songs,” then it wouldn’t matter, but that’s not the title Stereogum went with.

        • Could not agree with you more. Good music journalism is not: “uhhh you may have noticed that I left off Teen Spririt but here are ten songs that are better.” Why is it not on the list? Explanation? Utter garbage.

        • If we’re gonna dig this deep into the idea, then I guess you can’t really have it either way. To define “best of” in terms of the objective only (# of weeks on the charts, radio play data, other indicators of pop culture significance)… that’s not really a “best of” list to me; that’s a “best-known.” Such a list would probably rank Last Night as the “best” Strokes song, which is ridiculous to me, because I think it’s one of their worst. But, on the contrary, you’re right – an author’s purely subjective list, by definition, isn’t truly a “best of” either. The clunky title you’ve suggested would better describe that type of list, but I don’t think it’s realistic – nor particularly fair – to actually expect Stereogum to do that.

          It’s virtually impossible to make these lists and not ruffle a few feathers (my Nirvana list, for the record, would look quite different than Toth’s). Personally, I’d rather not read a list that only panders to pop culture sensibilities – that’s what I consider poor journalism, and it’s why I gave up on Rolling Stone a long time ago. I guess Toth could throw out a bone and give Smells Like Teen Spirit an arbitrary spot on the list, because yeah, it’s impact on music is undeniable… but at the same time that’s kind of a cop-out.

          I dunno, man. I just like reading good writing. I don’t necessarily need to agree with the author.

          • Sure, any “best of” list is going to be subjective unless you can quantitatively prove something. Since this is music, not sports, you can’t. Because most music fans don’t care how long a song is in the charts, or how many grammies a band has won, a music “best of” can only be opinion, but generally there’s consensus in opinion, especially after 22 – 23 years of evidence.

            For instance, if you’re writing generally about music in the 60s, and fail to mention the Beatles, you’re unqualified to be writing about music in the 60s. Whether the author even likes the Beatles, their influence is too large to ignore. These are the constraints anyone that writes professionally about music works under.

            The exact same thing can be said about Smells Like Teen Spirit. Most of you are probably too young to remember what the radio was like before, during, and after Smells Like Teen Spirit. My comment still stands that no song/band since has compared; regardless of other songs/bands that have outsold Nirvana, or appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone more times, etc.

            I disagree with our only alternative to Pitchfork, publishing an author who’s unqualified to write about Nirvana, even if the author is “an acclaimed songwriter (bka Wooden Wand) and outstanding critic in his own right.” That’s great that Stereogum didn’t urge the author to be controversial, and even questioned the song’s absence; but Nirvana’s most important song was absent – that’s the irrevocable bottom line; and what you read was just writing, not good writing.

          • I’d be fine with “Stereogum’s 10 Favourite _____ Songs” or “Our 10 Favourite ____ Songs”, neither of which are convoluted titles and surely the site would have no problem taking responsibility for the opinions therein when they choose to publish it.

    • I think it’s a just exclusion.

    • is this list being published in Funk and Wagnall’s upcoming print thesaurus? No? Well then let’s just take it as some fun and an opportunity for comment on great individual tracks rather than an objective list of the factual best 10 songs by ‘vana.

      Besides, we all know pennyroyal tea is their best.
      Followed by dave grohl’s (i think) disgusting territorial pissings intro, which is similar to the sound of excruciating diarrhea.

    • “Teen Spirit” might be the most important single released in my lifetime, probably the single song that most shaped me as a music listener… and it wouldn’t be on my NIrvana top 10. i haven’t listened to it in years.

      only two “In Utero” songs, though? no “Aneurysm”? how DARE they, etc.

    • Yep. This list is a joke!

      In Utero has Kurt’s best crafted songs, yet only one of them makes the list? How about you let a Nirvana fan write the list? For now, it’s probably best you hand your brother back his iPod.

    • It’s not one of their best songs. For old time’s sake I am going to call you ‘poser!’

  2. Come on! A little effort? No “Sappy” or “Even in His Youth”?! And I agree with the above comment for the simple fact that it changed music and made Nirvana relevant.

  3. I’ll see you in hell

  4. In Utero is underrepresented. Although you’ve picked two great ones. I’ve always loved Dumb and Frances Farmer.

  5. I haven’t looked at the list yet, but I’m going to guess that Smells Like Teen Spirit somehow isn’t #1.

  6. What makes Nirvana such a kick ass band is that I could make another Top 10 without repeating any of the songs of your list and it would be as great as yours.

    Smells Like Teen Spirit
    In Bloom
    Lounge Act
    Staw Away
    Pennyroyal Tea
    Frances Farmer
    Scentless Apprentice
    Heart Shaped Box
    You Know You’re Right

  7. Lists are Dumb.

  8. “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Surely a band with a reletively small discography deserves to have its most recognized riff (both guitar and drums) somewhere in the top ten. Weak exclusion. We are all here commenting on this story because of that song and its un- “denial!!!!” ability.

  9. Can we get a best to worst for The Kinks and Thee Oh Sees? Both have huge catalogues and it’s hard to no where to start as an outsider. Can we also get best to worsts of Wilco, Zappa and Beefheart, so that I can argue about them?

    • you should check out the kinks cover of “U really got it” as originally recorded by David Lee Roth. A good start and nice way to ease into their discography.

    • Kinks? Start with Village Green Preservation Society, then check out Something Else by the Kinks, Face to Face, Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), Lola vs. the Powerman, and Muswell Hillbillies. You may even need to throw in a “Singles Collection” of some sort to round out some earlier hits and non-album singles.

  10. There is a great lack of In Utero on here, which we all know is the best Nirvana album.

    I also feel it’s unfair to put the Unplugged version of All Apologies as number 1 just because of what happened a few months later.

  11. THANK YOU for having On A Plain and Serve the Servants, those truly do belong on there. I do think, however, that the omission of Heart-Shaped Box is even more devastating than that of Smells Like Teen Spirit.

  12. Thank you for not including Teen Spirit. Maybe after years of hearing it everywhere I’ve grown indifferent to how good it is, but I certainly don’t think it’s in the band’s top ten songs.

    I did notice a bit of a bias against some of the more standard “alt-rock” songs, which is funny considering they were far and away the most popular and immediately influential songs. “She Hates Me” by that one god awful band is pretty much a jocked up “Rape Me” and modern rock pretty much stole the parts of Nirvana that irritate me while ignoring all the great aspects of the band.

    Also, I love Marigold, even if it’s just an early Foo Fighters song released under the NIrvana name.

    • In my blind agreement over the exclusion of Teen Spirit I managed to overlook the fact that PennyRoyal Tea is not included. That’s pretty wack man.

    • There was no such thing as the Foo Fighters when Nirvana was around, so Marigold was not an early Foo Fighters song released under the Nirvana name. It was a rare song written by another member of the band Nirvana.

  13. I remember watching 120 minutes the first time I saw/heard the Teen Spirit. It’s the song that brought Nirvana to most of us must be included. Pennyroyal Tea, and Heart Shaped Box are a must too and maybe even Scentless Appentice. Guess I like In Utero a lot.

  14. I like most of these picks, though Bleach seems over-represented. The one thing that definitely should be in the mix is “Aneurysm,” which is top three material, to my mind.

  15. most contentious list ever?

  16. One song off In Utero?? One song? One? One song? Just one song?

    I think you got #1 right though. And props for excluding ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ Seriously. Iconic does not equal best.

  17. How in the blue hell did “In Bloom” not make the cut?

  18. At first glance this is a pretty personal list. I mean, more songs from Bleach than In Utero? Smells Like Teen Spirit, the song that started it all, left off entirely? I get the burnout on all the radio hits, but then lots of those were included too. The results are a little idiosyncratic. I feel like you should have legitimately listed the real top 10 with Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom, Heart-Shaped Box, Rape Me, and Dumb included, or just gone whole-hog weird and only included some of their lesser-known great songs like Moist Vagina, Dive, Marigold, Scentless Apprentice, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, and suchlike (though I’ve always loved On a Plain). This list is about half-and-half of those two approaches, and it’s why everyone doesn’t know what to make of this list.

  19. I completely agree with the #1

  20. Here’s mine just for fun. I also didn’t include Teen Spirit but it would be in the second ten.

    Lounge Act
    Serve the Servants
    Very Ape
    Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
    Negative Creep
    Stay Away
    Even in his Youth

    • This is a list I can absolutely get behind, before reading this article I thought ‘If it doesn’t feature Dive, Lounge Act or Radio Friendly Unit Shifter this list is flawed’ – Smells Like Teen Spirit didn’t occur to me which I found odd.

  21. I think the covers on Unplugged were some of my favorite things they ever performed:

    Lake of Fire
    Where Did you Sleep Last Night?

    Something in the Way is my #1 though. I personally always liked the slower, less aggressive stuff. Pennyroyal Tea probably #2.

  22. fuck off with this clickbait

  23. Bleach has more interesting tracks than Negative Creep imho

  24. Dive

  25. Personally, I thought Rape Me was by far the boldest move the band made during their fleeting moment in rock for so many, many reasons.

  26. Everyone’s talking about the lack of In Utero, but the lack of Incesticide is even more glaring. I kind of assumed “Aneurysm” was a lock for #1, but oh well.

    “Negative Creep” isn’t even one of the best songs on Bleach, let alone their entire catalog, but I have a soft spot for it because it was the first riff I learned how to play on guitar, when I was 9. 0-0-12-0-0-0-0-12 and repeat.

    My list, chronologically:

    About a Girl
    Drain You
    On a Plain
    Scentless Apprentice
    Heart-Shaped Box
    I Hate Myself and Want to Die

  27. Top 10 Nirvana cover versions, because what the hell:

    1. Turnaround (Devo)
    2. Do You Love Me? (Kiss)
    3. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (Leadbelly)
    4. Oh Me (Meat Puppets)
    5. Love Buzz (Shocking Blue)
    6. Plateau (Meat Puppets)
    7. Son of a Gun (Vaselines)
    8. Return of the Rat (Wipers)
    9. Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam (Vaselines)
    10. The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie)

  28. Wholeheartedly agree that they had way better songs than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — iconic doesn’t mean “best.”
    But yeah, In Utero is vastly under-represented.

  29. I’ve always had a strange affinity for “Lounge Act.” I love how towards the end he goes up the octave, screaming the chorus and just tearing shit up. Definitely my favorite track on Nevermind.

    By the way, I have no issues with the omission of Teen Spirit. It’s almost certainly because of how overplayed and over-hyped the song is, but I can’t even listen to it anymore.

    • Good call. I agree about Lounge Act. I have always loved it and it is one of the only songs on Nevermind that I’m not even the least bit tired of. It just keeps getting more and more intense.

    • I suffer the same strange affinity. “Lounge Act” is my favorite moment of the album.

  30. Re: “All Apologies” featuring a cello, “an addition to the band’s sound that might have seemed unimaginable only three years earlier.” Um, there was a cello on “Something In The Way” on ‘Nevermind,’ an inclusion that I certainly took notice of, and for me, makes that track the amazing piece it is.

    (Also, you’ve got “No Apologies” in place of “All Apologies” in the first sentence. Would be great for SPIN to employ some copy editors/proofreaders.)

  31. As my mother used to say to me when I would act a fool as a youngster…

    “Stop it. You’re embarrassing yourself”

  32. I don’t care how iconic or important “Teen Spirit” is, that’s not the issue I have with its exclusion. Take away its cultural significance, and it’s still just a fucking great song, and deserves to be on this list.

  33. Not a bad list. Felt that the b-sides were some of their best material.

    Aneurysm needs to be in there. Maybe Dive and Dumb as well.

  34. I agree with a previous commenter about In Utero being underrepresented. Dumb and Pennyroyal Tea would be on my list. As far as Teen Spirit, it’s hard sometimes to separate the over-saturation of a song from its actual content, but I genuinely do not love that song as much as their others. There’s also a good list of songs I cannot listen to without immediately thinking of Weird Al. Thanks, Weird Al.

  35. I knew it wouldn’t be on this list (and for just reasons), but Scentless Apprentice is the reason I fell in love with this band, and a song that shaped a lot of my musical taste as a teen (basically everything that was either recorded by, featuring or inspired by Steve Albini). Those scraping guitars, those blasting drums, and Cobain’s screams, all still highly exciting to my ears.
    I always like In Utero better anyway, so it’s kind of a shame to see it’s not really represented here. Still, a solid list.

  36. I think it is really difficult to even judge “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at this date. I need to remember the first time I ever heard it to correctly judge it. The fact that I still remember the first time I heard it- late at night on “The Loud Show” on the SLC alternative station (modern rock actually- was a station in existence before “Alternative” was the buzzword)- the fact that I remembered the first time I heard the song and that it made me just go “whoa”- who is that? Album wasn’t out yet, single wasn’t commercially out yet. That is a different feeling that when you listen to it for the millionth time. I think I would put it on the list somewhere based on that. They have so many great songs that it is a luxury to leave it off. It is nice to think about their songs as quality songs given the saturation and fatigue some might feel upon hearing anything by these guys.

  37. I really like ‘Heart shaped box’. Shame it’s not here.

  38. Hey everybody,

    Thank you for all the comments, even (especially?) the guy who said he’d “see (me) in hell.” For the record, I strongly considered SLTS, In Bloom, Aneurysm, and Frances Farmer for this list. I’m also a big fan of Sappy (or “Verse Chorus Verse,” if you wanna make things confusing). With only ten slots, it was a difficult list to write but I stand by it.

    As for all the talk of ‘trolling’ and ‘click bait,’ I will tell you that I approach these pieces as primers, not as gauntlets. Despite the word “Best” in the title of the piece, I think it’s fairly obvious and well-understood among regular SG readers and SG staff alike that these things are meant to be fun, and are intended to encourage discussions like the one we are having right now. I would never be so bold as to claim to be an expert on anything (well, except maybe The Honeymooners, but that’s a discussion for another day); what I am is a guy who really likes Nirvana, who thought it’d be fun to re-listen to their discography and see how my favorite songs compared to some of yours. Along the way, I discovered new things about these songs I’d heard hundreds of times, which is always a great added benefit to writing these things.

    Anyway, just wanted to weigh in. I realized the omission of SLTS was going to be controversial, which is why I offered a disclaimer about it in the introduction, but I assure you, it was not done to be contrarian. Thanks for reading!

    • Your list has obviously encouraged some discussion (well, blowback might be a better word), but disclaimers aside it does say “Best” in the title, so excluding Smell Like Teen Spirit just seems…weird (Heart-Shaped Box too). I don’t think you’re trying to be contrarian exactly, but according some of your previous lists, Daydream Nation isn’t Sonic Youth’s best record, Blue isn’t Joni Mitchell’s and After The Goldrush, Harvest and Tonight’s the Night aren’t Neil Young’s. Based on that, it does seems like your making an effort to avoid conventional wisdom, which can come across a bit like trolling (even if it isn’t).

      • As long as you are doing research, “Touch of Grey” made my Dead list and “Float On” made my Modest Mouse list. If those aren’t populist choices, I don’t know what is. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” may be overplayed, but at least it wasn’t covered by Kidz Bop. A little credit, please.

    • I would have read this article with equal/more interest if it was titled “James Jackson Toth’s 10 Favourite Nirvana Songs”. I’m sure most people here would agree with me. It’s just a pretentious title for a good article. This might be more of an issue with humans, not with Stereogum.

  39. Total clickthrough grab. Top 10 lists always are. And it’s a crap list to top it off. Nobody can seriously look at the body of Nirvana’s work and say that “Serve the Servants” is anywhere near the top 10 (or top 2?!?!!), and it should probably be in the bottom 10. That track, more than any other in their library, sounds mailed in. They play it with no excitement, it sounds formulaic, and Kurt sounds like he finished off a 3-day bender.

    Go ahead and say what you will about Smells Like Teen Spirit, but it is one of their greatest songs. Yes, it’s been overplayed to death, and a lot of people were sick of it about a month after it came out. But that shouldn’t factor into whether it’s a great song or not.

    The fact that Aneurysm and Dive aren’t in the top 10 shows that the writer either didn’t do his homework, or his taste in music is completely lacking.

  40. Teen Spirit did suffer from being overplayed and then poorly covered, so I’m not hurt that it’s not number one. But 14 year old me would have never given Alternative Rock any kind of chance without that song being unavoidable, and as someone else said, Undeniable.

    I also agree that the greatness of Nirvana is that a fan could EASILY compile a list of 10 songs Not on this list and have the support of Millions of people.

    To each their. Maybe one of these days titles one of these lists “MY FAVORITE 10 SONGS BY (insert artist name here)” to make the arbitrary nature of the list more obvious. Asserting good taste, or a refined taste is one thing, but with lists these Best Ofs can fall flat. Not that I want a “Greatest Hits” list either. I just think Favorites is more honest journalism. When you say Best, it invokes an authority that people can’t help but challenge, cause opinions are harder to take when someone says theirs are better than yours instead saying their preference is just that, a preference, nothing more.

  41. Not much love for Aneurysm? Bummer…

  42. It is totally legitimate for someone to not think “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of the top 10 Nirvana songs. Even though I think the song is genius, I might not include it on my own personal list (which really says more about the greatness of Nirvana and Kurt’s songwriting than anything else). In defense of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, I will say this: Being a huge fan of the initial “Grunge” bands (Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden…etc), “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is just so far beyond what Nirvana’s peers were doing. It sounds like it came from another planet compared to their contemporaries. And that’s not to take anything away from Nirvana’s peers, all of whom are bands that I love. We’re desensitized to it now but that song is just so different, so weird, taking the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic of the Pixies to such an original place. And the lyrics “I found it hard, it was hard to find, the will, whatever, nevermind”. So simple but such an incredibly adept use of the english language. I guess I just love Nirvana.

  43. Heart-Shaped Box? Anyone?

  44. I’m totally cool with excluding Teen Spirit.
    BUT NO “BREED”?!?!?!?!??!
    :) \nn/

  45. A “Top 20″ would’ve been more fair.

  46. Did they mean to release this list on April 1st instead of the Joy Division one?

  47. An impossible task to take on, but very commendable list. Here’s mine:

    10. Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle
    9. Breed
    8. You Know You’re Right
    7. About A Girl
    6. Sappy
    5. Lithium
    4. Negative Creep
    3. Scentless Apprentice
    2. Aneurysm
    1. All Apologies

  48. Why is it I got a simultaneous sinking feeling as well as elation when I saw this list?

  49. 1. Heart-Shaped Box 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Heart-Shaped Box

  50. main beefs: the “Muddy Banks” version of “Negative Creep” is a million times better than the sludge album version. and “Drain You” is way too high.

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