From 1987 to 1994, Nirvana practically ruled the world. From albums to concerts, to SNL appearances, the alternative rock band from Seattle took the planet by the storm in 1991 with their hit album Nevermind. Despite releasing only three albums in their short career, which came to an abrupt end following the death of frontman Kurt Cobain, the group continues to enjoy popularity for their eclectic, and often literally electric, catalog. As a long-time fan, I can confirm that Nirvana released some really great songs. Although I personally find it impossible to narrow the list down to just 10, this is what the title has promised and I will not renege on a promise. Without further ado, here are the top 10 best Nirvana songs EVER!
10. “Negative Creep” (Bleach)
Bleach, which is Nirvana’s debut album, is often forgotten and overshadowed by Nevermind. This is a major shame because for what Bleach lacks in world-shattering popularity, it makes up for that with absolutely irresistible tunes. “Negative Creep” in particular emphasizes Cobain’s pessimistic world outlook and habit of singing repeated choruses amidst wailing electric guitars. The chorus is simple, yet catchy and it’s the perfect song for a little mindless semi-metal fun.
9. “Pennyroyal Tea” (In Utero)
By the time Nirvana had released In Utero, the group had gone from aspiring garage musicians to world-renowned rock stars. Befitting a nihilistic individual like Cobain, In Utero featured the forlorn frontman bemoaning his newfound success. In this particular track, Cobain discusses his penchant for self-medicating a mysterious stomach ailment with the titular beverage. The song reveals pieces of Cobain’s psyche, namely that he sees himself as a mere “liar and thief”. The guitar work is excellent, boasting a rare solo halfway through. The ending of the song conveys Cobain’s frustration with his status perfectly as the no longer articulate frontman grunts and growls as the guitar slowly comes to a halt.
8. “Polly” (Nevermind)
Only now did I notice that as of this point, a Nevermind song ranks above a Bleach and In Utero song. Is this the work of an utter sellout denouncing the cult classic gems? Nah, I like all three albums equally. While Nevermind allowed the band to ascend to record-shattering popularity, Nirvana was still very much living in squalor for much of the album’s production. As such, the album discusses more intimate topics. In “Polly”, Cobain tells the story of a girl who was captured and raped. She is discussed in a demeaning manner, with Cobain comparing her to a parrot. (“Polly wants a cracker”). Unlike the previous two tracks, “Polly” is subdued, introspective and tackles a far more pressing issue, to great effect. The lyrics perfectly convey the sense of helplessness that this Polly character has and the sense of desperation as well. (“Promise you, I’ve been true/Let me take a ride, hurt yourself”).
7. “Serve the Servants” (In Utero)
Now that I’ve debriefed the uninitiated on the history behind Nirvana’s three titanic albums, these sections will be much shorter. “Serve the Servants”, the opening track of In Utero, conveys the theme of the album perfectly, that being Cobain’s aforementioned disgruntlement with newfound fame. The chorus contains an excellent choice of wording that makes one question if fame is a matter of being served by fans or serving them with quality entertainment.
6. “In Bloom” (Nevermind)
This song is great for fans who love all of Nirvana’s pretty songs. Waxing lyrical aside, “In Bloom” is another great commentary on the band’s outlook toward fame and its often tumultuous relationship with its fans. The guitar work is fantastic and Dave Grohl is perfect on drums.
5. “About a Girl” (Bleach)
A lot of people see this song as the most Beatles-esque of the work on Bleach. I’d be inclined to agree and it’s for that reason that “About a Girl” is my favorite track from the album. Think Bob Dylan with an electric guitar and you have summed up this song.
4. “Dumb” (In Utero)
This song could practically be retitled “Nonconformist: The Song”. Descriving Cobain’s inability to fit in with the “thems” of the world, he resolves to “pretend”. Unfortunately, despite his insistence that he’s “just happy”, the world refuses to let him believe this as he proclaims that he in fact “thinks he’s dumb” twelve times in a row, before the song ends on a harrowing note.
3. “Heart-Shaped Box” (In Utero)
In “Heart-Shaped Box”, Cobain describes the story of a love interest who “eyes him like a Pisces when he’s weak”. Likely a reference to the late singer’s wife Courtney Love, the song details the turbulent relationship with hypnotizing melodies. Like many Nirvana songs, it ends on an ambiguous note, which fits with the band perfectly.
2. “Something in the Way” (Nevermind)
Another low-key Nirvana song, this tune recalls the tales that Cobain would tell of his time allegedly living under a bridge, after getting kicked out of his house. Like “Polly”, this song ditches the electric guitar for more plodding, thoughtful lyrics. It conveys the sense of despair that the frontman faced fantastically.
1. “Come As You Are” (Nevermind)
There are probably furious fans who are decrying my refusal to give “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the top slot. Alas, this is my list, so my favorites reign here. “Come As You Are” makes it clear that society often sends mixed messages, much to the frustration of us all. (“Take your time/Hurry up”). This maddening hypocrisy is all too relatable and the song contains the group’s best guitar solo by far.