Smells like Nirvana…
Oasis were my first love. And lord knows I’ve written enough about that band already so I wont regale you again here. But despite the fact that Oasis were the first band to grab my attention, I had initially heard them because of my Dad. Also, pretty much everyone else I knew loved Oasis too. With Nirvana, it was different…
I had always been vaguely aware of Nirvana, I even have a fuzzy memory of discussing Kurt Cobain’s death in primary school at the tender age of seven, but the Seattle band didn’t fully plant themselves as an artist of influence until I became a teenager.
Back in the long hot summer of 2001, a friend of mine acquired a cassette of the posthumous, live compilation album From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. It was love at first listen. Something about the raw emotion in Kurt’s voice and the power of the music spoke to me in a way that nothing else ever had. And they were different to Oasis. Despite their current status as grunge legends, only a handful of other kids in school knew who Nirvana were. We banded together and bonded over massive fringes, an inability to play guitar and baggy jeans. It was the fuck you attitude and the look and the danger but mostly it was the music. In their brief time together Nirvana recorded some simply incredible music. Let’s go…
6. From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996)
Key Track: Polly
What They Said: ‘I play Unplugged to refresh my memory of a sojourner’s spirituality. I’ll play this one when I want to remember a band’s guts, fury, and rock and roll music’ – American music critic Robert Christgau
Despite being my gateway into Nirvana, Muddy Banks is a patchy, frustrating affair. While it does contain the best version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the fact that this posthumous album spans five years of live performances actually makes it less effective. Any Nirvana bootleg of a full, cohesive show is probably a better listen than this.
It will always mean something to me because of the huge influence this record had on my life but, in truth, I haven’t listened to it for over a decade. It does contain a superb version of ‘Polly’ mind…
5. Bleach (1989)
Key Track: About A Girl
What They Said: ‘It was like I’m pissed off. Don’t know what about. Let’s just scream negative lyrics, and as long as they’re not sexist and don’t get too embarrassing it’ll be okay. I don’t hold any of those lyrics dear to me’ – Kurt Cobain
The legend behind Nirvana’s debut album Bleach is arguably more captivating than the record itself. Recorded for a mere $600 and featuring a confusing smorgasboard of band members (Jason Everman appears on the front cover and is listed as a participant but doesn’t play a note, and drum duties are shared between Chad Channing and Dale Crover), Bleach is a snapshot of a band approaching greatness but afraid to fully embrace their talent. Cobain has spoken of feeling a need to ‘fit in’ with the other Grunge bands of the time and it shows at times here.
The record itself, if one is being honest, is a couple of great tracks, a few decent ones and then a bunch of stuff I’d happily never listen to again. ‘About A Girl’ is the only moment that signposts the band Nirvana would become but ‘School’ and ‘Negative Creep’ do justice to the visceral emotion in the bands music and their cover of Shocking Blue’s ‘Love Buzz’ is also wonderful.
4. Incesticide (1992)
Key Track: Aneurysm
What They Said: ‘At this point I have a request for our fans. 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.’ – Kurt Cobain in the Incesticide liner notes
Some people will scoff at the suggestion that a collection of B-Sides and rarities should sit higher on a list of Nirvana albums than their incendiary debut album. To those people I have a one word answer: Aneurysm. The final track from Incesticide is the Seattle band in excelsis and at their finest. The earth shattering riff, the impossibly fast drums, it all somehow bursts and breaks into a crescendo of beautiful noise. The rest of the album’s not bad either.
Covers of the Vaseline’s ‘Molly’s Lips’ and ‘Son of a Gun’ helped showcase a levity that had never showed itself up until that point and songs such as ‘Sliver’, ‘Dive’ and ‘Been A Son’ deserve to be considered among the bands finest work.
3. Nevermind (1991)
Key Track: Lounge Act
What They Said: ‘ “It was like our record could have been a hobo pissing in the forest for the amount of impact it had. It felt like we were playing ukuleles all of a sudden because of the disparity of the impact of what they did’ – Guy Picciotto of Fugazi
It’s one of the most critically acclaimed albums ever. It has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. It is often declared as alternative musics finest ever moment. And yet, there is a nagging feeling that Nevermindis actually a missed opportunity.
Nirvana’s second album was a game changer at the time, but when listened to today, especially in comparison to the much sparser and insular In Utero, Nevermind actually sounds too polished. This glossy sound works for tracks such as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Lithium’, but tame versions of ‘Territorial Pissings’ and ‘Breed’ fail to capture the energy of their live counterparts and even fan favourite ‘Drain You’ would benefit from a little less production.
Putting the soundscape aside for a second though, it must be said that purely as a collection of songs, Nevermind is probably Nirvana’s best album. Put simply, Butch Vig’s clean production drops it down this list. If only In Utero producer Steve Albini had got his hands on these songs…
2. In Utero (1993)
Key Track: Heart-Shaped Box
What They Said: ‘Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old’ – The opening line to ‘Serve the Servants’ and, indeed, In Utero.
Kurt Cobain was already deep into heroin addiction by the time In Utero was released but that didn’t stop him from writing an album that stands as a death threat to the casual pop fans who had championed the band after Nevermind. Songs such as ‘Milk It’ and ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ exist purely to shed the band of a fanbase that they never wanted in the first place.
Kurt just can’t help writing wonderful pop songs however and ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ is truly a masterpiece. Songs such as ‘Dumb’, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and even ‘Rape Me’ fly the flag for more conventional rock music but it is the haunting lyrics to those songs that immortalise In Utero as a classic album.
1. Unplugged in New York (1994)
Key Track: Where Did You Sleep Last Night
What They Said: ‘Beyond inducing a sense of loss for Cobain himself, Unplugged elicits a feeling of musical loss, too: the delicacy and intimacy of these acoustic rearrangements hint at where Nirvana could have gone’ – Mojo magazine
Released mere months after Cobain’s tragic suicide, Unplugged in New York stands alone in the pantheon of the live album as the greatest ever. Unplugged somehow manages to capture the very essence of the band while still being completely alien in comparison with the rest of their back catalogue. Many of the songs here surpass the studio originals, something that is made even more impressive by the fact that the band recorded the whole album in one take.
The covers are disparate and obscure with three Meat Puppet covers sitting alongside an almost electric rendering of Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. The jewel in the crown however is ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, an emotionally draining and awe-inspiring cover of the Leadbelly song. It is as astonishing as it is heartbreaking. To read more about ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ and nine other great cover songs, click here.
Nirvana changed my life. They soundtracked my teenage years and were responsible for friendships, parties and introspective nights. The kind that seemed so important at the time. Nirvana aren’t just a band for teenagers though. They are for anyone with a heart beating in their chest. For anyone who feels forgotten or different. Mostly, they are just a band that wrote incredible music. Rest easy Kurt.