Nirvana — composed of singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl — rose out of the grunge music scene in Seattle, Washington to become one of the most influential bands of the 1990s.
They group started in 1987 with Cobain and Novoselic. The band changed drummers several times before Grohl joined them in 1990. Throughout their seven-year run, Nirvana produced three studio albums — Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991), and In Utero (1993).
Nirvana’s frontman, Cobain, was praised for writing lyrics that captured the ennui and bottled-up rage of the generation. Novoselic and Grohl were the perfect foil for his in-your-face manic gloom. In 1994, Cobain lost the battle with his demons and ended up killing himself.
Cobain’s tragic death may have prematurely ended the band’s run, but the songs he wrote is his lasting legacy to the music industry.
20. “Blew” from Bleach
Compared to a majority of the group’s songs, this tune boasts of a more pronounced bass guitar sound. It talks about the claustrophobic feeling that Cobain had when he was growing up in Aberdeen, Washington.
Cobain later admitted that he had “fantasies of killing his classmates.” However, he clarified, “I fantasized about it, but I would have always opted to kill myself first.”
19. “Negative Creep” from Bleach
Cobain supposedly wrote this song about himself. He considered himself a pessimist. With Cobain practically spitting out the lyrics in a fit of rage and the frantic shredding of guitars never letting up, this song has a violently “creepy” effect.
It has the distinction of being the only song in the album to fade out. This is a break from Nirvana’s trademark abrupt endings.
18. “Polly” from Nevermind
Cobain wrote this song in 1987, after he read a report about a 14-year-old girl who had been abducted right after she watched a concert at Tacoma Dome in Seattle.
The girl was said to have accepted an unidentified man’s offer of a car ride. The girl, whose name had never been released, was subsequently sexually assaulted and tortured by her abductor.
Fortunately, she managed to escape and her abductor, a man later identified as Gerald Arthur Friend, was arrested. The song was initially titled “Hitchhiker” then “Cracker” before it became “Polly.”
17. “Scoff” from Bleach
This song talks about parental negligence. Some accounts even claim that this is about Cobain’s own experience with his parents. Whatever the case may be, the tune’s “Gimme back my alcohol” chorus already paints a very dysfunctional family picture.
16. “Swap Meet” from Bleach
This song is probably one of the few times that Cobain allowed himself to sound “romantic.” The song gives us a peek into the dynamics of a couple at a flea market.
He sings, “She loves him more than he will ever know/ He loves her more than he will ever show.” This song makes you realize that Cobain is also capable of injecting morunful tenderness into his lyrics.
15. “Dumb” from In Utero
Cobain lightens up a bit with this tune, which supposedly talks about people who find bliss in their ignorance.
This isn’t exactly a bad thing, as the song notes, “I think I’m dumb…or maybe just happy.” In a way, Cobain exposes his bewilderment — and, perhaps, a little bit of envy — over the fact that some people achieve contentment without much drama.
It was a state of mind that he himself could not relate to, as he seems to have agonized over a lot of issues in his life.
14. “Paper Cuts” from Bleach
The song is said to be wrought from the story of some abused kids in the neighborhood where Cobain grew up. The kids were supposedly locked in the attic by their parents.
The dark tune has the distinction of having the word, “nirvana,” in its lyrics. The “voice” of the song is that of an abused child, who says, “I see others just like me/ Why do they not try to escape?/ They bring out the older ones/ They point in my way/ They come with a flash of light/ And take my family away.”
13. “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” from In Utero
The title of the song itself is already quite a draw. Music pundits have referred to this song as one of the weirdest tunes that Nirvana ever produced. Many of them also think that it’s “unfinished.” The “strip” mentioned in the song is said to be Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.
The song is said to be about getting hooked on heroin with lines like, “It hurts when you have to press that dull little thing/ That you’re only supposed to use once and then discard.”
12. “On a Plain” from Nevermind
If you’ve ever wondered what despair sounds like when it’s set to music, this is the tortured tune to listen to. Nirvana fans have had heated debates over the song’s meaning.
There are those who think that it’s about Cobain’s experience with writer’s block. Then, there are others who insist that it’s all about substance abuse. They even point out that the “clapping sound” heard at the start of the song is supposedly the sound of a drug user slapping his arm to make his vein stand out for a heroin injection.
11. “In Bloom” from Nevermind
Cobain was known to be conflicted about his own fame. In various interviews, he expressed his contempt for people who got on the grunge bandwago.
Suddenly, the group attracted people whom they never thought would appreciate their music in the first place. Thus, this acerbic tune refers to someone who claims to be into songs that he thinks are “pretty” even if he doesn’t fully grasp what the songs are about.
The lyrics sum it up: “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 don’t know what it means.”
10. “Pennyroyal Tea” from In Utero
When Cobain was interviewed by Impact magazine in 1993, he had explained that pennyroyal tea an herbal abortifacient.
He explained, “I threw that in because I have so many friends who have tried to use that, and it never worked.” It goes without saying that this song caused a lot of controversy, what with a line that goes, “Sit and drink pennyroyal tea, distill the life that’s inside of me.”
9. “Heart-Shaped Box” from In Utero
Like “Polly,” this song went through two titles — “Umbilical Noose” and “Heart-Shaped Coffin.” The song talks about the thin line between love and hate.
Although Cobain mentioned in at least one interview that it was about kids dealing with cancer. Various accounts claim that the song is actually about singer Courtney Love, whom Cobain married in 1992.
The song’s lyrics can be described as beautifully brutal: “Broken hymen of your highness I’m left back/ Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back.”
8. “Rape Me” from In Utero
Despite its “Not Safe for Work” title, Cobain said that this song is actually a life-affirming tune. He explained in an interview with Spin magazine: “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it.”
Still, a lot of people had a hard time looking past the title. In fact, the band was told not to play it during the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. They were asked to play “Lithium” instead. The band gave the MTV producers a bit of a scare, though, when Cobain sang a few lines of this song before they stopped and started to play “Lithim.”
7. “Serve the Servants” from In Utero
This is said to be Cobain’s “most autobiographical song.” At least one line, “If she floats, then she is not a witch,” refers to Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love. The tune also addresses Cobain’s indifference to his father with the line, “I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad.”
6. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” from In Utero
In this song, Cobain likened himself to 1930s actress Frances Farmer, who dared to defy her movie studio. She was eventually sent to a mental institution.
Though she didn’t really get to strike down her tormentors, Cobain slayed them for her with these lines: “She’ll come back as fire and burn all the liars/ Leave a blanket of ash on the ground.” Cobain could certainly relate to the pressure that Farmer felt, as he also felt like he was being controlled by his record label.
He didn’t like how they rushed his creative process. He sings, “It’s so soothing/ To know that you’ll sue me, this is starting to sound the same.” Those two lines alone say a lot.
5. “About a Girl” from Bleach
Cobain was said to have come up with this tune after he had been listening to Meet the Beatles! — the iconic UK group’s 1964 album which contained hits like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”
That said, this Nirvana song paid homage to Cobain’s love of pop songs. That’s why he initially hesitated in making it a part of Bleach. The “girl” referred to in the song is said to be Cobain’s then-girlfriend, Tracy Marander.
The song’s laid-back rhythm is in sharp contrast with its relationship-on-the-verge-of-a-breakup narrative, what with lines like “I’ll take advantage while…you hang me out to dry.”
Though the song doesn’t showcase the take-no-prisoners sound that the group is known for, it still stands out because it manages to bring in just the right amount of pop music influence to make a grunge song even more interesting.
4. “Lithium” from Nevermind
The song dramatizes the highs and lows of a man who is trying to shake off thoughts of suicide. Lithium, of course, is medication for people who have manic-depressive disorder. It’s supposed to lift their spirits.
The voice of this song alternates between despair and cheerfulness with such speed that it’s like a psychological roller coaster. Lines like “I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, ’cause so are you” and “I’m so happy ’cause today/ I’ve found my friends/ They’re in my head” expose a troubled person who is doing his best to crawl out of the pit of depression.
3. “Come as You Are” from Nevermind
Cobain’s disdain for conformity is evident in this song. It’s his commentary on the contradictory dictates of society, which says you can do anything you want as long as it’s fine with everyone else.
The line, “Take your time, hurry up, choice is yours, don’t be late,” effectively illustrates the impossible situation that we’re all in.
This song attracted controversy, as the group, Killing Joke sued Nirvana over it. Killing Joke had claimed that this was simply a slow version of their own song, “Eighties.” The lawsuit was dropped after Cobain’s death in 1994.
2. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nevermind
Though it’s been hailed as a “teen revolutionary anthem,” the song’s lyrics are, admittedly, hard to decipher. Cobain’s genius lies the fact that it seems like he just threw a bunch of words together and came up with some wicked poetry.
The eerie chorus, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/ Here we are now, entertain us/ I feel stupid and contagious/ Here we are now, entertain us,” often seems like a chant to accompany a riot.
In contrast, a cover of the song done by Tori Amos elevates Cobain’s lyrics to heartbreaking poetry. Even veteran singers Paul Anka and Willie Nelson have their versions of this tune. The Muppets also covered this song.
1. “All Apologies” from In Utero
It’s hard to believe that this song’s original title was “La La La La.” It’s one of the “quieter” Nirvana songs and its acoustic version has also become a fan favorite. The fade out lyrics, “All in all is all we are,” is unexpectedly soothing.
Cobain said that he dedicated this to his wife, Courtney Love, and their daughter, Frances Bean. In 1995, this introspective song was nominated for two Grammy Awards. It is now part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “The Songs That Shaped Rock”.