Nirvana’s Nevermind, one of the most important albums of the 1990s, celebrated its 20th anniversary over the weekend. It launched Kurt Cobain, Kirst Novoselic and Dave Grohl into superstardom and changed the trajectory of popular music. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became an anthem for a generation. But there are plenty of fans that will say their favorite song came from a different album. What about songs from the bands much heavier debut Bleach or their last studio album In Utero. Below are the best songs from Nirvana that isn’t on Nevermind broken down by album. We’ve included songs from their MTV Unplugged concert and songs only found on EPs or that were unreleased during Cobain’s lifetime.
The 1989 debut of Nirvana was heavier than grunge, but not quite metal. It was rough, but had hidden gems on it. Some of the songs foreshadowed the direction Nirvana would take, but listening to Bleach could not prepare anyone for what would follow two years later.
1. “About A Girl”
I need an easy friend, I do with an ear to lend
“About A Girl” is the poppiest song on the debut. In 1993 Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone that he loved pop music and cited being a fan of R.E.M. and ‘60s pop-rock. While many of Cobain’s songs have deeper meanings, “About A Girl” is just that—about a girl he was dating. True to Cobain’s tendency to keep secrets, the girl in question didn’t know the song was about her until 1998.
2. “Mr. Moustache”
I don’t like you anyway – seal it in a box
This might be the first time the underrated “Mr. Moustache” has made a Best Of list, and that’s a travesty. The song is an example of Nirvana’s early metal-punk—loud with a driving beat and simple lyrics. It’s also an early example of Cobain’s distinct growling voice. It’s pure non-stop rock that the band never really returned to.
In Utero was recorded in two weeks in 1993 thanks to a self-imposed deadline by the band who felt Nevermind was over-produced. Cobain wanted to take the band in a new direction, which led to some of the band’s most popular songs.
3. “Heart-Shaped Box”
I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black
“Heart-Shaped Box” was originally supposed to be a coffin and not a box. The song was inspired by how Cobain felt when he thought about children with cancer. He once told journalist Michael Azerrad that it made his sadder than anything in the world. Reportedly, the chorus, “Hey! Wait, I’ve got a new complaint” was how Cobain felt the media viewed him. Like most Nirvana songs, it was written by Cobain himself, but took him almost a year to complete it before it appeared on In Utero. It was the last song the band ever played in concert.
My heart is broke, but I have some glue
“Dumb,” along with other slow songs like “Rape Me” hinted at a different direction for the band. The lyrics show the conflict of Cobain feeling happy, but questioning whether or not he actually is. “Dumb” is one of two tracks the grunge band used a cello on.
5. “Pennyroyal Tea”
Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea; distill the life that’s inside of me
This is another song that shows Nirvana’s expansion. Its slow start sounds like a different band until the distorted guitars and booming drums kick in, changing the complexion of the song. The pattern goes back and forth from slow to fast throughout the course of the song. Pennyroyal is an herb that supposedly causes abortions. A lot of Cobain’s friends tried it, but that only partly influenced the song. During the time he wrote the song, Cobain was struggling with terrible stomach acid pains and likened his desire to get rid of the pain to an abortion.
6. “All Apologies”
I wish I was like you: easily amused
Cobain described “All Apologies” as “happy, peaceful and content” and that the song was written for his wife and daughter. It’s the second song on In Utero to implement a cello and further exemplifies Cobain’s desire to take the band in a different direction. Even at its loudest, the song feels like Nirvana’s most intimate song. The performance from MTV Unplugged is one of the most haunting performances of the songs and many fans have cited it as the best version of the trio’s best song.
Nirvana’s groundbreaking Unplugged set was filmed in 1993, but the album version wasn’t released until after Cobain’s death in 1994. All the songs on this list from Nirvana’s Unplugged session are covers, but Nirvana took them to a different place.
7. “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” (The Vasalines)
Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam because sunbeams are not made like me
The lyrics to “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” would have fit nicely in the Cobain canon. The adjective “haunting” gets tossed around by anyone describing any song from that concert. The pain behind Cobain’s performance is even more powerful knowing the events that took place months later. Bonus: the song features Novoselic on the accordion.
8. “The Man Who Sold the World” (David Bowie)
You’re face to face with the man who sold the world
Again, “The Man Who Sold the World” wasn’t written by Cobain about a world where sell-outs ruled the airwaves, but it feels that way. If you listen to the lyrics, the song could be interpreted that it’s about a man passing himself on the stairs and feeling like he became too corporate. The song a features electric amplifications, which Alex Coletti claimed was because Cobain felt insecure about playing acoustically.
9. “Lake of Fire” (The Meat Puppets)
Try to find some place to rest their bones, while angels and the devils try to make them their own
Written by Nirvana’s good friends the Meat Puppets, “Lake of Fire” was performed because Cobain invited the Kirkwood brothers to play three songs for the Unplugged set. Cobain and Novoselic don’t play instruments on the track as the brothers play guitar and bass; however, Cobain still sings with a gut-wrenching style much different than the Meat Puppets original version. Nirvana turned “Lake of Fire” into a catchy acoustic-pop song.
10. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (traditional)
I’m going where the cold wind blows
“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” originated as a folk song called “In the Pines” in the late 1800s and has been recorded sporadically ever since. Nirvana’s version is taken from Lead Belly’s arrangement from the ‘40s. The song progresses wonderfully, but it’s during the last verse when Cobain begins to shout-sing, painfully asking the questions of the song. He takes a deep breath before the last word of the song and stares off into the crowd during the performance before belting a long note. The band was asked to play an encore, but Cobain refused, claiming he could never top that performance.
Though Nirvana released three studio and a few live albums some of their best songs only appeared on EPs. These songs gained popularity throughout the years and are fine examples of the trio’s work. Similarly, the band recorded but didn’t release a handful of songs, but have since been released and have proven themselves worthy of being on a Best Of list.
11. “Been a Son” (Blew EP, 1989)
She should have worn a crown of thorns
Originally released as a B-side for “Blew,” “Been a Son” was also released, although a different version, on the 1992 compilation album Insecticide. The song is classic early Nirvana with simple lyrics, but a very catchy and heavy rhythm. Contrary to popular belief, the song was not written in response to Courtney Love having a girl, as the song was written three years before his daughter’s birth.
12. “Aneurysm” (Hormoaning EP, 1992)
Beat me outta me
“Aneurysm” was originally released as a B-side for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but was forgotten thanks to the single blowing up. In 1992, Nirvana released a six-song EP that only had two original songs; one of them was “Aneurysm.” On the song’s chorus Cobain sings “Beat me outta me” over and over and ends with the repeated line “She keeps it pumping straight to my heart.” The song was reportedly about how Cobain felt while dating at the time. It was rare in that it portrayed a positive emotion from someone close in his life.
13. “Dive” (Sliver single, 1990)
I’m real good at hating
Though “Dive” was originally released as a B-side to “Sliver” neither track was released again until Insecticide in 1992. Upon its release it re-introduced fans to the band’s beginnings. It’s often overlooked due to always being paired with the poppier “Sliver,” but the song’s harder instrumentation and harsher vocals makes “Dive” one of the best Bleach-era songs.
14. “Sappy” (No Alternative, 1993)
And if you fool yourself you will make him happy
Released as a hidden track on an AIDS awareness benefit compilation, “Sappy” has also been called “Verse Chorus Verse,” but is always referred to as “Sappy” to avoid confusion to an earlier rarity called “Verse Chorus Verse.” Despite the hard-to-follow title story, the song became a highly requested song at Nirvana shows. The mystery surrounding the song adds to the folklore that Cobain had dozens of demoed songs he never shared. “Sappy” is a distorted pop-rock song about a girl and a boy. It showcases pre-Nevermind Cobain’s voyage from metal to pop.
15. “You Know You’re Right” (Nirvana, 2002)
Never say a word again; I will crawl away for good
“You Know You’re Right” was one of the last songs written by Cobain and certainly one of the last songs ever recorded by Nirvana. It was recorded three months before Cobain’s suicide, but remained unreleased for almost a decade. Courtney Love’s band covered it under a different title for their Unplugged performance, but other than that, only a lo-fi bootleg version floated around the Internet. It was finally released on a Best Of compilation in 2002 and was even a hit single on the radio. The lyrics can be interpreted as Cobain’s decision to end his life, but this has never been confirmed. “You Know You’re Right” is perhaps the most important song in Nirvana’s later history. If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started a legacy, this song continued it well past Cobain’s lifetime.