The 30 Greatest Nirvana Songs

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The 30 Greatest Nirvana Songs

30 years ago this week, Seattle alt-rock titans Nirvana—Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic—unveiled In Utero, their final studio album as a band. It became one of the most important records of the year and of the decade and, by April of 1994, Cobain would be dead and Nirvana would be no more. Between 1989 and 1994, they put out three studio records, recorded the greatest MTV Unplugged set ever, cast a large spotlight of importance over the Pacific Northwest music scene and, in the largest sense, turned the world on its head and created one of the sharpest, most important eras in all of rock ‘n’ roll.

Nirvana became huge when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was christened as the song of a generation, the definitive document of the 1990s—we know this much. They ushered in the grunge movement—alongside bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, The Melvins and others—and, in the wake of Cobain’s passing, have endured in an almost mythical way. You’ve likely owned a smiley-face T-shirt at some point in your life, or you’ve read Cobain’s suicide note. You’ve probably made a joke about the baby on the cover of Nevermind, or you’ve gotten really stoked on the Meat Puppets because of their proxy with Nirvana. Few rock bands in the history of modern music have outlived their own catalog like Nirvana—maybe only topped by The Beatles, at least in a commercial, consumerist sense.

It’s hard to make sense of the landscape of music as we know it in 2023 without first giving thanks to Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic and their contributions. They made rigid, punk-infused rock built on pop architecture and glossed with a noisey, brash shine. To honor the trio, we’ve combed through their discography—studio albums, demos, live records, EPs and all—and picked out the entries we feel are their very best. So, without further ado, here are the 30 greatest Nirvana songs, ranked. —Matt Mitchell, Music Editor

30. “Breed” (Nevermind, 1991)
The quickest three-minute song to ever exist, “Breed” is just dumb, fun and catchy. Originally titled “Imodium” after the anti-diarrhea medicine Tad Doyle was using on TAD and Nirvana’s joint European tour in 1989, “Breed” is glam-stoked punk rock with pop choruses. “I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed,” Cobain sings. “We could build a house, we could plant a tree.” The lyrics are among the frontman’s simplest—but the focus on tracks like “Breed” and other Bleach-era tracks was to get loud and melodic. The verses would come later. Given the greatness of Nevermind, even a track like “Breed”—a composition rid of star-power—lands on two feet. —Matt Mitchell

29. “Very Ape” (In Utero, 1993)
Working away from its original title “Perky New Wave Number,” “Very Ape” appears on In Utero as an exercise in punk surrealism. With its slight forward syncopation, whirring guitar backing and lyrics like “I’m the king of illiterature,” and “Out of the ground, into the sky. Out of the sky, into the dirt,” it is impossible to not become absolutely disoriented when listening. Steve albini’s tight, meticulous production holds all the parts together in precise frequency, giving Cobain all the room he could possibly need to fully let loose. —Madelyn Dawson

28. “On a Plain” (Nevermind, 1991)
While I prefer the Unplugged rendition, it’s hard to ignore how melodic and perfect “On a Plain” was and still is. It was written in 1990 after Bleach had come out, recorded in Seattle a year later during Dave Grohl’s first session with the band and then re-recorded a year later with Butch Vig at Sound City in Van Nuys. While Cobain felt like the song came out “too clean,” there’s so much to love about “On a Plain”—especially the “love myself better than you” lyric that rings in with searing catchiness. Much of Nevermind balanced mainstream chords with waves of immense, terrifying distortion—but “On a Plain” cuts through the noise with infectious poptimism and a punk rock gloss. —MM

27. “Molly’s Lips” (Incesticide, 1992)
Written by the Vaselines and made famous by Nirvana, “Molly’s Lips” was the band’s most retro entry across their whole catalog—and Cobain sings the track like a punk band playing a sock-hop dance. The version of the track we get on Incesticide was recorded with John Peel during Dave Grohl’s first session with the band. It’s uptempo and keeps in line with Nirvana’s alt-rock blueprint, yet it maintains a candy-coated gloss to it—cementing its legacy as one of the uniquest compositions ever. Cobain never liked his version of the track very much, but I’d argue it’s Nirvana on a level they rarely let anyone else hear them get to. —MM

26. “About a Girl” (Bleach, 1989)
A wistful ballad from the pre-Dave Grohl era, “About A Girl” charted as a single five years after its initial release on Bleach—thanks to the band’s MTV Unplugged album in 1994. Arguably, it’s Bleach’s most accessible song for its ‘60s pop melody, and a standout against the grit of the rest of the album. The girl in question is one of Cobain’s less infamous girlfriends—Tracy Marander—and recounts their volatile relationship. Domestic spats about cleaning and financial problems are painted as a toxic affair and are artfully condensed into the chorus, “I’ll take advantage while you hang me out to dry.” Bleach’s third track may not be as heavy as other standouts from the 1989 album, but Cobain’s classic, scratchy vocal keeps it as grunge as ever. Taking such a risk with a more mainstream sound on their debut foreshadowed their future boundary breaking successes. —Olivia Abercrombie

25. “Lounge Act” (Nevermind, 1991)
Novoselic’s jumpy bassline starts the track with a particular clean coolness, giving Cobain the space to articulate one of his catchiest vocal melodies in the band’s entire catalog. His jealousy builds into the lines “I’d go out of my way to prove I still smell her on you,” but he is even-keeled, detached just enough to keep his cool—so that, when he loses it, it rocks you. Cobain’s singing turns to screaming, shrieking, growling—giving the song a fuzzed-out desperation that fans can grasp onto wholeheartedly. If this is Nirvana’s idea of lounge music, I can’t imagine they were a band ever familiar with relaxation or restraint. —MD

24. “The Man Who Sold the World” (MTV Unplugged in New York, 1994)
Nirvana’s episode of MTV’s Unplugged was everything that show should have been. Here was a band near the peak of their commercial powers throwing the concept of the program—artists performing mostly acoustic versions of their material—on its ear. Rather than strip back their hits, the band opted to dig deep into their catalog, put the spotlight on friends like Curt and Cris Kirkwood of Meat Puppets and try out some curveball covers—like their now iconic take on the title track to David Bowie’s previously underappreciated 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World. With judicious use of Cobain running his acoustic guitar through a fuzz box and triggering a pedal to make it sound electric—and the beautifully droning cello of Lori Goldston—Nirvana kept true to the song’s glam-psych roots while adding in the perfect amount of punk sneer and spit. Their version caused a big enough cultural splash that Bowie was inspired to put it back in the setlists for his live shows. —Robert Ham

23. “Come As You Are” (Nevermind, 1991)
A Top-40 hit, “Come As You Are” is often underscored by the song that preceded it as a single—“Smells Like Teen Spirit”—but it is, in many ways, just as roaring and melodical and perfect. It’s been hypothesized that the song is a nod to Cobain’s heroin addiction, as the line “come doused in mud, soaked in bleach” was a reference to Seattle’s local HIV-prevention campaign encouraging addicts to sterilize their needles before use. But even Cobain himself has noted that the song is about the humanism of contradictory forces and societal perceptions and expectations. While it’s not as dynamic as other tracks on Nevermind, “Come As You Are” is as legendary as anything else Nirvana ever made. —MM

22. “Polly” (Nevermind, 1991)
Stripped down and dirty, “Polly” is easily Nirvana’s darkest song. Cobain wrote the track about the abduction and rape of a 14-year-old girl—and he told the story from the perspective of the rapist. Brutal and bare, it’s a tough listen but impossible to ignore—if only for its refusal to shy away from male cruelty. Spotlighting the rapist may seem like a slap in the face to victims, but this choice strips away the aestheticization of violence against women that a lot of music perpetuates. Cobain was very outspoken about feminism; this song is a statement of his support for victims. “Polly” uses the metaphor of a caged bird to describe the girl; this song is vulnerable for Cobain, vocally, with just a simple acoustic backing. It’s an ambitious turn for him, and it makes the song stand out among such a revered album. The essence of Nirvana was being bold, and to have a song like this on one of the best-selling albums of all time is precisely that: bold. —OA

21. “Even In His Youth” (Nevermind B-side, 1991)
Kurt Cobain’s strained relationship with his father has been rightfully explored as a crucial element of his output as an artist. That finds no greater expression than this song. Recorded in an early 1991 session prior to signing with DGC, “Even In His Youth” eventually made its way as the B-side of the single release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And there’s where it has mostly remained, as Nirvana almost never played the song live and never got around to revisiting it in the years after it was recorded. Fans, however, have long since championed this song as a testament to Cobain’s ability to express volumes of emotional turmoil in a quick, well-chosen turn of lyrical phrase. Sure we’ve heard the concept of disgracing the family name before, but when those words are spat out over a backdrop of roiling guitar buzz and misfiring engine rhythmics, they take on greater weight and might. And just listen to Cobain sing the words “Daddy was ashamed.” He draws out years of deep seated disgust and anger to fuel each syllable of the pitch shifting melody. Brutal and honest and stingingly relatable; all the best qualities of Nirvana’s output summed up in one brilliant song. —RH

20. “Negative Creep” (Bleach, 1989)
Perhaps the punkiest cut to make the list, “Negative Creep” is one of the more straightforward tracks on Nirvana’s debut studio album Bleach. It repeats and it rips; it’s hard to tell which is more heavily distorted, Cobain’s guitar or his vocals, the latter of which catches in his throat and scrapes out through his mouth. He sings “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more,” paying homage to the Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff track “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More,” and his vocals fade the track’s explosion out into the ether. —MD

19. “Pennyroyal Tea” (In Utero, 1993)
Apparently written in 30 seconds on a tape recorder in the apartment he shared with Dave Grohl in Olympia in 1990, “Pennyroyal Tea” is one of Cobain’s standout performances on In Utero. No one had made a “Leonard Cohen afterworld” sound so perfect, yet “Pennyroyal Tea” had a certain devastation about it—a truth accentuated by Cobain’s scratchy, gashed-up singing. The title is pulled from an herbal remedy used in traditional medicine to induce abortions, just one of the many allusions to reproduction and birth and ailments across In Utero. Knowing that the song is, in actuality, Cobain’s own commentary on his long-standing bout with stomach pain, makes it hard to look away from the brutality of lines like “I’m so tired, I can’t sleep” and “I’m on warm milk and laxatives, cherry-flavored antacids.” —MM

18. “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” (MTV Unplugged in New York, 1994)
Before Unplugged, Nirvana had been covering the Vaselines’ “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” for years (their Paramount performance on Halloween in 1991 is a personal favorite of mine). But that Unplugged performance—which features Novoselic playing the accordion—is unbelievably perfect and gut-wrenching, as it unleashes Nirvana’s underutilized delicate side. Before Unplugged, virtually no one outside of Seattle knew about the track (which was originally called “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam”), and Nirvana helped give it new life across the world. The whole thing is a parody of a Christian children’s hymn—but the Vaselines, and Nirvana, made it sing. To many, it’s the bridge between “Come As You Are” and “The Man Who Sold the World” in the Unplugged performance; the truth is, it’s much better than either of those tracks. It’s an all-timer. —MM

17. “Been a Son” (Incesticide, 1992)
Incesticide is great because it’s a grand amalgam of everything that Nirvana did great—and “Been a Son” is that perfect middle ground between the sludge of grunge and the high-octane pacing of punk rock. Written in 1989 and originally included on the Blew EP that year, “Been a Son” was way ahead of its time lyrically—as Cobain comments on the life of a girl whose parents wanted her to be born a boy. It’s a deft commentary on gender, and it could even be interpreted as a nod to how the patriarchy dictates the destinies of the women within it—with Jesus allusions firmly in tow. “She should have died when she was born, she should have worn the crown of thorns,” Cobain sings. “Been a Son” is a benchmark on Incesticide and a benchmark for Nirvana altogether. —MM

16. “In Bloom” (Nevermind, 1991)
“In Bloom” is a sonic straight-shooter, though its enigmatic lyrics have inspired decades of stupefaction. Nirvana play into their own reputation here; Cobain sings his condemnations of the fair-weather fan over a consistent electric guitar, with a riff that brings the band as close as they ever get to an arena-ready rock song. “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs and he likes to sing along” Cobain croons. “But he knows not what it means.” The kicker is that before you know it, you’re singing along to the damn thing too. —MD

15. “Serve the Servants” (In Utero, 1993)
The opener on In Utero is superior to the opener on Nevermind and I’ll die on that hill. Had it not been for the whole “song of a generation” thing with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Serve the Servants” would have gotten those accolades instead. It’s a gorgeous and blistering first chapter on Nirvana’s swan song—and a line like “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old” is, perhaps, one of the greatest opening lyrics in rock ‘n’ roll history. It maintains a steady noise, deviating from the soft/loud formula Nirvana perfected. It’s the approach that makes the track such a standout on a record brimming with outliers. There are nods to how the public scrutiny of Courtney Love and her band Hole was like a witch-hunt, allusions to the pain and aches of unexpected stardom and a bunch of self-loathing and hyper-critical mindsets. It’s a dynamic, brilliantly cathartic and complex track that stabilized the spectrum of In Utero. —MM

14. “Lithium” (Nevermind, 1991)
Sometimes I feel like the wrong song from Nevermind blew up. Yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is great and worthwhile, but, c’mon, have you heard “Lithium”? Cobain was at his best when he was merging heavy alt-rock with Beatles-inspired pop melodies—and that is exactly what “Lithium” was and remains. It’s perfect and catchy and everlasting. Cobain wrote the song about people whose vices are religion-based, specifically through the context of a heartbroken man—post-breakup—attempting to find God before killing himself. Beyond the candied gloss and lightness of that opening riff, “Lithium” is a deeply ruminative song stirred by Cobain’s own interest in the human condition and our obsessions—and lines like “I’m so happy, ‘cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head” and “I’m so ugly, that’s okay ‘cause so are you, broke our mirrors” and “I love you, I’m not gonna crack” still shine uncomfortably and beautifully. —MM

13. “Rape Me” (In Utero, 1993)
Cobain wrote most of “Rape Me” while Nevermind was being mixed in May 1991. The usual rebuttal towards anyone’s displeasure with the song’s title is that “Rape Me” is actually an anti-rape song that serves as a commentary on fame. The bridge came much later in 1991 and holds allusions to Cobain and Courtney Love’s marriage and struggles with a newfound mainstream success. The “I’m not the only one” chorus reads like a worry that the jabs at Cobain and Love would make their way onto the life and livelihood of their daughter Frances Bean, while the “my favorite inside source, I’ll kiss your open sores” line has been attributed to the accusation of a manager of a local Seattle band anonymously being interviewed for a Vanity Fair profile on Cobain and Love in 1992. “Rape Me” is a complex song that uses the most piercing language to get its message across—and it could have only worked under the shadow of Nevermind. —MM

12. “Something in the Way” (Nevermind, 1991)
Thrust back into the mainstream by The Batman in 2022, “Something in the Way” hit #2 on Billboard’s US Rock Digital Songs Sales chart over 30 years after its initial release. But long before the DC comic book adaptation gave new life to the song, Nirvana had made it the stirring, haunted finale (“Endless, Nameless” remains a hidden track) on Nevermind. Featuring a stark, droning cello performance from Kirk Canning, “Something in the Way” is, in no short terms, a rather menacing entry—and one of Cobain’s strongest vocal performances—in the Nirvana catalog. “Underneath the bridge, tarp has sprung a leak and the animals I’ve trapped have all become my pets,” he sings. “And I’m living off of grass,and the drippings from the ceiling. It’s okay to eat fish, ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.” The song’s origins and inspiration have been widely debated, as many long believed it was about Cobain’s period of homelessness as a teenager—but Cobain himself considered the track a fantasy. I think Courtney Love said it best, that the place he wrote from was “so emotionally desperate we all understand it.” —MM

11. “School” (Bleach, 1989)
You’ve got to love a classic “high school sucks” song; it’s the crux of all edgy teens. “School,” in particular, is about someone who returns to work as a janitor at their old high school. The story sounds like a bad dream, but it was a reality for Cobain—who actually did this when he dropped out of classes. The song is a scream of frustration with punchy riffs and hard-hitting drum rhythms under repeated yells of “Won’t you believe it? It’s just my luck.” The raw and unedited production is what truly shines on Bleach, and the simplicity of the angsty lyrics makes “School” the perfect grunge classic. —OA

10. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nevermind, 1991)
There’s an argument to be made that, without “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” there wouldn’t be millions of people wearing smiley face T-shirts and bowing down to Kurt Cobain like he was a God—and that may be a fair assessment to make, but it’s merely a what-if at this point. When it comes to the greatest rock songs of all time or the greatest songs of the 1990s, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is always, without fail, a high-ranking representative—and often tops the latter. Let’s face it: The track made Nirvana into kingpins of rock ‘n’ roll; painted them as saviors in a post-1980s synth-pop world. It’s the most referenced alt-rock track in history for a reason, and that’s because it’s very, very good.

But, as is the case with 90% of bands, it is not Nirvana’s best song—it’s just the one that got everybody’s attention, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even at live gigs, Cobain would play some of the chords wrong intentionally because of his disdain for its popularity. But, from that raw, haunted opening riff to Grohl’s bonkers drumming, you’d have to have been living under a rock for the last 32 years to not immediately recognize the track when it comes on. “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous” has become synonymous with one of the most fleeting eras of music ever. A tip of the cap to Cobain and company for making such an unequivocally perfect anthem for a movement that would live with their success and die with their disbandment. —MM

9. “Scentless Apprentice” (In Utero, 1993)
One of the heaviest moments on In Utero, “Scentless Apprentice” features a thrashing arrangement and lyrical compositio ubiquitous for possessing Cobain’s touchstone surrealism. He was inspired to write the song after reading Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel Perfume. Lines like “most babies smell like butter” and “electrolytes smell like semen” and “there are countless formulas for pressing flowers,” paired with Cobain’s desire to make the track the second single from the album, are immediate nods to just how unconcerned he was with fitting into the mainstream’s box. “Scentless Apprentice” is a clear example of the angst and the poison Cobain sought to expunge from his own psyche—and it unfurls in droves here. The song is so antithetical to the accessibility of Nevermind that it’s as if a completely different band wrote it—which is what makes it so damn important. —MM

8. “Endless, Nameless” (Nevermind, 1991)
Let us never forget those glorious days of the peak CD era when artists would hide material in plain sight in the dead space between proper tracks, or in the digital area before the first song begins. Or, as was the case with many second run and beyond CD pressings of Nevermind, after many minutes of silence. Once the duration counter on your player hit the 13:52 mark (or thereabouts), listeners were treated to a corrosive and nasty little number by Nirvana that apparently was spat out on the spot by the band following frustrating attempts to record a different song. It is a righteous spew of noise-rock bile with Cobain screeching a wordless melody and torturing his Fender Stratocaster to the point that he destroyed the instrument. When the band played the song live, at the end of their sets, the whole band would follow suit, fearlessly tossing equipment and their bodies around. Put this track on at the right volume in your own home and see if you don’t wind up smashing some shit. —RH

7. “You Know You’re Right” (Nirvana, 2002)
The last song Nirvana ever recorded—on January 30, 1994—“You Know You’re Right” appears to suggest what direction the band was destined to go in after In Utero. As heavy as anything they’d made prior, it’s an evocative, formulaic approach to what Cobain and company had perfect long before. Featuring slow, methodical verses and a cathartic, explosive recurring chorus, “You Know You’re Right” is brilliant and devastating—if only because it’s the last thing Cobain ever laid down in a studio. The lyrics point to a disintegrating relationship and a desire to run away from toxicity. “I no longer have to hide, let’s talk about someone else,” he sings. “The steaming soup begins to melt. Nothing really bothers her, she just wants to love herself.” “You Know You’re Right” was only performed live once—during a show at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago in October 1993—but it’s release as a single in 2002 helped usher Nirvana back into the cultural forefront as nu-metal and “butt rock” were still plaguing mainstream and alternative rock ‘n’ roll. —MM

6. “Drain You” (Nevermind, 1991)
It might be impossible to pick a favorite Nevermind song, but “Drain You” should always be considered a contender. Cobain even cited it as one of his favorites off the album, and for good reason. Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill—another of Cobain’s girlfriends—not only inspired the song, but she unintentionally contributed to the famous verse “It is now my duty to completely drain you”—which was something she said to him during their breakup. Brutal. Still exalting the passion of the relationship, the pounding chorus gives the fervent image of sharing more than spit: “Chew your meat for you, pass it back and forth in a passionate kiss from my mouth to yours.” It is a disgustingly delicious depiction of imperfect love, and Cobain approaches it in an almost clinical way—with the sounds of inhalation and mentions of infections and fluids. It’s the perfect setup for the medical motif of In Utero. —OA

5. “Sliver” (Incesticide, 1992)
“I decided I wanted to write the most ridiculous pop song I had ever written,” Cobain said, in order to prepare for the band’s 1991 release which would come to be Nevermind. And so, “Sliver” was born—and, even with its pop-influenced structure, simple and sweet lyrics and intentionally deafening repetition, “Sliver” still has a certain rawness to it. Novoselic underlies the track with a pulsing, sparse bassline that makes the initial flash of electric guitar feel both unexpected and inevitable. It isn’t a song that takes itself too seriously, and it serves as a needed reminder that Nirvana also didn’t fear an appropriate dose of silliness. —MD

4. “Heart-Shaped Box” (In Utero, 1993)
The last song Nirvana ever played was “Heart-Shaped Box,” which they used to close their March 1, 1994 concert in Munich. A little over a month later, Kurt Cobain would be dead and Nirvana would be over. Less than a year earlier, it served as the lead single to In Utero, and it remains one of the most notable tracks in the band’s catalog. Written in the Fairfax apartment Cobain shared with his wife Courtney Love, the origins of “Heart-Shaped Box” stretch as far back to the tail-end of the Nevermind cycle. Love has said before that he was working on the now-infamous opening riff in their upstairs closet and she asked if she could have it for her own band, Hole. Obviously, the riff would enter Nirvana’s catalog and help cement the song’s legacy. “Heart-Shaped Box” features some of Cobain’s most visceral and vivid lyrics ever, including the lines “I’ve been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap, I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” Paired with an Anton Corbijn-directed video—which infuses surreal imagery and allusions to The Wizard of Oz—“Heart-Shaped Box” is, perhaps, the Nirvana song that has lived the most lives. —MM

3. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (MTV Unplugged in New York, 1994)
Yes, of course Kurt Cobain did not write “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” In fact, no one knows who wrote it. It’s a traditional folk song that’s gone by many names—including “In the Pines,” “My Girl,” “Hey Girl” and “Black Girl”—and has been covered by numerous musicians over the years, especially Bill Monroe, Lead Belly and The Four Pennies—as well as by Mark Lanegan on his 1990 album The Winding Sheet, featuring Cobain on guitar. But it’s Nirvana’s rendition during Unplugged that is now the most recognizable—and, oh, how they turned into one of the most chilling tracks of all time. Neil Young once called Cobain’s vocal performance—especially the final, screamed verse—“unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.” And it’s true, there’s even a moment where—after unloading a gutteral howl—Cobain catches breath before descending into one last primal coda. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” was the final song of the Unplugged set and, after producer Alex Coletti suggested the band go out and play an encore, Cobain is reported to have said “I don’t think we can top the last song.” I’m inclined to agree. —MM

2. “All Apologies” (In Utero, 1993)
For years, this was the final original song we heard from Nirvana (unless you count the hidden track “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flowing Through the Strip,” but please don’t), and it greatly juxtaposed with where it seemed like the band would be headed on whatever was to come post-In Utero. It’s melodic and poppy (or, as poppy as a grunge track could be), and a grand, fantastic display of Cobain’s interests in the dichotomy of candy-coated melodies and brutal distortion. I would argue that “All Apologies” is the exact reference point for why Nirvana were such important rock ‘n’ roll figures. The conversations around whether or not they could have lived beyond grunge’s existence become mute when it comes to “All Apologies.” Cobain and company were always going to find a way through—be it by following a chaotic, inaudible word-vomit punk jam like “Tourette’s” with a light, buoyant beauty like “All Apologies” or by taking whatever pop mechanism was ruling the charts and plugging it into a brash, loud receptacle. “All Apologies” is, in many ways, the end-all-be-all Nirvana track—a truth only emphasized by the band’s relentlessly dreamy Unplugged rendition, fit with Lori Goldston’s impenetrable, dazzling and spectral cello. —MM

1. “Aneurysm” (Incesticide, 1992)
It came to life in that crucial interregnum between Nirvana’s short tenure with Sub Pop and their eventual world-altering success courtesy of DGC. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic had just recently invited Dave Grohl to man the still-vacant drum throne and, with him, decided to cut some tracks at a Seattle studio. Most would get reworked and re-recorded for the trio’s major label debut. Two would get remixed and tucked away quietly as b-sides on the single for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” One wouldn’t stay dormant, serving as a reminder for the band and their fans that, for all their inroads into the pop universe, Nirvana’s roots lay in noise rock and punk. They would trot it out early in their setlists in ‘91 and ‘92, recognizing its power to get the blood pumping and to set the tone early: pummeling, dynamic, rife with moments of devastating calm and punitive volume. Because, for as good as the studio version of “Aneurysm” remains, the song achieved its fullest purpose when Nirvana played it live.

Adrenalin amped up the speed and intensity, with the push-pull of the verses tormenting the body until the blessed relief of the thudding chorus and its insistent plea, “Beat me out of me.” Leave it to Cobain to sum up centuries of romantic and psychological torment in a mere five words. And when delivered in that inimitable rasp, the sentiment finds its power and emotional force. There was no way that “Aneurysm” would have fit into the airtight track sequence of Nevermind. It needed to remain on the outside to allow it to grow and gain strength, achieving its final form through the mouth of Kim Gordon at Nirvana’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. Her performance was the capstone of a movement that has finally recognized “Aneurysm” as the finest moment in Nirvana’s crushingly short timespan. —RH

Check out a playlist of these 30 tracks below.

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