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Remembering Kurt: Nirvana’s Top 25 Tracks

April 12, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter
Kurt Cobain

25 years ago, on the 5th of April 1994, Kurt Cobain took his own life. Dying in such brutal fashion (at the absolute height of his commercial and critical powers no less) that he devastated the pop culture: shocking a generation at large and creating a moment of mourning that recalled only the murder of John Lennon and tragic death of Buddy Holly decades before.

So this week, 411 Music will be remembering Kurt and celebrating his artistry with some special reviews and features. We start by counting down his 25 best songs – one track for each year he’s been missed.

25. Pennyroyal Tea

So we’ve already got a song where we literally cry out for the world to rape us, how could we possibly top that? Oh I know, how about a slow burning anthem about a home brewed abortion? Sounds charming, right? Sure it is quite clearly a metaphor for Kurt trying to suffocate his own internal demons, but this is still macabre in the extreme – a mark of both In Utero’s complexity and its blunt, vicious nature.

24. Negative Creep

Now this is a track that earns its placement for its blistering potential in the live arena. When Nirvana needed to tear a hole in a festival field, this was their old faithful. “Negative Creep” is straight brutality. Nirvana would later learn to round and fill out their sound, but “Negative Creep” is a triumph of primal minimalism – a sardonic cry, not for help, but for distance.

23. Dumb

Perhaps the one song from In Utero that sounds like it belongs on Nevermind. It’s lyrics and vocals are so proudly in the forefront and straight forward in their sorrowful accessibility. All that being said, “Dumb” finds itself in the exact right place with its glorious strings and its refusal to explode into bombasity. Instead, Kurt is happy to stew in a faux happiness that is far more unsettling than any of his overt cries for help.

22. Tourette’s

So who’s ready for 90 seconds of “moderate rock”? In truth, god knows who could truly prepare themselves for the moment in Nirvana’s back catalogue when the levee finally broke. Kurt shatters himself, standing less as a front man and more as jabbering wreck. Still, for all Kurt’s deranged intensity, the track peaks when his elongated, fractured scream ends and the guitars come galloping through.

21. Breed 

Time to right royally fuck up the pits. “Breed” is three minutes of strangely optimistic societal escapism in the form of a freewheeling slam dance. Keep an ear out for the guitar work that recalls a speeding car just barely managing to maintain control on a long corner.

20. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

It’s not. Just in case you wondered. “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is anything but. Mumbled, washed out with insistent guitars, the track is almost a rejection of the Nirvana of old. Kurt created a track full of “cigarette burns” where his “waters broke” and his normally melodic vocals are overwhelmed by rampant and discordant guitarwork. He’s losing the plot: as his guitar strings seem to bend and eventually break, our hero is left curled up in the foetal position, asking over and over again “what is wrong with me”. Hauntingly, there’s no conclusion, the track just breaks.

19. Lounge Act 

Kurt Cobain certainly wrote plenty of songs about unstable relationships, but “Lounge Act” is one of his few out and out break-up songs. In fact, it’s an odd term to apply to a Nirvana song, but that’s what Kurt has created here: a grass is greener, jealously laden, infidelity driven, suffocated by both remorse and missed opportunities anthem for a dying and soon-to-be dead relationship.

18. Rape Me

Kurt Cobain was a rock star. He might have run from it (although not really), but he was as prone to both grandiose agenda setting statements (“if you in any way hate homosexuals, people of color, or women, please do this one favour for us – leave us the fuck alone!”) and moments of glorious goading iconoclasm (“hate me… rape me my friend”). Kurt’s great advantage, driven by his tragic fragility, is that he could get away – and so convincingly too – with such moments of outright transgression.

17. About A Girl

Kurt had a wonderful ability to turn a minor romantic squabble into something darker and more insidious. This creeping and gloriously groovy single dates back to an argument between Kurt and then girlfriend Tracy Marander, with Kurt deftly turns a snide rejoinder into one of Nirvana’s most radio ready hooks.

16. On A Plain

Introducing Kurt Cobain’s very own rent-a-quote. Pretty much every line of this track is knowingly iconic, the kind of stuff teenagers will be scribbling in their diaries from now until eternity. The hook and melody are almost pleasingly understated, but “On A Plain” is all about picking out your favorite eternally quotable one liner – I’m going to opt for: “the finest day I ever had, is when I learned to cry on command”.

15. School

Time to let rip. Bleach might be rough around the edges, but it’s hard to top in terms of raw escapism. “School” seethes and cries, turning a kind of depressive petulance into something universal and grand. The songwriting and compositions would evolve in time, but Nirvana would rarely sound this gutturally satisfying again.

14. All Apologies 

Few songs better articulate the broadening sonic palette and delightful depths of In Utero better than “All Apologies”. On the surface, it’s another coy inversion (“I wish I was like you, easily amused”) in the vein of “Come As You Are”, but here Kurt is happy to dwell and embrace space and the band’s more softly shaded guitar tones. “All Apologies” is the kind of track that makes you wonder what on earth Kurt’s next album might have sounded like.

13. Blew

Nirvana have gone down in music history for a whole variety of reasons, but one that is perhaps rarely discussed is their penchant of picking perfect tone setting album openers. “Blew”, “Smells Like…” and “Serve The Servants” are all fabulous songs in isolation, but they also outline the tone and scope of what is to come. “Blew” is uneasy and insular, just about managing to obscure globe conquering potential hidden behind its shabby underground aesthetics and slippery seductive bass line.

12. Drain You

“Drain You” is straight up masterclass in songcraft from a singer and a band only two albums deep into their career. Practically ever syllable of this track is addictive, designed to bury itself in your subconscious until on some impulsive level you’re forced to sing along. Of course, being Nirvana, rather than leaving “Drain You” as a two-minute wonder, they take it down to the depths and dwell on an lowly instrumental before launching into one final flourish (although note the track actually ends with a whimper).

11. Serve The Servants

The love-love relationship between Nirvana and The Pixies is probably best expressed by the magnificent “Serve The Servants”. Kurt had long since master the quiet-loud, scream-sing stylings of Black Francis, but this was the first time Nirvana truly captured the sardonic jauntiness and tonal fluidity of their great inspirations. Of course this is still a Nirvana song first and foremost, driven by a brilliant guitar solo and an understated hymnal refrain.

10. Come As You Are

Cribbed dynamics and pinched riffs, Nirvana were always masters of reinvention and “Come As You Are” turns the familiar sounds Killing Joke’s “Eighties” into a soaring critique of the “be yourself and we’ll accept you” mantra. Both open and insecure, the track’s kicker is a powerful as its groove, when Kurt has to try and convince society and his former friends that he “don’t have a gun”.

9. Scentless Apprentice

Now this is just glorious. Those signature early Nirvana grooves combine with Pixies-esque dynamics and a slip-sliding, utterly unsettled, core, finally topped off by Kurt tearing his psyche to shreds. This isn’t Nirvana at their rawest, because this is one of their more complex and carefully balanced compositions despite the simplicity of the individual elements, but “Scentless Aprentice” is the band at their most gloriously unhinged. Sure, they’d scream, shout and thrash elsewhere in their discography, but the contrast between the instrumental order and the vocal anarchy, makes “Scentless Apprentice” a harrowingly brilliant listen.

8. Sliver

Summoning a drawl laden, needling and definitive teenage vocal that is the absolute apotheosis of the track’s wonderfully inviting bassline, “Silver” is a glorious cry for security and comfort from a panicked child. The songs power lies in its perspective: being written entirely from the child’s primal and needy point of view.

7. In Bloom 

When you hear the familiar refrain that Nirvana could make a sound like a skyscraper crashing to earth, the opening to “In Bloom” is exactly what they are referring to. Like a glorious disaster unfolding in slow motion, the guitars and drums cascade downwards, before dropping into Kurt’s gloriously insular verse.

6. Lithium

Behold the quiet-loud dynamic in full effect. “Lithium” might be Nirvana’s ultimate festival anthem, a song capable of uniting the frenzied front and distant back of a 50, 000 strong crowd in verse, but it is of course more than that. It’s not only an uneasy anthem, but a paranoid lurch toward psychological submission and rallying cry for coping and carrying on (“I’m not going to crack”).

5. Heart Shaped Box

Not that we needed proof, but just in case we did, “Heart Shaped Box” arrived to show the world that the solid gold hits of 1991 were no fluke. Dripping in disdain, sung with glaring, debasing eyes, “Heart Shaped Box” is the sound of Nirvana deliciously coming apart at the seams and laughing as the world burns around them. Muddied, dirtier and more hard edged than before, this was Nirvana with the social niceties stripped away – dripping with disdain Kurt unleashed his darkest metaphors (cancer, umbilical chords, holes for hearts) and most snide chorus to date (“forever in debt to your priceless advice”).

4. Sappy

“And if you save yourself/You’ll make them happy” – well no kidding Kurt! Okay joking aside, “Sappy” is in all likelihood the best and, by far and away, Nirvana’s most direct assault on the mental torture of conformity. The lyrics are simple, but devastating as Kurt pulls the sly trick of slipping a metaphor in amongst straight reportage: “They’ll keep you in a job/And you’ll think you’re happy. They’ll give you breathing holes/And you’ll think you’re happy”.

3. Aneurysm

“Come on over and do the twist/overdo it and have a fit”. Kurt Cobain was never afraid to reach for uncomfortable lyrics, in fact he openly sort them out, turning them into iconic hooks and chant along anthems. “Aneurysm” is a step beyond however, employing an almost comical growling delivery, Cobain dares us to laugh, putting the listener in the position of willing contributor to his dislocation before revealing that devastating chorus  – “Beat me out of me”, maybe we shouldn’t have smiled and sang along.

2. Smells Like Teen Spirit

Nirvana, always the arch thieves, granted the world a wonderful insight into their creative process when they played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Reading Festival. Goadingly opening by tricking the crowd and playing Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” (where the track’s riff originates), far from merely poking fun, Kurt revealed how Nirvana poured a vat of acidic sludge on the effervescent sounds of 80s. In single moment they captured the transition from one generation to the next: in sound, in style, in attitude and demeanour, everything was different, but one thing remained – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was every bit the hit that “More Than A Feeling” was – and then some.

1. Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle

Kurt Cobain is bloody lucky he (and Nirvana as a whole) had such a masterful control of songcraft, because comparing the media treatment of Courtney Love to the very real torture society inflicted on Frances Farmer is crass in the extreme. Luckily, this grand comparison is tied to a wonderful intimate lyric (“I miss the comfort in being sad”, perhaps the singular lyric that best encapsulates Kurt’s songwriting) and a gruelling, but rip roaring arrangement. Heartbreakingly, “Frances Farmer…” is yet another track that points to the expansive and unfulfilled potential of Nirvana’s songcraft as they transitioned away from straight quiet-loud grunge of Nevermind.

 

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Nirvana, David Hayter