Nirvana’s 10 best songs ranked: from Smells Like Teen Spirit, to Lithium


First formed in Washington in 1987, Nirvana are now remembered as the band who took the grunge sound of the Pacific Northwest global, smashing up the charts with their biggest hits, and re-igniting alternative rock in the process.

Though their classic line-up – Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic – were together for just four years before Cobain’s death, few other bands had such a profound cultural effect during the Nineties.

As the BBC gears up to explore Cobain’s legacy in new documentary Moments That Shook Music: Kurt Cobain – airing on April 13 – here’s a look back at the trio’s greatest musical moments.

10. Dumb

One of Nirvana’s softer, more melodic moments, Dumb builds up to a squalling solo that never arrives, and instead meanders and broods as Lori Goldston’s cello part builds the tension. Far from taking aim at people who are happy to live a simple, uncomplicated life – as might be expected given the title – there’s a flicker of envy at its heart. “They have a shitty job, they may be totally lonely, they don’t have a girlfriend, they don’t have much of a social life, and yet, for some reason, they’re happy,” Cobain has said of the song.

9. Negative Creep

This pounding, relentless highlight from Bleach is Nirvana at their rawest, and nails the definitive Seattle grunge sound; “I'm a negative creep,” Cobain yells, “I'm a negative creep and I'm stoned!” Though its repetitive, relentless lyrics don’t contain a whole lot of hidden meaning, it’s one of the band’s purest early outbursts of nihilism, Cobain pushing his voice to its strained limits as he sings of alienation and feeling like an outsider.

8. About A Girl

Rock legend has it that Cobain wrote this melodic Bleach highlight after blasting The Beatles’ first American album Meet the Beatles! and though his distinctive vocal growl may be miles away from the delivery favoured by the Liverpool lads, this is essentially Sixties rock’n’roll done Kurt’s way.

7. Lithium

Across their second album Nevermind, Nirvana nailed the art of loud-quiet dynamics, switching things up from the more relentless sound of Bleach. According to Cobain, it’s written from the viewpoint of a fictional man in mourning after the sudden death of his girlfriend, and as a “last resort” to “keep him from suicide” he turns to religion. Though its sing-song lyrics are steeped in an  overly chipper sense of denial (and one-liners like “I'm so horny, that's okay/My will is good”) there’s pure darkness between the cracks of his narrator’s barely-contained grief.

6. Breed

Fun fact: Breed was originally going to be called Imodium, in honour of a brand of anti-diarrhea medication. Cobain once spun an entire yarn about being inspired by Tad Doyle, of Seattle grunge pioneers Tad (he claimed that the musician popped the medication while supporting Nirvana in the UK) and it’s also referred to as Immodium in a number of his old journal entries. Title origin aside (and indeed the finished track has no reference to the medication), its a raging anthem, with lyrics that speak to a fear of settling down young in Middle America and raising 2.5 kids in a perfect suburban house with white picket fences. “I don't mean to stare,” Cobain snarls, “we don't have to breed.”

5. In Bloom

“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 knows not what it means,” Cobain sings on Nevermind’s final single In Bloom – a ironically hooky takedown of fair-weather fans and the band’s complicated relationship with underground rock in the wake of their global stardom.

4. Come As You Are

According to Cobain, Come As You Are is simply “about people, and what they’re expected to act like” ‒ but on closer inspection, its lyrics also seem to partly allude to heroin addiction. The line "come doused in mud, soaked in bleach," nods to a public health campaign in Seattle amid the AIDS crisis, which advised intravenous drug users to bleach needles before use. Despite the band’s reservations about releasing the song as a single due to its similarities with the 1985 post-punk song Eighties, it was the follow-up to Smells Like Teen Spirit, and though Killing Joke were apparently “very pissed” about the similarities, they stopped short of filing a lawsuit.

3. Drain You

A kind of surrealist love song about two people in a co-dependent, slightly parasitic state of infatuation, Drain You is filled with trippy production touches, from its guitar overdubbing, to heavily-treated recordings of rubber ducks and squeaky toys. The song also layers up three vocal takes. According to Butch Vig, Cobain wasn’t keen on recording multiple versions of songs, and so the producer tricked him by pretending his recording equipment wasn’t working properly. All three final takes feature on the finished track.

2. All Apologies

Alienation, self-loathing, and disillusionment with all of life’s absurdity, All Apologies ticks every Cobain songwriting box, and beneath all the layers of fuzz, angst and distortion, this is a stone-cold, timeless classic of a pop song. “I wish I was like you, easily amused,” he muses over a cyclical guitar hook, bursts of cello humming beneath. Though it’s the closing track on Nirvana’s third and final album In Utero, the definitive version has to be a live performance for MTV Unplugged in November 1993. Just magical.

1. Smells Like Teen Spirit

Let’s be honest: there could only ever be one choice for the number one slot. In terms of its sheer cultural clout, rock influence, and beloved legend status as the closer to every Nineties night ever, Smells Like Teen Spirit has to be the definitive Nirvana song, and propelled grunge into the mainstream.

“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it,” Cobain has said of the band’s biggest hit; a sarcastic and contradictory protest anthem with brilliantly nonsensical lyrics (“A mosquito, my libido”) and one of the best known guitar riffs in Nineties rock.

Moments that Shook Music: Kurt Cobain airs on BBC 2 and iPlayer on April 13 at 9.25pm