29 Best Nirvana Songs

Best Nirvana Songs

In the 1990s, Nirvana emerged from the rain-soaked Pacific North West and ushered a change in music, fashion, and culture.

Thanks to Kurt Cobain, Christ Novoselic, and Dave Grohl, “the Seattle sound” was all anyone could talk about.

Without further ado, here is a list of Nirvana's best songs.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Song year: 1991

If you were alive in the 90s, there was absolutely no way you could have missed “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” While Nirvana's sound rippled through the culture, this song made the biggest splash. It broke through genre barriers and, for a time, was all anyone could talk about.

With Kurt Cobain's usual mixture of poetry, emotion, cultural reference, and nonsense words and imagery, this song became an anthem for the disaffected, angsty youth of Generation X.

Nirvana took the song's title from a brand of deodorant marketed towards teens and used it to show what society thought of them and what teens thought of themselves.

Its the boredom and anger the song captured, but also the sludgy rock sound, and the visual look of the band, in ripped clothes, thrift store flannel shirts, and unkempt long hair, that spoke to the youth that were sick of pretending, tired of trying to live up to the expectations of what they saw as a hypocritical society.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” brought the lonely and miserable together.

“Come As You Are”

Song year: 1991

“Come As You Are” is the third track from Nirvana's major label debut, Nevermind. It begins with a simple yet effective, infectious guitar riff, inviting you in with open arms.

With lyrics full of contradiction, this song speaks to the differences in what people say and think and the impossible expectations we place on each other. It's almost like people don't want to be happy with anything.

If you are an eternal optimist, however, you could make a case for the song as the opposite, as a statement of acceptance. Either way, it is a complex, layered song that captures the unstable nature of human thought.

After Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide “Come As You Are” came to haunt fans with lyrics in the chorus referencing firearms that seemed to foreshadow the tragic trajectory Cobain was on.

“The Man Who Sold the World”

Song year: 1994

When Nirvana played and recorded for MTV's Unplugged, they fully fell into the format, paring down their volume and electric intensity while dialing up their emotional resonance and impact.

Another thing they did was supplement their original songs with an inspired assortment of covers. “The Man Who Sold the World” is a David Bowie song from his 1970 album of the same name, but Nirvana made it their own and gave the song to a generation of people who had not heard it.

The song is about a man who is despondent because he doesn't even recognize himself anymore, with lyrics full of Bowie-esque space imagery. Some words were inspired by a Hugh Mearns poem titled The Psychoed.


Song year: 1991

A fan favorite off of the record-breaking record, Nevermind, “Lithium” starts almost as a gentle little sing-along before the effects-laden guitar breaks apart any peace or comfort created by the music.

Lithium is a drug that has historically been used to treat people with bipolar depression. The lyrics here paint a portrait of someone falling apart but trying so hard to keep themself together. They are trying to glass-half-full everything but are lying to themselves.

As the song continues, the intensity of the music and the singing becomes almost unhinged, and you can tell it is just a matter of time before the song's speaker breaks completely, no matter what he wants for himself.

“Heart-Shaped Box”

Song year: 1993

Nirvana's 1993 follow-up album, In Utero, saw Nirvana maturing and refining. While the album is full of amazing and essential songs, many fans will agree that “Heart-Shaped Box” is the best one. It was also the last song the band played during their final show.

The lyrics here are evocative but cryptic. Kurt's widow, Courtney Love, has repeatedly reported that Cobain wrote this song about her private parts. The words of the song and the images from the music video support it having something to do with female reproduction and does seem to say something about being trapped in love or life.

“In Bloom”

Song year: 1991

“In Bloom” was the last single released from Nevermind. The video for this one shows the band in black and white playing on an old talk show similar to the Ed Sullivan Show. They push the boundaries with a crowd of adoring and old-fashioned fans and show their real selves.

This song is a dig at people who blindly follow the crowd or believe what they're told to believe without question or pausing to think, even when those people are Nirvana's own fans.

“About a Girl”

Song year: 1989

“About a Girl” appeared on Nirvana's first album, their debut on Seattle-based Sub Pop Records, Bleach. For Nirvana fans that had yet to get their hands on that album or cassette tape at the time, the song was given visibility after the band played it on MTV's Unplugged.

Cobain wrote the song for his then-girlfriend Tracy Marander. They lived together for a time, and while Marander took the photo featured on the album cover for Bleach, she didn't know the song was about her until years later.

“About a Girl” is about a not-so-great relationship where both people are taking advantage of each other, balancing what they have to give with what they need to take.

“All Apologies”

Song year: 1993

While “All Apologies” was released on In Utero, the version of this song recorded for MTV's Unplugged riled fans up with its stark naked emotion and vulnerability. Cobain dedicated this song to Love and their daughter Frances Bean Cobain.

So many of Nirvana's lyrics can be seen as self-deprecating or self-loathing, which was one of the hallmarks of grunge music, to be honest. With Cobain, it's easy in hindsight to read in pain, depression, and even suicidal ideation.

“All Apologies,” however, might be the most worrisome. In this song, the singer takes responsibility for everything. He is beyond caring. If someone needs to be the scapegoat, fine, he'll be it. But he's done with all of this. He's ready to move on.

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

Song year: 1994

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” is another cover Nirvana recorded as part of their MTV Unplugged set. While Lead Belly is perhaps most famous for the song, and Cobain gave him credit for writing it, it is based on a traditional folk song also known as “In The Pines.”

It is a dark song concerning a cheating woman, who disappears at night, and a husband who turns up dead and mutilated. It shows the less savory life of survival and betrayal.

Nirvana ended their Unplugged performance with this, which has gone down as one of Cobain's most powerful performances. As the song ramps up, he begins to shout and growl, holding and releasing a lifetime's worth of pain. It is a shiver-worthy performance.


Song year: 1992

Before signing to a major label and having major success, Nirvana recorded a bunch of demos, B-sides, outtakes, and miscellaneous with Sub Pop. It was clear there was a paying market for this material. Sub Pop sold the recording to Geffen, and the compilation album Incesticde hit the shelves in '92 in time for Christmas.

“Sliver” is the first song on this list from this not-quite-a-follow-up to Nevermind album.

The lyrics of this song describe a kid being dumped off with their grandparents so that the parents can go out alone. It is an extremely relatable song for most people and speaks to that alienating childhood experience of being dependent on people who don't want you in their way.

“Something in the Way”

Song year: 1991

“Something in the Way” is a sparse and dirge-y song about living under a bridge, and being stuck in a low place in your life. The song's speaker can't escape this situation because there is something in the way, an obstacle he can't name or overcome.

This song appears twice in the 2022 movie The Batman. Due to the popularity of the movie, the song's streams went crazy, earning “Something in the Way” a spot on Billboard's Hot 100 for the very first time.


Song year: 1993

Another excellent and complex song from In Utero, “Dumb,” could be seen as just another self-loathing song from the mop-haired prince of self-loathing. But that would be too simple, and though fans and media acted like they could see through Kurt, it was only because they thought he was transparent.

Cobain was not dumb, but he wrote “Dumb” as a creative examination of people who are ignorant, not smart, not critical thinkers or self-reflectors, and how it seems that these people are the happy ones. A life of “Dumb” happiness is a life of shrugging off consequences and not caring to do better.



Song year: 1992

While this song was released on 1992's compilation album, Incesticide, it first appeared as the B-Side to the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” single.

“Aneurysm” begins with palpitating drums and effects-heavy guitar noise. It's not the most lyric-heavy Nirvana song, but the vocals betray the feelings of betrayal with crackling energy.

This song is clearly about a relationship with an uneven power dynamic. Cobain wrote this after a troubling and failed relationship with Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail.

“Lake of Fire”

Song year: 1994

Kurt Cobain was known for many things in his time, one of which was for putting his money where his mouth was when it came to supporting other bands. MTV's Unplugged was for the creme de la creme of rockstars and money-making musicians. Most bands were never going to get that invitation in the mail.

Because Nirvana were fans of the band, The Meat Puppets, they had them as guests during the performance, covering three of their songs.

The lyrics of “Lake of Fire” read like a dark children's story and are packed with biblical imagery. It is a catchy song about being influenced by religion but challenging it at the same time.

“You Know You’re Right”

Song year: 2002

Nirvana recorded “You Know You're Right” in January 1994 without any specific plans for it. It ended up being the last thing they recorded together. Cobain died a few months later, and the song was shelved until it was released as a single and part of a “best of” album in 2002.

It made quite a splash, as fans were hungry for any Nirvana they hadn't heard. Cobain wrote this song about his feelings and frustrations with love. The lyrics capture a falling apart relationship. The speaker is tired of fighting and is giving in, giving up, and moving on.

“On a Plain”

Song year: 1991

From Nevermind, at its fundamental level, “On a Plain” is a song about writing a song. Deeper than that, it's about writing, creating for an audience, and the relationship between the artist and the audience.

Even if you don't have fans yet, if you want to do this thing for a living, you have to create something that will appeal to people, and that necessity gets in the way of an artist's actual voice, vision, and perspective.

In “On a Plain,” however, Cobain is also saying that he's doing ok, that it's working for him, so maybe he should shut up and not worry about it.

“Love Buzz”

Song year: 1989

Recorded for Bleach, “Love Buzz” was Nirvana's first released single. The song is a cover of a 1967 song by the Dutch band Shocking Blue.

With a come hither intro riff and Cobain's slurred crooning, this seems like a raucous yet sweet love song. Although the lyrics certainly seem to say that this is a song about a toxic relationship with some gaslighting going on. It's still full of energy and incredibly fun to sing along to.


Song year: 1991

Cobain wrote “Breed” in 1989. Initially, it was titled “Immodium” after the anti-diarrheal medication tourmate Tad Doyle of TAD took while they were on the road together.

The repetition in this song has a trance-inducing effect, which is appropriate since it's about the middle-class American life, the cookie-cutter dream of finding an ok job, getting married, and having kids. This one says maybe we could do things differently. We could do whatever we want.


Song year: 1991

Written earlier, recorded with Chad Channing on drums, but released on Nevermind, “Polly” is musically sparse but starkly beautiful. The song is based on a real-life 1987 kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl. The lyrics allude to the abuse and assault she suffered.

Here, Cobain is singing from the point of view of the kidnapper, seeming to empathize with him in an attempt to understand his mindset and how a person like that must be thinking to cause terrible pain to another person.


Song year: 1994

“Plateau” is a Meat Puppets song, originally released on their 1984 album, Meat Puppets II. Nirvana invited Meat Puppets brothers Curt and Kris Kirkwood to perform a few songs with them for Unplugged, and this was one of the most popular.

With an incredibly evocative and pleasurable chorus, “Plateau” is about the tedious toil of life and what it all amounts to in the end.

“Negative Creep”

Song year: 1989

“Negative Creep” is another example of early Nirvana, where the music is dirty and raw, and the lyrics are simple but high-energy. It is the way Cobain sings them, the emotion and variations he lends with his voice, that escalates the song and keeps it interesting.

This song is about negative people, people who always see the worst side of every situation and wallow in it. The speaker has a self-awareness in this song, though. He calls himself a “Negative Creep,” so he knows, and he's choosing to be one.

“Serve the Servants”

Song year: 1993

“Serve the Servants” came out on Nirvana's follow-up to Nevermind, In Utero. The pressures of success and expectations put on Nirvana, especially Kurt Cobain's shoulders, were a lot to bear.

Cobain's lyrics here are autobiographical with references to Nevermind, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the public image of his wife Courtney Love, and the mythos of Cobain's own origin story with his parents and their divorce.

“Serve the Servants” shows Cobain laying out everything everyone thinks they know about him and lashing out at them for being so limiting. This is a common theme throughout quite a few Nirvana songs. Cobain seemed to feel pigeon-holed, pedestaled and scapegoated, and those things didn't have anything to do with what he was trying to do.


Song year: 1993

Released as a B-side for the “Heart Shaped Box” single, “Marigold” is a divergent and unique song for Nirvana. Dave Grohl wrote the song and sang the lead vocals, which is the only time he features as lead vocalist and is indeed the only time Kurt Cobain doesn't.

Grohl had been working on “Marigold” for some time when they decided to record it during the In Utero sessions.

One of the most interesting things about this song is that although Grohl wrote it and it features his voice, it sounds very much like a Nirvana song and not like a Foo Fighters song. There is even a bit of a Cobain timbre to Grohl's voice.

The sparse lyrics here are full of emotionally evocative imagery, and while they are cryptic, this song is about desire and ambition, what it takes, and what it costs to have it all.

“Pennyroyal Tea”

Song year: 1993

As the name of the album prepares you for, In Utero is full of language and imagery about the female reproductive system. While the term, “in utero” refers to a woman's uterus, it also refers to something happening before birth, something that is a part of a person as their DNA.

The titular tea can cause a miscarriage in large doses. However, due to its toxicity, this is extremely dangerous and can cause death. So while this song could be seen to be about abortion, it is also about self-abortion or suicide ideation.

It is hard after someone dies from suicide not to make every lyric they wrote, every word they said a sign, but this song, while cloaked in metaphor, is not opaque in its depiction of mental illness and addiction.

“Drain You”

Song year: 1991

Some theories speculate “Drain You” is another one about Cobain's relationship with Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail. Other theories say this song is about Cobain's heroin use. It could be one or the other, but the miraculous thing about songwriting and the way metaphor works is that it could be about both.

Whatever inspired Cobain to write this song, it is about consumptive love, whether it's a reliance on a toxic partner or a substance like heroin. The lyrics are about giving up everything for the thing that makes you feel good, even if it's killing you figuratively or literally.

“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”

Song year: 1993

Frances Farmer was a famous actress in the 1930s and 40s from Seattle. She had a reputation for being “difficult” to work with. A drunk driving arrest and parole violation led to a series of involuntary commitments to an asylum, where she was given shock therapy and a lobotomy. Her story shows the darkness and abuse of the mental health system of that time.

Cobain felt drawn to Farmer and her story and saw some parallels to how she was treated by the media and the way they treated him and his wife.

The song is about the people who relied on Farmer, Cobain, and Love's status as hot messes so that they could be exploited. The lyrics show a wish for privacy and the ability to feel.

“Big Cheese”

Song year: 1989

Released on Bleach, “Big Cheese” was also the B-side to Nirvana's first single, “Love Buzz.”

The song is an apparent dig at managers or record company guys. The ones that pressure bands to do things they don't necessarily want to do for money and marketing reasons. The lyrics may have been inspired by Sub Pop's Johnathan Poneman, producer at Sub Pop, for the strain he put Nirvana under while they were there.

“Scentless Apprentice”

Song year: 1993

“Scentless Apprentice” takes inspiration from Perfume, a novel by Patrick Suskind. In the book, a man born with an incredible sense of smell has no smell of his own. He becomes a perfumer's apprentice and begins to murder people for their scent to create a masterpiece fragrance.

This song could be seen as the cannibalistic nature of creativity. How an artist might take inspiration from other artists and collage them together rather than come up with something all their own.

However, it may also be about the media's glomming on to Nirvana, taking them and their music out of context, and jumping on the bandwagon of any other band that might be considered grunge.

“Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam”

Song year: 1994

Finally, we'll wrap up this list of the 29 best Nirvana songs with another brilliant cover performed and recorded during Unplugged. “Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam” by The Vaselines happens to be Cobain’s favorite tune.

The song is a parody of a traditional Christian song called, “I'll Be a Sunbeam,” or “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam.” The Vaselines changed it to reflect a rejection by Jesus, God, and religion. This song is about someone who does not see themselves as a ray of light and doesn't care to be one.

Top Nirvana Songs, Final Thoughts

While Nirvana had only a handful of albums, their influence on music, culture, and even how we think about addiction and mental illness cannot be understated.

Teens in the 90s saw something in Nirvana that they saw in themselves, but couldn't name. For all of Kurt Cobain's railing at the business and the media, he gave a generation of kids company in their misery. And that legacy continues.

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