29 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.

“Lithium”

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.

“Sliver”

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.

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