Home Music Music Lists

No Apologies: All 102 Nirvana Songs Ranked

RS tackles the complete catalog of the band that defined the Nineties and made the world a lot noisier

Paul Bergen/Redferns

We’ve dug deep into the catalog of the chaos-embracing sludge-pop titans who changed the world and tackled a massive task: ranking all 102 album cuts, B-sides, bonus tracks, officially released covers, bootlegger-traded originals, home demos, Peel Sessions, and 4-track experiments we could find, from Nirvana‘s formation in 1987 to their McCartney-assisted reunion in 2013. It’s no secret that the 38 songs on Nirvana’s three classic albums blurred the lines between punk’s most subterranean muck and pop’s highest reaches. But they also left behind a wealth of other material from the shaggy to sublime, from combustible to calm, from coulda-been hits to unfinished sketches. Here it is, from Aero to Zeppelin, and everything in between. (Listen to the full playlist on YouTube here.)

From Rolling Stone US


“My Best Friend’s Girl”

According to the 1993 Nirvana bio Come as You Are, the Cars’ 1978 new wave hit “My Best Friend’s Girl” was among the very first tunes a young Kurt Cobain learned to play after his Uncle Chuck bought him his first guitar for his 14th birthday. It now also stands as one of the last songs Cobain performed in his lifetime, after he had achieved a level of fame his teenage self couldn’t have fathomed. When Nirvana opened their show at Terminal 1 in Munich, Germany with a ragged-yet-faithful take of the power-pop gem, it represented something of a tragic full circle: The gig, on March 1, 1994, would prove to be Nirvana’s last. RICHARD BIENSTOCK


“Raunchola”/”Moby Dick”

Described by Krist Novoselic as “really raunchy,” “Erectum” (or “Raunchola” as it was variously titled) was an early Nirvana composition that bound together a wobbly bass line, a few mimeographed Seventies punk riffs, some chunky metal guitar and one atonal Greg Ginn-style avant-garde solo. The band revisited their Led Zep love toward the end of a 1988 show, giving then-drummer Dale Crover a license to go Double-Live Bonzo on John Bonham’s signature showstopper (with a little added wooze courtesy of Novoselic). KORY GROW


“The Other Improv”

Among the tracks recorded in January 1993’s pre-In Utero sessions in Brazil was a loose, six-minute-plus jam that has come to be known as “The Other Improv.” The song, which consists largely of Cobain improvising lyrics over a lurching, mid-tempo instrumental groove, remained unheard until 2002, when it was discovered by online MP3 traders. Though the sketch is not much of a song, “The Other Improv” features Cobain repeatedly singing the phrase “My milk is your shit,” which would be reworked for “Milk It.” RICHARD BIENSTOCK


“Don’t Want It All”

Recorded on 4-track at Cobain’s Olympia, Washington residence around 1988, this eerie, oft-bootlegged track was known to collectors as “Misery Loves Company” before given its official title of “Don’t Want It All.” (Even though evidence suggests its real title is “Seed.”) Although it was recorded in the same home demos that produced the ridiculous “Beans” and the inpentrable “Montage of Heck,” these same tapes – featuring early versions of “About a Girl,” “Sappy,” “Polly” – signified the maturation in Cobain’s work. The song’s bluesy mood and atmosphere, similar to the Lead Belly works Cobain would soon discover, is taut while the tuning is so loose: The string rattles with every pluck. However, this song never made it out of the home demo phase, with its lone recording appearing on With the Lights Out. DANIEL KREPS


“Mrs. Butterworth”

Things that remain unknown about “Mrs. Butterworth”: when it was recorded, who actually played drums on it, its actual title, and pretty much anything beyond “It has Kurt and Krist on it.” Jack Endino describes it as one of the last songs found during the assembly of With the Lights Out, coming from Courtney Love’s collection of “Kurt cassettes.” Lights labels it a 1988 rehearsal with Dale Crover; but Endino disagrees, believing it to be 1987 with Aaron Burckhard. (Of the title, Endino writes: “Someone at the [management] office just made it up, as Krist couldn’t remember it, and the tape was unlabeled.”) Cobain doesn’t get a lot of credit for his guitar abilities, but he demonstrates a surprising capacity for Slayer-worthy thrash riffing here – only minus the evil, and plus weirdoes who collect Mrs. Butterworth jars and sell crafts made of out of burlap and driftwood. TOM MALLON


“If You Must”

For enthusiasts, “If You Must” was often the entry point into the fruitful, maddening, mislabeled world of Nirvana bootlegs – it was the first track on the well-circulated Outcesticide. Despite its impact on Nirvana fans, Cobain apparently hated the track, calling “If You Must” “sickening and dumb” in a letter to Crover. After being recorded for Nirvana’s January 1988 demo tape, the song disappeared entirely from future studio sessions and live performances until it was dug out for With the Lights Out. DANIEL KREPS


“Cut Me Some Slack”

“We walked in; we jammed the song,” Grohl told KROQ about this 2013 rager, the only song that Grohl, Novoselic and touring guitarist Pat Smear have recorded together since Nirvana ended in 1994. “It just came out of nowhere. The best songs happen that way. We recorded it live and put a vocal over it and that was it. It was three hours and it was perfect.” The vocals on this raucous jam for the Sound City soundtrack featured a little-known guest singer named Paul McCartney, whose Sixties-era recordings are said to have inspired the melody of Nirvana’s “About a Girl.” What the three-hour session yielded was honestly not much of a song, but it did win the Best Rock Song Grammy earlier this year, beating Black Sabbath the Rolling Stones and Muse. DOUGLAS WOLK


“Help Me, I’m Hungry”

Nirvana’s midnight in-studio performance for Olympia’s KAOS Community Radio in May of 1987, marked the band’s very first official on-air session – though at the time the band, featuring Aaron Burckhard on drums, was going by the name “Skid Row.” They closed their set with this Pixies-gone-Black-Flag moaner that is commonly known as “Vendetaganist,” but which was later rechristened – no doubt due to Cobain’s repeated moans of “I’m fucking hungry” —with a new title when this performance was issued on the With the Lights Out box. Though “Hungry” is among the deeper of Nirvana cuts, the band actually continued to play it onstage as late as September 28, 1991 – four days after the release of Nevermind. To add to its convoluted history, bootlegs from this gig, at New York City’s now-defunct Marquee, show additional names for the song, including “Come on Death” and “Death Jam” – all fine names for such a negative, anguished churn. RICHARD BIENSTOCK


“Immigrant Song”

Kurt Cobain doesn’t bother to intone Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant’s Viking wail on this two-minute rehearsal room larf. As seen a video shot at a strobe-lit basement show in Krist Novoselic’s mom’s house, new-hire drummer Chad Channing just launched into the song’s trademark gallop and Cobain let loose a monotonous scream. But for all the hoopla in the years since Nevermind came out about grunge killing metal dead, let the record show that the frontman screamed Plant’s lyrics into the Novoselics’ wood-paneled wall with an accuracy that might get him a passing score on Rock Band. KORY GROW


“Black and White Blues”

Does Jack White know about this one? Kurt Cobain apparently recorded this brief acoustic guitar ragtime shuffle in the late Eighties, perhaps even before Fecal Matter morphed into Nirvana. It’s not elegant, but it is endearing, with the strings buzzing and a few notes erroneously muted as Cobain tries to untangle the intricate picking patterns and rhythms of the primitive American blues. Warped by the buzz of a tape machine and a cheap microphone, it could even slip into those Paramount Records boxsets White’s been building. Onetime punk rockers who turn toward folk – or, at the least, folk-rock – as they age are legion. That path has long seemed like an obvious one for Cobain, had he survived beyond 27. But “Black and White Blues,” which came long before the year that punk broke, makes his interests in rock & roll’s basics both clear and incredibly frustrating: Cobain might’ve made an incredible aging bluesman, and these two minutes excepted, we’ll never really know. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN


“Bambi Slaughter”

Not to be confused with the crushing “Bambi Slaughter” from Cobain’s 1985 Fecal Matter demo, this early home recording (most commonly labeled as “Bambi Slaughter” or “Creation” or “Bambi Kill”) is little more than the singer and a plodding bass riff. More than any song in the Nirvana catalog, its minimalism brings to mind stripped-down Cobain favorites Young Marble Giants. “I’m heavily influenced by them, he said. “It doesn’t sound like it in our music. But just the emotions they evoked and the feeling, the sincerity and all that.” Never officially released, it remains one of the deepest cuts in the band’s catalog, but recently got a second life via a blissgaze cover by Nirvana acolytes DIIV. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN



This growly, Melvins-y grinder has been around since Cobain’s 1985 Fecal Matter demos, but didn’t live too much longer. Cobain reconfigured the riffs and lyrics, sped up the tempo, and began performing it as “Anorexorcist” at some of Nirvana’s earliest gigs and the well-circulated 1987 KAOS session (whose recording ended up on With the Lights Out). Despite its engaging fast-verse/slow-chorus vibe, it met its demise around a 1988 show where the band, billed as Ted Ed Fred, were joined by Cobain’s old Fecal Matter bandmate Dale Crover on drums. RICHARD BIENSTOCK


“Token Eastern Song”

“Token Eastern Song” held a mysterious mythos with Nirvana bootleggers thanks to its inclusion on the track list for Sheep, which Cobain planned as the Sub Pop follow-up to Bleach before DGC came calling. It wasn’t until years later that it was revealed that a live recording erroneously dubbed “Junkyard” was actually the tune; the chorus “Hold it in your gut” hilariously mistaken for “Born in a junkyard.” The track was also recorded on New Year’s Day 1991, Dave Grohl’s first studio session as Nirvana’s drummer. That version has not been officially released; but the Bleach-ier version on With the Lights Out, culled from a September 1989 session with Chad Channing on drums, is a gloriously crunchy Hüskers-via-Sabbath gem. DANIEL KREPS


“Here She Comes Now”

Nirvana’s cover of this Velvet Underground track from 1968’s White Light/White Heatwas more than twice as long as the original, appearing on the Velvets tribute album, Heaven and Hell Volume 1 and as a split single with the Melvins doing “Venus in Furs.” Though they tackle White Light‘ s quietest track, Nirvana’s version rises in action like the album’s noisiest, “Sister Ray” – a fitting tribute to the original architects of pop and feedback. DOUGLAS WOLK


“Escalator to Hell”

Recorded in the summer of 1988, in the same studio sessions where Kurt killed time attempting to affix a snippet of his homemade “Montage of Heck” collage to the beginning of debut single “Love Buzz,” “Escalator to Hell” seems to find the frontman playing guitar in Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge – his parts recorded backwards and then the tape reversed. The outtake is experimental to the point of being unreleasable, and as indebted to the Beatles as anything short of “About a Girl.” Once found on various Outcesticide bootlegs, YouTube is now the song’s most reliable home, with videos of the 89-second squall totaling nearly 5,000 plays and a homemade edit that sets the song back to it’s normal direction netting 47. NICK MURRAY



“We learnt everything from the Wipers,” Kurt told an English fanzine in 1990. “They were playing a mixture of punk and hard rock at a time when nobody cared.” Indeed, it’s pretty easy to hear Nirvana’s power-chords-by-a-power-trio roots in this dark tune originally off of the seminal Portland punks’ 1980 LP Is this Real? . As future In Utero producer Steve Albini wrote in Forced Exposure in 1987, “The Wipers’ music is so simple, but so cool, it makes you wonder why anybody thinks doing stuff with tricks is a valid approach at all.” JOE GROSS


“Montage of Heck”

This half-hour collage is unquestionably the most avant-garde moment to emerge from a band that ended their major label debut with five minutes of squealing feedback. The 1988 track emerged from the same era of “culture-jamming” copyright criminality like Negativland. Cobain went ballistic on his 4-track, mixing scratchy records, Nirvana demos and screams. The mucky tangle connects dots between John Cage’s tape-splice symphony “Williams Mix” to the Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9” to Public Enemy’s sample slaughter It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (one of Cobain’s favorite records, and – if bootleggers can be trusted – released the same month that “Montage of Heck” was recorded). Jarring, unsettling, and darkly nostalgic, it’s pure distillation of the obsessions that would follow Cobain for a career: Childhood (crackly kids records), meta-commentary on music (the repeating word “disco”), KISS (the opening of Alive), homophobia (Archie Bunker) and the human body (puerile toilet noises). CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN



“He thought it was stupid,” Cobain told Michael Azerrad, explaining why this 93-second quirk-pop gem didn’t end up on Bleach. “[Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman] thought we were retarded.” As far removed from the sewer-scraping sludge of “Blew” as possible, this goofy little song (“Beans, beans, beans / Japhy ate some beans”) was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s beat novel The Dharma Bums and the childlike simplicity of the Vaselines. Cobain, hoping to show off his more avant-garde tendencies, got giddy with the pitch shifter. His chipmunk chirp here look back to voice-altered weirdos like the Residents and Butthole Surfers; and looks forward to voice-altered weirdos like Ween. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN


“Old Age”

“Old Age” made its first public appearance in 1993 as the B-side to Hole’s “Beautiful Son” single and re-appeared on the “Violet” single two years later – credited to Courtney Love as its sole author. But the song was persistently rumored to have Cobain’s hand in it somewhere. “That’s a Nirvana song. Kurt wrote that song,” Novoselic told The Stranger in 1998, and indeed, With the Lights Out included Nirvana’s Nevermind-era recording of the song (albeit with almost entirely different words). Still, their version is half-formed – it’s the only known original song from that era that the band never played live, and Kurt seemed uncertain of the lyrics he was mumbling. DOUGLAS WOLK



Last year, Krist Novoselic discussed the thrill that Kurt Cobain got from collages of seeming non-sequiturs, particularly in visual art. “He would just laugh. He knew he’d made something cool, and he’d be happy about it,” Novoselic said. “He would think he was a blowhard if he explained stuff.” Such enthusiasm and attitude apply to “Beeswax,” one of the 10 cuts Nirvana recorded in January 1988, during their first session with Jack Endino. Like a song-length extension of Sonic Youth’s “confusion is sex” credo, the demented “Beeswax” explores daddy issues and vasectomies, masturbation and pubic hair, ovulation and anal sex, Cher’s breasts and expensive prostitution. This string of images runs the risk of turning into a string of 20-year-old nonsense, but Melvins drummer Dale Crover powers it into a philippic. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN


“Seasons in the Sun”

“I cried to ‘Seasons in the Sun,’” wrote Kurt in his diary, recalling how the maudlin, chart-topping 1974 hit for Terry Jacks (itself a reworking of Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribund”) was the first record he’d ever bought. But while he no doubt felt an affinity for the song, the impromptu cover of it that he and his bandmates recorded during their January 1993 demo session in Brazil hides its existential pain behind a veneer of alt-rock indifference. By switching instruments (Cobain takes over the drums, Grohl grabs the bass, and Novoselic straps on the guitar) the band all but guaranteed that the results would be amateurish – which, in the early 90s, was the socially acceptable way to serve up ’70s cheese. DANIEL EPSTEIN



When Kurt Cobain appeared on Calvin Johnson’s “Boy Meets Girl” show on Evergreen State College’s KAOS Community Radio, in September 1990, he brought along an acoustic guitar and a few new tunes. Just how new were they? As Cobain told the K Records founder during an on-air chat, he had written most of the lyrics that evening, adding, jokingly, “while I was driving…with one foot.” He kicked off the mini-set with “Opinion,” a tune that, in the tradition of future Nirvana prime cuts like “Teen Spirit” and “Rape Me,” is built around a repeating four-chord progression that carries through both the verses and choruses. But despite some pointed lyrics (Cobain takes aim at the media in lines like “a year’s subscription of bad puns”), “Opinion” comes off as little more than a sketch of a song. And unlike some of the other tunes Kurt played that evening – “Dumb,” “Polly,” “Lithium” – it was never developed further. RICHARD BIENSTOCK



“When they recorded it,” wrote Jack Endino in 2005, “the band had just showed [drummer Chad Channing] the song, and they hadn’t even learned or really practiced it yet.” You can hear that instability throughout “Blandest,” a plodding number that the trio recorded in the late 1988 sessions that also yielded “Love Buzz.” They didn’t intend to use this early runthrough for anything, so, as instructed, Endino recorded over it. It survives only as a clipped, static-damaged copy of a copy of a copy, salvaged and bootlegged, Endino hypothesizes, from a band member’s own tape. It’s structurally rudimentary, with two verses falling up and down over a simple buzzsaw riff, a tune clearly in need of more arrangement. In fact, its most significant feature comes in quickly, during each turnaround before every reiterated second verse. “Hey!” Cobain shouts as an extemporaneous preamble, foreshadowing the iconic instant in which he’d do the same for the hit “Heart-Shaped Box.” It’s like a lost rehearsal, then, a forgotten worktape for a forthcoming classic. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN


“They Hung Him On a Cross” (The Jury)

Although busy schedules interrupted the Jury’s attempt to form a blues supergroup that could be – in the words of drummer Mark Pickerel – a “modern day version of Cream or Led Zeppelin,” the somewhat awkward studio relationship between Kurt and Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan didn’t help. According to Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are, Kurt “kept worrying that he would come up with something that he’d want to use for Nirvana,” but Pickerel suggests otherwise, recalling that “it was as if both Mark and Kurt had too much respect for each other to tell the other what to do, or even make suggestions for what they should be doing.” In some ways the Jury’s most faithful of their four Lead Belly covers, “They Hung Him On a Cross” solves this problem by featuring only Kurt and his guitar, dropping the tempo of the version that appears on Lead Belly’s Last Sessions, Cobain’s preferred collection of his work. NICK MURRAY


“Grey Goose” (The Jury)

In August of 1989, Kurt and Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan told Sub Pop boss Jonathan Poneman that the two had written a handful of songs that they wanted to record. However, when they reached the studio – with Novoselic and Trees drummer Mark Pickerel – plans had changed. As producer Jack Endino remembers it, Kurt told him something like, “Well, we forgot all the songs, because we didn’t tape any of them. And I lost my lyric book. So we’re gonna do some Lead Belly songs instead.” Kurt later said of Lead Belly’s appeal, “While he was in prison, he started playing the guitar, and he sang so well that the governor started to like him and let him out of jail.” But here the group, calling themselves the Jury, goes instrumental, ignoring most of the lyrics that Lead Belly sang and locking into the tune of the “lord, lord, lord” refrain that closes each line. NICK MURRAY


“Clean Up Before She Comes”

Batches of early Nirvana home demos (listed as “undated” in the With the Lights Out box, but believed by collectors to be from 1987-1988) gave an alternate-universe glimpse of a Nirvana who went beyond grunge-metal, dabbling in lo-fi, 4-track weirdness. “Clean Up Before She Comes” is possibly the most compelling of all: three minutes of ticking, bone-dry guitar and wispy, interlocking harmonies that would’ve sat comfortably on PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. Fan legend has it that the song, which first surfaced on the Dressed for Success bootleg, and later the popular Outcesticide series, was rerecorded in 1994 shortly before Cobain’s death, but no tape has ever surfaced. TOM MALLON


“White Lace and Strange”

Captured on tape in April 1987 during their first-ever live radio session, the very young band performed a blistering cover of this heavy rocker by super-obscure late-Sixties power trio Thunder and Roses. Only months after Cobain and Novoselic formed the band with original drummer Aaron Burckhard, Nirvana’s far-reaching musical taste and scorching attack were already twin hallmarks. Raw though it may be, Cobain’s guitar solo might also be the shreddingest thing he ever recorded. DANIEL EPSTEIN


“Ain’t It a Shame” (The Jury)

Kurt discovering Lead Belly through the work of William S. Burroughs (“I remember him saying in an interview, ‘These new rock & roll kids should just throw away their guitars and listen to something with real soul like Lead Belly’”) and a copy of the singer’s final sessions borrowed from neighbor Slim Moon (who would found the Kill Rock Stars label). In turn, he played his music out nearly as much as he mentioned him in interviews. Where producer Jack Endino called this cut from the Nirvana/Screaming Trees four-song double-date session of Lead Belly covers a “throwaway,” Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman remembered it as “one of Kurt’s greatest vocal performances.” NICK MURRAY


“Do You Love Me?”

For Kiss, “Do You Love Me?” was a fairly immodest not-excatly-humble-brag in which Paul Stanley enumerates the accouterments of rock stardom to his sex partner: limos, fancy clothes, backstage passes and, at least for Kiss, seven-inch heels. It’s macho, sanguine, ostentatious and a whole heap of other adjectives that never applied to Nirvana. So it’s no surprise that Kurt Cobain and his bandmates sound insincere when they asked the song’s titular question in the chorus. The boasts were especially unbelievable coming from Cobain because it was recorded in 1989 (one of only two songs recorded with guitarist Jason Everman), months before their debut LP was released: well before “the concerts and studios, and all the money, honey.” KORY GROW


“Moist Vagina”

For a somewhat shapeless B-side, “Moist Vagina” has enjoyed a remarkable afterlife. After hearing an early version, Thurston Moore reportedly urged Nirvana to let it lead In Utero, rather than tacking it onto the “All Apologies” single. The band didn’t comply, but years later, Sonic Youth recorded and released “Moist Vagina” for a B-side of their own, with Kim Gordon whispering and then roaring the lyrics. Guitarist John Frusciante covered it, too, delivering his best frontman mimesis. Title aside, the song’s calling card comes in its one-word refrain, where Cobain – who starts the track only after coughing, as though recovering from a particularly fierce puff – simply howls “Marijuana!” on repeat. He stole so much pot from his mom as a kid that they once smoked oregano together. Years later, Yelawolf borrowed that scream for a toke-happy song of his own on his Interscope debut: “Marijuana / Makes you happy / Feelin stupid / Girls get horny,” raps the Alabama redneck, closing a strange circle with Aberdeen’s own white-trash hero. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN


“Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip”

One of the weirder things Nirvana ever cut, “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” is an odd mixture of Pavement-style archness and inebriated rage. A seven-and-a-half minute improvisation recorded during a January 1993 demo session in Brazil, “Gallons” was included as a bonus on some non-U.S. CD versions of In Utero, where it was labeled on the CD’s back cover as “Devalued American Dollar Purchase Incentive Track.” Repeated references to G.I.T. (the Hollywood-based Guitar Institute of Technology) would seem to indicate that the “Strip” in question is the one on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard, whose spandexed and poodle-haired denizens had just been handed their walking papers by the success of a certain Seattle band. DANIEL EPSTEIN


“Talk to Me”

Courtney Love has said that the jerky rhythm at the heart of this Cobain tune is a testament to Kurt’s love of new wavers like Devo and Oingo Boingo – and is there also a hint of the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud” in the recurring drum fill? But while Nirvana occasionally pulled out “Talk to Me” on stage in 1991 and 1992, they never bothered to bring it into the studio. Which is not to say that the song wasn’t tagged for potential recording – just that it wasn’t necessarily considered by Nirvana. Love and her band Hole tackled it at Hanzek Audio in August, 1993, during early Live Through This sessions, but the track ultimately was left unfinished. It was later offered to Iggy Pop, who replied with a polite thanks, but no thanks. “I do my own music, and I like Kurt’s music,” he explained to The Big Takeover in 2002. “But I have no interest in doing Kurt’s music.” RICHARD BIENSTOCK


“Pen Cap Chew”

Nirvana’s first ever studio session – January 23, 1988 – was a particularly productive one: Ten songs, recorded and mixed in just over five hours. Known as the “Dale Demo” due to the participation of Melvins drummer Dale Crover, two from this batch found their way onto the original pressing of Bleach, while another five eventually wound up on Incesticide. One of the few that fell by the wayside was the hammering “Pen Cap Chew” – though not necessarily because it wasn’t up to snuff. Rather, it had the unfortunate luck of being the last song tracked during the session. Recalled producer Jack Endino, “It was incomplete; the master tape ran out halfway through it and the band didn’t want to buy another reel.” As a result, the producer had to find his own way to wrap things up, ultimately choosing to add “a fade ending that I did just for their amusement.” RICHARD BIENSTOCK


“Do Re Mi”

The last known composition by Kurt Cobain – also known as “Dough, Ray and Me” – was first mentioned in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview with Courtney Love, although it didn’t surface for another decade. Love’s commentary on the song is cryptic, but it may explain the line that sounds like “if I may, cold as ice”: “I had asked him after Rome” – where Cobain overdosed and fell into a coma a month before his suicide – “to freeze his sperm. So there’s this whole thing about freezing your uterus.” The song has only been heard as Kurt’s acoustic home recording as “Do Re Mi,” its title borrowed from the Sound of Music song about the musical scale (note that Kurt plays a descending scale after the chorus). DOUGLAS WOLK


“Verse Chorus Verse”

Kurt really wanted to call something “Verse Chorus Verse.” He wrote that phrase on the cover of at least one of his notebooks, constantly used it as a disparaging description of his songs, and briefly intended to use it as the title of the album that became In Utero. When “Sappy” appeared as an unlisted bonus track on the No Alternative compilation, it was referred to as “Verse Chorus Verse” as well. The first song to have that title, though – and the one that kept it – is the one that starts “neither side is sacred.” The band recorded a rough version of it during the Nevermind sessions, and it’s a lesser variation on other verse-chorus-verse songs they would come up with: To wit, its final live performance was immediately followed by the debut of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” DOUGLAS WOLK



“Kurt began to attend Sunday service regularly, and even made appearances at the Wednesday night Christian Youth Group,” writes Charles R. Cross in his Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven. As a late teenager, Cobain – a troubled kid into drugs and out of school, arrested for purportedly pro-gay graffiti, booted from the house not long after his parents divorced – turned briefly to God for support, searching for anything to replace everything that had gone missing. He gave up drugs and got baptized, but he quickly recanted. “It was a transitory moment out of fear,” his former classmate and friend at the time later told Cross. Written only a few years after the spiritual crisis, “Sifting” extends a proud middle finger to teachers and preachers and every rule they’d ever given the budding bandleader – no bed wetting, no sinning, no skipping school. “Don’t have nothing for you,” Cobain yells a few dozen times, the song’s noose-like riff tightening around the drum’s own tantrum. “Sifting” is a heavy, menacing bit of Melvins obsession that, though not particularly remarkable for its music, serves as a vivid encapsulation of Cobain’s lifelong obduracy. GRAYSON HAVER CURRIN


“Hairspray Queen”

One of the oldest pieces of Nirvana’s catalog, this track’s bouncing bassline and gnarled guitars are a catchy mix of noise and pop: Cobain told Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad that he regretted not including it on Bleach. A 1988 rehearsal of the song collected on With The Lights Out puts the instruments front and center – and ends with Kurt running up to the camera to reveal that he’s been playing the guitar with his middle finger. But it would be best known for Cobain’s yowled-cat vocals on the version that made it to Incesticide. MAURA JOHNSTON



For a song that he recorded twice and put out three times, Cobain didn’t think much of it: “I was trying to be Mr. Political Punk Rock Black Flag guy,” Cobain told Michael Azerrad. “I really didn’t know what I was talking about. I was just throwing together words.” Cobain rarely left his own head (or Aberdeen’s city limits) when searching for lyrical material, so one of Nirvana’s only attempts at politics, “Downer” is a bit of a sore thumb – a remnant of Cobain’s early immersion in hardcore, raging against “conservative communist apocalyptic bastard[s].” “Downer” is the only song from his 1985 Fecal Matter demo to ever land on an official Nirvana album: It was tacked on to the CD version of Bleach, and later appeared again on Incesticide. The Melvins’ Dale Crover, bassist and drummer on the original, returns on drums, nearly doubling the tempo and turning a mechanical plod into a breakneck, Devo-esque blast. TOM MALLON


“Big Long Now”

Stylistically, “Big Long Now” is indebted to Black Flag’s My War and that LP’s polarizing, sludgy, glacially paced Side B. Recorded in one take for Bleach, “Big Long Now” didn’t make the track list – it probably lost out to the similarly plodding “Sifting” – but was rescued from the scrap heap when producer Jack Endino lobbied for its inclusion on B-side comp Incesticide. No live performances of the song have ever surfaced, but a video of the Nirvana rehearsing the track at Krist Novoselic’s mother’s house in 1988 appeared on the With the Lights Out DVD. DANIEL KREPS


“Return of the Rat”

As a tribute to the Portland punk pioneers, Nirvana were invited to take one side of the 7-inch box set Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers, joining covers by Hole, Poison Idea, and Napalm Beach. According to Thor Lindsay, who founded the label that put out the comp, Cobain originally wanted to submit the band’s already recorded Wipers cover “D-7,” which they had done for John Peel, but Nirvana’s label complicated the licensing. So Cobain said, “Fuck it, I’ll record another track,” and, in Lindsay’s words, “basically a DAT tape turned up with ‘Return of the Rat’ on it.” Session engineer Barrett Jones said the group recorded the track along with “Oh, the Guilt” and “Curmudgeon” in one or two takes. More impressive is Jones’s claim that they had never even played it before. KORY GROW



Few would have guessed that the member of Nirvana who’d go on to have six platinum records on his own would be the drummer, but “Marigold” is Nirvana’s most significant contribution to the Foo Fighters story. Shortly after Dave Grohl joined Nirvana, he recorded a solo voice-and-guitar version of this hovering, introverted song, then called “Color Pictures of a Marigold.” It eventually appeared on Pocketwatch, a cassette-only album Grohl released in 1992 under the name Late! The recording that became a “Heart-Shaped Box” B-side, recorded during the In Utero sessions, featured Grohl and Novoselic – but apparently not Cobain. “Marigold” wouldn’t be played live until Grohl resurrected it with the Foo Fighters in 2006. DOUGLAS WOLK


“Endless, Nameless”

Attempting to conclude Nevermind with the CD equivalent of a sound skipping in a run-out groove, Kurt and company instructed engineer Howie Weinberg to follow closer “Something In the Way” with ten minutes of silence and the noisy outtake “Endless, Nameless.” An extended jam that often closed concerts, the band recorded the track after the session for “Lithium” went south, the frontman bringing said session to a close by smashing the studio’s only left-handed guitar in the middle of the take. Thanks to Nevermind, these sort of hidden tracks would remain popular until WinAmp and its descendents revealed track lengths before the listener pressed play. But Kurt’s smashed guitar would hang around even longer, immortalized in a photograph reprinted in Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are and later in a Nirvana exhibition at Seattle’s EMP Museum. NICK MURRAY


“Oh, Me”

“Oh Me” was originally cut from MTV’s broadcast of Unplugged – hard to imagine given the album’s classic status now, but ad time is ad time. Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood – who along with his brother, Cris, wrote the song and joined Nirvana for the session – always said it was his favorite from 1984’s Meat Puppets II, and it’s easy to understand why: Nowhere else on the album does the band’s ragged psychedelia sound so sweet but so dangerous. “My whole expanse / I cannot see,” the lyric says – but it sure always sounded like “My hole expands / I cannot see.” And like all of Cobain’s most indelible songs, it seesaws between smart and dumb, leaving the listener to sort out whether to trust the singer or just let him babble his way into oblivion. MIKE POWELL


“Big Cheese”

If Nirvana had their way, the flipside of their debut 7-inch would have been whole lot blander. Engineer Jack Endino has said the group originally recorded “Blandest,” for their Sub Pop Singles Club B-side. “The song is called ‘Blandest’ for a reason,” the engineer said, because they were disgruntled with the fact that Sub Pop big cheese Jonathan Poneman wanted them to record a cover – Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz” – for the A-side. When they were done with the “Blandest” session, they slugged out “Big Cheese,” a heavy, hate-filled invective about Poneman (“He was being so judgmental about what we recorded,” Cobain said), and the track wowed Endino because it was “livelier.” The engineer was able to convince the band to use that as their B-side instead. KORY GROW


“Aero Zeppelin”

Cobain proudly included Aerosmith’s Rocks in the famous list of his top 50 albums, and Cobain and Novoselic listed both Zeppelin and Aerosmith in an ad for a drummer they placed in Seattle rock mag The Rocket. But despite the fact that it often appeared in their early live sets right alongside Zep’s “Immigrant Song,” “Aero Zeppelin” is no mere metalhead homage. Instead it’s more an early example of Cobain’s hunger to find a middle ground between the thunderous swagger of hard rock and punk’s warped idea of catharsis. Its lyrics interrogate what musical fandom means, a central preoccupation of Cobain’s, while the music twists Seventies swagger into new, angrier forms. One of the earliest Nirvana songs, it would show up on Incesticide years after they’d stopped playing it. JON DOLAN



Nirvana’s April 7, 1992 session at Laundry Room Studio, located in a yellow house in West Seattle, marked the band’s very first post-Nevermind recording work. The date, with Laundry Room head Barrett Jones at the helm, yielded three Nirvana deep cuts: “Oh, the Guilt,” a cover of the Wipers’ “Return of the Rat” and this song (though demos of “Frances Farmer” and, possibly, “Very Ape,” were tracked as well). Of the songs, “Curmudgeon” – which is distinguished by the heavy, at times overwhelming, phasing effect added to Kurt’s guitar – was the first to see release, being issued just three months later as a B-side to “Lithium.” RICHARD BIENSTOCK


“Mexican Seafood”

“Mexican Seafood,” was part of Nirvana’s first-ever studio demo, recorded on January 23rd, 1988 with the Melvins’ Dale Crover on drums and producer Jack Endino behind the board. Originally released in 1989 on C/Z Records’ Teriyaki Asthma Vol. 1 (alongside Helios Creed, Coffin Break and Yeast), the song’s choppy guitar chords and Kurt’s pseudo-English accent point to a heavy British post-punk influence (Cobain’s 50 favorite records included Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd. and the Slits among others). The song’s gross-out lyrics, meanwhile, marked the first time that his enduring fascination with bodily functions at their most disgusting made it onto wax. DANIEL EPSTEIN


“Spank Thru”

A good argument can be made for “Spank Thru” as the song that started it all. Dating back to his 1985 Fecal Matter demo, it was the first Cobain-penned song that got Krist Novoselic’s attention, thus kick-starting the formation of Nirvana. “One of the songs on [the tape] was ‘Spank Thru,’” Novoselic recalled in a 1992 interview with WFNX music director Kurt St. Thomas. “He turned me on to it, and I really liked it, it kind of got me excited. So I go, ‘Hey man, let’s start a band.’ We scrounged up a drummer, and we started practicing. Took it very seriously too.” Once the band had mobilized, it became the third Nirvana song to find official release (finding its way on 1988’s Sub Pop 200 compilation) and has continued to make appearances on most of their official live albums. DANIEL EPSTEIN


“Paper Cuts”

Cobain bios overflow with stories of how much Kurt idolized the Melvins, and few songs telegraph that love more than the punishing, titanic “Paper Cuts.” Nirvana drafted then-and-current Melvins drummer Dale Crover to fill in on a 10-song demo while both bands recovered from lineup implosions; three songs from that demo ultimately ended up on Bleach after failed attempts to rerecord them with Chad Channing. “Paper Cuts” bears Crover’s influence the most, infused with his trademark, stop-start concrete thud. The lyrics – inspired by an Aberdeen family who imprisoned their children in a blacked-out room – touch on the suburban atrocities that Cobain would revisit in songs like “Polly,” but the band was never this heavy again. TOM MALLON