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20th Feb 2017

“I think I’m dumb, maybe just happy” – JOE’s Top 10 Nirvana songs

Colm Boohig

Had he lived, Kurt Cobain would have turned 51 on Tuesday 20 February, 2018.

On April 5, 1994 the musical world, the whole world in general, lost an unforgettable talent and icon of the era.

Nirvana were forever tied with heading the Grunge movement, but their influence far exceeded one genre. In the early 1990s, Nirvana defined music and Kurt Cobain was the centrepiece of a cultural movement. His death devastated the world far more than any musician’s demise should.

Like many of you, we’re massive Nirvana fans at JOE. In the past, we’ve come together to each pick our favourite Nirvana tune, discussed the mesmeric Unplugged album, and shared a fantastic anecdote about a band playing in Cork to a modest crowd, right on the eve of becoming global superstars.

As a way of marking Cobain’s birthday, we’re going to attempt the unthinkable and receive widespread backlash by ranking our top 10 favourite Nirvana songs (not counting covers)…

*Reminder: These songs are this JOE’s choices, so feel free to suggest tunes that I criminally omitted.

Right, let’s get down to it…

10. ‘Rape Me’

The fourth track from the band’s third and last studio album, ‘Rape Me’ has a funnily upbeat melody and tone, considering the extremely dark subject matter and lyrics. That has always been a huge part of Nirvana’s appeal; they never stuck to the traditional formula.

This tune was, of course, an anti-rape song, with Cobain lambasting violence against women and a story of a man who gets his comeuppance after committing the crime.

The first 30 seconds alone is reason enough to justify a top ten place for me. The guitar is so catchy and cool here, while you’ll find yourself, unfortunately, having those initial two words, without any sentiment or meaning, stuck in your head for the day after hearing them.

Clip via Martin Flaa

9. ‘Polly’

Like ‘Rape Me’, ‘Polly’ tackles the topic of rape, but unlike the former, ‘Polly’ is more of a lament and considered (I’m especially thinking of the Unplugged version) about a true story of abduction and rape in the 1980s.

Placed slap bang in the middle of the iconic Nevermind, ‘Polly’ slows the pace down nicely but never loses that head-bopping feel.

Funnily enough, Cobain allegedly came in too early just before the third verse, when he sang “Polly said”, but after liking the sound of it, the short mishap was kept in. We’re grateful…

Clip via Andres-ZR

8. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’

Yes, I know that it’s borderline criminal to many people that this song is so low on the top 10 list; after all, it catapulted the band from relatively nowhere to absolutely everywhere in a little over four-and-a-half minutes. That achievement alone is incredible.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the song, I just prefer seven other Nirvana tunes, and that’s testament to the quality composition from messrs; Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic.

Arguably, the most recognisable introduction to a song in modern music history, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is still a cracker to this day.

Clip via NirvanaVEVO

7. ‘About A Girl’

The sole entry from their debut album Bleach (yeah, I know, but this is hard enough as it is), ‘About A Girl’ is a song, well… about a girl. Specifically, it relates to Cobain’s love interest before the Courtney years, Tracy Marander.

Despite Marander, like the rest of us, only discovering this truth years later, the song quickly became an underground hit and was heavily influenced by The Beatles’ sound, with Cobain apparently listening to Meet The Beatles several times over the night before recording.

The band famously opened their Unplugged performance with this track, with Cobain stating, “This is off our first record, most people don’t own it”. If that was true, it all changed after this…

Clip via NirvanaVEVO

6. ‘Dumb’

The sixth song on In Utero and the sixth song on this list, about a song describing people’s acceptance of, and fulfillment in, mediocrity. The tune itself is the furthest thing from average.

In the opposite way to ‘Rape Me’, ‘Dumb’ plays in an ever-so-slightly downbeat and almost mournful way, yet it’s one of the more innocent creations by the lead singer. Once again, the balance between subject and tone is pitch perfect.

There is an endless supply of poignant lyrics to take from this track, but one line has always been a favourite. “Skin the sun, fall asleep, wish away, the soul is cheap, lesson learned, wish me luck, soothe the burn, wake me up.”

Clip via NIRVANA

5. ‘On A Plain’

Out of everyone that I’ve spoken to about Nirvana, one song in particular generates a great deal of nostalgia; that tune for me is ‘On A Plain’.

It constantly takes me back to a specific time in my life (studying for final year college exams) and is a tune I could listen to endlessly.

Yet another classic from Nevermind, there is a significant difference between the album version and the Unplugged rendition. I, personally, opt for the latter, with Cobain’s voice in absolutely top rasping form and the pace set precisely.

Clip via Endlees punk

4. ‘Lithium’

With the exception of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, this track is arguably the best example of a singalong Nirvana tune. It’s hard for anyone, fan or otherwise, not to hum along to the chorus in ‘Lithium’.

It certainly plays as the most upbeat track in the band’s short career. There is a jaunty feel to it; that is until the chorus hits and we’re suddenly treated to the distinctive growls of a man who didn’t want to be like anyone else.

More than anything, this is just a terrific song with an infinite number of magic moments.

Here’s the live version from their much troubled Reading gig in 1992.

Clip via NirvanaVEVO

3. ‘All Apologies’

Beautiful, without being cheesy. Haunting, without being overly knowing. ‘All Apologies’ is a song for any occasion of remembrance and sorrow.

Forever linked with the demise of the man himself, the song is the last tune on Nirvana’s final studio record and sounds like Cobain’s farewell letter to a world he could no longer tolerate.

‘All Apologies’ is one of those songs, for better or for worse, that instantly changes the mood of the listener.

Clip via NirvanaVEVO

2. ‘Heart-Shaped Box’

Inspired after receiving a heart-shaped box full of gifts from Courtney Love, this song is allegedly about the tumultuous relationship between the pair, although the subject matter was always steered toward greater ambiguity by Cobain himself.

Nevertheless, it ranks so highly on this list because of the slow build toward what, even if it’s your first time hearing the song, you know is going to be a thunderous chorus. Then, just as quickly, it’s back to a more considered pace.

That sort of style can be seen in a plethora of bands and acts since then, namely Queens of the Stone Age, but few, if any, replicate it better than this example.

Such a great tune.

Clip via NirvanaVEVO

1. ‘Come As You Are’

The floating gun in the water and that opening slick riff; five seconds that transport me to childhood and watching MTV (back when music was the focus).

‘Come As You Are’ instantly takes me back to the 90s, long hair and disillusionment that was the flavour of the day on TV. To be honest, I was too young for that particular movement, but I remember loving this song long before I appreciated the significance of Nirvana. That was the impact it had.

Additionally, for anyone trying to learn guitar, you’d do a lot worse than starting with this tune; you’ll nail it in a couple of sessions. Then you’ll have to deal the problem/luxury of everyone requesting that you play the whole thing at every house party, ever.

Actually, yeah, better off just listening to it.

Clip via NirvanaVEVO

(Very) Honourable mentions: ‘In Bloom’ (Nevermind), ‘Blew’ (Bleach), ‘Something in the Way’ (Nevermind), ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ (In Utero), ‘Breed’ (Nevermind).

Cover image via The Indian Express.

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