Top 10 Nirvana Songs Better Than ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Few bands had an industry-changing impact as immediate as Nirvana did when their major label debut, Nevermind, was released in September 1991. The opening track and lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” seemingly single-handedly kicked off the alternative revolution that dominated the ’90s and still holds an influence on modern rock years after frontman Kurt Cobain‘s 1994 suicide.
And while their career was brief — three studio albums, an outtakes-and-rarities compilation and the MTV Unplugged record between 1989 and 1994 — the Seattle band’s catalog has a lot more depth than you would think. It certainly goes beyond “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song that made Nirvana a household name. Here’s a list of 10 songs that (in our humble opinion) are better than that hit.
‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’
On the whole, In Utero wasn’t exactly the most commercial album, which Cobain knew; in fact, it almost seemed like he reveled in its abrasive nature. Case in point: The distortion-scratchy “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” a decidedly harsh song that began life as a direct response to the critical feeding frenzy post-“Teen Spirit.”
‘(New Wave) Polly’
The version of “Polly” on Nevermind is somber and stark, a style that plays up the song’s sinister undertones. On the rarities compilation Incesticide, however, the song becomes an ’80s hardcore-reminiscent punk tune with gritty production and shattering drums.
‘Verse Chorus Verse’ / ‘Sappy’
As part of the No Alternative benefit compilation, this song was commonly referred to as “Verse Chorus Verse.” However, the song is more precisely a version of the early song “Sappy” recorded ca. In Utero. Regardless of the name, the song is the kind of catchy bubblegum grunge at which Nirvana excelled, with boomeranging guitars and a rubbery beat matching Cobain’s pleading vocals.
‘On a Plain’
In hindsight, the non-singles on Nevermind have turned out to be the best songs on the record. Take ‘On a Plain,’ a three-minute homage to the crashing power-pop of the Pixies that has an underbelly of delicate, humming harmonies. The tranquil vibe of the song is unique to the record, and underscores Cobain’s ability to merge beauty and noise.
Cobain wasn’t shy about his love for classic rock; he was a self-professed fan of David Bowie, Aerosmith, the Beatles, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, to name a few. On Nirvana’s debut, Bleach, his love for hesher rock is evident in the song “Negative Creep,” which matches desperate punk energy with wicked stoner-metal riffs.
‘The Man Who Sold The World’
Hundreds of artists have covered David Bowie, but Nirvana’s Unplugged version of “The Man Who Sold the World” is something else. Cobain’s physical frailty permeates the song, from his trembling guitar to his resigned vocals. The small army of fluttering acoustic guitars and a mournful cello only add more of a sense of mortality to the performance. Haunted and haunting — just as Bowie would want it.
Throughout their career, Nirvana had the odd nod to bratty garage-pop interspersed within their catalog. Their debut 45 “Love Buzz” was one; the bass-heavy early song “Sliver” was another. Originally released as a single in 1990, the immaculate two-minute shimmy is childlike in tone — perhaps because of the repeated refrain, “Grandma, take me home” — but decidedly ferocious and mature musically.
Much like “On a Plain,” “Drain You” is (at heart) a noisy power-pop song. What elevates this song is its tension — the way the simple opening guitar riff explodes into Dave Grohl‘s drums, the molasses-like tempo decrease at the end of the chorus, unexpected bursts of harmony and the simmering bridge full of hissing sound effects that eventually — gloriously — gives way to the clattering ending.
After Nirvana revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll, what did they do next? Release “Heart-Shaped Box.” The snarling radio hit magnified the quiet aspects of their sound into menace, and teased their louder side into something wiry and unhinged. “Pennyroyal Tea” might be a more memorable song, but in terms of sheer chaos and mainstream subversion, “Heart-Shaped Box” wins, hands down.
The video for “In Bloom” — which toyed with and slyly commented on the band’s teen idol image — alone made this song unique. But the tune itself is a smart, well-crafted piece of music. Whereas “Teen Spirit” zeroes in on primal angst and howling catharsis, “In Bloom” trades in measured, rational confusion; roiling, Fugazi-like bass and slo-mo punk signifiers give way to a chorus that’s at once raspy and beautiful. A bridge between the ’80s underground and ’90s alternative nation, “In Bloom” is ambiguous and mysterious.