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15 Great Covers of Nirvana Songs (by other artists)

NEXT: NIRVANA’S 15 BEST NON-ALBUM SONGS, NIRVANA’S 10 BEST COVER SONGS, 15 SONGS THAT INFLUENCED NIRVANA (probably)

St Vincent Nirvana
St. Vincent with Nirvana members at 2014 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony (photo by Kevin Mazur, via Nirvana Facebook)

We’ve been running some Nirvana lists here on BrooklynVegan in the past week or so. We already posted Nirvana’s 15 Best Non-Album Songs and Nirvana’s 10 Best Cover Songs and now here’s 15 great covers of Nirvana songs by other artists.

Nirvana’s cover songs were often as crucial as their originals, and there have been tons of excellent covers of Nirvana’s songs by other artists released over the years too. Just looking at a list of artists who have covered them shows how far their influence stretched. Their music impacted not just other heavy rock bands, but a diverse list of artists that ranges from Tori Amos to Tricky and beyond. There are countless bands who have done faithful renditions of Nirvana songs, but the covers with the most longevity — and the ones I suspect Kurt himself would have liked the most — are the ones that do something new with the song. Nirvana had a very distinct sound, but the melodies they wrote transcended genre. Those melodies have been interpreted by artists across folk, jazz, soul, modern classical, extreme metal, and more; it seems like they work in almost any genre of music. For this list, I’ve put together 15 Nirvana covers by other artists that I really think do justice to the originals in interesting ways. Of course, there are many others not on this list — and probably even more that I’ve never heard — so it’s by no means a definitive list, just a selection of especially great ones that are worth revisiting or checking out for the first time.

Check out my list below (in no real order). What’s your favorite cover of a Nirvana song?

The Polyphonic Spree – “Lithium”

This list is not ranked, but this is my absolute favorite cover of a Nirvana song. Not only does it reimagine the song with a drastically different arrangement than any Nirvana song ever had, but it does what almost no other rendition of a Nirvana song does: it makes Nirvana’s music sound happy. The Polyphonic Spree take the guitar/bass/drums rock song and flesh it out with their usual orchestral, choral indie rock arrangements, and they take the downer, angst-ridden vibes of the original and turn them into something that sounds genuinely uplifting. In the music video for the song, the band’s 20 or so members (Dave Grohl-resembling harp player included) and the crowd are all bouncing up and down and smiling and looking like they’re having the most gleeful times of their lives, and that’s exactly how this cover makes you feel.

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Tori Amos – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Tori Amos released this piano-fueled cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” just a year after the original came out (it was a B-side to the “Crucify” single from her debut album Little Earthquakes) and Kurt himself was a fan. Apparently he and Courtney used to dance around in their house to this song. It’s easy to see why they liked it so much; it’s an absolutely gorgeous rendition. It’s the opposite approach of the Polyphonic Spree cover; instead of heavily arranging the song, it strips it down to its most basic ingredients, and it really shows how much interesting melodic work Nirvana were doing underneath all the noise. With just Tori and her piano, she communicates the song just as effectively as Nirvana did with blasting amps, pounding drums, and Kurt’s roaring vocals.

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St. Vincent with Nirvana members – “Lithium”

Not sure if this entirely counts as a “cover” since Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and touring guitarist Pat Smear were all involved, but it’s too awesome to not include. Not only does it sound great, but St. Vincent (who at one point was also a Polyphonic Spree member) carries on the spirit of Nirvana more than most modern artists. She’s a genuinely innovative rock musician, a killer guitarist, and a singer with a voice that sounds like no one else, so when she sang this song with Nirvana’s surviving members at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, she effortlessly made it her own. Given the occasion, the point was probably to mostly play these songs the way fans remember them, and that’s what they did, but just hearing St. Vincent sing this song is enough to get excited about. Plus, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic bringing a comparatively smaller indie act like St. Vincent on stage at an event as mainstream as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (instead of a fellow veteran grunge giant) is the most Nirvana thing to do ever.

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Jessica Lea Mayfield – “Lounge Act”

“Lounge Act” is one of the punchier, punkier songs on Nevermind, but in Jessica Lea Mayfield’s hands, it’s a swaying, twangy country rock ballad. She recorded it for SPIN’s Newermind tribute album, and it’s one of the more inventive covers on that compilation. Jessica really turns the song into something new, bringing out the best in Kurt’s vocal melodies and applying them to an entirely different arrangement. The results are nearly as fun to listen to as the original.

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Sinead O’Connor – “All Apologies”

Sinead O’Connor, who knew Kurt personally, paid tribute to him a few months after his death with a stripped-down acoustic cover of “All Apologies” on her 1994 album Universal Mother. The original was one of Nirvana’s most somber songs, it was their last single released before Kurt’s death, and it was the final original song that Nirvana played at their MTV Unplugged concert. In some ways, it sort of functioned as Kurt’s “goodbye” song, so it made sense that Sinead chose this one to honor him with. And her version is even quieter and more melancholic than the one Nirvana played on Unplugged. She’s just barely strumming her guitar and singing at a hushed whisper, yet the impact is massive. In certain ways, Sinead’s version is even more powerful than the original.

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Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra – “Polly”

Like the above-mentioned Jessica Lea Mayfield cover, Amanda Palmer was asked to do this for SPIN’s Newermind tribute album, but Amanda enjoyed making it enough that she ended up releasing it as a single and making a video for it on her own too. She spoke a bit about the choice to do “Polly” around the time she made the video: “when i was first asked to do a cover of a song from ‘nevermind,’ SPIN sent me a list of tracks that were still available (i think there were 5 left) and eric sussman, in my management, wrote back immediately saying ‘WTF NOBODY’S TAKEN POLLY???’ and that set my brain on the track to think about how the band could possibly cover the song.” She ended up giving it a glockenspiel and banjo-fueled baroque pop arrangement that takes the song in all sorts of new directions. It still has the desperation of the original, but it’s much more complex and unpredictable. And Amanda Palmer’s soaring voice is perfect for it.

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Hole – “You Know You’re Right”

Seven years before Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” was finally released as a single (on the 2002 greatest hits album), Hole performed a version of it on MTV Unplugged. For a while it was the only known version of the song besides a rough-sounding live bootleg of Nirvana playing it at a 1993 show, but even with the original out in the world, Hole’s version stands tall on its own. It’s one of Nirvana’s slower, more stadium-ready songs (in a non-cheesy way), and Courtney Love’s rasp is perfect for it. She really captured just about the same level of emotion as Kurt did when he sung it, and the song sounds genuinely pretty with the acoustic arrangement that Hole brought to it on Unplugged. If this song had been finished already, it would’ve sounded perfect in Nirvana’s own legendary Unplugged performance, but it sounds pretty great in Hole’s too.

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Robert Glasper Experiment – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Robert Glasper is one of the most forward-thinking, innovative modern jazz musicians around, and his musical expertise also stretches far beyond jazz. He frequently branches out into hip hop, and he’s done some work within the realm of rock too, having covered David Bowie, Radiohead, and others, as well as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which is on Robert Glasper Experiment’s 2012 album Black Radio). He gives the song a psychedelic, jazzy arrangement that branches out pretty far from the original’s iconic chord progression, but has a vocoder performance from Casey Benjamin that keeps the vocal melody of the original entirely intact. It’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” like you’ve never heard it before, and it’s more than just a cool experiment to see if it could work as a jazz song. Glasper’s version of “Teen Spirit” is up there with any of his best original compositions as truly creative, tranquilizing jazz.

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Thou – “Something In The Way”

The line between grunge and sludge metal was so blurry to begin with that it’s no surprise that Nirvana have influenced a ton of sludge bands, including Baton Rouge’s great Thou, who proudly flaunt their love of grunge. They’ve done a handful of Nirvana covers, but the one that’s most interesting is “Something In The Way,” because that’s a song you maybe wouldn’t expect Thou to do. It’s one of Nirvana’s slowest, quietest songs, and Thou start the cover off by following suit with their own quiet rendition. But once they get to the chorus, they stomp on the distortion and work in the harsh screams that are more indicative of Thou’s usual sound. It’s an awesome mix — it’s cool to hear how this folk-inspired song sounds awesome as a sludge metal song too, and it’s always nice to hear Thou exploring their heavy side and their soft side in the same song. They really nailed it on this one.

Patti Smith – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Legendary punk poet Patti Smith released the covers album Twelve in 2007, and while most of the songs she covers were by artists who predated her own career, she picked a few songs that came later on, including Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” While Patti has made some dirty, noisy, punk-inspired sounds of her own over the years, she turns “Teen Spirit” into a jangly indie folk song, fleshed out by banjos, fiddles, accordion, and more. (It almost sounds more like Neutral Milk Hotel or early Arcade Fire than what you might’ve thought “Patti Smith covering Nirvana” would sound like.) It’s cool to hear a legend from punk’s first wave paying tribute to a song from a much younger punk generation to begin with, but this cover isn’t just great for that reason. Patti uses Nirvana’s original as a starting point, but then goes off script into the kind of freeform poetry that she perfected in the 1970s, adding a full new verse of lyrics to the song that pair brilliantly with Kurt’s.

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Lana Del Rey – “Heart-Shaped Box”

Lana Del Rey, who is now tight with Courtney Love (who once told Lana “next time you sing [“Heart-Shaped Box”], think about my vagina will you?”), has covered “Heart-Shaped Box” a handful of times on tour, and it’s no surprise that this song is a natural fit for Lana. Lana’s own music leans towards sweeping, dramatic melancholy, and “Heart-Shaped Box” is the perfect song for that kind of thing. Her band brings in some of the grungy guitars of the original on the chorus, but mostly Lana makes this song sound like one of her own. Her airy, moody delivery is perfect for the song’s verses, and in the choruses she lets out a wailing, powerhouse delivery that she rarely shows off in her own songs. It’s not much like Kurt Cobain’s grit or like Lana’s usual music, and it’s awesome.

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Ramin Djawadi – “Heart-Shaped Box”

Ramin Djawadi composes the music for HBO’s Westworld (and Game of Thrones and a lot of other stuff), which features instrumental player piano versions of popular rock songs that were released about 200 years after Westworld takes place, and one of my favorites from the series is Djawadi’s version of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” I recently wrote about how, underneath all the noise, Nirvana wrote breathtaking melodies that went far beyond the realm of punk or grunge, and hearing their music performed like this makes that very clear. Djawadi’s cover starts out with the minimal piano that’s typical of Westworld covers, and it turns into a triumphant orchestral piece that would impress the most scholarly composers. But the melodies weren’t written by someone who was classically trained at all; they were written by Kurt Cobain, and they’re still so effective in this context.

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Tricky – “Something in the Way”

One of the weirder Nirvana covers you’ll hear is trip-hop vet Tricky’s rendition of “Something In The Way” that he recorded for his 2001 album Blowback. With a hypnotic song structure that’s nothing like the original, Tricky sings it in a way that’s closer to dancehall, but still with the darkness of Nirvana’s original intact. Kurt just barely moans the words on the original, but Tricky gives them a more soaring performance and does them plenty of justice. As with the above-mentioned Robert Glasper cover of “Teen Spirit,” it’s a nice balance between a familiar vocal melody and an instrumental that’s nearly unrecognizable as a Nirvana song.

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Torche – “In Bloom”

Torche are one of a handful of modern bands who are keeping the sound of Nirvana and their ilk alive, but not really getting enough attention for it outside of niche music circles. As I wrote in the Thou blurb above, the line between grunge and sludge metal has always been blurry, and that couldn’t be more true in Torche’s case. Unlike Thou, Torche always use clean vocals and they write genuinely catchy songs. A handful of their songs could’ve been hits if they came out in the ’90s, so it’s no surprise that they sound great playing this actual ’90s hit. Torche add their usual blown-out fuzz sound to the song, but they mostly play it straight and keep it faithful to the original. Their version doesn’t really reinvent anything, but it’s cool to hear how natural they sound doing it. It makes it even more evident that Torche’s sludge-pop is just a hair removed from ’90s grunge.

Kristin Hersh – “Pennyroyal Tea”

As a member of Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh helped define the type of alternative rock that Nirvana would bring into the mainstream (and her Throwing Muses bandmate Tanya Donelly was also a member of Kurt’s beloved Breeders), so it was cool to find out that Kristin liked Nirvana’s music enough to cover it alongside a Beatles cover for the B-side to her 1999 single “Echo.” Kristin’s version follows the same loud-quiet-loud formula as the original, but she puts her own unique twist on it and it’s just so awesome to hear how she roars those choruses. Nirvana ended up getting lumped in with a lot of hard rock bands that they hated, but Kristin Hersh’s semi-faithful version of “Pennyroyal Tea” reminds you that their own music rarely drifted far from the classic indie rock bands that Nirvana felt the most kinship with.

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FOR MORE NIRVANA LISTS:
* NIRVANA’S 15 BEST NON-ALBUM SONGS

* NIRVANA’S 10 BEST COVER SONGS

* 15 SONGS THAT INFLUENCED NIRVANA (probably)

Listen to a Spotify playlist of some of the above-listed covers of Nirvana songs (not all are on Spotify):

Check It Out

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