Every song on Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind,’ ranked
Nirvana's 'Nevermind' turns 30 today and it's getting a massive reissue. In honor of the anniversary, we've ranked its songs from least great to most great.
It's September 24, 2021 and that means Nevermind is 30 years old. It had already become classic rock; now it's older than classic rock was when Nevermind came out. ("Love Me Do," The Beatles' debut single, was 29 when Nevermind came out.) Still, it sounds entirely modern, because we're still living in the world that Nevermind created. It was the album that changed everything -- not just for punk, indie, alternative, rock, and certain styles of metal, but for all of popular music. Nevermind brought the underground to the mainstream, and in doing so, it helped create an environment in which the lines between pop music and alternative music became blurrier and blurrier over time. We live in a world where Halsey works with Nine Inch Nails and Miley Cyrus covers Bikini Kill because Nevermind busted those walls down in 1991. There is a very distinct difference between the pre-Nevermind music world and the post-Nevermind music world, and we haven't seen another rock album shake up the world the way that one did since.
As innovative as Nevermind was, Nirvana had their obvious influences that came through in the music -- sometimes very unsubtly -- but the way they combined those influences was groundbreaking, and Kurt Cobain's voice, words, melodies, guitar riffs, and philosophies spoke to and shaped an entire generation. Whether or not you think Nirvana were the best alternative rock band (they were) or Nevermind was their best album (it wasn't; In Utero was), no other alternative rock album had its impact. In the wake of its success, major labels scoured alternative music scenes looking for the "next Nirvana," but efforts were futile. There was not, and will probably never be a "next Nirvana." A band like Nirvana and a songwriter like Kurt comes along once in a lifetime (or less). Plenty of other bands tried to rip them off, but none brought the same nuances to their music that Kurt did.
It's hard to think of what more can possibly be said about an album that's been this iconic for 30 years straight, so in lieu of writing a retrospective album review, I've decided to take on the nearly-impossible task of ranking every song on the album from least great to most great. The virtually-flawless album has no real filler, and even its most iconic single is rivaled by some of its deepest cuts, so putting them in a ranked order did not come easy. There are 13 songs on Nevermind, and I'm sure if you polled Nirvana fans about their favorite track on the album you'd get 13 different answers. My own answer has changed several times, and I'm sure if I did this ranking five years ago or five years from now I'd come up with a different order.
Read on for the list below, and argue away. Various editions of the new reissue are available in our store.
13. "Lounge Act"
Even the best albums have to technically have a worst song, right? Plenty of bands would be lucky to come up with a song as good as "Lounge Act," but for Nirvana's standards, I'd give it maybe a B+. Apparently the song title comes from the song's riff sounding like a lounge band, and Nirvana can be a lot of things, but "loungey" isn't really one of them. Still, when it explodes into the chorus, it's just as cathartic and life-affirming as Nirvana's best songs.
12. "Endless, Nameless"
The noisy, unpolished "Endless, Nameless" was Nevermind's hidden track in the CD era (but a regular track in the digital era), and maybe it's not the most fun Nirvana song to throw on at a party, but it's great to hear Nirvana tipping their hats to noisy influences like Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, and Flipper at the tail-end of their most polished album. They'd incorporate noise rock more seamlessly into their music on In Utero, but "Endless, Nameless" remains a fine example of Nirvana's ability to churn out musical freakouts with no attention paid to melody or structure. Tacking it on as a hidden track might've seemed like a gag for another band, but Nirvana took this song seriously and often did fiery performances of it to close out their shows (and smash their instruments during, as Kurt also did while recording this song). It's a crucial part of the Nirvana story.
11. "Stay Away"
Kurt actually sings the line "less is more" in this song, and "Stay Away" is one of many Nirvana songs that proves it. It was originally titled "Pay To Play" and featured different lyrics (that version was released on the DGC Rarities Vol. 1 compilation in 1994), and the Nevermind version took it from a three-word chorus to a two-word chorus. The song followed a formula Kurt used a few times: a short verse and an even shorter chorus, played over and over, and somehow never sounding repetitive. The verse also utilizes another loved-by-Kurt-Cobain trick of bending his voice and his guitar at the same time (on "I don't know why I"), resulting in that trademark angsty sneer that he did so well. It's a masterful, deceptively simple song, and still only one of the least best on Nevermind.
10. "Come As You Are"
Not to come off as a contrarian by ranking one of Nevermind's biggest songs fourth to last, but "Come As You Are" is a great song that just isn't as great as most of Nevermind! Maybe I'm swayed by it being overplayed, but all four of Nevermind's singles are overplayed and this is the one I'm least inclined to revisit on my own. I don't hold its similarity to Killing Joke's "Eighties" (or The Damned's even older "Life Goes On") against it though; the guitar riffs are similar, but Kurt really made the song his own, and it's driven by so much more than the main guitar riff. It's Kurt's melodies (especially the "Memoria" and "And I swear that I don't have a gun" hooks), it's Dave Grohl's drum fills in the refrain, it's Kurt's vocal-melody-as-guitar-solo. "Come As You Are" is an all-time great example that "good artists borrow, great artists steal." Kurt took a stolen guitar riff and made a mini-masterpiece.
9. "On A Plain"
Coming near the end of the album after two of the album's relatively weaker songs, "On A Plain" is the sleeper hit on Nevermind and one of its most underrated songs. Kurt was an expert at fusing pop melodies with punk aggression, and "On A Plain" was one of his best examples of this. It's a punchy song that would get any crowd bouncing around, but the vocal harmonies are downright pretty -- it's no surprise that this one translated well on MTV Unplugged, and it's Nevermind's only non-ballad that they included that night. It sounds like it could have been a huge hit -- especially later in the '90s as punk and pop continued to intermingle on the charts -- but for Nirvana it was a deep cut.
8. "Territorial Pissings"
(In)famously, on Tonight With Jonathan Ross in 1991, Nirvana were supposed to play their radio-friendly hit "Lithium," but instead they played this rager, smashed their instruments, and walked off stage. When the camera comes back to Jonathan Ross, it's clear that he was not in on it and had no idea what to make of it. It's one of the most badass musical moments in late night TV history, and it was so effective because "Territorial Pissings" was nothing like the Nirvana songs on the radio and MTV. It's one of their few straight-up punk songs, and by including it on their breakthrough album, they gave mainstream rock listeners a direct look at the punk underground. Unlike hidden track "Endless, Nameless," this one's right smack in the middle of the album, and as much as it's a ferocious punk song that ends in out-of-key screaming, it's also just as lyrically and melodically rich as their poppier songs. Even when Kurt was trying to freak out pop listeners, he couldn't help but write catchy melodies.
7. "In Bloom"
Kurt was a natural-born songwriter, but Nirvana didn't become Nirvana until Dave Grohl joined, and "In Bloom" features one of his most iconic contributions to the band. Even if you just heard the drum track to this song without anything else, you'd know exactly what song you were listening to. Dave's drums were just as melodic as Kurt's voice. On top of that, Nirvana employed expert use of the loud-quiet-loud dynamics that they learned from the Pixies, and Dave Grohl also came in handy with the iconic vocal harmonies in the chorus. Lyrically, the song was a dig at all the new fans Nirvana were gaining who didn't get where the band was coming from. And yet, the song was so infectious and became so popular that even today it's sung around the world by people who know not what it means.
The first great ballad that Nirvana released was Bleach's "About A Girl," but "Polly" was in the works since before that album had even come out. Multiple recordings of it exist (including the full-band "new wave" version on Incesticide), and the one that ended up on Nevermind came from the band's storied 1990 Smart Studios sessions with producer Butch Vig, back when Chad Channing was still Nirvana's drummer. (That's Chad hitting the cymbal in the beginning of the chorus.) There's almost nothing to it besides Kurt's simple acoustic guitar, Krist Novoselic following the chord progression on his bass, and Kurt's voice, but that's all it needs to be one of the most impactful songs in Nirvana's discography. Kurt wrote it after reading about a teenage girl who was abducted, raped, and tortured, and pretended to enjoy what was happening to catch the man off guard and escape. It's a devastating story of survival, and a far cry from the hyper-masculine cock rock that Nirvana had always been reacting against.
5. "Drain You"
If there's one non-single on Nevermind that really deserved the single treatment, it's this one. It so perfectly captures the distinct Nirvana sound, and it features some of Kurt's most alluring words and melodies. The interplay between Kurt's power chord riff and Dave's pounding drums is as effective as "In Bloom" and "Teen Spirit," and it's a song that grabs you from the first second and never lets go. If any other band wrote this in the wake of Nevermind's success, their label would be begging them to release it as a single, but for Nirvana, it's merely one of the best album tracks on one of the best albums of all time. Also, bonus points for the psychedelic, Sonic Youth-y bridge.
Nevermind's production and the contributions from new member Dave Grohl made it look like a huge leap from Bleach on the surface, but a lot of Kurt's songwriting ideas are closer to his Bleach songs than they might've seemed, and some Nevermind songs even date back to the Bleach era, like "Breed," which Nirvana began playing live just a few months after Bleach's release. "Breed" suggests that some slightly cleaner production might've made Bleach a big hit too, and its inclusion on Nevermind brought the feel of Nirvana's Sub Pop era to their Geffen-aided fame. It's fueled by a rager guitar riff, melodies you can't get out of your head, and lyrical mystique, and it feels like one of Nirvana's most authentic songs. Before they even had the slightest idea that mainstream success was a possibility, this is the kind of music they were focused on making.
3. "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Kurt was afraid everyone would call it a Pixies ripoff; he had no idea he'd reach an audience so mainstream that people actually called it a Boston ripoff. But the truth was that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" wasn't ripping off anybody. That iconic guitar riff, Dave Grohl's iconic drum fill (which, in his words, was a Gap Band ripoff), Krist's rock-solid bassline holding it down in the verses, and the explosive chorus made it the song of a generation purely because of how powerful it was. Geffen Records didn't give this song a huge push; they assumed "Come As You Are" would be the bigger single. But "Teen Spirit" took off because it came at exactly the right time and it captured something that a whole lot of people were craving without even knowing it. It's not the very best song on Nevermind, but it's close, and the real miracle is that it never feels outplayed. I don't always choose to put this one on at home, but every time I hear someone put it on, it feels like the very first time. It's eternal.
"Teen Spirit" is Nevermind's most iconic single, but "Lithium" is its most impressive. Kurt always had a way with utilizing atypical chord progressions within the context of straightforward punk, but "Lithium" took that a step further, casually changing key right in the middle of its iconic guitar pattern. It's another fine example of Nirvana's loud-quiet-loud dynamics, Dave Grohl's perfectly timed drum fills, and Kurt's vivid lyrics, but for all the imagery present in the verses, Kurt delivers the chorus of a lifetime with one simple word: "yeah." Almost every song on this album felt big, but "Lithium" felt like a mini epic, a punk rocker's attempt at the kind of pop experimentalism that The Beatles were doing on Sgt. Pepper, an album Kurt knowingly admired.
1. "Something In The Way"
Nevermind is an album that brought aggressive underground rock to the mainstream, so it might seem weird to claim its best song is a quiet one, but not when that quiet song is as monumental as "Something In The Way." As legend has it, Nirvana were trying to record the song in the studio with the full band but couldn't get it right, so Kurt sat on a couch with his acoustic guitar and showed Butch Vig how it should go. Realizing what he needed to do, Butch mic'd Kurt up on the couch right then and there and had him play it again with the tape rolling, without any other band member or a click track. Kurt hadn't even fully tuned his guitar. The somber, haunting recording was perfectly imperfect, exactly what this song needed to be. Dave Grohl needed to figure out how to record his drums along with Kurt's slightly out-of-time performance, and cellist Kirk Canning needed to figure out how to play along with Kurt's slightly out-of-tune guitar, but they did, and the cello gave the song an even greater sense of melancholy. Lyrically, Kurt sings of being homeless and living under a bridge. Like many rock myths, the level of truth is debated, but the imagery in the song is too powerful to worry about truth. Whenever you hear the song, you picture a not-yet-famous Kurt curled up under a bridge with nothing but a ripped tarp and wild animals, and it works as a powerful depiction of Kurt's poverty-stricken youth, even if it's exaggerated. It sounded like a punk interpretation of On The Beach or Leonard Cohen, and it was a few years before the slowcore movement made those types of influences a key part of '90s indie rock. Nirvana never made a song like this again, but they perfected it on the first try.
Stream Nevermind below and pick up one of the various editions of the new reissue here.