Nirvana’s 10 Best Cover Songs
We recently posted a list of Nirvana's 15 best non-album songs. Continuing right along, we now present their 10 best cover songs. As good as Kurt Cobain was at songwriting, he was also a master of interpreting the work of others. His covers were rarely straightforward renditions -- they almost always brought something new to the song and were sometimes even better than the originals. Their choice in cover songs were also always as crucial as the performances themselves. Save for a few Zeppelin covers, Nirvana rarely covered songs that were already very popular, and in the rare cases that they did (like one Beatles cover included below), they would change it up significantly.
Their covers were often a way Nirvana used their status as a huge mainstream band to shine a light on the punk and indie bands who influenced them, who hadn't fully gotten the attention they deserved, like The Vaselines, Meat Puppets, and Wipers. They also covered lesser known deep cuts by David Bowie and Devo, unsung blues legend Lead Belly, obscure proto-metal like Thunder and Roses, and more. A lot of these songs and/or artists got significant boosts after Nirvana covered them, and -- with all due respect to the original songwriters -- some of these songs are now inseparable from Nirvana. Nirvana's covers were as crucial to the overall Nirvana story and discography as the band's best original songs, and it'd be impossible to discuss their legacy without mentioning these songs. The Nirvana recordings of them are truly iconic.
Check out my picks for Nirvana's 10 best cover songs below. What's your favorite Nirvana cover song?
10. "Here She Comes Now" (The Velvet Underground)
In 1990, towards the end of the era with Chad Channing on drums, Nirvana teamed up with their pals the Melvins for a split single of Velvet Underground covers. Melvins did a noisy take on "Venus In Furs" from VU's 1967 debut The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Nirvana took on "Here She Comes Now" from their 1968 sophomore LP White Light/White Heat. (Nirvana's cover also appeared on the compilation Heaven & Hell - A Tribute To The Velvet Underground - Volume One.) Their version is over twice as long as the original, and though it starts off as one of Nirvana's more straightforward covers, they eventually turn it into something that sounds like no band in the world besides Nirvana. They apply their trademark loud-quiet-loud formula to the song, with the first more faithful half being "quiet" and the second half very much being "loud." As the volume increases, Kurt goes off script and starts busting out throat-shredding, off-key screams and dissonant guitar solos, before the whole band just locks into a jam, with some sharp improvised basslines from Krist Novoselic. Considering VU were basically the inventors of atonal, unstructured noise rock, this was a fitting tribute.
9. "White Lace and Strange" (Thunder and Roses)
Philly's Thunder and Roses released just one album in 1969, King Of The Black Sunrise, before calling it quits. Singer/guitarist Chris Bond went on to play with Hall & Oates, but Thunder and Roses remained in obscurity, and they're still there today. But even if they aren't a household name, their heavy, psychedelic sound was a clear precedent to a lot of metal, stoner rock, garage rock, etc, and their album's opening track "White Lace and Strange" found its way into the hands of Nirvana, who covered it during their first radio session for Olympia's KAOS-FM in 1987, along with some of their own obscure early originals. The original is more psychedelic and Cream-like, but Nirvana turned it into something that sounded much more like what we now know of as grunge. Even this early on, Kurt's guitar playing had that swampy, flannel-wearing sound that Nirvana became known for, and it gives the song a much dirtier, heavier vibe than the original. And Kurt's vocals only slightly hint at the '60s-style singing of the original. He sings it like he wrote it, with all the angst his own much darker songs had. You could hear the psych-rock influence of songs like this coming through on early Nirvana originals like "Blew" and "Blandest," and if you didn't know any better, you might think they wrote "White Lace and Strange" too.
8. "Return of the Rat" (Wipers)
Portland punks Wipers were one of Kurt's favorite bands -- he included their first three albums on his top 50 albums of all time list -- and it's not hard to hear how much of an impact they had on Nirvana and grunge in general. In addition to singing their praises, Nirvana covered a couple of Wipers songs back in the day, including "Return of the Rat" for the 1992 Wipers tribute album Eight Songs For Greg Sage. The original might pass as "proto-grunge," but Nirvana's version is about as grunge as it gets. In place of the revved-up punk guitar strums of the original, Kurt gives a thicker, fuzzier, more muscular performance, and in place of Greg Sage's nervy vocal delivery, Kurt gives the song his usual, grittier twist. Nothing but love for the original, but Nirvana's version really rips in a way that Wipers' doesn't. It's as good a representation of Nirvana's fast punk side as anything.
7. "Turnaround" (Devo)
It's pretty well-known now within indie circles that Devo were more than "the band with the silly red hats who wrote 'Whip it,'" but that wasn't always obvious, and it probably wasn't obvious to many Nirvana fans when they covered "Turn Around" (rewritten as "Turnaround") in 1992. The original was the B-side to "Whip It," and it's very much in the arty synthpop/post-punk style of Freedom of Choice-era Devo, but Nirvana's version was nearly unrecognizable as a Devo song. They made the peppy rhythms of the original more militant, turned up the distortion to 11, and punked up their delivery to the point where the song sounded more like '80s hardcore than '80s new wave. It's a complete reimagining of the song, and even today it's one of the more unexpected manifestations of Devo's influence.
6. "And I Love Her" (The Beatles)
One of the biggest gems of the 2015 Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck was this unearthed Kurt solo acoustic cover of The Beatles' "And I Love Her." This is one of the most popular songs Kurt or Nirvana ever covered, but Kurt's version sounds absolutely nothing like the original. The original is a romantic ballad, while Kurt's bare-bones bedroom-folk version is raw and haunting, more like Nirvana's "Something In The Way" than anything by 1964-era Beatles. It's one of those covers that takes a song you've heard a million times and makes it feel like you're hearing it for the very first time. It's also one of Kurt's finest folk-leaning recordings. It's clear from songs like "Something In The Way" and from much of MTV Unplugged (more on that below) that Kurt would've been just as great at being a Leonard Cohen-style folk singer as he was at being a rock frontman (and rumor has it that he was working on a solo album before he passed), and his interpretation of "And I Love Her" does a great job of scratching that itch for more folky Kurt Cobain.
5. "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam" (The Vaselines)
As much as Kurt loved punk, he was possibly the biggest cheerleader for Scottish indie pop band The Vaselines, who broke up before Nirvana hit it big but have been reunited for a while and probably have Nirvana to thank for tons of their fans. Nirvana covered The Vaselines a few times, and one of their most moving covers was the version of "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam" (retitled "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam") that they performed on MTV Unplugged In New York in 1993. As the story has been told time and time again, most artists used MTV Unplugged as an opportunity to play stripped-down versions of their biggest hits, but Nirvana turned the corporate television show into a piece of art, constructing a setlist of only the songs that they thought would sound best acoustic (no "Teen Spirit") and playing covers that were mostly obscure to much of MTV's audience. The first cover in the set was this gorgeous rendition of this Vaselines classic. The original is among The Vaselines' slower songs, but Nirvana really leaned into treating this one as a ballad, and the results continue to be stunning today. As with all of the covers Nirvana did on unplugged, Kurt sang it like he wrote it, filling his voice with as much genuine emotion as possible. It's just different enough from the original that you need both versions in your life, but it's similar enough that it would have been immediately obvious to Nirvana fans how much they would also love The Vaselines. It's the perfect mix of doing a song justice while also rivaling the original.
4. "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" (Lead Belly)
Kurt filled every cover he did on MTV Unplugged with genuine emotion, but that was never more true than it was on this version of blues legend Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" (more often titled "In The Pines"). Kurt, Krist Novoselic, and Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel originally recorded a handful of Lead Belly covers in 1989, but most went unreleased except "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" which ended up on Mark Lanegan's 1990 debut solo album. That version (with Lanegan singing lead) is great too, but the one Nirvana did on MTV Unplugged is truly heartbreaking. They ended their set with it, and by the time Kurt starts screaming the words towards the end of the song, it's one of the rawest forms of emotion that Nirvana ever displayed. No matter how many times I watch them perform it, I'm left speechless by the end.
3. "The Man Who Sold the World" (David Bowie)
Nirvana didn't have to cover David Bowie for '90s alternative rock kids to know his music, but a lot of them might not have known this song before Nirvana played it. Even today, Bowie's 1970 album of the same name is one of his most underrated. It's the closest to hard rock that Bowie ever came, so it makes sense that Nirvana took a liking to this one. "The Man Who Sold the World" isn't very hard rock though -- it's one of Bowie's more oddball psychedelic songs -- and Nirvana made it even softer when they played it on MTV Unplugged. Outside of its iconic guitar riff, Nirvana's earthy, stripped-back version is drastically different than Bowie's, and I still go back and forth over which one I like more. It's not everyday that you even wonder that about a David Bowie song, but Nirvana had a way of making this song arguably more iconic than the original. Bowie even said that he would encounter fans who thought he was covering Nirvana when he'd play it... but he seemed to have love for Nirvana. "I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering 'The Man Who Sold the World,'" Bowie was quoted saying in Kurt St. Thomas and Troy Smith's book Nirvana: The Chosen Rejects.
2. "Molly's Lips" (The Vaselines)
As moving as Nirvana's "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam" cover is, Nirvana's best Vaselines cover is the one they did of "Molly's Lips" in a 1990 Peel Session (which was later released on 1992's Hormoaning EP and the Incesticide compilation). I mentioned when recently writing about "Sliver" that when Nirvana mixed their trademark sound with their twee-ish indie pop influence, the result kinda sounded like pop punk, and that couldn't have been more true than when they covered the indie pop song "Molly's Lips." The original is about as lighthearted and twee as indie pop gets, but Nirvana cranked up the distortion, sped it up, and gave it an angst-ridden vocal performance in place of the more cooing original. It totally worked, and it tricked so many kids into listening to The Vaselines' songwriting. Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly's melodic brilliance and effective lyrical simplicity is all there; Nirvana just played it in a way that would get kids moshing instead of bopping and swaying.
1. "Lake of Fire" (Meat Puppets)
Of all the daring moves that Nirvana made during their MTV Unplugged performance, bringing on the Meat Puppets was perhaps the most daring. Legend has it that MTV were really hoping Nirvana would bring out Pearl Jam or another more famous guest, but Nirvana insisted on bringing out Cris and Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets, whose 1984 sophomore LP Meat Puppets II (released on Black Flag's SST Records) was a clear influence on Nirvana and grunge in general, but who had yet to receive any real mainstream attention. (The following year, Meat Puppets scored their sole hit with "Backwater," and Nirvana are almost definitely to thank.) Meat Puppets were punk in spirit, but they had a psychedelic, country-inspired sound and it's easy to see how that impacted the shaggy, tattered sound (and image) of grunge. So many of the popular grunge bands leaned more towards metal and stadium rock, but the rawer, weirder side can be traced right back to the Meat Puppets, so it couldn't have been more perfect when Nirvana helped introduce them to the mainstream world. They played three songs off Meat Puppets II with Cris and Curt, and the very best of those performances was "Lake Of Fire." It's among Nirvana's more straightforward covers (part of that likely due to 2/3 of the Meat Puppets playing on the song), but in this case, that was the way to go. Nirvana had to make the Bowie, Lead Belly, and Vaselines covers their own, but the "Lake of Fire" performance proved that the original song should've been a grunge hit in the first place. Since the song had some country/blues influence to begin with, it was no surprise that it sounded perfect with acoustic guitars. And vocally, Kurt killed it. Just like Curt Kirkwood did on the Meat Puppets original, Kurt almost struggled to reach those high notes, and hearing him strain his voice to hit them makes it all the more charming. People talk about Kurt not being a properly trained singer but still being a powerful one who could win over the hearts of millions, and this song captures how his flaws ended up working to his benefit.
FOR MORE NIRVANA LISTS:
* NIRVANA'S 15 BEST NON-ALBUM SONGS
Listen to a Spotify playlist of Nirvana’s 10 best cover songs: