Nirvana’s 15 Best Non-Album Songs
Nirvana were around for just seven years and three full-length albums, but they left behind a massively rewarding discography that stretches far beyond the studio LPs. Like The Beatles or The Smiths, some of Nirvana's best songs were never on their proper studio albums. Nirvana came from an era where artists regularly released singles with non-album B-sides, and Nirvana's B-sides were almost always as good as the A-sides. Kurt Cobain and his bandmates also made a handful of demos over the years that would increasingly see the light of day after Cobain's death, and it seemed like almost everything Kurt touched turn to gold. Anytime a beloved artist dies an untimely death, their vault will be tapped for unreleased material again and again and again (there was just a new Jimi Hendrix album released last year, for example), but the gems found in Kurt Cobain's non-album discography aren't just essential because they’re all we have left. He had a true knack for songwriting that came through just as clearly on shitty old demos as it came through on Nirvana's crisply recorded hits.
Nirvana released their first rarities compilation at the height of their success, 1992's Incesticide (which also came with a screed from Kurt Cobain that read "If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records," an awesomely bold statement from a mainstream band at the time, and one that is still powerful today), and many more B-sides, rarities, and outtakes continued to come out after Kurt's death, in the form of the With the Lights Out box set, expanded deluxe editions of studio albums, and more. Even the 2002 greatest hits album had non-album material. Not to mention the tons of Nirvana bootlegs that have surfaced over the years, which are home to some crucial recordings.
Nirvana diehards probably know all of this, but approaching the hours and hours of the band's available non-album material for the first time can be intimidating. If you're looking for a good place to start -- or you're a longtime fan who might like a playlist that narrows down all of this material to the strongest moments -- here is a list of Nirvana's 15 best non-album songs. There are other great ones outside of this list, and your picks probably differ from mine, but as a lifelong fan, these are the ones I find myself coming back to the most.
This list is just of Nirvana's original songs, though many of their best non-album songs are covers too. As a band who came from punk and made it big in the mainstream, Nirvana used their platform to shine a light on so many of their influences that never got the popularity they deserved, and they often did that in the form of cover songs. You can read a separate list of Nirvana's 10 best cover songs HERE.
This list is also mostly focused on studio recordings (and one radio session), but Nirvana are one of those bands where the live recordings often match the studio recordings in quality. It's fascinating to hear early live versions of songs like "Breed" and "Polly" (the latter of which was basically a punk song at first) without the shine of Nevermind, or hear how a song like Bleached fave "School" evolved over the years (and got some extra oomph added after Dave Grohl joined and revved up the drum beat), or just hear how much damn noise they could make on stage. And this isn't even counting the gorgeous MTV Unplugged in New York acoustic live album, which is worth an entire article (or book, or documentary) of its own.
Because many of Nirvana's best non-album songs were outtakes or demos, sometimes there are multiple versions of the songs on this list out there, and worthwhile new mixes continue to come out. For each pick, I tried to point you in the direction of the version I consider the most superior, but for the Spotify playlist at the end of the post, I had to settle for whichever version was available (Spotify is still missing some key Nirvana recordings at the moment).
Read on for the list. What's your favorite non-album Nirvana song?
"15. Pen Cap Chew"
"Pen Cap Chew" came from Nirvana's famed first studio demo, which Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic recorded in 1988 with Melvins' Dale Crover on drums and go-to grunge producer Jack Endino (of Skin Yard) behind the boards. "Pen Cap Chew," which was apparently also a contender for their band name (thankfully they decided otherwise), was the best song on the demo and one of the earliest examples of how brilliant Kurt was as a songwriter. The blunt force of its one-chord riff is very Melvins sounding, so naturally it was a perfect fit for Dale Crover. Most of the song sees Nirvana perfecting attack mode moreso than Kurt displaying the type of melodicism that would set his music apart from his peers and influences, but he does hint at what's to come in the song's mid-section, one of his earliest examples of a pop song trying to fight its way through the pounding, sludgy mess.
One of the first songs recorded with drummer Chad Channing (who was in Nirvana from 1988 to 1990, and who apparently learned this song the day it was recorded), "Blandest" was demoed with producer Jack Endino around the time Nirvana recorded the "Love Buzz" single, but it was scrapped and didn't see the light of day until it was later bootlegged and eventually included on 2004's With the Lights Out box set. (The version on the box set was sourced from one of the band members' rough mix cassettes, Endino said.) It's a shame the band never properly finished the song, as "Blandest" was one of the finer moments of the pre-Bleach era. With a slithery guitar riff that Kurt mirrored with his own voice, it's among Nirvana's more psychedelic songs (of which there are a few), but still with the sludge-punk twist that typified Nirvana's early work. It's also an early example of the subtle wordplay that would come to define Nirvana: Kurt sang "You're my favorite" at the start of every line in every verse, before changing it to "You're my razor" at the end of each one.
13. "Oh, The Guilt"
As mentioned in the intro above, Nirvana consistently used their platform as a famous band to draw attention to the music they loved that the mainstream was ignoring. One of those ways was -- at the height of their fame -- releasing a split single not with Pearl Jam or Soundgarden or some other grunge giant, but with The Jesus Lizard, who formed out of the ashes of Scratch Acid, one of Nirvana's earliest and biggest influences. Nirvana were a major label band at the time, but they released the split on The Jesus Lizard's label home, post-hardcore powerhouse Touch & Go Records. And it seems safe to assume that Nirvana's co-sign made a difference; would The Jesus Lizard -- despite deserving it -- have signed to Capitol Records two years later otherwise? The Jesus Lizard's contribution to the split was "Puss" from their now-classic 1992 album Liar, while Nirvana contributed the new song "Oh, The Guilt." Powered by one of Kurt's heaviest and grooviest riffs, the song kicks immediately into high gear, and it only gets more intense in the chorus, an example of how affecting his voice could be with one word, no melody, and just a stretched-out, throat-shredding scream.
A few months after releasing their first album Bleach, Nirvana put out a single for the killer opening track "Blew," and it came with their cover of Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz" (also included on Bleach) and two non-album cuts. One of those, "Stain," rivaled at least half of the songs on Bleach. This one's got a trick that Kurt used a handful of times in his career, where the verses are shouted with venom and the choruses are sung sweetly, with an almost shoegazy coo. It's also got a trick that Kurt knew how to pull off in a way very few songwriters do: each verse and each chorus have the exact same lyrics, he sings them each three times, and somehow the song never feels repetitive. Maybe the song's bounding energy puts your body in such an endless motion that it doesn't even matter what he's saying, or maybe a few words is all Kurt needs to get his point across, and it's so effective that you just wanna hear it again and again.
11. "Verse Chorus Verse" (aka "In His Room")
Not to be confused with "Sappy," which was sometimes also referred to as "Verse Chorus Verse," this "Verse Chorus Chorus" (which was sometimes also referred to as "In His Room") was recorded during the Nevermind sessions but never finished, and recordings have since surfaced on 2004's With the Lights Out box set and the 20th anniversary expanded reissue of Nevermind. Even just from the unfinished demo, you can tell how brilliant this song is and how perfectly it would have fit on Nevermind. It's got a punchy chord progression that's somewhere between "Drain You" and "In Bloom," with a perfectly-matched trademark Dave Grohl beat -- it doesn't get more Nevermind than a song like this. But "Verse Chorus Verse" takes a sudden left turn for its chorus, where Kurt sings this off-kilter yet sugary melody that works in great contrast with the darkness he's singing about ("You're the reason I feel pain / Feels so good to feel again"). "Verse Chorus Verse" reminds you that, while Nevermind spawned countless imitators, Kurt could dunk on all of them with his unfinished demos.
10. "Moist Vagina"
"Moist Vagina" was included on the "All Apologies" / "Rape Me" single (but titled "MV," maybe because Geffen Records didn't want to publish the real title... not that "Rape Me" is somehow less controversial), and it's a true classic of the In Utero era. The Steve Albini-recorded In Utero was the noisiest album of Nirvana's career, and "Moist Vagina" was cut from that same cloth. It took loud-quiet-loud to a new level, with brooding, almost Slint-like verses, and then the roaring "MARIJUANAAAAAAAAA" chorus where Kurt shows zero sympathy for the well-being of his vocal cords. It's as grotesque lyrically as it is sonically ("I've been sucking walls of her anus"), and it's really noise rock at its finest: off-putting, confrontational, ugly, and yet so alluring.
In September 1990, in the leadup to Nevermind's release, Kurt appeared on a radio show on Olympia's KAOS-FM (hosted by Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening/K Records/etc) and played a handful of solo acoustic songs, including "Opinion," a song that was never released before or since. (There is apparently a full-band, studio-recorded version somewhere in the vaults that's never seen the light of day. The KAOS session version saw a wide release on the With the Lights Out compilation.) It's just Kurt and a guitar, and it's just a minute and a half long, but that's all Kurt needed for the magic to come through. Lyrically cynical and melodically beautiful, it holds its own against a large handful of Nirvana's properly recorded songs. And as a rare acoustic recording from the early days, "Opinion" (and the 1990 KAOS session in general) shows how impactful Kurt and Nirvana were with acoustic songs years before the MTV Unplugged concert. Nirvana may be best known for being loud and heavy, but they were just as good at soft, quiet music and "Opinion" one of the finest examples of that.
8. "I Hate Myself And Want To Die"
Don't let the title fool you; "I Hate Myself And Want To Die" is actually one of Nirvana's most fun, most catchy songs. And as tempting as it is to psychoanalyze it given Kurt's fate, he always insisted the title was intended as a joke (and the lyrics are full of non sequiturs). The song was recorded with Steve Albini during the In Utero sessions and intended as the B-side for the "Pennyroyal Tea" single (but that single had its release cancelled after Kurt's death, until it eventually came out on Record Store Day 2014), and it was also included on the 1993 Geffen Records compilation The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience. It's got the same heavy yet bare-bones sound of In Utero, and a harmony-driven, singalong chorus that rivals any of the catchiest songs on that album. Other than the less-than-marketable song title, this is one of those Nirvana B-sides that really could have been one of their hits with the right exposure. Kurt's pop smarts are at their finest.
When Nirvana were in between drummers (Chad Channing had just left and Dave Grohl had not yet joined) and still on Sub Pop, they went into the studio with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters and banged out "Sliver" to release as a non-album single in 1990, and they included "Dive" (which had been recorded earlier with Channing on drums and intended for Nirvana's planned second Sub Pop album which never came to fruition) on the flip. "Dive" had a cleaner sound than Bleach (thanks in part to producer Butch Vig, who went on to produce Nevermind), and it was already clear from this song that Nirvana were well on their way to becoming stars. Kurt flashed his pop side a bit on Bleach, but -- save for the non-heavy "About A Girl" -- no Bleach song had the crisp, catchy hit potential of "Dive." It's one of the earliest examples of Nirvana sounding heavy as all hell while still writing music that tens of thousands of kids could scream their hearts out to. That hook of "DIVE! DIVE! DIVE! DIVE IN MEEEEEE," with the desperation and melodicism in Kurt's voice, sounds as earth-shattering today as it did the first time you heard it. It never did make it onto Nirvana's second album (which ended up being their Geffen Records debut, Nevermind), but it's no surprise that Nirvana chose to begin the 1992 compilation Incesticide with it. If "Dive" is the first song you hear when you put on a record, you're not turning that thing off.
6. "Old Age"
Kurt wrote and demoed "Old Age" for Nevermind, but they never properly finished it, and Kurt ended up giving the song to Courtney Love, who reworked it, wrote new lyrics for it, and recorded a version of the song for the B-side to Hole's "Beautiful Son" and "Violet" singles. The demo version of the song officially surfaced on 2004's With the Lights Out box set and again on the 20th anniversary deluxe reissue of Nevermind, and even on a recording as raw and unfinished as this one, you can tell that it's one of the strongest songs of the Nevermind era. Kurt's faux-repetitive wordplay is in fine form, and he throws a satisfying melodic twist in the third line of every verse that hits you right in the gut no matter how many times you hear it. There's a solo acoustic demo of the song that has surfaced too, but the full-band version with its trademark Dave Grohl drum fills is the superior one. Dave Grohl really did add so much to Nirvana's songwriting, and this song is just one of many great examples of that.
"Sappy" was in Nirvana's repertoire since Kurt wrote it (and recorded a solo demo of it) in the pre-Bleach era. They recorded it in 1990 with Jack Endino producing and scrapped it, they demoed it with Butch Vig for Nevermind but it never made the album, and they finally recorded the best and properly finished (or at least most finished) version with Steve Albini during the In Utero sessions. It didn't make that album either, but that version ended up coming out (under the title "Verse Chorus Verse," not to be confused with the other song of that name that's lower down on this list) on the 1993 Red Hot AIDS Benefit compilation No Alternative. I can see why they left it off In Utero -- it sounds way more Nevermind's style -- but it remains one of the best pop songs in Nirvana's career and Albini's recording keeps it sounding less polished than Nevermind, which works to its advantage. It's one of a few times in Nirvana's career where they veered very close to pop punk, and Nirvana were great at this kind of thing. Kurt's delivery is still full of grit and angst, but the bright chord progression, the melody -- it's almost closer to classic Weezer than classic Nirvana. It could and should have been one of their biggest hits, and maybe one day it will be. Similar things have happened.
4. "Even In His Youth"
Nirvana had been playing "Even In His Youth" live since not long after Bleach came out, and it was finally recorded and released as the B-side of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" single in 1991 and again on 1992's Hormoaning EP. It's more indicative of the rawer, noisier, heavier Bleach style than the catchier, more polished Nevermind, but -- as some of Bleach's songs did -- it also snuck in one of the catchiest choruses of Nirvana's career. The main guitar riff that powers the song is among the most badass riffs in Nirvana's discography, and then the song changes keys for the chorus, switches to a brighter chord progression, and Kurt sings its almost-pretty-sounding hook. Kurt had a knack for subtle key changes like this ("About A Girl" does it too), and it's songs like "Even In His Youth" where you really realize that, underneath the punk scuzz, Kurt was a brilliant songwriter in the traditional sense. Have you ever heard someone cover a Nirvana song on the piano and noticed how beautiful the melodies are? Kurt's music was aggressive on the surface, but he famously treasured The Beatles as much as he treasured punk and noise rock, and "Even In His Youth" is an example where you can hear that Lennon-McCartney love coming through on even Kurt's most abrasive songs.
As mentioned in the above "Dive" blurb, "Sliver" was recorded and released as a non-album single on Sub Pop in 1990 when Nirvana were between drummers (Mudhoney's Dan Peters filled in for this song), and like "Sappy," "Sliver" sees Nirvana veering towards pop punk. Kurt loved twee-ish indie pop like The Vaselines and Beat Happening, and he never harnessed that love as strongly (on an original song) as he did on "Sliver." When he punked up that indie pop love as he did on this song, the result was the closest they ever came to sounding like Green Day. Adding to the twee-ness and the pop punk-ness were some of the most naive and youthful lyrics Kurt ever wrote. Instead of references to drugs or sex or self-harm or angst or depression, Kurt sang: "Mom and dad went to a show / Dropped me off at Grandpa Joe's / I kicked and screamed, said 'Please don't go' / 'Grandma take me home.'" It almost seems silly, yet it connected with people as much as Kurt's darker tales. And the secret weapon of this song is Krist Novoselic's bassline. Krist provided the perfect contrast to Kurt's guitar style on nearly every Nirvana song, but he rarely powered the entire song the way he did on "Sliver." Kurt wrote a handful of iconic guitar riffs in his time, but when it came to what made the instrumentation of "Sliver" so iconic, it was all Krist.
2. "You Know You're Right"
Eight years after Kurt Cobain's tragic death, Nirvana scored another hit. Geffen Records had just released the greatest hits album, Nirvana, and -- after the song had remained in the vault for years -- the compilation included the first-ever release of "You Know You're Right." "You Know You're Right" is reportedly the only fully-finished song from Nirvana's unfinished fourth album that was cut short by Kurt's death, and it's proof that he was only getting better as a singer and a songwriter up until the day he died. The song -- which had been performed live by Nirvana, performed by Hole on MTV Unplugged, and kept in the vault for so long due to legal disputes between Courtney Love and Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic -- is classic Nirvana, but it's also not much like anything else they had ever done. It's more polished and more accessible than most of In Utero, but slower and darker than most of Nevermind. It's almost a little closer to alt-metal like Alice In Chains (its bassline sounds a lot like "Would?"), but it's still got that Nirvana rawness that those types of bands never had. To this day, it makes me obsess over the idea of what a fourth Nirvana album would have sounded like. Were they about to be even bigger? Going by "You Know You're Right," it sure sounds like they were. At this point, "You Know You're Right" is just about as iconic as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Heart-Shaped Box" or any of Nirvana's other biggest hits. Like any truly brilliant pop song, it never lets up, offering one memorable part after the next. The quiet verses are catchier than most bands' choruses, and the louder “Things have never been so swell…” section would have done just fine as the main hook, but when Kurt screams "Hey" (or is it "Pain"?), it brings "You Know You're Right" to a whole 'nother level. He sounds like he's putting every fiber in his body into that scream, he holds it out as long as possible, and he never once falls out of key. There have been times where Kurt would scream his head off, regardless of what notes he ended up hitting, and it would still be effective. But it sounds like he put a level of care and patience into this song that he often didn't bother with. The results, even all these years later, are truly mindblowing.
"Aneurysm" isn't just the best non-album Nirvana song, it's the best Nirvana song, period. How they left it off Nevermind is something I'll never understand. There are two versions of the song, a slower one that was used as a B-side to the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" single and appeared on 1992's Hormoaning EP, and a faster one that was recorded for a BBC session and later included on Incesticide. The faster one is the better one (and closer to the way they'd play it live), mostly because the way the drums come in on the faster one is like a jolt of electricity to the heart every time it happens. Kurt opens the song with a simple yet non-traditional power chord progression -- the kind you could picture hearing in an early '80s hardcore song -- and then Dave and Krist come pummeling in, as Kurt switches to a noisy, atonal guitar build that you could picture his friends and heroes Sonic Youth pulling off, and then the song finally kicks into full gear. It's as punk and headbang-worthy as it gets, but then Nirvana strip things back once the verse comes in. Nirvana are known for making good use of the loud-quiet-loud formula (that they themselves would say they took from the Pixies), and "Aneurysm" is one of the best examples of it. The verse goes back and forth like this: Kurt sings a line at a standard volume over quiet, slightly palm-muted guitar chords, then he turns the amp up to 11 and roars "AAAAA-HAAAAAAAA." It's so simple, yet so cathartic. Once the chorus hits, Kurt delivers one of the most inventive guitar riffs of his career, and he seals the deal with just one line: "Beat me out of me." "Aneurysm" is another one of those songs where Kurt says so much with so little. Each verse and each chorus have the same lyrics, and there aren't even that many total words in the song, yet it never drags or feels redundant. If anything, it ends too soon. But it doesn't end before one last, totally killer section. Nirvana reprises the instrumental intro, only this time Kurt sings "She keeps it pumping straight to my heart" over and over, eventually bringing in harmonies that make the song even more satisfying. Art is rarely "perfect," but "Aneurysm" comes pretty damn close.
FOR MORE NIRVANA LISTS:
* NIRVANA'S 10 BEST COVER SONGS
You can also listen to a Spotify playlist of Nirvana's best non-album songs (though some of the above-mentioned versions are not available on Spotify):