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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Top 10 Nirvana Songs

Nirvana are a band that've been extremely present as of late. This week, they're going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Singer Kurt Cobain's ex-wife Courtney Love recently announced that her band Hole was reuniting. On a personal level, my term paper on grunge's effects on society, much of which is centered on the story of Nirvana and Cobain, is due next week.

Of course, the biggest reason Nirvana's name has been everywhere lately is because this week marks 20 years since the end of Nirvana, as Cobain was discovered deceased at his home on April 8th, 1994, twenty years ago today. The news of the tortured singer's suicide shocked the world much like word of Lennon's murder did over a decade prior, though there warning signs ahead of time, unlike the latter's sudden death. Regardless, the tragic end to the career of grunge's kings cemented their place in history as one of if not the greatest alternative act of all time. As such, whittling down their catalog to a measly ten tracks was no walk in the park. This list might seem In Utero-heavy, but that's largely because it's widely accepted as their best and most time-withstanding work. And to prove my point, here's number ten...

10. "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" - In Utero

For those who wonder why In Utero is known for its abrasiveness and viscerality, look no further. Dry guitars and Cobain's gravelly vocal each stand out on this track, and the harsh feedback during the verse does its job dutifully. The track follows the quiet-loud-quiet format to a tee. Dave Grohl also pounds heavily behind the drumkit in one of the group's loudest, most violent songs. It's not Nirvana at their most commercially appealing by any means, but it is one of their best nonetheless.

9. "Serve the Servants" - In Utero

To kick off Nirvana's third and final studio album, Kurt Cobain howls possibly the greatest opening lyric in rock history: "Teenage angst has paid off well," he admits, before lamenting "now I'm bored and old." The lyric perfectly encapsulated not only what was going on in terms of pop culture and grunge's increasing role in it, but also Kurt's attitude towards his newfound fame and influence. The song comes off as more tame, more composed compared to "Frances Farmer," which gives it just that extra bit of quality. Cobain's guitar work here is some of his best, whether it's the crunchy opening riff or the more free-flowing solo. The quiet-loud song structure is reversed, as Kurt's screaming in the verses shrinks into a timid moan for the eponymous chorus. "Serve the Servants" kicks off the album in style, via a dirty, unglamourous grunge crawl.

8. "Rape Me" - In Utero

Due to its provocative title, "Rape Me" is far and away Nirvana's most controversial track, which is odd considering the lyrics are extremely anti-rape. But ,of course, some people will always judge a book by its cover or, in this case, a song by its title. Though "Heart-Shaped Box"'s music video was definitely, let's say, "out there," and the subject matter was just as sexual (according to Courtney Love), it's "Rape Me" that had Walmart and KMart aflutter. Ironically, the song is one of In Utero's most commercially viable, following a relatively standard structure with a powerful chorus and pulsating beat. The guitar riff is fantastic, and the entire song has a somewhat straightforward punk sound to it. "Rape Me" is a classic grunge song, and is probably the closest thing to Nevermind-era Nirvana you can find on In Utero.

7. "About a Girl" - Bleach & MTV Unplugged

Nirvana's pop tendencies were evident from the beginning, as this track from their 1989 debut Bleach clearly indicates. I've included both the original recording and the live acoustic version here, as both a thoroughly entertaining in different ways. The catchy chorus, simple instrumentation, and addictive melody all come together wonderfully in the plugged-in version, which still sounds great twenty-five years on. The MTV show that Nirvana played is one of the most famous in history - how many other concert recordings are regularly played on rock radio? The trio lead off on this famous night with an acoustic rendition of "About A Girl," setting the tone perfectly for the rest of the show. The prettier acoustic guitars and soft drums put all the focus on Kurt's voice, changing the emphasis of the song significantly. I'd be hard-pressed to declare one take better than the other, and would rather just enjoy each for what they are, by which I mean two amazing pieces of music.

6. "On a Plain" - Nevermind

Nevermind's penultimate listed track and final 'loud' song (as its followed by the quite closer "Something in the Way") will leave you wanting more after the disc stops spinning. "On a Plain" jumps straight in after a bit of feedback, with the first verse kicking off quite suddenly. Cobain's riff is great, and the chorus is catchy. Grohl's drumming is substantially above average once again, particularly those thumping tom-toms during the refrain of "I'm on a plain." Lyrics such as "love myself better than you" show off Cobain's salty side as well as his unique songwriting ability. It's a wonder this seemingly commercially viable track didn't get more radio play, but that doesn't stop it from being an excellent example of Nirvana in their Nevermind phase.

5. "All Apologies" - In Utero

Here's another track that is perhaps better known by its acoustic version, however, I've elected for the electrified edition of In Utero's final notes. While the MTV Unplugged performance is beautiful in its own right, I think the contrast between the extremely quiet verses and explosive chorus plays a particularly pivotal role here, perhaps more so than in any other Nirvana single, save "Smells Like Teen Spirit." In the verse, Cobain is upset but not necessarily angry, as he ponders his faults ("I wish I was like you") and asks questions like "what else should I be?" While it could be interpreted as passive-aggressive ("I'll take all the blame" and other lines like it could easily be interpreted as sarcastic), there's still no direct conflict involved. The bashful guitar riff and subdued drum beat back up this idea suitably. The chorus then brings an eruption of sound, with distorted guitars and Cobain's classic cry taking over. "All Apologies" manages to fit despair, regret, anger, self-blame, and even some philosophy ("all in all is all we are") into a stunning four-minutes.

4. "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" - MTV Unplugged

The only performance of Nirvana's on MTV Unplugged to surpass the kick-starter, "About A Girl," is the closer, the absolutely breathtaking cover of Lead Belly's arrangement of an old folk song. Cello plays a prominent role in the build up to the song's stunning epicenter, as do two excellently-played verses. For a moment, everything drops but Cobain's whisper and quiet guitar. Then, unexpectedly, the late singer unleashes a desperate, shrieking, emotional plea, asking his love about a possible infidelity. The moment is even more powerful when seen on video, as Kurt's frail frame and sad blue eyes really paint a picture of what's going on behind the scenes with his troubled marriage. No one expected this kind of performance from the loud, wild grunge-punks from Seattle, but everybody was thankful for it once it came.

3. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" - Nevermind

Goodness, where to start. Well, if you don't know the deal with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," you might want to pay a bit more attention. Even for those who weren't alive to see it happen, myself included, it's well established that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the song that kicked off Nirvana's career, launched the grunge movement into the public eye at blistering speeds, and defined a generation of disaffected youth. "Teen Spirit" is possibly the most commonly analyzed song on Earth, a rare example of a piece of music that was and is hugely successful both commercially and critically. From the iconic drum into to Cobain's riff, to the instantly recognizable chorus, to the final wail of "let it die out," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is an amazing song through and through. I don't have much else to say that hasn't already been said a thousand times before, except that it's quite remarkable that there could be two Nirvana songs better than this one, even if this list is completely subjective.

2. "Pennyroyal Tea" - In Utero

To be frank, much of Nirvana's discography is musically simple at first glance, and "Pennyroyal Tea" definitely falls under that categorization. A calm verse and loud chorus is nothing new for Nirvana, but on this track they do it particularly well. The chorus is one of their best, and the instrumental breakdown halfway through is outstanding in its sluggishness. The raw vocals are especially poignant during the bridge just after the solo, acting as a quiet before the final chorus's raucous storm. I also love the acoustic version, which is just Cobain on vocals and guitar, but it just missed the cut for me. I'm finding that it's hard to explain why I love this song so much, so hopefully the music can speak for itself.

1. "Heart-Shaped Box" - In Utero

Simply put, "Heart-Shaped Box" is in my humble opinion the greatest thing Nirvana ever did. Every single component of this song just works. The creepy guitar pattern creates a certain, definite mood of anticipation and uneasiness, matching the cryptic lyrics. The classic quiet-loud-quiet format is at work once again, with a volatile two-part chorus standing out among the group's other refrains. Between the crazed "Hey! Wait!" shouts and the sardonic "forever in debt to your priceless advice," the chorus is full of emotion. Cobain's growl was perhaps never better employed than here. Though the guitar solo simply mimics the melody, the distortion gives it that slightly-off feel that the song needs. "Heart-Shaped Box" is infectious, and while Kurt claims he's been locked in for four weeks, music fans have been trapped by the single for twenty years, and happily so.

Honorable mentions: "Pennyroyal Tea" (MTV Unplugged version), "School," "Dumb," "Scentless Apprentice," "Come As You Are," "Lithium," "The Man Who Sold the World"

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