Nirvana is, to many music fans, the definitive rock band of the 1990s. Its rise was meteoric and stunning, the band’s life span was tragically short, and Nirvana managed to cut some of the most influential albums of that period.
Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter. And, contrary to popular belief, I doubt that he was not success-averse. He was a hard worker who struggled to uphold the punk-rock principles of the scene in which he had grown up.
If Nirvana becomes more influential with each passing year, it’s because of the songs and the myth surrounding the band. Today I’m trying to look past the folk tales about Cobain, delving back into the excellent catalogue of songs that his band produced and ranking Nirvana’s albums from worst to best.
Nirvana Albums Ranked
6. “With the Lights Out” (2004)
“With the Lights Out” is a box set that combines Nirvana b-sides and rarities. Against the odds, it’s a great insight into the band’s development.
Nirvana only made three studio albums. So, yes, I’m being the rules by including “With the Lights Out.” But it’s worth circumventing the laws here. It’s worthwhile listen to a band that, at its best, could produce rehearsal jams better than most bands’ lead singles.
Like Sex Pistols albums, new fans of Nirvana will be forced to go through many cash-grab releases. “With the Lights Out” is worth acquiring, however. Do it, if only to hear the Seattle trio cover Led Zeppelin in the rehearsal space.
Yes, any available recording was thrown onto this. But, from “Token Eastern Song” to covers of Leadbelly (alongside Mark Lanegan), it’s clear that this Kurt Cobain kid was going places, no matter how hard he tried to hide it.
5. “MTV Unplugged in New York” (1994)
Like Queen, Nirvana was a band that knew how to exploit golden opportunities. With “MTV Unplugged in New York”, they provided one of the band’s and era’s defining moments.
But they play it casually throughout. The band’s hits, except for “Come as You Are”, get strategically replaced by deep cuts and covers.
The band welcomes guest participants. But not Neil Young or Eddie Vedder. Instead, they bring out indie-rock heroes, The Meat Puppets. Covering “Lake of Fire,” “Oh, Me”, and “Plateau”, they open up the Kirkwood brothers’ work to a new generation.
Kurt Cobain knows well what he is doing. Much of the live concert experience works because of his charisma. The stage is set up as a funeral. Audiences familiar with news of the singer’s reported suicide attempt earlier in the year could’ve been forgiven for taking the set list as a clue into the singer’s fragile psyche.
And the band and Cobain concentrate intensely when performing covers by David Bowie (“The Man Who Sold the World’), Vaselines (“Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”) or Leadbelly (“Where Did You Sleep Last Night”). The results are undeniable.
Like all of Nirvana’s discography, “MTV Unplugged in New York” is slightly overhyped. But it’s an excellent record nonetheless.
4. “Incesticide” (1992)
The success of “Nevermind” had created fresh interest in all of Nirvana’s recordings. The band took advantage and used “Incesticide” to give a greater glimpse into their work.
For the most part, this all means that Nirvana’s new fans are treated to the band’s love of high-paced, noisy garage rock.
However, unlike “Bleach,” pleasant melodies play an even greater role in the originals and covers found on “Incesticide.”
Highlights include “Dive,” “Molly’s Lips,” “Son of a Gun”, and “Aneurysm,” a track left off of “Nevermind” at the last moment.
3. “Bleach” (1989)
“Bleach” is an album filled mostly with stoner rock and punk tunes. But a strong indication of Nirvana’s strengths can already be heard.
The best example, of course, is the Beatlesque “About a Girl.” Cobain had been concealing his love for John Lennon‘s songwriting. But like, The Beatles frontman, clever use of chords and melodies were also some of Cobain’s greatest strengths.
The record also shows that Nirvana was already a competent garage-rock unit. The rhythm section, comprising Krist Novoselic and Chad Channing, locks into powerful, primitive grooves throughout.
“Floyd the Barber” and “Mr Moustache” reveal Cobain’s zany sense of humour.
“School” and “Negative Creep” prove that Nirvana could stand toe-to-toe in terms of volume and rage with bands like Melvins or Tad.
And “Blew” and their cover of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz” indicate Nirvana’s commercial ambition.
“Bleach” is a good album. It’s garage rock, as seen from Seattle’s stormy shores.
2. “In Utero” (1993)
“In Utero” is Nirvana’s final album, a very good collection of songs and an indication of where the band could’ve headed to next.
The oft-quoted cliche about “In Utero” is that Nirvana wanted to shed its audience. I don’t think that’s true. Instead, I think that the band, Cobain especially, was preparing for a long-term career outside of the shadow of the grunge.
Nirvana’s passion for Pixies is further entertained here. Steve Albini, the man who had produced “Surfer Rosa”, is brought in to work on “In Utero.”
Cobain’s songs are just as great as “Nevermind,” albeit less reliant on pop hooks. Despite this, “All Apologies,” “Dumb,” or “Scentless Apprentice” are undeniably memorable.
The songwriter’s lyrics are also less abstract. They talk about bandmate squabbles (“Pennyroyal Tea”), the media’s abuse of his privacy (“Rape Me”) and romantic entanglements (“Heart-Shaped Box”).
“In Utero” earned a reputation for being a dissonant earache of a record. I don’t think this is true, either. Garage-rock freakouts, assisted by former Germs guitarist, Pat Smear, can be heard on “Very Ape,” “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” “Milk It”, and “Tourette’s.” But the sound is strategically kept off the main singles.
Kurt Cobain’s sad passing in 1994 meant that this was the last studio album recorded by the band. Sure, this gave the record a sense of mystique.
All of that aside, however, “In Utero” is an exquisite collection of songs. Nirvana was a great rock band, and Kurt Cobain, the band had one of the best singer-songwriters and anti–guitar-heroes of his generation.
1. “Nevermind” (1991)
On “Nevermind,” Cobain stops fighting his pop-rock instincts. The improved songwriting and production end up paying off in a significant way.
Yes, “Nevermind” too was era-defining. It turned humble garage-rock musicians into grunge stars. It sold millions. Nirvana’s singles were giant hits. It persuaded the press to transform the “Nirvana vs Pearl Jam” into the “Rolling Stones vs Beatles” of the 1990s. And it ushered in a golden era for alternative rock.
So, this was all a fluke, right? I don’t think so! Kurt Cobain certainly had principles. Besides, he also had a hard time managing fame. But this was the success for which he’d planned.
“In Bloom” is a re-recording of one of their best songs from the Sub-Pop era. Cobain knew not to waste a good hook. And new drummer Dave Grohl always had a booming sound at his disposal.
Butch Vig’s excellent sweet, but powerful production leaves its mark on songs like “Drain You” or “Lithium.”
On “Breed” or “Stay Away,” Cobain’s vocals are confident—his tenor range and tone rival Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley.
“Something in the Way” builds up Cobain’s romantic image, and the avant-garde noise of the hidden track “Endless, Nameless” builds up their punk-rock cred.
Finally, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” unpacks and reassembles the best elements of Pixies’ sound. It’s constructed as a single. And even though the enormous success of “Teen Spirit” was not expected, it’s not hard to justify its success.
Overall, “Nevermind” was and remains a tremendously exciting album. Like the very best garage-rock or pop-punk records, I find that it easily gets under my skin, demands to be played repeatedly, and I can find new things to appreciate about it with each new listen.