Nerding out on Nirvana’s 102 song catalog

I saw Nirvana live just once, during the In Utero tour in Buffalo, New York on November 5th, 1993. It’s one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen — the band was focused, crisp, and ferocious from front to back. A super loud noise rock band called Boredoms, from Osaka, Japan opened for them, and at the end of the show both bands took the stage for an extended feedback-filled jam that almost blew my eardrums out. Kurt Cobain kicked over a bunch of the set design at one point. My friends and I concurred that Nirvana’s decision to not perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was both wise and bad ass.

One other quick anecdote from that night was that at as we entered the venue (Alumni Arena at the University of Buffalo), the security guys enjoyed telling everyone to “open your flannels” so that they could pat you down for metal or weapons. This was an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference to the “grunge fashion” that was in vogue for a time in that far flung era. The ironic thing to me, though, was that living in central (Binghamton, for me, my college town of the time) or western (Buffalo) New York, wearing a flannel jacket was the perfect attire to both battle the cold and then tie around your waist once you get inside highly heated interiors.

That’s all preamble to the fact that I recently nerded out big time on Rolling Stone‘s “All 102 Nirvana Songs, Ranked.”

If you don’t care about Nirvana, feel wildly free to skip over this lengthy section, but if you’re willing to let your Nerd Flag fly proudly, I offer my reaction to various songs and rankings:

  • #92 – “Black and White Blues” – This is one of a small handful of songs on this list that I had never heard before. It’s cool as hell — as the piece alludes to, it’s like Kurt Cobain summoning Jack White-meets-legendary blues guitarists here.
  • #83 – “Old Age” – So great, one of the catchiest songs in Nirvana’s catalog, I’d wager.
  • #81 – “Seasons in the Sun” – Gorgeous and haunting. Has the feeling of an elegy.
  • #68 – “Do Re Mi” – “The last known composition by Kurt Cobain” is musically ear pleasing and points the way to a post-grunge, post-art rock style for Nirvana that would never fully come to pass.
  • #69 – “Verse Chorus Verse” (not the one that appears on No Alternative, a compilation album that I owned and listened to endlessly back in the day as an aside, but the “Neither side is sacred” one) – This is probably my favorite Nirvana song that did not appear on a studio album. It’s way, way up there for me overall. The lyrics are Cobain at his opaque, alienated, hollowed out best (“You’re the reason I feel pain / Feels so good to feel again”). And the drums on this song alone, man… good stuff.

All five of the above should be way, way higher on the list in my view… though I would have likely had a very different take 25 years ago.

  • #61 – “Marigold” – A pop gem. I didn’t know that this song did not involve Cobain; it’s written by Dave Grohl and performed with Krist Novoselic. This of course points the way to a bright future for Grohl with Foo Fighters. It also gets into a topic I love to annoy people with, which is that the first Foo Fighters album is absolute magic in my view, but while there are solid efforts and a few great songs after, Foo and crew never again matched the level of its earliest offering.
  • #46 – “Very Ape” – One of my favorite songs on In Utero. Surprised that it’s ranked this low, relatively speaking, on the list and is the lowest ranked song from that album.
  • #45 – “Oh, the Guilt” – This is one of my favorite loud-and-raucous Nirvana songs. So great for when you’re stressed and just want something loud, relentless, and thud-tastic.
  • #44 – “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” – The song title takes away some from the fact of how great a hard rock song this.
  • #34 – “Stay Away”/”Pay to Play” – Love that it’s referred to in the piece as “still a perfect song to slam your bedroom door to.”
  • #32 – “Sappy” – If you had to choose one song that represents the band, you could do worse than this song. It’s described as a “lament against the expectations of others,” which kind of symbolizes Nirvana’s universal appeal (particularly to the adolescent youth folk of the era) and Cobain’s personal appeal as well. Also another great bit, from writer Grayson Haver Currin, with regard to the No Alternative version (see above, where I explain how I listened to that comp album to pieces): “…with a guitar solo that dips and climbs and vocals that suggest irritation morphing into emancipation.”
  • #30 – “Aneurysm” – I might have once spent a solid amount of time figuring out my favorite version of this song among those that I had access to. I think I landed on the caustic yet joyous live version on From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah.
  • #19 – “Territorial Pissings” – This is probably the one loud/punk-y song that I like a lot more now than I did when it was first released on Nevermind. I never disliked it really, but there was something about seeing it weaved expertly into an early scene of the Montage of Heck documentary that gave it new life for me.
  • #18 – “Love Buzz” and #17 – “Come As You Are” – These are good examples of songs that I would rank much, much lower. They’re not bad songs, and I honestly can’t figure out if I just heard them so often during the ’90s that they don’t particularly do much for me when I listen to them today. They’re kind of fine, they’re good, but I still find so much of the other stuff more exciting and more interesting.
  • #2 – “In Bloom” – Great song, fantastic music video (remember those?). Don’t think I would have it nearly this high on the list though.
  • #1 – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – It’s a great song and an important song for the band and the era and pop culture and all, but putting it as their number one song of all time? “About a Girl,” “Drain You,” “Aneurysm,” even an “Oh, the Guilt” — that’s the stuff I’d have in contention for the number one song.

A few other quick thoughts:

  • I didn’t mention anything about the the stuff from the Unplugged album; but it all holds up magnificently. It’s an all time great album, and the filmed version for MTV captures the band at its absolute best.
  • Apparently, Nirvana did some recording in West Seattle back in the day, which happens to be the neighborhood where I live now.

Nirvana’s an amazing band, to say it as plainly and fan boy-y as I can. If nothing else the Rolling Stone list shows off the eclectic, weird, and broad influences on the band. It’s way more than “Teen Spirit” and “All Apologies,” (the latter of which is probably my least favorite of their better known songs, and certainly their released singles). If you haven’t listened to Nirvana in a while, give the Rolling Stone piece a check out. Every entry has an attached video that includes some version of the song they mention. Go deep, have fun, and then send me your thoughts.

Here’s some deep reporting on Kurt Cobain’s final days, and it’s as dark and depressing as can be imagined. One fascinating and tantalizing tidbit though is that Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. were planning a musical collaboration near the end of the Nirvana front man’s life.

I happened to see a thread on Twitter relating to great female-fronted bands from the ’90s. I’ll have to delve into this topic in another edition, but let’s start here, quoting moi:

  • Nirvana is one of my favorite bands, but there are so many great female-fronted bands out of the ’90s (Hole among them): Distillers, Elastica, Veruca Salt, L7, The Gits, 7 Year Bitch. Such a great era for music

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

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