18 Best Nirvana Songs: Soundtrack for a Generation

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Last updated on August 4th, 2023 at 06:48 am

Nirvana was the biggest rock band of the 90s. The grunge rock sound they pioneered paved the way for bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, in addition to influencing most alternative and hard rock bands that came after them.

Building a Nirvana playlist? Begin with these 18 of the most popular Nirvana songs, ranked in order of popularity.

18 Best Nirvana Songs in Order of Popularity


18. Sliver

Nirvana’s second single, which was released on legendary Seattle label Sub Pop Records, “Sliver” can be found on the 1992 compilation album Incesticide.

Written in 1990, Nirvana biography Michael Azerrad notes that it was written during an early rehearsal with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters.

The track, which Cobain referred to as his attempt to “write the most ridiculous pop song I had ever written,” was recorded during a studio break by Nirvana’s Sub Pop labelmates TAD.


17. Sappy

Perhaps the best “under the radar” of the best Nirvana songs, “Sappy” is stupidly catchy. 

The lyrics are thoroughly Cobain, with the social commentary of the lyrics tempered by the nonsense lyrics in the chorus about a laundry room.

“Sappy” first appeared as a hidden track on No Alternative, an AIDs-benefit compilation that was released in 1993.

Confusingly, this song is sometimes called “Verse Chorus Verse,” which is also the name of an outtake from Nevermind.


16. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

Our best Nirvana songs list begins with “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” an album track from their third album, 1993’s In Utero.

Hardly a “radio-friendly unit shifter,” this chaotic track features some wild guitar playing and inspired work behind the kit from Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.

In some ways, it reminds me of the unhinged hidden track on Nevermind, “Endless Nameless.” 

Related: What Happened Leading up to Kurt Cobain’s Death? 


15. You Know You’re Right

Nirvana fans worldwide were excited in late 2002 when it was announced that a brand new, unreleased Nirvana song would finally see the light of day.

The release of “You Know You’re Right” was initially delayed, as the remaining members of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, disagreed on how it should be released.

It finally came out on a self-titled Nirvana greatest hits album in 2002.

Featuring the signature quiet-loud dichotomy of Nirvana songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “You Know You’re Right” ranks up there with the band’s best material.

The scorching track was recorded at Nirvana’s last session on January 30, 1994.

Though it wasn’t a regular part of Nirvana’s live set, it was played live at least once. 


14. Pennyroyal Tea

Sadly, “Pennyroyal Tea” was supposed to be the third single from Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero, but it was pulled after Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide.

Like much of In Utero, “Pennyroyal Tea” has a slightly sludge-y, more immediate sound than what is heard on Nirvana’s breakthrough Nevermind.

“Pennyroyal Tea” also features one of Kurt Cobain’s best (and funniest) lyrics: “give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/so I can sigh eternally.”

If you get it, you get it.

Related: Where is Kurt Cobain’s Daughter Now? 


13. Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Casual fans of Nirvana were surprised to find out that they were recording an MTV Unplugged performance in 1993. How well would their heavy songs translate acoustically?

More knowledgeable fans knew that not only were some of the biggest Nirvana songs easily translatable to a stripped-down setting, but also that Cobain and the band’s influences varied widely and could thus translate into many interesting acoustic covers.

This is certainly the case, as they played several songs written by others at their MTV Unplugged performance.

Perhaps the most surprising was their dark, foreboding cover of traditional song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” They based their version on that of blues legend Lead Belly, who Cobain described as “my favorite performer ever” before they played the song.

Somewhat surprisingly, this song received a lot of airplay on alternative radio stations.

Related: The Best Blues Songs: Where to Start When Discovering the Blues 


12. Polly

What are the darkest Nirvana songs? “Polly” is certainly among them.

While some might consider “Polly” one of the worst Nirvana songs – its story of a stalker is kind of creepy, though it has an anti-rape message – this album track from Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough Nevermind is something of a fan favorite.

Its simple arrangement made it an obvious choice to feature on their MTV Unplugged performance.


11. Rape Me

If you’re looking for school-appropriate Nirvana songs, you’ve come to the wrong place.

“Rape Me,” which is based on a riff similar to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” can be found on Nirvana’s final album In Utero.

Released as a double-A-sided single with “All Apologies” in December 1993, like “Polly” its message is often misunderstood. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were committed feminists, and thus “Rape Me” actually has an anti-rape theme.


10. “Dumb”

Kurt Cobain’s personality really shines through on “Dumb.”

On one level, it seems self-deprecating, especially when he chants, “I think I’m dumb” at the end of the song.

However, “Dumb” is also defiant, as Cobain sings, “I think I’m dumb/maybe just happy/I think I’m just happy.”

Far from putting himself down, the message actually appears to be that, while the world might think he’s dumb, he knows he’s just different, and happy to be.

The first verse adds to this interpretation: “I can’t pretend/I’m not like them/the sun is gone/but I have a light.”

One of Nirvana’s most radio-friendly sounding songs, it peaked at #34 on the U.S. Alternative National Airplay chart.


9. “All Apologies”

The more popular of the “All Apologies”/”Rape Me” double a-sided single was “All Apologies,” which topped the U.S. Modern Rock chart upon its release in December 1993.

The heavy song has the standard quiet-loud structure of many Nirvana songs but also features a cool little riff throughout.

It’s one of the heaviest songs that got re-created for Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance.


8. “About a Girl”

The earliest choice on our best Nirvana song list is “About a Girl,” from their 1989 debut album Bleach

Though Bleach is the least-known of Nirvana’s three studio albums, it still has some gems, like “About a Girl.” 

Kurt Cobain said he wrote it as an exercise to try and write something that sounded like it could be on the Beatles‘ American debut album Meet the Beatles!

He succeeds, as “About a Girl” certainly has the old-school Beatles flavor he was going for, albeit with a smidge of Pixies in there.

The band liked it so much that they led off their MTV Unplugged show with it.

Fun fact #1: this is the only Nirvana song on this list to feature drummer Chad Channing.

Fun fact #2: Bleach producer Jack Endino produced the entirety of the album in 30 hours for $606.17.

Related: The 25 Best Punk Songs to Help You Stick it to the Man 


7. “In Bloom”

For a while in 1992 and 1993, “In Bloom” seemed to be played as often as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are.” Despite that fact, it didn’t chart in America, as it was never released as a single physically.

One of the songs that put Nirvana on the map, “In Bloom” is led by a heavy, pulsating riff from Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.

“In Bloom” also has one of Nirvana’s catchiest choruses.

When it comes on the radio, it’s hard for me not to roll down all the windows, blast it, and yell “heeeeeee’s the oooooone he likes all the prettyyyy soooooongs,” much to the chagrin of the cars near me.

In many ways, “In Bloom” is the ultimate pop song.


6. “Something in the Way”

Surprisingly, “Something in the Way” is one of Nirvana’s most streamed songs, with over 300,000 streams on Spotify alone.

The slow, downbeat track was never released as a single and didn’t receive much radio play, but Nirvana did perform it on MTV Unplugged.

Like “Polly,” “Something in the Way” has an opaque, disturbing set of lyrics that ooze grunge.


5. “The Man Who Sold the World”

The #5 best Nirvana song isn’t even theirs.

Nirvana re-imagined the title track from David Bowie’s gloriously sludge-y 1971 proto-metal album The Man Who Sold the World for a new generation on MTV Unplugged.

They strip down Bowie’s version to the essentials, making its stark lyrics even more effective.

It’s safe to say that this cover turned many people on to David Bowie. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to me.

Though at the same time my Dad also bought ChangesBowie on cassette at my favorite record store, Cheapo in St. Paul (where Husker Du met), which also got me interested in the Thin White Duke.


4. “Lithium”

What songs are Nirvana known for? “Lithium,” the third single from Nevermind, is certainly one of them.

With a chorus featuring enough ‘yeah’s to make the Beatles blush, “Lithium” stands out from other Nirvana songs by being even darker than most of their stuff.

The verses are sly and almost sexy, with Cobain even singing, “I’m so horny/that’s okay my will is good” at one point.

Lyrics like “I killed you/I’m not gonna cry” inspired many a concerned mother to confiscate some sad bois cassette tapes back in the early ’90s.

Nirvana played a memorable version of “Lithium” on the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992.


3. “Heart-Shaped Box”

Nirvana didn’t have many music videos, but when they did, they were doozies.

Outside of the iconic video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the nightmare scenes of “Heart Shape Box” are still enough to frighten small children.

Cobain is at his sarcastic best on “Heart Shaped Box”: “hey/wait/I’ve got a new complaint/forever in debt to your priceless advice.”

The first single from In Utero, it’s classic Nirvana, and rightly still gets played often on radio stations worldwide.

It’s said that the track is about Kurt Cobain’s wife Courtney Love.


2. “Come As You Are”

How many hits did Nirvana have? Surprisingly few.

Largely because they didn’t release many physical singles in the U.S., few of even their biggest charted. 

Outside of #1 on this list, “Come as You Are” is their highest charting single, peaking at only #32.

This one has a riff for the ages, up there with “Stairway to Heaven” and “Seven Nation Army” as far as songs you’ll hear amateur guitarists at Guitar Center play.

The second single from Nevermind also shows Kurt Cobain’s crazy knack for melody writing.


1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

What is Nirvana’s biggest hit? Obviously, that’d be “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

It sounds cliché, but it’s true: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” changed and defined a generation.

The slacker anthem, with its nonsense lyrics and HUGE guitar sound, gave Gen X a calling card and singlehandedly created grunge, the last major mutation of rock n’ roll that had a massive cultural and social impact.

It’s difficult to conceive of this now, but at the time “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was completely original. There was nothing like it. It was a breath of fresh air in a rock world that was going stale.

Moreover, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still sounds fresh today, over 30 years (!) after its release.

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Written by Erik Ritland

Erik Ritland is a songwriter, musician, journalist, and podcaster based in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s released over a dozen albums since 2002, most recently Old Dog Almost Gone (2021), the first-ever multimedia album, and his latest collection of all original material, A Scientific Search (2020). During his 15+ years as a music journalist, Erik has written hundreds of articles for Music in Minnesota, Something Else Reviews, his own blog Rambling On, and more. In addition to continuing his music career, Erik currently runs The Cosmic American, a music journalism website, and is the editor of Music in Minnesota.


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