Hear the Nirvana A-Z playlist
In a lot of ways, growing older is just a series of revelations about how your parents were actually way cooler than you gave them credit for, and the realization that any concept of coolness is just a matter of perspective. Nowhere is this more painfully obvious than with music. We regularly joke about “dad rock” and “mom rock,” and gleefully play all the cheesy rock ‘n’ roll songs we heard growing up for a nostalgic throwback to more innocent times. Those songs are often people’s go-to karaoke songs, inspiring us to laugh at how ridiculous the music is and how inane the lyrics are, and we’ve thus relegated this music to “guilty pleasure” status.
But of course, those songs and artists had another life before classic rock radio, a wild one in most cases — stadiums full of long-haired, leather-jacketed cool kids going nuts for the Doobie Brothers, Ted Nugent, the Eagles, Steve Miller Band, Van Halen, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Those cool kids would eventually become your button-down, church-going, family-raising parents. But back then, they were sporting bell-bottoms and crop-tops, drinking beer in parking lots, smoking weed and making out — the same as the youth of today, just with different outfits.
Which brings us to Nirvana, a game-changing band for many and a massively important band for me. Every record and song had such a massive impact on me. The sheer musicality of the drum fills (rare is the record where you find yourself humming along to those), the perfect pop songs tucked beneath squalls of feedback and stage-destroying chaos, the ultra-personal and harrowing lyrics — it all represented a seismic sonic shift for the music world and for me personally.
As a young punk, Bleach was a big part of my life’s soundtrack, and later, Nevermind would provide a similar catharsis for a slightly older me, as would In Utero, the perfect swan song it was perhaps never meant to be. So imagine my confusion when Nirvana songs started showing up on classic rock radio. Of course that music was CLASSIC, but c’mon! I had a lot of trouble reconciling Nirvana’s seemingly out-of-nowhere classic rock status with my years-long fandom (read: obsession). I remember walking across the border (without my parents’ knowledge) from San Diego to Tijuana to see the band play at Iguanas, which was normally a club where underage kids went to drink un-carded. For me, though, it was all about the music. I would eventually see Screaming Trees, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, the Jesus Lizard, Dinosaur Jr., Soundgarden and a whole bunch of metal, but seeing Nirvana was like total, well… Nirvana!
As an assistant tape buyer at Tower Records, I tried to convince my former boss to order two whole boxes of the new Nirvana record (maybe even three), because, I told him, “It’s gonna be huge.” He ordered five copies, which sold out 10 minutes after the store opened.
The first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio, I was driving around San Francisco a few months before the release of Nevermind. I remember thinking, “Holy shit, this is maybe one of the best songs I’ve ever heard!” But it was so polished and produced compared to the band’s previous songs that I didn’t recognize their sound, even though they were one of my favorite bands at the time. When the DJ came back on the air and announced the song as the new Nirvana single, I flipped out.
And then, on April 5, 1994, I heard about Kurt Cobain’s suicide. I broke down weeping, legitimately heartbroken at the loss of one of my favorite musicians. And then later, I became (half-jokingly) obsessed with all of the conspiracy theories about it NOT being a suicide and how Kobain’s wife Courtney Love and Mentors singer El Duce planned the whole thing (the whole thing being MURDER.)
Of course, none of that includes the hundreds of hours I spent listening to Nirvana on my Walkman, poring over the lyrics, going to every show I could, blasting their records in my car stereo, hunting for bootlegs and unreleased tracks. Their music moved me in such a fundamental, life-altering way that I constantly wanted more.
It’s now been 25 years since the release of In Utero. While it’s not necessarily my favorite Nirvana record, that’s kind of like saying clam and garlic is not your favorite pizza — it’s still pizza, and it’s still delicious! Bleach was my first Nirvana record, and thus it continues to hold a special place in my heart. But like all “classic” rock, In Utero eventually transformed for me and become an essential part of a bigger whole, a sprawling collection of songs that, while linked to their respective albums, are more strongly associated with events and people in my life, which is what makes this music so special to me.
So in honor of In Utero’s 25th birthday, here’s a playlist of some of my favorite Nirvana songs: stone-cold classics, some hits, some covers, a few live tracks and B-sides. It took all the self-control I had to not include every track from every album, because, well, you know…