Bleach (Sub Pop)
Original release date: 1989
“This is out of our reach, this is out of our reach, this is out of our reach and it’s grown.”
From “Negative Creep”
Bursting on to the underground rock/punk scene in 1989, Nirvana’s first album, “Bleach,” on Sup Pop Records, made hardly a ripple upon its initial release. Still, this would be the world’s first taste of the band that was to become, arguably, the world’s most famous band by 1993.
Recorded on a shoestring budget, “Bleach” is a raw blueprint of what was to eventually morph into “grunge.” While the album, for all intents and purpose, is essentially an under-produced hard rock extravaganza, it has an apparent undercurrent of punk featured throughout. Songs like “Negative Creep,” “Floyd the Barber” and “School” feature frontman/guitarist Kurt Cobain at his most raw: scratchy, screaming vocals and simple-yet-resounding riffing.
But the band showed they also had the mindset to mellow out on occasion, “About a Girl” being a prime example. Cobain’s mourn-filled, angst-ridden presentation on this track propelled it to become one of the band’s fan-favorites years later.
“Bleach” also happened to be the only release by the band without drummer Dave Grohl. Chad Channing does a fine job here, but the “it” that was eluding Nirvana at this time was obviously found once Grohl was brought into the fold.
In the end, “Bleach” may not be the best album to introduce listeners to Nirvana, but it’s an often overlooked gem when fans go back over the band’s discography. Some songs may be hit-or-miss, but some are the band’s finest.
Release date: Sept. 24, 1991
“Polly wants a cracker, I think I should get off her first.”
The opening chords of “Nevermind” are probably the most recognizable of the ’90s. The album’s opening track, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was essentially credited with launching the “grunge” scene and in turn, creating a sort of musical revolution in the early part of the decade.
But “Nevermind” is more than just that one song. The album is filled with catchy riffs and catchier lyrics, and had more than its fair share of hit singles. From the explosive catchiness of “Smells Like…” to the melancholic drone of “Come As You Are” to the anthemic “Lithium” and low buzz of “In Bloom,” each song seemed to strike a chord with the masses and propelled the band to superstardom.
Cobain blows through his lyrics with a sense of urgency that was lacking from any of his contemporaries at the time. Bassist Krist Novoselic shines on tracks like “Polly.” Dave Grohl established himself as a great drummer (and addition to the band) on the blistering “Stay Away” (complete with intro vocals by Grohl himself) and “Endless/Nameless” (the album’s hidden track). And while a majority of “Nevermind” tore relentlessly from track to track, the band closed the album out with its most ominous, hauntingly beautiful track, “Something In The Way,” a song Cobain claimed was about his time living under a bridge in his hometown.
On the whole, the band really seemed to mesh well on this release. “Nevermind” is a great introduction to the band, but the best was yet to come…
Release date: Feb. 5, 1992
“Even in his youth, even in his youth, even in his youth he was nothing.”
From “Even in His Youth”
Once “Nevermind” started to hit big, fans were clamoring for more Nirvana. In the winter of ’92, “Hormoaning” was released in Japan to coincide with the band’s tour of that area. The EP, also released in Australia, featured a couple of strong covers, but also one of the band’s strongest songs.
Opening with a cover of Devo’s “Turnaround,” the album also features covers of songs by The Vaselines (“Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun”) and The Wipers (“D-7”). The demo track “Aneurysm” seemed a little too raw and would show up again on the band’s next release, while “Hormoaning” remained the only place to find one of Nirvana’s strongest songs, “Even in His Youth.” On that track the band sounds as angry as ever, crafting a near-perfect punk rock song without losing their edge by taking the song too far to the extreme (a problem on some of the band’s other tracks over the years).
Since its release, the album has seen re-pressings and isn’t nearly as hard to come by as it was pre-1994.
Release date: Dec. 15, 1992
“Mom and dad went to a show, they dropped me off at Grandpa Joe’s. I kicked and screamed, said please don’t go. Grandma take me home.”
By the end of 1992, Nirvana fandom was in full swing. To satiate fans’ desire for material, a collection of non-album singles, demos, outtakes and live BBC sessions, “Incesticide,” was released as a sort-of Christmas present to the fans. “Turnaround,” “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun” (from the John Peel sessions) resurfaced, along with a new version of “Polly” — dubbed “New Wave,” Nirvana kicked up the tempo and energy from the original, crafting a fun, punk-infused alternative.
But it is tracks like the openers “Dive” and “Sliver” that make this collection a must-have for fans. “Sliver” rings out like a generic, warped childhood memory, while the destructive, cutting “Dive” showcases the band at its pre-“Nevermind” best.
In Utero (Geffen)
Release date: Sept. 21, 1993
“Teenage angst has paid off well, now IÃ¯Â¿Â½m bored and old.”
From “Serve the Servants”
Now firmly established as superstars, Nirvana was able to craft perhaps its finest effort: “In Utero.” From beginning to end, there seemed to be no weak-link throughout the album’s sometimes disillusioned, sometimes moving material. From the opening line of “Serve the Servants,” it was clear Cobain and co. had something on their minds. Produced by Steve Albini, the album captured the rawness and energy showcased on “Bleach,” while stripping away some of the pop-edge the band had embraced on “Nevermind” — in short, “In Utero” was more abrasive and noisy. Without the previously prevalent pop-edge, the songs still remained catchy in some fashion: “Rape Me” was simplistic in both lyrics and music, yet still conveyed a deep message and sounded, for lack of a better word, important; “Dumb” may have come across as silly upon first listen, but revealed a dark underbelly with each subsequent spin.
In retrospect, this was a great album for the band to go out on, featuring two of the band’s biggest hits, “All Apologies” and “Heart-Shaped Box.” The outro of “Apologies” is the perfect eerie exclamation point on the all-too-short career of Cobain: the gentle, repetitive drone of “All in all is all we are…”
MTVÃ¯Â¿Â½s Unplugged (Geffen)
Release date: Nov 1, 1994
“My girl, my girl, donÃ¯Â¿Â½t lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night?”
From “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”
Recorded and broadcast mere months before the death of Cobain, Nirvana’s “Unplugged” performance on MTV was probably one of the most memorable of the series’ run. Fans were caught off-guard by the somewhat-acoustic offering, but it was well-documented that Cobain himself was very excited about the performance and took it quite seriously as a means to showcase a different side of the band.
Despite the toned-down nature of the performance (the band bridled its fury), there was still an undertone of raw emotion seething through the set. Nirvana proved it was more than a one-trick pony and older, more established tracks (“About a Girl” and “Come As You Are”) seemed to get a new lease.
Included with the career spanning set were solid covers of The Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam,” three Meat Puppets tracks (featuring Curt and Kris Kirkwood joining the band on stage), David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
This performance was also notable as it was the debut of the short-lived Nirvana four-piece with the addition of Pat Smear on guitar.
Given the timing of the release, “MTV’s Unplugged” acted as a nice epitaph to Cobain and his band.
From the Muddy Banks of the Wishka (Geffen)
Release Date: Oct. 1, 1996
“I found it hard, it’s hard to find. Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.”
From “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Culled from live performances dating from 1989 to 1994, the collection of Nirvana live material, “From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah,” acted almost as a companion piece to the band’s video release, “Live! Tonight! Sold out!” (albeit, two years later and missing the superior “electric” version of “Something in the Way”). Unlike other live releases from fellow grunge acts (like the Alice In Chains release which unfortunately showcased the deterioration of Layne Staley), “From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah” offered a nice glimpse of the band at its finest moments.
Picking and choosing the tracks offered the opportunity to get rid of lower points (noise, constant feedback and the like) that was usually prevalent throughout Nirvana live sets and, in turn, offers the listener a distilled live experience.
Featuring great, energetic renditions of songs like “School,” “Aneurysm” and “Lithium,” this release is a great addition to fans’ collections. As for pleasant surprises, “Wishkah” has a few:
— a live version of “Polly” taken from ’89, a full 2 years before it was released on a studio album.
— a straight ahead rocking version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before the band began to abhor it.
— the unreleased (except in demo form) “Spank Thru.”
At the time fans were expecting a lot more from the first Nirvana release in a couple years and felt slighted and disappointed. In retrospect, “Wishkah” is a nice collection of the band at it (live) finest.
Unreleased, rare, demo, b-sides and rarities
Various release dates
“Things have never been so swell. I have never felt this well.”
From “You Know YouÃ¯Â¿Â½re Right”
It would be silly to attempt to go through and list all of the unreleased, rare, demo, b-side and/or rare tracks by Nirvana. Suffice to say, the band tried its hand at a lot of things.
At live shows the band often tested out cover tunes. Apart from ones already touched upon here, the results were sometimes good (The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley” and The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl”) sometimes silly (Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” and The Knack’s “My Sharona”) and sometimes downright awful (The Doors’ “The End” and Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”).
The band also switched it up when it came to their own material. The louder “electric” version of “Something in the Way” sounds just as haunting as the original, but the loudness adds a certain extra dimension to the song. And once the band grew tired of “Teen Spirit” they usually butchered the song to sometimes hilarious results (especially during a performance on the “Top of the Pops” in 1991 when Cobain sang the lyrics opera-style).
As for b-sides, some notable ones include:
— “Curmudgeon,” a little rocking track available on the “Lithium” single, noteworthy for it raw edge and punk-metal nature.
— “The Extreme” one of many unreleased tracks. The song feels like a melancholic rubber band, as the tempo expands and contracts over and over throughout and Cobain’s vocals drone on in trademark fashion.
— “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip,” an extra track on the international version of “In Utero.” Fans enjoy attempting to decipher the meaning behind the lyrics, but the track overall sounds like a loose jam session and, clocking in over seven minutes long, is a little too long for what it is.
— “I Hate Myself And Want to Die,” which surfaced on the various artist compilation “The Beavis and Butthead Experience.” This track isn’t that noteworthy but is a nice footprint between “Nevermind” and “In Utero” as the band’s sound was beginning to mature and modify.
— “Marigold,” truly the lost gem of the Nirvana catalogue. Surfacing as a b-side during the “Nevermind” days, it’s most notable for featuring Dave Grohl on lead vocals. The track comes off feeling like half ballad, half lullaby and was an early glimpse of Grohl’s musical talent.
— “Moist Vagina” off the “All Apologies/Rape Me” single. Personally one of my favorite Nirvana tracks featuring insane lyrics (“She had a moist vagina. I particularly enjoyed the circumference.”) moody bass work and haunting, down-tuned guitar.
— “Oh The Guilt,” which showed up as a split single with the Jesus Lizard. This is a great Nirvana song with a pretty laid-back chorus structure and great chorus featuring Cobain’s trademark scratchy howling.
— “Pay To Play,” which seemed to be a favorite amongst fans, although it’s simply an alternate take of what became “Stay Away” on “Nevermind.”
— “Verse, Chorus, Verse,” a track of the “No Alternative” compilation. The song is one of the band’s best and it’s sad to see it never made it onto a studio release. While the lyrics are strange at times (almost as if the band never got around to finishing it up), musically it’s right on track: catchy and not too loud … like a less-abrasive “Heart-Shaped Box.”
And now, probably the most famous of (until recently) unreleased tracks, “You Know You’re Right,” which showed up on 2002’s greatest hits compilation “Nirvana.” The song was recorded three months before Cobain’s death and is “vintage” Nirvana. It’s a testament to the talent of the band that this song, released a good six years after the band’s last album (and the first studio track to surface in nine years), shot straight up the charts.
With so much unreleased material still lurking around, fans will always have a hope that new material will be released. Until such time, we’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds for Nirvana.