During the Nineties, one band changed popular and underground music forever. Nirvana, hailing from the Northeastern land of Washington – specifically, Aberdeen – kicked open the door for alternative bands throughout America. The trio put Seattle on the map and made “grunge” a household name. Led by guitarist, singer, and songwriter Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl, the band forged their lone-wolf artistic status. Hard and soft rock textures, intricate and bare-bones studio productions, and unconventional commercial concert events set the group apart from its contemporaries.
Though the trio only released three proper studio albums, each one captures the band in raw energy and spirits, making for an exciting – if at times jarring – dive through their discography. If you have a day to dedicate to listening to these in succession, on vinyl wherever possible, it will not be in vain. And if you want to take your time appreciating these records, let them breathe in your mind, and take all the time you need. With a little bit of history to digest alongside digging these explosive tunes, you may end up enjoying Nirvana in new ways you never thought possible. So, light up or put some tea on – it’s time to dive deep.
Released: June 15, 1989
In the grand scheme of a limited discography that was nevertheless expansive in scope and ambition, Bleach remains the band’s most punk record. It will live on forever as Nirvana’s youthful punk credibility, where they confronted disgusting cultural absurdity, hipster fascists, and their awkward, pained relationship with drugs. It is the rawest in sound or production, but the songs are equally dismal, depressing, harsh, and intense. For the right audience, this is the best Nirvana record. And even if it’s your least favorite, there is plenty of reason to visit it, know it, and love it if you are a fan of the band’s later music. Everything started here, from the band’s intensity to their exploration of acoustic and distorted sonic textures.
They recorded their ambitious debut statement at Reciprocal Recording in Seattle, paid for entirely by a musician that jammed with the band. Their label Sub Pop was expecting an EP, and what they got was double that. The full-length debut Nirvana album, Bleach – the album that barely happened – was written in a flurry of anger by frontman Cobain due to feeling pressured to record grunge music. That element of commercial manipulation would challenge the band throughout their career. Still, these 11 songs, plus two bonus tracks included on most subsequent releases, capture a young band in a pivotal moment.
Here is the only album featuring Chad Channing. Dave Grohl joined the band during the Nevermind recording sessions. Even though the album did not chart upon release, it found a fanbase among underground listeners and critics. The album finally broke the top 100 albums chart after Nevermind exploded into the mainstream in 1992 – peaking at 33 and 34 on the UK and Australian charts, respectively. It became certified platinum shortly, and it is easily the indie label’s most successful release. Rolling Stone named the record the 13th best grunge album in 2019.
“Blew” effectively introduces the album, thanks to the low drop-d tuned guitar and accidentally drop-c tuned bass guitar. “About A Girl” is easily the most well-known, accessible, and critically beloved track from Bleach. “Love Buzz,” a Shocking Blue cover, is another oft celebrated song from the record with unique historical importance for the group. Even though the band wasn’t too serious about this obscure sixties song by a Dutch psychedelic band, Sub Pop loved the demo, which alone led to them getting signed by the label.
- “About a Girl”
- “Love Buzz”
Released: September 24, 1991
Nirvana recorded Nevermind in Sound City Studios (California) and Smart Studios (Wisconsin) in the spring and early summer of 1991. It represents a departure from the brand of sludgy, grating punk music from the band’s debut. This shift is similar to the sound of alternative and indie acts like Pixies, Melvins, and R.E.M. Essentially, these bands fused their experimental assets with pop elements to make them popular among a wide swath of listeners. Here is the album that propelled Nirvana into the sphere of popular music by sparking a newfound interest in Bleach and ensuring the band would long be at the upper echelons of punk credibility. When Dave Grohl joined during the recording of Nevermind, he completed the classic three-piece lineup.
Ultimately, eight tracks succeeded on the charts in the United States and other countries, making it one of the most culturally defining records of the era and all time. But the first song on the album and first single is what started it all. What made “Smells Like Teen Spirit” so special instantly? That can get credited to Kurt’s songwriting, guitar, and vocal talents and the rest of the band, but producer Butch Vig brought the band’s grit to a widely endurable commercial appeal. During the recording sessions, he wanted Kurt to double-track his vocals – layering his voice repeatedly to give his singing a fuller sound on the finished product. Cobain was reluctant, but the method worked, and that element of experimentation would set the tone for the rest of Nevermind, for better and for worse.
Two tracks stand out as being developed and recorded in unconventional ways. “Drain You” stands as the most laborious song the band recorded during the sessions, thanks to the many guitar layerings via overdubbing. It was Vig’s idea, but Kurt took it and ran, finding ways to make his guitar sound new and exciting. “Something In The Way” is probably the most depressing yet soulful song on the entire record – a stripped-down acoustic ballad played with a guitar missing a string. Orchestral strings get introduced in the chorus, making this song sound like something straight from a Beatles record, namely, Revolver.
Among being popular back then, Nirvana has stood the test of time largely thanks to Nevermind. It is one of the best-selling records of all time, with 30 million units sold. In 2004, the National Recording Registry added the album to their library to preserve and signify cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance.
- “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
- “In Bloom”
- “Come As You Are”
- “Drain You”
- “On a Plain”
- “Something in the Way”
Released: September 13, 1993
After Nevermind, Nirvana was at the top of the world. The trio became cultural icons, and a follow-up became highly anticipated. But despite the world-renowned adoration, the band concluded their breakout second album was too commercial sounding and over-produced. They parted with producer Butch Vig – he later claimed this was essential for the band to reclaim their credibility among the punk scene – to work with Steve Albini, who produced albums for The Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins. Despite the band’s meteoric status, Albini ultimately felt sorry for the band, concluding they struggled to create art under the throes of their record label.
Thus, the last album ever recorded by Nirvana, unfortunately, was In Utero. Thankfully, it stands as a fine poetic testament to their legacy and suggests infinite possibilities for where the three (four, if you include Pat Smear) could have gone had Cobain not tragically passed one year later. During recording, the band moved to beautiful Cannon Falls, Minnesota. However, after the two-week recording process, the band had decided the album was not ready to get released. The trio hired noted R.E.M. producer Scott Litt to add his production and mixing talents on what would become the two hit singles from the album – “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.”
Ultimately, the album benefits from this element of co-production, balancing the band’s heaviest songs with the most fragile, bright, and tender. “Heart-Shaped Box” became a strange nugget of MTV gold, while the low-key soft-rock “Dumb” became a staple of the MTV Unplugged set, continuing the growth initiated on “Something In The Way” from Nevermind. “Pennyroyal Tea” got released as the third single for this record but was recalled the same month after Kurt’s death. It hit number one on the Billboard Hot Singles chart. “All Apologies” is easily the most accessible and critically acclaimed song on the record – the electric-acoustic track signaled where the band could have gone if Kurt survived 1994.
In Utero became a number one album in America and Britain, as fans and critics dug the album. It sold well despite its predominantly punk and hard-rock sound, currently holding the status of 5x platinum worldwide.
- “Heart-Shaped Box”
- “All Apologies”
- “Pennyroyal Tea”
- “Serve the Servants”
Nirvana changed popular and underground music forever. But before and after the mainstream explosion, despite internal health problems stemming from addiction and depression, the band proved a lasting place in the hearts of the world. Nirvana heralded this shift in musical and cultural sensibilities and cemented their legendary status without compromise. The trio, especially Kurt, was relatable, cheer-worthy outcasts who made exciting music with explosive sound, creative boldness, and punk wit. Thanks to the booming rotation of MTV music videos, millions upon millions of listeners became hip to this loud, fun, and often challenging art.