Nov 012018
 

‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

best nirvana covers

Nirvana released its first single 30 years ago today. Well, today-ish. That single was the first installment in the now-legendary Sub Pop Singles Club, so I imagine its “release date” was whatever day it landed in the mailbox for the 1,000 lucky people who got it (you can get it too, but you’ll have to drop $3,300 on Discogs).

And what was that very first Nirvana single? Whaddya know, it was a cover! The band launched their recording careers with “Love Buzz,” originally by Dutch psychedelic-rockers Shocking Blue. Not the most obvious start for the most iconic band of the ’90s (apparently it was Krist’s idea). Already a staple of their raucous live show, “Love Buzz” did represent, according to Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt, “an indicator of some of their direction in songwriting.”

Three decades on, that songwriting has generated a few covers of its own. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has of course been covered thousands of times, but some other Nirvana songs aren’t as far behind as you might think. “Lithium,” “Come As You Are,” and “In Bloom” remain perennial cover selections, and “Territorial Pissings” seems surprisingly popular. (“Rape Me,” not so much.) Heck, half the artists we hear covering David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” or Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” seem to really be covering Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged versions.

So today, we continue our Best Covers Ever series by whittling down the moshing masses of Nirvana covers to the best thirty. Here we are now. Entertain us!

Honorable Mention: Nirvana – Lithium

No, not that Nirvana. The 1960s British band of the same name covered “Lithium” when they reunited in the 1990s. A cute nod, made less cute when you realize this older group had sued over the grunge band’s use of the name only a few years prior (Sub Pop reportedly had to pay them $100,000). At any rate, this Nirvana’s cover is not that good, but this psych-pop spin on “Lithium” perhaps paved the way for a much better version in the same vein a few years later. But we’ll get there…

30. John Frusciante – Lounge Act

John Frusciante is best known for his two stints with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a rare band that can claim Nirvana as one of their opening acts (before Frusciante’s era). Frusciante later performed “Lounge Act” acoustically just a few times in 2001, doing furious guitar work to transform the infectious bass riff. In the 1991 original, Kurt Cobain ramps up the passion in the third version from his earlier even-tone vocals to scream “Truth covered in security.” Frusciante doesn’t go the scream route, but instead heads for near-falsetto ground for an intimate and raw feel. Frusciante doesn’t end the Nevermind song that way though. For the last few lines of the final chorus, Frusciante sings in a lower powerful scowling tone for the verses of “To prove they still, smell her on you.” Very Nirvana-ish indeed with the quiet/loud change. – John Lenhardt

29. Iron Horse – All Apologies

In 2017, the cross-genre bluegrass cover band Iron Horse released an album of Nirvana covers as part of CMH Records’ long-running Pickin’ On series. The album opens with a revelatory bluegrass cover of “All Apologies.” In their virtuoso hands, the track plays like an old gospel ballad from the Blue Ridge Mountains written as a prayer for redemption. – Curtis Zimmermann

28. Sivu – Dumb


London singer James Page (don’t call him Jimmy) dramatically recast the In Utero track on an early promo single. It drifts and swirls blissfully along, all quavering vocals and pulsating organ. Like many covers on this list, it might take even the biggest Nirvana fan a few seconds to recognize it. – Ray Padgett

27. The Bad Plus – Smells Like Teen Spirit

When jazz musicians tackle standards, it is common to take the theme, improvise off of it, sometimes to unrecognizable places, before returning to the theme. In their stunning cover of Nirvana’s first and biggest hit, The Bad Plus, a trio from Minneapolis known for covering non-jazz songs, take a different approach, transforming the song’s angry grunge pop into a still recognizable but often discordant jazz piece. It is a great cover because of the way that it both respects and completely changes the song so that you can enjoy it on its own terms, even if you aren’t somehow familiar the ubiquitous original, but also reinforces the song’s inherent quality, stripped of its genre’s trappings. – Jordan Becker

26. The King – Come As You Are

Well, you could take any excuse to include Jim “The King” Brown, Belfast’s oddball Elvis impersonator, and to a point you would be right. But, surely you have to admit it, it is really rather good. The conceit, spread out over two records, is to imagine how it would sound if Elvis covered other dead artists. So good is the pastiche – often astonishingly accurate vocal phrasing and tics, backed by a tight band – that it really does sound like how that big band in the sky might play it. This has balls and ballast enough for me to imagine Kurt and Elvis having a beer and a cheeseburger backstage, both pretty damn impressed with their legacies acted out in this way. – Seuras Og

25. Rogue Wave – On a Plain


There’s a YouTube video of Rogue Wave covering this alongside Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard in 2006. It’s not much of a video – bad sound quality, and you can barely see Gibbard. But it makes plain an obvious pairing: Rogue Wave does sound a heck of a lot like Death Cab on their “On a Plain” cover. This far superior recording by the band (no Gibbard) comes from a KCRW session the year prior. – Ray Padgett

24. Ramin Djawadi – Heart-Shaped Box

An orchestral arrangement might not seem like the obvious choice for a cover of “Heart Shaped Box,” but in the hands of Ramin Djawadi, it makes perfect sense. The instantly recognizable melody and eerie minor third riff translate easily to strings, and the cello provides the rhythmic undertone to drive the chorus. It’s a genius rendition that suits the dark and complicated place that is Westworld. If you’re looking for a highly stylized but still true to form rendition without so much grunge haze, this is the one. – Angela Hughey

23. Graham Parker & The Episodes – In Bloom

“In Bloom” is a relatively catchy tune that Kurt Cobain wrote to mock bandwagon-jumping Nirvana fans who liked their catchy tunes without understanding the band’s message. Graham Parker, whose finest and angriest album, Squeezing Out Sparks, was released a month after Cobain turned twelve, put out a live album recorded at New York’s late, lamented Bottom Line in 1995 (a year after Cobain died), featuring “In Bloom” as an encore. Parker performed the song solo, with only his sneering vocals and electric guitar providing a nice tribute to a fellow misanthrope. – Jordan Becker

22. William Fitzsimmons – Something in the Way

The last track on Nevermind (not counting the hidden track), “Something in the Way” saw Cobain spinning a dark tale of nights sleeping under a bridge on the muddy banks of the Wishkah River. William Fitzsimmons makes the track even darker by changing the instrumentation from acoustic band to organ, while keeping Cobain’s quiet, haunted style of delivery, echoing and resonating just as powerfully as Cobain’s did. – Patrick Robbins

21. Paul Anka – Smells Like Teen Spirit

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been covered so many times it may as well be considered part of the Great American Songbook. Paul Anka picked up on this when he gave the song a Frank Sinatra-style makeover on his 2005 covers record Rock Swings. Forget about the mosh pit; this cover lives up to the album’s title as it makes you want to twirl your way around the dance floor. Backed by a full big band, you can practically snap your fingers to Anka singing out: “A mulatto/An albino/A mosquito/My libido.” A musical first, for sure. – Curtis Zimmermann

20. Horse Feathers – Drain You

When this cover came out in 2010, Horse Feathers’ press photo featured the members standing by a dilapidated barn holding guitar, banjo, accordion, and bowed saw. So you know what genre you’re in for. But the creativity and underlying darkness might surprise anyone sick of Mumford-core faux-kies. Horse Feathers’ “Drain You” sounds little like a genre-crossing goof; the band feels this song to their bones, making it sit comfortably in this very different style. – Ray Padgett

19. Butch Walker & the Black Widows – In Bloom

Starting with a fuzzy bass line and minimalist percussion, Walker’s take on “In Bloom” is instantly recognizable yet clearly its own thing. The chorus takes a glorious left-turn into a raucous and danceable segment reminiscent of Supergrass. The funky guitar licks drive the song while the verses serve only to provide a break between that celebration of a chorus. – Mike Misch

18. Maya Beiser – Lithium


Avant-garde classical cellist Maya Beiser’s 2014 album Uncovered is a collection of ten
rock songs completely reimagined by Beiser and arranger Evan Ziporyn, a fellow member of Bang on a Can All-Stars. The songs run the gamut from Muddy Waters to Janis Joplin, to Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, King Crimson, and, yes, Nirvana. Multitracking her cello, and adding a little bass and drums (provided by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, who has himself dabbled in classical composition), Beiser recreates both the dynamic extremes of the original, and its fury, without vocals. As Beiser stated about the cover in the Wall Street Journal, “His voice is raspy and out of tune and not clean.” Playing his voice on the cello “is about letting go of all that and diving into that world.” Uncovered is not a typical classical-musician-covers-rock-songs-to-make-a-buck throwaway or a novelty, but instead, is a truly original work of fusion, in the best sense of the word, and her take on “Lithium” is a fine example of how that can work successfully (although her cover of King Crimson’s “Epitaph” is truly stunning). – Jordan Becker

17. Tori Amos – Smells Like Teen Spirit

What is it about Tori Amos? There have been a million solo-piano Nirvana covers, just as there have solo-piano Radiohead, Depeche Mode, and Leonard Cohen covers. In every case, Tori’s are better. What in the YouTube era now seems a clichéd formula – slowed-down, emotive cover of fast rock song – succeeds in her hands because of how much passion and grit she puts into every note. Not one word of her “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds like a gag. In her own way, Tori’s every bit as heavy as Nirvana. – Ray Padgett

16. Sinéad O’Connor – All Apologies

Aside from the occasional strummed chord, the guitar acts more as a percussive instrument in one of Nirvana’s most well-known songs. This is all the accompaniment needed for the breathy, dark angel melodies sung by Sinead O’Connor on her rendition of “All Apologies.” O’Connor released this version shortly after Cobain’s suicide. It’s a reverent, simple version that places all emphasis on the words, which are crystal clear and haunting. – Angela Hughey

15. Rachel Goodrich – Territorial Pissings

Wikipedia quotes the New York Times dubbing Rachel Goodwich “the queen of the Miami indie rock scene” in 2008, but I prefer the article’s next sentence: “She is the Feist-like jewel of a town more known for machined bass, booty and beats than for handcrafted songs.” Miami apparently does indeed offer more than booty-bass, as in 2011 a local music blog put out an entire Nirvana tribute album titled Nevermind Miami. Goodrich’s haunted-scarecrow “Territorial Pissings” embodies creepy back roads and creaky rural ghost towns. You know, Miami. – Ray Padgett

14. The Ukrainians – Smells Like Teen Spirit


Scarcely recognizable as it starts, the uncomfortable mix of huge basso profundo vocal and grebo rhythm section, all clattering drums and thunderous bass, with thrashing electric chords for light relief, before balalaikas and accordions peer through the smoke. So far, just another typical Ukrainians cover. Massive in their “home” country, they actually hail from Leeds in the north of England, and were originally an offshoot of the Wedding Present. This is from their History of Rock Music in Ukrainian album, and is one of its more successful tracks, Nirvana being more akin in style than their more usual covers fare of the Smiths, the Sex Pistols and the Velvet Underground. – Seuras Og

13. Roadkill Ghost Choir – Pennyroyal Tea


Admittedly, Nirvana kind of beat Roadkill Ghost Choir to the punch. Want to hear this rocking In Utero highlight stripped down to its acoustic bones? Just pull up Kurt Cobain’s solo MTV Unplugged version, performed on the spot after a full-band arrangement failed to gel. But Roadkill Ghost Choir bring the volume down in a different way, steel guitar and high-lonesome vocals channeling a desolate Southwestern wasteland. The Breaking Bad producers blew it by never licensing this for some montage. – Ray Padgett

12. Sturgill Simpson – In Bloom

The original line was “Don’t know what it means and I say yeah.” Sturgill Simpson misheard it and recorded it as “Don’t know what it means to love someone.” A handwritten apology to the Cobain estate allowed him to release the song the way he’d done it, complete with C&W-styled vocals and pedal steel, and the song gained a whole new level of meaning. It may be one of the most beneficial mondegreens in music history. – Patrick Robbins

11. Ásgeir Trausti – Heart-Shaped Box

Ásgeir is one of the myriad Icelandic talents who has transformed the interface between rock, electronica, and classical musics. Classitronica, if you will. All this from a tiny country where it seems every other individual statistically has to be either in a band or composing music. In truth, little is done here to this more balladic of Nirvana’s output beyond altering the soundscape to keyboard and muted beats, so as to showpiece Ásgeir’s ethereal vocal. I think it is the shock of hearing the lyric that transcends. We are used to Kurt’s agonized imagery, but not in these sepulchral tones. – Seuras Og

10. Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer – Lithium

Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer are sisters who took years to establish their own separate careers (and apparently overcome an estrangement) before finally releasing a joint album of mostly covers in 2017 (the sole non-cover is a joint composition that addresses the murder/suicide of their parents during their teens). The album was our 6th best cover album of 2017. Produced by Teddy Thompson (who has experience wrangling family members in the studio), Not Dark Yet (named for the Dylan cover which landed on our Best Cover Songs of 2017), is, for the most part, a folky reinterpretation of songs by artists as diverse as The Killers, The Louvin Brothers, Nick Cage, Merle Haggard and Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. However, their cover of “Lithium” is particularly unusual because the sisters, who are extraordinary harmony singers (and have the benefit of having that special ability that siblings who sing have to harmonize together) have chosen to sing dissonantly to recreate Cobain’s distinctive vocal sound. – Jordan Becker

9. Little Roy – Dive

A raw and possibly charmless slab of inchoate rage, “Dive” is the sort of track that divides the Nirvana hardcore from those who merely bought into the idea as fashion statement. So the transformation wreaked by Little Roy is nothing short of remarkable, with the song becoming an immaculately crafted dancehall celebration of life. I hadn’t ever listened to the words until now, which makes the piece all the more astonishing. Little Roy, no relation to the Irish children’s TV character of the same name, has a distinguished back story as one of the original roots reggae rockers, having worked with everyone from Prince Buster to the Wailers. This cover hails from 2011, as part of a double A-sided single, c/w “Sliver,” commissioned to celebrate 20 years of Nirvana, with an entire tribute record following from him soon after. It stands up in its own right, rather than being as any other novelty mutation in covers world. I prefer many tracks to the originals, as I do with this. – Seuras Og

8. Tricky – Something in the Way

Trip-hop legend Tricky has covered some seriously unlikely artists. Patti Smith? Yep. Sarah Vaughan? Sure. Britney Spears? With harmonica interludes, no less. In the case of “Something in the Way,” the producer recruited low-voiced crooner Hawkman to add vocals over his jittery electrobeat soundscape. – Ray Padgett

7. Charles Bradley & the Menahan Street Band – Stay Away

Bradley’s weathered voice is the star of any song he sings. His cover of “Stay Away” is no different, although the psychedelic blues guitar is clearly in a best-supporting role. This is one of those great covers that sounds less like a Nirvana song covered in another genre and more like an original song that just happens to use Kurt Cobain’s lyrics. Bradley’s phrasing is incredible, especially on the pleading chorus and his ad lib screams hit all the right notes. This one belongs on your late-night road trip mixtape. – Mike Misch

6. Cibo Matto – About a Girl

“About a Girl” was a significant step for both Nirvana and covering artists Cibo Matto (“food madness” in Italian). For Nirvana, it proved they were about more than grunge. For Cibo Matto, it showed the band were about more than songs about food. They gave “About a Girl” a lo-fi bossa nova sound and a sweetness that even acoustic Nirvana couldn’t provide. – Patrick Robbins

5. Patti Smith – Smells Like Teen Spirit

Patti Smith never met Kurt Cobain, but she’s spoken many times about the connection she felt to his music. She wrote her own tribute to him, “About a Boy,” for 1996’s Gone Again, saying at the time, “That day [he died], we went to a record store, and I remember kids were outside crying. They didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves. I felt a little like Captain Picard: I couldn’t mess with the Prime Directive. It was not my place to say anything. But I really wanted to comfort them, tell them it was all right, that his choice was a very rare choice.” So no surprise she revisited his music on 2007’s brilliant covers album Twelve, turning “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into beat-poet Americana with some new lyrics all her own. – Ray Padgett

4. Goldfish feat. Julia Church – Heart-Shaped Box

Nirvana as house music? An insistent piano and honkin’ sax? A teenaged girl singing over a pumping beat? Check, check, and check. This is a “Heart-Shaped Box” that would rather bump than grind, twist than shout, be about the pleasure than the pain. Goldfish and Julia Church put such an individual stamp on the song that even Nirvana…(dons sunglasses) would rave. (YEEAAAAAHHHH) – Patrick Robbins

3. mewithoutYou – In Bloom

A band Wikipedia tags as “post-hardcore” covering Nirvana doesn’t sound surprising. But the genre description does not begin to prepare you for mewithoutYou’s “In Bloom” cover. It’s a softcore as they come, a pastoral freak-folk ballad that seamless integrates bits of “All Apologies” as well. Aaron Weiss’s careful singing presents the lyrics more clearly than you’ve heard them before, backed by finger-picking, harmonies, and harmonium. It gradually builds to something majestic – not “hardcore” in genre terms, but certainly a hardcore level of emotion. – Ray Padgett

2. Laura Love – Come As You Are

“Come as You Are” is foreboding but also sufficiently accessible to attract non-grunge lovers. Featuring one of Cobain’s longest guitar solos, it is powerful and scary, and yet reassuring (“I don’t have a gun….”). Five years after its release, Laura Love, a former member of all-woman Seattle band Venus Envy (best known for their album and song “I’ll Be a Homo for Xmas”) included a cover of the song on her sixth solo album, Octaroon. Love, whose music is a mix of Americana, folk, blues, African, Celtic, and bluegrass genres (reflecting her own mixed ethnic background) recorded the song with only her bass backing her soaring, soulful vocals. It is extremely different from the original, although the bass riff is equally persistent. – Jordan Becker

1. The Polyphonic Spree – Lithium

If you know this, you will know it as a terrific lurch into turbo charged essence of Cobain, sort of as in “I’ll have what he’s having” and going apeshit with it. They romp through the song with added embellishment of a massed chorale and the odd harp or two. All the energy and slightly less of the angsty attitude (in a good way). But if you are unfamiliar with this version, I would respectfully suggest you first listen without the visuals, so as to get a better feel. I guess I knew the idea of the Polyphonic Spree, hundreds of ’em, dressed in robes and spilling vibes of some Mansonesque cult. Never had I quite put the sound of this song and the band quite together, so watching the video had me (almost) regret my commendation, so arch and kitsch is it. Ain’t we wacky, it says, the singer acting out the words with a knowing, in-on-the-joke leer, the backing singers shaking their heads in proscribed grunge style. Forget it. Close your eyes and play it again. Loud. Thanks for listening, sorry you had to watch. – Seuras Og

Check out the Best Ever Covers of Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, Beyoncé, Pink Floyd, and more here.

  3 Responses to “The Best Nirvana Covers Ever”

Comments (3)
  1. Honorable mention: Charlie HunterTrio’s handling of “Come As You Are,” performed live here but also appearing on his “Bing Bing Bing ” album. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4iAMx-nS6Y

  2. The Big Hush covering “Sifting” is one of the best covers I’ve heard. Subdued but very important.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcLyFrvkH4g

  3. I love this list of songs.

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