By Christopher R. Weingarten
April 05, 2019 at 08:00 AM EDT
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain left us with less than 100 songs, but they’ve proven remarkably durable thanks to their indelible melodies, Cobain’s imagery-lush lyrics, and the generations open to the welcoming simplicity of three-chord rock. In the 25 years since Cobain’s death (on April 5th, 1994), his songs have been mutated as new jazz standards and sung like delicate ballads, sampled by rappers and twanged up by country singers, rethought by his punk heroes, and attempted by his indie rock followers. Here are the 25 best.

25. Flipper, “Scentless Apprentice” (2001)

San Francisco sludge-punk muck-makers Flipper made their most important records in the early ’80s, and were a huge influence on Cobain — who paid homage by wearing a handmade Flipper tee on Saturday Night Live, in the “Come As You Are” video, and the In Utero liner notes. Nirvana had turned Flipper’s slowpoke emo dirges into pop candy, and in 2001, the band replied by dragging “Scentless Apprentice” back into the quicksand: lethargic bass drum, dead-eyed guitars, and throat-rending vocals.

24. Charlie Hunter Trio, “Come As You Are” (1995)

For his debut on esteemed jazz label Blue Note, guitarist Charlie Hunter recalls the work of cool jazz pioneer Dave Brubeck, rearranging a Nirvana hit outside of its usual meter. Hunter moves the mosh-ready 4/4 into a swinging 6/8.

23. Evanescence, “Heart Shaped Box” (2003)

An unplugged version of a song Nirvana opted not to do on MTV Unplugged. Though a little more polished than the aesthetic Nirvana usually inhabited, this cover is a good platform for Amy Lee’s goth-opera voice, which soars in the final chorus.

22. Patti Smith, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (2007)

In a delirious folk twirl, punk poet Patti Smith stretches this grunge landmark past the six-minute mark, inserting a bridge of her own rapid-fire poetry and adding clarity to Cobain’s marble-mouthed delivery, saying all the syllables Cobain ignored in the word “dangerous.” “When Nirvana came out … I was happy for the kids to have Nirvana,” Smith told Rolling Stone. “I didn’t know anything about Kurt’s torments or personal life. I saw the work and the energy, and I was excited by that.”

21. Paw, “School” (1995)

Called “a very welcome by-product of the post-Nirvana grunge grab” by Spin in 1993, Lawrence, Kansas scuzzmeisters Paw played alt-rock bluster that sizzled with vocalist Mark Hennessy’s Skynyrd-fried yowl. They toured like crazy but their two major label albums didn’t make much of a mark. In the waning days of their ride with the majors, they recorded a threshing machine cover of “School” as an excellent B-side.

20. EMA, “Endless Nameless” (2011)

Closing out SPIN magazine’s Newermind tribute project, Erika M. Anderson’s critically acclaimed noise-rock act tackled one of the noisiest songs in the Nirvana catalog: the feedback-drenched Nevermind secret track “Endless Nameless.” EMA made a career out of harnessing the Technicolor noise of songs like “Nameless.” “[‘Endless Nameless’ is] about destruction, it’s about feedback, it’s about down-tuning,” Anderson told SPIN. “It’s a performative thing they’d do at the end of a show to break shit. I can get into that.”

19. Jay Reatard, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” (2010)

This taut piece of psych-garage emerged the day after Memphis lo-fi figurehead Jay Reatard passed away in 2014 at the age of 29. Recorded for a punk/hardcore/metal tribute to Nirvana’s In Utero and eventually released on indie label Robotic Empire, Reatard played all the instruments himself on what would be one of his final recordings.

18. Kristin Hersh, “Pennyroyal Tea” (1999)

Kristin Hersh of fellow alt-boom predecessors Throwing Muses, runs “Pennyroyal Tea” through the gleaming textures of her ’90s run.

17. Sonic Youth, “Moist Vagina” (1998)

European tourmates, DGC labelmates, and classmates in the Year Punk Broke, Sonic Youth paid tribute to their pals by covering this Nirvana rarity as a B-side to their “Sunday” 7-inch. Thurston Moore reportedly pushed Cobain to put the explosive, yowling, Swans-like original on In Utero. Sonic Youth’s cover is even weirder — fractured guitar, narcoleptic pulse, squelchy noise, and a strained lead vocal by Kim Gordon that even outdoes some of Cobain’s throat sounds.

16. Slow Poke, “Been a Son” (2000)

This simmering quartet is somewhat obscure, but the players — guitarist David Tronzo, saxophonist Michael Blake, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen — have names that ring loud in downtown New York jazz circles. Apart they’ve accompanied Norah Jones, Tom Waits, Al Di Meola, John Zorn, and more. But together, on their 2000 album, they turn “Been a Son” into a swamp lurch that struts between art-jazz and funk-adjacent grooves.

15. Cibo Matto, “About a Girl” (1999)

On this 1999 B-side from a promotional single, NYC alt-anything duo Cibo Matto rethink “About a Girl” as a dreamy bossa nova. Kitschy, loungy, and super cool.

14. Melvins feat. Leif Garrett, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (2000)

An absolute conceptual triumph. The Melvins were friends, heroes, and occasional collaborators to Cobain, who credits them as his first concert and whose sludge battery served as one of his most important musical influences. In 1999 the Melvins burst expectations, legacies, and narratives by covering the most iconic Nirvana song of all time with ’70s cheesecake-pop teen idol Leif Garrett. Leader Buzz Osborne said the intention was to draw parallels between the two artists. “It’s one of the best, most f—d-up ideas I’ve ever come up with,” he told the Dallas Observer. “Especially with Leif’s obvious drug past and Kurt’s public drug use.”

13. Polyphonic Spree, “Lithium” (2009)

Nirvana’s famed quiet-verse/loud-chorus dynamic is pushed to limits of grandiosity by the Polyphonic Spree, whose twentysomething-member lineup expands it into an explosion of orchestral pop. “Yes, ballsy to have covered Nirvana,” leader Tim DeLaughter told BlogCritics. “But Jon [Brion, producer] made sure it was our own while paying tribute to one of the best songs ever written.”

12. Little Roy, “Sliver” (2011)

A storied reggae artist who recorded for Studio One in the ’60s, worked with the Upsetters in the ’70s, and released music on Adrian Sherwood’s On U-Sound in the ’90s, Little Roy found success in the internet era with Battle for Seattle, a 2011 album reinterpreting 10 Nirvana songs with revisionist producer Prince Fatty. Released as the A side of a 45, Little Roy moves Cobain’s evocative night at grandma’s from Washington to Jamaica. Battle for Seattle Arranger Nick Coplowe told The Guardian, “When you look at ‘Sliver’ it’s just a day at his grandma’s house, but there’s a lot of angst and hurt in there. Most reggae music is about pain and suffering and struggling, and that’s what Kurt’s lyrics were about.”

11. Finally Punk, “Negative Creep” (2009)

The new generation of punks and indie rockers have naturally recorded their share of Nirvana covers — Fidlar, Titus Andronicus, Mean Jeans, and Jeff the Brotherhood among them. But the best of the bunch may be defunct Austin four-piece Finally Punk, whose angular, ramshackle blurts recalls late-’70s post-punk bands like the Raincoats and Liliput (of which Cobain was an avowed fan). The whole thing sounds like it may fall apart at any minute.

10. Caetano Veloso, “Come As You Are” (2004)

A towering figure in Brazil’s Tropicália movement of the late ’60s, Caetano Veloso had a spotlight in America around the turn of the millennium, inspiring artists like Beck, David Byrne, and Arto Lindsay. In 2004 Veloso released his first album in English, covering American standards by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, and more. His Nirvana cover is breezy and minimal until the dive-bombing string section creaks in towards the end.

9. Tori Amos, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1992)

Perhaps the first Nirvana cover of any note, Tori Amos deconstructs Cobain’s accidental anthem, removing all the aggression for a soaring piano ballad. Cobain said he and wife Courtney Love would wake up, blast the Amos version and “dance like a Solid Gold dancer,” adding, “It’s a great breakfast cereal version.”

8. Robert Glasper Experiment, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (2012)

This ambitious cover from Glasper’s Grammy-winning pan-genre masterstroke Black Radio finds Cobain’s iconic melody awash in a post-modern frequency-smash redolent of dub reggae’s echoes, J Dilla’s muted beatwork, jazz soloing, soul croon, and prog noise. Lyrics once renown for being inscrutable are now even one more layer deep, hidden behind vocoder, recalling Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, or Neil Young’s Trans.

7. Herbie Hancock, “All Apologies” (1996)

One of the most famous living jazz icons treats “All Apologies” like Rogers & Hammerstein on 1996’s The New Standard. The song that unwittingly became Cobain’s epitaph is still reflective, but now gently funky, strolling, and carefree, with a bluesy piano solo from Hancock and some electric sitar backing from John Scofield.

6. Steve Earle, “Breed” (2002)

Weathered country-rock outlaw Steve Earle takes one of Nirvana’s most hardcore-addled speedfests to the heartland, leaving its punishing distortion intact. The track — which he recorded in one take at the end of a session for 2000’s Transcendental Blues — was intended as a surprise for Danny Goldberg, the former Nirvana manager who later founded Earle’s label, Artemis Records. The loose and sloppy feel is responsible for some of its charm.

5. Tanya Tagaq, “Rape Me”

Inuit art-rocker Tanya Tagaq turns Cobain’s primal feminist cry into a delicate, haunting rumination — not only for missing, abused, and murdered Indigenous women, but for Mother Earth as well. Tagaq’s voice, which is known for veering into growls and screams, is instead an intimate coo and an unsettling whisper. Tagaq told Ottawa Beat, that “as soon as the words started coming out, it kind of went from third person like Kurt Cobain singing about rape to first person, as a woman who has gone through these things, as a mother concerned for her child.”

4. Sturgill Simpson, “In Bloom” (2016)

Sturgill Simpson’s third album — a country alternative that doesn’t exactly scan as “alt-country” — was a letter of sorts to his young son. Simpson was a Nirvana fan as a teen, and produced this loving tribute with keening steel guitar, the Dap-Kings horns, and his own rusty-to-brassy croon. “For me, that song has always summed up what it means to be a teenager,” Simpson told Rolling Stone, “and I think it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate — he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man.”

3. Sinéad O’Connor, “All Apologies” (1994)

Released months after Cobain’s death, Sinéad O’Connor nestled this fragile, desolate, stripped-down cover towards the center of her fourth album, Universal Mother. O’Connor told Cuepoint in 2014 that Cobain, “represented a massive amount of people who were really kind of invisible and unheard, who had a lot of pain, a lot of stuff that needed to be heard.”

2. The Bad Plus, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (2003)

Providing a gateway into their unpredictable, rhythmically bent avant-jazz, Minneapolis trio the Bad Plus loaded early albums with prismatic covers of the Pixies, Blondie, Aphex Twin, and, most famously, Nirvana. In their version, a familiar melody falls bleakly and disorientingly out of tune; and a song famed for its simplicity reaches wild vistas of complexity thanks to the wild flurries of pianist Ethan Iverson.

1. Charles Bradley & the Menahan Street Band, “Stay Away” (2011)

Indefatigable soul lifer Charles Bradley drags Nirvana screaming and crying back to the mid-’60s, the era when Otis Redding was doing hard-driving covers of rock bands like the Beatles and the Stones. Rearranged with Brooklyn’s retro crew Menahan Street Band — whose sound is authentic enough to be sampled by Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem — Bradley brought unique warmth to a song soaked in alienation.

 

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