Have you ever heard anyone say, “Most albums only have one or two good songs on them so why bother getting the whole thing when you can just download the singles?” If you’re like me it drives you crazy because you know that many artists most daring, interesting, and often most important songs are albums tracks and b-sides. In this feature I will explore a band or musician through ten songs that were not released as singles, giving a fuller picture of them and their career.
Rock and roll ain’t rocket science. Kurt Cobain only needed two notes to create one of the most heroic riffs of his career. It’s so satisfying that the bass and drums are content to simply copy it. “School” consists mostly of this riff repeated, plus a brief chorus and a berserk solo section. The lyrical content is equally terse but it gets the job done. Nirvana manages to express the frustration of the high school experience with just three lines and more teen angst than all of My So-Called Life.
Those drums in the intro could almost be the beginning of a radio-friendly pop jam. That is until that sinister guitar comes in. The whole thing turns into perverted surf-rock to the battle chant of “Give me back my alcohol.” Who couldn’t dance to that? Of course Nirvana would end up with neo drum legend Dave Grohl but this is one of many songs that reminds us what a good start they got off to with original drummer Chad Channing.
This song is pretty much never mentioned but it’s always been a favorite of mine because it’s one of the only songs on their first album that isn’t at least half jokey. This is a massive song, with a wide-open drum beat, huge power chords, and slower than the majority of Nirvana’s early material. It takes its time sinking in, lasting past the five-minute mark. The guitar solo is tentative at first. Cobain sounds afraid to play more than two notes per measure. It branches out into noise for a short burst, then slinks back into the shadows. When the chorus hits he’s anything but tentative though. Kurt pushes himself as he repeats “Don’t have nothing for you” over and over and lets you know that he means it.
“Stay Away” tends to get swallowed up by the rest of Nevermind. It’s hard sharing an album with the muscular pop of “In Bloom” and “Lithium” and the creepy stillness of “Polly” and “Something in the Way,” not to mention that other song that everybody knows. But “Stay Away” is pure punk rock of the finest, early-90’s grade, and featuring the rawest guitar tone on the record. Signing to a major label had many crying “Sell-out.” This song defiantly screams in those people’s faces.
Been a Son
Nirvana are known for their screaming and noise but this is a great example of the poppiness that was present in their early days. Bleach had “About a Girl” but that was an anomaly. “Been a Son,” originally released on the Blew E.P. and later in a different version on Incesticide, is a grunge sing-along with some harmonies for extra sunshine and an insane bass solo for extra grunge. Kurt Cobain always knew the power of buckets of distortion but he also understood the power of a good melody.
Songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You” are famous for juxtaposing quiet and loud. “Aero Zeppelin” on the other hand effectively juxtaposes slow and fast. It starts off sounding like a massive plodding dinosaur, which is probably why it’s named after two dinosaur rock bands. They then build the ominous first verse with increasing noise until a big drum roll leads us into all-out heavy metal riffing. The noise eventually dies down but the manic energy never ceases once it’s started and that descending riff hits you again and again. Nirvana mocked classic rock, and helped kill it, but they were also influenced by it and this song is proof.
Serve the Servants
It’s fair to say that In Utero was one of the most anticipated albums of all time, by any band. Their previous album changed the face of rock and roll and made them stars. What would the next one do? When people put that album on, the first thing they heard was a count off leading into what sounded like a wrong chord. The song gets going, and it’s pretty satisfying mid-tempo rock, but Kurt’s voice never sounded so weary and the tone he gets out of his guitar is equally grizzled. It’s a catchy enough song but undercut with discord and distain. Cobain sounds like he’s learning to play the guitar when he’s playing the solo. “Serve the Servants” doesn’t so much end as fall apart. The whole thing is a big sneer at everybody’s expectations. It was the exact right way to start the album.
In Utero comes to a close with the pretty and profound-feeling “All Apologies,” which became Nirvana’s memorable farewell song. But let’s not forget the song that comes right before it. The second to last studio recording that people heard from the band in their time was a minute and a half of punk thrash with unintelligible vocals. It’s the antithesis of “All Apologies.” Nirvana might have crossed over into the mainstream but they never lost their edge and this song is proof.
I Hate Myself and Want to Die
It’s surprising that this isn’t a better known song. It’s classic Nirvana, heavy rock with pop sensibilities. The riff is satisfying and the lyrics are perfectly apathetic. The song that almost gave their final album its name was left off in the end and it’s probably a good thing considering what was about to happen. But off-putting title aside, this is a great heavy rock track with a surprising trippy bridge. You can’t not bob your head and sing along to this one, even if you have no idea what you’re singing about.
At the height of grunge, “Sappy” could have been a huge hit. It’s one of the catchiest and most instantly appealing songs in the whole Nirvana catalogue and yet it wasn’t a single. It wasn’t even released on one of their albums. The first time this song saw the light of day was as a hidden track on an AIDS-benefit compilation album, credited under the wrong title. This to me is why Nirvana was such a great band. They were producing so much quality music that a song this great could end up being almost lost when most other bands would have killed for it. It finally got some of the recognition it deserved when it was included on the box-set, With the Lights Out, and got some radio-play as well. Nirvana are the type of band that box-sets were made for because years after their demise they continue to be discovered and rediscovered and it may not be the songs you expect that end up resounding the loudest.