This feature initially ran in September 2013 as part of In Utero’s 20th anniversary. We’re reposting in remembrance of Kurt Cobain, who would’ve turned 50 today.
How do you follow an album that’s not only a commercial breakthrough, but also defines a generation? If you’re Nirvana, you do so with your middle fingers proudly in the air. In Utero was (and still is) a massive fuck you to the corporate system, the fans that never really “got it” in the first place, and those bandwagon acts that trolled their sound three albums over. Twenty years later, it stands as the definitive Nirvana album and a portrait of a trio whose pop tendencies were secondary to their noisy nature. To celebrate their timeless ruckus, we’ve collected the loudest tracks in their repertoire and turned the fuzz up all the way to 11. In other words, the higher the number, the louder things get.
01. “You Know You’re Right”
The posthumous release of “You Know You’re Right” from the band’s last studio session was contentious with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Courtney Love, but the fans were frothing at the mouth to hear it. Everyone knows the story behind it as one of the last songs Cobain recorded, but its beauty, even though it wasn’t totally finished, dwells in its vitriol. Cobain’s mastery of brain-numbing feedback is in full effect, and his vocals are as angry as anything previously released. The doubled screams hint at a future in post-hardcore that never was.
How Loud? It’ll rattle a casket six feet down in the cold earth.
02. “Endless Nameless”
Imagine you’ve just picked up a copy of Nevermind to see what all the fuss is about. Somber closer “Something in the Way” has sent you into an extended bout of meditative depression, so it takes a while to get up and restart the album. After 10 minutes of silence, you’re ready, but then comes a decidedly unpleasant surprise: seven minutes of frustrated discordance and screeches of hopelessness. If you weren’t already hooked by Nirvana’s fascination with abusing volume, hidden track “Endless Nameless” certainly sealed the deal.
How Loud? The holocaust section of My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realize”
03. “Dive” (Live)
The best part of B-side “Dive” is Novoselic’s bass. While never complicated behind the four-string, his touches were always vital. The line of melody he plays throughout this live performance is no more than a few notes, but it complements Cobain’s pressurized crushes of guitar work. The same goes for his harmonic playing at the bridge, which offers a nice off-kilter edge. Listen closely as his deep rumbling shakes the crowd like an EDM drop. Cobain’s war cries and Grohl’s double bass beats only make your brain further vibrate like a grain sifter.
How Loud? Am I bleeding? Are those my ears?
04. “Negative Creep” – Live Version (Seattle)
Bleach standout “Negative Creep” sounds like a suicide crash course in grunge. Economical and to the point, Cobain wails with self-deprecation atop a locomotive riff for two-and-a-half minutes of pure Seattle. How the shaggy-haired singer wasn’t committed to a padded cell after that deranged chorus is beyond me.
How Loud? Someone took a staff liner filled with miniature chainsaws to a blackboard and broadcast the battle through a recently dropped megaphone.
“Lithium” B-side “Curmudgeon” stands out as one of Nirvana’s angrier songs. The guitar slices around with a darker, more metal edge than anything else on Nevermind, and Cobain’s screeching feedback pierces just as loud as he does during the choruses. In fact, his mid-song solo sounds like he did nothing more than lay his amp on the speakers while he sipped a Sprite nearby. Novoselic and Grohl batter it down to a Stone Age anthem or the stripped audio of the ugliest inner city car wreck.
How Loud? Like you’re sitting inside a Marshall stack lined with metal.
One question that remains unsolved is who was angrier: Kurt Cobain when he recorded “Tourette’s” or David Geffen upon hearing it? His indecipherable screams are saturated with so much wrath that the song’s meager 89-second length punches out in seemingly half that. It’s a far cry from the safer stylings of Pearl Jam’s Vs. and all the superficial approximations of grunge that Nirvana’s success spawned. Is it any wonder DGC was so terrified of In Utero?
How Loud? An encore performance from The Los Angeles Pomeranian Pups choir.
07. “Spank Thru” (Live)
“Spank Thru” arrived early in the band’s career and quickly became a live staple. And while it doesn’t sport Cobain’s strongest lyrics, the odd Meat Puppets and Primus wash segues evenly into the Nirvana sound that arrives at the first chorus. Onstage, however, this moment was amplified by the whispering drums as Cobain’s banshee scream tumbles down the proverbial canyon. In this particular recording, you can hear the crowd’s breath being beaten out of them as their fists and feet meet each other’s throats.
How Loud? Like your dad pounding on your bedroom door to “turn that shit down,” so ditch the shit, man!
08. “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die”
Originally intended to be the title track for what would become In Utero, “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” is a raw, feedback-soaked testament to both Nirvana’s penchant for dark humor and their tendency to be misunderstood. Fears that the joke would be lost on some resulted in a changed album title, and the song was eventually relegated to the multi-genre compilation The Beavis and Butt-head Experience.
How Loud? A shrill declaration of “I am Cornholio!” directly into your ear.
09. “Territorial Pissings” – Boombox Rehearsals
One of Nirvana’s few “punk” songs, “Territorial Pissings” won fans over with a swift kick to the head. While the original recording on Nevermind contains Novoselic’s timeless intro and a bevy of white noise, the “Boombox Rehearsals” demo that came packaged with 2011’s expansive 20th anniversary reissue stocks nothing but raw power. The song’s DNA remains the same, save for slightly different lyrics, but this particular recording captures the band’s physical prowess. Cobain tests the limits of his vocal chords (at one point, he starts screaming “Kill everyone!”), and his guitar’s thick, redline distortion starts chewing on itself.
How Loud? This is what spontaneous human combustion sounds like.
10. “Aneurysm” – Live Version (California)
Most of Nirvana’s material runs the gamut of being as catchy as The Beatles, a loud chunk of distortion pop, or an abstract blast of screeching racket. “Aneurysm” offers the best of both worlds. An irresistible riff spirals upward towards a jet-engine pummel of noise. Cobain’s voice isn’t just angry here; he’s outright disgusted, and his revulsion is especially startling in this unsettlingly memorable live rendition of the fan favorite turned unexpected radio hit.
How Loud? Living inside a Skrillex bass drop.
11. “Scentless Apprentice” – Demo Version
A heavy track in its normal In Utero construct, this hyperextended demo of “Scentless Apprentice” captures the band at their most abrasive, disorienting, and primal. Four minutes of wailing, moaning nonsense floods the track’s real estate, where Cobain’s horrific lyricism would soon drown. However, Grohl and Novoselic’s militaristic rhythm section provides the open road for Cobain’s apocalyptic air-raid siren of a solo. If there were a textbook example of why parents hated, and still hate, “all that noise,” then this demo is it.
How Loud? The inside of a grain silo with 100 cheering soccer fans all carrying M90s taped to maxed-out microphones.
Honorable Mention: “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (Unplugged)
MTV Unplugged in New York is not truly “unplugged” since Cobain’s guitar ran through an amp and effects pedals, but its sound stays true to the premise. However, the biggest revelation of Unplugged is that the strength of Nirvana’s emotional fury remains formidable even when playing acoustic. So pained is Cobain’s wail on their rendition of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” that plans and pleas for an encore were scrapped. Why? Because according to Cobain, the performance could not be topped.
How Loud? A dictionary just fell on the floor at the library. From the top shelf.