Kurt Cobain movie Last Days has been adapted into an opera
Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film Last Days, loosely based on Kurt Cobain, is getting the opera treatment from the Royal Opera House…
When Kurt Cobain’s Journals were published in 2002 they provided fans with genuine insight into the man and his music through both his diary entries as well as a series of deeply personal illustrations. The subjects Kurt tackled ranged from his own insecurities through to pop culture and on his dissatisfaction with the world he saw around him. Throughout the 280-page book, his fascination with music runs deep.
Like every music nerd, Kurt also felt obliged to compile a list of his favourite records, labelling it ‘Top 50 By Nirvana’. That list is presented here with our annotations. We suggest you dig in to this music. It shaped the way Kurt thought, wrote and played, and it might just change your life…
The third and hardest rocking album by The Stooges sounds as if it was made by a band who were genuinely about to self-destruct – which of course they were. Despite David Bowie acting as mentor and co-producer, Iggy Pop’s own bravado contrasts with some of the emotional lyricism, I Need Somebody being a particular example of his vulnerability. Kurt himself once called Iggy to suggest they collaborate on some music but sadly the latter’s attempt to call back went unheeded.
The template for so much modern music, Pixies proved you could marry pop smarts with a punk edge and create music that was alive with both romanticism and surrealism in equally measure. The fifth track, Gigantic, is proof of that, with Cobain openly admitting his desire to emulate the quiet-loud-quiet dynamics so evident in Surfer Rosa.
When Kim Deal (Pixies) and and Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses) drunkenly decided to form a band together, they shrugged off the ‘supergroup’ tag with ease. How? By making an album that is utterly joyous and spontaneous – the album’s freshness stemming from the fact that it was recorded by Steve Albini in the space of a week, the producer refusing to allow unnecessary multiple takes. He would approach his work with on Nirvana’s In Utero with the same rigour.
Dubbed the “pink EP” by Kurt, this second effort by Glasgow indie outfit features two tunes later covered by Nirvana: Molly’s Lips and Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam. Over 30 years after this EP was released, the original versions still retain their sense of lustful insecurity.
This one and only album by all-girl teenage group The Shaggs has often been pilloried by rock critics down the years. Despite the brickbats, its bubblegum pop sensibilities and general naivety of songs like It’s Halloween endeared themselves to Kurt and, later, the likes of Nirvana disciples Deerhoof.
Boasting one of the best band names of all-time, Texan-formed Millions Of Dead Cops exerted a huge influence over the emerging US punk underground of the early ‘80s through both their hard-and-fast musical approach as well as their left-wing politics. Both of these qualities were embraced by so-called Gen X and the burgeoning Seattle scene in particular.
During their five year career, Texan noiseniks Scratch Acid remained an uncompromising force. Their self-titled EP found an audience in the UK, something that frontman David Yow and bassist David Sims capitalised on when they formed The Jesus Lizard in ’87. Puss/Oh The Guilt, Nirvana’s 1993 split single with the latter band, would in fact peak at Number 12 in Britain.
It is hard to think of a more vital US label in the ‘80s than SST Records. Nestling alongside the likes of Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen, LA post-punks carved out their own niche on the label, their dense, textured sound influencing those willing to genuinely listen – Cobain clearly among them.
Texan acid-punks drew a direct line between ‘60s psychedelia and punk rock, stopping off to deliver a load of toilet humour along the way. As a result of the latter, this self-titled debut was also known as Brown Reason To Live as well as Pee Pee The Sailor – the title Cobain favoured.
Following the rapacious power of their debut album, Damaged, California punks Black Flag re-thought their musical approach and delivered a second effort where Black Sabbath’s influenced was marked. The result was an album that cemented the connection between the underground hardcore and metal scenes in the US.
Produced by The Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek, Bad Brains’ second album is tighter than their debut, without losing any of the DC foursome’s ability to move between punk, reggae and hard rock at will. With the track Attitude, the band also created a tune whose message continues to resonate and inspire.
Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten (née Lydon) once railed at the fact that Nirvana had seemingly ripped off part of this album’s title. “I thought, Nevermind? Have you lost your bollocks or something?” he barked, before describing Smells Like Teen Spirit as “one of pop music’s all-time greatest” and bestowing forgiveness. Thank goodness.
Men (Come On Men), Dykes Are We and Homos are just a few of the unambiguous song titles included on this album where lo-fi instrumentation is topped with confrontational homo-erotic lyricism. Targeted by conservative religious groups, the Wisconsin folk-punks – led by the Flemion brothers, Dennis and Jimmy – reacted by recording a tune entitled God Is Gay and including it on their next album.
Operating on the premise that she would probably only make one album, Dorset-born Polly Harvey delivered a debut that was lustful, raw, guitar-heavy and emotionally wide open. As it transpires, Dry was a first vital step on an enthralling career that now spans close to three decades and nine further albums of utterly inspiring music.
New York noise heroes Sonic Youth signed off their career on an independent label with this masterful double album. Their most expensive and expansive work to date, Daydream Nation also pointed a way forward for a host of other underground US acts to embrace a more experimental musical approach – Nirvana among them – rather that remain constrained by punk’s self-imposed puritanical attitude.
Kurt famously once described Nirvana as sounding like “Black Sabbath playing The Knack” – hence the inclusion of this album on this list. For all their commercial success, it’s worth noting that the LA four-piece spent a mere $18,000 recording this chart-topping, multi-platinum debut – something that by late ‘70s standards was chickenfeed. How very punk indeed…
Guitar-driven Australian blasters The Saints emerged at the same time as UK punk’s first flush and cut their debut single, I’m Stranded, in the summer of ’76. Britain embraced them fully although America appeared impervious to their advances. Their cult hero status is confirmed by the on-going popularity of their Know Your Product compilation which Kurt added to this list.
Switzerland is not known for its punk scene but it did spawn Kleenex – the surreal, female post-punk four-piece who were signed by UK label Rough Trade. While Kurt didn’t recommend a specific album on his list due to the paucity of their recorded output, we’re happy to suggest Kleenex/Liliput – anthology released in 1993 – which collects the work of the original band and their subsequent outfit, Liliput.
While punk quickly found itself codified, London-based, female four-piece The Raincoats embraced both its DIY attitude as well as its initial experimental approach to create a percussive and bold debut album. Influences ranged from dub to jazz on this self-titled offering – an album that Kurt loved so much that he wrote the sleevenotes to this reissue.
Kurt stated that he first heard post-punk outfit Young Marble Giants a year before Nirvana recorded Bleach and admired the North Wales foursome’s minimalistic and atmospheric approach. His favourite YMG tune, Credit In The Straight World, was actually covered by Hole on Live Through This, and still sounds sparse, hypnotic and oddly futuristic.
Before the endless power ballads, Aerosmith were America’s greatest balls-out rock’n’roll band. Their flair and snot-nosed clearly appealed to Kurt whose initial musical tastes were initially more Catholic than the tastes he later developed. His love of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin is best underlined by the jammed-out fuzz of, er, Aero Zeppelin – a tune included on Nirvana’s 1992 compilation Incesticide.
The Golden State’s burgeoning late ‘70s scene is belatedly anthologised on this collection which Kurt refers to simply as a “punk comp California”. As well as tracks by The Dils, The Skulls and Kaos, What Is It features two tracks by the Germs – the band who of course featured future Nirvana band member Pat Smear in their ranks.
Kurt often expressed his admiration for R.E.M, enthusing about the manner in which they’d managed to leap from an independent label on to a major, all while retaining their integrity. His also admired the band’s songwriting – something that developed considerably on Green (their first album for Warner Brothers). R.E.M.’s world-beating offering, Out Of Time, would follow three years later cementing their rise from the US alternative underground to the world’s stadia.
Ramones-worshippers Shonen Knife recorded their first album in the most basic of circumstances and unburdened by musical proficiency. That said, what emerges on this debut is that same sense of naivety that defines The Shaggs’ first album. If Tortoise Brand Pot Cleaner’s Theme remains one of the finer titles employed by the Japanese three-piece, their ability to write pop hooks is also evident. Nirvana’s affection for the Osaka three-piece was such that they insisted the band open for them on the UK tour they undertook just prior to the release of Nevermind.
Produced by Barbados-born reggae producer and musician Dennis Bovell, The Slits’ debut is a heady mix of unconventional post-punk melodies, garage-reggae rhythms and dub textures, all topped by Ari Up’s distinctive vocal style. Kurt’s favourite Slits track, Typical Girls, is a good starting point for anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with this truly unique band, while guitar player Viv Albertine’s autobiography, Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, brings you an eye-opening report of what it was like to be a woman growing up in the male-dominated world of ‘70s punk rock.
The Clash’s fifth album is often slated by punk purists. Their most accessible set, it also proved to be their most commercially successful – the band essentially splintering in its wake. A cautionary tale if ever there was one…
DC punk bands The Faith and Void’s split 12-inch remains a cornerstone of US punk, packing in 24 tracks of high-speed, blasting hardcore. Despite both bands enjoying short-lived careers, so much aggressive music can be traced back to the impact of this singular release.
If The Faith and Void set the benchmark for speed and power, then DC outfit Rites Of Spring focussed on a more expansive sound and internalised lyricism. It is this approach that band members Guy Picciotto (vocals, guitars) and Brendan Canty (drums) would refine in Fugazi with frontman Ian MacKaye and and bassist and vocalist Joe Lally.
Of all the bands to emerge from America’s Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s, Beat Happening were arguably the outfit whose debt to the UK indie scene was most pronounced. Nowhere were their so-called ‘twee pop’ sensibilities more evident than on this second album – a record which was co-produced by Mark Lanegan and Gary Conner of Screaming Trees. In fact, the album’s third track, Indian Summer, has become something of a US indie rock anthem.
Sacramento punks Tales Of Terror lasted long enough to record one album – the band splitting when guitar player Lyon Wong died following a street fight. Despite their short-lived career, their impact on the burgeoning US underground scene is evident not only thanks to their inclusion in this list but also due to Seattle outfit Green River’s decision to cover TOT classic Ozzy on their Dry As A Bone EP in 1987.
In December 1989 Kurt Cobain contributed guitar to a cover of acoustic bluesman Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? that appeared on Mark Lanegan’s first solo album, The Winding Sheet. Four years later, Nirvana would revisit the song during their landmark Unplugged performance, delivering an intimate and emotionally charged version of that tune.
The godfathers of the late 1980s Seattle scene, Mudhoney have remained the most consistent band of their generation. Their most recent UK and European shows underlined exactly that; their inclusion of new material from their latest offering, Digital Garbage, sitting comfortably alongside classic tunes from this era-defining debut EP.
Originally released on cassette, this fifth collection of music showcases Daniel Johnston’s homemade approach to making music and his outsider charm. When Kurt was photographed wearing a T-shirt bearing the title of Johnston’s sixth collection, Hi, How Are You, the Austin-based songwriter was introduced to an entirely new audience. His cult status has endured and in 2005, he was the subject of a remarkable film, The Devil And Daniel Johnston, which explored the impact of bipolar disorder on his life.
Kurt was obsessed enough with Flipper to hand draw a shirt sporting their logo while Krist Novoselic was so in awe of the band that he joined them in 2006, appearing on two of their albums in the process. The reason for this hero-worship lies in this debut – an album that simultaneously manages to deconstruct rock’n’roll, slowing it down to a snails pace, all while basking in punk’s nihilistic tendencies.
The second Beatles album to be released in America, Meet The Beatles is arguably their poppiest too – underlining exactly where Kurt’s melodic sensibilities sprang from. Cobain was also admitted his fascination with John Lennon in his Journals, his interest revolving around the cult of personality as well as the music itself.
Another US band armed with an independent spirit and a glorious sense of the naïve, Half Japanese have continued to make music on their own terms for the last 30 years. Such was Nirvana’s love of their brand of playful, experimental art-pop that Half Japanese were added to a number of shows on the In Utero tour alongside The Breeders.
The second Buttholes album on Kurt’s list, Locust Abortion Technician is a resolutely heavy record that sees the Texan psych-punks moving into altogether sludgier territory. Using cheap gear and indulging in well-publicised acts of total excess, the Buttholes’ third album possesses a genuine maniacal edge.
LA punks FEAR formed in 1977 and quickly established a reputation based on their uncompromising attitude. Unafraid of abusing their audience, their in-built sense of nihilism is evident on tracks like Let’s Have A War and I Don’t Care About You – both of which appear on this album.
The third post-Pistols album released by John Lydon’s PiL collective, The Flowers Of Romance is an incredibly intense affair. At times it is hard to locate the source of that intensity. Maybe it is just the relentless, percussive nature of the material. Or maybe it simply lies with Lydon himself. Either way, its relentless momentum points the way towards industrial music without ever sounding as lumpen as that particular genre.
“Rap music is the only vital form of music introduced since punk rock,” declared Kurt. In fact, Public Enemy’s second album also confirmed that hip-hop had moved far beyond its roots as a singles or track-orientated genre. This was an album that was conceived as soundtrack to modern life, the production adding different dynamics and levels of detail, while the lyrics addressed issues that were real.
More British agit-punk but this time with the added frustration born in the Home Counties. Led by Tracey Thorn – later in Everything But The Girl and a solo artist in her own right – the Marine Girls debut is artful, whimsical as well as angry.
Few people have managed to cover a David Bowie tune quite like Nirvana during their Unplugged performance that they recorded in November 1993. Revisit that filmed set now and you marvel as Kurt seems to own and inhabit the lyrics to the title track of this 1970 album – the original of which was recorded long before Bowie had found stardom himself.
Portland-based songwriter Greg Sage originally aimed to cut his own records and then release them without ever promoting them through the usual channels. He reasoned that people would listen to the music in a manner that allowed their imagination to engage fully. Is This Real? was a remarkable first step in his attempt to create that sense of engagement.
Sage’s second attempt was less punchy and less direct, but no less absorbing – its sleeve echoing ‘70s punk minimalism while its title track stretched to over 10 minutes. The marked difference in approach appeared to confuse fans of Is This Real? although history has seen YOA judged on a par with the band’s classic debut.
Wipers’ third album continues Sage’s onward trajectory, this time into more accessible territory. Kurt Cobain’s affection for all three albums perhaps underlines his own shifting perspectives on both his own music and his own ambitions.
While the UK spawned the principal proponents of the shoegaze scene, Santa Monica’s Mazzy Star drew on cosmic American music and psychedelia to create their own take on the genre. The band’s debut offers evidence of that with Ghost Highway a particular atmospheric, sandblasted highlight.
At times referred to as Raping A Slave or I Crawled, this four-track EP captures SWANS’ initial claustrophobic approach to music as well as their bleak worldview. All four tracks are brutal and challenging, forcing the listener to confront themselves and the world around them. It is that confrontational spirit that Nirvana clearly drew on and which informed the dichotomy within much of Kurt’s own words and music.
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