Nirvana is a complicated subject, especially when considering where they fit into the framework of metal, punk, hardcore and other extreme music in general.
The alternative music press, in their characteristic smugness, tend to dismiss the metal elements of Nirvana's sound as if they didn't exist, lest it damage their claim on Kurt as their high priest and fallen punk-rock martyr. The mainstream music world prefers to view Kurt with the candles, the flowers and of course, the acoustic guitar – never his custom JagStang. This allows them to water Nirvana down to a gentler, more acceptable version of themselves, feeding into the eagerness of baby-boomers to appropriate Nirvana into a safe narrative of classic-rock continuity.
For their part, metalheads tend to be more nuanced. For those who grew up after the grunge era, there were no sour grapes about the (slightly overblown) notion that Nirvana "ruined things for metal in the 1990's." Still, there are plenty of holier-than-thou elitists out there who dismiss the band's music with stupid remarks (like those I'd hear from jam-band kids back in high school): "Nirvana's music isn't that great…all Kurt did was play power chords!" But sometimes, amid all the 12-minute songs with 15 different guitar solos we hear today, it's nice to just hear a band rage out on a riff and really put some feeling behind their music. Sometimes, I'd rather not be lectured about how music has to be difficult to play in order to be good (hint: it doesn't).
Perhaps it's fitting for Kurt's legacy that Nirvana is so polarizing. In a way, it fits the many contradictions in Kurt's own personality: admirable and something of a genius who liked to make engaging, heartfelt rock music; but who could also be a bit of a snob who was too concerned with preserving his alternative credentials and sensitive "I'm not like other rock stars" kind of attitude.
But instead of wasting our time dissecting every aspect of Kurt's personal life, it's better to focus on the music.
For many other listeners, myself included, Nirvana is irreplaceable inspiration and a gateway into the world of punk, hardcore and the underground ethos. And while they cannot be classified as a metal band, Nirvana's music was still very heavy. For all their love of punk and indie, Nirvana were also influenced by bands like Black Sabbath, Celtic Frost, Slayer and even Metallica. And when considering their entire catalog – Kurt, Krist and Dave (along with Chad Channing and Jason Everman) made some pretty rough, punishing music.
Note: Yes I know, I didn't include anything from Nevermind because…well, wouldn't the selections from there be kind of obvious?
But you can enjoy a more comprehensive list here on Spotify!
If I'm not mistaken "Anorexorcist" must be one of the first Nirvana songs ever recorded (I think "Spank Thru" was technically the first). Laid down in April, 1987, the song sounds…well, like a metal song actually. Or in a way, it sounds more like The Melvins than what the other bands in Seattle were doing at the time. Still, at around the 1-minute mark, the bridge has a different feel to it – an aspect which would eventually be associated with "grunge."
See also: "Oh, the Guilt"
The opening track on Bleach. I feel like the people who put together that self-titled best of release back in 2002 should have put this song on there, instead of the pointless inclusion of the EP version of "Been a Son." The song perfectly captures where the band stood on their debut, combining heaviness with an irresistible catchy accessibility. The song also contains one of Kurt's best guitar solos (the other one would probably be "In Bloom").
See also: "Floyd the Barber"
I'll never forget hearing the feedback on this song and thinking "oh my god, WHAT IS THIS!?!?" I would always try to replicate it myself, but could never quite make the same noise. Like "Anorexorcist," the song strikes the listener as heavy metal (it's definitely a good song for headbanging), but again at the 1-minute mark, the band takes a dirtier, grittier direction.
See also: "School"
Apparently dubbed a "textbook example of Seattle's true grunge sound," the song definitely has all the qualities linked with the style: depressing lyrics, a punk-rock simplicity, a heavy aesthetic and yet somehow an element of catchy accessibility (well, apart from all the screaming).
See also: "Swap Meet"
There's a good reason I've picked so many songs off Bleach for this list. "Sifting" is another song that contains the various elements of Nirvana's early sound: heavy riffs, catchy melodies, negative lyrics. It's interesting to note how Kurt felt about the lyrics in that most of them where just depressing nonsense written the night before the album was recorded. But perhaps that's what's so brilliant about the album. The lyrics are sung with such a feeling of alienation that they can be relate-able to almost anyone, even if Kurt thought "I can go through two or three different subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all."
See also: "Big Cheese"