This year marks the 25th anniversary of the most seminal grunge album of our time.
On September 24, 1991, Seattle rock band Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind. A follow-up to the band’s relatively successful debut Bleach, Nevermind became a surprise chart topper late in the year thanks to the incredibly popular single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which dominated the radio and MTV in the early ’90s. Both Nirvana and frontman Kurt Cobain became household names, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Much has been written about Nirvana’s legacy over the years — especially about the lasting impact of Nevermind on both rock music and the industry in general. So instead of waxing poetic on the album’s 25th birthday, let’s take a look at artists who are honoring the kings of grunge the best way they know how: by covering the band’s top songs.
1) “In Bloom” by Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson takes this song — one of the four singles from Nevermind — and flips it on its head, subbing in his signature Southern twang for Cobain’s shredding guitar.
“In Bloom” loses some of its bite when Sturgill gets his hands on it: Cobain intended the song to be a jab at people who were outsiders to the underground scene but showed up to Nirvana shows after Bleach gained some notoriety. Sturgill modifies the lyrics a just a bit to make “In Bloom” a love song, changing the last line of the chorus to, “But he don’t know what it means to love someone.” Nirvana’s original last line (“Knows not what it means when I say”) loops back around to the beginning of the chorus, flatly telling any non-grunge listeners that they’re clueless.
2) "Lithium" by Polyphonic Spree
This cover might start with a twinkling piano instead of the thumping guitar we’re accustomed to with Nirvana, but don’t let Polyphonic Spree’s first verse (complete with the choral arrangements they’re known for) fool you: Once the chorus kicks in, the band unleashes a classic Nirvana sound.
There’s a lot of room to play in the verses of this song, and Polyphonic Spree’s unique instrumentation — violins, cellos, a harp, more than 12 singers at a time — affords them ample opportunity. There’s something classic and untouchable about the raucous chorus of “Lithium,” and this cover (and video) do it justice.
3) “Smells Like Nirvana” by Weird Al Yankovic
Before you write off this cover, remember that getting a Weird Al song parody is the oddball musical equivalent of getting your novel in Oprah’s book club — you’ve truly reached the next level. Music lore states that Cobain officially thought he’d “made it” when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” got the Yankovic treatment.
In this 1992 cover, Weird Al takes Nirvana to task for the band’s indecipherable lyrics, replacing the chorus with “Now I'm mumblin', and I'm screamin' / And I don't know what I'm singin'” and subs in some plain gobbledygook (“It's hard to bargle nawdle zouss”) in the verses. When reminiscing about this song’s success in 2011, Yankovic remembers: “I heard Nevermind and I thought, Oh this is really great. I wish it were popular enough for me to do a parody … but that’s never going to happen!” He didn’t have to wait long.
In case you want to compare and contrast the two versions, or realize how few words to the original you actually know, here are Weird Al’s lyrics and Nirvana’s.
4) “Stay Away” by Charles Bradley
Charles Bradley’s career couldn’t be more different from Nirvana’s: He began performing as a James Brown impersonator in his late 40s, only releasing his first album as an independent artist in 2011, when he was 62 years old.
The soul singer has been compared to Otis Redding, and his cover of “Stay Away” with the Menahan Street Band for Spin magazine’s Nevermind 20th anniversary album (which also made it onto his debut album) is practically the polar opposite of the original. Not only does it strip out Cobain’s screams and Dave Grohl’s incessant drums, it also removes the song’s infamous last line. “Charles is a very spiritual cat,” one of Bradley’s band members said of the decision to snip the last few words. “We couldn’t have him singing the line ‘God is gay.’”
5) “Come As You Are” by Yuna
Yuna, a Malaysian singer-songwriter who got her musical start on MySpace as a teen, has perhaps the most contemplative cover of this bunch. The artist is known for her vocal-based pop and has three full-length albums — and a few other well-liked covers on YouTube, like this a cappella Frank Ocean song.
Yuna’s “Come As You Are” is a single from 2011, a dark and poppy reimagining with piercing vocals overlaying a plodding backbeat. The minor tone adds to the eerie feeling of foreshadowing the song has now, especially as Yuna’s voice echoes over the repeating line “No, I don’t have a gun.”
6) “Something in the Way” by Stereophonics
“Something in the Way” is a tough song to mess with. One of the slowest tracks on Nevermind, it paints a gloomy, depressing picture of homelessness. Nirvana legend says the lyrics reference Cobain’s time spent living under a bridge next to the Wishkah River in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington — though the singer’s biographer, Charles Cross, later debunked that claim, since the rising tide of the river would have swept Cobain away.
Nevertheless, Cobain did spend time without a home, and the quiet, weary tone of this song captures a feeling of desperation. Stereophonics, a Welsh rock band, don’t alter the song much at all — the main addition is lead singer Kelly Jones’s signature scratchy delivery.
7) “Drain You” by Foxy Shazam
Foxy Shazam, a glam-rock group from Cincinnati often compared to Queen, are known for their dramatic and over-the-top styling. Their take on this song — one of Cobain’s personal favorites — was also commissioned for Spin’s 20th anniversary Nevermind compilation, and turns the first half into a beautiful piano ballad, only to quickly build into a noisy chorus and squealing trumpet solo. Bassist Daisy Caplan said that when choosing a song to cover, “Right away I knew ‘Drain You’ would be best for us. We’re more of a vocally oriented band than anything else, and the melody line lets us showcase that.”
“Drain You” can be read as a love song, albeit a twisted, parasitic type of love. Foxy Shazam take it to the next, desperate level, ending the cover’s build to a screaming end with a simply stated, “I like you.”
8) “Polly” by Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra
“Polly” is a dark song. Cobain supposedly wrote it after reading a newspaper article about the 1987 kidnap, torture, and eventual escape of a 14-year-old girl in Washington state. The song is entirely acoustic and, like “Something in the Way,” stands apart from the noisier tracks on Nevermind.
While Cobain’s dissonant doubled vocals add to the song’s creepiness, Amanda Palmer — best known for her time with the Dresden Dolls — takes the song down another disquieting path. Starting with simple bells and piano and moving into a spare, near-monotone dirge, this cover of “Polly” crescendoes into a cacophony of screaming echoes that add an extra layer of ominous edge to Nirvana’s original.