More than 20 years after “grunge” became more than a synonym for dirt, learning a Nirvana cover remains rite of passage for young rock bands and rock veterans alike. Remembering frontman Kurt Cobain on what would have been his 46th birthday today (February 20), we present a stellar cover of each track off Nirvana’s crowning jewel, 1991’s “Nevermind.” Patti Smith, Weezer, Animal Collective, Muse and Seether take a stab, among others.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Patti Smith
Tori Amos was one of the first, presenting a 1992 cover that Kurt Cobain called “a great breakfast cereal version.” The Melvins and former teen idol Leif Garrett tackled the song, oddly enough, with a ferocity matched only by the original. Weird Al took a stab, along with hundreds of other acts, including Miley Cyrus and certain “American Idol” contestants. But which cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the greatest? We must tip our hats to Ms. Patti Smith, a rock’n’roll poet with as complicated emotions toward fame as Cobain himself. In 2007, Smith gave “Teen Spirit” a banjo and fiddle treatment for a jangly little tribute on her cover album, “Twelve.” She even added a bit of her own poetry into the classic track. Fitting.
While it’s tough to trump Patti Smith’s cover, if anyone was going to do it, underground L.A. hip-hop duo J*DaVeY might be the fiercest contenders. Featuring the sweet crooning of Miss Jack Davey, this “Teen Spirit” cover blows us away, despite its low profile. Listen below.
“In Bloom,” Deer Tick
If there were Nirvana cover band awards, Deervana — the tragically short-lived party project of alt-country act Deer Tick — would win the award for truest to form. The group, who performed full-blown sets at SXSW 2011 and at NYC’s Northside Festival in June 2011, spared no ounce of effort as they destroyed guitars, drumheads and the like promptly following the set that spawned this “In Bloom” cover.
“Come As You Are,” Yuna
One has to appreciate a musician who can take a song originally driven by raging electric guitar and turn it into something delicately beautiful. Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna does just that with her recent electro-pop cover of “Come As You Are,” complete with a stunning accompanying clip.
In the late 1990s, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo created something called “The Encyclopedia of Pop,” a binder in which he picked apart the mechanics of pop songs that caught his fancy. One of the main bands featured happened to be Nirvana, an act Cuomo has cited numerous times as an influence. At a Los Angeles show in 1998, Cuomo and co. — playing under the alias of faux metal band Goat Punishment — finally paid tribute to Nirvana with a cover set, including a nearly identical cover of “Breed.”
“Lithium,” Polyphonic Spree
Colorful indie-pop collective the Polyphonic Spree took Nirvana’s “Lithium” to joyous heights unsung by Kurt and co. Harp, piano, brass, strings and what sounds like hundreds of voices join in for a high-energy take on the third single from “Nevermind.” The quiet-loud dynamic remains, as does Novoselic’s haunting baseline, but the attitude leans more toward “happy chaos” than “search and destroy.”
“Polly,” Amanda PalmerSolo artist and Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer recorded this haunting version of “Polly” — rooted in a dissonant plucked banjo and plunking chimes — for SPIN magazine’s “Nevermind” tribute album, “Newermind,” released back in July 2011.
“Territorial Pissings,” Pennywise
Cali skate-punks Pennywise covered “Nevermind’s” thrashiest track, “Territorial Pissings,” during a show on August 30, 2006 in Austria, giving the song the treatment it deserves. Loud, fast and angry — as if it could be done any other way.
“Drain You,” Aiden Fellow Washington state band Aiden contributed this horror punk version of “Drain You” to Kerrang! Magazine’s “High Voltage: Another Brief History of Rock” compilation. The track, which was given away for free with the June 2007 issue of the magazine, transforms the song into a goth medley, replacing grunge growls with haunting howls.
“Lounge Act,” John Frusciante Former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist has been renowned for his grade-A musical influences, so is it really any wonder he’s a big Nirvana fan? Here, he gives the acoustic treatment to the originally bass-heavy “Lounge Act” in an intimate live setting.
“Stay Away,” U.K. SubsOn this cover of “Stay Away,” (which appeared on the 2001 compilation, “Smells Like Bleach: A Punk Tribute To Nirvana”) Charlie Harper of London-based punk stalwarts U.K. Subsinfuses the Seattle sound with lilted sing-speak vocals over pulsing guitars and drums, his bratty sneer giving the track that distinct British punk feel.
“On a Plain,” Animal CollectiveGrossly deviating from the original, am acoustic cover of “On a Plain” by experimental psychedelic band Animal Collective was recorded live at NYC-based record store Other Music on August 16, 2004. The track, slowed to highlight its lugubrious nature, has never been formerly released, though this heady video dropped.
“Something In the Way,” SeetherSeether mastermind Shaun Morgan is no stranger to Nirvana covers, but rarely tackles the intimate “Nevermind” closure, “Something in the Way,” live. In this stripped down acoustic recording, the South African frontman channels a very convincing Kurt Cobain, drifting not far from the original.
“Endless/Nameless,” Muse “Endless/Nameless” may be the hidden track at the back-end of “Nevermind,” but it didn’t get past Muse, or the astute fan at the end of the video. The U.K. arena rockers ran through a few minutes of it at Coachella 2010, giving guitarist Matthew Bellamy an excuse to wreak havoc on one of his amps… literally.