5 Stay Away – U.K. Subs
The U.K. Subs are one of the longest running, most successful punk bands to come out of England. While not as well known, perhaps, as The Clash or Sex Pistols, the U.K. Subs are exceptional in the punk rock world. Their cover of Stay Away has that punk energy that Nirvana incorporated into their music. The U.K. Subs stay close to the original version of the song, but the sheer depth and power of their vocals changes the feeling. The “over produced” feeling that Nevermind sometimes has is non-existent in this version, really cutting through to the heart of the song. Leave it to the kings of punk to bring this song to life in a very down to earth way.
4 Lithium – Polyphonic Spree
Another completely different take on a classic, Polyphonic Spree’s cover of Lithium is insanely uplifting in a very distorted way – which is a perfect interpretation of the song. The group harmony makes it feel like a child sing along, and the twinkling keyboard makes it playful and exciting. Then, of course, there is the classic “Yeah” of the chorus, which reminds us of the dark side of the song. Polyphonic Spree crafts an amazing balance between the interpretation of the song and their own musical style. Remaining both true to the original through the chorus, yet putting their own stamp on it, this version of Lithium is exceedingly fun to listen to.
3 Smells like Teen Spirit (Live Version)– Of Montreal
I was fortunate enough to experience this live cover at an Of Montreal show in Boston back in 2008. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. Now, you might think a freaky eletronic-y band like Of Montreal, with their pop laced harmonies and ridiculously theatrical stage antics would massacre this opus of an anthem. However, they did not. Instead, Of Montreal performed it to the letter. They did not deviate from the original, and instead infused it with the pure power that can only come from a live concert.
2 All Apologies – Sinead O’Connor
A sweet, soft take on one of Nirvana’s less famous mega hits, Sinead O’Connor’s voice gives the lyrics to this beauty a sweet melancholy that you don’t always anticipate with Nirvana. Even unplugged, Cobain’s distinct wail lends itself to a type of agony that is interestingly missing in this version. Instead, Sinead’s honeyed, melodic voice accentuates each sad word, each melancholy image, and each beautiful moment. The absence of the typical Nirvana-power-trio hard and heavy Seattle sound allows the song to take on a new level of heartfelt sobriety. This version reveals Nirvana’s poetic lyricism. Sinead’s take on the somberness of the song is moving in a way that the original, with its heaviness, is not.
1 In Bloom – Butch Walker and the Black Widows
Talk about opposites attracting – this version of In Bloom bears almost NO resemblance to the original, save for the words. And it is freaking genius. From the sick guitar lick, to the ska-like harmonies, to the group snapping that takes place – Butch Walked and the Black Widows do something so phenomenal with this song you don’t even realize you’re listening to Nirvana – in a good way. It shows how wide reaching Nirvana’s influence truly is, that it impacts musicians from all sorts of genres. You really do want to be the one who sings along, and whether or not you feel like you’re one of the ones who “don’t know what it means,” you can rest assured that if you see the brilliance behind this cover, you aren’t one of the mindless sheep Nirvana were so keen on distancing themselves from.
Honorable mentions go to Tori Amos’ innovative cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit – while it is inventive in its take on the song, I feel it tries too hard to be different. These five songs don’t try too hard to be anything other than what they are. These artists came as they were to the music, sat with it, and produced something that they felt both honored Nirvana as well as showcased their own talent. It is that balance that they struck so brilliantly that makes these five songs the best Nirvana covers.