Kurt Cobain Lists His 50 Favorite Albums: Features LPs by David Bowie, Public Enemy & More


Cir­cu­lat­ing ‘round the inter­net recent­ly is, wouldn’t you know it, yet anoth­er famous list of favorites. But it’s not a “lis­ti­cle,” I’d say, one of those con­coct­ed click­bait hodge­podges that crop up in every cor­ner with some­times only the most ten­u­ous, or lurid, of orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ples. While we do have a tra­di­tion of show­cas­ing lists here, they are gen­er­al­ly on the order of those organ­i­cal­ly com­piled by sin­gu­lar cre­ative minds rank­ing and order­ing their uni­vers­es. I would say these things are true of Kurt Cobain’s list of albums above, which he titles “Top 50 by Nir­vana” (see a full tran­scrip­tion at the bot­tom of the post, cour­tesy of Brook­lyn Veg­an). It not only presents a pic­ture of the late Cobain and his band­mates’ musi­cal her­itage, it also offers us a gen­uine sam­pler of a generation’s protest music—plenty of clas­sic angry ’80s hard­core punk and post-punk, lo-fi indie, a smat­ter­ing of clas­sic rock, some fringe out­siders like The Shag­gs, and a rap album at #43, the fierce­ly polit­i­cal Pub­lic Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Mil­lions to Hold Us Back, a record beloved of almost all chil­dren of the 80s.

Hav­ing had an almost iden­ti­cal musi­cal edu­ca­tion as Cobain, it seems from the list, I can’t say that I find any of the choic­es here par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­pris­ing. It almost looks to me like the ide­al code for pro­duc­ing a 90s alter­na­tive star—just add tal­ent, teen angst, and the look of a bedrag­gled home­less pup­py. But a Fla­vor­wire take on the list does call Pub­lic Ene­my (see their “Fight the Pow­er” video above) one of a hand­ful of “fas­ci­nat­ing sur­pris­es.” Oth­er than this styl­is­tic depar­ture, many of the selec­tions from the list are par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant as influ­ences on Cobain’s song­writ­ing, and some of the artists list­ed are those the band cov­ered on occa­sion.

One of Cobain’s major influ­ences can also be eas­i­ly claimed by near­ly every indie artist of the 90s: Austin, Texas’ Daniel John­ston, a savant song­writer who has weath­ered a life­long strug­gle with bipo­lar dis­or­der yet pro­duced one of the most hon­est, touch­ing, and fun­ny bod­ies of work in the past few decades. Cobain namechecks Johnston’s 1983 Yip Jump Music, from which comes the song above, “Wor­ried Shoes,” an almost per­fect exam­ple of his poignant lyri­cism and deft han­dling of emo­tion­al dis­af­fec­tion. One can see the appeal of Johnston’s spare home­made folk-blues to a sen­si­bil­i­ty like Cobain’s: “I took my lucky break / And I broke it in two / Put on my wor­ried shoes / My wor­ried shoes.” Johnston’s reac­tion to the inter­est of artists like Nir­vana, Mud­honey, Beck, the But­t­hole Surfers, and Wilco is typ­i­cal­ly under­stat­ed. “Ah, it’s pret­ty cool,” he says, “The atten­tion was nice, ya know. Sells a few records.”

Cobain’s debt to David Bowie is evi­dent in his swip­ing of some of Bowie’s chord changes and melod­ic phras­ing. A touch­stone for the grunge star was “The Man Who Sold the World,” which of course the band cov­ered (above, unplugged) and which many a naïve Nir­vana fan assumes was a Cobain orig­i­nal. Cobain places the album, The Man Who Sold the World at #45. Bowie is quot­ed in rock bio Nir­vana: The Cho­sen Rejects as say­ing he was “sim­ply blown away” when he found out that Cobain liked his work. Bowie “always want­ed to talk to him about his rea­sons for cov­er­ing ‘The Man Who Sold the World’’ and said “it was a good straight for­ward ren­di­tion and sound­ed some­how very hon­est.” He also expressed sur­prise at being “part of America’s musi­cal land­scape.” How­ev­er, when young fans would approach Bowie and com­pli­ment him on his cov­er of a “Nir­vana song” after he played the tune, his reac­tions were less than polite. Accord­ing to Nicholas Pegg, Bowie said, “kids that come up after­wards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nir­vana song.’ And I think, ‘Fuc& you, you lit­tle toss­er!’”

No short­age of ’90s artists, like their ’60s folk-rock fore­bears, named Lead­bel­ly as a pri­ma­ry influ­ence. Cobain places the icon­ic blues­man­’s Lead­bel­ly’s Last Ses­sions Vol. 1 at num­ber 33. Whether or not any­one can hear acoustic Delta blues in Nir­vana, most peo­ple are famil­iar with their unplugged cov­er of the Lead­bel­ly stan­dard “In the Pines,” aka “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (Cobain learned the song from Scream­ing Trees singer Mark Lane­gan). Above is a rare, much dark­er, Nir­vana cov­er of the song from a boot­leg album of live record­ings called Ultra Rare Trax, per­formed at Pachy­derm Stu­dios in Can­non Falls, MN in 1993. (We will nev­er know, of course, what Lead­bel­l­ly would have thought of Kurt Cobain, though your guess­es are appre­ci­at­ed.)

If the Nir­vana list did not include Black Flag, some­one would have to add it. Cobain places the L.A. hard­core band’s My War at num­ber 11 on the list (first place is reserved for Iggy and the Stooges Raw Pow­er). Above, for­mer Black Flag vocal­ist Hen­ry Rollins explains in a 1992 seg­ment of MTV’s late-night alter­na­tive video show 120 Min­utes what he thought were the rea­sons for the band’s phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess. “It doesn’t take an idiot to real­ize that the mass media con­tin­u­al­ly under­es­ti­mates the intel­li­gence of their audi­ence,” he says, “You know how dis­sat­is­fied you’ve been with a lot of main­stream rock and roll.” Rollins goes on: “When a band like Nir­vana comes along who are kick­ing the real thing, you like it because it’s real.”

Not every one of the artists Cobain lists had such nice things to say about him in return, how­ev­er. The Sex Pis­tols’ Nev­er Mind the Bul­locks gets slot­ted at #14 on the list. In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, for­mer Pis­tols leader and infa­mous con­trar­i­an John Lydon appar­ent­ly “reserved some ven­om for the likes of Nir­vana,” writes review­er Tim Kennedy, “com­par­ing them to the clue­less met­al bands [the Sex Pis­tols] were up against in the sev­en­ties.” For all the mil­lions of Nir­vana fans dur­ing the band’s hey­day, there was also a small con­tin­gent of kids who felt sim­i­lar­ly, no mat­ter how rar­i­fied or rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cobain’s musi­cal tastes. In some of those cas­es, no doubt, rival bands felt that way because, as Hen­ry Rollins describes it, while they were still tak­ing the bus, “the oth­er guy is sneer­ing at you from a block-long limo.”

Kurt Cobain’s Favorite Albums
1. Iggy and the Stooges, “Raw Pow­er”
2. Pix­ies, “Surfer Rosa”
3. The Breed­ers, “Pod”
4. The Vase­lines, “Pink EP”
5. The Shag­gs, “Phi­los­o­phy of the World”
6. Fang, “Land­shark”
7. MDC, “Mil­lions of Dead Cops”
8. Scratch Acid, “Scratch Acid EP”
9. Sac­cha­rine Trust, “Pagan­i­cons”
10. But­t­hole Surfers, “Pee Pee the Sailor” aka “Brown Rea­son to Live”
11. Black Flag, “My War”
12. Bad Brains, “Rock for Light”
13. Gang of Four, “Enter­tain­ment!”
14. Sex Pis­tols, “Nev­er Mind the Bol­locks”
15. The Frogs, “It’s Only Right and Nat­ur­al”
16. PJ Har­vey, “Dry”
17. Son­ic Youth, “Day­dream Nation”
18. The Knack, “Get the Knack”
19. The Saints, “Know Your Prod­uct”
20. any­thing by Kleenex
21. The Rain­coats, “The Rain­coats”
22. Young Mar­ble Giants, “Colos­sal Youth”
23. Aero­smith, “Rocks”
24. Var­i­ous Artists, “What Is It”
25. R.E.M., “Green”
26. Shon­en Knife, “Burn­ing Farm”
27. The Slits, “Typ­i­cal Girls”
28. The Clash, “Com­bat Rock”
29. The Faith/Void, “Split EP”
30. Rites of Spring, “Rites of Spring”
31. Beat Hap­pen­ing, “Jam­boree”
32. Tales of Ter­ror, “Tales of Ter­ror”
33. Lead­bel­ly, “Lead­bel­ly’s Last Ses­sions Vol. 1”
34. Mud­honey, “Super­fuzz Big­muff”
35. Daniel John­ston, “Yip/Jump Music”
36. Flip­per, “Gener­ic Flip­per”
37. The Bea­t­les, “Meet the Bea­t­les”
38. Half Japan­ese, “We Are They Who Ache With Amorous Love”
39. But­t­hole Surfers, “Locust Abor­tion Tech­ni­cian”
40. Black Flag, “Dam­aged”
41. Fear, “The Record”
42. PiL, “Flow­ers of Romance”
43. Pub­lic Ene­my, “It Takes a Nation of Mil­lions to Hold Us Back”
44. Marine Girls, “Beach Par­ty”
45. David Bowie, “The Man Who Sold the World”
46. Wipers, “Is This Real?”
47. Wipers, “Youth of Amer­i­ca”
48. Wipers, “Over the Edge”
49. Mazzy Star, “She Hangs Bright­ly”
50. Swans, “Young God”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Awkward/NSFW Inter­view with Nir­vana Pro­duc­er Steve Albi­ni (Plus B‑52 Front­man Fred Schnei­der)

Ani­mat­ed Video: Kurt Cobain on Teenage Angst, Sex­u­al­i­ty & Find­ing Sal­va­tion in Punk Music

Kurt Cobain’s Hand­writ­ten Sui­cide Note (1994), With Parts Mov­ing­ly Read by Court­ney Love

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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