The Music That Inspired Nirvana: Kurt Cobain's Top 50 Albums

Updated on October 28, 2016
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CJ Baker is a published writer who is currently writing a book on the historical developments of protest music.

Kurt Cobain's Signature


Nirvana Was My Musical Gateway Drug

As a teen in the early 90s Nirvana was one of the first bands that I really got into. Beyond just being a fan of their music, they became a musical gateway drug which introduced me to a whole world of underground music that I didn't know existed. I discovered the music of artists such as The Raincoats, Meat Puppets, The Vaselines, Dinosaur Jr. and even Lead Belly. This was all because Kurt Cobain cited then as a musical influence. It was an exciting time of musical discovery for me.

In connection with this, back in 2002, Kurt's personal journal was published. Among Nirvana fans the reaction was mixed. There were those that thought it was in poor taste. Then there were those that thought it provided a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of a musical genius who died way too soon. Regardless, the book did become a #1 best seller.

One of the most interesting aspects of his journals was the revelation that in many ways he was a typical music fan. For example, he liked to itemize his personal taste by making lists. One example of this is his list of 50 albums he felt was the most influential on Nirvana's sound.

One thing that is intriguing about examining the list is that it helps to appreciate the influences that helped made Nirvana one of the most important rock bands of all time. Also looking at Kurt's musical influences also raised the question of what if. Some of the albums on the list were less obvious influences. So if he was still alive would these be an indicator of the musical direction he may have taken in the future.

We are going to do now spotlight 8 of the albums that made the list. Afterwards the full list will be posted.

Pixies - Surfer Rosa

Surfer Rosa is the 1988 full length debut by the Pixies. It was #2 on Kurt's list. It is one of the more obvious albums in terms of the influence that it had on Nirvana's sound.

Cobain made the following statement in his Journal about the album: "I was completely nihilistic up until about four or five years ago, when I first heard this. It changed my attitude. It made me finally admit, after being into punk rock for so many years, that I finally liked other styles as well. It made me finally admit that I'm a music lover."

Gigantic by Pixies (Video)

The Vaselines - Son of a Gun

Son of a Gun is a 1987 three song EP by Scottish indie duo The Vaselines. It was #4 on Cobain's list. Nirvana also covered the EP's title track which originally appeared on their 1992 EP Hoarmoaning (which was only released in Japan and Australia) and received wide release on the band's 1992 compilation Incesticide.

Concerning Eugene Kelly and Francis McKee of The Vaselines, He made the following statement: ""I just have this feeling Eugene and Frances had a really cool relationship. I don't know if that's true or not, but I think it's a really amazing thing when a couple can get on together and write some of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard."

Also concerning the duos influence on him, he named his daughter Francis Bean Cobain after Francis McKee. Along with "Son of a Gun" Nirvana also covered two other Vaselines songs. "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam" (which appeared on MTV Unplugged In New York) and "Molly Lips" (which appears on both the Hoarmoaning EP and Incestcide). A good album for discovering The Vaselines is the 1992 compilation The Way of The Vaselines: A Complete History (it was also reissued in 2009 as Enter The Vaselines with a bonus disc of unreleased material). It includes all of their recordings up to that point. In 2010, the band released their first new recording since 1989, Sex with an X.

Son of a Gun by The Vaselines (Video)

Sex Pistols

Sex Pistols performing in Paradiso, Amsterdam, January 6th, 1977. Their debut album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols was a huge influence on Nirvana and numerous other punk and alternative rock bands.
Sex Pistols performing in Paradiso, Amsterdam, January 6th, 1977. Their debut album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols was a huge influence on Nirvana and numerous other punk and alternative rock bands. | Source

Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols

The Sex Pistols 1977 landmark debut (and only proper studio album) was #14. It is not really a surprise to find out that this influential punk rock album was an influence on Nirvana's sound.

Kurt made the following statement about the album's influence "The Pistols' album has the best production of any rock record I've ever heard. It's totally in-your-face and compressed. All the hype The Sex Pistols had was totally deserved - they deserved everything they got." He also made the following statement concerning comparisons that were made between Nirvana and The Sex Pistols "The only reason I might agree with people calling our band "The Sex Pistols of the 90's" is that, for both bands, the music is a very natural thing, very sincere. But in terms of influence, f--k, no! Rock is too exhausted for that. We haven't produced a totally original sound like that. We might be uncompromising, but that's about it. We're an obvious metamorphosis."

Holidays In The Sun by Sex Pistols (Video)

Sex Pistols Vs. Nirvana Poll

Which album is more influential?

See results

Young Marble Giants

The Young Marble Giants' 1980 album Colossal Youth was considered a big influence on Kurt Cobain.  He also said the following about lead singer Alison Statton: "I had a crush on the singer for a while".
The Young Marble Giants' 1980 album Colossal Youth was considered a big influence on Kurt Cobain. He also said the following about lead singer Alison Statton: "I had a crush on the singer for a while". | Source

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth

Released in 1980, Colossal Youth is the only full length studio album by Welsh post-punk band Young Marble Giants. It made it to #22. The album reached #3 on the UK Indie Charts and it was considered to be an influence on a number of indie and alternative artists.

Concerning the albums influence, Kurt made the following statement: "This music relaxes you, it's total atmospherics. It's just nice, pleasant music. I love it. The drum machine has to have the cheesiest sound ever".

Credit in the Straight World by Young Marble Giants (Video)

Shonen Knife

A photo of Japanese pop punk band after Shonen Knife after a November 19th, 2011 concert. The concert was in celebration of their 30th anniversary as a band.
A photo of Japanese pop punk band after Shonen Knife after a November 19th, 2011 concert. The concert was in celebration of their 30th anniversary as a band. | Source

Shonen Knife - Burning Farm

Released in 1983, Burning Farm was the first proper studio release of all female Japanese pop punk band Shonen Knife. The album is mostly sung in Japanese. The album initially had a very limited release in the US on cassette through small indie label K records. It was that cassette that Kurt Cobain fell in love with and it made it to #26 on his list.

He made the following statement about the influence of Burning Farm on him: "Eventually, after a week of listening to it every day, I started crying. That's how much it affected me. I just couldn't believe that three people from a totally different culture could write songs as good as those".

November 24-December 11th, 1991 Shonen Knife was an opening act for Nirvana during their UK tour.

A Day of the Factory by Shonen Knife (Video)

Lead Belly

The recordings of Lead Belly had a huge impact on Kurt Cobain.
The recordings of Lead Belly had a huge impact on Kurt Cobain. | Source

Lead Belly - Last Sessions Volume 1

The music of legendary folk and blues artist Lead Belly (also commonly written as Leadbelly) had a profound effect on Kurt. For example, one of the highlights of his music career was Nirvana's cover of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", a traditional tune (which is also known as "In the Pines" and "Black Girl) which was rearranged by Lead Belly. That song didn't appear on the Smithsonian Folkways recording which was #33 on Cobain's list, but it illustrated the impact that Lead Belly had on him.

Concerning the Last Sessions Volume 1, Cobain made the following statement: "They happened when this guy who'd been following his career for a few years caught him on a two-track tape recorder one night when they were hanging out at this hotel. It's just really cool. I hope that my songs approximate that honesty. That's what I strive for. He was like the first punk rocker: he'd get into town, walk into an all-white bar, try to have a drink, get beat up and then go to jail because of it. So it's really cool to hear this music, especially the air of the recordings themselves, because it's so eerie to hear it on this crackly two-track".

Volume 1 was originally released on Vinyl in 1953. In September 25, 1994, the Complete Lead Belly's Last Sessions was released as a four disc box set.

Ain't It A Shame To Go Fishin' On A Sunday by Lead Belly (Video)

Public Enemy Logo

Public Enemy is the only rap artist to make Kurt Cobain's list of 50 favorite albums with their 1988 classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Public Enemy is the only rap artist to make Kurt Cobain's list of 50 favorite albums with their 1988 classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. | Source

Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Public Enemy's 1988 Hip Hop classic, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was #43. As the only rap album on the list it may seem to be a surprising inclusion.

Nirvana has never incorporated rap elements in their music, and Kurt's lyrics are not quite as politically charged as Public Enemy. That being said, the one common link between Nirvana and Public Enemy is the honesty and intensity of the music. Public Enemy's music attack was as hard hitting as just about any rock band. It may not be immediately obvious, but Kurt Cobain being influenced by Public Enemy actually makes perfect sense.

Also concerning Nirvana and hip hop, Kurt Cobain (along with his fellow band mates David Grohl & Krist Novoselic) was actually nominated posthumously for best rap song at the 2014 Grammy Awards. Cobain got co-writing credit for Jay-Z's "Holy Grail" because it contained elements of "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos by Public Enemy (Video)

Public Enemy Vs. Nirvana Poll

Which album was more influential?

See results

Wipers - Is This Real?

Is This Real? is the 1980 debut album by the Wipers. It made it to #46. It was joined by two other Wipers' albums (1981's Youth of America & 1983's Over the Edge).

Concerning the album and the band, Cobain made the following statement: "Is This Real? Yes it is. The Wipers released maybe four or five albums. The first two were totally classic and influenced The Melvins and all the other punk rock bands. They're one of the bands I tried to assimilate. Their songs were so good. Greg Sage was pretty much the romantic, quiet, visionary kind of guy. What more can I say about them? They started Seattle grunge rock in Portland, 1977."

Nirvana ended up covering two songs off of Is This Real? "Return of the Rat" they recorded for the 1992 tribute album Eight Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers. "D-7" was recorded as the b-side of the UK version of "Lithium" and it appeared on the 1992 Hormoaning EP. A live version of "D-7" also appeared on the 2009 CD/DVD release of Live at Reading.

D-7 by Wipers (Video)

Complete List of Kurt Cobain's Top 50 Albums That Were Most Influential to Nirvana's Sound

Released Date
#1: Raw Power
The Stooges
February 7, 1973
#2: Surfer Rosa
March 21, 1988
Album producer Steve Albini also produced Nirvana's 1993 album In Utero
#3: Pod
The Breeders
May 28, 1990
Cobain on the album: "it’s an epic that will never let you forget your ex-girlfriend."
#4: Son of a Gun (EP)
The Vaselines
#5: Philosophy Of The World
The Shaggs
March 9, 1969
#6: Landshark
#7: Millions of Dead Cops
December 16, 1981
#8: Scratch Acid (EP)
Scratch Acid
The full EP is included as the first 8 tracks of the 1991 compilation The Greatest Gift
#9: Paganicons (EP)
Saccharine Trust
December 10, 1981
#10: Butthole Surfers (EP)
Butthole Surfers
July 1983
Album is also known as "Pee Pee the Sailor" and "Brown Reason to Live"
#11: My War
Black Flag
March 1984
#12: Rock For Light
Bad Brains
April 15, 1983
#13: Entertainment!
Gang of Four
September 1979
#14: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols
Sex Pistols
October 22, 1977
#15: It's Only Right And Natural
The Frogs
#16: Dry
PJ Harvey
March 30, 1992
#17: Daydream Nation
Sonic Youth
October 1988
In 2005 was selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry
#18: Get The Knack
The Knack
June 11, 1979
#19: Know Your Product
The Saints
February 1978
7" single, B-Side "Run Down"
#20: Anything By (No specific album mentioned)
Changed name from Kleenex to LiLiPUT to avoid legal action
#21: The Raincoats
The Raincoats
The 1994 reissue by the Rough Trade record label featured liner notes by Kurt Cobain
#22: Colossal Youth
Young Marble Giants
February 1980
#23: Rocks
May 3, 1976
#24: What is it
Various Artists
September 1982
California punk compilation which includes The Germs who features Pat Smear who joined Nirvana as a touring member
#25: Green
November 8, 1988
#26: Burning Farm
Shonen Knife
July 21, 1983
#27: Typical Girls (EP)
The Slits
September 1979
#28: Combat Rock
The Clash
May 14, 1982
#29: Void/Faith Split LP
The Faith, Void
September 1982
#30: Rites Of Spring
Rites Of Spring
June 1985
#31: Jamboree
Beat Happening
#32: Tales Of Terror
Tales Of Terror
September 1, 1984
#33: Last Sessions Volume 1
Lead Belly
#34: Superfuzz Bigmuff (EP)
October 1988
#35: Yip/Jump Music
Daniel Johnston
#36: Album- Generic Flipper
Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic joined the band in 2006-2009
#37: Meet The Beatles!
The Beatles
January 20, 1964
#38: We Are They Who Ache With Amorous Love
Half Japanese
Opened up for Nirvana in 1993 for some of the In Utero tour dates. Also, Kurt Cobain was wearing a Half Japanese t-shirt when he died
#39: Locust Abortion Technician
Butthole Surfers
March 1987
#40: Damaged
Black Flag
December 5, 1981
#41: The Record
May 16, 1982
#42: Flowers Of Romance
Public Image Ltd (PiL)
April 10, 1981
#43: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Public Enemy
June 30, 1988
#44: Beach Party
Marine Girls
March 1982
Tracey Thorn of Marine Girls would go on to form the musical duo Everything but the Girl
#45: The Man Who Sold The World
David Bowie
November 4, 1970
Nirvana would cover the title track for their MTV Unplugged performance
#46: Is This Real?
#47: Youth of America
#48: Over the Edge
#49: She Hangs Brightly
Mazzy Star
May 21, 1990
#50: Young God (EP)
Also referred to as "Raping a Slave" and "I Crawled"

© 2014 CJ Baker

Which of the 50 albums on Kurt Cobain list is your personal favorite? Feel free to leave any other comments.

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    • spartucusjones profile imageAUTHOR

      CJ Baker 

      4 years ago from Parts Unknown


      I agree. Lead Belly is an influential artist. Even if the influence isn't immediately obvious it is there because he is one of the architects that helped draw up the blueprints that modern music is based off of.

      Thanks for the read and the comment!

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 

      4 years ago from New Jersey

      It's hard to find an artist who wasn't influenced by Leadbelly.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      It's an amazing list. I love most of these albums.

    • spartucusjones profile imageAUTHOR

      CJ Baker 

      6 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Purl3agaony, I agree that Mazzy Star was one of the more less obvious picks on the list. What I find interesting about the list is that it gives new perspective when listening to Nirvana. When I first became aware of this lists years ago I went back and listened to Nirvana with the objective of trying to spot the influences. Thanks for the read and the comment!

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 

      6 years ago from USA

      An interesting list of influences and another great hub! Kurt was definitely a thoughtful and gentle soul, and I'd expect him to have a wide and diverse taste in music. I'm a little surprised to see Mazzy Star on the list. I have this album and others by Mazzy Star. Initially, it doesn't strike me as (what I would assume was) Kurt's taste. But when I think of Mazzy Star's abstract and somewhat dreamy lyrics, I can see their influence in songs like "Heart-Shaped Box" and others. Thanks for encouraging me to listen again (and more thoughtfully) to Nirvana's music!


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