Before we had RIYL algorithms and Spotify discovery playlists, we had Kurt Cobain. The Nirvana frontman wasn’t just one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed alt-rock artists of the early ‘90s, he was also its foremost tastemaker. Cobain’s conflicted relationship with fame has been well documented, but one benevolent side effect of his discomfort in the spotlight was that he used every opportunity to redirect it onto lesser-known artists, and not just ones from his immediate community. While the media was hyping the Seattle scene, Cobain was leading impressionable kids down underground pathways that extended from Scotland to Japan.
This was a guy who could get an obscure, out-of-print punk record reissued through a major label by name-dropping it an interview, or who could effectively play armchair A&R rep and score a deal for an unsung artist just by wearing their t-shirt. Even if only a tiny fraction of the 10 million people who bought Nevermind were willing to check out a record based on his recommendation, it was enough to turn groups like Shonen Knife into international club headliners, and enough to transform The Wipers’ once-obscure early ‘80s releases into canonical punk classics for future generations to discover.
Since his 1994 suicide, Cobain’s life and work have been put under the microscope many times over, through numerous biographies, documentaries, and barrel-scraping box sets. But one of the most illuminating pieces of detritus can be found in the 2002 scrapbook Journals: a handwritten list of his 50 favorite albums of all time. It’s a document that illustrates how, behind all the disaffected cool, Cobain was just a list-making music nerd like the rest of us. And based on the most recent entry—PJ Harvey’s 1992 debut Dry—it was a practice he indulged in even after his face was all over Rolling Stone and MTV. (He even divided his entries with lines as if he were designing the flippable label cards in his own imaginary jukebox.)
You can listen to selections from each of the records on the master playlist above. (Note: we included a song from each side of The Faith/Void split LP, bringing our track total up to 51. Also, the What Is It California-punk compilation he lists isn’t on Spotify, though the Germs songs featured on it can be sourced from other releases.) But for a more in-depth look at how these records inspired Cobain—whether musically or philosophically—we’ve broken down his picks by category and created subsidiary playlists below that feature some of his picks alongside the Nirvana songs they inspired.
Like many kids born in the late ‘60s, Kurt’s first musical obsession was The Beatles. Their melodic sensibility formed a crucial strain of his musical DNA that withstood his eventual conversion to punk, leading to breakthrough moments like “About a Girl.” (Tellingly, Kurt’s favorite Fab Four record isn’t a typical muso pick like Revolver or the White Album, but the band’s winsome U.S. debut, Meet the Beatles, whose brevity and simplicity are more compatible with his passion for DIY indie rock.) Meanwhile, his adolescent affinity for mid-‘70s Aerosmith was entrenched enough that he would (partially) name a song after them, and while David Bowie was a less obvious influence on Nirvana, the band’s reverential cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” forged their spiritual connection with rock’s original iconoclast. But Kurt was also willing to own up to inspiration from less-respected hit-makers—listen to the verses of The Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t,” and you’ll hear the sort of slack, sardonic delivery he brought to Nirvana songs like “On a Plain.” His list also betrays a growing fascination with ’40s folk pioneer Lead Belly that would ultimately yield one of Cobain’s most chilling performances.
Kurt’s list reveals a typical punk-rock initiation process: You’ve got the pioneers (The Stooges, the Sex Pistols), their more extreme hardcore spawn (Black Flag, Fear), the detouring post-punk experimentalists (Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four), and the mutant recombinant offspring who fuse and abuse all of the above (Flipper, Butthole Surfers). It’s the last iteration that had the most audible impact on Nirvana, particularly on bludgeoning Bleach-era tracks like “Paper Cuts” (which bears both the bone- and soul-crushing heft of ‘80s Swans), Incesticide oddities like “Hairspray Queen” (which finds Kurt squealing like a young Gibby Haynes), and In Utero crushers like “Milk It” and “Scentless Apprentice” (where Kurt chews on the tin foil spit out by Scratch Acid’s David Yow). And then there’s the only band to earn three slots on Kurt’s list: Portland underground demigods The Wipers, whose relentless momentum and hoarse-throat hooks set the fiery pace for Nirvana corkers like “Breed” and “Territorial Pissings.” (Funnily enough, after once admitting that The Clash’s Sandinista! disappointed him as a kid because it didn’t align with his perceptions of punk, Kurt includes the much more commercial follow-up, Combat Rock—perhaps as a commiserating reminder that he wasn’t the first punk who had to deal with becoming popular.)
THE ALT-ROCK PEERS
Nirvana’s explosive success couldn’t have happened without the fuse-igniting efforts of their immediate alt-rock antecedents—both close to home and beyond. “Negative Creep” is essentially Mudhoney’s “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More” flipped from 33 rpm to 45. The crash/burn/rebuild structure of Sonic Youth’s “Silver Rocket” would reappear in smoothed-out form on the alternately rousing and brooding “Drain You.” The whisper-to-scream hysterics of the Pixies, can of course, be heard on any number of Nirvana songs, but bassist Kim Deal’s Breeders offshoot was an equally profound influence, with the nocturnal, string-scraped atmosphere of Pod filtering down to In Utero respites like “Dumb” and “Penny Royal Tea.” And though the radiant, paisley-patterned jangle of R.E.M.’s Green may not be as perceptible, the wry, self-reflexive quality of “Pop Song 89” feels like a spiritual successor to Nirvana’s own meta-rock commentaries, like “In Bloom.”
THE LO-FI LOVES
Embarrassed somewhat by Nevermind’s big-budget studio polish (which he infamously compared to a Mötley Crüe record), not to mention the increasingly slick nature of alternative rock, Kurt used his pop-star pulpit to champion the virtues of amateurism. In the collapsible sing-alongs of ‘60s outcasts The Shaggs, he heard something stranger and more radical than anything you could find on 120 Minutes. Through his beloved Vaselines, he learned how to balance playful melodies atop rickety punk-rock foundations. And in the solitary serenades of Daniel Johnston and the giddy garage-rock of Shonen Knife, he heard the purest manifestation of the childlike emotions he tried to access on songs like “Sliver.” But while his fondness for ramshackle post-punk and lo-fi indie pop brought out Nirvana’s more playful side (best heard on Incesticide’s odds ‘n’ sods and the more whimsical moments of the MTV Unplugged set), for Kurt, that music also represented an effective weapon for dismantling rock’s patriarchal power structure. Nirvana may not bear the direct musical influence of minimalist, female-fronted bands like The Raincoats, Young Marble Giants, and Kleenex, nor is there anything in their catalog resembling the homoerotic joke-folk hijinks of The Frogs, but they undoubtedly inspired him to become the preeminent male-feminist and pro-gay rock star of his generation, one who was willing to write indictments of rape (“Polly”) and machismo (“Mr. Moustache”), and who happily used his liner notes to tell the racist and homophobic jocks in his audience to fuck off. (Though one can’t help but wonder if, he were around today to make a similar Top 50 list in this post-poptimist age, he might include more than one hip-hop record.)