Review Summary: The music is excellent, but this collection won’t please the hardcore fans that it is aimed at.
In November 1994, with the world still in shock after the suicide of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, Geffen released their classic MTV Unplugged performance as an album. Predictably, it became a smash, hitting number one in many countries including Australia, the US and the UK. The commercial success of MTV Unplugged In New York
was surely the main motive for the early 1995 release of Singles
in Europe, only a year and a half since Cobain’s suicide.
box set contains all of the European commercial singles released from Nirvana’s two albums for Geffen records, Nevermind
and In Utero
, released in 1991, was the bands breakthrough album, and has shipped more than ten million copies worldwide to date. Though it was not expected to become such a smash, the production is very radio friendly, far more polished than that of Bleach
, the bands debut album. The songwriting too was much more poppy, something else that no doubt contributed to its popularity. 1993's In Utero
on the other hand can be seen as the bands negative reaction to the success of Nevermind
. The production was much rawer, making the album less accessible. Both of these albums were highly acclaimed by critics and fans at the time, and remain so today.
Of the six singles included here, four are taken from Nevermind
and the other two from In Utero
, with a total of nineteen tracks between them. Whether or not you see Singles
as a strong release depends on how you judge it. Some will see it as an excellent insight into the music of a great band, whilst others will see it as a disappointing collection that serves few purposes other than to make money for the record label. I personally am on middle ground, as Singles
has both great positives and great negatives.
I’ll go through the collection’s strengths first, which basically are the music itself. All nineteen songs range from great to outstanding, and clearly show why Nirvana are regarded as one of the most important bands of the past twenty years.
The radio singles themselves are all fantastic songs and are, unsurprisingly some of Nirvana’s most famous moments. It is extremely unlikely that anyone has not heard at least half of these on their radio at some point. Anyone who hasn’t heard Smells Like Teen Spirit
, the bands most famous song must have been living in a sound-proof prison cell for the past seventeen years, such is its popularity. ’Teen Spirit
was Nirvana’s first hit, and is still regarded as a classic song today. Such acclaim is not without reason. The songs five minute duration contains one of the most easily recognizable and infectious guitar riffs ever written, an earth-shattering chorus, and probably the definitive Kurt Cobain howl. Whilst the music is phenomenal, the lyrics are also noteworthy, as they connected with frustrated people everywhere, particularly teenagers, who had become tired of the world of excess, with hair metal acts such as Motley Crue dominating radio and TV, and saw Nirvana’s less serious attitude and un-kept look as a more appealing alternative. Whilst Smells Like Teen Spirit
is a brilliant song, it has never, and will never be one of my Nirvana favourites, simply because of the extent to which it has played. It is a classic example of a song that has lost its appeal to many fans through being overplayed.
Because of this, many Nirvana fans including myself tend to prefer the other singles on offer here. Come As You Are
contains a riff equally infectious as that of ’Teen Spirit
, but is a darker more subdued masterpiece. The same cannot be said for the two remaining Nevermind
and In Bloom
, which are perfect examples of the quiet-loud songwriting style Cobain came to master. Both begin with slow, simple verses, before unleashing magnificent, upbeat choruses that are easy to sing along to. Heart-Shaped Box
is a far less poppy number, but remains excellent largely due to impressive vocal and drum performances from Cobain and Dave Grohl respectively. Of all the single releases however, my favourite is All Apologies
, a wonderful slower song, that displays Cobain’s songwriting at its emotional and melodic best. This was released as a split single with the far less sensitive Rape Me
, which is another good example of Nirvana’s quiet-loud dynamics paying off.
As well as the singles themselves, this collection also includes five non-LP tracks, and five live recordings of better known songs. The non-LP tracks are all excellent, strong enough to appear on any Nirvana album. Of those present, Aneurysm
is probably the most well known, as a different version appeared on the Incesticide
album. Many Nirvana fans, me included see this as one of the bands best songs, although the version here is slower than that on Incesticide
, and is for me inferior. The strongest of these non-album tracks however comes in the unexpected form of the Grohl penned Marigold
was one of the first songs Grohl ever wrote, and clearly shows early signs of songwriting talent. He also reveals himself to be a relatively good vocalist on the only Nirvana song without a sole contribution from Kurt Cobain. More recently, Grohl’s current band Foo Fighters have performed the song live, with it surfacing on 2006’s acoustic album Skin And Bones
Of the five live songs, three (School
, Drain You
and Been A Son
) were recorded at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, whilst the other two (Sliver
) were recorded at Del Mont, California. Though non of these performances are perfect, they are successful in capturing Nirvana’s spirit and energy as a live act, and most are superior to the versions that later appeared on live album From The Muddy Banks Of The Whishkah
. The pick of these is probably Polly
, which perfectly suits the more loose way in which it is performed.
Now for the negatives, which unfortunately are far more extensive. Although the music is excellent, this box set offers nothing new to fans. Many box sets, including 2004’s Nirvana release With The Lights Out
contain booklets, with the likes of unseen photos or rare interviews inside. Singles
has nothing of the sort, simply being packaged in a card box with nothing but the track listing on the back – no extras. This lack of any new material will no doubt anger hardcore fans, whom collections like this are surely aimed at.
Another negative is that the singles included are all from the two most popular albums, those released on a major label, and are therefore the most common. The hardcore Nirvana fans who are expected to buy this will most likely own all of the singles already, and will be disappointed. Singles
would be far more satisfying had it contained some of the bands rarer releases, such as Blew
, or even Pennyroyal Tea
, the planned third release from In Utero
that was withdrawn following Cobain’s death. At the time of writing this review, there is a copy of this item on eBay, with a buy it now offer of $1,500. Is it really too much to ask to reissue copies of this rather than see real fans ripped off for huge amounts of money that aren’t even going to the record label?
Whilst on the subject of money, Singles
costs around £40 to buy new in the UK (In the US it costs around $150 as it has to be imported). If we presume that each of these singles originally cost around £3 that leaves £22 left over, to pay for the thin card box they come in. Surely that crappy piece of card couldn’t have been that expensive to make?
As mentioned earlier, whether or not you consider Singles
a strong release depends on how you judge it. Whilst the music itself is fantastic, this collection has nothing to offer other than that, and leaves a lot to be desired. Personally, I believe the time in which Singles
was released is all the proof needed to show that it was simply a money-making exercise for the record label, who were still looking to cash-in after Cobain’s suicide. The strength of the music is, however enough for me to give this a three rating (just!). Some positive things can come from death in music. MTV Unplugged In New York
is one of these, and is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest ever live albums. I would recommend that to almost anyone, but Singles
on the other hand is only for big Nirvana fans and collectors. Anyone else purchasing this will most likely be left feeling disappointed.