As arguably the most influential band of the '90s and a first-ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band, Nirvana has influenced countless artists, even those whose careers began before theirs. Few artists and bands have dared to tackle Nirvana covers because Kurt Cobain's unique voice and style is unparalleled. The seven artists below are part of the few brave ones who pushed past expectations and took on Nirvana's lyrics in their own style. From soul to country and all points between, take a look at these seven best Nirvana cover songs.
7. Polyphonic Spree- “Lithium”
On the surface, Polyphonic Spree seems like a most unlikely band to take on Nirvana's no-frills catalog. The experimental choral rock band revels in all of the excesses that Nirvana rebelled against when they effectively ended the '80s decade of excess. But their rendition of “Lithium”, released on the soundtrack to the movie The Big Short succeeds by staying true to the original while never completely abandoning Polyphonic Spree's over the top style.
6. Deer Tick- “Breed”
Indie rockers Deer Tick might hew more toward the Americana side of rock and roll on their own albums, but you could practically populate a list of Nirvana covers just with their work. The band not only covers Nirvana regularly, they have been known to play entire shows of Nirvana covers billed as “Deervana.” The best of Deer Tick's Nirvana covers is “Breed”, from Nevermind. Deer Tick ramps up the punk rock core of “Breed” with a snarling, searing rendition that is always a live show favorite.
5. Father John Misty- “Heart Shaped Box”
Joshua Tillman, who goes by the stage name Father John Misty, is often snarky in both his mannerisms and his lyrics. But when he turns his mind to a serious cover, he proves why he is one of the best musicians working today. So it was with his version of “Heart Shaped Box.” Already one of Nirvana's more piercing songs, Tillman's sparse acoustic take on Cobain's lyrics drove the knife even deeper.
4. Charles Bradley- “Stay Away”
Before Charles Bradley turned his James Brown-style funk vocals to Black Sabbath for his hit “Changes,” he proved that he could fundamentally transform songs that don't fit his genre with this 2011 rendition of album cut “Stay Away.” While released on Spin Magazine's mostly forgotten tribute album Newermind, Bradley and The Menahan Street Band turned in one of the most unique and energetic Nirvana covers ever recorded.
3. Joan Jett with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic- “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, many wondered how surviving members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic would handle the performance aspect of the ceremony. Who, after all, could ever replace Cobain's unique voice? Rather than tap just one person, the surviving band members chose four female vocalists to perform songs from various stages of their careers. While Lorde, St. Vincent, and Kim Gordon all turned in noteworthy performances, it was guitar rock's First Lady Joan Jett, who would get her own induction a year later, who owned the day with a high energy take on Nirvana's signature hit.
2. Sturgill Simpson- “In Bloom”
While he has been hailed by many journalists as a “savior of traditional country” for his vocal similarities to outlaw legends like Waylon Jennings, Sturgill Simpson has always been one to forge his own path. His 2016 album A Sailor's Guide to Earth was a loose concept album of songs to his newborn son and one of the biggest surprises, and the album's second single, was his version of Nirvana's classic “In Bloom.” A horn-heavy assist from The Dap Kings to close the track out gives it the last push to make it one of the best Nirvana covers ever.
1. Tori Amos- “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
While the rest of the songs on this list were recorded following Kurt Cobain's death, the best Nirvana cover was one of the few released while the band was in their prime. While not released on CD until 2008, Tori Amos' bare bones piano rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from the Montreux Festival in 1992 was widely bootlegged almost as soon as it was performed. At a time when every teenager was rushing to create the grunge sound Nirvana pioneered, Amos was one of the first to see the potential of the lyrics to be something completely different.