Well, it’s been a week and nobody has said the words “Swap Meet” to me, so things must be going better.
I swear to Kurt, I’m picking these tracks using a random number generator. We’ve had so many match-ups that have been MASSIVE track versus OBSCURE track, and I’m not doing that on purpose. But here we are again. Today we’ll look at one of the biggest smash hits from one of the biggest albums of all time… and a song that most regular folks have never heard. A song that I’ve gone ahead and censored the name of because I share these blogs on Facebook where my mom and my aunts can see them.
One of my very first Nirvana favourites, the catchy and irrepressible “Lithium” is a legend of a tune. I still love it. It’s perhaps not a personal top ten track for me at this point, but it’s probably still one of my favourite Nevermind cuts.
Looking at the track more carefully, it presents one of the most complete arguments for what made Nevermind such a phenomenon. There are three massive hooks battling for supremacy in this song, and I’m not sure which one wins. The bouncy verses, with their iconic lyrics (which seemed so different from anything we had heard at the time) featured yet another guitar part that would launch a thousand guitarists. It sounds like the perfect sing-along hook until the chorus arrives and you’re hit with another hook that seems even better for singing along to, with the bonus being that you only need to learn the word “YEAH” in order to sing along to it. Then the bridge section brings a harder-edged punk rock hook that is no less catchy and vital than the rest.
It’s not difficult to see why this song was a huge hit (and why it is still ubiquitous on rock radio today). It rocks, but it’s incredible accessible. It has melodic sections that just seem like they’ve always been there. These are hooks that have just ascended to become a part of the collective consciousness at this point. But I will reiterate: it rocks. You can rock out pretty hard to this song, whether you are covering it with some buds or just singing along in the car.
I love tunes like “Very Ape” and “Scentless Apprentice”, but they were never going to translate to a mass audience the way that a song like “Lithium” did. I think it’s an absolute masterclass in songwriting.
It also features a little chilled out bass groove near the song’s conclusion that nearly every bass player has learned to play. There’s no guitar solo in this song, but this bass part more than makes up for it. It’s… adorable?
Apparently this song’s title and lyrics actually refer to a slang term for when a marijuana joint’s filter gets wet from people tooting on it. But this is the kind of thing that you would only know if you’ve read loads of Nirvana biographies and such, like me. Regardless, this song gives a weird first impression.
That’s too bad, because it fuckin’ smokes! Haha. Get it?
This strange In Utero b-side seems like a pretty logical extension of all of the different directions that Nirvana’s songwriting was branching out to during that time. Still features a catchy hook in the chorus, but the verses bubble and simmer in a dark and slinky fashion that certainly wasn’t seen on Nevermind. Kurt’s vocal in these sections begin as tossed-off mumbles, boiling over to unhinged shouts as the band builds to the explosive chorus. Those two chords do a lot of heavy lifting in this song, starting off hypnotic and later becoming an absolute rage-filled racket.
I wrote a lot about the sing-along qualities of “Lithium” above. “Moist Vagina” has a sing-along quality all its own. There’s nothing like screaming “MARIJUANA” over and over again to make a teenage heart soar. The endlessly repeating conclusion to this song, just shouting the name of a then-illicit drug, provided some sort of extraordinary teenage catharsis. Part of me is kind of sad that this song wasn’t better known at the time, because I remember having a lot of fun covering this one with friends.
Also, it features that great Steve Albini production. Those guitar bends! Those high backing vocals that bring the tune over the top! That weird mouth sound that closes the track!
This is a real fun song, folks.
I gotta be honest, “Moist Vagina” is another song that I want to rank higher than I imagine people might want me to. I’m going to try to be reasonable about this, because I’ll get laughed out of town if “Moist Vagina” lands in the top ten. I think that “Been A Son” is probably a more well-loved song, but “Moist Vagina” is worlds better than “Mr Moustache”. I will park it there, but I will secretly have to live with the fact that I’m compromising my ideals in order to avoid controversy. I mean, I’ve already censored the song title. I’m pathetic.
“Lithium” is also tricky, as all of the big bangers are. Due to its ubiquity, I feel as though a lot of people may have cooled off on it. I may actually be in that boat, too. But taking a closer look at the song, it’s difficult to argue against it. Extremely high quality song, and perhaps one of the most iconic examples of the sound that changed the music world forever.
…that said, I’m not going to let it beat “Very Ape”.
The updated ranking is:
- Scentless Apprentice
- Territorial Pissings
- Very Ape
- Serve The Servants
- Love Buzz
- Lounge Act
- Been A Son
- Moist Vagina
- Mr Moustache
- Lake of Fire
- Swap Meet
- Oh, The Guilt
- Pen Cap Chew
- Ain’t It A Shame
“Scentless Apprentice” is still the greatest Nirvana song of all time!