Courtney Love’s 25 Best Songs

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On this day in 1964, a child named Courtney Michelle Harrison was born to a pair of hippie parents in California. A few decades later, having changed her last name to “Love,” she would become one of the most famous — and divisive — musicians on the planet. Besides making the Gen-Xers (and even early millennials like your co-authors) out there feel ancient, Courtney Love’s 50th birthday is the perfect excuse for a few superfans to celebrate something that often gets lost amid all the tabloid headlines: her music. In our highly subjective opinion, these are the 25 best songs Love has ever recorded; tell us about your favorites in the comments.

25. “Pacific Coast Highway” — Hole (Nobody’s Daughter)

24. “Hold On to Me” — Courtney Love (America’s Sweetheart)

23. “Samantha” — Hole (Nobody’s Daughter)

22. “Skinny Little Bitch” — Hole (Nobody’s Daughter)

21. “But Julian, I’m a Little Bit Older Than You” — Courtney Love (America’s Sweetheart)

20. “Drown Soda” — Hole (Asking For It EP)

19. “Rock Star (Original Version)” — Hole (Unreleased)

18. “Use Once and Destroy” — Hole (Celebrity Skin)

17. “Pretty on the Inside” — Hole (Pretty on the Inside)

16. “Garbadge Man” — Hole (Pretty on the Inside)

15. “Awful” — Hole (Celebrity Skin)

Track one of Celebrity Skin critiques Hollywood, and track two sets its aims at the music industry. Atop the sweet jangle of pop-punk riffs, Love twists the main line from “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” into a battle cry against the biz’s sick co-opting of virginal female stars. Simultaneously Love addresses the idea of selling out — which Hole have been accused of doing again and again — and may even be talking about her affair with Gavin Rossdale, as she’s been quoted as saying. — Jillian Mapes

14. “Asking For It” — Hole (Live Through This)

The story behind the rage-filled Live Through This track “Asking For It” is spectacularly traumatizing, but not in the way most commonly thought. “We had just gotten off tour with Mudhoney, and I decided to stage-dive,” Love noted. “I was wearing a dress and I didn’t realize what I was engendering in the audience. It was a huge audience and they were kind of going ape-shit. So I just dove off the stage, and suddenly, it was like my dress was being torn off of me, my underwear was being torn off of me, people were putting their fingers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard, screaming things in my ears like ‘pussy-whore-cunt.’ When I got back onstage I was naked. I felt like Karen Finley. But the worst thing of all was that I saw a photograph of it later. Someone took a picture of me right when this was happening, and I had this big smile on my face like I was pretending it wasn’t happening. So later I wrote a song called ‘Asking For It’ based on the whole experience. I can’t compare it to rape because it’s not the same. But in a way it was. I was raped by an audience, figuratively, literally, and yet, was I asking for it?” It remains an anthem against the sexual assault of women, and the bullshit excuses for it our culture has thought up. — Jillian Mapes

13. “Letter to God” — Hole (Nobody’s Daughter)

Nobody’s Daughter was greeted, by most critics, as a disappointment. But the truth is, the album tracks were better than the singles, and “Letter to God” — a quiet rumination on who Courtney Love is, was, and has become — is breathtaking. “I never wanted to be some kind of comic relief/ Please show me who I am/ I’ve been tortured and scorned since the day I was born,” she sings. Love has always had (but never gotten credit for) remarkable self-awareness, and it’s never been so bluntly on display as it is here. — Judy Berman

12. “Softer, Softest” (Live Through This)

“Softer, Softest” had been lingering in Hole’s set lists for years as “Pee Girl” by the time it was released as the fourth single from Live Through This. As Love explained in the band’s 1995 MTV Unplugged special, the song is “about the girl that always smelled like pee in your class” — and autobiographical. The way the track erupts from acoustic and defeated vocals to feedback and screams could be seen as Love’s own uprising following a troubling childhood. — Jillian Mapes

11. “Doll Parts” — Hole (Live Through This)

It’s never been my favorite track on Hole’s greatest album, and this list reflects that, but “Doll Parts” is still an excellent example of the whisper-to-growl-to-scream crescendos that make the songs on Live Through This so cathartic. It also gave the world the phrase — and Courtney Love the nickname — “the girl with the most cake,” which may well become her greatest contribution to the cultural lexicon. — Judy Berman

10. “Gold Dust Woman” (The Crow: City of Angels soundtrack)

Perhaps it’s strange for a cover to crack the top ten when Courtney Love has written so many unforgettable original songs. But “Gold Dust Woman” is an extraordinary recording, and not just because Hole so flawlessly translate Fleetwood Mac’s soft-rock classic into a dark, spooky grunge anthem that perfectly fits the mood of The Crow franchise. (It may, in fact, be the best thing to come out of the entire City of Angels project.) In covering her idol Stevie Nicks’ song, Love stood up in front of the world — a mere two years after Kurt Cobain’s suicide — and spat out the words “black widow,” throwing the most hurtful accusation of her career back in the faces of the public that used it to smear her. — Judy Berman

9. “Good Sister/Bad Sister” — Hole (Pretty on the Inside)

The most deceptively catchy track on Hole’s debut, “Good Sister/Bad Sister” is anchored by a riff that just keeps drilling downward and lyrics haunted by the black swan/white swan female doppelgänger imagery that remain such a big part of Love’s pathos. There’s breathy, vulnerable whispering, there’s mumbling in tongues, there’s swaggering intimidation, there’s strained screaming — it’s everything fascinating and terrifying about Hole in a single song. — Judy Berman

8. “Reasons to Be Beautiful” — Hole (Celebrity Skin)

At the time of Celebrity Skin‘s release, in 1998, critics fixated on the contrast between its polish and the raw sound of Hole’s earlier work — and, as a result, gave short shrift to the many moments of emotional honesty throughout the album. “Reasons to Be Beautiful” is one of the most wrenching examples: it’s a song of loneliness and mourning and pained survival, of pushing forward through artifice and glamor (and slick rock choruses), despite understanding the shallowness of all the things you’ve embraced to get through each day. Which is exactly what Love was doing in the mid-’90s. — Judy Berman

7. “Celebrity Skin” — Hole (Celebrity Skin)

By the time Hole released Celebrity Skin, Courtney Love had been through the Hollywood ringer. This comes through in the album’s ferocious title track, a power-pop classic that went on to become Hole’s most successful single ever. Say what you will about Billy Corgan, but his start-stop “Celebrity Skin” riff served as the perfect foil to Love’s screams about ‘making it,’ being called a slut, and the high price tag of her soul. Hole have written many a snarling kiss-off, but few as good as “Celebrity Skin.” — Jillian Mapes

6. “Violet” — Hole (Live Through This)

The opening track of Live Through This is a mess of contradictions: it’s furious and pensive, sloppy and pointed, perfectly constructed to sound like utter chaos. “Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to” isn’t poetry; many of the couplets would be groaners in a song with less velocity. But there are no greater — or more fitting — words of wisdom in pop music than that bit about getting what you want and never wanting it again, and they should be proof enough that Love knew what she was doing throughout. — Judy Berman

5. “20 Years in the Dakota” — Hole (My Body, the Hand Grenade)

What’s fascinating about Courtney Love’s Yoko Ono song is that it was recorded way back in 1992, making it yet another of her eerily prescient compositions. The b-side to Hole’s “Beautiful Son” single, “20 Years in the Dakota” is the best Hole song that never made it onto an album. In the lulls between guitar frenzies, Love sings from the heart about women so difficult, so hated that even feminists abandon them: “Riot grrrls, think you can stop me?/ You’re forever in her debt/ I know you haven’t saved me/ And you haven’t saved her yet.” — Judy Berman

4. “Teenage Whore” — Hole (Pretty on the Inside)

Courtney Love has written many manifestos in song form, but “Teenage Whore” might have been her first. Imagine introducing yourself to the world, on the opening track of your debut album, with a slow, sulky strum and the painstakingly enunciated words, “When I was a teenage whore…” For teenage girls — and not just ones of the self-proclaimed whore variety — this kind of unapologetic ownership of even the darkest corners of one’s nascent sexuality is thrilling. And if it reached you back then, chances are it still gets to you now. — Judy Berman

3. “Plump” — Hole (Live Through This)

The body image song is as necessary as it is ubiquitous in a pop-cultural landscape that makes even elementary school girls diet till they starve, but too often these well-meaning tracks come out prim and syrupy, á la TLC’s “Unpretty” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” A woman who has spent decades discussing her appearance, weight, and history of plastic surgery with disarming honesty, Love has contributed more than her share of songs of the subject. “Plump” is the best example, constructing a surreal hellscape of milky infantilism but also offering moments of shocking, angry clarity. “They say I’m plump, but I throw up all the time”; what else needs to be said? — Judy Berman

2. “Malibu” — Hole (Celebrity Skin)

“Malibu”: the best track on the frustratingly underrated Celebrity Skin, and one Love is apparently so partial to, she gave it a sort-of sequel with “Pacific Coast Highway.” Catchy, escapist, musically sophisticated, and suffused with the imagery of hard-won rebirth, this was the song that proved Hole’s blood-and-glitter aesthetic was almost as well suited to shiny, jangly California rock as it was to grunge. — Judy Berman

1. “Miss World” — Hole (Live Through This)

It’s not my personal favorite (that’s either “Plump” or “Violet” or “20 Years in the Dakota”), but if there’s a single song that best encapsulates both Courtney Love’s worldview and her impact on the culture, it’s “Miss World.” The simultaneous embrace and critique of celebrity culture, the ambivalence about fame and beauty, the defiant gaze at the people who won’t stop looking at you, the dissection of perfection, the resignation, the tantrum, the quiet, the loud — it’s all here, and it all retains the same force it had in 1994. If anything, it’s clearer now than ever that Love meant what she said when she promised us, “I made my bed, I’ll lie in it.” — Judy Berman