Grunge was undoubtedly the most significant musical genre/movement of the 1990s. Without the cultural upheaval that it caused, it is certain music would not be the same today. In the wake of Kurt Cobain‘s tragic suicide in 1994, Time magazine labelled the iconic Nirvana frontman as “the John Lennon of the swinging Northwest”.
The posthumous high praise from one of the most illustrious publications in existence shows the true nature of the effect that the grunge scene had on culture. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Seattle sound’, grunge came to be somewhat of an umbrella term for the alternative rock subculture that had emerged in the Northwest American state of Washington in the mid-1980s.
Although grunge bands existed outside of the Pacific Northwest, such as The Smashing Pumpkins and Hole, the scene was primarily centred around the city of Seattle. Along with bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, the term “grunge” has become closely associated with record company Sub Pop.
In fact, the first recorded use of the term concerning Seattle allegedly derived from Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt. In July 1987, in a company catalogue, Pavitt described proto-grunge outfit Green River’s Dry As a Bone EP as “gritty vocals, roaring Marshall amps, ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation.” Grunge had, before this, been used to describe a string of cult bands in the ’60s. However, after that Green River EP, it would become associated with the dark, sludgy Seattle sound. Interestingly enough, Kurt Cobain would attribute the coining of the term grunge to Sub Pop, not with Pavitt, but his co-founder Jonathan Poneman.
Regardless of the term’s provenance, what we now know as grunge fused elements of punk rock, hardcore punk, heavy, thrash and sludge metal to create a loose-fitting umbrella term for a wide variety of bands. It has since been characterised by distorted electric guitar, bass, drums and vocals. The bands who would become retrospectively associated with the scene took their cues from various artists such as The Beatles, Black Flag and Sonic Youth.
Grunge, it is worth noting, was also associated with Gen-X. So, typically, the scene’s lyrical themes were dark and introspective and included themes of alienation, abuse, neglect, betrayal, trauma and a desire for self-determination. The latter of these can perhaps find its root in the music of the ’60s the bands were inspired by.
In terms of the name grunge taking on a life of its own, this can be essentially put down to the success of the bands and the shrewd marketing of Sub Pop. In the wake of this, in the early ’90s, its popularity had spread far outside the confines of Washington state. Grunge bands like the aforementioned Hole sprung up in California, as they did with The Smashing Pumpkins in Chicago and also further afield in places such as Australia. Some of these bands would build strong followings and sign to major labels, pulling the scene from Seattle and placing it in front of every avid consumer of the ubiquitous MTV.
Critically and commercially, the genre reached its peak in the early to mid-1990s. Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger in the same year, Alice in Chains’ Dirt a year later in 1992, along with Stone Temple Pilots record Core would become defining works of this patchwork of bands. The success of albums and bands such as these reached dizzying heights making grunge the zeitgeist of rock music at the time.
The irony of the genre/movement/whatever you want to call it is that many of the Seattle bands, some of whom had been friends for years, were dismissive of the label. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains all criticised the term, preferring to be called “rock and roll” bands. Former Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd has stated that he “hates the word” and hates “being associated with it”. In 2014, Seattle-based musician Jeff Stetson recounted visiting the port in the late ’80s and early ’90s as a touring musician. Stetson remembers the local bands not regarding themselves or their style as grunge and found the term to be slightly offensive to their work.
Nonetheless, the amount of influence these bands would have is immeasurable. They would influence the terrible post-grunge movement, which included Creed, Nickelback and Bush and the controversial nu-metal scene. The latter would also become a universal term that many bands lumped in with it would quickly come to hate, including Korn, Slipknot and Deftones.
Join us, then, as we list the ten best grunge albums; these are the ones we feel accurately depicts the wide variety of the bands thrown under its eclectic umbrella.
The 10 best grunge albums:
10. Melvins – Houdini (1993)
Released on Atlantic in 1993, Houdini is the fifth album – and major-label debut – by sludge metal/grungers Melvins. Houdini is widely regarded as Melvins’ magnum opus, and it features a cover of Kiss’ 1974 track ‘Goin’ Blind’, and singles ‘Hooch’, ‘Lizzy’ and ‘Honey Bucket’.
In tandem with being a sonic juggernaut of an album, Houdini is also notable for another reason; Kurt Cobain is listed as co-producer alongside the Melvins on six tracks. Furthermore, the Nirvana frontman is cited for guitar on ‘Sky Pup’ and even percussion on ‘Spread Eagle Beagle’.
Jonathan Burnside, a Melvins collaborator and engineer on Houdini, recalled in 2015: “It’s not easy reminiscing about making the album Houdini with Kurt Cobain and the Melvins. Bad communication, drugs, major label profiteering, rehab, schedule blowouts, backstabbing, and album miscrediting…it was a devil’s album.”
In 2008, Melvins frontman Buzz Osborne spoke of the album’s recording process: “Houdini was the first album we did for Atlantic Records and certainly our biggest selling record, although not so much that I could put a down-payment on a new Rolls or something! It came on the whole tidal wave of Nirvana stuff, and I’m sure if it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t have had interest from a major at all,” he said.
Adding: “We wanted to do a record that wouldn’t alienate our fans, but we wanted to do one that we would like. We also knew we weren’t gonna be dusting off a platinum album any time soon, you know? We did a bunch of sessions with Kurt Cobain (producing), but it got to the point where he was so out of control that we basically fired him and went our separate ways, which is unfortunate because I think that would have been fun. Obviously, that was a little snapshot of what would end up happening, and I don’t have a whole lot of fond memories of that – it was an absolute tragedy.”
Regardless of Houdini bringing two heavyweights of the grunge movement together – and then forcing them to go their separate ways – the album perfectly crafts a style that was the culmination of all of Melvins earlier works like Eggnog and Bullhead (1991). It fuses sludge, doom and grunge while taking cues from Sabbath, Captain Beefheart and Flipper. It is also their most commercially successful record to date.
9. Nirvana – In Utero (1993)
The third and final album by Nirvana made grunge what it was, and on reflection, In Utero is still a mammoth record. Released on September 13th 1993, by DGC Records, Cobain and Co. departed from the polished 1960s inspired sound that characterised their breakthrough album Nevermind and instead went with producer Steve Albini who offered a raw, more visceral production. Albini had also secured the production job by showing Nirvana the PJ Harvey album ‘Rid of Me‘, an artist frontman Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of.
In Utero features classic after classic and presents itself as a darker, heavier successor to Nevermind, the album that broke Nirvana and grunge into the mainstream in 1991. In Utero was a major critical and commercial success, reaching number one on both the US and UK album charts.
Listeners enjoyed the album’s sonic and lyrical departure. Singles ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’ also reached number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. Following its predecessor’s giant footsteps, the LP has been certified platinum five times — selling 15 million copies worldwide.
In Utero has its place for many reasons. The music is outstanding, with all three band members sharing writing duties for the first time. ‘Scentless Apprentice’ took the band to the heaviest reaches it would accomplish before Cobain’s tragic suicide and the band’s break-up in 1994. This mammoth album track was also written by everyone’s favourite drummer, Dave Grohl.
Other classics on In Utero include tracks such as ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Dumb’, ‘Rape Me’ and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’.
8. Stone Temple Pilots – Core (1992)
Hailing from San Diego, California, Stone Temple Pilots were a crucial part of the grunge movement that germinated outside Seattle after the earlier Sub Pop releases gained a cult following. Released on September 29th, 1992, Core is undoubtedly the band’s best-selling work.
The bulk of the album’s recording was done in five weeks, shortly after the band decided on the name Core. The album also represents the band attempting to revive the album-oriented music of the 1970s, as bassist Robert DeLeo said: “You know how when you listen to a Led Zeppelin album, you listen to the entire album, not just the odd song? We wanted to make a record like that. We wanted to create a vibe which would run right through the whole album.”
From start to finish, Core features an intense, sinister yet emotional sound. The late frontman, Scott Weiland, revealed that the main theme of the album is one attempting to explore a confused humanity concept. Lead single ‘Sex Type Thing’, which oozes that Led Zeppelin-esque riff and deals with social injustice, along with ‘Naked Sunday’, set the tone nicely.
In 1993, Weiland explained that ‘Sex Type Thing’ dealt specifically with abuses of power, macho behaviour, and humanity’s widespread misogyny. The legendary frontman also revealed that ‘Naked Sunday’ is “about organised religion. About people who tell others what to do and what to believe. They switch off people’s minds and control the masses. It gives me a feeling of isolation when I think about it. Organised religion does not view everyone as equals.”
Although feelings on Stone Temple Pilots’ debut album have always been mixed, with many detractors levelling the derivative accusation at it, its statement was bold, and that is commendable. It features classic tracks such as the aforementioned, along with ‘Plush’, ‘Creep’ and ‘Wicked Garden’.
7. Alice in Chains – Dirt (1992)
Released in September 1992, the Alice in Chains’ second studio album, Dirt, is a bonafide classic. The album was the final effort to feature the original line-up as bassist Mike Starr was fired in January 1993. Dirt spawned five classic singles, all with accompanying music videos. These were: ‘Would?’, ‘Them Bones’, ‘Angry Chair’, ‘Rooster’ and ‘Down in a Hole’. The album, to solidify its triumph, was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance and ‘Would?’ was featured on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s 1992 classic film Singles.
Lyrically, Dirt is as classic Alice in Chains as it is grunge. It features typically dark topics, something that had been central to Alice in Chains’ debut album Facelift. It covers depression, pain, anger, relationships, war, death and heroin addiction. Unfortunately, frontman Layne Staley would succumb to the latter, searing that sad and hollow image of himself into our brains in the band’s MTV Unplugged in 1996. Drug use was a pervasive lyrical theme on Dirt, and tracks such as ‘Sickman’, ‘Junkhead’ and ‘God Smack’ reference the effects of heroin abuse.
Lyrically, Dirt is emotionally charged. However, the music is dark, sleazy, heavy-hitting while veering into metal, carrying a sinister sort of psychedelia. Most of the album was written on the road by guitarist Jerry Cantrell. In 1993, he said: “We did a lot of soul searching on this album. There’s a lot of intense feelings.”
Encapsulating the essence of the band, grunge and Generation-X, in 1990, Cantrell explained: “We deal with our daily demons through music. All of the poison that builds up during the day we cleanse when we play.”
‘Hate to Feel’ and ‘Angry Chair’ feature frontman Staley on guitar, and showing the inherent metal of Alice in Chains, ‘Iron Gland’ features Tom Araya of Slayer on vocals.
6. Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles (1990)
Originally released through Sub Pop as an EP entitled Superfuzz Bigmuff in 1988, the debut project by the “dirty” sounding Mudhoney was re-released as an album two years later in 1990.
The album, which was finally named Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles, was again released through Sub Pop and featured classic grunge singles such as ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’, ‘You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face)’ and ‘Halloween’ in an album that incorporates a lot of elements of garage punk.
Following the garage punk influence, the album was named after two of the band’s favourite guitar pedals: the Univox Super-Fuzz and the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, which gave the band their signature noisy sound.
5. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
The debut studio album by Pearl Jam, Ten was released in August 1991 and welcomed a new dawn for the world of alternative music. Pearl Jam, who formed in Seattle, 1990, arrived after the dissolution of their previous band Mother Love Bone, a short-lived yet highly influential group on the development of what was to become the grunge sound. Many of the tracks on Ten were actually re-worked Mother Love Bone pieces.
The critical aspect of this record is the addition of vocalist Eddie Vedder. Yes, Mother Love Bone had a great frontman in the late Andrew Wood, but Vedder’s vocals are powerful and unmistakable. Released on major label Epic Records, a subsidiary of Sony, Ten spawned three hit singles in ‘Alive’, ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Jeremy’. The singles received widespread rotation on the airwaves and MTV, and the video for ‘Jeremy’ won acclaim at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards.
The album is largely attributed to the mainstream success of grunge. However, the LP is more in tune with classic rock than the band’s Seattle contemporaries. Regardless of your opinion, Ten‘s anthemic sound has culminated in its lasting legacy within and outside of grunge.
4. L7 – Bricks Are Heavy (1992)
Released in April 1992 by Slash Records, Bricks Are Heavy is the third studio album by all-female metallers L7. Produced by Nevermind mastermind Butch Vig, the LP features heavier music than the band’s earlier releases but fuses this with catchy pop melodies. This was a style that was mastered by Nirvana on Nevermind, and it spawned three singles in ‘Pretend We’re Dead’, ‘Everglade’ and ‘Monster’.
Famed critic Robert Christgau regarded the work as an “object lesson in how to advance your music by meeting the marketplace halfway”, believing it would not be as successful as it deserved to be. In a way, he was right, as it peaked at number 160 on the Billboard 200 — but that doesn’t detract from its influence on the genre.
Bricks Are Heavy features that perfect blend of pop, metal and grunge. It also provides a fantastic anecdote to the male-dominated scene.
3. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)
The second album by Chicago rockers The Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream is widely regarded by fans and critics alike as their most complete record to date. While arguments exist for Gish or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness being their most significant work, Siamese Dream trumps them every time.
It is an interesting addition to the list as the album, in reality, was lumped in with the grunge movement because of the time. While sharing highly similar heavy instrumentation and introspective lyrics, Siamese Dream also takes its cues from indie and psychedelia.
In what would become typical of the Pumpkins, the recording of Siamese Dream was fraught with tension. However, this soon dissipated when the album debuted at number ten on the Billboard charts and has since been certified platinum four times. Four singles were released ‘Cherub Rock’, ‘Today’, ‘Disarm’ and ‘Rocket’. Understandably, it is often regarded as one of the best albums of the ’90s.
After the unexpected success of the debut album Gish in 1991 – and the untold success of Nirvana’s Nevermind that same year – the Smashing Pumpkins were hailed as “the next Nirvana”. This pressure when recording Gish‘s follow-up was significantly felt by frontman Billy Corgan.
The problematic situation that engulfed the band at the time was quintessentially grunge. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlain struggled with a severe heroin addiction, guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky had recently ended a long-term relationship, and Corgan struggled with weight issues and suicidal thoughts. To top this sticky situation off, Corgan also spoke about how he suffered his worst bout of writer’s block. However, all this malaise culminated in a perfect anthem to doomed youth.
Produced by the ubiquitous Butch Vig, it also incorporated elements of shoegaze but triumphs as a piece on its own.
2. Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger (1991)
The third studio album by Seattle royalty Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger, was released in September 1991. It featured the new bassist Ben Shepherd and carried on in the band’s heavy metal sound while carrying a visceral, arty twist on the loose grunge frameworks.
The band’s highest-charting album at the time featured classic singles such as ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, ‘Outshine’ and ‘Rusty Cage’. The album carries the prowess of each of its individual members, beautifully topped off by the otherworldly Robert Plant of the era, the late great, Chris Cornell.
There is not much else to say about this hard-rocking masterpiece that hasn’t already been said. In truth, the album isn’t really a Soundgarden record but more of a moment to let the wild talent of Chris Cornell truly soar.
Speaking with Rock Power in 1992, Cornell said of the album’s honest lyrics: “I suppose there are moments on this LP where I’m being more biographical,” he said, before adding: “I’ve never really been biographical in my lyrics, so when I wrote a line like ‘I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota’ from ‘Outshined,’ it just felt refreshing.”
1. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
The album that “blew the bloody doors off” the world of music.
Without it, the scene that had bubbling up in Seattle and the surrounding area would not have gained such massive international success and infamy. Everything about Nirvana’s second album, produced by Butch Vig, is an iconic masterpiece.
From start to finish, there is no low point. Nevermind took its cues from endless inspiration; from The Beatles to the Knack, Bay City Rollers, Black Sabbath, Black Flag, Melvins and countless others. Noted for its compositional diversity, Nevermind is widely hailed as the cornerstone of the grunge movement, whether you like it or not.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Come as You Are’, ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Lithium’ were all titanic chart successes, and album tracks such as ‘On A Plain’, ‘Territorial Pissings’ and ‘Drain You’ remain timeless classics.
If there is even the slightest chance that, even after reading this list, you’ve not listened to every note of Nevermind, then we implore you to do so — and immediately. Though the record is maligned by those who like to pretend that it is the band’s worst album purely because of its popularity, most people, when listening to the record, will be enthralled by a new sense of respect for all involved. Yes, there are some pop tunes on the LP, but that’s exactly where they’re meant to be.
Nevermind is ground zero, whether you like it or not.