From Nirvana to Pearl Jam: The ultimate guide to grunge
In the wake of the British born subculture, cataclysmic reverberations washed up ashore in a little seaport city, on the West Coast of the United States. Seattle, in the fifties and sixties, imbued the city with garage rock played by bands such as The Wailers, The Sonics and The Ventures to iconoclastic teenagers.
Moving only a few decades further on, Seattle would later reaffirm itself as a hotbed for alternative music. Touring bands would go out of their way to play the city’s garages, basements and seedy bars because the audiences were so riotously exciting to play for. This was the impactful change that grunge firmly championed. How can this be anything else other than the spirit of punk that has been captured inside another animal?
Fitting in, or even standing out, was the only way to be, between the early ’80s and the early ’90s. Grunge’s general shelf-life, AKA the death of grunge, culminated around the saddening loss of Aberdeen’s famous son, Kurt Cobain, as he ended up joining the 27 Club in 1994.
Surreptitiously, during those 15 years or so, grunge changed musical landscapes for bands in a variety of rebellious ways. Ways almost passing unnoticed to most. Grunge fashion leaked into the mainstream—flannel shirts aren’t viewed in quite the same way now—youthful and protest-inspired ideologies once citing change now promoted disenfranchisement and then you have Seattle as it’s adopted environment.
All these elements were intrinsic to grunge’s future and its past. From rising out of suburbia to hitting its unprecedented peak by blasting MTV viewing figures and knocking the ‘dangerous’ Michael Jackson off the top of Billboard charts in 1991, was astounding. Nirvana dropped Jacko like a lead balloon but not without a little help from his friends; Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains. Every one of them at the top of the charts and at the top of their powers.
Going that little bit further in establishing just how much a point disaffected youth had to prove. Not just for the young American masses either, it went worldwide. Seattle music label Sub Pop, founder of the grunge movement did everything it could to fly this flag aloft for the world to see, but more on that later.
Through 15 albums, one for almost each year grunge held firm, this is an attempt to outline punk’s sudden fall from grace. Defining the climactic rise of those grunge pioneers. Then watching as the wheels come off during the early ’90s zeitgeist, foreshadowing the juvenile Britpop. This list will not determine whereabouts Nevermind or Ten should fit. Instead, this is a fifteen-album-milestone framework, shining a light on the Sub Pop label, the coalescence of punk’s anti-values which grunge held onto like a mantra and laconically, how the genre alienated itself with its themes of isolation and boredom.
This is punk, just reimagined, replayed and without regrets.
The 15 greatest grunge albums:
Flipper – Generic Flipper (1982)
A good and unique take on wishing to replicate the sound of your idols is to play the same stuff just slower and even more chaotic. ‘Generic Flipper’s opening track ‘Ever’ is messy in all the right parts. When the music pauses briefly you can almost hear Mark E. Smith, off-mic, heckling from somewhere at the back of the room.
Full of the kind of prototype sludgy disorder you’d likely hear from a band trying to generate a buzz. Flipper were noise-punk protagonists demonstrating a sound that has been hard to replicate by others. Stepping out of the 80’s Californian punk scene with this imprecise, jarring signature sound was soon latched onto by Black Flag and famously, as stated in much Kurt Cobain literature, Nirvana. Hugely influential and much revered now as they ever were.
Key track: ‘Sex Bomb’
The Disaster element
Fang – Land Shark (1983)
Coming out of the same California scene as Flipper did, they played with the same slack punk tempo, imitating their idols. That’s where both bands similarities end though. Fang fell apart soon after they began recording when a six-year hiatus saw their lead singer, a chap named Sammytown, get sentenced to prison for manslaughter.
Although Sammytown tried to get it all back together by the ’90s, nothing was as visceral as the early days. Now, if you flirt with notoriety, you’re gonna get noticed. They did. The droning chords and low-end buzz on one of the greatest punk tracks ever recorded (IMO), The Money Will Roll Right In, can be heard in the guitar playing of Bleach-era Kurt Cobain, Buzz Osbourne and Mike McCready. Nirvana even covered this song live in Reading in 1992!
Key track: ‘The Money Will Roll Right In’
Scratch Acid – EP (1984)
David Yow is one of the great punk vocalists of all time, a mix between The Cramps’ Lux Interior and Peter Murphy from Bauhaus, he would later go onto form The Jesus Lizard. This EP is slightly removed from the early grunge pioneers but as bands got bigger, more airplay, releasing single after single, the screeching croon of Yow can be heard in Chris Cornell and even Courtney Love.
This little eight-song debut EP is pure class, which doesn’t even belong in the realms of punk or slow-tempo rock. An intriguing listen and well worth trying to locate on vinyl. A real contender.
Key track: ‘She Said’
Green River – Dry As A Bone/Rehab Doll (1987)
I remember being at school and starting to get turned on by music and began moving away from the current UK pop charts. Deciding instead to check out this band called Nirvana (I was 11 at this point). A friend of mine told me that they just basically ripped off Green River because Green River were not very commercial, so it was easy for Cobain to convince the world he was the King Of Grunge—or something equally ridiculous.
The Dry As A Bone EP was delayed because Mark Arm, founder of Sub Pop (which was originally a fanzine entitled Subterranean Pop…get it?) couldn’t afford to release it. Which gave Mark Arm the chance to properly create a buzz about his Sub Pop label and, in turn, its first non-compilation release. The promotion buzz billed this as “ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation.” And if you believe that, then you’re just as gullible as the record buying public of America and the rest of the world.
FACT: The name Green River came from a very dangerous serial killer at the time, who wasn’t apprehended until many years later.
Key track: ‘Rehab Doll’
Laying the groundwork
Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff EP (1988/90)
Onto Mark Arm’s band now and this is by far the best thing they ever did and is a joyous swarm of noise, mangled old school rock references and some proper psychotic slow tempo anthems.
Full on sardonic rock ‘n roll audacity exemplified by Mudhoney’s love of ferocious sound. This chaotic and disordered approach can be seen in bands now like Black Keys, Raconteurs, even The Killers know how to flirt a little with a distortion peddle. Superfuzz Bigmuff has since been recognised as crucial to the development of Seattle’s underground, ‘subterranean’ music scene.
Key track: ‘In ‘N’ Out of Grace’
Back to the old school
Tad – God’s Balls (1989)
Sub Pop stalwarts, pretty much always the support act for grunge bands when hitting the UK touring circuit, Tad were the bridesmaids of grunge—though they probably had their Dr Marten’s on underneath their dresses. God’s Balls was produced by Jack Endino, the same year he produced Nirvana, Screaming Trees and Mudhoney albums. Crunching riffs and growling vocals was right up Tad’s alley.
For the hardcore grunge partisans, Tad showed every bit of what it was like, you know, back in the day. Adding to that a whole load of charisma and a personality that they weren’t afraid to swing about the stage and you’ve probably got your new favourite live band. Just a shame they couldn’t master it with maybe a touch of finesse. Tad’s glimpses of brilliance shine over separate sections of their LPs, God’s Balls plays out throughout with most of their best stuff.
Key track: Satan’s Chainsaw
Grunge by numbers
Alice In Chains – Facelift (1990)
Purely for units of albums shifted and fanbase they managed to maintain, Alice in Chains made up the Seattle big four (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam being the other three). AIC were notable for their distinctive vocals from the wayward Layne Staley and incorporating heavy metal style rock into grunge from one of their previous incarnations, Alice ‘N Chains. Facelift was released in 1990 and didn’t really get anywhere, languishing at number 41 on the Billboard charts by the following Summer. MTV came to their rescue when it played the video ‘Man In The Box’ on heavy rotation. It was an overnight turnaround. Even Sammy Hagar was on the phone asking if they’d like to tour with Van Halen.
The appetite for grunge and the overall movement was in full modus operandi at this point and there was no stopping the juggernaut. Hardly a unique record to epitomise the climate, especially with the power chord riffs, oppressive dirges and a little ponderous halfway through. Yet, Facelift provides a timely reminder of how being in the right place and at the right time can bring you instant success.
Key track: ‘Man In A Box’
Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger (1991)
Released in 1991, grunge’s peak year, two weeks after Nevermind and only a few months after Ten in 1991; Badmotorfinger holds an enormous weight to this burgeoning scene and is as powerfully bright a grunge album to ever grace the genre. The tremendous delivery of some of their best work outstrips anything they had previously done. ‘Louder Than Love’ was their second record and that was released a good two years previous, not a disaster but nowhere near as cohesive.
If Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana was grunge’s answer to Leonardo Da Vinci, then Chris Cornell’s Soundgarden were Da Vinci’s hammer and chisel used to carve out each masterpiece. Collectively, the band sound less like ham-fisted Black Sabbath/Led Zep rip-offs than their earlier outputs, bringing to the fore the ability to produce tremendous levels of atmosphere. Soundgarden would proceed this release with a handful of more big-selling albums, but nothing which has as much of a clearly defined ambition.
Key track: ‘Jesus Christ Pose’
Fight for your right
Melvins – Bullhead (1991)
If there was a nuclear disaster and the history of grunge disappeared from the planet, you’d fully expect someone like Buzz Osbourne, Melvins lead singer, attempting in any way possible to fill the world with all the alienation, boredom and despair he could.
The Melvins, not only prolific but intrinsic to the movement, which many still don’t give them enough credit for. They encapsulated the spirit of punk within the ethos of grunge emphatically. For years pursued this stance and eventually carved out their greatest work right here. Sludgy rock guitars and precision drums would later go on to influence the genre of stoner rock, pretty much off the basis of this record. ‘Bullhead’ is the sound of heavy artillery, unbalanced and struggling to reach the top of a hill. The record is strikingly unfussy and cuts right to the core. Splendid Ozzy Osbourne style vocals and galloping rhythms that writhe around in agony. If you like your records a little away from the allure of the mainstream, try ‘Bullhead’ for size.
Key track: ‘If I Had An Exorcism’
Grunge Ground Zero
Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
“I’m so happy ‘cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head. I’m so ugly that’s OK ‘cause so are you.”
Nirvana’s second album has since become a reference point for any new generational change within music. Like a comet created from its own cosmos, forged from the very underground music scene from which it had been established and exploded onto all early ’90s front-page media, alternative music, fashion and anything else you can think of. Nevermind single-handedly charted the zeitgeist it had culminated to get to this moment. Inevitably much to the dislike of Kurt, they were big, bigger than he probably wanted them to be.
Taking over from the slow tempo swamp style rock on Bleach, Nevermind makes way for enormous guitars riffs that blow you away, dark undercurrents and unbridled power. Nevermind, as an animal, couldn’t care less about production. It is more the creation from the mindset of a powerfully modern young man and his band with the world at his feet. There are possibly only a few records that have ever reached this distinguishing ability. Yet none which can exorcise demons at the same time. All through chewed up and spat out lyrics, tormented screams and punk rebellion. And through the whole manifestation, the listener has been taking on a journey that is so positively life-affirming. A different breed of modern rock for an audience who probably never saw it coming.
Key track: ‘Lithium’
Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
Pearl Jam were formed from out of the debris of the scene’s notable musicians, Gossard, Ament, McCready and joined by a San Diego singer named Eddie Vedder. They all had the credentials but like some sort of superhero moment nothing to unite them. Their early demo’s and instrumentals, after many cuts and rejections, piecing together ultimately formed ‘Alive’ which ended up as single for Ten.
It’s often asked that without ‘Ten’ underpinning Nevermind would it be so critically well-received? On a separate note ‘Ten’ plays like all the classic rock albums in your Dad’s record collection. McCready knows his way around a Hendrix or Page style guitar riff, but where rock ancestors crafted music out of the delta blues, Pearl Jam embellished on a decade’s worth of hard rock for radio-friendly airplay. For its ends and the fact it took ages to complete, Pearl Jam crafted one of the most ultimate ’90s rock opus masterpieces.
Key track: ‘Alive’
The ‘Don’t-Call-Us-Feminists,’ feminists
L7 – Bricks Are Heavy (1992)
Wrongly attributed to the riot grrl sub-genre, L7 fired feminist issue shaped missiles at the male-orientated mass media through incredibly visceral albums, ones like Bricks Are Heavy. L7 knew the path which to forge towards a heavy metal sound rather than Bikini Kill-style punk. Flirting with controversy wasn’t fully out of lead singer’s Donita Sparks remit. She once pulled down her pants on Channel 4’s, The Word and threw her tampon at her Reading Festival audience as her band were pelted with mud from the crowd. “Eat my used tampon, fuckers,” was her battle cry.
Many fully-formed heavy rock ‘grrrl’ bands have tried to fashion this sound, some coming across a bit meandering, some missing the target altogether. However, Bricks are Heavy remains the best due to each member of the band fully establishing their role within L7, each member gets a chance to provide vocals, the skewed guitar solos don’t fill for the sake of it, the drum riffs spark creativity throughout the whole record. This all brings a convincing and charismatic edge of pure enjoyment, hard to emulate and even harder for the new wave of ’90s Britpop female-fronted bands to follow.
Key track: ‘Pretend We’re Dead’
Talkin’ bout my generation
Seaweed – Weak (1992)
Nevermind was released just months before the recording of this album and although pitching to the same audience both albums sound very dissimilar. Seaweed creates this punchy, melodic sound, a sound which is now commercially more, of the moment. Weak is in no way groundbreaking nor does it take grunge to another level. Songs like the throbbing opener ‘Recall,’ the alienation of ‘Taxing,’ and the groovy thudding of ‘Stagger’ go further to rectify this. ‘Weak’ the classic blueprint of how an album is able to draw in the listener, enveloping them and leave them wanting more. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Seaweed released five albums over a seven-year period which is an insane amount. It’d be nice to think that their punk/grunge sound went on to herald in the next generation of ’90s American punks, just as ‘Weak’ forced its way into the genre of grunge, practically unnoticed.
Key track: ‘Stagger’
Across the pond infatuation
Daisy Chainsaw – Eleventeen (1992)
Grunge was about revolution and there was nothing more revolutionary and enthralling a stage presence as a Daisy Chainsaw live show. Bang in the period of girl punk, Riot grrrl rebellion fronted by Katie Jane Garside and with Crispin Gray on guitars this London band shredded the rule book. Yeah, you’re right they’re not from Seattle, but if you listen to how they balance grunge precision with the perfect level of eruditeness they could just as well be. Hole and Babes In Toyland are the obvious female-fronted contemporaries of Daisy Chainsaw, yet time has been much kinder when you listen back to anything on Eleventeen than the back catalogue of the other two…
For the most part of the record, Garside sounds regularly out of breath which is like the best, most punk thing, ever.
Key Track: ‘Dog With Sharper Teeth’
Short and sweet
Hater – Hater (1993)
This excellent one album project (although their imaginatively titled, the second was released in 2019) was founded from two chaps from Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone’s later singer Andy Wood’s two brothers and a fella from Monster Magnet. Hater’s debut gets rid of the excesses, the long guitar solos and climactic choruses and brings a bit of Summer slack acoustic to proceedings.
Yes, it’s grunge but it freshens it all up just a little bit. The Southern drawl vocals really deliver on the darker themes such as on track ‘Who Do I Kill?’ and ‘Circles.’ The poppier elasticated bounce on ‘Mona Jakon Bone’ and ‘Tot Finder’ cement in different elements not readily associated with grunge. A splendid little gem never originally released on vinyl back in 1993, took 23 years to address this issue.
Key track: Who Do I Kill?
As we’re extra special here at Far Out Magazine, we’ve not only given you the 15 best Grunge albums of all time but we’ve also put them all into one handy playlist which you can find right here.