In the 90s, grunge – the music, the ethic – was as much a response to something as an arrival of something else. It was more complex than it seemed, so much more than flannel and whatever vestiges were woven from punk rock’s death knell. Twenty years later grunge has endured to the point that it’s coming back. For the uninitiated who want to tie a flannel shirt around their waists, these are the albums you should know before you do it.
It’s the album that defined grunge. Purists will make other claims, all of which are valid, but Nirvana’s major label debut thundered into a generation’s consciousness with its snarl and its angles. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was and will remain a song inextricably linked to the genre and the 90s. Nevermind was scared, sad, and more than a little bit prescient: “Here we are now, entertain us” was a harbinger – it was the cry of a nascent generation that sought a world that would have to come to them.
The grunge rock supergroup made up of members of Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains only released one album, but Above exists as something that characterizes the genre in so many ways – most specifically with respect to grunge’s massive conflicts. Mike McCready, John Baker Saunders, and Layne Staley all struggled with drug addiction – a theme inherent to the music but also things around the music. McCready and Saunders thought that via Mad Season, Staley would kick his habit. (He didn’t).
Released slightly before Nevermind, Ten was the counterpunch to that album. The lyrical content of its songs capture a rootlessness and angst that align nicely with the defining characteristics of the music used to carry those words to the people. “Alive” and “Jeremy” tell tales of misled and mistreated youth, and spoke almost directly to those who saw themselves in exactly that way.>-->
That Pearl Jam’s follow-up to Ten was called what it was called was telling. The band refused to create videos for the singles from Vs., and the album’s general sound was harsher. Songs like “Blood” were so raw you could hear Eddie Vedder’s vocal chords shredding, whereas on “Daughter,” you invested your time and emotion to watch that same wildness controlled and brought to an angry boil through its calmness.
"It wasn't like we invented something that didn't exist before,” Mudhoney’s Mark Arm once told Rolling Stone. Arm hates the idea that people think of him as iconic, or of Mudhoney as a proto-grunge band, but he is and they were. Their first EP, Superfuzz Bigmuff was akin to a spark – a spark that lit a fire that a lot of people huddled around. When grunge became a de facto thing, and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were becoming national stories, Mudhoney were still cloaked in relative obscurity.
It’s easy to dismiss STP as a Pearl Jam rip-off band (and many do) but Core, released a year after Ten, is a fundamentally different record. It’s dipped in some of the same stuff – confusion, anger, a desire for personal and societal wholeness – but its rawness comes from a simpler, equally dark place.
It was 1994’s Superunknown that propelled Soundgarden into the mainstream, and that album’s one crossover hit – “Black Hole Sun” – made the band ridiculously famous. But Badmotorfinger will always be the Soundgarden album. The most metal-influenced of the successful grunge bands, Soundgarden was something of an uneasy entry into the supposed grunge canon. At their core, they were still a metal-tinged hard rock band, one that supported Guns N’ Roses on the Use Your Illusion tour. Still, by way of lyrical consistency and drop D tuning, this has more in common with other Seattle bands of the day than it seems upon first glance.
Alice In Chains’ vocalist Layne Staley was a Hall Of Fame-caliber drug addict, and Dirt boldly and defiantly delved into that world. Whereas a lot of grunge bands’ lyrics were about the concept of desolation, Dirt’s songs were about desolation qua desolation. Staley’s pains and struggles ended up on the record as clear and ugly as scars, and Jerry Cantrell found a way to make those things both beautiful and palatable.
For some reason unheralded, 8-Way Santa (named for a kind of acid) is something of a minor masterpiece of the genre. It is remembered, however, for the furor it caused. Pepsi disliked how the band used the Pepsi logo on the single for “Jack Pepsi,” and sued; Tad was also sued by a couple whose picture adorned the 8-Way Santa album cover.
A movie soundtrack, sure, but a platinum-selling one. Singles was set amidst the grunge explosion, and took place in Seattle, and accordingly, the soundtrack for the film featured contributions from Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Mother Love Bone – a band that will always be a “What if?” linchpin of the entire grunge genre.
That Sweet Oblivion didn’t push Screaming Trees into the stratosphere is something of a mystery. It’s the Screaming Trees’ landmark release, one that saw them abandoning whatever punk roots they had and delving deeper into some kind of 70s rock-inspired locale (not unlike Tad, and maybe even Soundgarden). It’s rough and garage-y, but also dirty and psyche-rocky. It’s easily the most consistent of the bands’ catalog, but fate somehow conspired to keep the masses away from this band, which could easily have been as big as Alice In Chains. Some suggest that its release date was too close to Singles, and that the album never received the push it needed to be a standalone entry in the genre.