You can choose all sorts of genesis points when you look back at a moment as era-defining and yet difficult to clarify as grunge. One route might be to focus on the movement’s mainstream insurgence in the early ’90s, to locate the true beginning of grunge as when it arrived and subsequently stormed the charts and popular consciousness with blockbusters like Pearl Jam’s Ten or Nirvana’s Nevermind. A completely different approach is to go back to its very roots, to the early and mid-’80s and the groups who were laying the foundation, in terms of character and aesthetic, for what grunge would become.
Somewhere in between, there are a couple flashpoints you could look at. And one of those happened 30 years ago today, when Mudhoney released their first single, “Touch Me I’m Sick.”
For years already, something had been percolating. Soundgarden, who would go on to become one of the defining names of the grunge era, formed in 1984 and unveiled their second EP the same day “Touch Me I’m Sick” arrived. Even earlier, there were groups like the U-Men, Melvins, Malfunkshun, and Green River, who in hindsight became progenitors of grunge whether in the stylistic groundwork they established or in the functional fact that several of these groups fractured and reappeared as more widely known artists in the milieu. Green River, of course, wound up dissolving and eventually yielding both Mudhoney and Pearl Jam.
It’s a funny thing, when pop history gets codified, either with in-the-moment trendpieces on the biggest players or with broadstroke retrospectives that don’t have room for all the tiny permutations. When people talk about grunge on the surface level, you can reduce it to just a handful of signifiers. Flannel, tragedy, Seattle, distorted guitars, and the big four of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains.
None of that is untrue. But when you really examine it, attempt to parse all the different facets of a generational turning point that was summed up with one semi-meaningless word, you see all the transitions. You see how eras and genres overlap, rather than exist within hermetically sealed five year intervals.
With those proto-grunge bands, a lot of the core aspects of the scene and sound were already evident. Here were a bunch of young musicians who had grown up with ’70s hard rock and metal but came of age with punk and the burgeoning sense of a more prominent alternative culture via ’80s indie. There were sludgy, foreboding riffs indebted to Black Sabbath, but there was also hardcore aggression by way of Black Flag, you know those parts; but there were often healthy doses of glam and arena rock in the DNA, too.
Grunge was germinating on a local level, while new wave and then hair metal dominated the airwaves and MTV. It was germinating in parallel to the ’80s college rock that would point the path towards the alternative becoming mainstream, in parallel to a lot of the artists who would become avuncular figures to the grunge bands. It wasn’t disconnected from any of this, it wasn’t just this thing incubating in removal. If you go back to some of its earliest flickers, you’ll find artists flirting with hair metal who were later credited with being the ones to burn it all down and usher in a new epoch of “authentic rock music.”
So when these bands broke, they often came from slightly different musical backgrounds, but they were all lumped together under one umbrella. There was also connective tissue, of course, unifying qualities. Grunge did originate in a tight-knit scene in Seattle, before links were drawn to like-minded artists around the States and (occasionally) elsewhere.
The music was almost exclusively based on guitars, bass, and drums, and much of it was darkened, fuzzed-out, heavy, and angst-y compared to what had preceded it —- it seemed to give a voice to Gen X’s experience, but it also created a through line between the birth of more alternative rock communities in the ’80s and the blossoming of the indie sphere later on. There are bands we now look back on as ’90s indie antecedents to the ’00s and ’10s, but it was grunge, and it acting as the spark for the Alt Nation boom, that really set precedent for how alternative music could make its way to, and connect with, a more mass audience.
If you’re to assign those commonalities to grunge’s sound and look, then “Touch Me I’m Sick” is where it really started to cohere. There was punk in there, there was old-school rock influence; there was a certain kind of sarcastic, dejected attitude and there were guitars that sounded corroded.
Mudhoney, at one point in time, were positioned to be the big names that came out of Seattle. Grunge history was already inextricably bound up in them. Though the word had popped up over the years, legend has it that Mark Arm was the one to use it as a sonic description in the ’80s, alluding to a kind of teenaged, ramshackle dirtiness. When he was still in Green River, an early iteration of Sub Pop was marketing the Dry As A Bone EP as “ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation.”
So when “Touch Me I’m Sick” arrived, it was something of a watershed moment. Sub Pop — which had originated as a zine, then a zine with attendant cassette compilations, and eventually a real deal incorporated label in 1988 — came into its own upon the release of Mudhoney’s debut single, a musical crossroads in which grunge started to come into its own, too. From there, Sub Pop’s early days were symbiotic with the birth of grunge, the label that brought several of these bands to the world first, straight from Seattle.
And “Touch Me I’m Sick” was as fitting an opening salvo as any, a fully-formed glimpse of something new and transgressive. That something new, that sound, would transform a lot in the next couple years. And it would go on to transform the face of American rock music, for better and for worse, not just through the first half of the ’90s but well beyond.
Upon the 30th anniversary of that moment — of that curtain finally rising on grunge properly — we decided to compile a playlist that attempts to grasp the era in all its complexity, all its fury, all its exhilaration, all its consequences. Given the circumstances here, we’ve chosen to start the list in 1988, with the artists who were truly starting grunge and not the ones that were building towards it. From there, it goes through grunge’s unlikely and sudden rise, the following commodification of the style, and the way it petered out as the ’90s changed. Many of the big names are here, some represented by famous songs and some by less over-exposed options.
Not every band on here is, strictly speaking, a grunge band. Always a title that those in Seattle bristled at during the time, or felt compelled to emphasize the diversity within to ward off generalizations, it’s an inherently amorphous thing. There was, generally, an alt-rock fervor that swept America in the ’90s. Sometimes it’s murky, artists like Jane’s Addiction or even Weezer at points sharing quite a lot of characteristics with the more stereotypically grunge bands, but not quite fitting in.
There are some ancillary names below, bands that felt as if they were playing more directly into this moment, if for a time. There are legacy names, older artists who were pivotal influences on grunge and who themselves encountered a newfound fame as they, too, adopted a similar aesthetic amidst the ’90s alt-rock explosion. In most cases, we’ve chosen to highlight the best, the artists you know and the ones that formed them and the lesser-known gems that never got their due, which is why you won’t find some of the more cartoonish ’93 onwards also-rans here. What you will find, hopefully, is a multi-faceted look at one of the most crucial eras in American rock music, listed below in roughly chronological order.
Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick” (Single, 1988)
There are a lot of reasons to start here. The fact that Mudhoney’s debut single was a jagged, wrecked echo of the Stooges set them apart from most of what was going on in 1988. It served as a blueprint and inspiration for a lot of other music that was about to come out of Seattle, and in another history of grunge Mudhoney might’ve gone on to become one of the primary figures of the mainstream version of the genre, not just the hometown heroes and close friends of all those bands that did become primary figures.
“Touch Me I’m Sick” also established aspects of grunge’s attitude early on. While it might be easy to look back and perceive grunge as dour, deeply earnest, and wounded rock music that had purged any remnants of the crass commercialism and misogyny of hair metal, it wasn’t all so damn serious. There’s a streak of sardonic despondence that ran through grunge, perhaps some cocktail of punk sneer and the sly self-deprecation that comes with being from an erstwhile underdog city. This balance would stick around through much of grunge’s heyday, with all sorts of titles and lyrics that skewed jocular, or knowingly gross. For example: Pearl Jam, perhaps one of the most heartfelt artists of the scene overall, once claimed their name derived from a hallucinogenic familial recipe … but come on.
Love Battery – “Between The Eyes” (Single, 1989)
There was a lot of jumping around between bands, or leaving and forming new groups, in grunge’s early Seattle days — it’s just the way it goes in small, tight-knit scenes, when you’re playing with friends and seeing what works. A lot of the notable ’80s acts associated with the scene cycled through lineups, or later disbanded and yielded the bigger names we associate with grunge.
Love Battery might not be one of the most renowned monikers in the grunge universe, but they at various points featured former members of the U-Men and Skin Yard. Dan Peters, Mudhoney’s drummer who also had stints with Nirvana and Screaming Trees, was also in the band for years. “Between The Eyes,” their debut single, is notable not just because it’s a great song, but also because it almost sounds like something that could’ve come out on Creation Records. While Britpop and grunge seem to be divergent ’90s stories with deep ties to their respective national identities, there were examples that existed in between, simply nodding to an era of new guitar music.
Mother Love Bone – “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns” (from the Shine EP, 1989)
Death hung over grunge. You have your obvious, decade-shattering events like Kurt Cobain’s suicide; you have Layne Staley’s drawn-out battle with addiction; you have this specter still lingering decades later with Chris Cornell’s death. When movements like grunge get romanticized, even this darkness can get romanticized. These people become the martyred saints, like too many musicians who died young before them.
Andrew Wood was grunge’s first martyr. He was also one of its first luminaries. He started Malfunkshun with his brother when they were just teenagers. Then by the late ’80s, when Malfunkshun and Green River were both falling apart, he teamed up with two songwriters named Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. This was going to be different for all of them. They were going to be stars.
Looking back on Mother Love Bone, you could see the ways in which it paves the way for grunge, but exists in that strange liminal time where certain figures’ love for classic rock and arena-sized ambition led them to sound more of a piece with ’80s hard rock than you might expect from the brooding characters you’d meet by 1991. Wood was a big brother figure to a lot of people, including Cornell. His influence had ripple effects throughout grunge. But he was also a different beast, a swaggering glam frontman more in the lineage of Robert Plant. Knowing what came next, you can hear primitive traces of Gossard and Ament’s Pearl Jam style in Mother Love Bone’s music. You could also imagine it playing alongside Guns N’ Roses.
The adoration with which future grunge figureheads spoke of Wood makes it clear, he was the guy who exuded star power, who was going to go places. But he became a symbol for one of the poisonous aspects that would define grunge, and ’90s pop culture at large. Wood overdosed and died in 1990, when he was just 24 and just months shy of Mother Love Bone releasing their debut.
His legacy is woven into the beginning of grunge for multiple reasons, but part of it was that he left behind an often enthralling body of work. “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns” was far and away Mother Love Bone’s best song, a startling and beautiful and deeply moving two-part epic. Pearl Jam’s covered it over the years in tribute; it appeared on the Singles soundtrack in 1992, playing all the more elegiacally after Wood’s death. It doesn’t exactly sound like grunge, but it’s one of the single best songs to emerge from any of it.
Sonic Youth – “Kool Thing” (from Goo, 1990)
The first band on this list that wasn’t grunge, and yet was crucial to grunge. By the time Goo came out, Sonic Youth were approaching 10 years of being a band. They’d been kicking up all kinds of visionary guitar squalor across the ’80s, becoming one of the bands that provided a template for a new generation of artists who were going to push the instrument to new territory, new extremes, new ferocity. As the story goes, they were also key in Geffen deciding to sign Nirvana, which eventually changed the course of everything.
That makes Sonic Youth symbolic of something else that would play out through the early ’90s. These guys were New York punks, but they signed to a major. And eventually, a whole lot of Seattle bands would follow suit in an era when authenticity and anti-corporate ethics ignited a whole lot more conversations about “selling out.” But that transition led to songs like “Kool Thing,” one of Sonic Youth’s most recognizable tracks and a song that’s thoroughly grunge in structure and tone. This was an early signal, an older band coming for their wider recognition and only hinting at the Alt Nation sea change that the young grunge bands would soon usher in.
Temple Of The Dog – “Hunger Strike” (from Temple Of The Dog, 1991)
Temple Of The Dog is one of those weird situations, a project that began between friends without much external, label-oriented pressure, but now lives on as something of a totemic moment in grunge history. It began with songs Chris Cornell wrote after losing Andrew Wood, songs where he began showing a more melodic, singer-songwriter strain of his identity that had previously been absent in Soundgarden’s work. He started working with Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, the three of them teaming up to pay tribute to their mutual friend.
The band was rounded out by Soundgarden’s drummer Matt Cameron and a guitarist named Mike McCready, meaning that at the time you had half of Soundgarden and 60 percent of the band that was about to rechristen themselves as Pearl Jam. (After years of shuffling through drummers, Pearl Jam eventually brought Cameron into the fold while Soundgarden was broken up in the late ’90s, so in hindsight almost all of Pearl Jam were core contributors to Temple Of The Dog.) There were also some guest vocals from a guy named Eddie Vedder that Gossard and Ament had recently flown up from San Diego. Vedder’s contributions were the first time he appeared on an album.
At the time, this might have amounted to a supergroup in local Seattle terms, given that Soundgarden and former Mother Love Bone members were involved. But it wasn’t until later that the weight of Temple Of The Dog was fully realized. Released in the first half of 1991, it was soon followed by Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Pearl Jam’s debut. A year after it came out, Temple Of The Dog was a pre-existing supergroup built from two of the biggest bands on the planet.
There are a few standouts on Temple Of The Dog, but the one that always endures is “Hunger Strike,” the one where Cornell and Vedder trade vocals. Here you had two of the titans, not yet there, sorting through grief and sorting through their place in this. It’s not just a beautiful song, it’s a prologue that couldn’t have been repeated soon after.
In 2016, they took Temple Of The Dog on the road again in honor of its 25th anniversary. The next year, Cornell himself would die. The tragedy that precipitated Temple Of The Dog now permeates the album, knowing this saga begins with Wood’s death and ends with Cornell’s. It’s powerful, and chills-inducing, to hear the young Vedder and Cornell together here. It’s also heartbreaking.
Nirvana – “Aneurysm” (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” B-side, 1991)
Every generation has one, maybe a couple. The preternaturally gifted songwriter, the voice, the guy that kids pick up a guitar because of, the guy they cut their hair to look like. The icon, cemented in pop cultural history. Nirvana is one of the first words out of anyone’s mouth when it comes to grunge. They’re also one of the handful of bands that transcended the era totally. They might be emblematic of the times, but they’re also just one of the legends of rock history, part of the firmament.
When they released their debut Bleach, you couldn’t have guessed that’s where it would all end up. That was a gnarly album full of great songs that gnashed their teeth at anyone approaching. Then, a couple tracks in, there was a track called “About A Girl,” a perfect and simple pop gem that betrayed Cobain’s melodic gifts.
Released by Sub Pop in the summer of ’89, Bleach was not a hit. Just over two years later, Nirvana had signed to Geffen and released an album called Nevermind. And, well, you know how that went.
Before Cobain’s death signaled one of the endings of grunge, and represented one of the more sobering cultural moments in Gen X’s coming of age, he was already a logical figurehead. This was where all those ’80s college rock influences — Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, R.E.M. — led.
This was an artist that could write indelible, immortal songs and an artist who helped cement the sound of the times. Just as shoegaze was creating gigantic walls of swirling guitars like a warm shelter to ward off the outside world, Nirvana were deploying volatile bursts of distortion to convey a whole generation’s frustration. Kurt Cobain was the man who wrote the lines “Teeanage angst has paid off well/ Now I’m bored and old.” Kurt Cobain was the man who wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
If you had to single out one song to be the anthem for the early ’90s, it would be “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But there was consistent brilliance on display in Nirvana’s work, well beyond the ubiquitous songs or the monolithic Nevermind. One of those examples was on the B-side to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Aneurysm,” which would later appear on Nirvana’s B-sides and outtakes collection Incesticide.
Everything they did well was on display here. The frenzied, catastrophic guitar breaks. The quiet-loud dynamics between verse and chorus. Cobain’s penchant to give voice to those who were lost, self-loathing. Nirvana is one of the artists on this list for whom you could pick any one of about 20 different songs and you wouldn’t be wrong. There are more famous ones than “Aneurysm.” But it also remains one of Nirvana’s finest.
Soundgarden – “Outshined” (from Badmotorfinger, 1991)
If Nirvana represented one corner of the grunge sound — a debt to ’80s indie, a debt to the scuzzy framework established by early grunge acts like Mudhoney — Soundgarden and the other big four represented the remaining corners. Pearl Jam had more ’70s classic rock in their veins, and would eventually age out into rock journeymen. Alice In Chains, having begun life as a hair metal group called Alice N’ Chains, made their name as the darkest band sonically, a haunting group that was closest to metal out of any of their main peers.
Soundgarden had been releasing music for a while already by ’91, when they reappeared with their third album. They, too, leaned further in the metal direction, with their early material being a frightening and otherworldly sound descended from Black Sabbath.
Later on, Soundgarden would make their best work with 1994’s Superunknown, an album that was still foreboding and heavy but also strikingly gorgeous in places, and also more psychedelic. This is often what set them apart from their contemporaries, the trippier, transporting aspects of their music.
That’s present in a nascent form on Badmotorfinger, but this is still a harsh and heavy album. In its way, it feels more quintessentially of the “grunge moment” than the far-seeing alt-rock they perfected a couple years later. There were strange and discomfiting songs across Badmotorfinger that will burrow deep into your consciousness. But it’s also the album with “Outshined,” one of the early prototypes for what a grunge hit could sound like. It’s a swaggering, chugging piece of work that, in all its varying passages, gave Cornell ample room to prove he was the most technically gifted of any of the main grunge frontmen.
Babes In Toyland – “Bruise Violet” (from Fontanelle, 1992)
Similar to how grunge is often misremembered as only being a serious and authentic form of rock music in response to the excess of the late ’80s, it often feels as if it’s also misremembered as a kind of macho rock scene that wasn’t altogether that different from what it replaced. At the time, this wasn’t true at all. Arriving amidst shifts in political and social discourse in the ’90s, grunge often overlapped and interacted with riot grrrl, which similarly had roots in the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, grunge was a genre that, though still not overwhelmingly diverse by today’s standards, had more room for women and people of color than it’s given credit for or than many of the major rock movements that had preceded it.
Formed in the late ’80s, Babes Of Toyland were one of several notable grunge acts made up entirely of women. (During most of their career, at least.) Despite Kat Bjelland being from Oregon, Babes In Toyland were also one of the bands that existed outside of the scene’s spiritual epicenter given that they formed in Minneapolis. Still, when they released “Bruise Violet” and the rest of Fontanelle in 1992, they fit right into the movement that was by then sweeping the entire nation.
The Smashing Pumpkins – “Drown” (from Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1992)
It’s always weird when something like Singles hits right in the middle of a zeitgeist rather than a few years after, mythologizing in broad mainstream strokes, especially when you consider the long process from conception to release typical for films. Of course, Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-set rom-com was already corny enough, but it was also steeped in the grunge culture that was just then taking over the States. Crowe has stated that his initial inspiration came after Andrew Wood’s death, and witnessing the community that was thriving in Seattle.
Singles was loaded with specific references to the grunge scene. Matt Dillon’s musician character was wearing Jeff Ament’s real clothes. Chris Cornell wrote songs for it, including an early version of “Spoonman.” Citizen Dick has a song called “Touch Me, I’m Dick.” Eddie Vedder appears in it, as do Alice In Chains.
The soundtrack — released in the summer of ’92, amidst grunge fever and a full three months before the movie itself — lives on as a document of the times. It has just about all the big guns sans Nirvana, as well as early attempts at establishing the lineage within which grunge existed; earlier Seattle artists like the Wilson sisters and Jimi Hendrix appear alongside Paul Westerberg, one of the ’80s artists without whom grunge wouldn’t have been the same. Previously unreleased Pearl Jam and Cornell songs sat alongside new singles from Alice In Chains and Screaming Trees that would go on to become their most recognizable songs. Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns” is there.
There was one artist who wasn’t quite feeling it, and it was one of the artists who helped kick this whole thing off. Mudhoney’s “Overblown” opened with the lines “Everyone loves us/ Everyone loves our town,” a lyric that would later lend a title to a celebrated oral history of grunge by Mark Yarm. It was also a song that voiced disenchantment with all the buzz that had swarmed Seattle and its artists.
You know who else wasn’t quite feeling it? Billy Corgan. Forever the outsider even amongst the outsiders, Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins were the only contemporary non-Seattle band on the soundtrack. Perhaps because his arena-rock goals were always plain, Corgan didn’t exactly fit in with the grunge bands despite writing about similar themes; stylistically, he was more deeply psychedelic, more deeply anthemic, as akin to shoegaze as he was to alt-rock. The next year, he’d release Siamese Dream, a pillar of ’90s music that doesn’t fall into any one category. By the middle of the decade, Smashing Pumpkins would be a gigantic alt-rock machine, derided by Pavement and on their own trip ancillary to grunge.
But in the earlier days, on Gish, the Pumpkins didn’t sound all that far removed from the grunge movement. And so they appeared on the Singles soundtrack with “Drown,” one of their best songs to this day. Corgan groused about how “Drown” had the potential to be a hit single but was sunk by the fact that Epic chose to go with two of its own artists, Alice In Chains and Screaming Trees. He was right, “Drown” probably would’ve been huge with the proper push in 1992. But he’d get there soon enough.
Alice In Chains – “Would?” (from Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1992)
The success of “Would?” and Singles set Alice In Chains up perfectly for their own album that would arrive in the fall of ’92, Dirt. Their sophomore effort is easily their best. A scorched and anguished document of death obsession and drug addiction, it wound up having “Would?” tacked on the end alongside other enduring rockers like “Angry Chair” and “Them Bones,” as well as a host of Alice In Chains’ best album cut moments. There’s Staley’s chilling delivery of the chorus in “Rain When I Die,” or the similarly affecting way he and Jerry Cantrell harmonize on the chorus of “Junkhead.”
Grunge is one of those genres in which a lot of the artists get a bad rap due to what they spawned. Pearl Jam’s early stuff? That gave us Creed. Alice In Chains, just by virtue of the warped metallic aspects of their sounds, unfortunately often sound like the blueprint for large swathes of the disastrous nu-metal and post-grunge acts that had their own mainstream insurgence around the turn of the century. That combined with Staley’s seclusion and subsequent death have, in some ways, made Alice In Chains feel more stuck in time, not getting their due, than Soundgarden or Pearl Jam or Nirvana.
This is, of course, unjust. Across Alice In Chains’ catalog, there are disturbing scenes painted with brutal care, and there are dusty ballads ranking as some of the most beautiful songs in the grunge canon. Always central was Staley, an absolute elemental force of a singer. There are so many choruses where he reached upwards and inwards at once, channeling human pain and roaring it into the sky. His legacy is littered with classics. But “Would?” may still reign over all of them.
Screaming Trees – “Nearly Lost You” (from Singles / Sweet Oblivion, 1992)
Screaming Trees had already been kicking around for a while before grunge happened; by the end of the ’80s, they’d already released four albums. But it wasn’t until the early ’90s, with Singles and “Nearly Lost You” and Sweet Oblivion, that they finally gained more notoriety. Mark Lanegan remains one of the more curious cases of grunge. He, on one hand, had a graveled and rich voice that fit right into the scene at large. But he always sounded like a man who had been around a while longer, seen some more things.
He’s also one of the frontmen who lived hard and yet managed to make it out alive. In fact, just as Screaming Trees faded into the grunge era, so too did they fade out. They managed one more album, 1996’s Dust. (One of that album’s songs, “Dying Days,” almost replaced “Nearly Lost You” here.) Then, Lanegan embarked on one of the stranger post-grunge careers of any of his contemporaries, aging into a sort of apocalyptic bluesman who also had a stint as one of the singers in Queens Of The Stone Age.
L7 – “Pretend We’re Dead” (from Bricks Are Heavy, 1992)
A Los Angeles band formed in the mid-’80s and predating both grunge and riot grrrl, L7 are sort of an oddity. By 1992, they were releasing the Butch Vig-produced Bricks Are Heavy, which came with “Pretend We’re Dead,” by far their most recognizable song even before its appearance in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas exposed a whole new generation of listeners to its existence.
Of course, in the mainstream consciousness, L7 are also famous for the Reading Festival incident in which, after being pelted with mud by the audience, Donita Sparks removed her tampon and threw it at the audience. It’s probably one of the most infamous concert moments of the early ’90s. But “Pretend We’re Dead” also remains a hell of a single, a sugary power-pop song slowed-down and fuzzed-up for the times.
Sugar – “JC Auto” (from the Beaster EP, 1993)
As one of the members of Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould was nearing legacy status by the early ’90s. This was a guy who had already left his mark on music history, and had influenced plenty of the artists who were now making their own mark. But he was another example of an artist that predated and inspired grunge and yet continued on into the ’90s, still vital and able to unlock a whole new facet of his songwriting within the aesthetics of the times.
Sugar’s debut, 1992’s bulletproof Copper Blue, isn’t really a grunge album. There’s power-pop with a lot more distortion, and there’s remnants of ’80s indie, and there’s ’90s alt-rock riffage and production. But then in ’93, Mould crafted a followup EP called Beaster, which had some of the heaviest, most ferocious songs of his entire career. The whole thing is perfect, but the pairing of “Judas Cradle” and “JC Auto” is particularly well-calibrated, and also the moment when you can see Mould coming up with compositions that felt very of a piece with what was going on around him at the time. “JC Auto” is one of his many masterpieces, a relentless song that is as catchy as it is feral. Besides the fact that Dave Grohl’s songwriting in Foo Fighters would later owe a major debt to Mould, it isn’t hard to imagine Pearl Jam trying to craft a song like “JC Auto” when they were working on their 1994 release Vitalogy.
TAD – “Grease Box” (from Inhaler, 1993)
For grunge devotees and those within the Seattle scene, TAD were one of those groups that never quite took off as much as you expected them to. They were more metal-influenced, but without the fluke success or (comparatively) more approachable moments that Alice In Chains or Soundgarden had. (The latter brought TAD along as an opener on their Superunknown tour.) In 1993, TAD released Inhaler to a warm critical reception but little of the commercial payoff so many of their peers were experiencing. Still, it had some killer tracks, like its opener “Grease Box.”
Seaweed – “Kid Candy” (from Four, 1993)
Another one of the groups that never quite took off besides having the potential to do so, Seaweed had much of the same pedigree as many other artists on this list. Originating in Tacoma, Washington, the band issued three albums via Sub Pop, the final one coming with the confusing title of Four. (Perhaps it was a bit of that grunge tongue-in-cheek nomenclature.)
“Kid Candy” comes from that album, and despite being an earworm of a composition, it might go some way towards explaining why Seaweed didn’t find as much prominence in the ’90s. Throughout grunge’s existence, you were talking about a genre created by the people tasked with marketing it, the people looking to monetize this wildfire they had stumbled into. It wasn’t a title or sound any of these bands associated with, or often welcomed. Not that any artist ever welcomes being pigeonholed, but when you’re in the middle of something like grunge, it could be easy to get buried.
And so with Seaweed, you can hear elements of other ’90s rock idioms, of emo and pop-punk. They might’ve come up along with Mudhoney and the like, but they also toured with Quicksand and Green Day. Maybe their sound was too fluid, and they got lost in the shuffle.
Brad – “Buttercup” (from Shame, 1993)
It’s a testament to Pearl Jam’s reach in 1993, even before they followed Ten with the similarly massive Vs., that a major label would’ve spent time and money releasing a Stone Gossard side project like Brad. The band’s frontman, Shawn Smith, didn’t sound or look much like a grunge vocalist, instead singing in a lilting soul approach on songs that had hints of R&B and funk as much as they did alt-rock. On their debut album Shame’s standout and opener “Buttercup,” you can still hear Gossard’s trademark guitar work, but otherwise there is a sensuousness and fragile prettiness that made Brad something of a tangential story in grunge’s heyday.
Shame arrived to good reviews and poor sales, but even though the band didn’t blow up to the stratospheric levels of Gossard’s day job, they still accrued a cult following. They reconvened intermittently over the years, most recently with 2012’s United We Stand. It’s still curious to go back and hear “Buttercup” now, a song that feels thoroughly ’90s but almost more like something Jeff Buckley would’ve sang on Grace than anything that appeared on the landmark grunge albums around that time.
Hammerbox – “Hed” (from Numb, 1993)
By 1993, the grunge mania was in full swing. Mudhoney had already sung about it the preceding year, everyone loving their town and it all hitting a saturation point; they, in fact, sang “Overblown/ It’s all over and done.” In reality, the bubble was far from bursting. A gold rush played out throughout the early and mid-’90s, major label A&R descending on Seattle, or anywhere, and snatching up any downtuned, distorted guitar band in hopes that they’d found the next Nirvana. This resulted in a lot of bands who, in terms of constitution, had no business being on a major label even in an era when major label rock was still thriving. This resulted in a lot of next wave, secondary or tertiary groups, artists that could’ve hit it big but never got there.
Hammerbox half fit into the latter category. They were a Seattle band that had formed in 1990. They never got out of that secondary tier, even when they had songs like “Hed.” Compared to the rough-shod early days of Mudhoney and Green River, “Hed” was a testament to how much things had changed by 1993, the fact that even lesser-known acts like Hammerbox could write hook-filled rockers with real deal production. It’s somewhat lost to history now in the grand scheme of things, but “Hed” is a great song and one example of the strong material that forever existed under the shadow of the more generation-defining acts of the time.
Stone Temple Pilots – “Interstate Love Song” (from Purple, 1994)
Here was the other side of the grunge boom’s second phase. While a band like Hammerbox had geographical and stylistic ancestry within grunge, there began to be a whole host of hit-making bands that, just a year or two after those groundbreaking ’91 albums, already distinctly felt like they were arriving on the coattails of the movement, no matter the actual quality of the artist in question. You had a Seattle band like Candlebox making radio-friendly, schlocky continuations of the early ’90s grunge sound. You had bands like Stone Temple Pilots, dismissed as SoCal cool kid carpetbaggers.
That perception had a lot to do with their 1992 debut Core, an album that’s prominent in ’90s history and has some good material but often sounds like grunge karaoke, in no small part thanks to Scott Weiland’s guttural impressions of Vedder and Cornell.
On 1994’s Purple, Stone Temple Pilots became a truer version of themselves. Soon, they’d transform further, infusing their sound with psych-pop and glam rock and altogether becoming one of the more underrated (or wrongfully-maligned) songwriting outfits of the ’90s. Soon, you’d have to argue how much of a grunge band they really were, even within the murkily-defined parameters of the genre that were forever ensured by the stylistic variations between the big four.
Still, compositions like “Interstate Love Song” were of a piece with the moment, and started to show how the sound could mold itself to other backgrounds and landscapes. There’s a rambling road trip quality to tracks like “Interstate Love Song,” more a sound of endless California drives than the rainy and grey Pacific Northwest. It was also a slicker aesthetic overall, pointing the way towards a round of mid-’90s grunge that was shinier and bigger-budget than the key albums of ’91 and ’92.
Hole – “Violet” (from Live Through This, 1994)
If Kurt Cobain was the John Lennon of grunge, here was his Yoko — a slightly older woman who already had her own life experiences and artistic accomplishments who nevertheless would often be characterized as an accessory to, or a burden on, her runaway genius husband. It is, obviously, pernicious. Even if grunge was forward-thinking enough to allow Vedder to write “Pro-Choice” on his arm during Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged or Stone Temple Pilots to release a single grappling with date-rape, it was still almost 30 years ago. For no reason besides sexism, people liked to talk about the prospect that Cobain wrote everything for Hole. And at least Yoko never had to deal with books forwarding conspiracy theories that she orchestrated Lennon’s murder.
Over time and removed from the drama of grunge and the earthquake of Cobain’s death, Hole’s legacy has been allowed to stand on its own more. Live Through This, their landmark album, came out just a week after Cobain’s death. These songs obviously dated a while back, but it lives on as a quintessential document of where grunge was in 1994, and certain aspects of the album hit all the harder if you hear them through the lens of arriving right in the aftermath of losing Cobain.
“Violet” wasn’t about Cobain, it wasn’t about the fame that bubbled up around Love and her late husband. It was, supposedly, about Love’s prior relationship with Billy Corgan, a scathing breakup song with one of Love’s most visceral choruses. Sonically speaking, it helps mark a transition occurring through the mid-’90s, like when Soundgarden released Superunknown, in which some of the previously abrasive founders of the scene started to incorporate more pop elements into their songwriting.
Pearl Jam – “Corduroy” (from Vitalogy, 1994)
Throughout grunge’s peak, its central figures were at odds with their newfound celebrity. These were people from what was once a local scene, thrust onto the (inter)national stage. Between the meteoric rise of the genre and the fading punk roots of these musicians, there was always a complicated relationship to fame. They couldn’t be seen to be selling out, even as their music was the most popular new music in the world. The New York Times published clumsy trendpieces, with slang guides derived from a Sub Pop staffer trolling a reporter. And in October of 1993, Time ran a cover featuring a photo of a young Eddie Vedder howling into the mic, bracketed by the words: “All The Rage: Angry Young Rockers Like Pearl Jam Give Voice To The Passions And Fears Of A Generation.”
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being emblazoned with the label “Voice Of A Generation”? Especially in the context of grunge, the depression and addiction and dislocation these bands were tasked with documenting, you could forgive an artist for throwing up their hands. For deciding they wanted none of this.
In 1994, that’s the juncture Pearl Jam had arrived at. Their first two outings had become massive hits, Vs. setting records for fastest-selling new album upon its release. So when they returned with Vitalogy, their process of burning it all down had begun. Swinging wildly from introspective ballads, to scathing punk tracks, to alienating “experimental” passages, Vitalogy occupies the unlikely position of often being considered one of Pearl Jam’s finest moments, and yet it’s also the beginning of the end for them and for grunge in its mainstream dominance.
It still produced hits, but eventually the world listened: This was the sound of a band backing away, writhing in defiance, putting walls up as much as they were becoming more human. In the ensuing years, the tailspin that fame sent Pearl Jam into would conclude with a series of growing pains, Vedder wresting control of the group from Gossard and Ament, their infamous Ticketmaster battle, the searching 1996 LP No Code. They succeeded in withdrawing. Somehow, all these years later, they still have legions of devoted fans that stuck through them with all of it. Lesser artists wouldn’t have ever recovered from Pearl Jam’s tumultuous second chapter.
There are other songs on Vitalogy that grapple with these themes. But “Corduroy” was perhaps an anthem and manifesto more complete than Pearl Jam’s giant early singles. It was a song born from these frustrations, and a song that was still “grunge” but departing from the lumbering rock moments of their first albums and instead approaching the ragged sonics of Pearl Jam’s mid-’90s. With the oft-misheard line “Everything has chains/ Absolutely nothing’s changed,” Vedder crafted an unlikely rallying cry for the beginning of grunge’s decline. All these years later, it remains one of Pearl Jam’s signature moments, one of the last major contributions they made to the era that birthed them, and one of their best songs.
Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain” (from Without A Sound, 1994)
In the mid-’90s, Dinosaur Jr. was already in a different chapter of their career, removed from those initial bursts that all the grunge bands were going through. In fact, it wasn’t really Dinosaur Jr. anymore, with J Mascis carrying on without Lou Barlow or Murph in the fold. Due to the initial trio no longer being intact, maybe these ’90s albums were compromised compared to the late ’80s classics the group already had to their name. But J Mascis didn’t change his approach much at all. He just stuck around, cranking out songs, and encountered a period of time more amenable to his particular brand of slackerdom and volcanic guitar work.
Dinosaur Jr. became one of the bands who influenced the grunge acts and ran into a greater success during the Alt Nation era. “Feel The Pain” likely remains their biggest song for casual listeners, a composition that does all the things Dinosaur Jr. tracks are supposed to do while smoothing out the edges just enough to fit in nicely with the mid-’90s rock hits.
When the band truly reformed in the ’00s, they were still following the same formulae, and they made some of their best music. But this was the only time they stumbled into the mainstream in such a way. They were always built moreso for being off-to-the-side workhorse types. Thirty-odd years later, they are established as guitar luminaries for multiple generations and scenes, still impacting indie artists over two decades past the time when they influenced, and then participated in, grunge.
R.E.M. – “Let Me In” (from Monster, 1994)
When you think of ’80s alternative bands who became household names in the ’90s, there’s no better example than R.E.M. One of the pivotal ’80s indie bands, one of the pivotal ’90s artists who could maintain their idiosyncratic viewpoint and yet somehow now score major radio hits led by mandolin. These guys loomed large over grunge and the Alt Nation moment in general. And while they started off the decade with elusive, autumnal folk songs, as the turning point of the ’90s approached R.E.M., too, turned the distortion way up and made a grunge album.
Today, Monster is still one of the most divisive entries in a beloved catalog. There was a whole new generation of R.E.M. fans turned on by their more visible early ’90s albums, and an older one that never accepted the group’s embrace of pop stardom. Crucially, R.E.M. weren’t just engaging with the sounds of the decade. They acted as big brothers to bands they’d previously inspired, from Radiohead over in the UK to Nirvana in the States.
There was a mutual respect and friendship between Cobain and Michael Stipe. They were supposed to work on music together before Cobain’s death. In the aftermath, R.E.M. wrote and recorded “Let Me In” as a tribute and message to the departed Cobain. It’s an outlier on Monster, and not one of the songs that was destined for the airwaves. (The most notable entry in the latter category would be their hit “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”) “Let Me In” had none of the performative glam sleaze that otherwise defined Monster. Instead, it was a heartrending ballad, performed over waves of guitar overdriven to the point of losing its shape. In the song, Stipe conveys the message he couldn’t get through to Cobain when he was alive — that he, too, had gone through what Cobain was experiencing, and that you can make it through all the madness. There are a lot of elegiac moments of pure beauty in R.E.M.’s catalog, and “Let Me In” remains one of the most evocative when you know its context. When I saw R.E.M. perform it on their goodbye tour in 2008, 14 years later, Stipe still had to wipe tears from his eyes after he finished singing it.
Bush – “Machinehead” (from Sixteen Stone, 1994)
Almost 25 years later, how much cognitive dissonance does this cause? When we talk about the ’90s, it’s common to perceive there being two parallel guitar movements in the UK and the US that couldn’t be less alike. Grunge, arising from a tradition of ’70s rock, metal, and American indie to produce an angst-ridden sound capturing the experience of a new American generation vs. Britpop, arising from a tradition of British songwriting stretching back to the ’60s, echoing royalty like the Beatles and Stones and Kinks, recalibrated to interact with and capture the experience of a new British generation. Both summing up the end of the century in radically different ways.
Of course, just as the years in which these things begin and end aren’t always as clean as they seem in retrospectives, so too were there ways in which these borders were porous. Radiohead, of all bands, began in a place where they were clearly enamored with the Pixies and distant cousins of Nirvana, in their way; even The Bends could be seen as an atmospheric British answer to grunge. But that’s not the case with Bush. This band sounded American through and through, entirely outside of what was going on in their home country. Their 1994 debut Sixteen Stone doesn’t register when you talk about Britain in that year, and Parklife and Definitely Maybe. Perhaps appropriately, it sold a hell of a lot more here than it did in the UK.
The fact that there’s any Englishness to Bush at all is disorienting. But there, in the video for “Machinehead,” you have British city streets rendered in the same smeared grunge video aesthetic that every American rock band was using. That was one of five prominent singles from Sixteen Stone, and one of the songs that remains ubiquitous today, alongside “Glycerine.” These songs are also indicative of Bush and the transition they partially represent. This was grunge as laser-focused, hook-delivery pop machine.
There were a lot of bands like this through the rest of the decade, straddling the original sonic territory of grunge and what became a more streamlined ’90s radio rock. Some of these can also be seen as the waypoints between the original grunge bands and the awful post-grunge acts of the late ’90s; and to be honest, you could totally imagine Gavin Rossdale’s “Breathe in, breathe out” vocal part in a nu-metal song circa 2001. In most cases — your Candelboxes or Collective Souls — these bands don’t belong on a list like this. But Bush’s hooks on that first album were undeniable, and there were far worse ways people interpreted grunge as the decade wore on.
Mad Season – “Wake Up” (from Above, 1995)
The cycle was beginning to play out. Scenes erupt, take over the consciousness, and then the crash landings appear. The consequences rear their heads. Just as the ’60s closed with assassinations and Altamont and the deaths of several icons not yet in their 30s, the phenomenon of grunge ran into reality as the mid-’90s approached. For many people, Cobain’s suicide was the conclusion, not just the loss of a primary grunge figure but also a tragedy that shook a generation. But along the way, other musicians were facing the trials that come with superstardom.
Also in 1994, around the time of Vitalogy, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready went to rehab. There, he met bassist John Baker Saunders, and the seeds of Mad Season — the other grunge supergroup, this time with Layne Staley on vocals — were planted. Temple Of The Dog maintains a pretty daunting stature in the grunge origin story, partially because of its timing and partially because of the personnel involved. Mad Season was a quieter affair, though still had a notable single with “River Of Deceit.”
Their one album, Above, was a document of reckonings. The whole thing, from the band’s name to many of the the songs’ themes, was rooted in addiction and recovery; part of the reason McCready invited Staley into the band was reportedly that he hoped being around sober people might help Staley clean up, too. This isn’t how it went for Staley, who by the late ’90s was deep into the throes of addiction and never appeared in public. He died in 2002, another casualty of the grunge era, another casualty of heroin. Just like with Temple Of The Dog, there was then an extra layer of tragedy in listening to a mournful song like “Wake Up,” thinking of Staley crying out but not being able to reach himself.
Neil Young – “Peace And Love” (from Mirrorball, 1995)
The concept of a “godfather of grunge” gets thrown around a bit, sometimes in reference to those proto-grunge bands like the U-Men and Skin Yard. But the first time I heard it, people were talking about Neil Young. Though Young’s covered a whole lot of stylistic ground over the decades, there’s a recurring strain of his music that rests on raw, loose songwriting slathered in distortion that refuses to color within the lines. He had it in the ’70s, but at the dawn of the ’90s, with albums like Ragged Glory, he was another artist that now sounded akin to the younger bands who wouldn’t have arrived at quite the same sound without his inspiration.
So in 1995, Young made the lineage explicit and released an album with Pearl Jam. Recorded in just four days, Mirrorball has that rawness and looseness, Young experimenting with just teaming up with these kids he found and seeing what they could come up with. (Vedder wasn’t present for much of it and doesn’t appear on many songs, thanks to the stalker saga he’d later chronicle in the Pearl Jam song “Lukin,” named for the fact that he partially hid out at the house of Mudhoney bassist Matt Lukin.)
As far as Young’s career goes, he has albums far more classic than Mirrorball, but it’s still a great collection, and a unique circumstance — a genuine classic rock artist aging not into obsolescence but successfully collaborating with an of-the-moment band for an album that made perfect sense for both of them and where they were in their respective careers.
In fact, while it isn’t talked about as much, Mirrorball was a pretty crucial stepping stone for Pearl Jam, if you’re to include it in their discography too. After nearly self-destructing with Vitalogy, serving as Young’s backing band — as intimidating a task as it might seem — was actually a situation with less pressure. And it allowed them to settle on a kind of playing that would filter into their own work on No Code the following year. Below is “Peace And Love,” the song that features prominent appearances from Vedder.
Sweet Water – “Cake And Strychnine” (from Superfriends, 1995)
Sweet Water were another Seattle band that flew under the radar for many, but were beloved by those who dug deeper into the genre. A song like “Cake And Strychnine,” from their 1995 album Superfriends, underlined how the already diffuse confines of “grunge” were spreading further out as the movement waned. Here, Sweet Water still bear a lot of the hallmarks of proper grunge, but you could also mistake the track for a particularly raw lost gem from Britpop.
Monster Magnet – “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” (from Dopes To Infinity, 1995)
Having formed in the New Jersey in the late ’80s, Monster Magnet were another one of the secondary or tertiary bands that originated outside of the main Seattle grunge incubator. They were also another one of the bands who appeared poised for a bigger breakthrough on a couple occasions and never quite got there. The closest they had to a hit was a song with the extremely ’90s title “Negasonic Teenage Warhead,” the video for which went into rotation on MTV. What’s notable about “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” — aside from its infectiousness — is that it’s one song that starts to establish a different passage of ’90s music. It isn’t a stretch to imagine some of the bigger early ’90s albums featuring a song that sounded like this, but it doesn’t exactly register as dark and tortured. “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” is deeply ’90s melodically and in terms of production, but it’s starting to move away from grunge and towards a kind of swaggering alt-rock.
Veruca Salt – “Shimmer Like A Girl” (from the Blow It Out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt EP, 1996)
Even a lot of the lesser-known acts on this list had been around for as long as the artists everyone associates with grunge. They just never connected with a wider audience. Veruca Salt was part of a different crop, bands that actually formed in the heat of grunge. In their case, they got together in 1992 — right in the midst of the genre’s zenith — and released their debut in 1994, when things were starting to wind down or diverge.
In 1996, Veruca Salt followed their debut with an EP called Blow It Out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt, a title that referred back to the sense of humor that was there in grunge’s initial stages and often missed by observers during the genre’s popularization. “Shimmer Like A Girl” is the best song from that EP, an example of a composition that was utilizing components of grunge for something that was fizzier and deliriously catchy.
Local H – “Bound For The Floor” (from As Good As Dead, 1996)
Though Local H had been, in various forms, a band since the dawn of grunge, they were also one of the groups who came around with their debut after the fact. By the time you get to their sophomore album As Good As Dead in 1996, grunge as we knew it was pretty much over. Soundgarden and Screaming Trees and Alice In Chains were approaching their final albums (for the time), Cobain had been dead for years, and Pearl Jam were about to fire off into the wilderness.
So Local H, and a new breed of alt-rock bands, were rising up in the wake. In fact, they were operating with grunge as almost a pre-existing text, something they had distance from. One of the singles from As Good As Dead was straight-up called “Eddie Vedder,” as if these guys were already part of history and fodder for meta-textual interpretations by bands who, on some level, were picking up where they left off aesthetically. The more well-known single from As Good As Dead was “Bound For The Floor,” a great example of Scott Lucas’ sharp songwriting and another instance of grunge’s core facets being softened for a radio-ready rock single.
Foo Fighters – “Everlong” (from The Colour And The Shape, 1997)
There’s an argument to be made that you could end this list in 1995, with Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut. The unlikely start of a whole other success story for Dave Grohl, it was an album made in constant motion, a couple weeks of Grohl in the studio running between instruments, letting out these songs he’d written in the wake of Cobain’s death. In particular, you could locate “I’ll Stick Around” as one ending. A song in which Grohl’s songwriting was still very much indebted to his time in Nirvana, a song that always came across as a scathing rebuke of Courtney Love despite Grohl spending years denying so. In some ways, that’s a marker in the sand, a line between the fall of grunge — and one key player in grunge, a key witness to that collapse, sorting through the start of something else.
Perhaps Foo Fighters’ The Colour And The Shape — the 1997 sophomore effort on which the idea of the band truly cohered — is more of an epilogue to grunge then. If you are to once more look at Cobain as Lennon, the stereotype has always been that Grohl was his McCartney. More affable and comfortable with his celebrity, a little goofier and and more jocular, a little more prone to giving people the big singalong chorus or irresistible melody without making them work for it. On The Colour And The Shaoe, Grohl was still making ’90s alt-rock with some of their old calling cards — the distortion, the roars, the quiet-loud structures. But he was doing so in a much more cleaned-up fashion, a gleaming kind of alt-rock that came out of grunge but was distinctly not grunge. A new species that was brighter, getting ready to greet a new millennium and fill stadiums in decades to come.
Nothing epitomized all of that better than “Everlong,” the best song Grohl ever wrote. It’s a surging, powerful composition, rising and falling multiple times over and somehow becoming even more overwhelming each time it crests. But the tone of it is something completely new from Grohl, and from many of the people who had been at the center of grunge. When “Everlong” truly unleashes itself, it’s miles away from the anger and depression that were being exhumed in so many of grunge’s most enduring songs. Three years after losing Cobain, Grohl was giving listeners something else, something they needed — “Everlong,” in its biggest departure from Grohl’s past, is the sound of pure affirmation (barely) contained in song form.
This wasn’t a happy ending, and darkness would linger over grunge’s legacy with the deaths of Staley and Cornell yet to come. But there was something moving, and final, in hearing Grohl sing a composition like “Everlong” as the ’90s entered their final stretch. Consider Grohl’s arc in all this. Joining Nirvana just in time to be swept up and live through the center of the grunge maelstrom, weathering everything that came with it, mourning Cobain. And on the other side of that, he turned to hope and wonder.
“If everything could ever feel this real forever/ If anything could ever be this good again,” that’s the refrain that people have screamed back at Grohl, in unison, for over 20 years now. The former drummer of Nirvana could’ve disappeared into obscurity, he could’ve coasted and recorded a song with this band or that over the years. Instead, he created something of his own, something that wasn’t musically stuck in what had just happened and that hinted at what was next. Instead, he said goodbye to grunge and greeted possibility.
Listen to the playlist — minus Brad’s “Buttercup” and Veruca Salt’s “Shimmer Like A Girl,” neither of which are on Spotify — here.