Rooted in the nihilistic spirits of punk experimentation and metal ambiance, a new sound and aesthetic began to emerge from the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1980s. Despite a nearly total absence of mainstream ambitions, these bands would nonetheless define a generation and change the face of music until this very day.
Here are the Ten Best Grunge Records of All Time
- L7 – Bricks Are Heavy
They might have started as a punk band, but Los Angeles miscreants L7 steadily morphed into filthy, metallic grunge beasts. Produced by scene staple Butch Vig, Bricks Are Heavy is not entirely without poppy moments (just try not whistling along to “Pretend We’re Dead”). Catchy as it might be at times, the fury of songs like “Shitlist” make for some of the brutal moments of the whole movement.
- Paw – Dragline
The post-Nevermind a&r cash grab might have been a flash in the pan for major labels, but for a brief period of time it gave serious rock bands the kind of platform that they never anticipated. Lawrence, Kansas powerhouse Paw brought their own brand of heavy blues to the grunge table. Yes, the Black Sabbath-inspired doom riffage a-la Alice In Chains is there in droves, but Paw manage to tastefully incorporate bluegrass elements like lap-steel guitars and the kind of baritone croon that could only come from a man who knows what it’s like to work for a living. While their Seattle contemporaries were lamenting drugs and death, Paw were writing heartbreakers about dogs and fishing. Dragline is grunge for the Mark Twain reader in all of us.
- Pearl Jam – Ten
For many in the early Seattle scene, Pearl Jam was a divisive topic from moment one. Borrowing more stylistic elements from Neil Young and The Byrds than Black Sabbath and Black Flag, the band might have been an odd-man-out if not for the fact that it was composed of guys from Pacific Northwest legends Mother Love Bone and Green River. The record went diamond and Pearl Jam became one of the defining acts of the era.
- Screaming Trees – Sweet Oblivion
Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you expect. After slugging it out on Greg Ginn’s SST label for half a decade before moving to Epic for a disappointing stab at the majors, Screaming Trees had decided to call it quits after recording 1992’s Sweet Oblivion. However, a minor hit on the Singles soundtrack breathed new life into the band and exposed a wider audience to cult hero Mark Lanegan’s honey-dipped moribund croon. Unbeknownst to them, Screaming Trees would endure and become one of the most respected bands to ever come out of Seattle.
- Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles
Named after two famous distortion pedals, this six-song 1988 EP defines the early grunge movement. Frontman Mark Arm howls like Iggy Pop undergoing a guitar exorcism conducted by axeman Steve Turner. The CD reissue features a few extra singles for good measure, making it an essential document of the Seattle scene in its filthy yet innocent infancy.
- Tad – 8-Way Santa
One of the heavier bands of the Seattle scene, Tad had more sonically in common with hardcore-infused noise rock acts like Helmet, Unsane and Hammerhead than their more pop-oriented peers. Brutal as they were, that’s not to say the tracks on their sophomore LP, 8-Way Santa, aren’t catchy. Band leader Tad Doyle is a master of burying subtle hooks into sludge cacophony, giving the record a feel not entirely dissimilar to the work of their Pacific Northwest neighbors in Poison Idea (albeit a hell of a lot slower). If you like your grunge big and burly, this is the album for you.
- Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
Although they wouldn’t become a household name for another few years, Soundgarden were well on their way to breaking into the mainstream by the time of their third studio album, 1991’s Badmotorfinger. Deeply rooted in the punk ethos of SST Records, the band didn’t compromise a single iota of experimental heaviness in their major label debut. Intrepid as it was, Chris Cornell’s dominating shriek and Kim Thayil’s masterfully angular riffs would propel album standouts “Outshined” and “Jesus Christ Pose” to the point where they became alternative radio and late-night MTV hits. A stint on the ill-fated Guns N’ Roses / Metallica stadium tour would provide an extra jolt of exposure, setting the stage for what was to come.
- Nirvana – In Utero
Success means different things to different people. Although the boundless mainstream popularity of Nevermind might sound like a dream come true to some people, Nirvana struggled with their newfound fame and what that meant in terms of artistic integrity. Hoping to make the kind of record that they would listen to as fans of underground punk and experimental music, the band hired notorious producer Steve Albini to help craft their abrasive monument, In Utero. Giving equal space to abrasive noise rock and pop-oriented hits, the record’s greatest strength is its identity crisis. By shunning the trappings of fame, Nirvana became a trojan horse for unapologetically harsh and experimental music.
- Melvins – Houdini
Grunge itself is a fairly obtuse term that speaks more to a lifestyle and visual aesthetic than a specific sound. Some people might justifiably bristle at putting a band as oppressively heavy as Melvins in the same tent as more traditionally rock-oriented acts like Mudhoney and Screaming Trees, but their influence on the overall ambience of the movement is undeniable. Largely due to Nirvana’s limitless appreciation of the band, Melvins were given a contract with Atlantic Records. Their first release on the label was Houdini, a work of abstract dirge-pop genius that wears its love of classic rock and extreme metal proudly on its flannel sleeve.
- Alice In Chains – Dirt
Following up a record as viscerally miserable as Facelift might seem like an insurmountable task for any band, but Alice In Chains proved that every bottom has a trap door. Pulling from the darkest life experiences of frontman Layne Staley and band leader Jerry Cantrell, Dirt is an album that peers into the void like nothing before or since. It is the sound of hopeless addiction, endless tragedy, and utter futility. A masterpiece of anguished candor and vulnerability, creating a record like Dirt requires the kind of tortured genius and authenticity that most of us wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies.