Melvins formed a few years before anyone used the word “grunge” as the name of a genre, but they embodied the term perfectly with their deep, sludgy riffs and left-of-center songwriting. Since 1984, they’ve released dozens of albums of uncompromising and sometimes experimental music, and constantly challenged rock norms. When we compiled our recent list of the 50 Greatest Grunge Albums, two of their standout LPs — 1991’s Bullhead and 1993’s Houdini — made the cut.
The band’s frontman, vocalist-guitarist Buzz Osborne, was surprised to hear the news, but not for the reason you may guess. “Amazing. Are there 50 great grunge records?” he asks on a phone call a week before the list came out. “I guess it depends on how wide your parameters are. I’m not overly intrigued by that whole genre. … It’s OK, there’s a few things that are good. But I think most of what people put under that moniker is just garbage. I don’t care about any of it. I might as well be listening to fucking Bon Jovi. You know, big production, big everything.”
Despite this, Osborne was game to list a few of his own favorite grunge records to give a better picture of how he saw the genre. “To me, grunge was more punk rock than rock or the hair-metal thing,” he says. “It was putting an emphasis back on the music.” Below, he picked 10 records he feels exemplifies the movement. “Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger is first on my list and the rest of them are in no particular order,” he explains. And he adds that he’d give Neil Young’s Zuma an honorable mention. “That could have been grunge,” he says. Here’s the rest of what he picked.
Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger (1991)
That’s the one record I’ve listened to most that’s quote-unquote “grunge.” I think it was a record that I paid little attention to when it came out, but as time went on, I realized it works far better than any other ones. The songs are better, and it has a more sophisticated musicality to it than most of records by the other bands considered grunge. I like “Room a Thousand Years Wide,” and “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” is a good song. “Slaves & Bulldozers” is good. The album has odd timings and weird stuff that most people don’t pick up on, and it’s buried in the music in a way that you don’t really realize exactly what it is you’re listening to. Most of the bands that were like them or trying to rip them off never did that. I always admire anything that’s outside the box.
Nirvana, Nevermind (1991)
I think it’s their best record. I didn’t like the stuff that much before or after it. I don’t necessarily like all the songs on it, but it really solidified what was good about them to begin with. “Teen Spirit” is OK for that kind of song. You probably can’t improve on that. Some of the other songs were taken off of other bands’ songs, and even “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” to me, sounds like [Blue Öyster Cult’s] “Godzilla” crossed with [Boston’s] “More Than a Feeling.” He wore his influences on his sleeve, for sure. I think it’s a little overproduced, personally. I usually prefer a little bit grittier production than that.
We went down to the studio in L.A. when they were recording it. We were there while Butch Vig was trying to tune the cello [on “Something in the Way”] electronically, because it had been played so out of tune. He was just trying to save it. Whoever played it didn’t do a tremendously great job. And my thought was, “Why didn’t you just get someone who could do it and save yourself some hassle?” [Laughs] Oh, well. So we heard the record then. I never would have guessed it would sell 30 million records or however many it sold worldwide. I’m a bad A&R guy when it comes to stuff like that.
U-Men, U-Men (1984)
U-Men is one of the best bands from the era that nobody knows about. They were relatively unpredictable live. All the guys were really good players and they had a really cool sense about them. It was very well-rehearsed and well-conceived. Those are lessons I learned at a very early stage in our career from them and I never forgot that stuff. I would just say that the first 12-inch they did is one of the best Seattle rock records ever, including stuff by Jimi Hendrix. At the time it came out, I loved them live, and I was just completely floored by how great that record was. To this day, I listen to that record all the time. All. The. Time. I think it’s a fucking great record. I will never stop loving it.
Tales of Terror, Tales of Terror (1984)
They were an extraordinary band. I saw them before I heard the record, and I thought they were really, really, really good. It was pretty much exactly the kind of punk-rock thing I wanted. They had a simultaneous destruction and reinvention to their music. And you could tell their influences were really cool, like the Stooges and the Dead Boys with some hardcore thrown in there. And they had a psychedelic edge to it that I thought was amazing. This record would be in my top 20 albums of all time, if not top 10. We’ve covered a couple of songs on it, and we may cover more in the future. It was certainly a big influence on me and the Mudhoney guys.
Mudhoney, “Touch Me, I’m Sick” (1988)
I really liked [Mudhoney frontman] Mark Arm from the beginning. He was always very nice to me and a good guy. I learned a lot from him; he was a big influence on me in general, especially in what his sensibilities were musically. I included this seven-inch because of the B side, “Sweet Young Thing.” When I heard that, I was like, “Oh, my God. This is fucking great. These guys really nailed it on this.” I think it’s the best song they ever did, and they did it early on. It’s a tough one to surpass.
Flipper, Generic (1982)
This would be in my top five albums of all time. They’re another band that simultaneously destroyed and invented rock & roll music. They wrote the bible on what was possible with punk-rock music. It was so far beyond anything I had heard before. Its genius is in its simplicity, its end-of-the-world quality. It made me want to make music that sounded like the end of the world, as well.
And I thought they had really hooky songs and very clever lyrics, as well as lyrics that were totally terrifying. If you listen to a song like “I Saw You Shine,” that’s a fucking scary song. And I was just intrigued by “Sacrifice,” which we’ve covered for a long time. Generic Flipper is a really high-water mark for music in general. People that don’t understand that and don’t get it are fucking morons. “What do you like? Oh, you like that? Oh, great. Well, you’re just a fucking moron.”
We just got done recording with Steve [DePace] and Ted [Falconi]; we wrote a new Flipper song with them, and it was an honor to play with those guys. If you told me at the beginning, when I first started in the band, that someday I’ll make music with the guys from Flipper and the Butthole Surfers and Steve McDonald from Redd Kross would play in my band, I never would have believed any of that. That’s just too much for me to believe. I do not take it for granted. And my love for Generic Flipper has only intensified.
Nirvana, Bleach (1989)
I picked Bleach because there’s just not that many grunge records I think are any good. But that would be one of them. Our influence was massive on them with Bleach, and it’s obvious. [Melvins drummer] Dale [Crover] even played on a lot of it. “Negative Creep” is probably my favorite song on it. I like that song probably more than anything on Nevermind, but I think Nevermind is a better record. But Bleach is good. If that was the only record they put out, it would still be good.
I never thought Nirvana would sell a hundred million albums; I didn’t hear them being bigger than Sonic Youth. I knew why I liked Nirvana, but I couldn’t see why the general public liked it. I was always very excited about Nirvana and Soundgarden becoming famous, rich and successful. I felt like something that I was involved in was right. My sensibilities were right. Watching that happen with those guys only gave me more confidence. Bleach was the beginning of that.
Soundgarden, Superunknown (1994)
This is probably my second favorite album from them. I like a lot of songs on that record. We covered “Spoonman” at the Chris Cornell tribute because I thought we could do a good job of it, and I didn’t think anybody else would play that song. And I wasn’t wrong about that; it’s a weird song to play. The thing is, the Soundgarden guys are good players, and the music they play is, like I said before, very sophisticated. It’s not just jive-ass crap in 4/4. It’s far superior to that. Those guys had four songwriters in that band, all contributing to what they were doing, and it really shows.
Take a song like “4th of July.” How many of their contemporaries would have done a song like that? That’s right, none. And that’s what sets those guys far and above the rest of them. And it’s on the same album as “Black Hole Sun.” Like, “We do ‘Black Hole Sun,’ and we do this.” That’s why they’re better than the other bands. And “The Day I Tried to Live” is fucking great. I think a lot of people miss the extent of how far their influence reached.
Playing that [Cornell] tribute show was fucking heavy, man. It was like, “This is the end. This is it for these guys.” And it was tough. It was really hard to feel good about that. It’s closure to some degree, but there is no closure on that. It’s not like he died of cancer, you know. It’s a different kind of thing, and it’s not something I’ll ever be able to get my head around. Him or the Nirvana thing. I will never get over that stuff, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Malfunkshun, Return to Olympus (1995)
Malfunkshun were one of my favorite bands from that era. They never had any albums when we played with them and saw them. I just enjoyed them live, and my memories are of them playing live, not listening to records. My favorite song from them is “With Yo’ Heart (Not Yo’ Hands).” They had a really great sense of humor and they were great players and nice guys. I thought they wrote really great songs and were really fun. When Andy Wood died, it was a total waste. Lord knows what the future could have held for that guy. But they remain one of my favorites.
I don’t think Return to Olympus [a comp issued years after the band broke up] is what it could have been, because under the right circumstances they could have hit home runs with all those songs. It felt good to hear this album, but you kind of feel cheated, too, at the same time, because you wish it was under better circumstances. But I love them so much I had to include them.
Babes in Toyland, Spanking Machine (1990)
I don’t know that I would have considered Babes in Toyland a grunge band, but I think a lot of people do. They were clearly influenced by the Birthday Party, which I thought was cool. And Hole were kind of a bastardized version of them. To me, anyway. Babes in Toyland were a much, much better band. They wrote much more interesting songs and were much less interested in, like, “We have to write pop songs that are gonna be big hits.” You never had to worry about that with them. I like Spanking Machine from them best. “He’s My Thing” is on that one, and I like “Vomit Heart.” That’s probably my favorite song of theirs ever.
We played a lot of shows with them back then, and they were always fun. We did a tour with them and White Zombie, and we both got treated like fucking dogshit on that tour by the powers that be. It was a massively unnecessary situation of pointless rock-star behavior. I don’t know what was going through his [Rob Zombie’s] head, but if making enemies is what you set out to do, well, mission accomplished. I’ve been around people you would consider a rock star, like the guys in Kiss, and they never behaved like that. It just makes you hate lower-level fuckheads like Rob Zombie even more. If I got treated like that by the fucking mailman, I’d hate his guts. So it was fun to have Babes in Toyland along.