When Rolling Stone compiled our list of the 50 Greatest Grunge Albums, the MVP was clearly Soundgarden. Five of the band’s records made the cut — everything they released from their debut, Screaming Life, through 1994’s Superunknown — and two of those LPs placed in the top 10. Their 1991 album, Badmotorfinger, came in at number two, following only Nirvana’s Nevermind.
The group formed in 1984, playing psychedelic punk on early songs like “Hunted Down” and “All Your Lies,” tracks that showed off Chris Cornell’s jaw-dropping vocal ability. Eventually they introduced genre hallmarks like off-kilter time signatures, heavily thunking riffs and melodic pop songcraft until they were dominating radio playlists with songs like “Outshined” and “Black Hole Sun.” Their trajectory paved the way for many of their peers; they were one of the first bands to sign with Sub Pop and they were the first grunge act to sign with a major label.
Because of Soundgarden’s importance, we reached out to the band’s guitarist, Kim Thayil, to find out what his favorite grunge records are, and how he defines the genre. “I think for a number of years, most of the Seattle bands avoided the term ‘grunge,'” he says. “It’s kind of hard to recall what might be considered grunge or what might have been referred to as metal or pop or punk. I think the easy way to define it would probably be: ‘Seattle-area music of a particular community and genre during a particular period of time from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties.'”
To narrow it down, Thayil — who says he currently has no projects in the works, “just a lot of things on paper and in my head” — picked records by artists that started up mostly in the Seattle area and put out albums on regional labels. Here are his favorites.
Nirvana, Bleach (1989)
I’m picking Bleach for this list on the strength of “Negative Creep,” which would be amazing as a hardcore song or as sort of a metal-grunge song. I also love the riffs on “Blew” and “Swap Meet”; I’d listen to those over and over. That record was so popular with our band when we were touring. We’d play Fugazi, Margin Walker; Meat Puppets II; Neil Young, After the Gold Rush; and Nirvana, Bleach, all the time on a cassette player in our van.
Nivana opened up for us a few times, and we were like, “Shit, these guys are good.” I remember thinking they’ve got some cool songs and Kurt could sing, but their stage presence really didn’t have that confidence or identity yet. Kurt would just stand there and not move, and his hair was in his face. He had zero charisma, except for [the fact] he had a good voice. Chris [Cornell] definitely picked up on his voice. In a year or so, they found their groove and that confidence. Live, it was pretty amazing.
Green River, Dry as a Bone (1987)
Of all the Green River records, I liked Dry as a Bone the best. The first record, Come On Down, is a little bit more grungy I suppose, but it’s not as memorable as the stuff on Dry as a Bone. And their Rehab Doll album is sort of like tipping their hat toward L.A. glam, which I never like that shit, ever. But Dry as a Bone is the one that got me with the vibe that was like the Dead Boys and Aerosmith.
At the time, I think [guitarist] Bruce [Fairweather] was hyping them as being like the Stooges meets Aerosmith. I never really saw the Stooges thing. I also love Dry as a Bone because of its packaging, that sort of [Green River and Pearl Jam bassist] Jeff Ament school of graphics that was popular back then. I love the fact that it’s a quick record, five or six songs and they’re all pretty strong.
Melvins, Gluey Porch Treatments (1987)
I could pick almost anything by Melvins, but I’m going to say Gluey Porch Treatments since it was their debut album. They made a lot of albums that were more inventive creatively and better produced sonically, but I’m picking this one because I like to think of them in that period.
They were the slowest band in the scene, but they started of being the fastest. At times Buzz had this Gene Simmons thing to his vocals, but the music was incredibly arty and somewhat experimental even if they were never self-conscious about it. They may not have been aware they were being so arty at the time, but all the rest of the bands certainly took notice. Just the fact that they slowed down was a big deal. The fact that they have arrangements that would often not repeat was cool too; it would just be a linear sequence: A, B, C, D, N.
U-Men, U-Men EP (1984)
There’s an argument about whether the U-Men are grunge or not. They’re certainly proto-grunge. Everybody kind of looked up to them. They were distinct from all the other bands in Seattle in the early Eighties; most of the bands in Seattle kind of sucked. They were either goofy New Wave or some kind of college butt-rock. And then the U-Men came along and they had these jagged rhythms. They were inventive and had a lot of charisma. Everyone in that fuckin’ band had a presence. It was fun to watch, and the way they related to the audience and each other was great.
In the absence of a real Malfunkshun album, I’ll say all Malfunkshun should be on this list. There’s an album called Another Pyrrhic Victory, and Malfunksun had a couple of songs on that, “My Only Fan” and “Shotgun Wedding.” And the Deep Six compilation had “Stars-N-You” and “With Yo’ Heart (Not Yo’ Hands).” Those are amazing songs. And there’s a Malfunkshun album [Return to Olympus] that’s posthumous on the Loosegroove label.
That band was very inspirational and influential, just because they were heavy as shit. Kevin Wood’s guitar playing was way fast and not coherent; it was this chaotic, crazy fast thing. And [singer] Andrew [Wood] was crooning, dressed-up and comical, and then when the riffs came in, it was truly heavy. It was just amazing. They could also have a nice R&B groove when they needed one in the metallic sets. They would refer to themselves as “Mötley Crüe North” or “Kiss West Coast.” It was hilarious.
Andy Wood was a fun guy. He was definitely a character and a personality. [Editor’s note: Wood died in 1990.] Even at shows Malfunkshun didn’t play, we’d get Andy to MC as “Landrew, the Love Master of Ceremonies.” There were a few shows we were headlining, and Landrew would come out and introduce each band, and he would come down from “Olympus” and introduce the bands. It was hilarious. He was wearing these giant Smurf boots, and he’s got makeup on.
Skin Yard, Hallowed Ground (1988)
I don’t think any of us [in Soundgarden] really liked the first Skin Yard record, but we liked them as people and the uniqueness of what they were trying to do. Then they became heavier, more in the mold of Soundgarden or Tad, and they started making better records that were kind of fun. By the time they put out Hallowed Ground, they were getting into the groove and had the rock idea going.
Jack Endino was experimental as a guitarist, but he’s got a background that’s all rock. He’s the one who turned me on to Budgie and the Groundhogs back in the early Eighties, and of course he loved Sabbath. He likes big riffs. On Hallowed Ground and the subsequent records, they really captured Jack’s interest and his strength as a rock fan and rock guitar player. When the songs got stripped out a little bit to become more rock, it was also a lot easier for [vocalist] Ben [McMillan] to develop lyrics and melodies that would fit, so I think on this one you get the best of Ben McMillan and Jack Endino. [Pauses] And we got the best of Skin Yard when their drummer, Matt Cameron, came over and joined us.
Mudhoney, Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)
Mudhoney had this great presence from [singer-guitarist] Mark [Arm]. And I always liked the way Steve [Turner] played guitar; I liked his solos, because they were loose and somewhat expressive. It’s easy to be supportive of them. I’m putting Superfuzz Bigmuff on this list for no other reason than the song “In ‘n’ Out of Grace,” which his probably still my favorite Mudhoney song. I love the line, “Oh, God, how I love to hate,” and the way it kicks back in from Danny [Peters’] drum solo. It’s just an amazing moment every time they do it live. And the groove is cool; it’s this weird Blue Cheer thing.
Tad, God’s Balls (1989)
I’m picking God’s Balls because of [bassist] Kurt [Danielson’s] poetic background. I think some of that insight contributed to the band. And then I love Gary [Thorstensen’s] inventive guitar playing and use of feedback. He had colors to augment what would otherwise be the same old linear groove. That album was so important because it helped establish Tad as an influential and significant artist from the Seattle scene. They weren’t just knuckleheads.
When they came out, they were marketing [frontman Tad Doyle] as some kind of retarded lumberjack, but he’s an incredibly smart, articulate multi-instrumentalist and a producer and engineer himself. They had him write his name left-handed on the single: “My Name is Tad.” What the fuck? It was silly and obnoxious because Tad’s a super smart guy.
Screaming Trees, Clairvoyance (1986)
I don’t know what you’d call them, but they were probably grunge at least by fashion. They were wearing flannel independently of us. I like Clairvoyance for the song “Clairvoyance,” but my favorite song on there is probably “I See Stars” followed by “Orange Airplane.” After this album, they kind of fattened up their sound.
Their influence and impact on us and on Seattle was definitely significant. They were influential in getting us on [the record label] SST. They came to see us out in Ellensburg [Washington] and they talked us up to Greg [Ginn] and Chuck [Dukowski]. SST was our favorite label in the early to mid-Eighties. Since then, [Soundgarden bassist] Ben [Shepherd] has worked with [Screaming Trees frontman Mark] Lanegan, Chris [Cornell] co-produced Screaming Trees’ Uncle Anesthesia and they were managed by our manager for most of our career, Susan Silver, at some point. They were very much part of the family.
Alice in Chains, Facelift (1990)
Alice in Chains came from a different scene, but then started playing with us and Pearl Jam, and they played some shows with Nirvana on Facelift. I think of a song like “It Ain’t Like That,” and I love the groove. When I would play with them onstage, they’d ask me what song I want to do, and that was the one. [Sings the opening riff] I love that riff and that song. I wish I’d written it, and that’s why I love that album — just because of that song. It’s easy to fall in love with something when you think, “Why the fuck didn’t I think of that?” The whole record has great stuff on it.
Pearl Jam, Ten (1991)
Ten was a super album with the super hits. It kind of speaks for itself. Everyone has a copy of that at some point. There’s no question it’s a great record, simply in terms of commercial success, and personally it’s important to me because I know those songs from a live context.
I saw them live a few times before the record came out as [original band name] Mookie Blaylock and as Pearl Jam. Mike McCready and Eddie [Vedder] were strong additions to what Jeff [Ament] and Stone [Gossard] had been doing in their previous bands [Green River and Mother Love Bone]. Mike was a really strong lead guitar player who worked with where their songwriting was going, and it was just emotive. It could do all the things you want a lead guitarist to do, especially for the songs they were writing. And then it complemented one of the greatest rock vocalists ever, someone who was so emotive that the first few times I saw him, I actually had those weird tingles go up my spine. I think Jeff Beck’s done that for me, and Chris [Cornell] and Eddie and Derek Trucks. I’m sure there are other performances that have done that for me, but Eddie’s voice certainly did that.