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50 Greatest Grunge Albums

From Mudhoney to Mother Love Bone and beyond — the finest releases from the maladjusted new breed that remade rock

grunge list

We count down the 50 greatest grunge albums, from multi-platinum classics to underground essentials.

Photographs in illustration by Kevin Mazur/WireImage, 2; Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Mick Hutson/Getty Images

Twenty-five years ago, Kurt Cobain predicted that grunge would become corny. “Grunge is as potent a term as new wave,” he told Rolling Stone. “You can’t get out of it. It’s going to be passé.” At the time, Eddie Vedder was on the cover of Time, fashion designer Marc Jacobs was dressing models in flannel and even The New York Times was questioning, “How did a five-letter word meaning dirt, filth, trash become synonymous with a musical genre, a fashion statement, a pop phenomenon?” Although the word has fallen out of vogue, the music from the time remains vital.

That’s because, whether the bands liked the term or not, grunge was a movement. In less than a decade, Nirvana and a handful of bands from the Seattle area had crawled out of obscurity and commandeered pop culture, rebuilding it in their own image. They pinned their hearts to their sleeves in their lyrics, they created an inclusive environment for women and others marginalized by the poofy-haired rock mainstream of the Eighties, and — taking a cue from punk rock — they did away with the artifice of rock stardom. Their music was a hybrid of hard rock, metal and punk (with a sprinkle of Neil Young here and there), which gave them a wide enough swath of flannel for each band to have its own unique snarl. Soon, bands from all over the world were getting widespread recognition after years of duking it out on indie labels. But within a few years of reaching critical mass, it all seemed to fade away quickly, as nu-metal became rock’s shiny new object.

That’s not to say that grunge died, since scene standouts like Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains and Melvins still release critically acclaimed and/or commercially successful albums, but it has become a part of America’s cultural fabric. The genre’s influence still resounds in hip-hop (Jay-Z appropriated the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for his 2013 song “Holy Grail”) and magazines like InStyle are reporting on a resurgence of grunge fashion. And younger acts like Bully, Metz and Speedy Ortiz and even Juice Wrld continue the genre’s traditions of brittle guitar riffs and throat-shredding honesty.

Because 1994 was the last time grunge dominated the mainstream — it was the year that Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana and Pearl Jam all had Number One LPs, and, tragically, it was also the year that Kurt Cobain died by suicide — we’ve decided to mark the 25th anniversary of that year by reflecting on the best albums of the era. To capture the breadth of the genre and prove that the music never became passé, our editors have selected records by bands that topped the charts, as well as ones by unsung heroes like Paw, the Gits and the U-Men, and even the odd grunge forefather. And we’ve left off a few records that were once huge, by Bush, Candlebox and Silverchair, for instance, that just haven’t stood the test of time.

So snuggle into your best thrift-store sweater, lace up your Doc Martens and let your hair hit your shoulders, so you can properly enjoy the 50 Greatest Grunge Albums.

50 greatest grunge albums
50

Mother Love Bone, ‘Apple’ (1990)

Mother Love Bone frontman Andy Wood dreamed of being a world-famous rock star, but he died of a heroin overdose before his band’s debut album Apple even came out. His bandmates Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard would go on to live out his fantasy as members of Pearl Jam, but their success led many to go back and discover their roots in Mother Love Bone. What they heard was a remarkable album that drew equal inspiration from Led Zeppelin and the Eighties alternative scene. If Wood had lived, the band could have been huge in the Nineties. “I wonder about Andy,” Eddie Vedder told Rolling Stone in 1993. “That things were going so well for him and he didn’t know. There’s one song of his that I’d be proud to sing.” Seven years later, he’d introduce the Mother Love Bone song “Crown of Thorns” into Pearl Jam’s live show, finally letting Andy Wood’s music into the stadiums and arenas it was always destined to reach. A.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
49

Toadies, ‘Rubberneck’ (1994)

Grunge was already in full swing and mutating into mainstream alt-rock when the Toadies released their debut album Rubberneck on Interscope in 1994, a year that saw slick, accessible LPs from bands like Live, Bush and the Offspring flood the market. But Rubberneck was something different, a record with a palpably ominous vibe that could make for an uncomfortable listen at times, especially when compared to glossier rock fare on the radio. Hearing singer Todd Lewis scream, “Do you wanna die?” in the album’s “Possum Kingdom,” a song about vampire murder that somehow became a hit, was especially disconcerting. “Todd Lewis’ voice, I just love that it’s sexy, dirty, drunk, broken,” Kelly Clarkson told the Los Angeles Times in 2007, praising the Toadies as her favorite band. But it’s the way the Fort Worth, Texas, group mixed the Seattle sound with the crunchy, guitar-forward strut of home-state heroes ZZ Top — in tracks like the throttling instrumental “Mexican Hairless” and the blues-punk diatribe “Backslider” — that makes Rubberneck so vital. Even if death remains its underlying theme. “If I could find the will to kill,” Lewis sings at the end of the deceptively titled “Happyface,” “well, I’ll kill you, son of a bitch.” J.H.

50 greatest grunge albums
48

Fecal Matter, ‘Illiteracy Will Prevail’ (1986)

Five years before Nevermind, Kurt Cobain was a high-school dropout recording 4-track demos in his aunt’s house. He’d been documenting his music there for a few years with help from his mom’s sister, Mari Earl, banging wooden spoons on a suitcase in place of real drums. But Illiteracy Will Prevail, a 1986 demo he made at Earl’s with Melvins drummer Dale Crover, upped the ante considerably. The huge, heaving, fuzz-bathed riffs that would become a Nirvana hallmark were already there on songs like ratty DIY-metal rager “Bambi Slaughter” and deconstructed-hardcore miniature “Instramental,” as was Cobain’s surreal, sardonic lyrical bent (“Regurgitate the vomit from the nasty matter/Before the prosecuting attorney rests his case,” he snarls on “Blathers Log”). “They set up in my music room and they’d just crank it up,” Earl told Goldmine of the sessions. “It was loud. They would put down the music tracks first, then he’d put the headphones on and all you could hear was Kurt Cobain’s voice screaming through the house. It was pretty wild. My husband and I, we’d just look at each other and smile and go, ‘You think we should close the window so the neighbors don’t hear? So they don’t think we’re beating him or something.'” If nothing about the tape telegraphs future stardom, these songs absolutely capture the blend of savage intensity and playful eccentricity that powered Nirvana right up until the end. This is grunge before it ever had a prayer of making it out of the basement, let alone Seattle. H.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
47

The U-Men, ‘Step on a Bug’ (1988)

The U-Men emerged out of the same Seattle underground that birthed grunge, but the quartet were more Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart than Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. One of the city’s best live acts in the mid-Eighties, the U-Men followed a string of cherished seven-inch singles with 1988’s frenetic Step on a Bug, their lone studio album and 30 minutes of jagged riffs, discordant rhythms and singer John Bigley’s caterwauled vocals. Strains of U-Men’s “2 + 4” and “Flea Circus” are heard in Nirvana’s first demo cuts like “Beeswax” and “Hairspray Queen,” where Kurt Cobain’s delivery, like Bigley’s, shifts from guttural yelps to post-nasal mumble from verse to verse. “I would classify them as art rock. Classic art rock,” Cobain once told Narduwar of the U-Men. The group impacted not only the emerging grunge bands of the era but also Texas noise-rock acts like Scratch Acid and Butthole Surfers; the former morphed into the Jesus Lizard, while the latter recorded “The O-Men” as a tribute. Following the release of Step on a Bug, “[The U-Men] became increasingly disenchanted with the direction the Seattle underground was heading and called it quits in 1989,” Mudhoney’s Mark Arm wrote in the liner notes of a recent Sub Pop retrospective. “The U-Men had nothing to do with grunge. They were their own unique thing. I loved them and I still miss them.” D.K.

50 greatest grunge albums
46

Veruca Salt, ‘American Thighs’ (1994)

When BFFs Louise Post and Nina Gordon first assembled as a band, they were on track to become Chicago’s own take on the Indigo Girls — instead, they traded in their unthreatening folk act for some fuzz pedals and founded Veruca Salt. Sardonically titling their 1994 debut after a line from AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” the band recorded the LP with local producer Brad Wood, who had just wrapped up Liz Phair’s landmark album, Exile in Guyville. Both headstrong singer-guitarists, Post and Gordon traded soul-baring harmonies with the punk-rock brattitude of their Willy Wonka namesake— and in their slower-burning ballads, a not-so-punk sincerity — which made for all-around delectable pop songs. Their hard-rock bubblegum breakthrough, lead single “Seether,” was a deceptively sweet introduction; yet like the feral, feminine rage personified in its title, it also had a bite. (“Can’t fight the seether,” sang Gordon of her inner firestarter, “I can’t see her till I’m foaming at the mouth.”) The band would eventually open stadium shows for Hole, PJ Harvey and Bush, and their punchy themes went to soundtrack the chronicles of fictional Nineties anti-heroines like Tank Girl and the murderous mean girls of Jawbreaker. But the spirit of the band waned after Gordon and her brother, drummer Jim Shapiro, left the band for personal reasons in 1998: “We just kind of broke each other’s hearts in a way,” said Gordon, following their reunion 20 years later. “We were like a shooting star, so to speak,” said Post. “Ejected into space and then suddenly … the floor dropped out. We had to find our way back to Earth.Like many other grunge bands came to find, perhaps the real seether was their all-too-rapid rise to stardom. S.E.

50 greatest grunge albums
45

The Stooges, ‘Fun House’ (1970)

When a trio of Seattle all-stars — Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin — teamed up with Guns N’ Roses bassist and fellow Emerald City native Duff McKagan for a hometown gig in 2015, you might have expected them to run through a set of grunge chestnuts. Instead, they just played a bunch of Stooges songs. Three of those came from Fun House, an album regarded as a holy grail not just by the Pacific Northwest elite but by pretty much any alt- or underground-rock luminary you could name. Although the Stooges’ first album brought a sleazy Midwestern leer to British Invasion–style rock, their 1970 follow-up — named after the band’s debauched Ann Arbor clubhouse — upped the aggression, with guitarist/drummer sibling team Ron and Scott Asheton and bassist Dave Alexander honing their sound into a harsh, insistent throb and purging any remaining vestiges of the groovy Sixties. Iggy Pop, meanwhile, with his masterful array of wordless grunts, whoops and yowls, as well as his sneering delivery on raucous sex anthems like “Loose” and “TV Eye,” emanated from the speakers like a laser beam of pure id. The album’s second half pushed beyond rock, adding squalling post-Coltrane saxophone from Steve Mackay on the title track and, on closing track “L.A. Blues,” imploding in a conflagration of cacophonous, free-form noise-jazz. The architects of grunge in its ugliest, most unapologetic form were certainly paying attention. “It’s pure, well thought out thug music, an animalistic, crude and savage terror trip whose beauty will never be matched,” Melvins frontman buzz Osborne said of the album in 2009. “The Rolling Stones at their absolute zenith couldn’t even lick the balls of these guys.” H.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
44

Skin Yard, ‘Hallowed Ground’ (1989)

Record label Toxic Shock used to advertise Hallowed Ground as “more dayglo psychosis from Seattle’s own acid-drenched Skin Yard,” but that’s likely because there wasn’t any real terminology for the band’s music at that point. With frontman Ben McMillan’s guttural vocals, guitarist Jack Endino’s impressionistic sound clusters and rhythm-focused arrangements that played up Daniel House’s bass, Hallowed Ground sounds both grittier and seedier than the bands that Skin Yard first appeared alongside on 1986’s Deep Six compilation, a key early grunge document. “[Hallowed Ground is] Skin Yard at our most original,” Endino once said. “[We got] sort of an ex–punk rock kid [drummer Scott McCullum], who … really just lit a fire under us and just raised the energy level tremendously [by not] concentrating so much on careful playing, so we became thrashier and noisier.” Endino recorded the LP on the same 8-track machine he used for Nirvana’s Bleach, but thanks to the band’s ferocity, it couldn’t sound any more alien: It’s a bit like Nick Cave’s first band, the Birthday Party, played through a fuzzbox. “Open Fist” sounds like David Lee Roth fronting Hüsker Dü on bath salts, “Needle Tree” is a rattling headbanger with no real riff, and the title track is rock & roll paired with tribal drums. “To those guys [at Sub Pop], we were a little too much like Black Sabbath or something — not alternative enough,” Endino said. “We were a little too close to heavy metal, I think, from [their] standpoint.” Outside of Skin Yard, Endino engineered or produced grunge-defining albums by Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, while McMillan, who died in 2008 of diabetes, and McCullum co-founded Gruntruck, whose Push album is one of the scene’s forgotten classics. K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
43

Black Flag, ‘My War’ (1984)

When Black Flag dramatically overhauled their sound on their second proper LP, punk purists cried foul, but future heroes of grunge — and what would come to be known as sludge metal — rejoiced. The band that surfaced on My War bore little resemblance to the angst-powered battering ram captured on Black Flag’s iconic 1981 debut, Damaged. Side 1 of My War traded that earlier album’s post-adolescent flailings for a queasy midtempo churn. Abetted by Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson, guitarist and band mastermind Greg Ginn alternated driving, aggro riffs with meandering, atonal leads, the perfect complement to Henry Rollins harried rants on backstabbing friends (on the title track, maybe the single greatest Black Flag song, penned by former bassist Chuck Dukowski) and emotional turmoil. But Side 2 was the real line in the sand: a series of three six-minute-plus songs played at torturously slow tempos. Those who liked what they heard were never the same. “It was the Black Flag thing,” Melvins’ Buzz Osborne told Kim Thayil in a 1995 Guitar World article after the Soundgarden guitarist cited Melvins’ own gauntlet-throwing slowdown early on. “They did ‘Nothing Left Inside,’ a super-heavy, draining song, and that really, really hit me, emotionally,” Mudhoney’s Mark Arm said in the biography Mudhoney: The Sound and Fury From Seattle of seeing one of the My War dirges performed live in 1983. “Black Flag relished pissing people off and punk-rock people were very easy to piss off. At that show, there was a contingent of kids really pissed off that Black Flag were playing slow songs. ‘Ooh, they’ve sold out…’ Actually, they were just moving forward and doing whatever the fuck they wanted.” Fittingly, the band’s tour shirts at the time featured the album’s nightmarish Raymond Pettibon cover on the front, and on the back, a simple, declarative “Side 2.” H.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
42

Alice in Chains, ‘Jar of Flies’ (1994)

“Mind if we just jam?” Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell told producer Toby Wright in 1993 after the band booked time at Seattle’s London Bridge studio between tours. Grunge’s darkest group saw massive success the year before with their breakthrough album Dirt. But where that album ratcheted up Cantrell’s brutal, chainsaw guitar, Jar of Flies, recorded in 10 days after the band was reportedly evicted from their apartment, showcased the quartet’s deft, if still deeply bleak, acoustic balladry. “[I] just wanted to go into the studio for a few days with our acoustic guitars and see what happened,” singer Layne Staley told Hit Parader in 1994. “We never really planned on the music we made at that time to be released. But the record label heard it and they really liked it.” The (relatively) hip-swaying groove of “Swing on This” and “No Excuses,” and the string-laden doom of “I Stay Away” helped make Flies the first EP to ever debut at Number One on the Billboard 200. But it’s heartbreakingly gorgeous tracks like “Nutshell” — “That song still gets me choked up whenever I play it,” bassist Mike Inez told Revolver in 2013 — that highlighted the range of one of the genre’s most innovative groups. J.N.

50 greatest grunge albums
41

Soundgarden, ‘Screaming Life’ (1987)

A far cry from “Black Hole Sun,” Soundgarden’s first big release, Screaming Life, is knotty, trippy and sprawling. At the time, guitarist Kim Thayil didn’t riff so much as swirl his lines around the rhythms, bassist Hiro Yamomoto wrung uncharacteristically chiming notes from his instrument and Chris Cornell was a topless howling banshee. Opener, “Hunted Down,” which was also the band’s first single, rattles and lunges unpredictably, as Cornell sings about wearing a “permanent disguise”; “Tears to Forget” boasts harder-hitting rhythms than the version on the Deep Six comp; and “Hand of God” is like a twisted, stuttering heavy-metal funk song (something the band would attempt somewhat more seriously on their bizarre cover of the Ohio Players’ “Fopp,” off the Fopp EP, which Sub Pop has added to Screaming Life). “Prior to Screaming Life, we were kind of angular and jagged,” Thayil once told Rolling Stone. “We did a lot of psychedelic stuff built around the feedback and Hiro’s bass lines. Gradually, that psychedelia made it so I was pushed into doing solos. Then the riffs started getting heavier. You just see how the audience responded to what we were doing, and you flow with that. Our songs started getting a little bit slower and heavier.” The record was pure art-punk, and it showed just how malleable grunge could be. K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
40

Mudhoney, ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’ (1991)

“Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” is a cutesy mnemonic device to help music students remember the lines on sheet music in the treble clef, but that title is the only sweet thing about Mudhoney’s second album. “[Soundgarden are] good looking, so they’re probably selling more records than we are, and that’s appealing to the majors,” the band’s vocalist and guitarist, Mark Arm, told Spin in 1991. “But as soon as people see the plastic surgery we’re getting, then things will change.” Whether they look the part or not, the band commands a punky, 43-minute aural assault that owes as much of a debt to garage rock as it does to the hardcore-punk influences of vocalist-guitarist Mark Arm and guitarist Steve Turner’s previous band, Green River. The single “Let It Slide,” which charted in the U.K., combines stomach-churning riffing with surf-rock guitar slides, while the concert staples “Into the Drink” and “Good Enough” have a sinister beach-rock swagger. The band even busts out some Farfisa organ for “Who You Drivin’ Now” to bring out the song’s go-go-dancer–on–angel-dust vibes. “I think [Every Good Boy] was a redefinition of what we were,” Turner said last year. “We were firing on all cylinders at the time, but also challenging what people thought we were. … We were on a roll back then. A short-lived roll, apparently.” K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
39

The Gits, ‘Enter: The Conquering Chicken’ (1994)

Originally founded amid the progressive utopia of Ohio’s Antioch College, Seattle transplants the Gits made their mark on the Pacific Northwest fuzz-rock scene with an excitable hardcore-punk verve. Mia Zapata, the band’s prodigiously talented lyricist and vocalist, conjured Patti Smith’s bluesy, weather-worn poetics in otherwise pop-punk–paced songs. The band’s final record, 1994’s Enter: The Conquering Chicken finds her grappling with playing nice in a world where kindness is hard to come by, on tracks like “Bob (Cousin O)” and “Social Love.” (Sam Cooke also gets the Zapata treatment in the Gits’ cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come.”) In the gale-force thrasher “Sign of the Crab,” Zapata muses on being murdered at the hands of a stranger: “Go ahead and slice me up, spread me all across this town,” she sings, “Cause you know you’re the one that won’t be found.”

In a shattering twist of fate, the song would play itself out how Zapata described, and just days after she recorded it. In the summer of 1993, her body was discovered in Seattle’s Central District, where she had been raped and strangled to death after a show at the Comet Tavern. Authorities would fumble with the case for years; many of Zapata’s male friends were cornered for DNA samples, stirring mistrust in the scene. That tension turned productive once Gits’ protégés 7 Year Bitch called meetings for community safety; these would result in Home Alive, an organization devoted to teaching self-defense and violence prevention. Fellow grunge stalwarts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden rapidly raised funds with a compilation LP, and 7 Year Bitch would commemorate Zapata’s life with their 1994 LP, ¡Viva Zapata! (See number 34 below.) It would be another 10 years before Zapata’s killer, Jesus Mezquia, was identified and charged; he began serving his 37 year sentence in 2009. S.E.

50 greatest grunge albums
38

The Fluid, ‘Purplemetalflakemusic’ (1993)

Although the Fluid are best known for their Sub Pop split single with Nirvana, their grungiest release was their final offering, Purplemetalflakemusic. Members of the punk group Frantix (“My Dad’s a Fuckin’ Alcoholic”) formed the group Madhouse in the early Eighties and eventually changed their name to the Fluid. The band’s early influences were the Stones, the Stooges and the Pebbles series of garage-rock comps, and their early Sub Pop albums were loose and almost poppy. When they signed to the Disney-owned Hollywood, though, they started writing rawer, heavier music that still had Stooges-style shake appeal. Purplemetalflakemusic’s “One Eye Out” is a heavy beach rocker, while “She Don’t Understand” has a hummable, power-pop vocal line that’s paired with the sort of direct guitar riff Kurt Cobain would have killed for. The band famously turned down Tony Visconti as the producer for the album, but it’s safe to assume that he would have put a little too much Bowie-style glam on already catchy songs like “Pill” and “On My Feet.” Nevertheless, the record didn’t sell well and the band imploded in 1994 making for what guitarist James Clower told Spin was a “pretty pathetic end to a great rock band.” Years later, frontman John Robinson reflected on what went wrong. “The Fluid, for better and often for worse, wouldn’t take any advice like that about anything, you know? We were an extremely stubborn and headstrong bunch,” he said in 2008. “And for the most part, that served us well.” K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
37

L7, ‘Smell the Magic’ (1990)

When L7 began recording their second album in 1989, they were one of the few non-Seattle bands signed to Sub Pop. Heady first single “Shove” was a line in the sand. The song’s roiling, Black Sabbath-esque intro seemed to announce that these abrasive L.A. art-punks wouldn’t conform to the self-serious stylings of their labelmates, tour partners and peers like Soundgarden and Nirvana. “We are separated from those bands because we crossed over — we were in the heavy metal magazines, too,” guitarist and songwriter Suzi Gardner told Rolling Stone. “But we’ve always been a hard rock band with lots of different influences and a punk sensibility.” Upon its release in 1990, Smell the Magic was an electric shock in a sea of grey. From Donita Sparks and Gardner’s snarling guitars on “Till the Wheels Fall Off” to the Motörhead-style careen of “Broomstick” and “Packin A’ Rod,” the LP exploded the parameters of what a grunge band could be and sound like in 29 breathless minutes. L7 were hellbent on proving (often to their management’s horror) that rock bands could be formidable and funny, political and potty-mouthed. And of all their albums, Smell the Magic is also the one most widely cited as an inspiration by the next wave of punk and riot grrrl bands, from Garbage to Veruca Salt, because of songs like “Fast and Frightening,” which felt feminist without making gender a selling point of the music (“She’s got so much clit she don’t need no balls,” Sparks sings) — a concept many in the music industry still haven’t fully mastered. S.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
36

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Ragged Glory’ (1990)

In April of 1990, before anybody outside of the tiny Seattle rock scene even heard the term “grunge,” Neil Young gathered with Crazy Horse at his California ranch and banged out a perfect grunge album in a matter of weeks. It came naturally to him, since he’d been making proto-grunge albums for years, such as Rust Never Sleeps, with its skronking “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” and acoustic counterpart “My My, Hey Hey,” which has the unfortunate distinction of being quoted in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. On Ragged Glory, songs like “Love and Only Love” and “Fuckin’ Up” are built around long, feedback-drenched jams and easily stand up to his strongest works from the Seventies. “I purposely wanted to play long instrumentals because I don’t hear any jamming on any other records,” he told Rolling Stone at the time. “There’s nothing spontaneous going on on records these days, except in blues and funkier music. Rock & roll used to have all that.” Little did he know that a musical revolution was brewing, spearheaded by artists that grew up on his music. Soon enough, Pearl Jam were playing “Fuckin’ Up” at their own shows and the media was calling him the Godfather of Grunge. Young only played into that by enlisting Pearl Jam as his backing band on the 1995 LP Mirror Ball. A.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
35

Paw, ‘Dragline’ (1993)

In early ’92, Lawrence, Kansas’ Paw were one of countless bands being courted by the majors in the immediate aftermath of Nevermind. “It’s really asinine and out of control,” drummer Peter Fitch told Newsweek that year, after navigating the A&R-infested waters of South by Southwest. “We’re just a bunch of scumbags from Kansas in ripped jeans, and we’re sitting in the best restaurant in Austin, eating $35 entrees. That’s not reality.” Yet there was nothing artificial about Dragline, the group’s eventual major-label debut. Amid plenty of chunky, period-apt riffing, Fitch, his guitarist brother Grant, bassist Charles Bryan and vocalist Mark Hennessy gracefully wove in rootsier touches — a lovely pedal-steel break on MTV-featured single “Jessie,” a fireside folk outro on “Sleeping Bag” — that made their music feel distinctly Midwestern. Hennessy’s earthy drawl, which often rose to a ragged roar, and lyrics that painted vivid portraits of childhood — “Yeah, Poppa bought a pickup truck/With bottle tops and that’s enough/A beat up piece of Chevrolet/Blue and white rustin’ away” — added to the sense that, trends aside, this was a band stubbornly following its own down-home muse. H.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
34

7 Year Bitch, ‘¡Viva Zapata!’ (1994)

By 1990, very few rock bands had driven home the true precariousness of womanhood as militantly as Seattle four-piece 7 Year Bitch. Not quite grunge and not quite riot grrrl, the band suffused the local punk scene with righteous rage in feminist revenge fantasies “Dead Men Don’t Rape” and “Gun.” But in 1992, on the eve of their debut release Sick ‘Em, real life horror struck: Guitarist Stephanie Sargent died suddenly, presumably from a fatal cocktail of alcohol and heroin. Less than a year later, the band’s muse and mentor, Gits frontwoman Mia Zapata, was found strangled to death outside a beloved music venue. Both events would trigger their Jack Endino–produced sophomore LP, ¡Viva Zapata!: an unflinching tribute to the luminaries they lost. Backed by the menacing chug of Elizabeth Davis’ bass guitar, frontwoman Selene Vigil-Wilk asks in “M.I.A.,” slam-poet style: “Does society have justice for you? Well if not, I do.”

Drummer Valerie Agnew would follow through by calling community grief meetings — which would evolve into self-defense trainings — and eventually become the anti-violence non-profit, Home Alive. “We were thinking in the modes of self-defense,” Agnew later noted: “Wishing we were all fucking ninja bitches.”

Yet despite its sobering subject matter, ¡Viva Zapata! was not without its playful indulgences: In their most popular song, “The Scratch,” the band set aside their politics for two minutes of catchy, devil-may-care hedonism. (The band famously performed the song live in the 1995 teen Bonnie and Clyde drama, Mad Love, starring Drew Barrymore.) “You better watch out what you’re wishing for,” Vigil-Wilk warns; “I will have my cake and I will eat it too just like you!” S.E.

50 greatest grunge albums
33

Babes in Toyland, ‘Fontanelle’ (1992)

Following their debut Spanking Machine, Babes in Toyland flirted with mainstream success, signing to Reprise Records and joining Sonic Youth on their 1990 Goo tour. (Thurston Moore once wryly described the band, along with L7 and Hole, as “foxcore.”) But after frontwoman Kat Bjelland’s ex-bandmate and rival, Courtney Love, courted Kim Gordon to produce Hole’s 1991 debut, Pretty on the Inside, Bjelland kicked into overdrive writing her grotesque comeback, Fontanelle — which she co-produced with Sonic Youth drummer Lee Ranaldo. Although Bjelland swore off rumors that opening track “Bruise Violet” was a jab at Love, the video suggests otherwise; chameleonic photographer Cindy Sherman plays Bjelland’s blonde, babydolled doppelgänger, whom Bjelland strangles by the end. (“You see the stars through eyes lit up with lies!” Bjelland shrieks, as drummer Lori Barbero pounds roaring thunder from her tom-toms and bassist Maureen Herman rumbles ominously below.) Bjelland’s spitfire sometimes aimed further beyond her female competitors; “You’re dead meat, motherfucker/You don’t try to rape a goddess,” she snarls in “Bluebell.” But for every gratuitous “bitch” in twisted nursery rhyme “Handsome & Gretel,” Bjelland gains rope in her lifelong tug-of-war with the women in her life — from the mother who abandoned her to the many girls who tried to imitate her, blurring the lines between love and obsession. Bjelland would make amends with Love before Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and even co-wrote “I Think I Would Die” from Hole’s 1994 record Live Through This. But if Love was grunge’s tragic pageant queen, Bjelland embodied something way more primordial: Perhaps Truth incarnate, emerging from the bottom of her well and screaming her curses. S.E.

50 greatest grunge albums
32

Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Gish’ (1991)

When the newly formed Smashing Pumpkins gathered at Butch Vig’s Wisconsin recording studio in December 1990 to record their debut, no one expected the sessions to be strenuous. Billy Corgan pushed his young band to the brink by spending hours scrutinizing every detail, from tuning instruments to even playing most of the parts himself. “I could never do it over again,” recalled bassist D’arcy Wretzky in the 1995 MTV Rockumentary on the band. “I don’t know how we survived it.” Gish featured 10 dense, ornately crafted tracks — from the intensity of “Siva” and “Tristessa” to the subtle, surreal build-up of lead single “Rhinoceros” — that showcased the band’s musical ambition. “I was trying to say a lot of things I couldn’t really say in kind of intangible, unspeakable ways,” Corgan told MTV. “So I was capable of doing that with the music, but I don’t think I was capable of doing it with words.” Though they were a Chicago band, the Pumpkins would soon align themselves with the Seattle scene. Soundgarden would recommend the band to Cameron Crowe for inclusion on his Singles soundtrack, after the two bands played a show together, making their honorary grunge status official. A.M. 

50 greatest grunge albums
31

Tad, ‘8-Way Santa’ (1991)

With his bulky 300-pound frame and scraggly beard, Thomas “Tad” Doyle looked more like a biker (or a butcher, his one-time job) than a typically scrawny indie rocker. His band’s second and meatiest album matched that vibe: Roaring-down-the-highway tracks like “Jinx” and “Trash Truck” occupied the space between unkempt indie and lumbering metal, propelled by singer-guitarist Doyle’s burly roar and unhinged lyrics (“I’m thinking/I’m God’s son/I’m drinking/And I’m driving”). “We were definitely fascinated with deviant behavior, the underbelly of American society,” said Doyle. “We got sick and tired of hearing another love song, essentially. And we wanted to shock people and have fun doing it.” Tad toured with Nirvana when the latter released Bleach, and each band clearly impacted on the other; walloping 8-Way Santa tracks like “Delinquent” and “Pig Iron” are siblings to tracks on Nevermind (both albums were produced by Butch Vig). An album seemingly unafraid to rattle anyone who listened, 8-Way Santa remains a bracing memento of grunge before commercial success — a roar from the Northwest forests that only a few at the time could hear. D.B.

50 greatest grunge albums
30

Wipers, ‘Youth of America’ (1981)

No band’s place in the proto-grunge canon is more secure than the Wipers’. “They pretty much started Seattle grunge rock in Portland,” Kurt Cobain, once said, according to Nirvana: The Biography. But their “seminal” status — cemented by the fact that they’ve been covered by everyone from Nirvana to the Melvins and Hole — obscures just how powerful their music really is. Second LP Youth of America in particular is a breathtaking feat of moodcraft: one of the most ominous and enveloping entries in the American underground canon. “No Fair” starts as an eerie somnambulant dirge before erupting into savage punk, while the title track is a pitch-perfect anthem of disillusionment that dissolves into pure live-wire abstraction during 10 white-knuckle minutes. Bandleader Greg Sage’s defiant yet vulnerable vocals and edgily virtuosic guitar work (check out the extended surrealistic solo that kicks of “When It’s Over”) gave the band a feverish urgency unmatched by any of their many disciples. “I was never influenced by anything going on at the time, in fact no one liked our LPs ’til years later,” Sage later said. “I always wrote songs my way.” H.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
29

Green River, ‘Come on Down’ (1985)

The debut release by Green River is a janky gumbo of punk, metal and hard rock, full of slow-grinding riffs, dramatic cymbal crashes and frontman Mark Arm’s Iggy Stooge–like caterwauling. It’s the sound of young musicians feeling their way through their influences: a little bit of Aerosmith and Blue Öyster Cult in the chorus of “Swallow My Pride,” some Black Flag pummeling and Neil Young whining on the iconic “Come On Down” (a song whose chorus, “Come on down to the river” is all the more chilling considering that murderer Gary Ridgway, a.k.a. the Green River Killer, was strangling sex workers in the Seattle area at the time) and some Iron Maiden galloping on “Tunnel of Love.” “Stone [Gossard, guitar] was really into UFO and Iron Maiden,” bassist Jeff Ament recently told Rolling Stone. “I don’t know if any of us really ever embraced those bands at the time. He was writing a lot of music, so we were taking those riffs that he was bringing in and deconstructing them and turning them into our own thing.” There are only faint hints of the music the band members would later make in Mudhoney, Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog on the record. It’s more like a rough blueprint of where grunge was headed. K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
28

Soundgarden, ‘Louder Than Love’ (1989)

Grunge’s major-label debut is a lumbering, lubricious, pistol-whipping blow to the head. Although songs like the revolutionary-minded “Gun,” orgy-themed “Full On Kevin’s Mom” and the tongue-in-cheek “Big Dumb Sex” (“I know what to do/I’m gonna fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you” in full stereophonic glory) are decidedly not ready for primetime, the album climbed into the lower half of the Billboard 200 and proved to be influential, inspiring Metallica’s Kirk Hammett to write the riff for “Enter Sandman” (“I was trying to capture their attitude toward big, heavy riffs,” he said) and providing cover fodder for Guns N’ Roses, who interpolated “Big Dumb Sex” into T. Rex’s “Buick McCane.” Future Pantera producer Terry Date worked with the band and helped them play up their metal edge, but that obscured the irony of some of the songs, which were more “meta” than metal. “I’ve learned that parody only works if you’re ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic and that’s what you do,” Chris Cornell said in 1994 of GN’R’s appropriation of “Big Dumb Sex.” “If you listen to that song, and you don’t know the band, and you don’t know that we’re joking, then it is [like] Aerosmith.” The band would revamp its sound on its next record, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, following Cornell’s more traditionally rock-oriented Temple of the Dog side project and the departure of bassist and prolific songwriter Hiro Yamomoto, making the unwieldiness of Louder Than Love all the more impressive in hindsight. They couldn’t have taken this sound any farther. K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
27

Babes in Toyland, ‘Spanking Machine’ (1990)

Before there were Babes in Toyland, L7 and Hole, there was Sugar Babydoll: a San Francisco pre-grunge trifecta, starring future L7 bassist Jennifer Finch, future BiT frontwoman Kat Bjelland — and Courtney Love, Bjelland’s legendary frenemy, whose rapport with Love vaguely recalled the plots of All About Eve and Single White Female. Bjelland was “trying to get away from Courtney,” as she attested in 2015 interview, so she fled to Minneapolis, home of the Replacements, to found punk band Babes in Toyland with drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Michelle Leon. Their brackish first single, “Dust Cake Boy,” shot like a comet across the college-radio circuit; wielding a butter knife as a guitar slide, Bjelland scrawled riffs like ransom notes with a frenetic, Lydia Lunch-ian abandon. Recorded in Seattle by Mudhoney and Nirvana producer Jack Endino, Babes’ debut Spanking Machine was a perfect marriage of crunchy Midwestern punk and wry Northwestern malaise. Barbero and Leon moved from the mud disco of “Swamp Pussy” to the jangly sludge groove of “He’s My Thing” — and Barbero broke character in her Danzig-y stoner-rock interlude, “Dogg.” All the while Bjelland’s banshee verses traversed the murkiest recesses of her mind, where eagles dared and most men feared to tread. In her 2016 memoir I Live Inside, Leon wrote: “Journalists keep asking us if we are ‘riot girls.’ We figure it’s another stupid thing like foxcore or grunge, so we say, ‘No.’ I find out that riot grrrl is a movement all about feminism and politics and activism… but we aren’t all smart and motivated like that. We’re just another punk band.” S.E.

50 greatest grunge albums
26

Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ (1995)

By 1995, grunge was in danger of settling into a sonic rut, and few felt those limitations more than Billy Corgan. “We were reaching the end of a creative cycle,” he told RS. “Or at least I was, where the basic format of up-and-down rock guitars, pounding drums — all these elements that are classic Smashing Pumpkins — was reaching its end point.” (Adding to the turmoil, Corgan’s marriage was also crumbling.) Starting with the title track, a piano-and-strings instrumental that was the polar opposite of alt rock, the Pumpkins’ third album worked overtime to avoid the clichés of its genre. Their White Album (or, as Corgan would prefer, their Wall), Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was a 28-track double CD that had plenty of sharpened-razor rockers (“Zero” “Muzzle,” “X.Y.U.”). But it also ventured into lush pop electronica (“Cupid De Locke”), melancholy acoustica (“Stumbleine,” “To Forgive”), bumps-in-the-night lullabies (“We Only Come Out at Night”) and springy art rock (“1979”). The most musically expansive record of the grunge era (the raging “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” even won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance), Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness would also prove to be something of a tombstone for the era. After 1995, neither grunge nor the Pumpkins would ever be the same, but what a way to go. D.B.

50 greatest grunge albums
25

Melvins, ‘Bullhead’ (1991)

It’s impossible to credit a single band with inventing grunge’s signature doomy churn, but many of the genre’s stars have cited the Melvins as the Pacific Northwest’s early overlords of low and slow. “The Melvins went from being the fastest band in town to the slowest band in town,” Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil told Guitar World. “It was a pretty amazing and courageous move. Everyone was trying to be punk rock, a kind of art-damage thing, and the Melvins decided to be the heaviest band in the world.” Bullhead was where the trio claimed that title. Although their prior LPs had packed out track lists with brief, brain-scrambling bursts, the band’s third full-length found them stretching out and laying back, flirting with conventional metal while also playing up just how skewed their take on the genre really was. Album opener “Boris” — essentially an eight-and-a-half-minute aural staring contest — turns towering riffs into trance-inducing minimalism, while tracks like “Anaconda” and “Zodiac” writhe and lurch their way toward breathtaking doom-blues climaxes. Throughout, Dale Crover’s bruising yet precise attack and Buzz Osborne’s wild-eyed bellow take on an almost ritualistic power that seems to stand entirely apart not just from “the Seattle sound” but from rock music itself. Just as grunge was about to go mainstream, Melvins were burrowing ever further into their own twisted netherworld. H.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
24

Stone Temple Pilots, ‘Purple’ (1994)

STP had a lot to prove when they went into the studio to begin work on their follow-up to Core. It seemed like the more albums they sold and the more MTV played their videos, the more flak they received for somehow being inauthentically grunge. But they went into Atlanta’s Southern Tracks Recording Studio with producer Brendan O’Brien armed with new songs like “Interstate Love Song” and “Empty” that were inarguably brilliant and destined for MTV and Top 40 radio. They also sounded unlike anything else their peers were creating at the time, forever ending the annoying Pearl Jam comparisons. “We’re definitely aware of not pigeonholing ourselves,” Scott Weiland told Rolling Stone. “Not for the sake of making a statement but for the sake of not getting bored.” A.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
23

Soundgarden, ‘Ultramega OK’ (1988)

When Soundgarden recorded “All Your Lies” for the Deep Six comp in 1986, the track was a messy, herky-jerky guitar explosion, and Chris Cornell snarled on it like a cat in heat; he even gave it a little demon laugh. The band overhauled the tune for its first full-length, the Grammy-nominated Ultramega OK, released two years later, and turned it into a bulldozing punk-metal juggernaut with a faster tempo and more cutting vocal attack. “We were unclassifiable,” Cornell said shortly before his death, “but we were unselfconscious about songwriting so we weren’t manufacturing anything.” That carefree aggressive sensibility resounds on the album’s leering, Led Zeppy “Flower,” the lumbering “Incessant Mace,” the locomotive “Mood for Trouble” (which spins the riff from the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin'” on its head) and concert showstopper “Beyond the Wheel,” on which Cornell stretches his vocal chords across three octaves, and guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamomoto make their instruments flutter. “I was trying to ratchet up the intensity,” Cornell told Rolling Stone of the latter song in a previously unpublished interview. “I remember thinking, ‘Is this going to seem like sort of a geek trick [showing] I could sing in three octaves?’ I was trying to avoid that. Ultimately it became one of those songs where it could never be a radio single, it was on an indie album, but it’s one that people always react to as though it were a hit song on the radio.” K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
22

Various Artists, ‘Deep Six’ (1986)

Leaf through the pages of the freshman class of Seattle grunge’s yearbook — a.k.a. the booklet that accompanied the 1986 multi-band compilation Deep Six — and you’ll see Melvins’ Buzz Osborne rolling his eyes back into his skull while digging his pick into his guitar; Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, shirtless and muscular, channeling Iggy Pop; and Malfunkshun’s Andy Wood mugging like a New York Doll. The comp is an invaluable document of where it all began. The record, which came out on the Seattle label C/Z, collects 14 ragers from Soundgarden, Melvins, Green River (which begot Pearl Jam and Mudhoney), Skin Yard (featuring guitarist turned producer Jack Endino), Malfunkshun (Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood’s first band) and the U-Men. The recordings are crude and heavy — Deep Six’s highlights include Soundgarden’s Devo-ish “All Your Lies,” Melvins’ furious “Blessing the Operation” and Green River’s seething “10,000 Things” — but that raw vitality is part of its charm. This is basically an ultrasound of grunge in utero. When Melvins paid tribute to Chris Cornell earlier this year, they included Malfunkshun’s walloping “With Yo’ Heart (Not Yo’ Hands)” in the set, ostensibly as a nod to Wood’s influence over Cornell and the scene as a whole. “The Deep Six compilation was really important to us,” Green River drummer Alex Shumway recently told Rolling Stone. “It was the first time we went to a ‘real studio.’ It had this mind-blowing feel to it. And it’s like everybody on Deep Six has become famous or there’s a person in the band that has moved on in the industry.” K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
21

Jerry Cantrell, ‘Degradation Trip’ (2002)

Recorded at a time when Alice in Chains’ chief songwriter Jerry Cantrell was “just really fucked up” on drugs and released mere months after Layne Staley’s death, Degradation Trip is a frightening glimpse at the singer and guitarist’s sunken place. It opens with a doomy, devastating guitar chord and the sound of moaning on “Psychotic Break,” as he sings “Thinking ’bout my dead friends/Whose voices ring on” in teeth-grating harmonies. It gets only bleaker from there. “I’ve always been drawn to music that tells the sadder tale and tells the deeper, truer tale, which at times can be very dark,” Cantrell said when the album came out. “I draw from what I see and what I experience, and I only really know how to do it one way.” He recorded the album with Ozzy Osbourne’s rhythm section at the time, bassist Robert Trujillo (now of Metallica fame) and drummer Mike Bordin (also of Faith No More), and he littered it with allusions to drugs — just look at the cover — and crunchy, feel-bad riffs. They recorded so much music, he expanded it into a two-volume set later in 2002. Tracks like the slithery “Bargain Basement Howard Hughes,” crushing “Hellbound” and even the poppier “She Was My Girl” are a stark contrast to Cantrell’s lighter, more experimental solo debut, Boggy Depot. It’s a heavy trip that’s not easy to shake. K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
20

Green River, ‘Dry as a Bone’ (1987)

After a few years of playing gigs and doing the odd recording session, Green River hit their groove on 1987’s Dry as a Bone. Where Come On Down was crude and raw, Dry as a Bone is a complete statement: a seamless combination of punk and metal, whittled down to three- and four-minute bursts. “Dry as a Bone is my favorite Green River record,” guitarist Stone Gossard recently told Rolling Stone. “That’s when it was still the most fun. We were succeeding and we weren’t spending a lot of time thinking about it.” The group recorded the album in just a few days with producer and Skin Yard guitarist Jack Endino, who gave Dry as a Bone a refined edge that made tracks like the ragged “This Town” (“I’ve been driven to the end of my rope,” Mark Arm sings, shredding his vocal chords) and the Aerosmith-y boogie of “Unwind” leap off the vinyl. In an ad, Sub Pop portentously described the release as “ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation”; it was the first record ever to be marketed with the word “grunge.” A few years later, the band’s members would be fulfilling that generation-defining prophecy in Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Love Battery, Mother Love Bone and Temple of the Dog. K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
19

‘Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’ (1992)

With Cameron Crowe writing and directing and Matt Dillon and Bridget Fonda leading the cast, the flanneled rom-com Singles symbolized grunge’s cultural-crossover moment. But starting with the fact that Crowe had begun working on it pre-Nevermind and that he had his own personal bond with Seattle (his then-wife, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, was a longtime resident), Singles was far from a crass cash-in. And its accompanying soundtrack, released several months in advance, was a note-perfect introduction to the scene by way of new, direct-to-Singles contributions from many of its leading lights. Some of those tracks — Pearl Jam’s ferocious “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust,” Screaming Trees’ burly “Nearly Lost You” and Alice in Chains’ Andrew Wood homage “Would?” — were peak grunge moments, and Chris Cornell’s acoustic “Seasons” captured the lesser-known psych-folk side of the scene. (Tracks by Jimi Hendrix and Ann and Nancy Wilson’s Lovemongers side project also reminded everyone that Seattle rock didn’t start with grunge, either.) Crowe, a fan of the way director Mike Nichols used Simon and Garfunkel songs in The Graduate, called the Singles soundtrack “like a little Graduate moment that happened. Singles felt like an opportunity to really fly into the arms of that feeling.” D.B.

50 greatest grunge albums
18

Mad Season, ‘Above’ (1995)

The incestuous musical climate of Seattle in the mid-1990s led to numerous one-offs and supergroups of varying levels of fame (hi, the Monkeywrench!). Despite only recording one album in 1995, Mad Season — Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and bassist John Baker Saunders — cemented their legacy with a set of, as McCready told Guitar World that year, “some jazzy stuff, some blues, some arena rock.” The band formed as a musical-therapy experiment of sorts: McCready and Saunders met at rehab for drug and alcohol abuse, recruiting the others partially as a way to keep each other sober. “This whole project would’ve never come together had I not been clean,” McCready said at the time. “We made the record quickly … because there wasn’t a lot of baggage from our individual bands. We were just going in there to create music. It was a real free environment.” Staley’s inimitable vocals, mixed with guitars both sludgy and soaring, give Above the feel of a perfect Alice in Chains–Pearl Jam hybrid, though flourishes like the odd sax solo on “Long Gone Day” and Spanish guitar solo on “I’m Above” keep it from sounding plodding. J.N.

50 greatest grunge albums
17

Screaming Trees, ‘Sweet Oblivion’ (1992)

When Washington’s Screaming Trees recorded their sixth album, they believed it would be their last. They had just released their major label debut, 1991’s Uncle Anesthesia, but internal tensions were threatening to tear them apart. As bassist Van Conner told Spin in 1993, the band had decided to stop fighting and “pull together, as corny as that sounds.” They patched things up just in time for them to ride grunge’s mainstream wave with Sweet Oblivion, an album that mixed hard-edged rock with hints of retro psychedelia (“Butterfly,” “For Celebrations Past”) and bittersweet folk (“Dollar Bill”). Those retro leanings and Mark Lanegan’s deep, beautifully weathered voice added up to an LP that sounded more grown-up than their contemporaries’ raucous, angsty output. Still, heavy earworm “Nearly Lost You” — featured prominently in Cameron Crowe’s love letter to Seattle Singles later that same year — managed to crack the Mainstream Rock Top 20 during grunge’s heady heyday. B.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
16

Melvins, ‘Houdini’ (1993)

Such was the strangeness of the post-Nevermind Nineties that a band as uncompromising as Melvins, who were coming off a half-hour drone-doom opus, could find themselves signed to the same label as Phil Collins and Bette Midler. Longtime friends of Kurt Cobain, the band brought him on to co-produce their Atlantic debut. Even though he guested on a couple tracks, the collaboration was far from fruitful: “Unfortunately, Cobain was in no shape to produce anything,” frontman Buzz Osborne recalled to The Stranger in 2009. The group’s fifth LP featured some of their strongest, most streamlined songs to date — including opener “Hooch,” an absurdly heavy, improbably catchy riff-fest with lyrics consisting entirely of nonsense syllables; lumbering rocker “Night Goat,” redone after appearing on a ’92 single; and a monolithic cover of Kiss oddity “Goin’ Bind” that left the lightweight Hotter Than Hell original in the dust. But there was plenty of room, too, for the band’s patented time-stretched weirdness, as on the towering, slo-mo “Hag Me” and “Spread Eagle Beagle,” a closing Dale Crover drum solo that was more Ionisation than “Moby Dick.” “I’ve had people [say that to me] in the past 20 years. ‘It must be good to be off a major label where you don’t have them telling you what to do’ and all the stuff like that,” frontman Osborne told Nashville Scene in 2012. “My response is always, ‘Did you listen to the records we did for them?’ [Laughs]. If that’s record company meddling, then good on them.” H.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
15

L7, ‘Bricks Are Heavy’ (1992)

L7 reached their commercial zenith on their third album, Bricks Are Heavy. Producer Butch Vig helped the group embrace melodies and shout-along choruses robust enough for their thick riffs, which they were never short on. The refinement paid off: The album went to Number One on the Billboard Heatseakers chart in the U.S. and was even bigger in the U.K. and Australia. “They were a signature band of the Nineties — goofy, confident, fierce, totally uninhibited,” Lunachicks guitarist Gina Volpe told RS. “They took us on tour with them and we were taking notes.” A lot of the glory came from the single “Pretend We’re Dead” and its video that played relentlessly on MTV. The song was a gateway drug into the album’s brasher pleasures like Suzi Gardner’s gravelly dirges “Slide” and “Monster,” or the metal muscle of “Everglade” and deadpan rage of “One More Thing” (both of which mark rare vocal performances by bassist Jennifer Finch). But if Vig succeeded anywhere, it was freeing up space in the songs for the wry, weird musings of Donita Sparks, who addressed everything from a skinhead huffing paint in her friend’s garage before joining a cult (true story!) to a wife sewing her deadbeat husband in a bed and walloping him with a frying pan before leaving with the kids (maybe true!). But no deviant real or imagined is half as freaky as Sparks sounds on the album’s other standout track — forever immortalized in Natural Born Killers — “Shitlist.” S.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
14

Alice in Chains, ‘Facelift’ (1990)

Nirvana’s Nevermind may have transformed grunge into a national phenomenon, but it was Alice in Chains’ Facelift, released a full year before Nevermind, that started to build the genre’s core audience. The album’s secret? It appealed to heavy metal fans, who dug the low-and-slow Black Sabbath sonics of the group. No less than Ozzy Osbourne was a fan, enlisting Alice in Chains to open for him on tour and including Facelift on his list of favorite metal albums last year. But there’s no disputing that Facelift is grunge through and through. Listen to the LP’s most widely known cut, the Grammy-nominated “Man in the Box.” Guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s simple, chugging riff stands in stark contrast to the sky-high guitar tone and theatrics of the era’s pop-metal bands like Poison, with whom AiC also inexplicably toured. And Staley’s tortured vocals — steeped in despair and hopelessness — were the antithesis of party-friendly hair-metal theatrics. “I’m sure I’ll never be completely 100 percent at peace with myself and the world,” the singer, who died in 2002 from an overdose, told Rolling Stone in 1992. “I’ll always be bitching and moaning about something.” Fleshed out by the singles “We Die Young,” “Sea of Sorrow” and “Bleed the Freak” (all compositions by Cantrell, who penned the majority of the LP), Facelift stands as the initial wave of the coming Seattle typhoon. Notably, it was also the first grunge album to be certified gold — the second was Nevermind. J.H.

50 greatest grunge albums
13

Nirvana, ‘Bleach’ (1989)

With Bleach, Nirvana introduced themselves to the indie-rock world as Seattle’s newest purveyors of messy, heavy, morose hard rock. Then just two years old, the band made an album for just $600 that perfectly summed up the punishingly dreary sound of the burgeoning grunge scene. “There was this pressure from Sub Pop and the scene to play ‘rock music,'” Kurt Cobain said in the biography, Come as You Are. “We wanted to try to please people at first, to see what would happen.” That effort yielded harsh riff workouts like “Floyd the Barber” and “Paper Cuts,” tracks that not only reflected Cobain’s fervent Melvins fandom, but actually featured that band’s drummer, Dale Crover, behind the kit.

But while the LP made no secret of its underground influences, Cobain’s lyrics and melodies reveal serious pop know-how. Between the sweet but temperamental punk-Beatles flow of “About a Girl,” Krist Novoselic’s hypnotic bass on “Love Buzz” (a Shocking Blue cover) and the frenetic pace and catchiness of “Negative Creep,” Bleach is an album that flaunts its surface-level aggression but can’t help but reveal more nuance with each listen.

“It was like ‘I’m pissed off. Don’t know what about. Let’s just scream negative lyrics, and as long as they’re not sexist and don’t get too embarrassing it’ll be okay,'” Cobain told Spin in 1993 about the intentions behind Nirvana’s debut. “I don’t hold any of those lyrics dear to me.” As tossed-off as he made the LP sound, Bleach was Nirvana’s first step toward scene cred and an early cult following, setting the stage for their world takeover just a few years later. B.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
12

Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Siamese Dream’ (1993)

Although Siamese Dream was recorded in a mere four months, it was the culmination of a half-decade of work by Billy Corgan and his bandmates. Their debut, Gish, had earned them critical acclaim, a devoted following and a major-label deal, and now Corgan wanted to reach a mass audience. Like on Gish, Corgan ensured total creative control by writing all the songs and playing the guitar and bass parts, angering his bandmates. This tension — paired with drug addiction, soured romance and a mental breakdown — almost destroyed the Pumpkins before they could release the album. Thankfully their collective angst paid off, and with the help of Nevermind producer Butch Vig, the band realized a grunge classic, an album that soared on the strength of fuzzy, shoegaze-y, hook-laden songs like “Cherub Rock,” “Disarm” and the gut-wrenching “Mayonaise.” The highlight, of course, was the devastatingly ironic “Today,” a dreamy, optimistic ballad steeped in self-doubt. “Do I throw this in the garbage and try to pursue some kind of ideal that I can’t live up to or accept what I am, which is a corny boy from fucking Chicago?” Corgan reflected to RS of the song in 1995. “The song resonates from a place of truth.” A.M.

50 greatest grunge albums
11

Stone Temple Pilots, ‘Core’ (1992)

“Is this Pearl Jam?” Beavis wondered when the video for STP’s “Plush” came on their TV. “Yeah,” said Butt-Head. “Eddie Vedder dyed his hair red.” Most people’s reactions to the emergence of Stone Temple Pilots in 1992 didn’t quite reach that level of stupidity, but there were indeed a lot of people ripping the San Diego rock band for jumping on the grunge bandwagon. What they missed was how many killer songs the band created on its debut LP, Core, which fused the sound of Seventies glam with the modern alt-rock scene. What emerged in tracks like “Creep,” “Wicked Garden” and “Sex Type Thing” was a style completely their own, even if “Plush” did indeed sound a little like an outtake from Ten. “I don’t think there’s any similarities in our bands at all,” Weiland told Rolling Stone in 1994. “Not discounting Pearl Jam, but to me they’re a modern-day Buffalo Springfield or something, a classic-rock band. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. We’re on a totally different trip.” A.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
10

Pearl Jam, ‘Vs.’ (1993)

Pearl Jam originally wanted to call their second album Five Against One, which was both a line from their new song “Animal” and an admission that frontman Eddie Vedder was divided against his four bandmates and their manager Kelly Curtis. Simply put, Vedder wanted the band to drastically scale down their ambitions to avoid overexposure and get back to their DIY roots while the others were happy to keep making videos and landing hits on the radio. “On the first record we were living in a basement,” said Eddie Vedder. “On the second record, I felt too far away from the basement. It was a hard place for me at that point to write a record.” Somehow, they managed to push through their differences and work together, churning out classics like “Go,” “Daughter,” “Dissident” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” that helped the album sell nearly a million copies its first week out even though they did almost no interviews and didn’t create a single video. No matter what Vedder wanted, Pearl Jam were simply too big — and too talented — to fail. A.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
9

Soundgarden, ‘Superunknown’ (1994)

By 1994, grunge had taken over the radio, the festival world (Lollapalooza) and MTV, but where could it go from there, especially as an art form? Soundgarden knew: The band had to show it wasn’t just that month’s flavor but the next phase of rock itself. As Chris Cornell later told RS, “I felt like all of us were going to have to prove that we deserved to be playing on an international stage, and to have videos on TV and songs on the radio, and it wasn’t just a fad like the ‘British invasion’ or a ‘New York noise scene.'” In the face of that pressure, Cornell and his bandmates wrote their most robust group of songs — from bucking-bronco rockers like “Drown Me” and “Superunknown” to dark psychedelia like “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell on Black Days” — and producer Michael Beinhorn sculpted the splattered-paint fury of their early days into something colossal. The result was a fourth album that coincidentally was Soundgarden’s own Led Zeppelin IV: a record that revealed new, often subtler facets of the band and instantly felt like one of the landmark hard-rock records of all time. D.B.

50 greatest grunge albums
8

Nirvana, ‘In Utero’ (1993)

Nirvana’s final studio album is a scream. Not a sleek, stylized shout like its multiplatinum predecessor, In Utero is an unpretty howl of pain and frustration, the ultimate act of defiance toward a record industry that never understood this band in the first place. It’s an album of caustic irony (“Serve the Servants,” “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”), cleansing rage (“Scentless Apprentice,” “Milk It”) and raw nerves (“Pennyroyal Tea,” “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”). Kurt Cobain’s anger sometimes misses its target (see “Rape Me,” far too crude to work as the feminist statement he intended it to be), but that same self-destructive intensity makes In Utero an essential grunge document.

By the time it was released in the fall of 1993, the album’s mythology was already in place. Reeling from their unexpected elevation to stardom two years earlier, Nirvana had brought in engineer Steve Albini to help them make an album so harsh and uncommercial that the label supposedly refused to release it at first. “Of course, they want another Nevermind, but I’d rather die than do that,” Cobain was reported to have said. Weeks of public fighting with the suits they’d helped make rich followed.

Like any myth, this one tells only a partial truth. Songs like “Dumb,” “All Apologies,” “Pennyroyal Tea” and “Heart-Shaped Box” refine and complicate the pop breakthroughs of Nevermind instead of rejecting them wholesale. Cobain would later tell Rolling Stone that he was only making a dark joke when he talked about titling the album I Hate Myself and Want to Die. “I’m a much happier guy than a lot of people think I am,” he insisted. He talked about making an “ethereal, acoustic” album next. One of the lasting tragedies of his death less than a year later is that we never got to hear him resolve the contradictions at In Utero‘s heart. S.V.L.

50 greatest grunge albums
7

Temple of the Dog, ‘Temple of the Dog’ (1991)

The death of Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood in March of 1990 left the Seattle rock community completely devastated. The charismatic frontman was close friends and roommate with Chris Cornell, who poured all his heartache into new songs like “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down.” Once he played them for surviving Mother Love Band members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard and learned they’d just formed a new band with some guy from San Diego named Eddie Vedder, they all decided to come together and honor Wood by recording them under the moniker Temple of the Dog. It didn’t take for the project to grow into a full album. “It was a time when more importance was placed on albums,” Cornell told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Then it became cathartic and fun.” After Cornell’s shocking death in 2018, the songs of loss and regret took on a whole new meaning. A.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
6

Alice in Chains, ‘Dirt’ (1992)

After the success of their 1990 debut album Facelift, the first grunge record to go gold, Alice in Chains were ready to introduce their music to a wider MTV audience now that Nirvana had opened the floodgates. Their appearance in Singles — along with the the prime placement of monster single “Would?” on the movie’s soundtrack, which also featured Soundgarden and Pearl Jam — had already given them a head start. Unlike many of their peers, Alice in Chains drew more inspiration from heavy metal than punk, a fact already evident in their breakthrough song “Man in the Box.” On Dirt, there was also a more insidious influence on their new music: heroin. With dark, gritty songs like “Them Bones,” “Rooster” and the aptly named “Junkhead,” the album reflected frontman Layne Staley’s ongoing drug abuse. “From song to song, the album changes from glorifying drugs to being completely miserable and questioning what I thought once worked for me,” he told RS in 1992. “By the end of the album, it’s pretty obvious it didn’t work out as well as I thought it would.” A.M.

50 greatest grunge albums
5

Mudhoney, ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’ (1990)

Nevermind may have been bigger and Mudhoney may not have achieved the household-name status of their Seattle peers, but Superfuzz Bigmuff may well be the most influential record on this list. The original EP, whose title is a dirty pun derived from the band’s two favorite stompboxes, came out in 1988, and it shook up the underground rock scene thanks to its in-your-face directness. Frontman Mark Arm’s whiny voice and Steve Turner’s garage-rock guitar solo defined “Need,” while the skittery, scuzzy bass riffage of “No One Has” and arty breakdowns of “In ‘n’ Out of Grace” showed the group’s range. When the label reissued the EP in 1990 and added the band’s first two singles, “Touch Me I’m Sick” and “You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face),” Superfuzz created a complete portrait of the sound Nirvana and their ilk were going for at the time. Cameron Crowe repurposed “Touch Me I’m Sick” into “Touch Me I’m Dick” for the fictional grunge group Citizen Dick in Singles, Sonic Youth covered it with Kim Gordon on vocals, and Kurt Cobain ripped off the central conceit of “Sweet Young Thing (Ain’t Sweet No More)” for Bleach’s “Negative Creep.” The album went on to become one of Sub Pop’s bestsellers. “If Superfuzz Bigmuff hadn’t been on the U.K. charts for a year and Mudhoney hadn’t been a big sensation, who knows what would have happened to Nirvana?” Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt told Spin in 1993. The songs have since become some of Mudhoney concert staples. “We were just flailing and trying to keep up with each other,” Arm told Rolling Stone in 2008. “In some ways we still are.” K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
4

Hole, ‘Live Through This’ (1994)

Live Through This is the sound of Courtney Love ripping herself to shreds. Her band’s second album is a roller-coaster reflection on co-dependency, motherhood and feminism that found the volcanic frontwoman making the case that she was more of a pop-culture heroine than the villainess she’d previously been painted as. Of course, the timing was unsuspectedly tragic: Hole’s major-label debut was released just days after Love’s husband Kurt Cobain’s body was found in their Seattle home following his suicide by shotgun. The title of Live Through This felt like a prophecy as Love was suddenly thrust into the role of celebrity widow. Still, even before the earthshaking loss of Cobain, Love had something to prove, and with this LP, she went above and beyond. She plays with her public image (“Plump”), teases the Washington scene kids she came up with (“Rock Star”), tackles post-partum depression (“I Think That I Would Die”) and gets brutally honest about relationship insecurity (“Doll Parts”). Carrying it all is Love’s vitriol: Her voice jerks chaotically from soft, über-femme vulnerability to guttural, blood-curdling screams that feel like they’re being torn from the depths of her stomach. After grieving both Cobain and bassist Kristen Pfaff, who played on the LP and died of an overdose three months after its release, Love found herself on the road for a controversial tour. She knew the impact the album could continue to have, and set out to establish herself as an icon in her own right. “I would like to think that I’m not getting the sympathy vote, and the only way to do that is to prove that what I’ve got is real,” Love told Rolling Stone in 1994. “That was the whole point of Live Through This.” B.S.

50 greatest grunge albums
3

Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’ (1991)

Pearl Jam had been gigging for just three months when they entered Seattle’s London Bridge Studios in March of 1991 to begin work on their first album. They spent most of that time opening up for Alice In Chains at tiny West Coast clubs under the name Mookie Blaylock where they road-tested brand new songs like “Black,” “Even Flow,” “Alive,” and “Why Go” that would eventually form the backbone of the album. Eddie Vedder was a newcomer to the Seattle scene and had just met the other guys in the band the previous October, but his deep growl and highly personal lyrics were a perfect fit to their music, which drew a lot more inspiration from 1970s punk and arena rock than anything created during the prior decade.

Years later, Vedder looked back at the album as one of the major turning points in his life. “This was my first chance to make a real record, and I was pretty damn focused,” he told Rolling Stone in 2009. “I was in a new town, so that batch of songs replaced my friends and family.” But nobody could have possibly imagined that record would go platinum 13 times over, produce generational anthems still in rotation on radio and move Pearl Jam from little clubs to stadiums all over the globe. A.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
2

Soundgarden, ‘Badmotorfinger’ (1991)

After Chris Cornell had a revelation while working on Temple of the Dog, a project that forced him to refocus his songwriting toward catchier and more concise tracks, he led Soundgarden into a new era with Badmotorfinger, the band’s commercial breakthrough. Although drummer Matt Cameron proudly told Rolling Stone, “We don’t make pop records,” when the album came out, it arrived at a time of sea change for heavy rock, and the band scored a trio of hits with “Outshined,” “Jesus Christ Pose” (thanks in part to MTV banning its video) and the rhythmically off-kilter “Rusty Cage” — the last of which Johnny Cash later covered. Each of the songs had a uniquely brutalizing riff, paired with Cornell’s otherworldly, always-perfectly-on-pitch shrieking, that made it a classic. Meanwhile, deeper cuts like “Slaves & Bulldozers” and “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” became live go-tos, because of the way they pummeled audiences. “After Louder Than Love, we kind of had to turn back,” guitarist Kim Thayil once said. “The dark psychedelia, which was replaced by our slight visceral heaviness on Louder Than Love, that came back and so did the quirkiness [on Badmotorfinger].” Soundgarden were heavier than Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but they still wrote anthems, securing them an easy place among the first wave of grunge superstars; the album made it to Number 39 on the Billboard 200 and has since been certified double platinum. It also earned a Grammy nomination. “I love Badmotorfinger because it sounds great in a car,” Thayil once said. “It’s got a lot of weird quirks in it — as is typical with Soundgarden. We always added that element of crazy and weird. We had an ability to not take ourselves too seriously, while committing to the heaviness. Sort of like laughing while kicking your ass.” K.G.

50 greatest grunge albums
1

Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)

In the early Nineties, pop music was in a dire state — rappers wore genie pants, rockers wrote schmaltzy nine-minute epics about November rain, and Michael Bolton plagiarized the Isley Brothers — but Nirvana shook its foundations. Unlike their mainstream counterparts, they cut out the bullshit and wrote four-minute bursts of raw, uncensored honesty, changing the face of the Hot 100 and putting a spotlight on crude guitar riffs and heartfelt lyrics for much of the next decade. Kurt Cobain sang about feeling stupid (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”), ugly (“Lithium”) and disillusioned (“Something in the Way”), and defied hard-rock convention by acknowledging that women were people, not objects (“Polly”). The album was so powerful that within a few months, it displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to become the bestselling album in the United States.

The band had grown up immensely since forming in 1987. A few years earlier, Cobain was grunting and shrieking over the sort of foundation-rumbling riffs that owed an obvious debt to Melvins and Mudhoney, but time on the road and assistance from producer Butch Vig, who made everything hit harder and sound cleaner than on Bleach, led them to create a masterpiece. “Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m embarrassed by it now,” Cobain said in the band’s official biography, Come as You Are. “It’s closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk-rock record.”

But even though he added some harmony vocals here and there and doubled up some guitar parts, the music on Nevermind still sounds punky and raucous. There’s nuance in the heavy-yet-melodic arrangements — with some well documented inspiration coming from Pixies’ LOUD-quiet-LOUD formula and new drummer Dave Grohl’s hard-hitting assaults — and there’s a worldliness to Cobain’s lyrics. Skid Row weren’t lending any time on Slave to the Grind, their 1991 Number One album, to a lyric like “God is gay,” as on Nevermind’s “Stay Away.” And Sammy Hagar was too busy partying to admit, “I’m so lonely, that’s OK,” as on the record’s darkly swooning “Lithium.” And the almost Burroughs-ian collage of lyrics heard on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ushered in a new era of “oh well, whatever” slacker rock stars. “Weird Al” would lampoon “Teen Spirit,” Patti Smith would cover it and Cobain became the reluctant voice of a generation. The album’s impact was overwhelming.

“For a few years in Seattle, it was the Summer of Love, and it was so great,” Cobain said. “To be able to just jump out on top of the crowd with my guitar and be held up and pushed to the back of the room, and then brought back with no harm done to me — it was a celebration of something that no one could put their finger on. But once it got into the mainstream, it was over.”

Within a few months of Nevermind’s release, Pearl Jam’s Ten would be at Number Two on the charts, Alice in Chains’ Dirt would crack the Top 10 and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger would go gold. The album turned the tide for a generation of music fans who were burned out on rock histrionics. Whether they were comfortable with the distinction or not, Nirvana changed music forever. As some lyrics on Nevermind go, “Our little group has always been and always will until the end.” K.G.

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