Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden: 50 Best Grunge Albums - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.