Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden: 50 Best Grunge Albums – Rolling Stone
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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
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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