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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
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.