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
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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