The term "grunge rock" has never been properly defined. Some say it was merely a way for the media to characterize the rock music coming out of the Seattle in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Certainly very few of those bands referred to themselves as grunge. But this term has stuck with us, and many of the groups remain incredibly popular. This month Soundgarden released their first album in 16 years. We figured it was a good time to poll our readers and determine their 10 favorite grunge albums. Click through to see the results.
When Seattle rock band Green River split in 1987, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard went on to form Mother Love Bone, which evolved into Pearl Jam after the death of singer Andrew Wood. Green River frontman Mark Arm and guitarist Steve Turner went off in a different direction, forming Mudhoney. While they never had anything close to the success of Pearl Jam, Mudhoney found a devoted audience from the start that has stayed with them to this day. Their debut EP, Superfuzz Bigmuff, is an absolute grunge classic, and evidence to many that the genre peaked in the Eighties – years before the media became obsessed with it.
The sudden death of Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood in 1990 sent shockwaves through Seattle. The band seemed to be right on the verge of making it big, and overnight they were finished. To pay tribute to Wood, the surviving members of the band teamed up with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell (Wood's former roommate) to record a tribute album under the moniker Temple of the Dog. They cut their LP in just 15 days in late 1990, right around the time that Mother Love Bone discovered Eddie Vedder and began jamming with him. Most of the songs were written and sung by Cornell, but Vedder chipped in on background vocals, including "Hunger Strike." The album didn't find a huge audience at first, but after Pearl Jam's meteoric rise in 1991, fans began seeking it out.
Fame didn't sit well with most of the members of Pearl Jam. Their 1991 debut LP Ten sold more copies than they could have possibly imagined, and Eddie Vedder went from gas station attendant to international rock superstar and sex symbol practically overnight. It was a lot to take in, and there were serious concerns about overexposure. There was also enormous pressure to top the success of Ten. After an endless tour all through 1991 and 1992, the group holed up with new producer Brendan O'Brien in early 1993 and slowly crafted Vs. This time there would be no music videos, and they showed their range with ballads like "Daughter" and "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." It was a huge success, though not quite on par with Ten. It was the beginning of a long process of pulling away from the spotlight, while still cultivating a rabid fanbase.
Nirvana were a largely unknown band when they entered Reciprocal Recording studio in Seattle in late 1988 to cut their debut LP, Bleach. Though they had yet to perform a show outside of Washington state, they signed a deal with indie label Sub Pop and cut the album in just 30 hours over a period of a couple weeks. Cobain later claimed to have written most of the lyrics the night before the first session. The album didn't find much of an audience at first, but after the band blew up with Nevermind, fans went back to find their first release. A deluxe edition came out in 2009 in honor of the 20th anniversary.
Soundgarden had been around for seven years when Badmotorfinger hit stores in October of 1991, but few outside of Seattle knew much about them. Yet many in the industry knew this was their moment to break through. Widely respected for Chris Cornell's incredible singing voice and their explosive live show, the band was ready to hit the big time along with their fellow Seattle acts. Batmotorfinger was just the album to do it. Songs like "Rusty Cage" were more commercial than their previous work, and an upcoming tour with Guns N' Roses was going to expose them to a huge national audience. The album barely cracked the Top 40, but it set them up nicely for their follow-up effort.
Soundgarden spent a full decade building themselves up for the massive success of Superunknown. They'd gotten their live act down a science, and they'd written a stunning amount of great songs, including "Black Hole Sun," "Spoonman" and "Fell On Black Days." The vast majority of their famous songs are on this single disc, partially because MTV began playing their videos relentlessly. Kurt Cobain committed suicide weeks after this disc came out, and Pearl Jam had receded far from the spotlight. There was a grunge hole to fill, and MTV filled it by playing the "Black Hole Sun" video over and over and over. Soundgarden became one of the biggest bands on the planet, but in just two years they'd break up.
Nirvana were in a tough position when it came time to record a follow-up to Nevermind. The world was waiting breathlessly to hear what they'd do next, and anything overtly commercial would infuriate the hardcores. At the same time, their label would have loved another bunch of songs like "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Almost anything they did was going to be criticized. They wisely recruited producer Steve Albini, best known for his work with Cobain's heroes the Pixies. "It was made really fast," Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1993. "All the basic tracks were done within a week. And I did 80 percent of the vocals in one day, in about seven hours. I just happened to be on a roll. It was a good day for me, and I just kept going."
The band wasn't happy with the result. "We had no idea why we didn’t feel the same energy that we did from Nevermind," Cobain said. "We finally came to the conclusion that the vocals weren’t loud enough, and the bass was totally inaudible. We couldn’t hear any notes that Krist was playing at all." They eventually re-worked parts of the album with producer Scott Litt, much to Albini's chagrin. The album still flew off the shelves when it came out, and they scored hits with "Heart Shaped Box" and "All Apologies." The group began a tour to promote the disc, but had to scrap a ton of dates due to Cobain's drug problem. At the time some saw In Utero as a slightly disappointing follow-up to Nevermind, but today it is revered as an absolute classic.
Alice In Chains fall somewhere between heavy metal and traditional grunge, but they came out of Seattle in the early Nineties and thus had the grunge label firmly affixed to them. Their 1990 debut Facelift was a hit, featuring the classic "Man in the Box." Their follow-up album, 1992's Dirt, was an even darker affair. It connected with a huge audience, putting them on the charts with singles "Rooster," "Them Bones" and "Down in a Hole." The album hit the same week as the soundtrack to Singles, and many compared Layne Staley's vocals to Eddie Vedder's singing style. "We all play rock music, so there is some similarity,'' guitarist Jerry Cantrell told Rolling Stone in 1992. "But the bands are different. Ours is a little more brooding and introspective. Pearl Jam is a soul that's full of life and invigorating, and Nirvana is kind of beautifully dysfunctional . . . These are just words I'm pulling off the top of my head. Even if I can't put my finger on it, there's an individual identity to the bands.''
Nirvana had a staggering amount of classic songs ready to go when they began recording Nevermind in the summer of 1991. "What I've realized is that you only need a couple of catchy songs on an album, and the rest can be bullshit Bad Company rip-offs, and it doesn't matter," Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1993. "If I was smart, I would have saved most of the songs off Nevermind and spread them out over a 15-year period. But I can't do that. All the albums I ever liked were albums that delivered a great song, one after another: Aerosmith's Rocks, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks . . . Led Zeppelin II, Back in Black by AC/DC."
Just months after it came out, Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson's Dangerous out of the Number One spot. It went on to top the charts all over the world, selling millions upon millions of records. While it didn't change the record industry quite as quickly or dramatically as you often read, it certainly did cause record labels to start looking towards less mainstream bands. Giant Eighties bands like INXS, Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe and Dire Straits suddenly seemed very old. Everyone knows how the Nirvana story ended, but when Nevermind started selling like crazy, it truly seemed like Nirvana was going to rule the music world for years to come.
Just one month before Nirvana released Nevermind, a new Seattle band named Pearl Jam dropped their debut album, simply titled Ten. It was inevitable that these two discs would compete in this poll for the title of the greatest grunge album, and in the end only 12 votes separated them. (Both albums got over twice as many votes as any other disc on our list.) The two bands had a bitter rivalry at the height of their fame. "I'm pretty sure that they didn't go out of their way to challenge their audience as much as we did with this [In Utero]" Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1993. "They're a safe rock band. They're a pleasant rock band that everyone likes."
Much like Nevermind, the track listing of Ten looks like a greatest hits package. Songs like "Jeremy," "Alive," "Black" and "Even Flow" remain the group's most famous works to this day, and they've been played live countless times. Many of these songs were written very shortly after the members of Pearl Jam first met. They discovered the amazing chemistry that's carried them for these past two decades, through setbacks that would have destroyed lesser bands.
Though Pearl Jam has made it clear they don't love the production of Ten – they even had Brendan O'Brien remix it a couple years ago – the debut remains their most successful album to date.