Love it or hate it, you’ve got to give credit to the early 90s grunge movement. Without it, we would have remained stuck in a quagmire of hairspray and make-up, with bands singing about fast cars and fast women. But a trio of bands in particular – Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam – along with a few other similarly styled groups, helped bring about a sea change in popular music.
Until then, Seattle had already given us a few renowned names [most notably Jimi Hendrix and Heart], but 1991 truly put the Emerald City on the rock’n’roll map. By mixing the detuned, snail-paced riffs of Black Sabbath with the punk energy of Black Flag, the birth of grunge could be traced back to one Kiss-obsessed Buzz Osborne. He formed the Melvins in the logging town of Aberdeen, Washington.
After which, it seemed like a lightbulb went on over the head of every local musician, and the first wave of soon-dubbed ‘grunge’ came fast and furious. A number of non-Seattle groups also got in on the act, including Dinosaur Jr [an obvious influence on Nirvana], the Courtney Love-led Hole [back when Courtney was more concerned with music than with movies and modelling], and The Smashing Pumpkins [until mainman Billy Corgan shaved off his hair and lost his superhuman strength].
There was also something else that made grunge stick out from what it began to replace on radio and MTV: it was completely unglamorous. With most grunge bands sporting a look that was part lumberjack [flannel shirts], part charity shop [ripped jeans], the emphasis was put back on the music rather than the image.
Another crucial difference was that most grunge bands were vocal about their political beliefs and pro-feminist stance, as evidenced by interviews and benefit shows; both Nirvana and Pearl Jam were particularly vocal in this respect. As with any new musical trend, it wasn’t long before record labels took note and began cranking out horrific pretenders. This is something that can still be detected today – the number of bands with guitarists aping Nirvana riffs, and singers imitating Eddie Vedder’s baritone is ridiculous. However, one thing that first wave of grungers were not prepared for was success, and drug abuse, deaths, break-ups, etc. effectively ended the movement almost as quickly as it had begun.
But the focus was always the music, and the albums in this Buyer’s Guide are plucked straight from grunge’s tar-pit trap. Enjoy.
ESSENTIAL - CLASSICS
**NIRVANA - **_Nevermind _(DGC, 1991)
Ask anyone which record is most synonymous with grunge, and the answer will probably be Nirvana’s landmark 1991 album Nevermind. And there’s good reason: on it, Kurt Cobain assembled a set of songs that appealed to headbangers, punks and pop fans alike. That Nevermind includes Smells Like Teen Spirit, the song that single-handedly ignited the grunge revolution, is reason enough for the album’s ‘essential’ status. But the hits just keep coming: Come As You Are, Lithium, In Bloom. Also, Nevermind popularised the now done-to-death quiet- verse/raging-chorus style of songwriting. The holy grail of grunge. And it was released in America on September 24, 1991.
PEARL JAM - Ten (Epic, 1991)
Although they eventually rejected the mainstream, Pearl Jam’s best release is their most mainstream-sounding one: their debut, Ten. Instead of wallowing in their misery following Mother Love Bone’s tragic demise, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament put together Pearl Jam, a much more back-to-basics project [both musically and visually]. In came Eddie Vedder on vocals, who had a knack for singing in a part news reporter/ part sitting-round-the-campfire style [Alive, Evenflow, Jeremy] You also have to love that the album’s best song, Black, was never issued as a single. Along with Nevermind, Ten made ‘grunge’ a household word.
SUPERIOR - THE ALBUMS THAT BUILT THE GENRE
**SOUNDGARDEN - **Badmotorfinger (A&M, 1991)
Along with Melvins, Soundgarden were one of the first Seattle bands to specialise in slow, murky riffs, and possessed one of the genre’s best singers in Chris Cornell. By the time their third full-length album rolled around, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, the band had transformed into a musically adventurous beast. Prog-esque song structures abounded, and there was blaring saxophone on several songs.
The album also contained Outshined – an MTV hit that propelled the album up the charts. Soundgarden had been around for seven years by 1991, but it wasn’t until Badmotorfinger that it finally all came together in the studio.
**TEMPLE OF THE DOG - **Temple Of The Dog (A&M, 1991)
Born out of tragedy, this album remains one of the gems in grunge’s crown. Never destined to be a major release, the genesis of this album was simply a group of friends getting together to celebrate the life of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood who had passed away from a heroin overdose just weeks before. It would also unwittingly be the first time the majority of Pearl Jam would ever play together – Eddie Vedder supplying a neat counterpoint vocal to Chris Cornell on Hunger Strike, and backing vox to the ferocious Reach Down and the mournful Call Me A Dog. A cathartic work of genius.
**MOTHER LOVE BONE - **Apple (Epic, 1990)
When seminal Seattle band Green River split into two factions, one half morphed into Mudhoney while guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament teamed up with vocalist [and self-styled rock star] Andrew Wood to create Mother Love Bone. Apple is solid proof that grunge did have its glammier side. From the snarly This Is Shangri-La to the wind-down simplicity of the piano-led Crown Of Thorns, the music has so much more impact knowing that this would be the only album MLB would ever release – Wood died of a heroin overdose before Apple even hit the shops.
ALICE IN CHAINS - Facelift (Columbia, 1990)
Whereas most grunge bands had punk influences, Alice In Chains were unashamedly a heavy metal band. Originally a glammed up Guns N’ Roses clone, Alice received a musical and visual make-over, which paid off immediately. Facelift, in 1990, was the first grunge album to leave an impression on the charts (thanks to the success of Man In The Box], paving the way for Nevermind, Ten and Badmotorfinger – all of which followed Alice’s debut up the charts in the ensuing months. To many, Facelift only hinted at the band’s potential, and the real gem is their 1992 dark classic, Dirt. Both are great, but this came first.
GOOD - WORTH EXPLORING
**DINOSAUR Jr - **_Bug _(SST, 1988)
Along with The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr were one of the biggest influences on Nirvana. Led by the mumble-mouthed J. Mascis, the band didn’t come from Seattle [they called Amherst, Massachusetts their home], but were certainly grunge-worthy, especially early albums like 1988’s Bug. With a sound modelled largely after Neil Young’s cranked-to-10 crunch, Mascis was one of the few guitar heroes to emerge from the 80s indie rock underground. With tracks like Freak Scene, the group also helped spawn another musical style – slacker rock. [Trivia: Bug was the last DJ album that the pre-Sebadoh Lou Barlow played bass on].
**STONE TEMPLE PILOTS - **_Core _(Atlantic, 1992)
Upon Stone Temple Pilots’ 1992 arrival with Core, the majority of critics slammed them as Pearl Jam clones. But, looking back on it years later, STP were certainly not the bandwagon jumpers they were made out to be at the time. While their subsequent albums would see the group scale greater heights from a songwriting standpoint [especially on 1994’s Purple], Core is definitely their most grunge album, including such MTV favourites as Sex Type Thing, Plush and Creep. It is also the only STP album that wasn’t overshadowed by drama surrounding Scott Weiland’s drug problems and arrests.
**SCREAMING TREES - **_Uncle Anesthesia _(Epic, 1991)
Grunge was not usually associated with psychedelia, but one of the grunge’s originators, Screaming Trees, clearly had a thing for the 60s. Led by the Jim Morrison-esque Mark Lanegan, the group also included a pair of larger-than-life brothers, Van and Gary Lee Conner, on bass and guitar respectively. Along with Soundgarden, the Trees were one of the first grunge bands signed to a major label, and 1991’s Uncle Anesthesia is their finest album, including such standout tracks like Ocean Of Confusion. It also scores extra points on the grunge-o-meter for being co- produced by Chris Cornell.
**SILVERCHAIR - **_Frogstomp _(Epic, 1995)
It’s happened time and time again throughout the history of rock: a style becomes popular, and a slew of imitators crash the scene with dollar signs in their eyes. Hence the arrival of Australia’s then-teenaged Silverchair with Frogstomp in 1995. It doesn’t get much more by-numbers than Tomorrow [a now thankfully forgotten massive hit] and Pure Massacre. Singer Daniel Johns took copycatting to a whole new level; not only did he sound like Kurt, he also looked like him. Nearly 20 years later, does anyone have the courage to admit buying Frogstomp? Didn’t think so. But a zillion copies didn’t just disappear off the shelves all by themselves.
**VARIOUS - **_Singles OST _(Epic, 1992)
Director Cameron Crowe has a way of perfectly capturing specific eras in his films, whether it is a 70s touring rock band [Almost Famous] or grunge-era Seattle [Singles]. For the latter’s soundtrack, Crowe assembled a collection that told the history of Seattle rock, where veterans like Jimi Hendrix and Heart [the latter under their Lovemongers guise] merged with the new regime.
But what really made Singles so worthwhile was the presence of unreleased gems from Pearl Jam [Breath], Soundgarden [Birth Ritual] and The Smashing Pumpkins [Drown], as well as a taster from AIC’s second album [Would?]. The only thing preventing Singles from being a definitive grunge collection is Nirvana’s absence.
Want to sample some proto-grunge? Then be sure to check out a pair of compilations: garage grungers Green River’s Rehab Doll/Dry As A Bone [which features future Mudhoney and Pearl Jam members and glam grungers Malfunkshun’s Return To Olympus [which features Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood].
Another early grunge favourite were Tad, and their 1991 release 8-Way Santa. The Smashing Pumpkins once specialised in psychedelic grunge, especially on their exceptional debut, 1991’s Gish. And males weren’t the only grunge acts to flourish during the early 90s; there were raging releases by L7 [92’s Bricks Are Heavy] and Hole [91’s Pretty On The Inside]. Mudhoney’s Superfuzzbigmuff is most notable for the three chord indie-disco classic Touch Me, I’m Sick.
Lastly, the forgotten and the best forgotten: including an early member of Alice In Chains, My Sister’s Machine enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame with the Alice-esque I’m Sorry, from 92’s Diva, while Bush plumbed Silverchair-esque depths with their 94 album Sixteen Stone.