Grunge is an extension of the late 60s and 70s garage-rock punk scene that was filled with bands such as the Sonics, the Wailers and so forth. Grunge is a revolt against the damning over-glorification of “mainstream rock” that had become a sensation in the late 80s due to big corporations like MTV. However, it was not until the cusp of the 90s that people became more aware of the distinction of glam metal, cover bands and authentic underground “noise bands” that the Seattle punk scene was starting up scratch.
A lot of people think Grunge was a term not only coined by Nirvana, but created the 90s sensation, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Seattle Grunge music is rooted in bands such as Blackouts, Fastbacks, U-Men, Mudhoney, The Melvins, Green River and Mother Love Bone.
But what is “Grunge”? Where did it come from? What comprises “grunge” in order for a band to be labelled as it? Did “grunge” die in the 90s?
To begin, “grunge” is not a real genre, but more an adjective to describe the “Seattle sound” culture. In books on the origin of the Seattle sound, many of the prominent members of the original Seattle bands, as well as the producers, and so forth, all expressed that they are unsure of where the word came from and how it became the term for the scene. Some say that the term grunge was first used in 1987 by Bruce Pavitt (founder of “Sub Pop” records which plays a vital role in the scene), described Green River’s Dry As a Bone EP as pure “grunge”. “Grunge” is used to describe the dirty, raw, and sludgy sounds that seem to be repeated within the Seattle bands.
Grunge is supposed to be accessible to any group of people that can (kind of) play instruments, sing and write a song. It’s grungey because it’s cheaply made, not clean in terms of production or even playing. The low-budget, and passion is what really drives the grunge “genre”, much like its founding fathers of Punk and Garage rock.
So why did it become most well-known for bands like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and especially Nirvana? That’s an easy one. It’s due to the very commercially successful releases of “the big fours” album releases: Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” (September 1991), Alice in Chains’ “Dirt” (September 1992), Pearl Jam’s “Ten” (August 1991) and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (September 1991).
Four pinnacle albums in Grunge in the mainstream sense, yet, four bands with very little in common other than band establishments (and most members being from Seattle, however not Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam)
Grunge bands are all actually very different in terms of sound and influence, and those that have somehow survived past the 90s-heroin-dark-days, all evolved into establishing more known genres, for example Alice in Chains is now more widely known as a sludge metal band, Pearl Jam as “classic” all-American rock band, Soundgarden as a hard rock band; therefore really confirming that Grunge is more of a social identity and pop culture style, rather than a music genre.
What has become widely known as the “grunge” music is a fusion of punk rock and heavy metal with strong use of distorted electric guitars, bass-driven songs and normally very cynical and “depressing” lyrics. Grunge, much like punk-rock, opened up a platform for men to be honest and vulnerable with their emotions and mental health. Artists like Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain were very open with their struggle of addiction, depression and discomfort of the spotlight, and both sadly were taken by these very thoughts.
As for the music and albums, of every band under the grunge spectrum from Green River, Mother Love Bone, Mad Season and Soundgarden. There’s a lot of wide variety of EPs and LPs to choose from and it would take over 40 pages to critically analyze and discuss the importance of every album. So, I’ll just talk about the albums that I, personally, enjoy the most and what I found from my research to be a staple in a “grunge best of” type collection — this will be a mixture of specific albums and general bands.
Temple of The Dog
Temple of the Dog (TOTD) is a Seattle supergroup that was created to pay tribute to one of the founding legends of the Seattle Sound, Andrew Wood of Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone (MLB). On March 19, 1990, Wood died of an overdose of heroin in his Seattle apartment. Soundgarden frontman and Andrew Wood’s roommate at the time, Chris Cornell , created TOTD with the MLB bandmembers to create a tribute band for their fallen friend. These MLB members, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard and bass-player Jeff Ament , picked up on Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron (who will then later join Pearl Jam) and Mike McCready to play lead guitar. Ament and Gossard invited McCready to join the TOTD project, who was at the time working on a side project with Vedder, Ament and Gossard, which would later become Pearl Jam.
Wow, that was a whole bunch of names and connection of Seattle bands, but that is one of the reasons why I find this record to be one of the most important albums in the “Seattle Sound” list. It’s the foundation of half the “Big Four” bands that became the poster-image of “grunge”.
With that being said, the “Temple of The Dog” album is an emotionally beautiful memoriam of what was very clear to be a close friend of many. With songs like “Say Hello 2 Heaven”, “Times of Trouble” and “Reach Down”, the sentimental value of Andy Wood and his death made prominent in the Seattle area, especially to the already-troubled-soul of Chris Cornell who would also lose his battle to depression a trifiling 27 years later.
Although TOTD only released one album together, Cornell & Vedder (in forms of Soundgarden & Pearl Jam) would get together periodically to perform the popular single off the album called “Hunger Strike”. The two, since the recording of the song, kept a long friendship that doubled as a brotherhood.
This album is truly a staple in the Seattle sound, and an album I truly cherish.
Much like TOTD, Mad Season is a Seattle supergroup. The band formed in 1994 and was comprised of Mike McCready of Pearl Jam on guitar, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains (on vocals), Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees on drums and John Baker Saunders of The Walkabouts on bass.
The band’s first single “River of Deceit” quickly charted, which led to the release of their record Above receiving certified gold.
Between the success of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, both quickly becoming international successes and representatives of “Grunge” in the mainstream (alongside Nirvana), and Layne Staley’s struggle with drugs, the band struggled to reform to record a second LP. Towards the end of the 90s, the band did try to regroup and work on new material, but that was brought to a halt when bassist John Baker Saunders died of a drug overdose in 1999 and Layne Staley overdosing three years later in 2002.
Despite the recurring theme of death and drugs, Mad Season brought variety to the now-established grunge world. By 1995 (when the album was released), Nirvana had stolen the attention of the world, even more so after Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide. By 1994, we already had Vitalogy (Pearl Jam), Superunknown (Soundgarden), Jar of Flies (Alice in Chains), Houdini (Melvins), Vs (Pearl Jam), In Utero (Nirvana) and SO MANY MORE (now classics) on the shelves.
Therefore, there was a lot of hype around this LP and band when the talk of Mad Season began to buzz. What I enjoy most about Mad Season is that although it is still sludgy, much like Staley’s work with Alice in Chains, much of the [Mad Season] catalogue is a lot more mellow in comparison to AIC songs like “Sickman” and “Godsmack” and “We Die Young”.
Above is not only a significant piece in music history, but as well as in rock history. The combination of McCready‘s sensational ability to write a riff like no other, and Staley‘s vocal and lyrical distinctive piercing talent; the record is like nothing else. While everyone is lusting over the brilliance of Cobain, this album slipped under a lot of peoples noses, so I feel the need to give this record the recognition it really deserves.
Badmotorfinger – Soundgarden
On October 8, 1991, Soundgarden released their third studio album “Badmotorfinger”. This album became a crucial album in the Seattle scene, by setting the bar really high, it was also in terms of “mainstream rock”. Badmotorfinger is the band’s highest-charting album of all time on the Billboard 200, and even gained them a Grammy nomination for “Best Metal Performance”. The album went certified double platinum in 1996. Which is truly astounding when you take into account how heavy the album really is, an album like this would struggle to chart so high in 2019 (sadly).
This record is the first album with bassist Ben Shepherd who joined the group in 1990 and was a huge leap for the band in terms of developing their true Soundgarden sound. Critics from all around the world have agreed that Badmotorfinger is a huge step up from its predecessors in terms of quality of production; it’s bigger, heavier and exceeded people’s expectations from the more “low quality” albums of Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love. Yet, there is always that argument that the first two records were more grunge due to their lower quality production.
Criticisms aside, the album is definitely one of the most well-received and quality rock albums of the 90s, and later. It’s well-packed with melodic tunes like “Mind Riot” and “Slaves & Bulldozers” hefty riffs and face by the legend Kim Thayil and melting vocals from none other than Chris Cornell.
(probably one of my most favourite grunge records, ever. But shhh)
Vs. – Pearl Jam
Now, this is probably unexpected from anyone that knows me on a personal level, since whenever I talk about Pearl Jam I cry about how life-changing “Ten” was for me, and how often I spin the record. However, in terms of the stereotypical grunge characteristics, I think Vs is the best “grunge” record by Pearl Jam.
October 19, 1993, Pearl Jam released their second studio album “Vs.”. This record is the first album recorded with fan-favourite PJ drummer Dave Abbruzzese. What is very distinct about this record is that it is a lot more “relaxed” and “raw” than their debut album “Ten”, which gave the band instant success and attention. In true grunge fashion, PJ frontman Eddie Vedder was indifferent about the success, and if anything, was more motivated to care less about appeasing an audience, and wanted to create a record that he was proud of.
Pearl Jam did almost everything to scale back the success of this record, by doing things like declining the production of music videos for the album’s singles, so big corporations like MTV couldn’t exploit the band’s honest work. However, despite these “true grunge” efforts, Vs. set the record for the most copies of an album ever sold in its first week, a record it held for five years. The record also held the number one spot on the Billboard 200 chart for five weeks (which is the longest duration for a Pearl Jam album) AND the album had been certified seven times platinum.
It’s true when people say the less you care, the more people become fascinated.
The reason why this album takes the crown of “Most grunge album” by Pearl Jam, is the perfect balance of garage-rock with songs like “W.M.A” and “Rearviewmirror” and straight-up angst with “Blood” and “Leash”. There are also heartbreaking ballads with existential tropes that pay true respect to grunge subjects (Indifference, Elderly Woman, Crazy Mary).
Honourable Mention to “Vitalogy”, I really wanted to put that as well, but I doubt anyone wants to read an 8-page blog post.
Incesticide – Nirvana
Probably another “controversial” choice, however, I truly believe this “Demo LP” is probably one of the most “Grunge” compilations by Nirvana. Although I think the best Nirvana album is in fact, Bleach, that album is 100% garage-punk and not grunge.
So, as you may have guessed by now, if you didn’t already know Incesticide is a compilation of b-sides, demos, outtakes and covers, that had never quite fit either Bleach, Nevermind or their upcoming release In Utero. The album was released on December 14, 1992, and didn’t necessarily chart all that well. To be fair, these songs, other than Silver, were never really supposed to see the light of day.
In early 1992, after the release of the band’s historical “Nevermind”, Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop Records and Gary Gersh of Geffen Records (I believe, but don’t quote me on that) had come to the realization that Sub Pop still had recordings of Nirvana’s pre-Nevermind demos (Bleach was released on Sub Pop, Nevermind was released on Geffen Records… I believe, again). Nirvana wanted it released on Seattle based record label Sub Pop, and call it Cash Cow (as in, a labels excuse to squeeze more cash from the band), however, Sub Pop could not compete with Geffen Records’ and sold the rights to them (If you read “Grunge is Dead” you would know that it’s because Sub Pop was always teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and going out of business throughout the 90s, despite signing some of the biggest bands at the time). So, with that, and the fact that a lot of these demos were already circulating in very poor-quality within fans, both Nirvana and Geffen’s agreed to put something together in time for Christmas sales.
What I enjoy most about this “record” is that it was recorded in many different sessions, with all the different Nirvana drummer: Chad Channing, Dan Peters, Dale Crover and Dave Grohl (hey, doesn’t he look a lot like they lead singer of Foo Fighters?)
Not a commercial success, but a huge gem for big Nirvana fans (like me). I mean, “Aero Zeppelin”, probably the most grunge song by the band. It’s heavy, sludgy, yet-raw and punky. It’s a banger of a song and very underrated. Also, this album gives us “Hairspray Queen” and “Silver”, so do I really need to say more?
Purchase items mentioned:
If anyone’s still reading, I want to give an honourable mention to the record “facelift” by Alice in Chains, that album is *Chef’s kiss* and also a staple album in the “Big Four” grunge collection. As well as the Melvins “Houdini” album, pure art that album is. Honestly, there are so many fantastic LPs, EPs, Singles, stories, and everything under the sun, in the world of grunge, I could sit here and write a 30-page paper talking the albums, the members, the drama within, the deaths, and so forth. As someone that has lived in the Pacific Northwest their entire life, bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden are a huge part of my life and what I know best. Talking about this scene feels like talking about home, and I couldn’t be more proud of the Seattle Sound scene.
However, before I go, I want to end with the most asked FAQ, “Is grunge dead?”. Did Grunge die with Andy Wood? Cobain? What about Staley or Cornell? To me, that answer is no.
There are so many new bands out there picking up the torch of raw, passionate, rock’n’roll. Sure, there will never be another Cobain or Cornell, but would we want that anyway? Grunge is a culture, an attitude, a style, and something deeply rooted up here in the Northwest. The doomy weather, the love of the forest and art, music that feeds the soul, that will always be continued. So, fret not fellow grungers, you need not cry over the loss of authenticity, it’s still there if you search hard enough.
And if you guys are interested, I will write a “Grunge Revival” discussing what bands I think is saving the culture! comment below or on on my latest IG post to let me know you’re interested!
Until next time Interwebs! 🕸
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