In this article:
- Born in Seattle, Washington, the grunge genre is a branch off of alternative rock that gained popularity in the late 1980s and spread first to California, then to other parts of the United States and even Australia.
- The term “grunge” was first coined in 1987 by Bruce Pavitt, co-founder of the Sub Pop record label. This record label would come to host some of the greatest acts of the grunge era.
- While most people associate the grunge genre with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, there are many other amazing grunge bands that popped up during the late ’80s and early ’90s.
After recently moving to the Pacific Northwest, I figured I’d better become immersed in some of the local culture. I bought a flannel shirt just to try it out. There’s a hip coffee shop on every corner. It rains a lot. And, of course, there’s grunge music.
The term “grunge” was first known to be used by Bruce Pavitt (co-founder of the Sub Pop record label) when he described Green River’s Dry as a Bone EP as “gritty vocals, roaring Marshall amps, ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation.” The genre would later come to be characterized by distorted guitars, gravelly vocals, and themes such as psychological trauma and societal neglect.
The genesis of the grunge scene occurred in the Pacific Northwestern city of Seattle and its surrounding suburbs. Then, in the early 1990s, the style began to spread to California and then to other parts of the United States and even Australia.
Today, despite the fact that grunge has experienced a meteoric fall in popularity, the term grunge is associated mostly with one rock band: Nirvana. And deceased lead singer Kurt Cobain has become the poster child for the musical genre. However, during the height of the grunge era, there were many other bands that were making major waves on the scene. These are the top 6 grunge bands of all time.
As I just said, one can’t hear the term “grunge” without seeing the floating, naked baby on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind album. This was their most well-known album (outselling their debut album Bleach, released in 1990) and they were instantly catapulted to worldwide prominence after its release. Nirvana has also been credited by some as killing off the era of hair metal. And I think we can all thank them for that.
Nirvana has been named one of the 100 greatest artists of all time by Rolling Stone and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility in 2014. Unfortunately, the band broke apart after the devastating suicide of lead singer Kurt Cobain in 1994. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with Nirvana’s body of work, the songs “Come as You Are” and “On A Plain” are great places to start.
As emotional isolation and social alienation are main themes of the grunge genre, many of the linchpin superstars on the grunge scene were afflicted by serious psychological problems, as we saw with Kurt Cobain. Unfortunately, Chris Cornell, probably the second-most well-known vocalist in grunge history, also took his own life in 2017. However, before his tragic end, Cornell was the frontman for the iconic Seattle band Soundgarden.
The band came on the scene with their first studio album Ultramega OK in 1990 and immediately enjoyed success in the Pacific Northwest. However, it was their third album Superunknown that brought them onto the international stage. This album included massive singles like “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun” as well as several other songs that helped define the grunge genre. Unfortunately, the Soundgarden name was retired after lead singer Chris Cornell passed away.
3. Pearl Jam
After the dissolution of Mother Love Bone (another band that could be included on grunge’s Mount Rushmore), bassist Jeff Ament and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard linked up with lead guitarist Mike McCready and vocalist Eddie Vedder and formed the iconic quartet known as Pearl Jam. McCready’s driving, riff-heavy style, which has been compared to that of Jimi Hendrix, and Vedder’s low growl of a voice have made Pearl Jam’s sound instantly recognizable.
The band’s first album Ten, released in 1991, is easily their most famous piece of work. This album is home to well-received hits like “Even Flow” and “Jeremy” as well as other tunes that anyone who lived through the grunge era would recognize. Since then, the band hasn’t slowed down a bit and they’re still playing shows to this day. If you can afford a ticket, they’re definitely worth seeing. In fact, a Rolling Stone readers’ poll ranked them as number eight on a “Top Ten Live Acts of All Time” list.
4. Alice in Chains
Hailing from Seattle, Washington, and forming in 1987, Alice in Chains definitely leans more heavily toward heavy metal than any of the previously mentioned bands. But, make no mistake, they’re still one of the pillars of grunge. The band came on the scene with their first album Facelift in 1990, which didn’t sell very well initially but picked up steam after MTV added the song “Man in the Box” to its regular daytime rotation.
After MTV added “Man in the Box” to their music video rotation, the song hit number 18 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and Alice in Chains was invited to tour with Van Halen. It was all downhill from there. Alice in Chains released their second album Dirt in 1992, which included “Rooster” and many of their other most popular songs. The band is still tearing up the stage and vocalist William DuVall has confirmed that the band will be working on their seventh studio album in 2022.
5. Stone Temple Pilots
As previously mentioned, grunge was born in Seattle in the late 1980s but soon made its way down to California. And, in 1989, the band Mighty Joe Young was formed in San Diego. The band played gigs around the Sand Diego area and started building up a fan base, only to eventually get a call from a lawyer saying that their name had already been taken by a blues singer.
So, when the band signed with Atlantic Records in 1992, they took on the name Stone Temple Pilots and released their debut album Core. The album was a massive success with hits like “Creep” and “Sex Type Thing” that propelled it to number three on the Billboard Albums chart. All members of the band have said that they’re massive fans of Aerosmith and Kiss, both of which have obviously influenced Stone Temple Pilots’s musical style.
After the band Green River (which many consider the first-ever grunge band) disbanded in 1987, frontman Mark Arm and lead guitarist Steve Turner reunited in 1988 to form Mudhoney. Their name comes from a Russ Meyer-directed film that was a complete flop. Of the film, Meyer himself said, “I should have not made the film.” Well, as awful of a film as it may have been, at least we can all be happy that it inspired one of the best grunge bands of all time.
Mudhoney’s music is characterized by high levels of distortion that make you feel like you’re in a dingy basement. If you’re a Mudhoney acolyte, check out the song “Touch Me I’m Sick” or any other song off their 1988 debut album Superfuzz Bigmuff.