Grunge, literally meaning dirt or grime, is first noted as a name for the rock subgenre in 1981, when Mark Arm who described his own band, Mr. Epp and the Calculations, as the most overrated band in Seattle.
By 1987, the word was being used to distinguish the slower, heavier, “dirtier” punk music that was starting to sweep through the Seattle underground. Around this point, the music industry steps in and decides there’s money to be made here, but they only pick up a handful of bands and the bulk of the grunge scene remains underground.
In 1991, listeners got Nevermind from Nirvana, Ten from Pearl Jam, and Badmotorfinger from Soundgarden all in the space of a single year and they lost their ever-loving minds.
Within a year, Nevermind had sold five million records (today, that number is over 30 million). Badmotofinger hit one million records sold within the same year. And, while Ten got a slower start, by 1992, it had exceeded 500,000 copies sold and, by 1993, had even surpassed Nevermind. All three would remain chart toppers for years.
The widespread frenzy was short-lived, though. Indeed, grunge is one of the shortest-lived mainstream trends in music history. Not through any fault of the music, but mostly from an overuse of the name (rendering it meaningless) and the industry’s attempt to standardize the genre into something easier to mass-produce and sell (rendering it less grungy). By the mid-90s, “grunge” was slapped onto almost any band hailing from the northwest with a rock-adjacent sound.
By the time Kurt Cobain died in 1994, a genre that was already struggling would never recover its mainstream popularity. But it would live on in the muck of the underground.
This week’s mixtape is an ode to grunge before it was grunge, to the stars like Nirvana and Alice in Chains but also to Melvins, Bam Bam, and the genre’s other pioneers. These newer artists give us their own take on that sludgy sound that comes from tons of feedback, distorted guitars, and an angst-fueled fusion of punk and heavy metal. This is music to writhe around in the mud to.
Heavy metal and punk influences both come through strong in the sound of England-based False Advertising. Jen Hingley and Chris Warr both bring an incredible amount of talent to the act, with each one providing vocals, guitar, and drums.
On tracks like “Influenza,” Jen’s powerful vocals strings a melodic thread through the heavy, aggressive instrumentals:
Then, you’ll get all the distortion your grungy heart desires in songs like “Dozer.”
Across the Irish Sea from False Advertising, you’ll find Vendetta Love recording raw, punchy tracks in the small, central Ireland town of Portlaoise. Lead vocalist, Shawn Mullen, will bring all that grunge nostalgia gurgling to the surface with his raspy, emotive vocals that would have been right at home in the 80s/90s Seattle underground. Meanwhile, Darren Flynn and Neil McEvoy establish a foot stomping and sludgy rhythm while Chris Craig finishes the sound with screaming, energetic guitar riffs.
Their first EP came out last year with a handful of richly textured songs like “Blackened Hands.”
It’s also got some harder, more propulsive tracks like “Witches & Thieves.”
Katie Monks lends her fierce, raspy vocals to the riff-heavy songs that have become DILLY DALLY’s signature. Though the band formed back in 2009, the Toronto-based musicians had a slow start and went through a rough period after releasing their first full-length album in 2015.
After taking a pause and nearly breaking up, they regrouped in 2017 and released their second full length album the following year. Grunge fans will immediately cling to the heavy downbeats and liberal use of distortion and feedback. And Monks’ voice will be screaming in your head long after you’ve taken your headphones off.
From their first album, check out “Snake Head.”
From their second album, enjoy the more melodic but still ragged sound of “I Feel Free.”
Lebanon-based Yara Nammour and Belgium-based Charles Debras form the duo that is Easy Jane. The duo has a moodier, more atmospheric sound and overall are really experimental which makes every track a little different and any attempt at pigeonholing them into a genre difficult — but that’s in keeping with the grunge spirit.
As you’ll hear in “Inflected Mixes,” there’s enough sludgy drums and distortion to satisfy the nostalgic grunge fan, though.
From their latest album, you can hear that grungy tinge on tracks like “Star Darling.”
Just north of the northwest birthplace of grunge, Vancouver is the home of War Baby, a punk and noise rock influenced trio that experiments with a wide range of (always heavy) sounds. They’ve produced three albums so far and each one delivers something a little different.
From their first album, you get songs like “Cave” that oscillate between fast, aggressive punk moments and throbbing, growling heavy metal-tinged ones:
Their latest album skews more melodic than their previous work with songs like “Never Marigold.”
For a gritty, unrefined sound that preserves the underground spirit of early grunge, you can’t go wrong with Lucid Hoops. Though they’re super new to the scene, the handful of tracks they’ve released so far reveal a ton of talent and dexterity in their sound. It’s dirty but not messy. It’s heavy but full of energy.
Take their latest single, “I Feel Used” as a case in point. Fuzzy rhythm and distorted guitar riffs are balanced by melodic but fierce vocals.
The bouncy, bright energy at the start of “Moods” takes on increasingly aggressive textures as the song progresses.
The Dose began as a duo made up of Ralph Alexander and Indio Downey that put out a handful of a singles and a full length album between 2016 and 2019. With a decidedly grunge-inflected sound and a tendency to experiment and blend, you get a range of songs that includes some that feel like a grungy version of a classic rock ballad and some that feel rawer and more punk.
On Saline, the 2019 album released just before the lineup change, you can see that range by starting with the hard drums and unrelenting guitar in “Vervain.”
Then, follow that up with the melancholy vocals and orchestral undertones in “Gone.”
After a brief hiatus, the band reemerged without Ralph Alexander and with Hyland Church on Guitar, Ruben Rabitt Moon on bass, and Danny Morledge replacing Ralph on drums. According to the Instagram post announcing the change, the new lineup has been writing and recording an album over the course of the drawn-out pandemic. So we should see what this change-up in the band yields soon.
Kills Birds began as the musical project of Nina Ljeti and Jacob Loeb and later grew to include Bosh Rothman on drums and Fielder Thomas on bass. Although their feet are firmly grounded in alternative rock, they pull influences from diverse genres including emo, pop, hip hop, and even a little folk.
The vaguely threatening band name comes from the opening line of “Worthy Girl,” an impressive track that’s eclectic without feeling disjointed and presents a challenging array of instrumentals that Ljeti has no trouble keeping up with.
You can also detect a bit of Riot grrrl influence in both albums but especially on the short, gritty, high energy track, “Woman” from their new album.
Then that emo and folk influence comes through in softer, mournful songs like “Ok Hurricane.”
Bonus Throwback Pick: Melvins
Considered one of the first grunge bands — though, they’d probably reject the name — Melvins are still at it. They celebrated their 30-year anniversary back in 2013 and last year, they released Five Legged Dog, an all acoustic double album of some of the most defining songs of their 30+ year career.
They’re far from “new” but if you haven’t dabbled much in the proto-grunge era, a lot of the scene’s pioneers might at least be new to you. More “new to you” bands for fans who’ve mostly only heard the big four — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains — include:
- Green River. Their debut album, Come on Down, is widely considered the first grunge album. (Though, if we’re getting technical, Bam Bam recorded theirs a year earlier in 1984. But Come on Down is still good stuff.) Like many bands in the scene at this time, they’d break up and regroup into other bands fairly regularly — which is, in part, why so few grunge bands went to the big leagues even when grunge was at its peak.
- Bam Bam. Performing in the early 80s, they’re considered one of the founders of the grunge scene and Tina Bell, the lead singer, is often called the Godmother of Grunge. But they struggled to get the same recognition or opportunities as other bands due to a toxic mix of racism and misogyny.
- The Gits. Another early entry to Seattle’s burgeoning grunge scene, The Gits almost rose to the heights of icons like Nirvana or Hole but their career was tragically cut short when their lead singer, Mia Zapata, was brutally raped and killed on her way home from a show (by a man who’d already had multiple reports of domestic abuse and battery filed against him by ex-girlfriends). Her voice had the depth and smokiness of a blues singer that added such a distinctive sound to the few recordings they made before her death.
- Mudhoney. Front man, Mark Arm, the possible accidental coiner of the genre’s name, formed Mudhoney with fellow Green River veterans, Steve Turner and Alex Vincent along with bassist, Jeff Ament, who would later go on to become the bassist for Pearl Jam. Although they never fully broke out of the underground, the moderate commercial success they did achieve in the late 80s helped convince record labels that grunge (or whatever the hell you call the noise these Seattle punks were making) might have mainstream potential.