I wanted to say first that grunge was much more than just a musical genre. It was a movement, wrapped in flannel and lauded by misfits everywhere. It is why there is a church devoted to Kurt Cobain, and even though it was short-lived, it spawned many sub-genres that exist to this day. As always, these are 7 albums you should add to your collection, but they are not in any particular order. (Special mention goes to Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies, Temple of the Dog, Silverchair’s Frogstomp, and the first Foo Fighters record.)
At first, I tried to dismiss Bush as a band that sounded like Pearl Jam and a lead singer that sounded like Kurt Cobain, but I was way too quick with my assessment. If you listen very closely to “Everything Zen,” you’ll hear what I finally heard too. Bush is a band that, sure, had an identity crisis, but their songwriting was clearly their own. There is no way Kurt Cobain would have written the lyric, “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow. Dave’s on sale again.” You see, Bush was never about the introspection of Nirvana, or the wild angst of most other grunge. They were fuzz, plain and simple, but what good fuzz! And the best of it was right here, on 16 Stone, their first record. Standout song: Machinehead.
This is classic grunge right before grunge effectively died and gave way to many other forms of music. Indeed, this is Pearl Jam’s send-off to the genre that made them more famous than any band this side of Nirvana had any right to be. Eddie Vedder had the classic growl down, the band was louder than most, and the lyrics were as good as any written that year by any other lyricist. It’s no accident that this was the last really huge unit mover for Pearl Jam, either, because they did decide to go more introspective and less “grunge” after this point. Vs. is as solid as grunge gets. Standout song: Animal.
From start to finish, this album rumbles like a train down the grunge track. Chris Cornell’s voice was meant to growl, and the band was unlike any other in the Seattle scene at the time. Instead of incorporating themes of hating life, they sang about exploring what wasn’t there, plumbing the recesses of thought and possibility. “Hello. Don’t you know me? I’m the dirt beneath your feet. The most important fool you forgot to see” These lyrics from “Mailman” hint at the complexity I mentioned. Instead of hating the system, they were singing about ways to subvert the system because the system didn’t pay attention to them. It’s a classic album. Standout song: Spoonman.
One of those rare grunge bands that didn’t hail from Seattle, everything Seven Mary Three recorded was as layered as layered could get. Even the vocals from frontman Jason Ross are pretty layered in most songs they recorded at the beginning. They also had one of the most recognizable songs of the grunge era, “Cumbersome,” that was actually as good as its name, and made this album a must-have for any grunge aficionado. Standout song: Cumbersome.
As much as I can’t stand Courtney Love, her attitude, her life choices, and her major issues, I can’t help but think it is what has made her music all the more raw and heartwrenching. “Someday you will ache like I ache.” Each of Hole’s albums has this thread through it that makes you wonder why she has been able to survive all this time when others with the same types of issues have had bitter ends. Live Through This is a masterpiece of that push-pull dynamic that made grunge so popular. She was one of us, and when she sang, we felt. We still do, actually. Their latest album is just as raw. Standout song: Violet.
I’m one of the few people who don’t think STP ever sounded like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden. From the start, I thought Scott Weiland’s voice evoked more of a David Bowie “devil-may-care” attitude and swagger that was missing from most grunge bands. STP was over-the-top in a way that was titillating and extreme, but still embraceable by those who understood. And understand we did. The DeLeo brothers are masterful with the loud sound of grunge, and mixed up more than ever on STP’s second album, Purple. It remains my favorite album from them for this and a myriad of other reasons. Standout song: The Lounge Fly.
Their final studio album showcases everything that made grunge so special, and outlined the area in bass relief, even before Kurt Cobain lost his battle with his demons. While Nevermind was a bombastic record, slick and studio-produced, and definitely radio-friendly in the era of grunge, In Utero was the middle finger to the world salute that I think Kurt Cobain always wanted to make. If you were a bandwagon fan, this was no Nevermind. This was not accessible to the masses, and he liked it that way. That’s also what made it a masterpiece. It was the grunge record that was truly grunge, no strings attached. When Kurt sang, “Hey, wait, I got a new complaint. Forever in debt to your priceless advice,” you realized you would be forever in debt to his priceless advice. Forget the poseurs. Be yourself. Easily the best album of the grunge era. Standout song: Heart Shaped Box.