The 10 Best Grunge Albums of All Time
Pearl Jam at the 2009 Austin City Limits Music Festival
Photo by Mark C. Austin
Kids of the '80s have to face the fact that it's time to put that "Beat It" jacket in cold storage, because the '90s are officially all the nostalgia rage. While the editor of this blog was vacationing last week, he happened to take in a screening of the very funny The World's End, whose plot pivots on the Soup Dragons' "I'm Free," and whose soundtrack is flush with prime Britpop from big guns Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Blur and Pulp to bit players the Housemartins and Saint Etienne.
On these shores, Britpop's sullen, lank-haired Yankee counterpart, grunge, is as omnipresent as it's been since The New York Times attempted to educate its readers in alleged Seattle slang like "hangin' on the flippety-flop." Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Mudhoney have released excellent to better-than-average albums within the past 12 months, and Pearl Jam's Lightning Bolt is due next month and already drawing raves from the likes of Rolling Stone. Even Nirvana is back in record stores, sounding more visceral than ever thanks to the brand-new In Utero reissue.
Often grossly oversimplified as a hybrid of punk and metal, grunge turned out to be an extension and/or reinvention of plain old classic rock, the multifaceted kind of music Led Zeppelin and The Who used to play. Either way, the shadow it cast over current rock is so pervasive it borders on suffocating, but scrape off all the barnacles of watered-down derivative crap and you'll find grunge produced plenty of bitchin' tunes. (Maaaaan.)
Afghan Whigs, Gentlemen (1993) Although it was released at the peak of the grunge era, and was the Afghan Whigs' first album after leaving Sub Pop (once grunge central), calling Gentlemen a grunge record is straining the definition a little. It's really a soul record: as bitter and fucked-up as Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, only played at grunge-like volume.
Singer Greg Dulli can really howl, and he's intent on proving himself a world-class cad: "I've got a dick for a brain, and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you." Through tortuous rockers ("Debonair") and seething ballads ("When We Two Parted"), Dulli takes care to pick at every last emotional scab in his suavely twisted psyche. So if grunge can be defined as "angst-ridden rock and roll," Gentlemen is easily the greatest grunge album of all time. CHRIS GRAY
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Alice in Chains, Dirt (1992) By the time Dirt was released in 1992, Alice in Chains had already been paying their dues for years as an awkward fit in the rapidly cooling mainstream metal scene. They'd had a hit two years earlier with "Man in the Box," but now that Nirvana and Pearl Jam had put their hometown of Seattle on the musical map, radio and MTV were suddenly a lot more interested in what Alice in Chains would deliver on their second album for Columbia Records.
What they got was the darkest and most pained album ever to be certified quadruple platinum. Songs like "Down in a Hole" and "Junkhead" were deeply stained by singer Layne Staley's addiction-obsessed lyrics, and despite the soaring uplift of the war anthem "Rooster," Dirt positively stank of self-revulsion and wretched hopelessness. The album became an instant classic, thanks in large part to guitarist Jerry Cantrell's metallic, palm-muted riffing and soft crooning, which entwined with Staley's voice so completely as to become inseparable. NATHAN SMITH
Mudhoney, Vanishing Point (2013) It would be easy to choose one of the albums that helped define grunge, Mudhoney's Superfuzz Bigmuff, especially since an expanded version was reissued this year as part of Sub Pop's 25th-anniversary festivities. Nothing wrong with that record at all; it's a lurching, lumbering monument of Sabbath sludge, Stooges looseness, and bug-eyed Texas insanity via Scratch Acid or Butthole Surfers. (Plus an actual cover of "Dicks Hate the Police.") But Vanishing Point, also released this year, beats it simply because it adds 25 years and hundreds (if not thousands) of gigs to all Mudhoney's exalted racket, coming soon to a city near you. (Mudhoney plays Fitzgerald's September 30.) CHRIS GRAY
List continues on the next page.
The back cover of Nirvana's In Utero
Nirvana, In Utero (1993) Trading in Butch Vig for Steve Albini as producer made this album a lot less radio friendly than predecessor Nevermind. It was darker, more dissonant, and more pissed-off. In Utero was the sound of a band trying to shed their messianic hype, alienate their more shallow fans, and turn in something powerful and strange. For the most part they succeeded, except damned if Kurt couldn't keep himself from writing two perfect radio singles, "Heart Shaped Box" and "All Apologies." Oh well. JOHN SEABORN GRAY
Pearl Jam, Ten (1991) It may seem cheesy to be praising Ten on its anniversary like this [it turned 22 last week -- Ed.], but for my money Pearl Jam's debut is their finest hour. Not many would argue with that with a line-up of songs that looks like a greatest hits comp. "Alive," "Jeremy," "Once," "Even Flow," and "Black?" It's like the foundation of modern-rock radio.
I'm going to go a step further though and say that, pound for pound, Ten is the best damn record of the whole grunge revolution. They got slagged for being a poor man's Nirvana at the time, but that's baseless. The fact is Pearl Jam, for all their big-time rock and roll aspirations, may not have reflected Kurt Cobain's idea of artistic purity, but they followed a lineage of perfectly wild rock records with not a moment wasted on filler.
They captured a moment in time when they were at the height of their songwriting and playing prowess, when most members had the secret advantage of having warmed up with the fantastic Temple of the Dog one-off record, and when they were sounding a lot like a freight train smacking down in a stadium. I have my doubts any rock band with their skill, sheer intensity, and power will ever slap us in the face like Ten did again. COREY DEITERMAN
Screaming Trees, Sweet Oblivion (1992) Sometimes good bands slowly peter out and produce two or three superfluous, unworthy albums before finally throwing in the towel. That's not what happened to Screaming Trees. Grunge's elder statesmen had been influential Seattle players all through the '80s, never achieving the mainstream success of many of their brethren. On this album, however, they combined their aggressive, noisy sound with some truly catchy arrangements to produce something that sounded more radio-friendly without being watered down.
It's as good as anything they ever did, and yielded their only nationally successful radio single, "Nearly Lost You." We can only speculate how much bigger they might have gone on to become, had they not split up after this album. Singer Mark Lanegan's post-Trees career, however, is definitely worth looking into if you haven't already.JOHN SEABORN GRAY
Smashing Pumpkins, Gish (1991) The Pumpkins' first album is heavily inspired by 1970s acid-rock. Lots of early grunge acts took inspiration out of the 70s, but none took it so far as the Pumpkins on their debut album. Pairing wildly frenetic guitar chops and constantly fluctuating tempo changes with the more traditional loud-soft-loud grunge dynamic, the Pumpkins were never more raw or blistering than on this first amazing album.
Ah, the heady days of youth, when Billy Corgan could actually make his megalomania work for him instead of against him. JOHN SEABORN GRAY
List continues on the next page.
Soundgarden at Bayou Music Center, May 2013
Photo by Groovehouse
Soundgarden, Superunknown (1994) By the time Superunknown was released in 1994, Kurt Cobain was dead and Pearl Jam had decided to shun the spotlight, leaving the door wide open for new Seattle torchbearers. Whether they wanted it or not, the mantle was passed to Soundgarden, who delivered a brilliant disc that now sounds like a Greatest Hits package.
Tunes like "Spoonman," "Black Hole Sun" and "Fell on Black Days" received tons of airplay on radio and MTV, and the rest of the record was just as good. Soundgarden had always been terrific songwriters, but they upped their game significantly on Superunknown, arriving at a wistfully doomed-sounding style that elevated the band to grunge's Mt. Rushmore for good. NATHAN SMITH
Stone Temple Pilots, Purple (1994) With 1992's Core San Diego stompers Stone Temple Pilots had produced a record that rocked pretty damn hard, but many in the music press derided it at the time as derivative grunge hackery -- particularly the Vedder-esque, yarling vocals employed by STP singer Scott Weiland. While a number of tracks on that disc have rightly come to be regarded as '90s rock classics, it wasn't until 1994's Purple that the band truly came into its own.
Perhaps in response to criticism, STP let it all hang out on Purple, delivering an eclectic blend of grunge, pop, metal and classic rock that included two massive hit singles in "Vasoline" and "Interstate Love Song" not to mention the memorable grunge ballad "Big Empty," which was also featured on The Crow soundtrack. Overnight, people stopped complaining that STP was ripping off Pearl Jam and started giving them a little respect as artists... at least until Weiland's drug-addled behavior started turning fans off again. NATHAN SMITH
Temple of the Dog, Temple of the Dog (1991-92) Temple of the Dog was envisioned as a small and personal project -- a tribute from Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell to a musical tribute from Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell to his friend Andrew Wood, the Mother Love Bone front man who died of a heroin overdose in 1990. After writing a few songs, Cornell tabbed Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and Wood's ex-bandmates, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, to bring the tunes to life. At the time, Gossard and Ament were working on new music with newcomers Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder, who were invited along to the studio.
The makeshift group recorded enough songs for an album -- which, despite being awesome, was released and forgotten in 1991. It wasn't until a year later, when Soundgarden and a new band called Pearl Jam blew up on MTV, that A&M Records realized what they had: a collaboration between two of the hottest bands in the world. The record was reissued, and audiences discovered that it was excellent. The troupe never reformed to record again, but they didn't need to. Temple of the Dog was definitive enough to go down as a stone-cold grunge essential. NATHAN SMITH
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