Grunge fuses elements of punk rock and heavy metal, such as the distorted electric guitar used in both genres, although some bands performed with more emphasis on one or the other. Like these genres, grunge typically uses electric guitar, bass guitar, a drummer and a singer. Grunge also incorporates influences from indie rock bands such as Sonic Youth. Lyrics are typically angst-filled and introspective, often addressing themes such as social alienation, apathy, concerns about confinement, and a desire for freedom.
The early grunge movement revolved around Seattle’s independent record label Sub Pop and the region’s underground music scene. By the early 1990s its popularity had spread, with grunge bands appearing in California, then emerging in other parts of the United States and in Australia, building strong followings and signing major record deals.
Mudhoney are one of grunge’s most consistently solid and enduring bands. The group had its roots in the ’80s act Green River, a band that many point to as one of the pioneers of the grunge sound. Mark Arm and Steve Turner emerged from Green River to start Mudhoney and while they didn’t reach the commercial success of some of their peers, tracks like ‘Touch Me I’m Sick,’ ‘Let It Slide’ and ‘Suck You Dry’ became well-respected grunge anthems.
It took a while for Hole to emerge from the shadow of Courtney Love’s late husband, Kurt Cobain, but 1994’s ‘Live Through This’ was the album that finally broke them to a mass audience. Courtney Love’s raspy voice hit the perfect mark on ‘Miss World,’ ‘Doll Parts,’ and ‘Violet,’ and though the band’s sound began to evolve with 1998’s ‘Celebrity Skin,’ songs like the title track and ‘Awful’ still had their roots in that undeniably gritty grunge sound.
For many, the brilliance of Mother Love Bone wasn’t discovered until after the band was no more. Sadly, singer Andrew Wood died of a drug overdose just days before the release of their first disc. The album did produce such grunge favorites as ‘Stardog Champion’ and ‘Crown of Thorns’ (the ‘Chloe Dancer’ intro portion would be added for the ‘Singles’ soundtrack). The group was also notable for being the pre-Pearl Jam band for Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard.
Screaming Trees may have hit it big with ‘Nearly Lost You,’ but the band was well versed in their sound long before most people picked up on grunge. Led by the increasingly deep vocals of Mark Lanegan and the driving bass and guitar work of brothers Van and Gary Lee Conner, the band emerged as one of the leaders of the grunge movement. While ‘Nearly Lost You’ became their calling card, tracks like ‘Dollar Bill,’ ‘Shadow of the Season,’ and ‘Bed or Roses’ were also favorites in the band’s catalog.
The Melvins, led by singer/guitarist Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover, are considered one of the pioneers of what would become grunge and thus deserve their spot among the Top 10 Grunge Bands. Their slow-moving, trudging sound became an influence for up-and-coming Seattle bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden. The band is still going strong today, and songs like ‘Hooch,’ ‘Honey Bucket’ and ‘Night Goat’ are as solid as they come.
Could grunge grow outside of Seattle? That was the question in 1992, when San Diego-based rockers Stone Temple Pilots arrived with their ‘Core’ album, leading the second wave of grunge. The brutal lead single ‘Sex Type Thing’ introduced the band and vocal style of Scott Weiland. But it was the second song ‘Plush,’ with its memorable rhythmic guitar lines that truly established the band. Though they would evolve into a more straight-ahead rock band over time, the ‘Core’ and ‘Purple’ records had songs firmly implanted in the grunge sound.
After forming in Seattle in the ’80s, Soundgarden finally broke through with the 1991 single ‘Outshined,’ followed by the spirited follow-up ‘Rusty Cage.’ Blending in some of their punk roots, Soundgarden provided a frenetic interpretation early on before settling into a moodier, more trudging sound. Singer Chris Cornell shined on such hits as ‘Spoonman,’ ‘Black Hole Sun,’ ‘Fell on Black Days,’ and ‘Pretty Noose.’ There’s no doubt Soundgarden deserves their upper echelon ranking in the Top 10 Grunge Bands list.
Formed after the demise of Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam emerged from the ashes to soar with 1991’s ‘Ten’ album. The rhythmically heavy ‘Alive’ set the tone for the group, while the hard-hitting ‘Even Flow’ cemented their status as a band to be reckoned with. And by the time ‘Jeremy’ commanded MTV’s airwaves, everyone knew Pearl Jam. The ‘Vs.’ and ‘Vitalogy’ albums kept the grunge vibes going, and the band is still one of the most successful touring acts to this day.
Was there a more impactful partnership in the grunge scene than Alice in Chains guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell and powerhouse frontman Layne Staley? The pair’s harmonies were unmatched, with Staley delivering the extra punch when things got really heavy. ‘Man in the Box’ put them on the musical map in 1991, and by the following year, they spawned the grunge masterpiece, ‘Dirt,’ which featured such classics as ‘Would?,’ ‘Rooster,’ ‘Them Bones’ and ‘Angry Chair.’
It’s hard to argue against Nirvana as the No. 1 act of our 10 Best Grunge Bands list, as they essentially put the genre on the map with their 1991 classic, ‘Nevermind.’ But things didn’t stop with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ as ‘Come As You Are,’ ‘Lithium’ and their ‘In Utero’ favorites ‘Heart Shaped Box’ and ‘Rape Me’ are as good as they come in the grunge world. Sadly, we lost Kurt Cobain in 1994, but the fact that the band reached iconic status speaks to the quality of the music and their dominance in such a short timespan.