Few genres that had monumental musical impact are as hard to define as grunge. First used in the ‘80s as a way of describing the new sound coming out of Seattle, grunge became much more than genre as its profile rose. Encompassing a wide range of sounds and styles, grunge bridged the gap between the faltering punk and metal scene of the late ‘80s and the alternative takeover of the early ‘90s.
The media quickly picked up on the word and anointed Nirvana - the genre’s most successful band – the face of grunge, and soon every band coming out of Seattle, and to a larger extent, any band with a sound remotely similar, was labelled part of the genre. Many of these bands incorporated heavier rock arrangements and dark lyrical themes and weren’t the archetypical grunge band, but the obsession with the genre meant many of these bands were fostered under the grunge umbrella. But after a few short years, it all came to an end, with many of the genre’s top bands going through drug addiction, personal problems and evolving their sound, with Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 serving in many ways as the death knell for grunge.
Despite its short existence, grunge left a lasting impression on the music world and was responsible for birthing a generation of awesome bands, many whom are still recording and performing to this day. To celebrate the eclectic genre, here are 10 of the best grunge records you should own on vinyl.
Responsible for kick starting the grunge movement – frontman Mark Arm is often credited with coining the term – Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff plus Early Singles is often cited as their must own album, but it’s sophomore record Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge that cemented their legacy. Filled with short, sharp blasts of noise channelling punk, pop and garage rock, the record is chock full of loud and unpolished sounds, with Arm’s humorous lyrical style and rough delivery all part of the grunge ethos. While it doesn’t contain a hit single in the vein of “Touch Me I’m Sick” or “Here Comes The Sickness,” it makes up for this with an even collection of songs creating a fulfilling and free flowing listen.
Just days before the release of Apple, Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood died from a drug overdose, putting a sad end to one of the genre’s brightest hopes. Despite being released on such a down note, Apple was universally praised, with Rolling Stone’s Kim Neely saying the album “succeeds where countless other hard-rock albums have failed, capturing the essence of what made Zep immortal – dynamic, kids! – and giving it a unique Nineties spin.” “Stargazer” and “Stardog Champion” are album standouts, while the disheartening “Crown of Thorns” inclusion on The Singles soundtrack helped open the band to a whole new audience a few years after its initial release.
After the demise of Mother Love Bone, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard focused their attention on a forming heavier rock influenced band. Recruiting unknown singer Eddie Vedder, the newly formed Pearl Jam adjourned to the studio and found themselves with a hit record, beginning a career that’s lasted over a quarter of a century. Combining the bands hard-edged guitar rock with Vedder’s distinct vocals delivery and introspective lyricism, Ten is arguably Pearl Jam’s best release, with not one track worth skipping. Singles “Alive,” “Even Flow” and “Jeremy” were keys to the albums commercial success, but it’s album cuts like the swirling “Oceans” and deeply personal “Black” that demonstrate why Ten is a truly timeless record.
Well known around the Seattle scene since the mid-'80s, Soundgarden emerged as one of grunge’s seminal bands with the release of fourth album Superunknown. Spearheaded by massive hits “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun,” the record added a pop sensibility to the metal-meets-alternative rock of Soundgarden’s previous release Badmotorfinger. Frontman Chris Cornell was at his peak as both a vocalist and a writer on this record. His dark, dismal and at times depressing lyrics, centred on common grunge themes such as suicide, drug addiction, isolation and loss, and added a layer of gravitas to the melodic instrumentation on the album.
After the tragic death of Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood, the surviving members teamed with Wood’s former roommate and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell to record a tribute album for their lost friend under the alias of Temple Of The Dog. Recorded in just 15 days, the self-titled record featured the melodic “Pushin’ Forward Back,” cautionary tale of addiction “Times Of Trouble,” and rocking 11 minute Wood’s dedication “Reach Down.” Temple Of The Dog was well received by critics but failed to fare well commercially, only gaining the public plaudits when re-released after the success of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Interesting fact; Eddie Vedder provided vocals on the cut “Hunger Strike.”
Another band finding commercial success thanks to appearing on the Singles soundtrack, Screaming Trees were another band that helped shape the early grunge scene. Fronted by the gravelled voiced Mark Lanegan – who was also a member of Queen Of The Stone Age – Screaming Trees were six albums deep when they broke through with Sweet Oblivion. Lumped into the grunge category sweeping America at the time of its release, 1992’s Sweet Oblivion is a brooding mix of melodic rock branching into psychedelic and alternative territory, anchored by the band’s biggest hit “Nearly Lost You.”
The old saying “life imitates art” is the best way to describe Alice In Chains sophomore classic Dirt. Vocalist Layne Staley, bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney were deep in the midst of drug addiction, while guitarist Jerry Cantrell was drinking heavily and suffering from depression after the death of his mother and Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood. Channelling their demons into the music, Alice In Chains created a powerfully dark and absorbing record taking cues from the heavy metal scene. Detailing themes such as drug abuse (“Sickman,” “Junkhead,” “God Smack”), relationships (“Down In A Hole”) and death (“Them Bones,” “Would?”), Dirt is one of the rawest, soul-bearing records ever released.
Consisting of Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley and Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin, Mad Season was a grunge supergroup who released their one album, Above, at the tail end of the grunge movement in 1995. Spearheaded by hit single “River of Deceit,” Above was influenced by each member’s main musical project with a hint of the blues laced throughout. Staley was still deep in the throws of his heroin addiction at the time of recording, with much of the album’s themes concerning his struggle with drugs and its effect on his personal life. You can often hear the pain in Staley’s voice on tracks like opener “Wake Up” and “Long Gone Day;” a track written about a failed suicide and the repercussions that came with it. Similar to Alice In Chains’ Dirt, Above can be a dark listen at times, but along with being a tremendous grunge album, it’s a great advocate for the perils of addiction.
If there’s one grunge act who don’t get the credit they deserve it’s L7. Before Courtney Love came through with Hole, Californian quartet L7 led the charge for women in grunge, finding success with third record Bricks Are Heavy. Produced by Butch Vig, the record incorporated aspects of grunge to their established punk rock sound while keeping it down and dirty. “Pretend We’re Dead” was the band’s highest charting single, with the pummelling “Wargasm,” chugging “One More Thing” and bass heavy “Monster” all developed L7’s merging of grunge and pop.
Nevermind turned Nirvana from unknowns to the biggest musical in the world and positioned frontman Kurt Cobain as the face of grunge. Although a sensational album, it’s follow-up record In Utero that cemented Nirvana’s legacy. Unhappy with the over polished production of Nevermind and concerned with accusations of selling out, Cobain ditched producer Butch Vig for Steve Albini and set about recording an album capturing the harsh, punk influenced sound of their debut Bleach. In Utero achieved this in spades. Draining opener “Serve The Servants”, thrash influenced “Very Ape” and cascading hit single” Heart-Shaped Box” were raw sounding tracks exemplifying Cobain’s want of an abrasive sounding record. “Dumb” and “All Apologies” offered lighter moments amongst the chaos, and although Cobain claimed the lyrical content of the album impersonal, it’s hard not to draw parallels between In Utero’s themes and Cobain’s life at that time.
Tobias Handke is a writer and editor from Melbourne, Australia, with a passion for hip-hop, pizza and Kurt Russell.