It’s not just Nirvana you know
Sick of the posturing style-over-substance and self-indulgence of the Eighties, a group of musicians came together in Seattle and decided to do things differently.
Stripping away all of the extraneous elements of rock, they turned up the scuzz, got rid of the solos, turned their lyrical themes to doubt, angst and disenchantment and dispensed with the big hair and shoulder pads, preferring to hang out in thrift store items, ripped jeans, letting their hair grow long.
It was a welcome antidote to the excesses of rock, with the Sub Pop label leading the charge. Before they knew it, the music had broken out of their community and exploded in popularity, touching a nerve across the globe. While the original grunge era burned brightly but shortly - being dealt a huge blow with the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 - its influence continues to this day.
We take a look at 12 classic records from the genre.
Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)
Originally an EP, this took its name from two guitar effects pedals that would come to help shape the sound of grunge: the Univox Super-Fuzz and the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff. Like many great records, it sold poorly at first but was a crucial influence on others, including Kurt Cobain, who named it in his top 50 albums of all-time.
Key track: ‘In ‘n’ Out of Grace’
Pearl Jam - Ten (1991)
It’s no exaggeration to say that the debut record from the Seattle band changed the course of musical history, turning Eddie Vedder into a global star and spawning a host of imitators. Why? The songs were incredible, the lyrics were honest and Vedder’s vocals were sheer power.
Key track: ‘Alive’
Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)
The first album to feature Dave Grohl, this ranks alongside Ten in terms of its subsequent influence on music. Propelled by the instantly-recognisable riff of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, within four months it was so popular that it had displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the US charts. Undeniably great songs, brilliant production from Butch Vig and the record that truly took grunge worldwide.
Key track: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger (1991)
Badmotorfinger was the band’s third album, and the first to hint at a breakthrough to the big time, yet was weird enough and distinctive enough to sound nothing like a conventional hit record. Aided by the powerhouse vocals of Chris Cornell - surely one of the most effortlessly-gifted singers in history - the band was even hand-picked by Guns N’ Roses to support them on tour.
Key track: ‘Rusty Cage’
Temple of the Dog - Temple of the Dog (1991)
A grunge supergroup of sorts, Temple of the Dog was a tribute album to Andrew Wood, the former lead singer of Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone who had died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Featuring Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder as well as Mother Love Bone members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, they made just one record, recorded in just 15 days, which initially sold poorly, but eventually rose to attention - deservedly - when both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam went huge shortly afterwards.
Key track: ‘Hunger Strike’
Alice in Chains - Dirt (1992)
Released on the same day as another crucial grunge album - Core by Stone Temple Pilots - Dirt, their second record, marked Alice In Chains’ commercial breakthrough, as it went on to sell five million copies. However, the music itself dealt with dark themes of drug abuse, death and anger. A primordial howl of a record, this was the sound of a band at rock bottom but summoning up a high point of creativity.
Key track: ‘Rooster’
Stone Temple Pilots - Core (1992)
Yet another grunge band with an incredible vocalist, this record boasted the talents of Scott Weiland, whose lyrics dealt with the big themes of humanity, religion, power and sex. While critics were slow to get on board, the record quickly gave the band a passionate, and increasingly large fanbase.
Key track: ‘Plush’
Screaming Trees - Sweet Oblivion (1992)
A band considered one of the godfathers of grunge, Sweet Oblivion was, in fact, the group’s sixth album (they formed back in 1985) but was swept up along with the rest as the grunge movement gained worldwide attention. Led by the gruff vocals of Mark Lanegan - who would later play with Queens of the Stone Age - Screaming Trees remained something of a hidden treasure of the grunge era.
Key track: ’Nearly Lost You’
Pearl Jam - Vs (1993)
Following up the huge success of Ten was never going to be easy, but Pearl Jam managed it, drawing on a rawer and more aggressive sound than their debut for Vs. Remarkably, it outsold its predecessor, turning the group into one of the biggest acts in the world.
Key track: ‘Daughter’
Nirvana - In Utero (1993)
Similarly to Pearl Jam, Nirvana were faced with the almost-impossible task of following up Nevermind and decided to strip away the gloss, bringing in legendary producer Steve Albini to produce a raw and abrasive sound for In Utero. They didn’t strip back on the tunes though, with a host of classic tracks meaning that it attracted critical praise as well as bucketloads of sales.
Key track: ‘Heart-Shaped Box’
Hole - Live Through This (1994)
The second album from the legendary all-girl grunge group, it was controversially released just a week after the death of frontwoman Courtney Love’s husband Kurt Cobain. Dealing with female issues such as motherhood, postnatal depression and violence against women, the album was instantly hailed as a classic, being both scruffy, and unrefined, yet full of hooks.
Key track: ’Violet’
Soundgarden - Superunknown (1994)
The breakthrough record for Soundgarden, this built on the good work done by Badmotorfinger, propelling the band into the mainstream. A seventy-minute epic, it was not short of ambition and contained, quite simply, one of the greatest songs ever written in the form of Black Hole Sun.
Key track: Black Hole Sun