10 Essential Grunge Albums You Need to Hear
The grunge scene developed in Seattle before breaking into the mainstream in the early '90s. Grunge rock came and went in the blink of an eye, leaving behind a legacy of distorted sounds, broken guitars and flannel shirts. More of a movement than it was any specific genre, the "Seattle sound" was really a mix of punk, heavy metal, classic rock and proto-stoner rock, as well as everything in between.
Between all this variation and the many awful impersonators the music industry pumped out in hopes of finding another Nirvana, it can be hard for a modern listener to know where to start with grunge. That's where this list, designed for those who are looking to dip their toes into the genre, will be of help. While it's not necessarily a list of the ten "best" grunge albums (that's for you to ultimately decide), it is instead a collection of some of grunge's most seminal works. This list should give you an idea of what grunge rock could offer when it was at its best.
Amazing Grunge Albums You Need to Hear
- "Nevermind" by Nirvana
- "Ten" by Pearl Jam
- "Dirt" by Alice In Chains
- "Superunknown" by Soundgarden
- "Purple" by Stone Temple Pilots
- "Live Through This" by Hole
- "Superfuzz Bigmuff (Plus Early Singles)" by Mudhoney
- "Self-Titled" by Temple of the Dog
- "Stoner Witch" by Melvins
- "Sweet Oblivion" by Screaming Trees
Released: September 24, 1991
This is the album that brought grunge and alternative rock into the mainstream, closing out the era of hair-metal. Nearly 30 years later, Nevermind still sounds every bit as good as it did in '91. The opening track, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," became an anthem for a generation, while the dreamy "Come as You Are" and soulful "Lithium" became mega hits in their own right. Elsewhere, tracks such as "On a Plain" and "Lounge Act" have an infectious, almost nursery-rhyme like quality to them, while "Polly" exhibits Kurt's great storytelling abilities. Every song on here has "hit" written all over it. On Nevermind, the band's love for the weird and macabre is matched by their love of a catchy chorus. As a result, there's really no easier place to start when exploring grunge rock.
Released: August 27, 1991
Released just before Nevermind, Ten took a lot longer to gain the same kind of traction as Nirvana's chart-topper, but by the end of 1992, it made Pearl Jam the biggest band in the world. Displaying a classic rock influence not seen elsewhere in grunge, the tracks that grace Ten are some of the most arena-ready and anthemic the genre ever produced. The dark subject matter behind songs like "Alive" and "Once," the album's opener, revealed Pearl Jam to be so much more than just a throwback rock band. Their intelligent lyrics are some of the best in music. Although the band has since spent much of their careers trying to avoid or even sabotage their fame (while still producing good music), Ten is still a popular album and it stands as one of grunge's masterpieces.
Dirt—Alice in Chains
Released: September 29, 1992
Alice in Chains produced one of the first true hits of the grunge era with their debut album Facelift, yet it would be on their second album, Dirt, where the band would truly put all the pieces together to create an all-time classic grunge album. The album wastes no time in pushing the pedal to the floor with opener Them Bones. The album is an alt-metal onslaught that only occasionally slows down so that the soaring choruses of tracks such as "Down in a Hole" and "Rooster" can have their full impact. Emotionally charged and brutally honest in its subject matter, Dirt is an absolute must listen for grunge fans.
Released: March 8, 1994
One of the few bands that were there at the beginning of the Seattle movement that managed to later find mainstream success, Soundgarden transcended the contemporary hard rock sounds of the era by instilling a darker tone into their music. Superunknown see's the band at their absolute peak. The album would change the game for heavy rock bands moving forward. Songs such as "Let Me Drown" and the title track are as kinetic and catchy as they are powerful, while the chart-topping "Black Hole Sun" and "Fell on Black Days" take the band's hard-rocking sound into more brooding territory.
Purple—Stone Temple Pilots
Released: June 7, 1994
Hailing from outside of the Seattle scene, critics incorrectly labelled Stone Temple Pilots as posers who were just attempting to jump on the grunge bandwagon following the success of their debut album, Core. While they had nothing to prove to their fanbase, who saw things very differently, they needed to prove more judgmental grunge fans wrong. They would do just that when their follow up album, Purple, went on to reach even greater heights then their debut. From the trudging opener, "Meat Plow," to the country rock inspired "Interstate Love Song," Stone Temple Pilots show a great deal of depth and versatility on this album. It's one of the most vital grunge records ever created.
Live Through This—Hole
Released: April 12, 1994
Few people in rock history have been as controversial as Courtney Love. While her husband Kurt has been all but Martyred in the eyes of alternative rock fans, Courtney has often been vilified. We won't get into all the conspiracy theories, or criticisms, of Courtney's antics here. Instead, we'll explore how Hole's second album is among alternative rock's finest records. Whereas Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam took the Seattle sound and created arena-ready anthems with it, Hole cut the grunge sound back to its bare bones. The music is presented warts and all, delivering a raw emotional punch to the gut. Whether it’s with the childlike sensibilities of "Softer, Softest" and "Doll Parts," or the ravenous punk rock on "Plump" and "Violet," this album is great from start to finish. It's truly must-have grunge record.
Superfuzz Bigmuff (Plus Early Singles)—Mudhoney
Released: October 20, 1988 (EP) & October 25, 1990 (LP)
As mentioned above, the Seattle sound was a lot of different things, but if you were going to try and encapsulate it with just one band and one album, it would be Mudhoney's Superfuzz Bigmuff. Born from the remains of what was arguably the first true grunge band, Green River, Mudhoney never quite managed to break into the mainstream, but were no-less one of the most vital and influential acts going throughout (and beyond) the grunge years. It was originally released as an EP, before being re-released with the band's early singles. Whether Superfuzz Bigmuff is the band's best offering is certainly up for debate, but it's certainly a damn infectious place to start. It's not a record without range, but from the band's semi-hit "Touch Me I'm Sick" to the distorted ambience of "Mudride," the band never drifts from their plan of delivering balls-to-the-wall, unadulterated grunge rock.
Self-Titled—Temple of the Dog
Released: April 16, 1991
Consisting of members of Soundgarden and future members of Pearl Jam, grunge Rock's first supergroup's self-titled release served as a tribute to Andrew Wood, the former lead singer of Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone. As a result, the album is appropriately mournful, but also warm and energetic. Chris Cornell takes his knack for self-introspection and creates something life-affirming in the process. Lead track "Say Hello to Heaven" sets the tone for the rest of this ballad heavy album, which reaches its peak on the track "Hunger Strike." If you need proof that there was so much more to grunge than self-loathing and distorted guitars, this is it.
Released: October 18, 1994
Another band from the Seattle scene's early days, the Melvins proved to be not only a huge influence on grunge, but the stoner rock and sludge metal genres as well. Their sluggish, doom-riddled, and ferocious sound inspired many bands to come. Far too uncompromising to ever break into the mainstream, the Melvins did nonetheless find some commercial success in the '90s, peaking with their '93 LP Houdini. However, for those looking to start exploring the band's offerings, '94's Stoner Witch provides a much clearer snapshot of the band working at the peak of their creative abilities. Though many of the songs featured here are essentially classic southern rock or metal compositions, everything is played through a hazy and distorted filter, with a drum sound that's thunderous no matter how slow or fast the band chooses to take its tempo.
Sweet Oblivion—Screaming Trees
Released: September 8, 1992
From their 1986 debut Clairvoyance to their final 1996 LP, Dust, the screaming trees often skated the line between the underground music scene and major commercial success. It was their '92 LP, Sweet Oblivion, that brought them closest to commercial success. This is when they hit their creative stride. Opener "Shadow of the Season" sets the tone. Mark Lanegan's scratchy baritone voice swoons over infectious guitar riffs and the music only continues to sore from their. The result is an album that feels like the sonic equivalent of cigarettes and several shots of whiskey to your brain. Still, it's catchy as hell.
What other grunge albums do you think deserve to be on this list? Perhaps there's something you don't think should be here? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
© 2020 Mike Grindle