There’s been very few scenes during my lifetime that have had a huge impact on my life, ‘Britpop’?, as much as I loved Oasis and Pulp, it was horribly obsessed with its own Britishness and I’ve never been one to toe the flag-waving line of our motherland, ‘trip-hop’, too middle-class and cosy, ‘big-beat’ – too fucking dumb, ‘grime’ – give me a break….I was never a Goth, never baggy and never a skate-punk. But, when it came to grunge I was hooked.
I was 16 when the sludgy guitars and plaid shirts of Seattle first started to take root in the lives of British teenagers and now some seventeen years later I still return to Cobain, Vedder, Corgan et al with ardent regularity. Records like ‘Ten’, ‘Nevermind’, ‘Dirt’ and ‘Dust’ kick started my adoration of all things heavy that continued into the discovery of post-hardcore heroes At The Drive-In and Fugazi, the drone of Sunn O))) and Boris, Queens Of The Stone Ages’ stoner genius or the new wave of hardcore exemplified by The Bronx and Fucked Up. To put it another way, without grunge I might be listening to the latest pile of unimaginative dross from Kasabian (its music for thick people, we all know it) right now rather than loving the gorgeous fuzziness of Japandroids or the brutal noise of Pissed Jeans.
So, why the nostalgia you may ask? Well, the end of 2009 is looking a bit like a grunge revival with Pearl Jam returning this week with their ninth album ‘Backspacer’, Alice In Chains (with a new singer and a distinct lack of lyrics about smack) unleashing ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ (their first new material in 14 years) and Nirvana finally releasing a live document of their legendary Reading festival show from 1992. Sources say that Smashing Pumpkins (or what’s left of them since they keep losing members faster than the Sugababes) have a new album in the pipeline (I’m betting on a collaboration with Keisha Buchanan) and Foo Fighters (the last credible band to emerge from grunge’s shadow) have racked up enough killer singles to release a ‘Greatest Hits’ in November. There’s even a bunch of grunge nights popping up in the capital (and maybe somewhere near you) prompting scores of 30-somethings to dress up like lumberjacks and sway mournfully across the dancefloor.
With that in mind I thought it was an apt time to highlight the finest 25 albums that grunge gave the world (or the 25 that don’t include ‘Nevermind’ as everybody owns that….you don’t? What the fuck is wrong with you?). So here, in no particular order (they’re all awesome – just buy them) are my choices for the 25 finest grunge albums of all time:
Various Artists – Sub Pop 200
The compilation that started it all drawing together early tracks from Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden (‘Sub Pop Rock City’ is a mini classic). For a snapshot of what grunge is about this is the best place to start.
Green River – Dry As A Bone/Rehab Doll
A bit Stooges a bit hard rock – featuring future members of Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, Green River were the genesis of the scene. They split up over the classic “musical differences” but their minimal output set the blueprint for what was to come.
Mother Love Bone – Mother Love Bone
Not strictly speaking grunge but Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament laid the template of what would later become the grunge sound epitomised by their next band, Pearl Jam. A bit glam for some tastes but still a phenomenal record.
Temple Of The Dog – Temple Of The Dog
Following the death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood this Soundgarden/Pearl Jam supergroup produced a classic tribute. Chris Cornell takes lead vocals but new boy Eddie Vedder turns up to lend his distinctive vocal to the brilliant ‘Hunger Strike’.
Mark Lanegan – The Winding Sheet
Early appearance of Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic on Lanegan’s version of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ – which Nirvana later covered during their ‘Unplugged’ show. Lanegan has become a legend of the genre having also been a member of Screaming Trees, The Gutter Twins and Queens Of The Stone Age.
Features the track ‘Freak Scene’ which (alongside ‘Touch Me, I’m Sick’) can pretty much be described as one of the ultimate alt-rock anthems. Again not strictly grunge but the distorted guitars and lyrical content were a huge influence on the Seattle sound.
Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff
Features ‘Touch Me, I’m Sick’ – one of the most important singles in grunge history. They also sampled Peter Fonda’s famous dialogue from ‘The Wild Angels’ on ‘In ‘N’ Out Of Grace’ before Primal Scream lifted it for ‘Loaded’. Play it at your local indie night and look at the confusion on the faces of the crowd.
Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
Soundgarden would become more psychedelic and overblown on later releases, but here they sounded like the coolest metal band on the planet. ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ will get you channelling your inner rock god every time they’re played.
Afghan Whigs – Congregation
Again not strictly grunge, but this Cincinnati band found a home on grunge label Sub Pop with their uniquely soulful take on heavy alt-rock. Not as good as the album ‘Gentlemen’ but that’s not available anymore (find it on eBay – you’ll love it).
The Jesus Lizard – Liar
A major influence on many grunge bands including Nirvana who released a double a-side single with The Jesus Lizard featuring this album’s ‘Puss’. This set was also produced by Steve Albini who went on to take control of ‘In Utero’.
Melvins – Lysol
Another huge influence on Nirvana, drummer Dale Crover even played with them before Dave Grohl joined. This is one of their better early albums but their later heavier records are career highlights.
Alice In Chains – Dirt
One of the most intense albums from the scene. Singer Layne Staley would eventually succumb to the drug addiction he documented so vividly here leaving an engaging statement of one man’s struggle. A dark, unforgiving record but totally essential as part of the grunge lexicon.
Nirvana – Incesticide
Odds and sods that bridge the gap between the heavy sludge of ‘Bleach’ and the pop perfection of ‘Nevermind’. Single ‘Sliver’ remains a high point of the band’s career but there are also some stunning covers including The Vaselines’ ‘Son Of A Gun’ and ‘Molly’s Lips’.
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
Another band who rode on the coat tails of the Seattle scene although these Chicago natives produced their own unique take on the alt-rock sound of the early 90s which has never been matched. ‘Today’ pretty much became an anthem for the disaffected youth of America in the early 90s (along with Radiohead’s ‘Creep’).
Stone Temple Pilots – Core
Written off, unfairly, as mere Pearl Jam copyists, this debut has remained a classic example of the grunge sound. Originally called ‘Shirley Temple’s Pussy’ the band were forced into a name change when they signed to a major but retained the initials STP.
Various Artists – ‘Singles’ Soundtrack
A grunge movie directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) featuring cameos from Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. The soundtrack is a stunning reminder of how exciting the Seattle scene was and features Pearl Jam (with the magnificent ‘State Of Love And Trust’), Screaming Trees and Alice In Chains as well as tracks from former Replacements singer Paul Westerberg and Seattle legend Jimi Hendrix.
L7 – Bricks Are Heavy
When not throwing bloody tampons on Channel 4 yoof shows, L7 produced some of the finest girl-grunge of the era. Alongside Hole, Babes In Toyland and the female-centric Riot Grrrl movement L7 rebranded women musicians as dangerous, sexually liberated and a match for any of the boys.
Sonic Youth – Dirty
This New York art band made better albums (Evol, Daydream Nation, Goo) but this is the record that saw them take to their role as grunge mentors with the anthemic singles ‘100%’ and ‘Swimsuit Issue’. They took the relatively unknown Nirvana on tour with them in 1991 (documented in the film ‘1991: The Year That Punk Broke’) and were instrumental in Cobain ditching Sub Pop in favour of the marketing muscle of Geffen for the release of ‘Nevermind’.
Earth – Earth 2
Their leader Dylan Carlson may be most famous for buying the gun that helped Kurt Cobain end his life but his band Earth, along with Melvins, produced some of the best experimental drone metal to emerge from the Seattle scene.
Nirvana – In Utero
‘Nevermind’ may be the album that turned the music scene on its head but purists will always highlight this as the band’s finest moment. Produced/Engineered (for the most part) by Steve Albini, ‘In Utero’ consolidated Cobain’s desire to make searing punk rock with a commercial edge.
Pearl Jam – Vitalogy
Released after the death of Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam’s most ambitious and uncompromising album is seen by many as a direct response to their rival’s suicide. Lyrics bemoaning the pressures of fame and weird stripped down punk workouts make the album an ideal companion to ‘In Utero’ marking the two artistic highlights of the entire scene.
Released just four days after Cobain’s body was found, ‘Live Through This’ will forever be linked to the Nirvana frontman. Rumours have always circulated that Cobain had a hand in writing the songs that feature here but whilst these remain unsubstantiated it is clear that Courtney Love was heavily influenced by her more talented partner resulting in her finest work to date.
Screaming Trees – Dust
The final release from Mark Lanegan’s psych-grungers and widely regarded as their best. Lanegan’s deep roar was always one of the most distinct voices in the grunge scene and here he really lets loose on tracks like ‘Halo Of Ashes’ and ‘Dying Days’.
Babes In Toyland – The Best Of Babes In Toyland
There’s not much available from this Minneapolis all girl band so we’ll have to make do with this best of which covers all the highlights plus some of lead Babe Kat Bjelland’s solo work. Interestingly, Courtney Love was once their bass player.
Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters
…and finally…..Dave Grohl, having written a host of songs during his time in Nirvana, found himself without a job following the death of Cobain and entered a studio to record his debut album as Foo Fighters (he played and sang everything himself – except one guitar part from the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli). The result was one of the few post-grunge albums that could be seen to rival the classic albums of the Seattle scene.
So there you go, a few notable mentions must go to Tad’s ‘Inhaler’, Paw’s ‘Dragline’, Brad’s ‘Shame’ and the ‘Hype!’ soundtrack which all would have featured alongside the aforementioned ‘Gentlemen’ by Afghan Whigs if they were still available (come on labels, how about some deluxe editions of all five?) but what you have there are 25 stone cold classics of one of the most influential eras in modern music.
Have I missed anything out or picked the wrong album by your favourite grungers? Let me know – just don’t try to put up a case for Bush or Collective Soul – you’ll get abused more viciously than Chris Cornell’s collaboration with Timbaland.
I’m off to go find my DMs