Some will forever blame grunge for, at least temporarily, killing thrash and glam metal in the Nineties. Others credit it for welcoming in a nu wave of alternative rock and metal. No matter how you look at it, grunge was a revolutionary form of heaviness that defined a generation and changed the worlds of music, fashion and more, while still remaining remarkably relevant today. Seattle was ground zero, of course, but bands based in L.A., Chicago and elsewhere also spearheaded its earthshaking charge. Here are 15 essential albums to come out of the movement.
Facelift established Alice in Chains as the darkest and most metallic of Seattle's leading grunge bands, but their 1992 masterpiece, Dirt, certified them as legit rock all-timers. From opener "Them Bones" to classics like "Rooster," "Would?" and "Down in a Hole," the album is filled with exceptional songwriting, dirgy riffs and downtrodden lyricism that hit audiences hard then and still resonates strongly with them now — and forever.
Green River would send members to Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, so this is a no-brainer. A bloody Stooges-Aerosmith collision, Dry as a Bone (and the band's swaggering swan song, Rehab Doll, also included in this EP's 1990 reissue) is a punk-fueled exploration of bluesy riffs and hard-rock bluster.
Hole's Kim Gordon-produced 1991 debut was a gnarled, noisy and decidedly uncommercial ruckus, but their 1994 follow-up, Live Through This, sanded the edges and added brilliant punk-pop hooks to their sound without sacrificing any of Coutney Love's biting intensity. When it comes to grunge's catchier side, it doesn't get much better than this.
Hailing from the City of Angels, L7 played their nasty, dirty, metallic take on grunge like devils. Produced by the band and Nevermind boardsmith Butch Vig, the group's magnum opus, 1992's Bricks Are Heavy, has its poppy moments — notably, the bouncy hit "Pretend That We're Dead" — but mostly, the acid-tongued Donita Sparks and Co. aim to crush those on their shitlist.
There's an evergreen argument to be made that the Melvins are more of a catchy sludge-metal act than anything else, but Houdini is one album of theirs that definitely deserves the grunge tag. After notoriously influencing Nirvana, the Washington weirdos enjoyed a brief stint on Atlantic Records that began with their 1993 effort — a freewheeling, untamed and unapologetically heavy assortment of glorious, sludgy pop songs co-produced by Kurt Cobain.
Singer Andrew Wood's death by heroin overdose looms large over Mother Love Bone's one and only album, as does the fact that the band's Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard would go on to play in both Temple of the Dog and Pearl Jam. But 1990's Apple is way more than a grunge history footnote: Glammy, bluesy and oozing swagger, it echoes of vintage Led Zeppelin and set the stage for the Seattle rock explosion soon to follow.
This six-song 1988 EP defines early grunge. Vocalist-guitarist Mark Arm wails like Iggy Pop while guitarist Steve Turner nearly snaps an ankle giving his wah-wah pedal a furious workout. Adding to its cred, Skin Yard guitarist and Sub Pop's go-to engineer Jack Endino (who helmed seminal recordings by Nirvana, Soundgarden and others) captured Mudhoney here in all their filthy glory.
Nevermind kicks off with the immortal four-chord guitar intro of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that introduced grunge to the masses. Although Butch Vig's production cleaned up some of the musical rough edges evident on the band's noisy debut, 1989's Bleach, the songs still pack an almighty wallop — almighty enough to change the face of popular music almost instantly.
Pearl Jam put grunge's lyrical angst and Seventies hard-rock core on proud display on their moody multi-platinum 1991 debut. Ten also notably introduced the world to vocalist Eddie Vedder (a San Diego transplant to Seattle) who immediately became the voice and face of the Seattle scene worldwide, along with Kurt Cobain.
The Screaming Trees are basically the Testament of grunge: a highly respected, fiercely beloved and indelibly influential band who never quite reached the commercial heights of their genre's big four. Their most popular release, 1992's Sweet Oblivion, should be heralded like the rest of this list, as it features some of Mark Lanegan's most refined dusky croons and tight-as-hell instrumentation that hits the sweet spot between jammy, groovy and hard-hitting.
While many of the quintessential Pacific Northwest bands were drawing from noise-rock and proto-metal, Smashing Pumpkins' take on grunge was more inspired by the celestial textures of shoegaze and dream-pop and the more cerebral, restrained elements of heavy metal. Their first masterpiece, 1993's Siamese Dream, is one of the genre's prettiest and most poignant highlights, while still boasting its fair share of towering build-ups and gnashing solos.
Soundgarden didn't compromise any of their Sabbathian heaviness on their breakthrough third album, 1991's Badmotorfinger, which nonetheless saw them hit MTV, rock radio and the Billboard 200 chart. Vocalist Chris Cornell established himself as a major-league howler on tracks like "Jesus Christ Pose" and "Slaves & Bulldozers," while Kim Thayil redefined the role of guitar hero with his snaky riffs and angular solos.
Led by the electrifying croon of the serpentine Scott Weiland and the idiosyncratic playing of guitarist Dean DeLeo, San Diego's STP leapfrogged off the success of their debut, 1992's Core, with their 1994 follow-up, Purple. Debuting at No. 1, the album is stacked with alt-rock anthems, from the propulsive "Vasoline" to the soulful "Big Empty," the latter making its first appearance on the era-defining soundtrack to The Crow.
Ranking among rock's greatest supergroups and greatest one-and-done bands, Temple of the Dog were conceived by Soundgarden's Chris Cornell as a tribute to his late friend Andrew Wood, of Mother Love Bone. The group's lone LP, 1991's self-titled offering, features future members of Pearl Jam including a then-little-known singer named Eddie Vedder, and as such, it's a landmark grunge classic. Immortal songs like "Hunger Strike," "Say Hello 2 Heaven" and "Call Me a Dog" don't hurt either.
One of grunge's founding fathers, Tad Doyle, fronted this super-heavy band through the mid-Nineties. Their massive 1993 opus, Inhaler, produced by Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis, was the most fully realized recording of Tad's flannel-draped, mountain-man rock, a feral version of grunge that relied on primal drumming, wire-taut guitars and Doyle's rough-hewn wail.