Flannel button-down shirts worn over faded band tees, abused denim, beanies, and, of course, combat boots – ideally, Doc Martens. That was the rebellious, “I don’t care,” look inspired by the Seattle grunge music movement that spread across the map in the ’90s. And grunge artists, through their artform, influenced an entire generation of youth. This explosion of talent and rebellion resulted in some of the best ’90s grunge albums that are still loved by many today.
The music style was characterized by heavy, distorted guitar riffs, angst-filled lyrics, and a stripped-down approach to production. The genre’s popularity skyrocketed with the release of Nirvana’s seminal album, “Nevermind,” in 1991, which became the defining record of the movement. Bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots also rose to prominence, all with their unique sound and style. The grunge movement was more than just music; it was a cultural rebellion that rejected the commercialism of the mainstream and embraced a raw, authentic expression of emotion.
The grunge era’s influence extended beyond music and into fashion, film, and art. Grunge was also a response to the glossy, overproduced pop music of the 1980s, and the DIY ethos that defined the movement inspired a generation of musicians and artists to pursue their own creative endeavors. The grunge era was a short-lived but significant moment in music history that left a lasting impact on the culture of the 1990s and beyond.
Ready to listen? Below is our list of the best five grunge albums of the ’90s, according to experts. Of course, we want to hear from you! Which ’90s grunge albums top your charts? Comment below to let us know!
The List: Best Grunge Albums of the ’90s, Per Experts
1. “Ten” by Pearl Jam (1991)
We reviewed ten experts’ lists and this is the only album to make all ten lists, go figure. And how could it not? Most people on earth know, or have heard, the bulk of the songs on it. There’s also the fact that Pearl Jam gave us three beloved hit singles on this album – “Alive,” “Even Flow,” and, of course, “Jeremy” – that still rock over 30 years later.
Louder Sound writes, “Although Pearl Jam eventually rejected the mainstream, the band’s best album is also their most commercial: their magnificent debut, Ten. Instead of wallowing in misery following the demise of their band Mother Love Bone after the death of its singer, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament put together Pearl Jam, a much more back-to-basics unit…In came Eddie Vedder on vocals, who had a knack for singing in a part news reporter/part campfire style (Alive, Even Flow, Jeremy). You also have to love that the album’s best song, Black, was never issued as a single.”
“The debut studio album by Pearl Jam, Ten was released in August 1991 and welcomed a new dawn for the world of alternative music,” writes Far Out Magazine. “Pearl Jam, who formed in Seattle, 1990, arrived after the dissolution of their previous band Mother Love Bone, a short-lived yet highly influential group on the development of what was to become the grunge sound. Many of the tracks on Ten were actually re-worked Mother Love Bone pieces.”
“Another one for Seattle, Washington!” says Yours Tru.ly. “Founded in 1990, this band comprises Matt Cameron, Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready and several others. The titled album comes close to the number of members. But that’s by the way.”
Of course, this led us to wanting to know the real reason behind the chosen name and The New York Times has the answer: “before Pearl Jam was called Pearl Jam, the band was called Mookie Blaylock. The band’s first album, ‘Ten,’ which became one of the iconic albums of the 1990s, was named after Blaylock’s jersey number. ‘I was a huge Mookie fan,’ Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam’s bassist, said in an interview.”
2. “Nevermind” by Nirvana (1991)
You knew the late Kurt Cobain and company would end up on this list. Though multiple Nirvana albums landed on experts’ lists, Nevermind ranked highest across the lists, populating eight of ten experts’ reviews. “You can’t talk grunge in the ’90s and only mention Nirvana once,” says Yardbarker. “‘Nevermind’ changed the world. There are those who claim that it killed hair metal. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was named the top music video of all time by MTV at the end of the ’90s. That alone makes it deserving of being on this list.”
Rolling Stone writes: “In the early Nineties, pop music was in a dire state — rappers wore genie pants, rockers wrote schmaltzy nine-minute epics about November rain, and Michael Bolton plagiarized the Isley Brothers — but Nirvana shook its foundations. Unlike their mainstream counterparts, they cut out the bullshit and wrote four-minute bursts of raw, uncensored honesty, changing the face of the Hot 100 and putting a spotlight on crude guitar riffs and heartfelt lyrics for much of the next decade. Kurt Cobain sang about feeling stupid (‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’), ugly (‘Lithium’) and disillusioned (‘Something in the Way’), and defied hard-rock convention by acknowledging that women were people, not objects (‘Polly’). The album was so powerful that within a few months, it displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to become the bestselling album in the United States.”
Far Out Magazine also mentions: “Without it, the scene that had bubbling up in Seattle and the surrounding area would not have gained such massive international success and infamy. Everything about Nirvana’s second album, produced by Butch Vig, is an iconic masterpiece. From start to finish, there is no low point. Nevermind took its cues from endless inspiration; from The Beatles to the Knack, Bay City Rollers, Black Sabbath, Black Flag, Melvins and countless others. Noted for its compositional diversity, Nevermind is widely hailed as the cornerstone of the grunge movement, whether you like it or not. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Come as You Are’, ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Lithium’ were all titanic chart successes, and album tracks such as ‘On A Plain’, ‘Territorial Pissings’ and ‘Drain You’ remain timeless classics. Nevermind is ground zero, whether you like it or not.”
3. “Dirt” by Alice in Chains (1992)
Though this album still rocks today, unfortunately, Layne Staley, original singer for Alice in Chains, battled a drug addiction that claimed his life in 1992. And it may have been on the same day as another rocker on our list: “It is believed that he had died two weeks prior to [April 19, 2002], on April 5th–exactly 8 years after Kurt Cobain,” writes UpVenue.
Loudwire writes, “If the public at large still remained oblivious to the grunge community’s pervasive drug abuse, then Alice in Chains went ahead and told them all about it on 1992’s ‘Dirt.’ Undisguised examples like ‘Sickman,’ ‘Junkhead,’ ‘God Smack’ and ‘Angry Chair’ were terrifying and mesmerizing in equal measures, and similarly gloomy issues like depression, war, and mortality pervaded other key tracks like ‘Them Bones,’ ‘Rooster’ and ‘Would.’ All of which might have made AIC’s sophomore album a downer and a slump, if not for the haunting beauty of Cantrell and Staley’s vocal harmonies and the musical exorcism of their demons.”
“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,” adds Revolver Magazine. “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.”
According to The Arbiter Online, “In my eyes, this album represents the definition of what ‘grunge’ sounds like. Behind front man and lead singer Layne Staley is the perfect ensemble of Jerry Cantrell’s shockingly simple but catchy guitar riffs, Mike Starr’s deep rhythmic bass and Sean Kinny’s unmatched versatility on the drums…A clear strong point for this album is the heavy and blunt lyricism and haunting melodies that focus on themes of addiction and depression. An example of this can be heard in ‘Dirt’ where Layne sings, ‘I want to taste dirty, stinging pistol. In my mouth, on my tongue. I want you to scrape me from the walls.’ Layne Staley’s soulful and emotionally filled vocals carry these messages with ease. Not only does this album take the number one spot in this ranking, but I would argue that this is the greatest album of all time. For first timers, I recommend giving the song ‘Would?’ a listen.”
4. “Badmotorfinger” by Soundgarden (1991)
Straight out of Seattle in 1984, “Soundgarden are considered one of the ‘big four’ of the grunge era (along with fellow Seattle-ites Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains). While their sound merged king-size heavy metal with gritty garage punk, the group always seemed to be channeling Led Zeppelin more than Dread Zeppelin,” writes MTV.
Louder Sound adds: “Along with The Melvins, Soundgarden were one of the first Seattle bands to specialize in slow, murky riffs, and in Chris Cornell they had one of the best singers operating in the genre. By the time their third full-length album came along, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, the band had transformed into an adventurous outfit…Prog-esque song structures abounded, and there was blaring saxophone on several songs; and it contained Outshined, an MTV hit that propelled the album up the charts. Soundgarden as a band were seven years old by 1991, but it wasn’t until Badmotorfinger that it all came together for them.”
“Superunknown was the big crossover moment, but its 1991 predecessor put Chris Cornell on the map. ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ are anthemic, ‘Outshined’ is still a classic. Cornell is much missed,” says Radio X.
Pitchfork writes, “Soundgarden were always a few steps ahead of the pack. Among the first Sub Pop signings, they were also the first in the scene to graduate to major-label patronage, get nominated for Grammys, and prove their mettle opening for arena-rock acts. But if 1989’s A&M debut ‘Louder Than Love’ captured a band both embracing and satirizing ’70s-rock mythology, Badmotorfinger liberated Soundgarden from their next-Zeppelin destiny with a fearless and peerless display of prog-punk dynamism, psychedelic expanse, and metallic modernism.” They go on to share that “Soundgarden’s third album arrived in the thick of grunge’s 1991 epoch, soon after Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten, and it initially received more attention for its lead single/video, ‘Jesus Christ Pose,’ getting banned by MTV for its artful bastardization of Christian imagery. But what’s more remarkable is that such a relentless and dissonant track was even considered for rotation in the first place.”
5. “Live Through This” by Hole (1994)
Though the band hails from Los Angeles, California, and not Seattle, Hole’s “Live Through This” album found its way onto most experts’ lists. This was their second studio album, released in ‘94, but, unfortunately, there won’t be any more like it as the band stopped producing music in 2012. This album lives on through unforgettable tracks such as “Violet,” though.
Rolling Stone writes, “Live Through This is the sound of Courtney Love ripping herself to shreds. Her band’s second album is a roller-coaster reflection on co-dependency, motherhood and feminism that found the volcanic frontwoman making the case that she was more of a pop-culture heroine than the villainess she’d previously been painted as. Of course, the timing was unsuspectedly tragic: Hole’s major-label debut was released just days after Love’s husband Kurt Cobain’s body was found in their Seattle home following his suicide by shotgun. The title of Live Through This felt like a prophecy as Love was suddenly thrust into the role of celebrity widow. Still, even before the earthshaking loss of Cobain, Love had something to prove, and with this LP, she went above and beyond. She plays with her public image (‘Plump’), teases the Washington scene kids she came up with (‘Rock Star’), tackles post-partum depression (‘I Think That I Would Die’) and gets brutally honest about relationship insecurity (‘Doll Parts’). Carrying it all is Love’s vitriol: Her voice jerks chaotically from soft, über-femme vulnerability to guttural, blood-curdling screams that feel like they’re being torn from the depths of her stomach.”
The Arbiter Online states: “Hole, best known for their song ‘Celebrity Skin,’ released their second studio album ‘Live Through This,’ in 1994. This album went certified platinum in 1995 and became a staple in the 90s grunge era, especially when talking about women-fronted bands who were doing well at the time.” They note that “Many of the tracks combine soft melodic verses with heavy choruses giving Hole their edge. Bassist and backup singer Kristen Pfaff added touches of delicacy in her harmonies on top of front woman Courtney Love’s deeper and grittier vocal style to create this combination. Hole is another grunge band with very simple guitar and bass riffs, but this didn’t hold them back in writing an album I would characterize as the epitome of female rage. If this sounds like your cup of tea, give ‘Plump’ a listen.”
“Courtney Love’s long climb to stardom took her back and forth across the U.S.A. and between music (she briefly sang for Faith No More) and movie work (1986’s ‘Sid and Nancy’), before her grunge band Hole eventually released its debut album, ‘Pretty on the Inside,’ in 1991,” adds Loudwire. “Their second disc, ‘Live Through This,’ would become a multi-platinum smash under the bleakest of circumstances, as it eerily arrived just one week after her husband Kurt Cobain’s shocking, violent suicide. But music fans seeking solace or, perhaps, simply some answers, readily embraced its undeniably memorable songs (‘Violet,’ ‘Miss World,’ ‘Doll Parts’), and drowned their sorrows alongside Love and her bandmates.”
You may also be interested in:
- Rolling Stone
- Radio X
- Revolver Magazine
- The Arbiter Online
- Yours Tru.ly
- Far Out Magazine
- Louder Sound
- The New York Times
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