Rock Out at Home: Our Top 5 Grunge Tracks
Published on 22 July 2020
The Seattle Sound.
That’s what they prefer to call it, the bands who were actually part of the scene back then.
‘Grunge’ is a dirty word, apparently! We get it: it’s a very reductive, superficial term for what was a unique and thrilling time for guitar music.
Still, when we mention ‘Grunge’, we all know what it means: fuzzed up Drop D riffs nicked from Black Sabbath, quiet/loud dynamics borrowed from the Pixies and a nihilistic, bruised worldview straight from the Pacific Northwest.
Grunge can be defined in several ways, almost to the point of saying ‘relatively heavy, angsty American Rock from the late 80s to mid 90s'. However, that’s as reductive as lazy as the 'grunge' term itself and doesn’t take the massive cultural significance of the genre into consideration. The fact is, for guitar fans and Rock fans, Grunge was the 90s, pure and simple. It became Alternative Rock once the rest of the USA and, later, the world caught on, but Seattle's Grunge scene was the epicentre: the potent nucleus. For today’s short Top 5 list, we’re going to draw a ring around the greater Seattle area and mark our Grunge territory there.
Grunge, much like Gansta Rap and the British Invasion, was as much about geographical location as it was about notes and sounds.
For this reason, we’ve opted to disqualify several epic bands from this historic era simply because of their hometowns. So, you’ll not see Stone Temple Pilots (San Diego), Smashing Pumpkins (Chicago) or Jane’s Addiction (Los Angeles) on this list, even though they are as significant, culturally and musically, as the bands we ended up choosing. To be honest, it just makes picking our Top 5 a little easier! The body of work from the Grunge/Alternative era is of an abundant and embarrassingly high standard, so we needed all the help we could get!
Here, then, is guitarguitar’s Top 5 Grunge Tracks...
Soundgarden – Let Me Drown
It’s very easy to slide into hyperbole when discussing Soundgarden. Their music was arcane, elemental, propulsive and deeply human. Chris Cornell was an indisputable force of nature: a vocalist who could destroy with both subtlety and bombast, and a man who’s left-of-centre songwriting still passes by deeply underappreciated.
Soundgarden knew about riffs, grooves, dynamics and drama, and threw it all up on their canvasses like master artists. They, like Alice in Chains whom we’ll come to, were able to create their own world inside each album, and none was as effective as their game-changing 1994 release, Superunknown. To listen to this album is to truly understand just what four inspired musicians in a room can do together.
Our selection today is the intense, elliptical opening track Let Me Drown. With a lurching and yet groovy Drop D riff and mesmerising lyrics ('So heal my wounds without a trace,
And seal my tomb without my face'), this is one confident, if sinister, way to start an album. Talk about a statement of intent? Listen in at 2m 31secs for one of the world’s greatest screams!
Mudhoney – Touch Me I’m Sick
Bringing an entirely different shade of the Seattle Sound to Soundgarden, Mudhoney, in many ways, are more indicative of what most Grunge bands sounded like. Fender Jaguars, Big Muff fuzz pedals and an evident Stooges influence single Mudhoney out as a definitive Grunge experience.
Touch Me I’m Sick was released in 1988 and was their debut single on Sub Pop, Grunge’s label du jour. It’s hard to over-emphasise how much the Seattle scene paid attention to Mudhoney and their (excellently named) debut EP Superfuzz Bigmuff: Kurt Cobain namechecked it as a favourite album, for example.
Whilst the musical ability of the band was not, it’s fair to say, on a par with the likes of Soundgarden, Mudhoney showed fellow Seattle Rock bands just how far you could go with attitude and a snarling sound.
Nirvana – In Bloom
Picking a Nirvana song to include is tricky. There’s obviously no doubt about the Seattle trio’s inclusion on such a list, but do we go for popularism and select Smells Like Teen Spirit, or do we play the hipster and pick out School from Bleach?
Neither! We choose a spot somewhere in the middle and find Kurt at perhaps his most inspired. In Bloom shows off Kurt’s unorthodox chord progressions, his way with a chorus and his meticulous deconstruction of the guitar solo. Truly, the atonal, buzzing, feedback solo on In Bloom takes a fair amount of deliberate effort to create: this was no off-the-cuff noise session, no matter how much the desired effect may try to convince you otherwise!
Whilst it’s fair to comment that Nirvana often sounded quite separate from many archetypical grunge bands, it seems clear to us that the Seattle Sound itself was quite diverse! Nirvana brought Seattle to the word in a big way, so they will forever be known as the defining Grunge band, whether their sound is an accurate representation or not. Who cares, when they wrote songs as good as this?!
Alice in Chains – Them Bones
If we were to sum up Alice in Chains in one word (other than ‘awesome’) it would be haunted. There is a dark heart to their music, a saturnine beauty brought in by the almost choral twin harmony vocals of former lead singer Layne Staley and lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell. These, matched to the bleak, brutal riffs and frontier-referencing grandeur of their music make AIC quite an unforgettable listen.
It’s easy to ascribe doom and portent to the band’s music, given the prevalence of heroin and death in the line-up. Vocalist Layne Staley and original bassist Mike Starr both died from heroin overdoses, and much of their biggest album Dirt deals with themes of addiction and suffering. However, a closer look at the album credits reveals that it’s bandleader Cantrell who wrote most of those songs, including this seminal track, Them Bones. It won’t stop the overall feeling of danger that breathes inside the band’s music, but it’s still interesting to note who’s responsible for the tone.
Them Bones displays lots of great Alice in Chains ‘signature moves’: the downtuned, doomy riff is in an off-time signature and travels slightly into atonality; the tight vocal harmonies hang deathly beautiful above the grinding music and the whole song itself lurches like some Lovecraftian beast emerging from a dark ocean. Theirs may be a troubled place, but each of their songs glitters with burning ambition and intention.
Pearl Jam – Alive
Our final choice today is from Grunge’s true survivors, and brings with it perhaps the best chorus of all of today’s songs.
As with many Grunge-era tunes, the subject matter is dark (lead singer Eddie Vedder being lied to about his parentage and learning the truth too late), the riffs are bleak and 70s-influenced and the emotion is high.
Pearl Jam are entwined with various elements of Grunge’s emerging history. Mother Love Bone, a seminal Seattle band, contained pre-Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. Lead singer Andrew Wood’s death by overdose prompted a heartfelt tribute album, Temple of the Dog, by scene members who included Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and fresh-face to Seattle Eddie Vedder. Pearl Jam came around after Mother Love Bone broke up, and have remained a tightknit force ever since.
Alive, from Pearl Jam’s debut Ten, is an early example of a great Grunge Epic. Stone Gossard’s riff is familiar yet oblique; the song gets amped up and intense but keeps a lid on overtly rocking out; and Mike McCready’s extended guitar solo brought a potent mixture of Hendrix and Robbie Kreiger to the fore like never before. As for the vocal: well, let’s just say that it isn’t Vedder’s fault that so many post-grunge bleaters attempted to steal his sound, any more than it’s Stevie Ray Vaughan’s fault that so many blues bores wind themselves into a frenzy trying to cop his style note for note! It's a phenomal song, and one that brings together many of those mythical Grunge motifs in an authentic and legitimate way.
Seattle in the early 90s was fertile soil indeed! It’s quite unbelievable in these current times, to think of a similar thing happening again, but that always seems to be the way people think right before a new thing does happen! Luckily for us, we have all of this great music to listen to and love, plus many of the great from that era are still playing music, and in fact are not particularly old yet!
We feel sorry to have missed out the greatness of Mark Lanegan’s Scremaing Trees, Buzz Osborne’s Melvins and a few other great Seattle bands from the Grunge era (and area), but Top 5’s are like that!
We hoped you enjoyed our Top 5! Let us know which bands you’d have included!
Thanks for reading