The other day I overheard two guys talking about influential bands. One turned to the other and said “ya, the Beatles are overrated.” I chuckled because, as so often is the case when discussing influential music groups or genres, I had just witnessed the classic mistake of thinking a band is overrated because you don’t like them. I’ve never owned a Beatles album or been a huge fan, but I do know that one thing you can’t call them is overrated. That conversation got me thinking about other bands and genres which were influential in the music world – even if we didn’t all love them or buy their albums. Immediately Nirvana came to mind - and the grunge movement which swept across North America and, eventually, the world in the late 1980s and first half of the 1990s.
A blend of different sounds and methods, grunge is basically a hybrid of punk, rock and metal. When you look at who influenced the bands of the grunge genre, artists often mention everything from Sonic Youth and The Pixies to Black Flag and Black Sabbath, and even Neil Young. The bands which started experimenting with this sound in the mid-1980s were mostly in and around the Seattle area. This kept them away from the major record labels in L.A. and New York and allowed the genre to develop and ‘mature’ over a number of years. When grunge did break out in the early 1990s, it provided a sound like nothing else and opened the door for alternative rock – an alternative to pop and metal. By the mid-90s, grunge was fizzling out and being replaced by more polished and accessible music from post-grunge and Britpop bands.
The following list contains 10 of the most important grunge bands from the 1980s and 1990s. In a way, the list itself can be broken in half with the first 5 bands representing the foundation for what would become mainstream grunge. They started the ball rolling, gathered a fan-base and developed musicians, many of whom would move on to join ‘bigger’ grunge bands. The second half of the list contains the 5 of the biggest and most popular grunge bands. These were responsible for picking up where the first five left off and for making the genre popular across the world.
11 Honorable mention: Temple of the Dog
A fantastic, but short lived project, Temple of the Dog was actually a super-band before anyone realized it was a super-band. Created in Seattle in 1990, Temple of the Dog was meant to be a tribute to Andrew Wood, late singer of the bands Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone. The band consisted of Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron (Soundgarden) with Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (Mother Love Bone). Rounding out the crew were Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready, who with Gossard and Ament were in the process of forming a new band which was to become known as Pearl Jam. Temple of the Dog released only one self-titled album in April 1991. It was not until 1992, thanks to Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, that Temple of the Dog gained widespread popularity and success. Among their many singles, “Hunger Strike” is probably the best known and often performed whenever Cornell joined up with Pearl Jam on tour.
10 Green River
Formed in 1984, Green River are widely considered to be the first Grunge band. Band members included Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Jeff Ament and Alex Shumway with Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather later joining. Arm is often credited with labelling their style of music as ‘grunge.’ It was a label that would stick. Green River were the first band to release an album with Sub Pop, the record label which would later sign other huge grunge groups like Nirvana and Soundgarden. They were very well known in and around the Seattle area but they never enjoyed good record sales. In 1988, fighting over the future direction of the band resulted in an end to Green River. The band members split with Arm and Turner forming grunge band Mudhoney and Ament, Gossard and Fairweather joining Andrew Wood to eventually form Mother Love Bone.
9 Screaming Trees
Along with bands like Green River, Screaming Trees is considered one of the founders of the grunge movement. Formed in 1985 outside Seattle, the band was composed of Mark Lanegan, Gary Lee Conner, Van Conner and Mark Pickerel, who was later replaced by Barrett Martin. Throughout the 1980s, the band released several EPs and LPs with limited success. Their fifth album, Uncle Anesthesia was produced by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and put the band as high as #23 on the charts. Grunge’s breakout into the mainstream in 1991 combined with Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion helped boost the band further. The track ‘Nearly Lost You’ was featured on the soundtrack for the movie Singles and peaked at #5 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. Band tensions, extended breaks between albums and the decline of grunge all contributed to the eventual breakup of the band in 2000.
8 The Melvins
Another grunge band which influenced everyone after them, The Melvins were formed in 1983 by Buzz Osborne, Matt Lukin and Mike Dillard – later replaced by Dale Crover. The band name was taken from a despised supervisor Osborne had at work. The band’s sound is difficult to categorize but is heavily influenced by American punk band Black Flag and a mix of rock and metal styles. The Melvins are often credited by other grunge bands as having profoundly influenced the genre in the Seattle area. Both Soundgarden and Nirvana cite The Melvins as a major influence on style and direction. That’s perhaps an understatement as far as Nirvana goes, as Osborne actually introduced Dave Grohl to Kurt Cobain. A testament to the reputation this band holds in the music world is demonstrated by the fact that Gene Simmons, member of KISS, joined The Melvins at Lollapalooza in 1993 and 1994 to play a full set.
Following the demise of Green River in 1988, Mark Arm and Steve Turner joined Matt Lukin (The Melvins) and Dan Peters to form Mudhoney. The band signed to Sub Pop and released the EP Superfuzz BigMuff. The EP and single “Touch Me I’m Sick” were successful and contained the near-chaotic drumming, tempo and distortion which characterized later grunge music. Kurt Cobain listed the album as one of the most influential in respect to the sound of Nirvana. In respect to the following bands on this list, Mudhoney has had little commercial success, yet they are cited as one of the key bands in the rise of grunge. With the death of Cobain and decline of grunge, Mudhoney declined as well. They continue to perform and released their latest album in 2013.
6 Mother Love Bone
Only around for a couple of years, this band and the events surrounding it had a big impact on the grunge scene. Mother Love Bone was formed in 1988. In its best known form, the band consisted of Andrew Wood, Greg Gilmore and ex-Green River members Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather. The band was known for its stage presence, in large part thanks to the outgoing personality of frontman Wood. Signed to label Stardog, Mother Love Bone released their first EP Shine in 1989. Amid much hype and promise, the band began work in late 1989 on the album Apple. With this album, it was believed by many in the music world that Mother Love Bone would become a breakout success. Unfortunately, days before the release in March 1990, Wood suffered a heroin overdose and later died. Apple was successful but the band was finished. The members split with Ament and Gossard recruiting a vocalist named Eddie Vedder and agreeing to join Chris Cornell’s new tribute band, Temple of the Dog.
5 Stone Temple Pilots
The first of the ‘big’ grunge bands, Mighty Joe Young was formed in 1985. By 1992, the band was renamed Stone Temple Pilots and signed to record label Atlantic. Band members included Scott Weiland, Robert and Dean DeLeo and Erik Kretz. STP is a divisive band in the grunge world. Many journalists and critics said they weren’t a grunge band, but just grunge imitators. True, they were from San Diego, not Seattle. It is also true that the band often altered their sound, especially on later albums. Scott Weiland often displayed a style somewhat similar to Eddie Vedder – something which attracted as much criticism as it did praise. However, the albums Core (1992) and Purple (1994) contained all of the characteristics of the grunge movement and are often credited with influencing the music world in a similar fashion to the albums of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains.
4 Alice in Chains
Another Seattle band, Alice in Chains were one of the big players in the grunge scene. Formed in 1987, the band consisted of Jerry Cantrell, Layne Staley, Sean Kinney and Mike Starr – replaced in 1993 by Mike Inez. Cantrell had always stated that Alice in Chains were a primarily heavy metal band. It is true that heavy metal is incorporated in their music, but so is rock, blues and punk. This, in combination with the timing and location of the band naturally pulled them into the grunge movement. Nonetheless, Alice in Chains brings a very distinct sound, both vocal and instrumental, to the genre. Heavy guitars indicated a strong metal influence but the slow tempo, distortion, droning lyrics and darker themes all appealed to the grunge fans. Alice in Chains’ three grunge era albums, Facelift (1990), Dirt (1992) and Alice in Chains (1995), spawned a number of hits including “Man in the Box,” “Rooster” and “Grind.”
Formed in Seattle in 1984, Soundgarden consisted of Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron and Hiro Yamamoto – later replaced by Ben Shepherd. Initially with Sub Pop, Soundgarden’s signing with A&M Records in 1989 made them the first grunge band to join a major label. In 1991, the band’s third album, Badmotorfinger, was released and benefited from the fact that Nirvana’s success had created a huge audience eager to find more alt-rock/grunge performers. The real breakthrough came with their 1994 album Superunknown. With hits like “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun,” Superunkown was the band’s best-selling album ever and propelled Soundgarden into the mainstream. The band’s 1996 album, Down on the Upside, spawned a number of hits but never reached the heights of Superunkown. Despite this, Soundgarden have been praised by critics for having a composition and musicianship which is more complex than other grunge-era bands.
2 Pearl Jam
In 1990, former Mother Love Bone members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament joined up with Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder to create a new band. The group eventually called themselves Pearl Jam. The band’s first album Ten was released in 1991 but didn’t start selling well until 1992. In the end, it stayed on the charts for two years and went Platinum 13 times. Their following albums, Vs. (1993) and Vitalogy (1994), were also huge successes which spawned numerous hits. Initially labelled as a ‘corporate’ band (even by Kurt Cobain), over the years Pearl Jam demonstrated they were not interested in becoming famous and selling lots of albums. Sales actually declined with each passing album, the band feuded with Ticketmaster over high prices and even resisted making music videos. In the end, the feud with Ticketmaster was ended and Pearl Jam has continued touring and releasing albums.
In 1990, DCG Records (David Geffen) signed a Seattle grunge band by the name of Nirvana. The label hoped that the band’s 1991 album Nevermind would sell around 250,000 copies. They were in for a shock.
Nirvana was composed of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and, eventually for the longer term, Dave Grohl. The band formed in 1987 and had one album released before signing with DCG Records. Their blend of quiet verses with loud and hard choruses became the bands distinct ‘sound.’ The single “Smells like Teen Spirit” was an unexpected hit that changed the fortunes of the band, the grunge movement and alt-rock. It even bumped Michael Jackson off the top of the charts. Nevermind ended up selling 30 million copies and made Nirvana one of the biggest bands in the world at that time. In 1993, In Utero was released. It had a different sound than Nevermind but still sold very well. On Arpil 8th, 1994 Kurt Cobain committed suicide. His death ended Nirvana and marked the beginning of the end for the grunge movement, which lingered on for a couple more years.