What was “grunge,” exactly? It seems pretty hard to nail down, especially because of the way this label was tossed around by the media in the 1990s. Unlike distinctive genres like Heavy Metal and Ska, Grunge hasn’t all got the same sound.
But, some elements flow through the music that was called grunge back then. Distorted and often detuned guitars, heavy drumming, husky singing, some screaming, and usually dark, heavy lyrics. This genre is credited as having been developed in the Seattle, Washington, area in the late 80s.
By the 90s, it was in full bloom…
Bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and more were lumped into this category with many other originators and imitators. So, what were the best 90s grunge songs ever? Let’s look at the biggest hits and best-loved 90s Grunge songs.
- Top 220 Best 90s Grunge Songs
- 1 In Bloom – Nirvana
- 2 Alive – Pearl Jam
- 3 Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden
- 4 Hunger Strike – Temple of the Dog
- 5 Would? – Alice In Chains
- 6 Plush – Stone Temple Pilots
- 7 Violet – Hole
- 8 Today – Smashing Pumpkins
- 9 Outshined – Soundgarden
- 10 Smells like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
- 11 Black – Pearl Jam
- 12 Jeremy – Pearl Jam
- 13 Man in the Box – Alice in Chains
- 14 Heart-Shaped Box – Nirvana
- 15 Rooster – Alice in Chains
- 16 Lithium – Nirvana
- 17 Spoonman – Soundgarden
- 18 Big Empty – Stone Temple Pilots
- 19 No Excuses – Alice in Chains
- 20 Come as You Are – Nirvana
- 21 Cherub Rock – Smashing Pumpkins
- 22 Rusty Cage – Soundgarden
- 23 Down in a Hole – Alice in Chains
- 24 Interstate Love Song – Stone Temple Pilots
- 25 All Apologies – Nirvana
- 26 Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden
- 27 Today – Smashing Pumpkins
- 28 Creep – Radiohead
- 29 Bullet with Butterfly Wings – Smashing Pumpkins
- 30 Plush – Stone Temple Pilots
- 31 In the Meantime – Helmet
- 32 Fell on Black Days – Soundgarden
- 33 Glycerine – Bush
- 34 Machinehead – Bush
- 35 Hunger Strike – Temple of the Dog
- 36 Vasoline – Stone Temple Pilots
- 37 Plowed – Sponge
- 38 Far Behind – Candlebox
- 39 Hitchin’ a Ride – Green Day
- 40 Nearly Lost You – Screaming Trees
- 41 Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns – Mother Love Bone
- 42 Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Nirvana
- 43 Rain When I Die – Alice in Chains
- 44 Say Hello 2 Heaven – Temple of the Dog
- 45 Mr. Jones – Counting Crows
- 46 Hate to Feel – Alice in Chains
- 47 Blow Up the Outside World – Soundgarden
- 48 Loser – Beck
- 49 Even Flow – Pearl Jam
- 50 Outshined – Soundgarden
- More Best 90s Grunge Songs
- Want to Find Great Songs from Other Music Eras?
- Best 90s Grunge Songs – Final Thoughts
Top 220 Best 90s Grunge Songs
In Bloom – Nirvana
We just have to start this list off with Nirvana, the band that was used to define Grunge. Even though they never called themselves Grunge, the release of Nevermind in 1991 drew massive attention to the Seattle scene and brought that music to the world.
And one of the defining tracks on that album was “In Bloom.” A song that encapsulated Nirvana’s sound and songwriting style.
Like so many of their songs…
“In Bloom” borrows a formula from the legendary band, Pixies. It has a slow and heavy grind to the verses, focusing on the bass and vocals over a plain beat. It then explodes into the chorus with thunderous drums care of Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain’s signature screechy singing.
The lyrics lash out at bandwagon fans who don’t relate to their music or subculture. You can see this clearly in the chorus “He’s the one – Who likes all our pretty songs – And he likes to sing along – And he likes to shoot his gun – But he knows not what it means.”
Alive – Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam was another Seattle area band that helped to define the Grunge genre, if there ever truly was one. Eddie Vedder’s husky voice, combined with a moody style of long hair and plaid shirts, brought the grunge-rocker into the homes of people around the world.
And, even when they tried to scale back their success and keep the music pure, their influence on this scene was already too far-reaching.
The 1991 album Ten was the band’s breakout smash hit…
It blew up, selling at least 13x platinum. “Alive” was the first single from that album and still one of the band’s biggest songs ever. It has a nice heavy, slow groove that incorporates heavy drums and bass and lots of screaming guitars.
Vedder’s singing is unique, or it was before all the imitators, and the lyrics are about family instability. He sings, “Son, she said, have I got a little story for you – What you thought was your daddy was nothing but a…” and you get a real idea of what it means to still be alive after going through trauma.
Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden
By 1994, Grunge had gone mainstream. Grunge bands were all over the radio and TV, and even the relatively heavy band Soundgarden’s album Superunknown debuted at #1 on the charts.
And the biggest track from that album, the one that most people remember Soundgarden for, is “Black Hole Sun.”
This song is very different from most of the band’s other work…
Maybe that’s why it stands out. It doesn’t have a fast beat or a weird time signature. Instead, it has a slow, heavy bass and drum groove that plows the song along. The guitars give a strange combination of sounds, with underwater echoing arpeggios mixed with mournful wailing.
Also, Chris Cornell sang mostly in the low end of his impressive register, except in the chorus, where he let loose and howls as only he could. The band creates a surreal dreamscape using a combination of delay, echo, reverb, and tremolo effects on the guitar, against which the lyrics really pop.
They add to the surreal and creepy nature of this dark song, especially lines like, “Boiling heat – Summer stench – Neath the black, the sky looks dead.”
Hunger Strike – Temple of the Dog
Here’s a little background to Temple of the Dog. This was a band formed in 1991 as a supergroup tribute project to their friend and fellow musician Andrew Wood, who had died of a heroin overdose.
Wood was the lead singer of Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone; two important Grunge precursor acts from the late 80s.
The tribute project included Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (both ex-Mother Love Bone members) and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam, together with Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron from Soundgarden. Eddie Vedder also came in as a guest and is featured as a vocalist on “Hunger Strike.”
This track is the best known from the Temple of the Dog album…
It’s a slow but heavy, introspective Rock song that’s incredibly memorable. The band is tight, especially in the heavy breakdown. But it’s the vocals that make this a memorable 90s Grunge song.
Legend has it that Vedder heard Cornell struggling on the lower parts of the song and stepped in to give him some direction. Instead, he was invited to trade verses with his deeper voice with the scorching high tones of Cornell.
The way they trade the refrain “I’m goin’ hungry” is pure musical magic. And that is also why it ranks as one of the best 90s Grunge songs ever.
Would? – Alice In Chains
Alice in Chains was perhaps the darkest of the Grunge bands to come out of Seattle in the late 80s. They had some success in the early 90s and then hit paydirt with their 1992 album Dirt. “Would?” was another tribute song to the late Andrew Wood, this time by his friend, guitarist Jerry Cantrell.
The song is a slow, heavy rocker with driving bass and drums…
Just like with “Hunger Strike,” it’s the vocals that make this song. The verses are sung in a lower, brooding tone by Cantrell. Then the chorus comes around, and lead vocalist Layne Staley takes over with his distinctive snarling voice.
When he sings, “Am I wrong? – Have I run too far to get home? – Have I gone? – Left you here alone”, the loss of their friend comes through in stark emotions.
It is a sad 90s Grunge song, speaking of loss. But also trying to send a warning to others, like Staley, who also overdosed in 2002.
Plush – Stone Temple Pilots
When Stone Temple Pilots dropped their debut album, Core, in 1992, it was a massive breakthrough. To date, this album has sold over 40 million copies and won a Grammy for one song – “Plush.”
While the band went on to experiment more with psychedelic rock and other sounds, they were, at heart, a Grunge band. And this grungy song fits in perfectly with what was happening in the early 90s. Even if the California band wasn’t a part of the Seattle scene.
This song has a slow Hard Rock groove…
And you just have to nod your head along to it. The guitars are heavily distorted and crunching. And frontman Scott Weiland’s vocal performance is perfect. He sings in a husky baritone that has been widely compared to Eddie Vedder’s.
But his phrasing is all his own, and so are his lyrics. “And I feel, so much depends on the weather – So is it raining in your bedroom?” is one of my favorite lines from the angsty Grunge era.
Violet – Hole
The Grunge scene was a messy and almost incestuous one back in the 90s, with so many bands collaborating and pulling each other up.
And Courtney Love of Hole was right in the thick of it…
She had a relationship with Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins before marrying Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain – talk about grunge royalty! And the song “Violet” from 1994’s Live Through This was about one or both of these relationships.
The song has a fast, almost Punk Rock feel, especially in the explosive chorus. But, the verses are muted and soft, making for a dark texture and contrast. The drums sizzle and the guitars are alternatively light and pretty, then dark and heavy.
Love’s vocal work here is on point…
She almost speaks the verse and then snarls and screams the chorus. This song is also heavy in content, speaking to sexual exploitation and also female sexuality.
Love screams, “Go on take everything – Take everything – I want you to,” and the title is compared to “violence” and even “violate.”
Today – Smashing Pumpkins
Smashing Pumpkins were formed in Chicago, but as an alternative band with a dark edge and a hard rock sound, they were lumped into the Grunge genre in the early 90s. While they put out some great stuff previously, it was 1993’s Siamese Dream that pushed the popularity of this band.
They simply sounded like no one else, playing with dynamics and emotions in a way that was ahead of their time. The song “Today” is one of their most successful ever and also one of their most radio-friendly.
But it’s not that friendly…
It does start with a lovely little guitar arpeggio that sounds almost like an ice cream truck (check out the video) or something else innocent. When the beat and crunchy guitars jump in, though, you’re in for even more of a treat. Billy Corgan alternates between singing in a high, sweet voice and nearly a scream, giving this track great texture and emotion.
And quite surprisingly, it’s about getting past thoughts of suicide and trying to live life. What’s not surprising is that it remains one of the best Grunge songs from the 90s.
Outshined – Soundgarden
Back in late 1991, Grunge was on the verge of a global explosion. Soundgarden’s third album, Badmotorfinger, dropped in October of that year and was one of the reasons why the Seattle scene really blew up.
This was the band’s first record with its final line-up, and it really came together. It’s heavy, hard-hitting, and sung with Chris Cornell’s scorching vocals.
“Outshined” is one of the most memorable tracks from this record. The song is about being outshined by yourself and going through the highs and lows of life.
You’ve got a heavy groove…
…along with odd time signatures (the verses are in 7/4 time) and excellent drumming. The bass provides a thick, heavy backdrop for the guitars to duel against. And Cornell’s vocals are some of his best.
He both sings low and soars to untold heights on this track. There’s even a clip of Kurt Cobain trying to imitate the chorus, but no one can sing like Cornell.
Smells like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
If we’re talking about the best 90s Grunge songs, well, there may not have been a Grunge explosion in the 90s if not for this song. “Smells like Teen Spirit” also comes from 1991’s Nevermind, the album that broke Nirvana to the world and propelled grunge into the mainstream.
This song was the main mechanism for that popularity…
Like “In Bloom,” this song takes advantage of the quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic. But here, Nirvana does it to the extreme. The verses are driven by Grohl’s minimal beat and Krist Novoselic’s pounding bass, with Cobain playing just two repeated notes on the guitar and mumbling weird lyrics.
Things build up in the pre-chorus and then explode with thunderous drums and Cobain’s screeching in the chorus. The lyrics are built around imagery but play on the self-deprecation of this generation with the lines “I feel stupid and contagious – Here we are now, entertain us!”
At its core, this is a Punk song. But it’s easily the most popular 90s Grunge song and the tune most people around the world associate with 90s Grunge.
Black – Pearl Jam
Jeremy – Pearl Jam
Man in the Box – Alice in Chains
Heart-Shaped Box – Nirvana
Rooster – Alice in Chains
Lithium – Nirvana
Spoonman – Soundgarden
Big Empty – Stone Temple Pilots
No Excuses – Alice in Chains
Come as You Are – Nirvana
Cherub Rock – Smashing Pumpkins
Rusty Cage – Soundgarden
Down in a Hole – Alice in Chains
Interstate Love Song – Stone Temple Pilots
All Apologies – Nirvana
Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden
Today – Smashing Pumpkins
Creep – Radiohead
Bullet with Butterfly Wings – Smashing Pumpkins
Plush – Stone Temple Pilots
In the Meantime – Helmet
Fell on Black Days – Soundgarden
Glycerine – Bush
Machinehead – Bush
Hunger Strike – Temple of the Dog
Vasoline – Stone Temple Pilots
Plowed – Sponge
Far Behind – Candlebox
Hitchin’ a Ride – Green Day
Nearly Lost You – Screaming Trees
Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns – Mother Love Bone
Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Nirvana
Rain When I Die – Alice in Chains
Say Hello 2 Heaven – Temple of the Dog
Mr. Jones – Counting Crows
Hate to Feel – Alice in Chains
Blow Up the Outside World – Soundgarden
Loser – Beck
Even Flow – Pearl Jam
Outshined – Soundgarden
More Best 90s Grunge Songs
- Platypus (I Hate You) – Green Day
- Garden – Pearl Jam
- Doll Parts – Hole
- Longview – Green Day
- The Day I Tried to Live – Soundgarden
- Porcelina of the Vast Oceans – Smashing Pumpkins
- Roots Radicals – Rancid
- Sick of Myself – Matthew Sweet
- She Talks to Angels – The Black Crowes
- Fade into You – Mazzy Star
- My Friends – Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Song 2 – Blur
- All Over You – Live
- Stupid Girl – Garbage
- Corduroy – Pearl Jam
- The Freshmen – The Verve Pipe
- Brick – Ben Folds Five
- Zero – Smashing Pumpkins
- Black Metallic – Catherine Wheel
- Bound for the Floor – Local H
- The Way – Fastball
- Buddy Holly – Weezer
- Only Happy When It Rains – Garbage
- Wicked Garden – Stone Temple Pilots
- Sex Type Thing – Stone Temple Pilots
- Low – Cracker
- Not an Addict – K’s Choice
- All Mixed Up – 311
- Tomorrow – Silverchair
- Laid – James
- Runaway Train – Soul Asylum
- Flagpole Sitta – Harvey Danger
- What I Got – Sublime
- Push – Matchbox Twenty
- Bulls on Parade – Rage Against the Machine
- She – Green Day
- Seether – Veruca Salt
- Hey Jealousy – Gin Blossoms
- Feed the Tree – Belly
- Low Self Opinion – Rollins Band
- I Touch Myself – Divinyls
- I Will Remember You – Sarah McLachlan
- Monkey Wrench – Foo Fighters
- One Headlight – The Wallflowers
- Novocaine for the Soul – Eels
- Lump – The Presidents of the United States of America
- Sweet Jane – Cowboy Junkies
- Gel – Collective Soul
- When I Come Around – Green Day
- Rhinoceros – Smashing Pumpkins
- Sober – Tool
- Numb – U2
- Love Like Ghosts – Lord Huron
- 6th Avenue Heartache – The Wallflowers
- Heartspark Dollarsign – Everclear
- She Don’t Use Jelly – The Flaming Lips
- Black Gold – Soul Asylum
- Got You (Where I Want You) – The Flys
- The Way I Am – Eminem
- Hey Man Nice Shot – Filter
- Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver – Primus
- The Beautiful People – Marilyn Manson
- It’s a Shame About Ray – The Lemonheads
- Bawitdaba – Kid Rock
- Tubthumping – Chumbawamba
- Hash Pipe – Weezer
- Torn – Natalie Imbruglia
- Jump Around – House of Pain
- Run-Around – Blues Traveler
- Feel So Good – Mase
- Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve
- Counting Blue Cars – Dishwalla
- Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand – Primitive Radio Gods
- Gangsta’s Paradise – Coolio
- Ray of Light – Madonna
- The Sign – Ace of Base
- Tennessee – Arrested Development
- Jump – Kris Kross
- Jumpin’, Jumpin’ – Destiny’s Child
- No Scrubs – TLC
- Genie in a Bottle – Christina Aguilera
- Smooth – Santana ft. Rob Thomas
- I Want It That Way – Backstreet Boys
- Livin’ la Vida Loca – Ricky Martin
- I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
- Vision of Love – Mariah Carey
- Don’t Speak – No Doubt
- Baby One More Time – Britney Spears
- Waterfalls – TLC
- Smooth Criminal – Alien Ant Farm
- Short Skirt/Long Jacket – Cake
- The Way I Feel – Remy Zero
- Name – Goo Goo Dolls
- The Freshmen – Jayhawks
- I Don’t Want to Wait – Paula Cole
- Ironic – Alanis Morissette
- Crash into Me – Dave Matthews Band
- The Distance – Cake
- Torn – Creed
- Doo Wop (That Thing) – Lauryn Hill
- All I Wanna Do – Sheryl Crow
- Zombie – The Cranberries
- Lovefool – The Cardigans
- Kiss Me – Sixpence None the Richer
- No Rain – Blind Melon
- Hold My Hand – Hootie & The Blowfish
- Santeria – Sublime
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Deep Blue Something
- Fly Away – Lenny Kravitz
- Linger – The Cranberries
- Save Tonight – Eagle-Eye Cherry
- Inside Out – Eve 6
- Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm – Crash Test Dummies
- Vaseline – Stone Temple Pilots
- Bad Reputation – Freedy Johnston
- Found Out About You – Gin Blossoms
- Sunny Came Home – Shawn Colvin
- My Own Worst Enemy – Lit
- Razorblade Suitcase – Bush
- Crush with Eyeliner – R.E.M.
- One of Us – Joan Osborne
- Connection – Elastica
- Feel the Pain – Dinosaur Jr.
- Cut Your Hair – Pavement
- Regret – New Order
- Popular – Nada Surf
- Dyslexic Heart – Paul Westerberg
- Criminal – Fiona Apple
- D’You Know What I Mean? – Oasis
- The Freshmen – Verve Pipe
- Violet – Hole
- All Star – Smash Mouth
- What’s My Age Again? – Blink-182
- Jumper – Third Eye Blind
- Mr. Brightside – The Killers
- Last Nite – The Strokes
- No One Knows – Queens of the Stone Age
- Someday – Sugar Ray
- I Want to Hold Your Hand – T.V. Carpio
- Do the Evolution – Pearl Jam
- The Impression That I Get – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
- The Kids Aren’t Alright – The Offspring
- Wonderwall – Oasis
- Closing Time – Semisonic
- Tainted Love – Marilyn Manson
- Pretty Fly (For a White Guy) – The Offspring
- I Try – Macy Gray
- Sex and Candy – Marcy Playground
- Fly – Sugar Ray
- All the Small Things – Blink-182
- Dumpweed – Blink-182
- Everything Zen – Bush
- Midlife Crisis – Faith No More
- Sour Girl – Stone Temple Pilots
- Who Will Save Your Soul – Jewel
- The Way You Love Me – Faith Hill
- You Get What You Give – New Radicals
- Closing Time – Leonard Cohen
- Zoot Suit Riot – Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
- Killing Me Softly – Fugees
- Groove Is in the Heart – Deee-Lite
- Wannabe – Spice Girls
- The One I Love – R.E.M.
- Two Princes – Spin Doctors
- Meet Virginia – Train
- Don’t Let Go (Love) – En Vogue
- Dreams – The Cranberries
- No Diggity – Blackstreet ft. Dr. Dre
- Virtual Insanity – Jamiroquai
- Semi-Charmed Life – Third Eye Blind
Want to Find Great Songs from Other Music Eras?
If so, check out our thoughts on the Best 70s Rock Songs, the Best 80s Rock Songs, the Best Classic Rock Songs, the Best Songs of The 2000s, and the Best Songs Of All Time for more incredible school selections.
Also, you need to listen to those tunes. So, take a look at our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, as well as the Best Headphones Under $200 you can buy in 2023.
Best 90s Grunge Songs – Final Thoughts
Grunge started in the 80s and continued into the 90s. It was a sort of blanket term for any Alternative Rock that was heavy and darker than the late 80s hair metal that had come before. And it definitely provided a stark contrast.
The so-called Grunge sound came out of the Seattle area but was soon picked up, played with, and improved on by bands around the US and later the world. Still, Seattle icons like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden are some of the first groups most people think of when they think of Grunge.
The best songs of this era expressed feelings of angst…
And, to some degree, anti-mainstream feelings of the youth at the time. So, it was ironic when grunge hit the mainstream in the early 90s. But, music politics aside, some of these songs are simply perfect.
They worked then and still stand the test of time. With darker themes, contrasting dynamics, raging vocals, and screaming guitars, 90s Grunge hit songs made their way into Rock music history, whether they wanted to or not.
Until next time, happy listening.