Ahhh, the 90s. What a weird decade. Wall Street was booming, people started to get home computers, and the Internet (it was so mystical, we always spelled it with a capital back then!). And music was heading in so many directions that hundreds of new genres were spawned.
One of these was grunge. A heavy, angsty genre that was never heard before. And while most early grunge bands came out of the Pacific Northwest, particularly the Seattle scene, grunge quickly caught on and spread across the planet.
So, who were the best grunge bands of the 90s? Here’s my Top 10 – let’s see if you agree with me.
If you don’t remember Melvins (yeah, not ‘the Melvins’), or have never heard of them, don’t worry. You’re not alone. They were by no means one of the biggest bands in the 90s grunge scene. They didn’t sell billions of records or regularly feature on MTV as some other grunge rockers did.
However, this band was instrumental (pun intended) in helping both the grunge and sludge metal genres to develop. They’re the grandfathers of grunge music, having started playing slow, heavy, grungy music back in 1983 in Aberdeen, Washington.
Steeped in legend…
Frontman Buzz Osborne introduced Nirvana to Dave Grohl, who took over drumming duties. Original bassist Matt Lukin founded Mudhoney, another grungy act on this list. They had Shirley Temple’s daughter, Lori Black, on bass for several years and have even played with Gene Simmons from Kiss.
Melvins played hard rock or punk rock-style songs. But, they played them slower, heavier, and sludgier than most anyone else. Slowing down rock plus detuning and distorting guitars became staples of the grunge sound, such as there was one.
Melvins put out ten albums in the 90s when grunge was at its peak. Since then, they have moved to a heavier, more sludge-metal sound and are currently working on their 34th record.
Another grandpappy of the grunge sound is Screaming Trees (yup, no ‘the’ here either). Like Melvins, Screaming Trees came from Washington State and started up in the 80s – 1984, to be exact.
Their sound originally mixed hard rock and psychedelic rock. Later, it got a bit harder and dirtier. They also had that signature deep, husky voice with singer Mark Lanegan that grunge became known for.
Screaming Trees picked up a record contract in 1986 and put out a few albums in the 80s that helped them to build a local Washington following. However, they did a whole lot better in the early 90s when grunge started to blow up.
Songs like “Bed of Roses” and “Nearly Lost You” got lots of attention and airplay. The latter hitting #6 on the US charts.
This influential band led a lot of other bands to copy their sound. They put out eight full albums and four EPs before finally disbanding in 2000.
There’s no denying that Hole was the most successful band in grunge music history that was fronted by a woman. Most of the members of this oft-changing band were women.
But, Courtney Love stands out as the most memorable. The frontwoman (vocals, guitar) wrote most of the lyrics for the band.
She also growled them…
Grunge frontmen were using deeper, more husky voices than their hard rock or hair metal counterparts, and Love did, too. Her deep voice bordered on screaming, giving her a power and bite that was unusual for female singers outside of punk rock.
Of course, Love is also known for controversial, wild behavior, drug use, and her tumultuous relationship with grunge god Kurt Cobain.
Hole started in 1989 in L.A. rather than Seattle, with Love and guitarist Eric Erlandson as the founding members and main writers for the band. They sold over three million copies of their four records in the US alone.
Their albums Live Through This and Celebrity Skin have both been certified platinum. And tracks like “Miss World,” “Violet,” “Doll Parts,” and “Celebrity Skin” live on as some of the most recognizable grunge songs ever.
“Passion debased by lust…” reads the byline of the Russ Meyer movie “Mudhoney” from which this Seattle band took its name. And that byline sums up the band about as well as the movie.
This was a project put together by Seattle scenesters who were already experienced in the evolving grunge scene. They included Matt Lukin from Melvins on bass, singer/guitarist Mark Arm and lead guitarist Steve Turner from the band Green River, and ex-Bundle of Hiss drummer Dan Peters.
Formed in 1988, Mudhoney was one of the liveliest bands on the Seattle scene, putting a huge amount of energy into their live show. And, if you listen to their 1988 debut EP Superfuzz Bigmuff, you’ll know they put the same energy into their music.
A distinct grunge sound…
Mudhoney has released ten albums to date and is still rolling along. Although, Lukin left the band in the year 2000. 1991’s Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge was one of the most memorable 90s grunge records.
Songs like “Suck You Dry,” “If I Think,” and “Touch Me I’m Sick” carry Mudhoney’s trademark sound. Although this band never made the mainstream, they were one of the best grunge bands from the 90s.
While grunge began as a Seattle/Washington scene, it was destined to become a whole lot more than a local phenomenon. And that’s what leads me to include an Australian band on this list of the best grunge bands of the 90s.
The trio of Daniel Johns (vocals, guitar), Chris Joannou (bass), and Ben Gillies (drums) that became Silverchair began playing together in 1992 when they were just junior high schoolers.
They had something that worked…
A heavy distorted sound, youthful energy, and a whole lot of angst. Putting this together, they came out with their first album, Frogstomp, when they were just 15 years old.
They later followed this up with Freak Show, another 90s big record for the Aussie boys. Their sound was heavily influenced by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but also earlier bands like Led Zep and The Doors.
While they started as grunge rockers, their sound continued to grow and change until 2010. That’s when they called it quits and moved on to other projects. But, before they did, they managed to sell over ten million records worldwide. Not bad, mates!
Stone Temple Pilots
This might be a controversial entry on this list. Stone Temple Pilots started in the grunge genre, even if they later moved away from it into a mix of pop and rock.
This is another band that, like Hole, was from California and not the Seattle area. However, they shared a hard rock edge, brooding lyrics, and husky vocals that helped to define grunge.
Started by Scott Weiland (vocals) and Robert DeLeo (bass) as early as 1985. The band started to get a lot of attention in 1992 and was signed by Atlantic as the grunge scene was exploding.
Bound for platinum glory…
Their first album, the grungy Core, produced songs like “Sex Type Thing,” “Plush,” “Creep,” and “Wicked Garden.” All of which were big hits and sent the album to 8x Platinum.
Their 90s albums continued with Purple, Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, and No.4, which helped them build a bigger and bigger following, even though they didn’t stick to a strictly grunge sound.
Weiland developed drug abuse issues in the late 90s and was later ousted from the band. Then, he died tragically in 2015. But STP plays on. Having gone through several personnel changes, they’re still playing and are set to release an 8th album.
Alice In Chains
Now we’re down to the Big 4 grunge bands of the 90s, and Alice In Chains definitely deserves a place in this group. This band was a real Seattle local project.
In 1987, guitarist/singer Jerry Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney started playing together. Later, they added Mike Starr on Bass and the legendary Layne Staley on lead vocals.
Heavy Metal grunge…
The band used heavy metal elements, such as heavy drums and bass, and screaming guitars in their music. But, what gave them a distinct sound was the harmonies between Cantrell and Staley. The band continues to this day, despite the tragic, drug-related death of Staley in 2002.
AIC has put out six full studio albums to date. But, it’s the 1994 EP, Jar Of Flies, that stands out, having been nominated for two Grammy Awards. Songs like “Would?”, “Rooster,” “Them Bones,” “Down in a Hole,” and “Man in the Box” are some of the grungiest, most defining songs of the genre and the times.
We’re starting to talk about legends now. Soundgarden was one of the biggest bands on the Seattle scene in the 90s and one that most people think of when they think of grunge. They sure started that way, with their long hair and flannel shirts flying like grungy flags.
This band had a dark and grimy sound thanks to the detuning and distortion of Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell’s guitars. Matt Cameron (later of Pearl Jam) smashed out hard and complicated rhythms, and Ben Sheppard replaced Hiro Yamamoto on bass to round out the band’s classic line-up.
The Voice of Grunge…
Starting in 1986, it was probably the band’s incredible live energy that propelled them to success. That and having Chris “The Voice” Cornell as their singer.
Cornell was able to sing the low, gravelly register that other grungers were known for, but also a good many octaves higher. This sailing voice and the band’s tightness and incredible musicianship made Soundgarden great.
The band rocked hard into 1997 when they disbanded. Although, they reunited in 2010 to work on new material and tour until Cornell’s untimely death in 2017.
Whether you loved the rawness of their early records like Ultramega Ok and Louder Than Love; the heaviness of Badmotorfinger; the smoother, more polished work of Superunknown and Down On The Upside; or the maturity of King Animal, one thing is certain… Soundgarden is a band of legends.
As we can see from this list of the best grunge bands of the 90s, the grunge scene saw a lot of tragic losses of members and breakups. However, Pearl Jam has managed to avoid such tragedy and continues to push forward to this day.
When people think of grunge…
This is one of the big bands most people think of. Formed in 1990, in Seattle, from members of formative grunge bands Green River and Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam was in the right place at the right time.
Grunge was already exploding internationally when they dropped their 1991 album Ten. With hits like “Jeremy,” “Even Flow,” and “Alive,” this album propelled Pearl Jam to the forefront of the scene and eventually went 13x platinum.
Did fame go to their heads?
Follow-up albums Vs. (1993) and Vitalogy (1994) were some of the most anticipated and fastest-selling albums ever at the time of their releases. And, then the band started to do things to limit their own success.
They sued Ticketmaster for monopolizing ticket sales. They refused to make videos for many of their hit songs. But, they continued making music.
With 30 years and 11 albums under their belts, Pearl Jam is still going strong. Singer Eddie Vedder’s full voice is still the same, even if the band has backed off from the heavier grunge sound of the 90s and focused more on hard rock.
But songs like Daughter, Better Man, Jeremy, and Immortality still get play and remind us that this was probably the most popular grunge band of the 90s.
Even if Pearl Jam outsold them in the US, Nirvana is still probably the defining band for the grunge scene. Their popularity worldwide is unbeaten by any of the other grunge bands we’ve seen so far.
Formed in 1987 by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington, Nirvana struggled for a while to find their legs. But, they still garnered a local following in the Seattle area.
After working through a host of drummers, they eventually settled on Dave Grohl (thanks to King Buzzo of Melvins!), and the classic Nirvana line-up was formed.
With Cobain’s tortured vocals and clever songwriting, the band’s energy, and crazed live show antics, Nirvana took off. In 1991, they released their first major label album, Nevermind, which blew up instantly.
It combined the heaviness and energy of their earlier records (Bleach, other singles, and EPs) with a more pop-based sensibility. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became an anthem for the grunge scene, and a smash hit.
The greatest grunge tragedy…
However, the band struggled with personal problems. The year 1994 saw the tragic death of Kurt Cobain, and their career together was cut short. But, the legend lives on with a list of memorable songs as long as your arm.
“In Bloom,” “Breed,” “Lithium,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “All Apologies,” and a whole lot more are still fodder for budding guitarists today. And the Nirvana smiley face t-shirt can be found around the world.
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Who Were the Best Grunge Bands of the 90s?
Nirvana tops my list for being the most recognized worldwide. Pearl Jam sold the most grungy records in the 90s. Soundgarden and Alice In Chains put out some of the best songs associated with the grunge scene. The other bands on my list were either massive successes or early forefathers of grunge.
With its deep and powerful vocals, detuned and distorted guitars, metal-based beats, and deep, brooding, and angsty punk attitude, grunge was a musical movement that came around to replace hair metal.
And although it was tinged with darkness and tragedy, this is music that still stands the test of time.
So, until next time, let the music play.