Known for its dark lyrics, borderline out-of-tune vocals, and droning guitars, it’d be hard to argue that the grunge era wasn’t accurately titled. Most folks think of Nirvana immediately upon hearing the term “grunge,” but there were plenty of under-the-table bands that not only defined the genre in its heyday, but also influenced groups currently making the rounds. Let’s get to it.
“Frogs” – Alice in Chains (Alice in Chains)
This eight-minute opus exhibits every last stereotypically grunge trait, and still stands as one of Alice in Chains’ best, yet strangely ignored, tracks. They even busted this thing out on Unplugged and nobody seemed to care, and the song is a glaring omission on 2004's The Essential Alice in Chains. Jerry Cantrell’s ominous, simplistic riff sets the mood beautifully, and the late Layne Staley’s vocals are dynamic and foreboding. When the tune does finally hit its chorus, you know it’s vintage AiC.
“Drawing Flies” – Soundgarden (Badmotorfinger)
Back before Chris Cornell decided to sleepwalk his way through Audioslave, he was one mother of a singer. This early Soundgarden track displays Cornell at his wily best. Punctuating nearly every riff with screams and vocal pinnacles, it was clear from the get-go that Soundgarden meant business. Kim Thayil’s crazy riffage only adds to this track’s lasting appeal.
“Milk It” – Nirvana (In Utero)
Nirvana (right) may as well have had its own cable channel in the early ‘90s (oh yeah, they did – MTV), but many forget that these dudes made some great traditional grunge. “Milk It” is the kind of song that had many a parent up at night. Kurt Cobain’s vocals go from unintelligibly subdued to monstrous in seconds and Krist Noveselik’s chunky bass line drives the song. This ain’t the Nirvana the prom queen remembers.
“Sin” – Stone Temple Pilots (Core)
Core many have won a Grammy and gone platinum several times over, but ask anyone if they’ve heard
“Sin” and you’re likely to get a blank stare. This killer tune is STP’s best-kept secret and features one of the best intros in all of grunge. Scott Weiland’s vocals (before he decided to sleepwalk through Velvet Revolver) are dynamite, and the DeLeo brothers bring some great guitar melodies to the table.
“Go” – Pearl Jam (Vs.)
I don’t think there was any doubt as to what was going to be the opening track of Pearl Jam’s 1993 effort, Vs. “Go” is an absolutely wicked tune, driven by a thundering bass beat and huge guitars. Eddie Vedder damn near raps this song – it’s that fast. PJ has always had a messy side, and “Go” is undoubtedly one of its best, lesser-known grunge offerings.
“Broken Hands” – Mudhoney (Every Good
Boy Deserves Fudge)
It’s not enough for some people that Mudhoney be labeled as “underrated” only as a grunge band; there are folks who believe they are one of the most underrated bands in all of music. That is debatable, but Mudhoney certainly dished up some awesome grunge in its day, and 1991’s Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge stands as the band’s shining moment. “Broken Hands” is a masterpiece of grunge vocals and lyrics, and deserves your immediate attention if you are a true fan of the genre.
“Hooch” – Melvins (Houdini)
The buzz phrase for Melvins is “dirge metal,” but they were right smack in the middle of the grunge movement, and 1993’s Houdini is easily one of the craziest, if not best, albums in the band’s catalog. “Hooch” gets things started and it is bizarre. Loaded with riffs that may make you want to take a shower soon after you hear them, the song proves that Melvins know how to take it to the listener. There are elements of metal throughout the album, but “Hooch” is a memorable grunge entry.
“Black Sun Morning” – Screaming Trees (Buzz
Not to be confused with Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” the Screaming Trees certainly made their mark on the scene. If the title of 1990’s Buzz Factory, was alluding to guitar sounds, then that’s what I call truth in advertising! Gary Lee Conner’s guitar work nearly has a mind of its own, easily stealing the show on this song.
“Reach Down” – Temple of the Dog (Temple
of the Dog)
Can we say “supergroup”? We have Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard (formerly of Mother Love Bone at the time), and Eddie Vedder all in the studio collaborating. Only good things could happen, and they did. Although only around for one album (their 1991 self-titled release), they nevertheless made a huge impact. “Reach Down” is the epic of the album, lasting 11+ minutes and featuring dynamo guitar playing and some downright killer vocals from Cornell. If you’re looking for the plodding, yet meticulous, side of grunge, it doesn’t get any better than this.
“Lifeless Dead” – Mad Season (Above)
Another all-star collaboration, Mad Season was made up of Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, and bassist John Baker Saunders. Like Temple of the Dog, they only had one album, but it was a humdinger. “Lifeless Dead” is one of the more memorable tracks, mainly due to McCready’s trippy guitar playing.
“Swallow My Pride” – Green River (Come
If you haven’t noticed by now, grunge had a way of reusing its seminal talent. Green River (right), which boasted future Pearl Jam guitarists Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, came and went quietly in the mid ‘80s, and it wasn’t until their EP, Come On Down (recorded in 1985), was released in 1992 that people realized what an influence the band had exerted on grunge. They are now regarded as pioneers. “Swallow My Pride” is a true grunge classic, thanks in large part to the Mark Arm’s vocals and the straddling guitar work of those aforementioned virtuosos.
“Paint” – Gruntruck (Inside Yours)
Lost amid the mainstream success of grunge are the genre’s funk influences, and no band brought those to light better than Gruntruck. “Paint” is droning grunge with funk outbursts, and it’s a lot of fun to hear. This psychedelic edge separated them from the pack, and it’s no surprise whatsoever that they were Alice in Chains’ most supported act at the time.