I was in the car the other day, letting my iPod do it’s thing, when three consecutive “grunge” songs played. It’s been nearly twenty years since I started listening to the genre, and I found my head banging in much the same way it did once upon a time. Grunge, considered by some to be full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing, developed out of Seattle in the late 80’s and early 90’s. While I live(d) perhaps as geographically far away while still in the continental United States, the Grunge sound holds a significant place in my makeup. As an 80’s kid, I enjoyed perhaps the greatest run of cartoons there will ever be, and as a 90’s teen, I found myself smack-dab in the middle of a musical movement.
I remember my mother passing by my room in the early 90’s when I was listening to Pocket Full of Kryptonite by the Spin Doctors (admittedly not a Grunge band but stay with me here–and don’t judge me, damn it). She stopped and popped her head in, looked at my CD player, and said: “You don’t listen to that kind of music.” I bristled. “Yes, I do,” I replied, and continued painting the inside of my closet. (We had just moved into a new house, and I was finally getting my own bedroom–apart from my brothers.) Now, while the Spin Doctors–as poppy as they were–most certainly do not qualify as a Grunge band, it signified a larger departure from what had been my personality up to that point. I had been listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, sure, but it was my mother’s reaction to the Spin Doctors that really made me notice how different the alternative rock sound really was.
See, the Grunge scene defined an era in my life, from 1992-ish until around 1996, when I could say this style of music defined my social life. (Not my self-worth, thankfully, as much of it was too angsty, frustrated, and depressed. I just enjoyed [still do] how different it all sounded.) So much of my life was changing in that stretch, as I was newly diagnosed with Type-1 Diabetes, maneuvering through the treacherous landscape of high school and puberty, and starting to develop an actual social life.
What follows is my Top-10 List of Grunge Songs, and why I think they’re significant. The one caveat this list has is that no band has more than one song. (If not, it’d all be Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.)
-This song is really the definitive grunge anthem and I don’t just say that because I was part of an 8th-grade cover band that rewrote the lyrics and played the song at our graduation. In front of all the parents, faculty, and staff. Of a Catholic school. The song ushered alternative rock into the mainstream, but was something of a catch-22 for frontman Kurt Cobain, who resented the commercial success. Cobain was said to have been attempting to write the ultimate pop song, something Pixies-like. Oddly, it’s the only track on Nevermind that features all three band members (Cobain-guitar; Krist Novoselic-bass; Dave Grohl, drums) as authors. The nonsensical, meaningless lyrics lend credence to the idea that grunge is just noise, but the song still echoes despite its makeup “of contradictory ideas”.
-This song is really 1A for me, thought not my favorite track off that brilliant album. (I love “Even Flow”.) It gets the #2 spot because it’s what brought Eddie Vedder to the group. Guitarist Stone Gossard wrote the song while still part of Mother Love Bone, but he and bassist Jeff Ament then joined with guitarist Mike McCready to create the band Mookie Blaylock, which would later become Pearl Jam. (I really wish they could’ve kept the Mookie Blaylock moniker. When told they’d be sued, the group elected to name their debut album Ten in homage to the former NBA guard’s jersey number.) So, a tape of “Alive” eventually made its way to Eddie Vedder down in San Diego, and he developed and recorded lyrics for it after surfing. Once the band heard Vedder’s take, they invited him up to Seattle and the rest is history.
3.) “Black Hole Sun” -Soundgarden, off Superunknown (1994)
-Despite the title, this song was really one of the few bright spots of the summer of 1994 when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain committed suicide. The song, and much of Soundgarden’s overall feel, seemed to channel something of a the Beatles. MTV used this song and its apocalyptic video to fill the void left by Cobain’s death and Pearl Jam’s retreat from the spotlight.
4.) “Plush” –Stone Temple Pilots, off Core (1992)
-One of the few bands not from Seattle to be considered part of the Grunge scene, Stone Temple Pilots emerged from San Diego, California. STP developed a distinctive sound within the distortion-oriented guitar chords, and this song remains one of the biggest hits of the 90’s. Its video is one of the most memorable ever to be produced within the genre.
5.) “Hunger Strike” –Temple of the Dog, off Temple of the Dog (1991)
-If there was ever a superband, this was it. They were the Mega Powers of the music world. And this song was their most significant effort. Temple of the Dog featured future Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, guitarist Stone Gossard (later of Pearl Jam), bassist Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam), guitarist Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), and drummer Matt Cameron (of Soundgarden and later of Pearl Jam). Written by Cornell, the song features a duet with future Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who was sitting around waiting from a Mookie Blaylock rehearsal.
6.) “Rooster” –Alice in Chains, off Dirt (1992)
-This brilliant song was written by Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell for his father, Jerry Cantrell Sr., who went by the nickname “Rooster”. The song focuses on Cantrell Sr.’s struggle and suffering after returning from a stint with the Army during the Vietnam War.
7.) “Crown of Thorns” -Mother Love Bone, off Apple (1990)
-Mother Love Bone featured future Pearl Jam artists Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, but was really a vehicle for electric frontman Andrew Wood. Something of a melancholy epic, this song make you wonder what could’ve become of the band had Wood not overdosed days before the debut album’s release.
8.) “Nearly Lost You” -Screaming Trees, off Sweet Oblivion (1992)
-Screaming Trees are considered one of the Godfathers of Grunge, along with a number of other bands. This song is perhaps their best known single, in part, because of its inclusion on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s film “Singles” (1992), which was set against the backdrop of Seattle’s Grunge scene.
9.) “Comedown” -Bush, off Sixteen Stone (1994)
-Bush slipped into the Grunge scene at perhaps its tail end. Hailing all the way from England and shaking the BritPop movement, this song paved the way for other hits like “Glycerine”, but the opening riff and strong chorus lets “Comedown” comfortably wear the grunge label. From here, though, Bush and frontman Gavin Rossdale settle into the Post-Grunge era.
10.) “I’ll Stick Around” -Foo Fighters, off Foo Fighters (1995)
-The creation of Foo Fighters probably marks the end of the Grunge period, but this song sneaks onto the list. Frontman Dave Grohl, formerly the drummer for Nirvana, assembled the band after a short stint with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and almost joining Pearl Jam as their drummer. (That. Would. Have. Been. #$@!%!) While Foo Fighters would certainly headline a Post-Grunge lineup (including the likes of Bush, Collective Soul, Live, and Alanis Morisette), this song was one of Grohl’s last forays into the old scene. The song itself fits, as does the meaning behind it, as it was written about the battle with Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, over Nirvana royalties and song rights.
So this is my list of the Top 10 Grunge Songs of All-Time. (One song per band.) My tastes these days tend to lie in the Post-Grunge genre, as Foo Fighters is among my favorite bands going, but there’s still a flannel shirt wearing, head-banging teenager in here somewhere. What does your list look like?