Though it was Nirvana’s efforts that made it able for grunge-and by extension all alternative/fringe culture-to break into the mainstream, I’ve always found it more than a little amusing that such a break was made possible by Nirvana’s least-grunge album. For all of Nevermind‘s screaming, angst, and irony, it remains to this day little more than a solid arena rock record filtered through the Pixies. Indeed, for Nirvana to break with a grunge album was impossible for two reasons. First, in addition to being polished to the point of blinding, Nevermind‘s greatest asset was its ability to amalgamate the styles of its direct ancestors, long shunned by the mainstream, creating a sound that “the kids” could enjoy within reason (other examples of “amalgamation” include U2, At the Drive-In, and William F. Buckley, Jr.). Soundgarden, Alice and Chains and even Screaming Trees all released major label albums before Nirvana, but without Nirvana to provide proper context they would remain a provincial blip. Secondly, Nirvana really sucked at playing grunge.
So that I don’t get unnecessary accusations of contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism, I implore any reader of this list who owns Bleach, the band’s only bona fide grunge record, to stop reading now and listen to it. Once you’ve returned, having found it a chore to get beyond “Blew,” you should have no reason to disagree with me. Had it not been for Nirvana’s later efforts I can’t imagine that, as far as grunge enthusiasts go (assuming they ever existed and/or continue to exist), Bleach would not figure highly on must-have lists. But I suspect the following would. While not altogether on top of their game in the alternative world (with obvious exceptions), these records exemplify rather pristinely this isolated genre’s eccentricities.
Green River – Come On Down EP (1985, Homestead)
Mark Arm and Steve Turner cut their teeth in hardcore before melding with hard rock enthusiasts Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament to form Green River making the penultimate grunge band; they were named after a serial killer, they dressed like the New York Dolls, and opened for Sonic Youth. In hindsight it would appear that the members felt this to be an uneasy compromise having eventually split up into the radically divergent acts Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone (more on them later), but for a time that artistic conflict birthed one of the weirdest rock bands imaginable at the time (before the Pixies, that is). Turner and Gossard created stripped down rock riffs of a masterful sleaziness, melding Aerosmith with The Stooges. Mark Arm’s wailing vocals conjured an Iggy Pop of the schoolyard gawking persuasion. Of course after years of artistic self-exploration (mostly by Gossard and Ament) they’ve largely resolved their differences and have reunited, possibly with the aim of recording new material, which would be an interesting listen to say the least. It’s also notable that their EP Dry as a Bone was Sup Pop’s first album release by a single artist.
Melvins – Houdini (1993, Atlantic)
Today it would be more appropriate to assess the legacy of the Melvins as their being the godfathers of hipster metal rather than that of grunge. I was going to include their tank-heavy, tar-thick debut Gluey Porch Treatments only to realize that it has more in common with the efforts of Earth and High on Fire than of Soundgarden. Houdini, on the other hand, couldn’t be more grunge, in fact it may even be too grunge. That the Melvins were even considered for offers by major labels indicates the power of Cobain’s word alone on their otherwise clueless A&R reps and executives. What they ended up getting was one of the least-profitable but most awesome additions to the grunge legacy. It also may be the most impish. While there are some memorable songs on here (“Night Goat,” “Honey Bucket”), Buzz’s general output has a satirical tinge to it. Some of his riffs, while not uncharacteristic of his style, have never been so gratuitously heavy or bombastic, and his lyrics never more absurd. That there is a Kiss cover amidst all this should be telling. That said, Kurt Cobain’s co-producing credit isn’t so much an indicator of his studio craftsmanship as it is open admission to being in on the joke.
Mother Love Bone – Apple (1990, Mercury)
I’m not about to sully this list with the inclusion of Pearl Jam, but to stave off the pitchforks I’m more than happy to include its gayer predecessor Mother Love Bone, founded by Green River’s hair metal faction (Ament and Gossard) after Mark Arm refused to take actual singing lessons. As much as I side with Arm on the matter of Green River’s career trajectory, Apple isn’t some awful sellout dreck. Indeed, it’s actually quite solid. In their element, Ament and Gossard were and are particularly agile arena rockers, crafting anthemic, but hardly manufactured, riffs and rhythms that any band on “The Decline of Western Civilization part 2: The Metal Years” (with the exception of Odin who were simply too pathetic) would have done well to heed. Andrew Wood proved a fitting vocalist for Ament and Gossard’s vision, providing powerful vocals and odd, mystical lyrics. Sadly, Wood could not overcome his heroin habit and died in 1990 before the band could really go anywhere, but Apple, while peculiar compared to the other albums on this list, is a standout document of the diversity brewing in a small city and of a band who could have stood toe-to-toe with Guns n’ Roses and not flinched.
Soundgarden – Screaming Life (1987, Sup Pop)
Soundgarden were never ashamed of the fact that they possessed roughly 90 percent of grunge’s cheesiest arena rock elements, but that was only because they were pretty good at making them artful without having to sound explicitly punk. Screaming Life was made up primarily of borrowed treasures from classic rock Valhalla’s basement vault. Its sound is built on cavernous arena rock riffs and drop D tuning and topped off with Chris Cornell’s unbelievably epic Robert Plant howl. This, mind you, is their first solo recording-they’d previously appeared on the Deep Six compilation with Green River, The U-Men, The Melvins, etc. -and the confidence on angst anthems like “Hunted Down” and “Nothing to Say,” though par for the course now, likely caught people off guard. Green River attracted attention from the outer underground towards their sound, but it was Soundgarden who kept its attention, and did so again for the mainstream when Superunknown came out in 1994.
Alice in Chains – Dirt (1992, Columbia)
Even when I was young and largely ignorant of what was going on in the wider culture, I was never really impressed by Alice in Chains. If anything they taught me that a good sense of proportion is never useless, as songs like “Man in the Box” could have stood to be toned down considerably in all aspects. Hindsight has been good to them, however, at least as far as their relationship with me is concerned. The advent of their imitators, such as Creed, Nickleback, and some other abortions that I can remember specifically, I’ve had a much fonder appreciation for what the band was trying to do. Alice in Chains was the metal link to grunge as opposed to the classic rock or punk links, and Dirt is their most effective execution of this, reconciling grunge’s more brooding, simmering tendencies with metal’s outright aggression, letting the former rise more gradually into the latter. This dynamic made top ten hits of songs like “Would?,” “Rooster,” and “Down in a Hole.” Put another way, ashamed hair metal fans didn’t necessarily deserve a gateway band to grunge, but they got one, and should probably be thankful that they ruled.
Stone Temple Pilots – Purple (1994, Atlantic)
No one likes it when a new “it” genre band comes about without the same points of references the bands had in the community from which the genre originated, let alone when the band knows full well that it lacks those points of reference and as a result comes on a little strong in hopes of making up for it. So while all the flack that they caught for Core made perfect sense, it was when Purple came out when the jokes stopped being funny. After almost intentionally trying to get listeners to confuse them with any of the bigger grunge bands, the Pilots made a highly self-conscious effort to do something, you know, different. Ironically they just ended up proving their grunge credentials. By that point people were so entranced by the flannel, unshaven aspects of grunge that Andrew Wood’s legacy was almost entirely snuffed out. Whatever seemed rough and dull with Mother Love Bone was methodically smoothed out and sharpened by Stone Temple Pilots. The band packed considerable emotional substance into songs that could otherwise have coasted into the charts on pure bullshit alone. It’s also sonically diverse, with the weird but alluring drone of “Vaseline” a mere two tracks ahead of power rock anthem “Interstate Love Song” also a mere two tracks ahead of the ballad “Pretty Penny.”
Tad – 8-Way Santa (1991, Sup Pop)
If Mudhoney weren’t particularly interested in being the “Seattle sound” caricature, Tad always seemed more than willing to bear that burden. Tad was ugly in both sound and appearance; they were abrasive, sleazy, unmelodic, morbid, funny and decidedly unpopular. They were everything that Pearl Jam wasn’t, and for that we thank Tad Doyle and friends. Rather than being fronted by a hot, brooding California surfer they were fronted by an obese, clownish Idaho butcher, whose gravelly voice and bizarre lyrics were pitch-perfect for the band’s neo-Neanderthal thudding and buzzing. It all seems too good when one thinks about it. To be sure, some of the best grunge acts apply some amount of put-on for whatever reason, but Tad just seems to be fucking with us, and there were plenty to fuck with; the UK press felt betrayed when they found out that Mark Arm, lover of all things sick and canine, had a BA. Even so, Tad seemed quite serious in delivering a heaviness so severe that anyone who got close will be too busy reading other people’s lips to care that they were being played, however awesome that playing may have been.
Paw – Dragline (1993, A&M)
People don’t usually talk about Paw, mainly because they’ll get only one answer: “What the fuck is Paw and what does that have to do with our clearly very informed discussion on the foreign policy experience of Sarah Palin’s hairdresser?” The Kansas band released two albums in the ’90s before being dropped by A&M, but as we all know, dropped is not always synonymous with sucked. The Midwest has a claim on noisy rock as much as the northwest does, and leaving aside the fact that Paw’s work completely flopped, it’s odd that so few labels looked in their direction having fully depleted Seattle’s supply-or at least its good supply. Paw’s sound was hardly atypical, combining sore vocals with raw guitar distortion blasting pop melodies that were written with care obviously, but not dressed too neatly. They were not without their quirks though, so much so that one could just as reasonably chalk their obscurity up to shitty timing. Further listens reveal Paw’s stronger link to acts like Small Brown Bike, Season to Risk, and Shiner. For all their seeming ambition Paw were too punk to really work, more grime than grunge, and the most elaborate production could not soothe their most primal impulses the same way it could a Soundgarden or Screaming Trees.
Nirvana – “Sliver”/”Dive” single (1990, Sub Pop)
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Bleach, I mean, there truly have been worse albums, let alone worse debut albums. There is a scenario out there in which I could find myself tolerating the album more than I do here, but it is a scenario in which these two songs were never released, or even written. That period in between Bleach and Nevermind is to me a highly underrated period in the band’s development, as displayed by these two songs. Cobain may have loved the Melvins to the point of imitating them, but doing so did not play to his strengths as a pop songwriter, and yet going full-Doolittle as he did later eclipsed the sheer heaviness he was capable of creating without having to rely on his peers for guidance. The lyrical weaknesses of “Sliver” are apparent, but the chords are so wonderfully composed it makes for something of a Generation X nursery rhyme, at times ironic but also at times earnest and filled with anxiety. “Dive” remains ever a personal favorite of mine as it reignites in me an appreciation for what the guitar can do when pushed to certain extremes. The riff both pounds the listener in distortion and decibels will simultaneously entrancing the listener with its simple, fluent melody. Both songs ably eclipse even “About a Girl,” and such an effect may be a refresher on why we listen to Nirvana in the first place.
Hole – Live Through This (1994, DGC)
The only album that annoys the truest of the true more than anything by Stone Temple Pilots, or even Candlebox, is Hole’s sophomore album, one that people have written off as opportunistic and insincere. While Courtney Love’s motives were, and sometimes still are, suspect, we should be thankful that she tried to act on them at that time since it produced a solid album. Love exchanged the belligerent pigfuck of Pretty on the Inside with a more stripped down punk approach rendered by the sparse production of Paul Q. Kolderie, engineer behind both Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa. What resulted was an album that brought people in as opposed to driving them away-as what may have happened with Pretty, scaring the parents and the kids-letting them hear with greater clarity Love’s point of view. And that view was far better articulated this time around, with more intelligence and style but just as much vulnerability and rage. Albums such as these prevent suicides, or at the very least help spice up the prose of a breakup letter, and are just generally worth listening to. Also, I’m of the belief that the cover art should be more iconic than it currently is.
Sub-list: Top Ten Most Parodic-but very real-Seattle-area band names
1. Butt Sweat
2. Bundle of Hiss
3. Blood Circus
4. Mr. Epp and the Calculations
5. Stomach Pump
6. Sunn O)))
7. Presidents of the United States of America
8. Bold Pandas
10. The Fartz