10. Melvins – Stoner Witch
I’m from Seattle, where local ordinance requires everyone to dress up as the anarchy cheerleaders from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video on Casual Friday. And when it comes to grunge, we Seattleites choose the Melvins’ seventh album, Stoner Witch. It’s the Aberdeen band’s happiest album, which is meant to say they took it upon themselves to reconstruct classic rock and metal themes and run them through their typically hazy filter—sometimes, like in “Queen” and “Revolve,” several times at once. But the second half reminds you who you’re dealing with: a no-fucks-given band always in service to the mood and the song, whether it’s the quiet, dreading solicitude of “Shevil” and “Lividity” or the off-putting, extended wall of noise that sets up “Magic Pig Detective.” The Melvins’ earlier works may be more revered, but Stoner Witch showed the hidden scope of fundamentalist hard rock. Stoner Witch. It’s what’s for grunge. – Paul Pearson
9. Nirvana – Bleach
(1989; Sub Pop)
Thanks to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana entered the zeitgeist as the quintessential grunge band, though it was their debut, 1989′s Bleach, that was in fact their grungiest. Recorded before Dave Grohl joined the band (replacing original drummer Chad Channing) for a now-legendary sum of $600, Bleach is the sound of a band on their way to something great, yet making a spectacular noise while figuring it all out. Kurt Cobain’s guitar sounds less like a vehicle for melody than an engine in a constant state of revving, while his lyrics are generally a series of Dadaist one liners (“No recess!” “I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned!“). It’s angst and energy distilled down to its grimiest essence, though Bleach transcends its great-band-in-the-making status by actually containing its share of great songs, among them opening track “Blew,” whose sinister riffs wouldn’t be out of place on swan song In Utero, and “About a Girl,” the album’s purest pop song. To hear it now, it’s amazing to think that major label A&R could hear hitmakers through the muck—that’s some amazing foresight for sure, but they’re definitely there, beneath the scruff and the squalor. – Jeff Terich
8. Pearl Jam – Vs.
The Seattle quintet may not have avoided a sophomore slump in terms of sales numbers, as their debut Ten has gone 13 times platinum while this follow-up has only managed seven. Yet Vs. definitely took many creative steps forward, and with arguably seven of its 12 tracks getting significant radio play (an on-base percentage reached mostly by classic rock legends and, well, Nirvana) it had a longer sonic reach. Band members admitted that Vs. was more of a team effort than Ten. It shows first in their balance between loose-limbed instrumental mania (“Go,” “Dissident”) and balladry (“Indifference,” “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”). It’s also evident in the work put into dragging lead singer Eddie Vedder to the finish line of his songwriting. His delivery on “Blood” and “Rearviewmirror,” both songs about identity, especially embraces catharsis as well as the struggle to get there. The first in their notorious series of creative curveballs, I’ll gladly call this Pearl Jam’s best album—and it’s not even close. – Adam Blyweiss
7. Soundgarden – Superunknown
Four albums into their career, Soundgarden held on to their alternative metal roots while pushing into new sonic and melodic territory. Housing some of Chris Cornell’s darker lyrics with a brooding atmosphere to match, Superunknown still managed to contain its fair share of bombast and flair, with crunching solos and brutal rhythmic attacks aplenty. Along the way, though, Soundgarden managed to mix in moments of psychedelia (“My Wave”), sludge (“Mailman”) and Beatles-esque harmonies (“Head Down”) while experimenting with time signatures and alternative tunings for a more sophisticated take on the standard grunge sound that had already been well-established by the album’s release in 1994. To this day, of course, the album’s centerpiece remains “Black Hole Sun,” a deceptively catchy dirge that alternates between a desolate, minimal verse and swampy, psychedelic chorus before spiraling into one of the genre’s most notable climaxes. It’s understated moments like that one that really set Superunknown apart from the flood of mid-90s grunge releases, truly showcasing a band that made the most of every measure. – A.T. Bossenger
6. Pearl Jam – Ten
Every grunge head has heard the story behind the birth of Pearl Jam and their debut album Ten, but I will tell it again. In search of a lead singer, the band’s instrumental demo was sent around and found its way to an unknown Eddie Vedder, who recorded his own lyrics over it and sent it back. He was hired immediately. Fast forward a year and Ten was released and, eventually, 13 million copies sold. The early stage production is evident upon listening, but the quality of the tracks and and Vedder’s raw, passionate vocals shine through. When Ten was released, Time didn’t know what to call it, as well as the scene that exploded around it. Ten created a culture and its straight up rock ‘n’ roll sound is timeless. – Brad Johnson
5. Alice in Chains – Dirt
Beginning life as a glam-metal cover band called Sleze, before changing their name to the stylized Alice ‘N Chains in the late ’80s, Alice in Chains weren’t grunge in their earliest days. Grunge, arguably, wasn’t even really a thing. Yet as a Seattle band, they were at ground zero for grunge’s arrival, and as such evolved to become not only one of its biggest successes but one of its biggest innovators as well. Dirt is widely regarded as their masterpiece and for good reason. Though it’s not a perfect album (it does contain “Godsmack,” after all) the sheer ambition of Dirt is what sets it apart as a defining work, meshing an accessible, slightly hallucinogenic take on songwriting with metal’s heaviness (they toured with Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, though apparently didn’t get the best reception from crowds at the time). Taken as a whole, the album is a hell of a ride, kicking the door open with the explosive crunch of “Them Bones,” navigating a dark psychedelia with “Would?” and even offering up one hell of a power ballad with “Down in a Hole.” Ultimately this lineup of Alice in Chains would prove to come to a tragic end, with singer Layne Staley succumbing to his heroin addiction in 2002 and a separate overdose claimed the life of bassist Mike Starr in 2011. The band continues on in a different form, but it was with Dirt that the band achieved their greatest moment of glory. – Jeff Terich
4. Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff
(1988; Sub Pop)
I’m from Seattle, where the history of grunge is taught in elementary schools by grizzled middle-aged waifs who’ve been advised not to be around kids. And when it comes to grunge, we Seattleites choose Mudhoney’s debut EP Superfuzz Bigmuff. If you’re looking for the origins of American grunge, this is where you go. And then, subsequently, Mudhoney will pick you up by the back of your collar and take you to the Stooges, electric blues and the more unglued garage rock of the ’60s. Mark Arm and Steve Turner remain the truest guitar heroes of the Northwest. Superfuzz Bigmuff’s commitment to power overrides sentiment and mock valor, from the prototypical opener “Need” to the monumental “In ’n’ Out of Grace,” which makes Christianity sound almost as fun as an emergency visit to the burn ward. Superfuzz Bigmuff. The grunge that refreshes. – Paul Pearson
3. Nirvana – In Utero
I’m still not entirely sure anyone has figured this album out. Nirvana’s caustic swan song of a third album isn’t as chaotic as Steve Albini’s association with it might lead you note unheard to believe, and nor is its most-played single, “All Apologies,” in any way indicative of its sound. In Utero features Kurt Cobain’s deepest, most revealing songwriting, and is probably the closest he, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl came to creating the unique sound he heard in his head—his core melodic instincts are almost ubiquitous but the rebellious punk ethos that motivated him is never compromised, even when strings show up on “Dumb.” The earsplitting feedback of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is every bit as essential to understanding Nirvana as the addictive hooks of “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Rape Me.” Many will argue that Nevermind is Nirvana’s best album on the strength of its iconic singles and fan favorites like “Breed,” and that’s certainly fair to say, but In Utero is the band’s most complete recorded statement of purpose. It will also, sadly, stand as the prelude to Cobain’s suicide; he wouldn’t write the note until the MTV Unplugged performance, but the obvious despair on the album makes it clear he’d already begun drafting it. – Liam Green
2. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
To say that Smashing Pumpkins is a grunge band can be pretty limiting; only a few of their albums really fit in comfortably alongside those on this list, and by 1998 they were borrowing more from The Cure and Depeche Mode rather than Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. (One of their best songs, “Eye,” has essentially no guitar at all.) In 1993, though, Billy Corgan crafted what might be the best sounding album ever to be called grunge, Siamese Dream. Recorded with Butch Vig, who also produced Nirvana’s Nevermind, Siamese Dream is an ambitious work with layers upon layers of guitar, as much a work of Loveless-style shoegaze as it is a meaty guitar rock album with visions of Valhalla. “Cherub Rock” is the alt-rock hit that proves its place in the genre, Corgan cynically sneering against the concept of selling angst (disparaging grunge is a grungeable offense) while “Mayonaise” is a fluffy bed of guitar fuzz that feels weightless and utterly gorgeous. It’s the kind of classic album, immaculately constructed from beginning to end, that Corgan’s heroes made. And maybe not coincidentally, it also nearly destroyed the band. - Jeff Terich
1. Nirvana – Nevermind
Living in a college town in 2016, sometimes it feels like I’ve been zapped back to the early ‘90s. Case and point: Since being assigned this blurb a few days ago, I’ve seen at least a dozen non-ironic Nirvana t-shirts, all sporting the band’s iconic, Nevermind-era Bodoni font. And while it’s easy to laugh at the ubiquitous, almost commonplace fate of an album that was considered so daring at its inception, it’s these Washington state golden boys that get the last laugh. After all, some cliches stick for a reason, and Nevermind still pulls its weight after all these years.
Is “Smells Like Teen Spirit” overplayed? Yeah. Is it difficult to play back tracks like “In Bloom” or “Come As You Are” without hearing hints of the post-grunge garbage that would eventually stumble along the path of Nirvana’s foot steps? Indeed. But take a deep breath and really focus on these songs and the treatment Butch Vig helped the trio achieve and these tracks still resonate as a perfect hybrid of pop-punctuality and alt-rock grit.
With Nevermind, Nirvana cracked the code they had began analyzing on 1989’s Bleach, offering up a diverse palette of moody yet raucous tracks that could fit in at dingy basements or massive stadiums alike. Kurt Cobain hit a perfect lyrical balance with smart lyrics that still avoided sounding too clunky or overly cerebral for his target audience, and diversified his guitar work without losing too much of his previous edge. Dave Grohl put in one of the top rock drum performances of all time, and Novoselic carried songs along with a clean, precise bottom end to round it all out. While Nevermind might be the most ubiquitous grunge album of all time, that doesn’t stop it from still being the all-time greatest. Afterall, why fuck with classic? – A.T. Bossenger