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Generation X was hooked on Seattle grunge in the early 90s, thanks to the breakthrough success of Nirvana. Other notable bands rose through the ranks, including Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.
But the musical genre didn’t arrive overnight: there were smaller, underground acts that paved the way, with sullen lyrics and thick detuned riffs which fused disparate elements of sludge metal, hardcore punk and classic rock.
Let’s look at some notable examples.
Essential Album(s): ‘Apple’ (1990)
Essential Track(s): ‘Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns’ (1990), ‘Stargazer’ (1990), ‘Star Dog Champion’ (1990), ‘This Is Shangri-La’ (1990), ‘Capricorn Sister’ (1990), ‘Holy Roller’ (1990), ‘Bone China’ (1990)
“Chloe don’t know better // Chloe is just like me, only beautiful // A couple of years’ difference // But those lessons never learned…”
Arguably the first Seattle band to gather underground buzz, Mother Love Bone were the perfect fusion of ragged alternative and the less offensive elements of glam metal.
Fronted by charismatic vocalist, Andrew Wood, the group provided sturdy rock anthems like ‘Star Dog Champion’, and dreamy ballads like ‘Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns’.
It seemed that stardom beckoned, until Wood, like so many Seattle musicians, tragically died from a fatal heroin overdose. Thus, the band is immortalized through their sole studio album: 1990’s ‘Apple’.
But despite Mother Love Bone’s fast rise and fall, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard would go on to even greater success after forming grunge juggernaut, Pearl Jam.
Essential Album(s): ‘Hallowed Ground’ (1988), ‘Fist Sized Chunks’ (1990), ‘1000 Smiling Knuckles’ (1991)
Essential Track(s): ‘Slow Runner’ (1990), ‘Open Fist’ (1988), ‘Throb’ (1988), ‘Hallowed Ground’ (1988), ‘Skins in My Closet’ (1987), ‘Reptile’ (1987)
Another formative group in the Seattle scene, Skin Yard created ominous skronk with sullen tracks like ‘Slow Runner’ and ‘Throb’. While never a household name, they influenced acts like The Melvins and Screaming Trees, while drummer Matt Cameron would go on to join Soundgarden.
After bashing around for years, Skin Yard called it a day in 1993. But frontman Jack Endino has enjoyed a second career as an in-demand record producer, working with artists including Nirvana, L7, Bruce Dickinson, and Hole, to name but a few.
Essential Album(s): ‘God’s Balls’ (1989), ‘8-Way Santa’ (1991), ‘Inhaler’ (1993), ‘Infrared Riding Hood’ (1995)
Essential Track(s): ‘Pork Chop’ (1989), ‘Grease Box’ (1993), ‘Jinx’ (1991), ‘Jack Pepsi’ (1991), ‘Throat Locust’ (1993), ‘Delinquent’ (1993), ‘Just Bought the Farm’ (1993)
“Dig dig dig for yourself // Dig dig deep for your soul // Dig dig dig the black abyss // Dig dig deep for your own soul.”
One of the heaviest acts in grunge, Tad (named after frontman Tad Doyle) forged a sludgy sonic stew that attracted the interest of Sub Pop records, making them one of the first acts to sign with the iconic alternative label.
Tracks like the punchy ‘Grease Box’ and ‘Jinx’ never sacrificed heaviness for hooks, both catchy and relentlessly aggressive. They also had a sly sense of humor, with provocative lyrics and raunchy album covers that pushed the envelope with impish glee.
Influential to both Nirvana and the scene at large, Tad would’ve made a much larger pop culture impact if the stocky, fashion-averse Doyle had the matinee idol looks of a Kurt Cobain or Chris Cornell.
Record label frustrations caused the band to implode in 1999, but the members now play in various projects. In 2009, Doyle fronted a surprise set with members of Soundgarden before the group’s official reunion a year later.
Essential Album(s): ‘Dry As a Bone’ (1987), ‘Rehab Doll’ (1988)
Essential Track(s): ‘Rehab Doll’ (1988), ‘Swallow My Pride’ (1987), ‘Unwind’ (1987), ‘Take a Dive’ (1988), ‘This Town’ (1990), ‘Together We’ll Never’ (1988), ‘Hangin’ Tree’ (1988)
“Sew my seed, feed your thoughts // I’ll get ya thinking anything I want // Anything // Anything I want…”
While Green River never made a huge commercial impact, their legacy and influence on grunge is immeasurable, credited as the band that helped launch the genre.
The group’s fusion of punk energy and metal riffage made big waves in the Seattle community thanks to bombastic tracks like ‘Unwind’ and ‘Rehab Doll’.
And while the band’s tenure was short-lived, it’s alumnus would go to great success: gravel-throated vocalist, Mark Arm, would form local legends Mudhoney, while the aforementioned Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament would go on to tenures in Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam.
Essential EP(s): ‘Sap’ (1992)
Essential Track(s): ‘Brother’ (1996), ‘Right Turn’ (1992), ‘Am I Inside’ (1992), ‘Got Me Wrong’ (1996)
“Well it’s hard to believe that somebody tricked you // When you can see you were only high…”
While Alice were a big band on the Seattle scene, this underrated acoustic EP has been usurped by hit albums like ‘Dirt’ and their more well-known unplugged effort, ‘Jar of Flies’.
While ‘Sap’s’ stark sound lacks the group’s guitar furor, it puts the focus on the vocal harmonies of members Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell on tracks like the soulful ‘Brother’ and ‘Got Me Wrong’.
‘Sap’ also provides connective tissue for other notable Seattle artists: Heart’s Ann Wilson provides backing vocals on the Haunting ‘Am I Inside’, while ‘Right Turn’ is an all star grunge lineup, with Alice’s vocalists, joined by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm.
By the mid-90s, the classic grunge scene was in decline. Kurt Cobain was dead. Alice in Chains were hobbled by Staley’s drug abuse, and Soundgarden would disband in 1997. Pearl Jam would disappear as a mainstream presence, instead focusing on their loyal fan base.
Regardless, Grunge left a seismic, muddy Doc Martin boot print in rock history, arguably the last major rock movement in American music.
But now, I turn it over to you. What 90s grunge acts do you think deserve extra credit for what they brought to the genre? Be sure and tell me in the comments.
And check out my pieces on Good alternative music from 1985-1990, 1990-1995, 1995-2000 and Good Stoner metal from 1990-1995, and 1995-2000, along with the honorable mentions below.
Honorable Mentions: Nirvana, The Melvins, Pond, Gruntruck, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, 7 Year Bitch, The Fluid, Temple of the Dog, Seaweed, Sweetwater, The U-Mean, Bullet La Volta, Love Battery.
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