The Best of the 1990s: A Guide to Grunge Music

The early 1990s were characterized by a music movement from the Pacific Northwest known as grunge. The grunge movement is best known for its distorted guitars, moody or apathetic lyrics, DIY ethos, and flannel shirts. Grunge music is often credited with popularizing punk rock, which had been a vibrant if not very successful genre since the early 1970s. Grunge is indeed heavily influenced by punk, both musically and in its aesthetics and ethos, but the isolation of the Pacific Northwest allowed a unique genre to develop away from the influence of the typical American cultural centers of Los Angeles and New York City.

Of course, grunge didn’t stay isolated for long. After Nirvana’s sophomore album, Nevermind, topped the charts in 1991, grunge was credited with saving rock and roll from over-indulgent ’80s hair bands, introducing more people to punk than ever knew about it in the 20 years the genre had been around, and causing the demise of the formerly pure scene in the Pacific Northwest and Seattle specifically.

Here’s a quick look at the history of grunge music, its influences, and why it was important, along with some suggested listening.

1. Location

Aberdeen town limits sign.

Aberdeen town limits sign | AFP/Getty Images

The relative isolation of the Pacific Northwest allowed grunge bands to develop their own scene independently while operating under their own ethos, away from the lure of major labels and other corporate trappings more readily found in bigger cities. Seattle is the city most frequently associated with grunge music, but neighboring Portland had its own grunge scene and was home to the infamous Satyricon club, where Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love met. In Seattle, the most famous grunge venue was the Crocodile Cafe, which is still open today.

It’s worth noting, though, that Cobain and the other members of Nirvana are not even from Seattle, but from the small town of Aberdeen, a two-hour drive from the big city. Many influential grunge bands, and in particular riot grrrl acts, came out of Evergreen State College in Olympia. So while Seattle is known as the capital of grunge, the entire Pacific Northwest proved a breeding ground for the style. The independent, Seattle-based label Sub Pop was crucial to helping young grunge bands develop their sound and is famous for being the first label to sign Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and others.

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