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.

2. Influences

Neil Young in concert.
Neil Young in concert | Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some of the biggest influences on the grunge movement were punk, heavy metal, and Neil Young. Punk’s ethos that anyone can play an instrument and that music should be a form of rebellion was highly influential on the grunge movement’s beliefs. Grunge is much slower and more distorted than punk, though, showing the musical influence of heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath, though grunge groups for the most part disavowed the beliefs and behavior of metal bands. Neil Young has been called “the Godfather of Grunge” due to his use of highly distorted guitar, especially on the album Rust Never Sleeps.

Suggested listening: Neil Young, Rust Never Sleeps; The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bullocks; The Stooges, The Stooges; Black Sabbath, Paranoid

3. Early grunge

The band Sonic Youth.
The band Sonic Youth | Sonic Youth

Important early influences on the grunge scene in the 1980s included groups from the local hardcore and punk rock scenes that were developing the grunge style, as well as alternative bands from the northeastern United States. Sonic Youth and the Pixies were two bands from the Northeast that were incalculably important to the grunge scene. Kurt Cobain went so far as to say several times after Nirvana got famous that most of his music is just a ripoff of the Pixies’ style. Sonic Youth in particular was highly supportive of the Seattle scene.

The Melvins were a Seattle band that slowed down hardcore music to make the heavy sound that would characterize grunge, and they served as mentors to many of the grunge groups that would later make it big. Along with the Melvins, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Tad are considered to be the earliest “grunge” bands, all signed to Sub Pop. Sub Pop and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm are both credited with coining the term.

Suggested listening: The Pixies, Surfer Rosa; Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation; The Melvins, Gluey Porch Treatments; Sub Pop 100 Compilation

4. Nirvana

Nirvana's Kurt Cobain in concert.
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain performs. | Frank Micelotta/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nirvana is the most famous, the most important, and the most influential band to come out of Seattle’s grunge movement. Frontman Kurt Cobain was deemed the tortured voice of a generation, a label that tortured him even more. The release of the group’s first major label record, Nevermind, in 1991, with the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” represented a significant cultural shift, the likes of which many think hasn’t been seen in music since.

But the wild popularity of grunge that came with Nirvana isn’t the point. The band’s brutal take on pop melodies filtered through Cobain’s unique artistry created some of the most beautiful, interesting, and important rock and roll music ever made. Nevermind made Cobain and company famous, but the followup, 1993’s In Utero, made with legendary producer Steve Albini, is an even better album. Cobain’s suicide in 1994 is considered to be one of the biggest tragedies in rock and roll music, as well as one mark of the end of grunge.

Suggested listening: All three of Nirvana’s studio albums, plus MTV Unplugged

5. Grunge Made Popular

Pearl Jam at the MTV Music Awards.
Pearl Jam at the MTV Music Awards | Frank Micelotta/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nirvana is also credited with ruining the grunge scene, as the band’s immense popularity made grunge the most popular genre among American teenagers, caused major labels to descend on Seattle clubs like a Biblical plague, and made terrible bands copy the style in order to cash in. One of the most famous and controversial examples of this is Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam is arguably the second-most popular band of the grunge movement, but the group was attacked for lacking authenticity, most famously by Cobain. On the heels of Nevermind’s success, Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten, soared up the charts, as well.

While Pearl Jam received some good critical attention — even more as the band’s career continued and its members distanced themselves from grunge — Stone Temple Pilots are the prime example of a group made to profit off the grunge fad. The media had a field day covering grunge and Seattle, with some saying that the city held the biggest counter-cultural movement since San Francisco in the 1960s. All the attention quickly became tiring for the people originally involved in the movement.

Suggested listening: Pearl Jam, Ten; Stone Temple Pilots, Core; Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger; Alice in Chains, Dirt

6. Riot Grrrl

Courtney Love of Hole performs onstage.
Courtney Love of Hole performs onstage | Frank Micelotta/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the most important and overlooked offshoots of the grunge movement was a separate genre that called itself riot grrrl. Riot grrrl was born out of a fusion of punk and grunge music with feminist politics at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Riot grrrl bands discussed women’s issues like rape, domestic abuse, female empowerment, and the patriarchy in their music, and dedicated time to organizing women to encourage their participation in rock and roll music. Members of the movement embraced grunge’s DIY ethos by creating zines to promote their causes and shows. Members of riot grrrl bands often wore baby-doll dresses and bows in their hair.

Like many politically based music movements, there is a lot of controversy as to who deserves to be called riot grrrl and who doesn’t, but overall, grunge’s inclusive attitude and politics — not to mention the fact that Cobain frequently identified as a feminist — fostered more great rock bands with women involved in various capacities than almost any other movement in rock and roll music. Cobain was famously married to Hole front woman Courtney Love, who had a contentious relationship with riot grrrl (see the song “Rock Star”) but also made one of the best albums of grunge right before Cobain died.

Suggested listening: Hole, Live Through This; Bikini Kill, Pussy Whipped; Sleater-Kinney, Sleater-Kinney

7. Post-grunge

Nickelback in concert.
Nickelback in concert | Jonathan Wood/Getty Images

After Kurt Cobain’s suicide in the spring of 1994, grunge and alternative rock continued to go downhill, spiraling further away from the sound and the ethos that comprised the original Seattle movement. Major labels figured out they could cash in, so from the Stone Temple Pilots came post-grunge: commercialized alternative bands like Matchbox Twenty, Nickelback, and Creed. Those acts dominated rock airwaves in the later 1990s, but are also some of the most critically reviled bands of all time. Grunge may have saved rock and roll for a time, but it died a miserable death at the hands of corporate America.

Many believe that grunge more or less died out after Cobain’s suicide; it’s not often considered to be a current genre. Can you think of any contemporary bands that could be characterized as grunge, either due to their ethos or their music?