The grunge scene largely rose out of the West Coast in the early to mid-1980s before spreading like wildfire through the following decade. But how do people define grunge, anyway, and what makes it different from rock music? Grunge is part punk, part metal, featuring loud volume and heavy distortion — and of course, hard-hitting lyrics about society and life. These 21 grunge bands led the genre both at the beginning and today.
1. Pearl Jam
Any list of best grunge bands has to include Pearl Jam. Founded in Seattle, Washington, in 1990, the group is widely considered to be one of the best and most influential grunge bands of all time. They were also active on the post-grunge scene, straying between alternative and hard rock genres. Their debut album, Ten, was released in 1991 and instantly placed them at the forefront of the grunge scene. Despite their popularity, the members of Pearl Jam steadily resisted the commercialization of their music through interviews, promotions, and music videos — staying true to the center ideology of grunge, which is resistance to conformity.
Few bands were as highly influential and acclaimed throughout the 1990s as Nirvana; it would be impossible to make a list of the best grunge bands of all time without including them. The band formed in the late 1980s but became well-known after the release of their most famous single, Smells Like Teen Spirit. It is impossible to list the countless awards and honors Nirvana earned over their time as a group; they are widely considered to have been one of the greatest rock groups in history. Nirvana disbanded in 1994 after lead singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide; nevertheless, their music continues to influence rock to this day. Smells Like Teen Spirit was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2017.
3. Blind Melon
Blind Melon is considered a fusion band, experimenting with genres ranging from neo-psychedelic rock to alternative, blues rock, and of course, grunge. Formed in 1990, the group’s initial album did poorly until several of their singles became staples on MTV’s rotation. They toured extensively throughout the 1990s until lead singer Shannon Hoon’s 1995 death from a cocaine overdose. Over the following years, the members of Blind Melon struggled to replace Hoon with a singer of equal talent; they broke up in 1999 before reuniting in 2006.
4. Temple of The Dog
Seattle in the early 90s was the birthplace of grunge music, as evidenced by the development of groups such as Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog. The two groups even had some overlapping members; eventually, the bands were essentially the same lineup with one exception. After Temple of the Dog’s initial highly successful album, they dissolved to become Pearl Jam. Despite the band’s short life under that name, the music was highly influential in setting the tone for other grunge bands throughout the 1990s.
Hole was a grunge band that formed in 1989 under Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson. Drawing inspiration from the aggressive punk rock scene, the band was wildly commercially successful. Over the 13 years of its existence, Hole was nominated for three Grammy Awards and received several platinum certifications. Not only was it highly influential in the developing grunge and alt-rock genres, but it was also one of the first successful rock bands to feature a female lead singer. Many of Hole’s songs discuss issues of sexism, body image, and other feminist themes.
6. Stone Temple Pilots
Stone Temple Pilots was formed in San Diego, California, in 1985. Initially calling themselves Mighty Joe Young, they soon realized there was an existing musician with this name and changed their band name to Stone Temple Pilots. Though reviews of their early music were highly critical, the band was commercially popular. The criticism was possibly due to an inability to categorize their music, which was said to be “fake grunge.” Realistically, their musical style was highly diverse, drawing on inspiration from hard rock, alternative, and even metal. This unique approach was later lauded by the same critics who had first challenged them.
Soundgarden was possibly one of the first true grunge bands, forming in 1984 in Seattle. They were undoubtedly one of the key groups to help spread the music style into mainstream popularity. They were nominated for a Grammy Award for their 1988 album Ultramega OK before winning two for the 1994 singles Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. Soundgarden disbanded in 1997 before reuniting in 2010; they are one of the best-selling grunge bands of all time.
8. Mother Love Bone
Fans may debate whether Mother Love Bone was a true grunge band, a metal band, or even a glam rock group. What isn’t debatable, however, was the group’s influence on the grunge genre throughout the 1990s. This was particularly remarkable, considering that they released only one album before the death of lead singer Andrew Wood. In the wake of Wood’s death, they disbanded and joined other groups such as Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden.
Mudhoney is a bit of a hidden gem in the grunge genre, having largely escaped notice by mainstream media. Nevertheless, the group is highly influential and respected among grunge and indie musicians and has been considered a key figure in that industry since its formation in the late 1980s. The group’s most influential single, Touch Me I’m Sick, is considered one of the most important tracks in the history of grunge, setting a blueprint that would inspire countless other musicians.
10. Screaming Trees
Like many other grunge bands, Screaming Trees formed in Washington in the mid-1980s. Throughout the decade, they were considered pioneers of the grunge genre alongside other major bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They only came to mainstream attention in 1990 when their single Bed of Roses placed on the alternative rock charts. They were popular throughout the 1990s as a rock band, though their musical style always remained highly influenced by grunge. Screaming Trees disbanded in 2000 but retains a cult following among hardcore grunge fans.
11. The Smashing Pumpkins
The Smashing Pumpkins are a Chicago-based band that has strayed between grunge, alt-rock, and heavy metal throughout the years. Formed in 1988, the band took a deliberate step away from the gothic rock that was popular at the time. Instead, their early music was influenced by psychedelic rock; one critic referred to them as the “grunge Monkees”. Though The Smashing Pumpkins officially broke up in the early 2000s, the band has reunited many times over the years to release new music.
L7 revolutionized not only the grunge genre but the rock industry as a whole when they formed in 1985. They are one of the few all-female grunge bands in history, straddling the line between grunge and riot grrrl music. L7 disbanded in 2001 before reuniting in 2014. They are best known for their song Pretend We’re Dead, which also lent its name to the documentary about their time as a band.
13. Babes in Toyland
Another all-female rock band, Babes in Toyland was highly influential on the grunge scene of the late 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes described as an alt-rock group, the band drew on influences from many genres, including grunge and punk. They were known for their heavy, aggressive playing style, which incorporated energetic percussion, screamed vocals, and in-your-face lyrics. Babes in Toyland disbanded in 2001 before reuniting for several years in the 2010s.
14. Green River
Unless you are a hardcore grunge fan, you might not know a lot about Green River. The band was highly influential in the development of the grunge scene in Seattle, Washington, in the late 1980s. However, they didn’t achieve widespread commercial success. Nevertheless, they laid the groundwork for other grunge greats such as Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, and Temple of the Dog. Green River is considered iconic among grunge bands and still has many underground fans.
15. Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains is undoubtedly one of the best-known and most successful grunge bands of all time. Formed in Seattle in the late 1980s, the group has experimented with grunge as well as hard rock, heavy metal, and alternative metal. Alice in Chains is considered a founding group of grunge alongside Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden (among others). They have also achieved widespread commercial popularity, receiving nine Grammy Award nominations and launching 18 singles to the Top 10 on the mainstream rock charts.
Melvins were early players on the grunge scene, forming in Montesano, Washington, in 1983. The band’s early music largely consisted of rock covers; they also experimented with punk and eventually with playing music that was slower and more somber. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that they refined their sound enough to release their debut album. Over the years, Melvins have strayed between genres of grunge and sludge metal, experimental rock, and doom metal; nevertheless, they have remained highly influential on the grunge scene as a whole.
17. Dinosaur Jr.
Dinosaur Jr. is a grunge band that formed in the mid-1980s in Amherst, Massachusetts. They were active until 1997, then disbanded until 2005; since their reunion, they have released five new albums. Their distinctive sound, featuring throwback musical styles from the 60s and 70s and lead singer J Mascis’ unique vocals, became their signature. These stylistic elements were widely copied by up-and-coming grunge artists both in the 20th century and today.
18. Veruca Salt
Veruca Salt began in Chicago in 1992 with the intention of starting an all-female grunge/alt-rock group. Instead, lead singers and guitarists Louise Post and Nina Gordon added two male accompanists on drums and bass. The group took its name from the spoiled character in Roald Dahl’s book Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. They are best known for their single Seether, though the song Volcano Girls became popular after it was featured as the opening to the movie Jawbreaker. After disbanding in 2012, the band reformed in 2013 with its original lineup.
19. Jane’s Addiction
Jane’s Addiction was formed in Los Angeles in 1985; throughout the years, the band has experimented with sounds of grunge, heavy metal, and hard rock. As they saw more widespread success, fans classified them as an alternative rock band, though they always remained faithful to their grunge roots. In addition to their commercial accolades, Jane’s Addiction has maintained a cult fanbase that has remained strong through the development and maturation of the grunge movement. Their most iconic songs include Been Caught Stealing and Stop! The band was also instrumental in founding the annual Lollapalooza festival, which began as a farewell tour for them in the 1990s.
20. Mad Season
Mad Season was a grunge band that was active from 1994 until 1996. Consisting of band members from other groups, including Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Screaming Trees, it was intended to be an explorative side project for the musicians. They released a single album, Above, in 1995. Their single River of Deceit was extremely successful, receiving a gold certification. Unfortunately, the band’s existence was cut short by the member’s conflicting schedules with their other groups; they went on hiatus between 1996 and 1997 and officially disbanded in 1999.
21. Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters was formed in Seattle in 1994 by Dave Grohl, the former drummer for Nirvana. After Nirvana’s breakup due to Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, Grohl feared it would be painful or uncomfortable to work with his band members again. He initially planned for Foo Fighters to be a solo venture; instead, Grohl found several musicians who wanted to play with him. The band would go on to have a wildly successful career that successfully breached the turn of the 21st century; Foo Fighters have won 15 Grammy Awards and been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; they have been called one of the most successful rock groups in history.
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