The 50 Best Grunge Songs

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The 50 Best Grunge Songs

Twenty years ago, grunge had reached its peak. Shortly after Soundgarden’s Superunknown went to No. 1 and confirmed that grunge was no longer an isolated genre but an international phenomenon, Kurt Cobain’s suicide shook the scene to its core. Grunge had been building steadily in the late ’80s before exploding into the mainstream in the early ’90s, but in 1994, it was fading fast. Pearl Jam was trying to hold it together, retreating from the spotlight as fast as they could; Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and hordes of others were battling horrid drug addictions and struggling for survival. It was a dark and dire time, and soon it was clear that the movement had nowhere to go but down.

But before the movement unraveled, it offered some mind-blowing music. What follows is a list of the best songs from that era. While everybody—including the artists themselves—has their own definition of what constitutes grunge, for the sake of this list, we end grunge with Kurt Cobain’s death (with a few exceptions for stragglers in the year that followed). Beyond that was the beginning of alternative rock and the exhaustive, redundant slog of bands that followed for the duration of the ’90s. But before grunge’s name was sullied and outdated, the movement changed the course of rock ’n’ roll, bringing to the fold tales of abuse and depression, bringing socially conscious issues to the pop culture table, perpetuated by the likes of MTV. And while many “essential” songs unfortunately got the ax, and some not-so-essential songs too, what follows is a varied and adept sampling of a movement that changed the course of rock music. Here are our favorites.

50. Mother Love Bone – “Crown of Thorns”
Before there was Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, there was Andrew Wood and Mother Love Bone. The band’s career would be short-lived, but “Crown of Thorns” is the perfect combo of Wood’s vocal showmanship and the musical strengths of guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, who would go on to form Pearl Jam. Wood’s tragic overdose would leave a big gap to fill—one that would ultimately lay the foundation for one of grunge’s biggest mainstays. —Michael Danaher

49. Green River – “Swallow My Pride”
Green River is one of the first grunge bands to have success in Seattle’s burgeoning music scene in the late 1980s. That shouldn’t be a surprise, considering the band was composed of future members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. So, stunning tracks like “Swallow My Pride” were just a byproduct of all that talent and craft. The song, featuring distortion-soaked production and uncouth vocals, encompasses everything that the movement held dear. —Michael Danaher

48. 7 Year Bitch – “The Scratch”
In a music scene that suffered from hordes of doubt, depression and drug abuse, 7 Year Bitch’s “The Scratch” was the other side of the coin, showing an unbridled swagger and self-assuredness. Clocking in less than two minutes, the lead track from the band’s 1994 release, ¡Viva Zapata! (named in memory of Gits singer Mia Zapata), benefited from its brevity, quick-tempered vocals and churning guitar. —Michael Danaher

47. Screaming Trees – “Dollar Bill”
Part of what made the Screaming Trees so interesting as a grunge act was that they didn’t follow the status quo. While others were caught up in trying to make the most noise, the Screaming Trees seemed only concerned with writing solid, straightforward songs. One of the best instances is “Dollar Bill,” a highlight from 1992’s Sweet Oblivion. It has all of the tropes and tricks that grunge had to offer, but at a more sophisticated level than many were capable of. —Michael Danaher

46. The Gits – “Bob (Cousin O.)”
Recorded when the Gits were hitting their stride, “Bob (Cousin O.)” was a granular gem when grunge was just starting to reach its potential. Spritely and catchy, the song is a punk-laden tour de force. Unfortunately, the song’s legacy is bittersweet, as it was released posthumously on Enter: The Conquering Chicken, following the tragic murder of singer Mia Zapata in Seattle. It remains a sign of all the good things that were to come for the band. —Michael Danaher

45. Silverchair – “Tomorrow”
An Australian teenage grunge band may have seemed like a punch line at first, but Frogstomp, the debut album from Aussie trio Silverchair, sounded like anything but. Album standout “Tomorrow” showed just how far grunge had traveled. And while the lyrics are at times questionable, the music and energy is staggering—especially since the members were only sixteen when the album came out. One of grunge’s last stands, Frogstomp made it clear that there wasn’t much room left for grunge to grow. —Michael Danaher

44. Paw – “Jessie”
The song might be about a dog, but don’t let that detract from the command and grit showcased on Paw’s “Jessie.” Jump-started by thundering drums and palm-muted power chords, Paw launches into a hard-rock verse before scaling back into a contemplative chorus that oscillates between rock and country tendencies. The song should feel all over the place, but instead it holds its own as an accessible and cohesive unit. —Michael Danaher

43. Nirvana – “Blew”
Before they became the face of grunge and helped changed the course of music, Nirvana was just a band from Aberdeen, Wash., trying to make it. And their debut, Bleach, released on pioneer grunge label Sub Pop, was a catalyst for not only their career but for grunge as a whole. Sparse and stark, “Blew” showcases Cobain’s talent in all of its glory, from the menacing guitar hook to the meandering vocals. The song was your best clue of the wonderful things yet to come. —Michael Danaher

42. Love Battery – “Out of Focus”
As the lead track off of 1992’s Dayglo, “Out of Focus” puts Love Battery’s aptitude for sparse, stripped-down instrumentation at the forefront. Paring an off-kilter guitar lead with distortion-drenched rhythm, the song has an immediate urgency that gels into churning musicianship and sophistication. If anything, it suggested that the best tracks that grunge had to offer weren’t just the ones playing around the clock on MTV or top 40 radio. —Michael Danaher

41. Sunny Day Real Estate – “Seven”
Sunny Day Real Estate’s status as emo purveyors is adequately documented, but the band’s grunge inclinations are often overlooked. “Seven” boasts thick, meaty guitars and confessional, abstract lyrics. Vocalist Dan Hoerner’s refrain of “You’ll taste it in time,” drives one of the most impassioned choruses of the ’90s. —Chris Powers

40. Pearl Jam – “Animal”
Before Pearl Jam became disenchanted with the music business and did everything in their power to retreat from the limelight, the band recorded what is arguably its best album, Vs. What makes it so engaging is all of the anguish and anxiety it captures. Case in point: “Animal”—the sound of a band positively freaking out. Pearl Jam’s most tumultuous years were in the wake of their first two albums, and all of that angst and tension is spelled out in spades thanks to Eddie Vedder’s throat-shredding vocals and the blazing guitar work of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard. —Michael Danaher

39. Veruca Salt – “All Hail Me”
Chicago’s Veruca Salt was one of the few bands to survive the grunge era and successfully transition to alternative rock. The reason for that success stemmed from the band’s uncanny knack to craft distorted doom gems disguised as pop. One of the best instances comes in “All Hail Me,” a fuzzed-out construction off the band’s 1994 debut, American Thighs. Nina Gordon’s and Louise Post’s vocals swirl around each other, meshing seamlessly with thick, mucky guitars and making for an extraordinary experience. —Michael Danaher

38. Melvins – “Goin’ Blind”
Typically viewed as a metal band, the Melvins were, for better or worse, associated with Seattle’s grunge scene in the early 1990s, for no other reason than they were from Washington and used distortion pedals. But the band’s 1993 album, Houdini, makes the best case for the band’s grunge contributions, and its cover of Kiss’ “Goin’ Blind” is one of the more underrated tracks off that album. Slow-burning sludge rock pairs with doom-metal lyrics to make for a startling statement. If the band didn’t want to be associated with grunge, you’d never know it from this. —Michael Danaher

37. Nirvana – “Serve the Servants”
Nirvana responded to its critically acclaimed, radio-friendly Nevermind the way a grunge band is supposed to: by recording a loud, messy, inaccessible magnum opus as a follow-up. From In Utero’s opening notes on “Serve the Servants,” it was clear that Nirvana had no intention of creating another “pop” record. The verse’s warbling surfer-esque riff and the chorus’s raw, coarse hook was a masterwork that furthered Cobain’s knack for bruised and brooding songwriting. In retrospect, it was the beginning of the end for the band, but at the time, Nirvana seemed invincible. —Michael Danaher

36. Love Battery – “Between the Eyes”
Starting off with a distorted, tremolo guitar, the title track from 1991’s Between the Eyes was one of the movement’s best-kept secrets. At a time when grunge was starting to get bigger and feature more tricks up its sleeve, Love Battery stuck to its guns and released (via Sub Pop) a stripped-down, gut-churning collection of gritty guitars and vox. Love Battery remains one of the movement’s most unsung heroes. —Michael Danaher

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