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 But before grunge’s name was sullied and outdated, the movement changed the course of rock ’n’ roll, bringing to the fold tales of abuse and depression, bringing socially conscious issues to the pop culture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

35. Stone Temple Pilots – “Interstate Love Song”
“Interstate Love Song” is such a breezy tune. It really blurs the lines of what grunge is because it’s just a damn good rock track that translates well on the pop charts. However, that might make it even more of a grunge song since the genre is so hard to nail down even today. Weiland’s vocal work might carry the song, but the rest of the boys are right there to keep that “southern train” moving. —Shawn Christ

34. Soundgarden – “Outshined”
Soundgarden  caught their break on Sup Pop in the late ’80s, but it was Badmotorfinger, their first recording for A&M, that garnered them nationwide attention. “Outshined” features the best of the band’s skill set—sludgy guitar riffs, lilting bridges and a platform for singer Chris Cornell to show off his vocal chops. “I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota,” sings Chris Cornell. The song may have been about being down and out, but it indicated that the band’s best work was still on the horizon. —Michael Danaher

33. Mad Season – “River of Deceit”
Another perfect example of grunge’s collaborative scene, Mad Season brought together heavy hitters like Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, Barrett Martin of the Screaming Trees and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains. Staley really shines on this one. It’s so close to being triumphant, but it’s Staley who brings everything back to reality. “The only direction we flow is down,” he sings before cooing “Down, oh down.” It’s a performance that can literally pull you down, in the best way possible. —Shawn Christ

32. Bush – “Machinehead”
England’s Bush was one of the last acts to carry the grunge torch before the scene smoldered away into different remnants of alternative. But for all intents and purposes, the band’s debut, Sixteen Stone, was very much a grunge record. “Machinehead,” the highlight from the album, played all the right notes, armed with spiraling, crunchy guitars, pummeling drums and an anthemic chorus. A country and an ocean away from the Pacific Northwest, Bush was the first indication of just how far the grunge’s wings had spanned. —Michael Danaher

31. Pearl Jam – “Jeremy”
The popularity of grunge is inextricably tied the rise of MTV and its impact on pop culture in the early ’90s. One song that reaped the rewards of clockwork exposure to the masses was Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” which tackled the topic of a teenager’s suicide that Eddie Vedder read about in the paper—subject matter that was immensely controversial at the time. The song’s signature intro bass line overflows into an onslaught of dueling guitars and Vedder’s signature moaning. It put Pearl Jam on the map because it demanded listeners’ attention. While the band has since retreated from playing the song live, it remains one of their most socially conscious contributions to date. —Michael Danaher

30. Tad – “Grease Box”
Tad never achieved the same success that their peers did, but the band was ingrained in the movement just as it was starting to take off. “Grease Box,” off of the band’s 1993 album, Inhaler, was the band’s best offering. Kick-started by a heavy-hitting bass line and drum arrangement, the song fits the grand design of what constituted grunge: headbanging swagger dressed in uncouth vocals and grimy guitar work. A hard-rock conquest. —Michael Danaher

29. Alice in Chains – “I Stay Away”
When Alice in Chains released Jar of Flies in 1993, they were already hailed as one of grunge’s biggest and best acts, thanks to their hard-edged riffs and metal-minded songwriting. But Jar of Flies showed another side to Alice in Chains, one first hinted at on their EP Sap. “I Stay Away” is the most versatile of the tracks, fusing Jerry Cantrell’s intricate acoustic picking, Layne Staley’s distinctive howl, swarming strings, balls-to-the-wall guitar leads and more. Drug problems would plague Staley into utter dysfunction and disrepair, but at the time, “I Stay Away” was a glimpse of what the band could accomplish when it was running on all cylinders. —Michael Danaher

28. Hole – “Violet”
These days, Courtney Love has made a reputation for herself in all things not music. But as a musician, as a songwriter, Love bottled lightning with Hole’s sophomore effort, Live Through This. It was visceral and raw, explosive and daring. Standout track “Violet” still captures the fierceness of the times—a vitality that only the best bands could conjure.—Michael Danaher

27. Stone Temple Pilots – “Big Empty”
Before Scott Weiland became a media spectacle for his drug use and involvement in the short-lived Velvet Revolver, he fronted a little band called Stone Temple Pilots. Remember them? Well, “Big Empty” should jog your memory. With Weiland crooning lines like “Too much trippin’ and my soul’s worn thin” and Dean DeLeo’s slithering guitar work, this track is easily one of the band’s best. —Shawn Christ

26. Smashing Pumpkins – “Cherub Rock”
One of the premier alt-rock acts of the ’90s, the Pumpkins had something of a tenuous relationship with the grunge movement. Sure, they could play along with the flannel-clad masses, but the band wasn’t afraid to experiment, pursuing Billy Corgan’s grand, almost orchestral vision and leaving many of their grunge peers in the dust. There are those that argue that the Pumpkins were at their best when they cranked the amps, and to them, “Cherub Rock” is the band’s crowning achievement. Featuring a scuzzy octave lead and a jarring guitar solo from Corgan, “Cherub Rock” is a truly raucous track that kicks off the band’s best record on a high note. —Chris Powers