The 50 Best Grunge Songs

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 But before grunge’s name was sullied and outdated, the movement changed the course of rock ’n’ roll, bringing to the fold tales of abuse and depression, bringing socially conscious issues to the pop culture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

25. Dinosaur Jr. – “Out There”
With layers of unashamedly bombastic drumming and enough throwback guitar solos to be in a Karate Kid sequel, “Out There” is a memorable number from Dinosaur Jr.’s early ’90s catalog. This mix of loud and fast rock, with J. Mascis’ warbling, patient lament, creates some of the finest synthesis of sounds, definitive of all the possibilities that the grunge movement held in its pocket. —Zohair Hussain

24. Mudhoney – “In ’n’ Out of Grace”
“We wanna be free to do what we want to do.” So begins Mudhoney’s excellent “In ’n’ Out of Grace”—starting with a sound clip from Peter Fonda’s character in The Wild Ones and eventually giving way to punk-infused lo-fi greatness and blistering vocals. Culled from 1988’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, the song illustrates why Mudhoney was one of the genre’s best early on. While the bands of the early 1990s would eventually usurp them as grunge’s golden boys, Mark Arm and company had everything their peers had, and “In ’n’ Out of Grace” is a true testament to that. —Michael Danaher

23. Soundgarden – “Black Hole Sun”
In the early ’90s, with a slew of impressive releases already under their belt, Soundgarden still hadn’t received the same attention that peers Nirvana and Pearl Jam had. Their big break came with the release of Superunknown and their megahit “Black Hole Sun,” a dark-eyed track spurned by Kim Thayil’s deranged guitar lead and Chris Cornell’s ominous lyrics. With the video playing constantly on MTV, one of grunge’s godfathers had finally gotten the attention they deserved. —Michael Danaher

22. Pearl Jam – “Rearviewmirror”
Pearl Jam has continued to put out commendable material well past their 20th anniversary. But there aren’t too many recent tracks from the band’s current repertoire that can match the urgency and grit that “Rearviewmirror” has. When Eddie Vedder screams about how he could see things so much clearer “once you, were in my…rearview mirror,” the song becomes less of a piece of music and more of a credo: Sometimes things are better left in the past. —Shawn Christ

21. L7 – “Pretend We’re Dead”
Los Angeles’s L7 formed in the late ’80s, but it wouldn’t be until the early ’90s that they would make an impression. One of the band’s best tracks, “Pretend We’re Dead,” off of 1992’s Bricks are Heavy, is an straightforward, pop-friendly arrangement lined with fuzzed-out guitars and sticky-sweet chorus. While the track showcases the band’s knack for solid songwriting, it also solidified producer Butch Vig as a presence in grunge as much as any of the performers. —Michael Danaher

20. Nirvana – “Heart-Shaped Box”
“Heart-Shaped Box” is a dark, dark ballad that only Nirvana could actualize into grunge cannon. Equal parts dingy and vulnerable, dark and passionate, this In Utero cut is a love song for the plaid and tired. It provided enough hook and depth to appeal to audiences on both sides of the spectrum—the heady had the existential destruction of love, while the head-banging masses had enough crunch and thump to risk a neck injury.
—Zohair Hussain

19. Stone Temple Pilots – “Plush”
Based in San Diego, Stone Temple Pilots weren’t a founding father of grunge, but you’d never know that based on the band’s first mega hit, “Plush.” The most popular single off their 1992 debut, Core, the song finds singer Scott Weiland’s doing his best Eddie Vedder impression—a vocal style Weiland would soon abandon—and an arsenal of guitars submerged in distortion and twang. The song is one of the movement’s most significant contributions, as it confirmed that grunge taking off and wasn’t just a small fad based in Washington. —Michael Danaher

18. Hole – “Doll Parts”
Courtney Love’s finest moment comes in Live Through This’s “Doll Parts.” Building off of a simple acoustic strum and vocal line, the song crests into a wall of despondence, in which she takes pleasure in the idea of someone else’s pain. “Someday you will ache like ache,” sings Love. In a time ripe with disorder and drug abuse, it captured a feeling more genuine than anything she’s done since. —Michael Danaher

17. Screaming Trees – “Nearly Lost You”
For whatever reason, the Screaming Trees never saw the commercial success that their Seattle peers did, but they were still in the thick of it, crafting dingy, booze-soaked guitar rock to the backdrop of Mark Lanegan’s gravelly voice. Featured on 1992’s Sweet Oblivion (as well as the Singles soundtrack, helmed by Cameron Crowe), “Nearly Lost You” became the Screaming Trees’ flagship track, thanks to fluttering lead guitars, bleary-eyed vocals and convoluted drum work. A true triumph. —Michael Danaher

16. Alice in Chains – “Them Bones”
The start of Alice in Chains’ career-defining Dirt comes like a swift punch to the gut. “Them Bones” wastes absolutely no time getting off the ground: Layne Staley’s yelping mixed with Jerry Cantrell’s meaty metal riffs cued the start of something great—something unlike anything released by their grunge counterparts. The band had achieved success with their recent hit “Man in the Box,” but it wasn’t until Dirt that they found what they were truly made of. And “Them Bones” set the perfect tone for what would endure to be one of the era’s most important albums. —Michael Danaher

15. Meat Puppets – “Backwater”
Before Kurt Cobain incorporated the Meat Puppets into Nirvana’s famed Unplugged set, the Meat Puppets weren’t a household name. And while much of the band’s music doesn’t necessarily fit into the grand scheme of grunge, their song “Backwater” absolutely does. Fashioned out of sweltering guitar work and a hook-heavy melody, the song illustrates why people like Cobain were taking notice. —Michael Danaher

14. Nirvana – “Lithium”
Though Nirvana’s inclusion on a list such as this may seem “overrated,” this is an instance where an appropriate level of attention was well deserved. What Nirvana gave to grunge was a perceptive voice, dressed and fit for the scene. They transcended expectation and typecasting, adding a melodious undertone to even the grungiest riffs, adding beauty to the dirt. “Lithium” was a prime example of that intentional dissonance. Musically, the song sonically shifts between softer verses and a fuzz-driven, aggressive chorus. Lyrically, it hits on all pegs of what any alternative scene faces: alienation from the mainstream. —Zohair Hussain

13. Pearl Jam – “Even Flow”
There are songs so indicative of a time and place that it’s impossible to ever separate them from it. “Even Flow” is one of those songs, immediately calling to mind a time when music was shifting from glammed-up hair metal to a new generation of unkempt, plaid-donning degenerates. And while Pearl Jam was figuring how to handle their exploding success, they already had the music figured out, crafting hits like “Even Flow,” which oozed with confidence and swagger, ultimately positioning the band as one of the grunge’s biggest presences. —Michael Danaher

12. Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel the Pain”
While other bands were becoming the faces of a generation, Dinosaur Jr. managed to stick to the outskirts of grunge, content to quietly craft solid, lo-fi rock albums that flew under the radar from radio and MTV. “Feel the Pain,” the opener to one of the band’s best albums, Without a Sound, sets the course for J. Macias’s immense songwriting talents. One of the movement’s best-kept secrets at the time, Dinosaur Jr. has since gotten the attention they deserved on the indie circuit, and its catalog endures today while many of grunge’s most popular acts have since become outdated. —Michael Danaher

11. Melvins – “Lizzy”
The Melvins didn’t always fit the grunge profile, as much of the band’s songs felt more metal than anything. But “Lizzy,” one of the championing tracks from the band’s 1992 Houdini, is certainly the most grunge-laden, and it’s is probably one of the main factors why singer Buzz Osbourne was lumped in with the likes of Cobain and Vedder. Its off-kilter verse and hulking, obtrusive chorus were a perfect addition to grunge’s ever-expanding catalog, as was the band’s big, bantering sound. —Michael Danaher

10. Veruca Salt – “Seether”
Veruca Salt was hardly the first female-fronted band to make a meaningful contribution to the scene, but they may have been the first ones to perfect it. Drenched in fuzzed-out guitars and pop-oriented arrangements, “Seether” is a chugging concoction of glorious grunge rock. The band might not have gained as much recognition on MTV as other bands like L7 or Hole, but Veruca Salt was possibly the best out of all of them, and “Seether” remains the band’s most infectious offering. —Michael Danaher

9. Temple of the Dog – “Hunger Strike”
Temple of the Dog was so much more than a “supergroup.” It was one of those rare occurrences that takes place at a certain point in time when a music scene is bubbling over with talent, collaboration and support. The result is one of the most melodic and beautiful soundscapes to come out of the grunge movement. Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder on one track together is pure bliss. —Shawn Christ

8. Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick”
One of the best song titles to come from the era, “Touch Me I’m Sick” is Mudhoney’s crowning achievement. It has everything you’d want from a grunge song: tongue-in-cheek lyrics, scuzzy guitars, a vigorous and vulgar performance. “I’m full of rot / Gonna give you, girl, everything I got,” sings Mark Arm. The song works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously—something the more publicized bands of the ’90s would fall victim to. It was proof that Mudhoney had the heart and mentality of grunge down before anyone else. —Michael Danaher

7. Nirvana – “In Bloom”
Nirvana’s Nevermind probably would never have achieved legendary status had it not been for the expert production of Butch Vig. On “In Bloom,” Vig’s brilliance truly shines, manifesting itself in the form of thunderous drums and strong harmonic interplay between Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl. If there was one song to epitomize the Nirvana formula, it’s “In Bloom”: muddied and unkempt, but with an undeniable pop proclivity that’s just too damn catchy to shake. —Chris Powers

6. Stone Temple Pilots – “Vasoline”
Despite making a good first impression with their debut, Stone Temple Pilots suffered from one too many Pearl Jam comparisons, sometimes even being accused of ripping them off. Purple, the band’s sophomore effort, put a stop to all that, and lead single “Vasoline” made it strikingly clear that STP was its own brand with its own sound and vision. A slow fade-in blooms into a two-note rock riff that propels the song, eventually giving way to a chorus where Weiland shows he’s more than just a Vedder wannabe. “Vasoline” was more than just a hit song; it was a statement—and the masses were listening. —Michael Danaher

5. Smashing Pumpkins – “Today”
Sadness comes in many packages, and Smashing Pumpkins dressed one of their most popular singles in bright, upbeat wrapping. “Today” is all sunshine and good intentions to start—there’s that warm, unmistakable Stratocaster line plucked straight from a wind-up toy, that defiant verse that claims today truly is the greatest day Billy Corgan—the rock star, the poet, the ice cream man—has ever known. But the meat here is in Corgan and co.’s heartbreaking chorus, a guitar-stacked reflection on regret. It’s these two extremes—minor and loud, major and quiet—and a finale that force feeds nostalgia in 2014 makes this Smashing Pumpkins singles one of the finest pieces of grunge—and pop, and rock—to hit the radio in the early ‘90s.—Tyler Kane

4. Soundgarden – “Superunknown”
For a brief moment in early 1994, grunge hit its absolute apex. Part of that was thanks to Soundgarden’s release of Superunknown, which went straight to number one. The album had a slather of songs (many of which were long-listed for this feature), but it was the album’s title track that would be its shining moment, showcasing Kim Thayil’s spiraling guitars set to Cornell’s off-the-charts vocal register. The release confirmed that grunge was full-fledged mainstream, and for a brief moment, until Kurt Cobain’s death about a month later, the movement felt unstoppable. —Michael Danaher

3. Alice in Chains – “Would?”
Nirvana was recognized in the grunge era for bringing punk rock to the mainstream, and you could say Alice in Chains did the same for thoughtful, hairspray-free metal. “Would?,” which appeared on the band’s 1992 album Dirt, was in the majority of AiC tracks that focused on addiction. But instead of turning the spotlight within the band, guitarist Jerry Cantrell used the late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood as inspiration. The result was Alice in Chains’ most direct number—a bass-driven, often ugly song that showed off the full, triumphant range of singer Layne Staley. And for as dark “Would?” can be, Cantrell’s squealing guitars and Staley’s shredded howl always come back to what’s important: that powerful melody.—Tyler Kane

2. Pearl Jam – “Alive”
Pearl Jam is impressive not just because of the meteoric success they achieved but because of the odds they beat. While the band had its own problems handling success, it was probably the only megaband to emerge unscathed from the rubble of grunge while their peers had succumbed to varying degrees of dissension and destruction. Pearl Jam’s story is one of survival when everything around them was crumbling, so there’s no more fitting lyric for the band than Eddie Vedder’s singular wail of “I’m still Alive” setting off Mike McCready’s searing solo. The song’s meaning has actually changed in time, going from a personal tale of Vedder’s past to an anthemic mission statement—one bent on longevity and resilience. —Michael Danaher

1. Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Before “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” grunge was nothing but a handful of bands in the Pacific Northwest who played rock music. But after its release, grunge was suddenly a genre, a movement, a lifestyle, a cosmic and quaking shift in the trajectory of music history. Call the song overrated or overplayed or whatever you want—because it probably isn’t even the best Nirvana song—but grunge doesn’t become a massive worldwide entity without it. It changed everything, bringing a subculture into the spotlight and giving it not only a face but a voice. Kurt Cobain has since become enshrined in the music cannon thanks to this track’s breakthrough; and whether that’s due to radio play, MTV airtime, endless media coverage or just Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl’s supernatural musical chemistry, the fact remains: no song captures a moment in time and represents all of the complexity and audacity that accompanied it quite like this one. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the very best of what grunge had to offer. Twenty-three years later, it still brims with as much apprehension, apathy and angst as it did back in 1991. It always will. —Michael Danaher

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