In the summer of 1993 I was digging in the music bins at Wal-Mart and came across a lone cassette tape that would soon change my life: Smashing Pumpkins’ debut studio album, “Gish.” Instantly, I loved the heavy bass lines and the calamity of their guitars. By the spring of ’94 I would know enough about grunge to mourn the death of Kurt Cobain that April, while sitting in a hotel room in New York City.
The summer of 1994, my first boyfriend would introduce me to Pearl Jam. Over the course of my junior year of high school my jeans would become progressively holier and my clothes bought more exclusively from my small-town Alabama Goodwill. By the summer of ’95 I joined a garage band named Abby’s Fountain and took my place among the grunge masses trying to share the angst and grit of my generation through music.
By the time I graduated high school, bands like Foo Fighters and Weezer were already delivering a more pop or rock-inspired sound. And the remaining grunge bands were falling more and more into the “alternative” music genre. The suicide of Kurt Cobain laid heavy on the movement, while many of its musicians struggled with much of the same … and the raw vivacity of the genre began to fade.
The “Seattle Sound,” as the movement was sometimes called, starting with bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, was a flash in the pan as musical genres go. I found grunge almost a decade after its inception back in the mid 80s. By the time it exploded into the mainstream, it was already on its way out. I was lucky enough to catch it in all its glory during those teen years of learning who you are. Below are my top ten grunge songs from the 90s.
Amber’s Top Ten 90s Grunge
- Chloe Dancer/Mother Love Bone – Shine, 1989 – “Mother Love Bone” was one of the first grunge groups, coming out of the late 80’s and performing until 1990, when they lost lead singer Andrew Wood just a few days before their debut album release. After Wood’s death, a couple of members then formed a little band we now know as Pearl Jam. I discovered them on the “Singles” soundtrack, a 1992 flick about 20-something singles trying to mingle with the Seattle grunge scene as a backdrop. The movie featured cameos from Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and a soundtrack that still hits almost two decades later.
- Would/Alice in Chains – Dirt, 1992 – My friends in high school were mostly guys, all artists or skateboarders. On the weekends they would constantly play the album “Dirt” as we rode in circles around McDonalds and Hardees, looking for skateboarding spots. Oddly, I never owned the album until I was in my 30s, yet still knew every word to every song by the time I did. Included on the “Singles” soundtrack, “Would” got extra play in the cheap CD player a friend wired into my first vehicle at 17, a rusted, low-slung 1982 Toyota King Cab. Thus, cementing it into place as my favorite “Alice in Chains” song to date.
- Hunger Strike/Temple of the Dog – Temple of the Dog 1991 – I found out about “Temple of the Dog” years after their first and only studio album. My allure to this song spawned from my crushes on Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Now, two decades later, it’s their iconic dueling vocals that move me. Cornell’s high register and Vedder’s soulful gravel woven together will always leave me musically satiated.
- Seasons/Chris Cornell – Singles Soundtrack 1992 – Chris Cornell contributed two songs to the “Singles” soundtrack, “Seasons” being one and “Birth Ritual” the other. Despite being an angsty teenager, I loved the acoustic guitar and melody of “Seasons” as opposed to the more metal squall of “Birth Ritual.”
- Thirty Three/Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995 There’s controversy about whether Smashing Pumpkins was ever part of the original grunge sound; although I consider “Gish” and their subsequent “Siamese Dream” to be grunge, “Thirty Three,” off their intoxicating “Mellon Collie” album, doesn’t even slide along the cusp of grunge and alternative. It is fully alternative, the angst and reverb of their former albums gone, but is included here as a long-time favorite and honorary grunge song.
- Drown – Smashing Pumpkins, Single Release, 1992 and Rotten Apples, a compilation album, 2001 – “Drown” was written during the band’s “Gish” tour and released as a single. The version I found at age 16 was over eight minutes long, the back end of the song filled with electric feedback that sounded like a rusty swing set coming in for a landing. The version that found its way onto the charts was a shortened, less screech-y, less “grunge” version, but still a grunge song as far as I’m concerned. Perfectly moody, it will always be my favorite SP jam.
- Even Flow – Pearl Jam – Ten, 1991- When I first heard “Pearl Jam” I wasn’t sure I liked them. Then I saw the video to “Even Flow.” I was entranced by Eddie Vedder’s spastic movements, tangled hair and grimaced singing face. Much like the feedback in SP’s “Drown,” he soon became another embodiment of my small town teen angst. Each year, this album finds its way into all my playlists, even more meaningful to me in my 40s than it was back then.
- Jeremy – Pearl Jam, Ten, 1991 – This song is yet another off the “Ten” album that found its way onto this list. It was the third song to be released off the album, the video depicting a young boy neglected at home and bullied at school, who then takes drastic measures in class one day. The song never clarifies what Jeremy does in class, but the video depicts a student body covered in blood. Vedder says the song was inspired by a kid he read about in the news that took his own life in front of classmates. The video won several MTV awards despite not being the original video, which MTV rejected due to abject violence. Later, the lyrics would fit the Columbine killings as well as several other school shootings done by students. An odd musical foreshadowing to the types of school tragedies we now find almost commonplace.
- Better Man – Vitalogy, 1993 – This song was a favorite in highschool, but began to hit home for me in the late 90s after I was married. I watch you kids now and think about where I was at your age, my education already put on life’s proverbial back burner. I never let go of my dream to complete my education, though, which I’m doing now. To this day, the song reminds me of what it feels like to put off your dreams because someone else said you should. To this day, the lyric “she dreams in color, she dreams in red” will bring tears to my eyes.
- Burden in My Hand – Soundgarden, 1996 – This song is on my list for no other reason than I am addicted to Chris Cornell’s voice in it, the lilt, pace and lyrics hitting me just right every time. There’s no memory or fact I remember about it, it just always hits that spot in my soul. This song was at the end of the grunge era, as Soundgarden and its grunge contemporaries found their way into either the rock or alternative piles, afterwards.
As my senior year came to an end, I had made a full grunge transition. My attitude was grunge, my look was grunge and my lifestyle was grunge. I snuck cigarettes in the school bathroom, cut my long blond hair and dyed it orange. I rebelled and procrastinated and wrote lots of dark poetry. In the dictionary, grunge is “a style of rock music characterized by a raucous guitar sound and lazy vocal delivery,” but there was never anything lazy about Vedder or Cornell’s deliveries to me. For those of us who became part of the movement it was about authenticity and breaking out of the status quo. Although the movement burned out quickly, it will forever be emblazoned into many of us, a forever streak of rebellion and raw emotion that was once our grunge phase.