10 Best Early Grunge Albums
IN THE BEGINNING
Contrary to accepted rock history, the alternative form of rock music known as grunge was birthed kicking and screaming before Nirvana exploded into the mainstream. Although the term ‘grunge’ wasn’t really in fashion until the early 90’s, mid and late 80’s upper Northwest bands, primarily in the Seattle area, were starting to form a distinctive musical ethos, characterized by sludgy guitar riffs, a heavy drum sound, and howling, angst-filled vocals.
However, that is not to say that all of the bands lumped into this genre were cookie-cutter variants utilizing an identical sonic template. Some of the pioneers of the ‘Seattle Sound’ pushed back against defining their music as fitting neatly into one category. Elements of classic rock, punk, prog rock, metal, pop, blues, and even funk, could be found liberally scattered throughout their musical canon of the mid and later 80’s. These are our choices of the 10 best early grunge albums, even if they weren’t characterized as ‘grunge’ when they came out.
We published earlier articles on the best Alternative Rock albums of the 80’s and the best Punk Bands (in our humble opinion). Many of these bands were progenitors of the ‘grunge’ movement, defined as much by an attitude and DIY approach to music as the actual musical style itself. Bands like the Stooges, Black Sabbath, Sonic Youth, Ramones, later Black Flag, and many others contributed to the evolution of the raw, emotionally charged blueprint of early grunge bands.
A good starting point to understanding the early days would be to listen to the 1986 compilation Deep Six, featuring five of the bands on this list (six if you count Malfunkshun). Though not having a big commercial impact at the time, it was the first trumpet call as to what was coming.
GET TO THE POINT
So what is this list? Some of the younger folks may not realize that there was a Seattle scene before Nevermind became the ‘definition’ of the grunge sound in 1991. The origins of the term and many of the early bands can be traced to the small indie Sub Pop label. One of it’s founders, Bruce Pavitt, described one the labels early records by Green River, Dry As A Bone, using the term ‘grunge’ to describe their loose yet bombastic sound. Sub Pop’s co-founder Jonathon Poneman was also credited by others with first using the descriptive term. Either way, it stuck.
This list attempts to capture the early, pre-Nevermind, progenitors of the grunge era, even if many of the bands listed disliked, or even hated, getting lumped into this descriptor. It’s my list so they have no say in the matter.
The rules :
- The list is in (rough) chronological order.
- They are not ranked – that would be silly.
- As always, music is subjective – if you think I am way off, missed a more important album, or have one on there I shouldn’t, feel free to contact us. Please be nice.
- Since this site is mostly promoting vinyl-based listening, I have primarily linked to vinyl versions of the albums listed.
As usual for our site, I don’t always adhere to these rules too well. I will not try to do a thorough review of the album, others have thoroughly critiqued the genre and the artists over the years. Instead, thanks to the miracle of online music (BUY VINYL), the reader can decide for themselves whether it is their cup of coffee (Seattle reference, get it?).
HERE WE GO
Green River – Come On Down
What is their sound : Ragged and raw. This is unpretentious garage rock, careening like a kid on an icy slope, screaming raw-throated as he tries to avoid crashing into the pine trees. They could sound like the red-headed stepchild of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, with a Seattle twist, but did it their way. These were talented musicians that you could imagine at your local bar drinking heavily during their set then joining the crowd in the parking lot to smoke some weed.
Why is this album significant : Often considered the first real ‘grunge’ album, Green River helped define the genre, as much through attitude and influence as musical impact. Another band whose legacy far outweighed their initial musical importance, they spawned other bands like a Pacific salmon. Leader Mark Arm went on to form Mudhoney (see below), while Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard joined Mother Love Bone (see below), then another little band known as Pearl Jam.
Skin Yard – Skin Yard
What is their sound : Hardly heard from outside the Northwest, this is a band that you listen to and wonder – what if? It’s pretty easy to discern the influences they incorporated, and then passed on. Relentlessly noncommercial, this was still accessible hard rock. Slashing guitars, frequent tempo changes within songs (see Nirvana, soft-loud), and dramatic, sometimes tortured, vocals. It wasn’t ‘hooky’, but I defy you to listen to ‘Epitaph for Yesterday’ and claim it wouldn’t have fit into the alternative scene 5-10 years after it’s release in 1986. 1988’s Hallowed Ground was also well worth repeated listening.
Why is this album significant : Besides being one of the ‘blueprint’ Seattle bands before the scene ‘grew up’, it was a big part of the somewhat incestuous early scene. Jack Endino went on to become one of the eras most important producers. Drummer Matt Cameron left to join Soundgarden, then Pearl Jam. Drummer Barrett Martin became a member of Screaming Trees. Ben McMillan and Scott McCullum formed Gruntruck, another favorite band of mine. In short, their musical impact extended far beyond their success at the time. They were ahead of the curve.
Melvins – Gluey Porch Treatments
What is their sound : One of the original ‘post-punk’ bands, they formed in the early 80s as a trio of high-school friends. Their early sound incorporated hardcore punk elements but quickly morphed into a slower ‘sludgy’ sound characterized by a heavy guitar sound and doomy vocals. The Seattle cousin of Black Flag.
Why is this album significant : The Melvins helped define the ‘heavy’ aspect of grunge, with mostly short blasts of angst-filled noise and jagged riffs. Although they were better known for their later releases, this album placed their stake in the ground as one of the defining voices of the ‘Northwest sound’, gray clouds and all.
U-Men – Step On A Bug
What is their sound : A slowed-down version of punk, featuring alternately spiky then slashing guitars, with raw-throated, often humorously overdone vocals, it had hints of the horror/rockabilly punk of the Misfits. Their chaotic, sometimes atonal, and relentlessly strange sound was never going to gain mainstream appeal. However, it was pretty easy to identify some of the key elements of the coming musical wave with the rhythmic shifting between a chugging train and backwoods twang.
Why is this album significant : U-Men never made much of an impact outside of their Seattle hometown. However, as one of the first and most unique acts in the early 1980’s scene, they impacted almost every other band on this list, many of whom had opened for them at one time or another. This was their only full album and the band broke up soon after, in another case of one of the originals missing out on the mainstream acceptance to come.
Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff
What is their sound : As the next Mark Arm project after Green River broke up, many of the same musical elements followed. Arm’s snarly vocals screeched out dark-humored, snarky lyrics that presaged the whole angsty vibe of the bands they influenced later. If one song can encapsulate a band, for Mudhoney it was their most recognizable single ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’. It was a Stoogey anthem of frenetic punk sleaze. Although not part of the original Superfuzz release, this was one of several singles added later and released in 1990.
Why is this album significant : ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ was one of the earliest singles released on Sub Pop Records, while Superfuzz Bigmuff followed the Green River finale released a year earlier. Mudhoney became a featured label band, along with Soundgarden, paving the way for the big noise to come. Kurt Cobain claimed Mudhoney as a major influence, which can be clearly heard in Nirvana’s pre-Nevermind records. Although their popularity faded somewhat along with the grunge scene they helped birth, they continue to rock on to the present day.
TAD – God’s Balls
What is their sound : The primary label applied to TAD’s sound was ‘heavy’. As in heavy riffing, heavy lyrics, pounding rhythms – heavy metal, but different. Think Soundgarden but even less subtle, and without the superhuman vocalist. Tad Doyle looked like a lumberjack, and sang more like Henry Rollins than Chris Cornell. The guitars matched, buzzing like chainsaws.
Why is this album significant : Often overlooked in the canon of grunge, Tad’s thick as mud sound and wailing lyrics were as strong a statement as any of the more successful bands to follow. The debut album, released on Sub Pop in 1988, hit like a hammer, but like most of the albums on this list, came a little too early in the scene to achieve commercial success. Even had it come later however, it probably hewed a little too closely to a death metal vibe to ever be heard on radio. But if any band personified the attitude side of ‘grunge’, it was TAD.
Screaming Trees – Buzz Factory
What is their sound : Throughout their history, the Screaming Trees sound was most often described as ‘psychedelic hard rock’. Defined by swirling guitars and Mark Lanegan’s whisky and cigarette vocals, the Trees would not have been out of place on a stage in the 60’s, although they would have probably been the loudest band on the bill. While the music was heavy, it always had a strong sense of melody and atmosphere, which was most evident on their later more commercially successful recordings in the 90s.
Why is this album significant : Lead singer Lanegan made clear he didn’t think much of the earlier work of the band, or the ‘grunge’ label that was later applied, lumping them in with all the other Seattle bands. His autobiography ‘Sing Backwards and Weep‘ is an eye-opening history of the trials and travails of the band, leading to their eventual disintegration. Buzz Factory was actually already the fourth release of the band, and it wouldn’t be until their sixth album, Sweet Oblivion, that they would achieve commercial success. But I always thought Buzz Factory was an unique sounding album for the time, melding the atmospheric guitars with Lanegan’s growling vocals in a way not seen until Soundgarden and Pearl Jam emerged.
Soundgarden – Louder Than Love
What is their sound : That voice, screaming over the top of the locomotive riffs. Until Chris Cornell came along, vocal prowess had not been a prerequisite of the ‘grunge’ sound. Like the punk bands preceding them, many bands of the era considered technical skill to be almost a hindrance, a stain on their credibility. Soundgarden reset the mold, incorporating a Robert Plant godlike front-man howling over a Black Sabbath dirty sludge, without the Tony Iommi solos.
Why is this album significant : The band’s debut album, Ultra Mega Ok, garnered critical acclaim as an almost traditional heavy metal album with traces of their punk backgrounds. Louder Than Love, though far from a cohesive statement, documented their transition into their signature sound. Lyrically and musically it doesn’t match up to their later releases Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, two of the best, and loudest, musical statements to come out of the 90s alternative era. Criticized for it’s sometimes misunderstood lyrics, and Cornell’s shirtless 70’s rock-god stage persona, it nevertheless showed the band’s enormous potential, which was later fulfilled in spades.
Mother Love Bone – Apple
What is their sound : Rising from the ashes of Malfunkshun and Green River, two of the most important early local heroes of the Seattle scene, Mother Love Bone had all the ingredients of success. Led by the charismatic and talented lead singer Andrew Wood, the band was basically an all-star lineup that also featured future Pearl Jam founders Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. Incorporating elements of glam metal and punk with more conventional hard rock and Wood’s spacey, dreamy lyrics, the musical future was bright.
Why is this album significant : The story of Mother Love Bone was destined to be short and tragic. Just before the release of their debut, Andrew Wood died of an overdose. The album was released in 1990, and remains one of the most important examples of why the ‘grunge’ scene wasn’t just one-dimensional in sound or style. Wood was a unique front man, an irreplaceable piece of the band. One of rock’s saddest stories of lost potential, at least there remained a sonic document of Wood’s musical moment in time.
Alice In Chains – Facelift
What is their sound : In an era and geographical location where the musical landscape was dominated by gloom and doom lyrics riding the heaviest of heavy metal riffing, nobody was gloomier than Alice In Chains. Fronted by vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell, their unique vocal harmonies and sludgy metal riffing, the band was probably labeled as a ‘grunge’ band primarily by association. Both in subject matter and style, the band incorporated several metal genres – heavy, doom, even black – although often foraying into more accessible, softer alternative conventions. The death of Staley was another in a series of immense talents lost to the scourge of drugs and depression. Unlike most of the other bands of the era, Alice and Chains has soldiered on, and the rock world is better off for it.
Why is this album significant : When initially released in 1990, Facelift sold slowly, not really fitting into the fading hair metal scene, not being particularly radio friendly. That changed when the single ‘Man in the Box’ went into heavy rotation on MTV, shooting the band into the forefront of the emerging alternative scene. Staley’s distinctive pained growl-to-howl vocals and the song’s thumping, grinding rhythms was a musical and visual shotgun blast that was only eclipsed later by Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It announced a new aesthetic that was here to stay, driven not by gaudy flash and mindless good times, but through a gritty documentation of a dark reality.
WHAT I DID NOT INCLUDE
There were a lot of other bands that played a big part in creating the ‘Seattle sound’, even some that were not technically from Seattle. It is impossible to quantify the impact of every band, because many of them were influential but not well known or didn’t have much recording history. Here are a few more that deserve mention:
- Wipers : Is This Real? Although primarily considered a punk band, and from Portland, elements of their sound carried over into the grunge era. Bands like the Melvins, Mudhoney, and Nirvana mentioned their strong influence on their own sound.
- Malfunkshun : Return To Olympus The band formed in 1980 by singer Andrew Wood and his brother Kevin only recorded one full album and was beset by internal issues from their earliest days. After Andrew Wood left to join Mother Love Bone (see above), his brother carried on and the band exists to the current day.
- Bam Bam : Villains (Also Wear White) Fronted by Tina Bell, an African-American woman, and featuring future Soundgarden and Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron, this was a band facing heavy headwinds in a scene dominated by flannel-clad white men. Although recognized as a grunge pioneer, Bell never received the recognition she deserved and died tragically in 2012.
- Nirvana : Bleach Yeah, big surprise. This is hardly an overlooked album now, but at the time (1987), it did not have a big impact. Obviously, they would have their time in the sun so did not list this album, although it definitely was one of the first punk-grunge markers.
The post-punk, post-hair metal that characterized the upper Northwest scene of the late 80’s was a sea-change in rock music that is still felt to this day. It led to the domination of the 90’s ‘alternative’ bands on the radio and video of the time.
Turning it’s back on the sound and fashion of the over-the-top mid-80’s, these were bands that lived for the music. Most of them never expected to be famous or rich. In the process of making music for a relatively small group of friends and fans, they often ended up creating something for a much broader audience – people looking for something real and heart-felt. Preferably with a lot of guitar noise and a heavy beat.
Although later epitomized by the angst and howl of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and many other with more commercial success, much of the credit should go to the early bands who had no expectations other than making the music they could identify with and believe in. Although many are lost to the history of rock music, we should always try to remember and acknowledge their contributions.
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Hopefully you enjoyed this listing, or at least appreciated my effort. We have a lot of other recommendations for music worthy of your listen, feel free to browse our site. Once again, we encourage you, whenever possible, to BUY VINYL. It’s the best listening experience, in our opinion.