Grunge came into existence in the mid-1980s. However, people tend to associate it with the 1990s because that was the decade during which it entered the mainstream. Post-grunge has been a thing for two decades and counting.
Even so, the genre’s most famous songs come from the 1990s for the most part. As such, that is a good decade for people to start looking if they are interested in what grunge has to offer them.
Here is our opinion on the 20 best grunge songs of the 1990s:
20. “Violet” – Hole
Courtney Love’s personal life often overshadows her professional life. That is a shame because Hole was one of the bands spearheading alt-rock in the 1990s. It may or may not have been a grunge band. Even so, there can be no doubt that it was grungey.
“Violet” was the opening track on Hole’s Live Through This. Famously, its lyrics took inspiration from Love’s then-relationship with Billy Corgan, another alt-rock musician who has since become involved in professional wrestling to a surprising extent.
19. “Plush” – Stone Temple Pilots
Stone Temple Pilots were one of the most successful alt-rock bands of the 1990s. “Plush” gave them enormous momentum by being the first of their singles to reach the top of the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart in 1993. That was one of the moments that showed that grunge had entered the mainstream. The Stone Temple Pilots still exist, having reinvented themselves again and again over the subsequent decades.
18. “No Rain” – Blind Melon
Blind Melon is a somewhat unusual choice. The band rose to prominence in the 1990s, so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that it was labeled grunge. However, Blind Melon is a more uncomfortable fit for that label than most other bands on this list because of its blues, folk, and psychedelic influences.
Regardless, “No Rain” is one of the most memorable alt-rock songs released during the 1990s. Sadly, the band never fully recovered from the death of its former frontman Shannon Hoon in October 1995.
17. “Machinehead” – Bush
People tend to think of Seattle when they think of grunge. As a result, Bush stands out by being a British band. Amusingly, it became popular enough to sell millions of records in the United States, but it was never able to replicate that success in the United Kingdom.
“Machinehead” did a great deal to make the band known by being the fifth single from their debut studio album. It peaked at the number four position on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks and Mainstream Rock Tracks charts, thus enabling that release to finish strong.
16. “Them Bones” – Alice in Chains
Speaking of which, Alice in Chains was one of the bands from Seattle that put grunge on the map. It released its debut studio album called Facelift in 1990. Subsequently, it released a second studio album called Dirt in 1992. The latter was focused on addiction and other darker themes. As a result, “Them Bones” was the perfect opening track for the release. It stresses that everyone dies at some point, thus encouraging people to come to terms with that however possible.
15. “Heart-Shaped Box” – Nirvana
“Heart-Shaped Box” holds a special place in the hearts of Nirvana fans. After all, it was the band’s last song performed before a concert audience. The exact source of inspiration for the song isn’t 100 percent clear. Kurt Cobain mentioned children with cancer. Most people interpret “Heart-Shaped Box” as being about his relationship with Courtney Love. Indeed, there was a bit of a social media kerfuffle when Love tweeted that the song’s title referred to her vagina in 2012.
14. “Outshined” – Soundgarden
Soundgarden was another band from Seattle. It can trace its roots to the early 1980s. Thanks to that, Soundgarden can be considered one of the bands that got grunge off the ground. Neither its first nor its second studio album met with notable success. Instead, Soundgarden didn’t achieve a true breakthrough until its third studio album in 1991. “Outshined” was one of the singles that enabled it to go double-platinum.
13. “In Bloom” – Nirvana
“In Bloom” is sometimes overshadowed because it was the fourth single on Nevermind. Still, it deserves a place on this list because it is the quintessential Nirvana song in many respects. Besides that, “In Bloom” is also an excellent example of producer Butch Vig’s contributions to Nevermind. As the story goes, Kurt Cobain was so reluctant to record multiple takes that Vig had to trick him into doing so. The song wouldn’t be what it is without that extra effort.
12. “Nearly Lost You” – Screaming Trees
Some grunge bands have faded more from popular recollection than others. Most are not noteworthy. Even so, a small number deserves more recognition than that. For instance, Screaming Trees were one of the first grunge bands that formed in the mid-1980s.
It worked with indie record labels throughout that decade before signing with Epic Records in 1990. Subsequently, Screaming Trees released studio albums in 1991 and 1992. “Nearly Lost You” was a single from the latter that became a Top 10 hit in the rock charts, thus bringing the band to the height of its success.
11. “Lizzy” – Melvins
The Melvins named themselves for a particularly unlikable supervisor. They are unusual in that they are still around even though they came together in 1983. Due to that, the Melvins have released numerous studio albums because they have constantly been making new music. “Lizzy” came from Houdini in 1993. It is one of the Melvins’ most memorable songs. Moreover, it is one of the better releases from that period.
10. “Jeremy” – Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam is a relative latecomer compared to some of the other names on this list. After all, the band didn’t start playing together until 1990. Despite that, Pearl Jam has sold tens of millions of records, meaning its success speaks for itself. “Jeremy” gained much of its popularity because of its music video, which was a popular request on MTV.
Lead vocalist Eddie Vedder said he took inspiration from two stories. One was a teenage boy named Jeremy who committed suicide before his English class. The other was another teenage boy named Brian, who carried out a school shooting.
9. “Today” – Smashing Pumpkins
As mentioned earlier, Billy Corgan is another alt-rock musician. Specifically, he is the frontman of the Smashing Pumpkins, which came into existence in the late 1980s and has continued into the present except for a short break in the first half of the 2000s.
The band’s timing meant that it was lumped in with grunge bands. Corgan is known to have grumbled about this on more than one occasion. Regardless, “Today” is one of the Smashing Pumpkins’ most iconic songs, which is no small accomplishment considering the band’s longevity.
8. “Hunger Strike” – Temple of the Dog
Temple of the Dog was a grunge supergroup that formed in 1990. Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder provided vocals, though they weren’t the only well-known musicians to contribute. The band released one self-titled debut album. “Hunger Strike” was enough to justify its mention here.
7. “Would?” – Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains vocalist Jerry Cantrell wrote “Would?” in memory of Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood. It made its first appearance in a romantic comedy called Singles in 1992. Then, “Would?” showed up on Alice in Chains’ second studio album in the same year. Andrew Wood died from a drug overdose. As a result, the song was partly meant as a pushback against those who judged him for that.
6. “Vasoline” – Stone Temple Pilots
“Vasoline” received its name because of a misunderstanding. As the story goes, Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland thought the Eagles sang about “flies in the Vaseline,” thus leading to his song’s name. Still, that was fortuitous because the imagery conjured by the phrase captures the uncomfortable sentiments running through the lyrics well.
Weiland said the song was about being stuck in the unpleasant situation of being scrutinized by others. That was connected to his drug addiction, which caused him to lie to his spouse and bandmates.
5. “Seether” – Veruca Salt
Interested individuals might recognize the name “Veruca Salt” because of a children’s novel about a chocolate factory. She was the girl tossed down the garbage chute by angry squirrels, which was far from being the worst fate meted out in that book’s pages. Veruca Salt was also an alt-rock band that formed in the early 1990s. “Seether” wasn’t the band’s most successful single. Still, it earned its position on this list by being the band’s most iconic song. There is an infectious energy to its sound, which enabled it to stand out in those times.
4. “Black Hole Sun” – Sound Garden
Some songs have evocative names that command the listener’s interest. Such is the case for “Black Hole Sun,” which possesses the distinction of being Soundgarden’s signature song. Amusingly, Chris Cornell came by the song’s name through a coincidence. He thought he heard “Black Hole Sun” while listening to a news report. Subsequently, he realized it would be a great song name, so he decided to make something worthy of it. Judging by the results, Cornell succeeded.
3. “Interstate Love Song” – Stone Temple Pilots
Purple was an exceptional release for Stone Temple Pilots. Each of its three singles was a hit. Furthermore, each one was more successful than the one before it. For context, “Vasoline” was the second single from Purple. It reached the top of the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. “Vasoline” remained there for two weeks before being replaced by “Interstate Love Song,” which held the position for a record-breaking 15 weeks. The latter is considered one of the greatest songs of the 1990s. That was true then; that remains true now.
2. “Alive” – Pearl Jam
“Alive” existed before Pearl Jam. Stone Gossard wrote the music as a Mother Love Bone member. Later, Eddie Vedder got invited to join Pearl Jam by penning lyrics before recording himself singing them. People tend to interpret “Alive” as an optimistic song.
Essentially, the idea is that they are still alive despite everything that has happened, meaning they are still capable of going on. Vedder doesn’t have any issue with people who go by that interpretation.
However, he had something darker in mind when he wrote it. The lyrics tell the story of a teenage boy whose mother forces an incestuous relationship upon him after she tells him that his father is his stepfather.
The song’s name isn’t a symbol of hope in that context. Instead, it is a burden that drags upon the viewpoint character. Some of the inspiration came from Vedder’s personal experiences. Specifically, he has firsthand knowledge of the shock of finding out that his father is his stepfather.
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
Unsurprisingly, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” occupies the top of this list. Whatever one can say about its quality, it was the anthem of an entire generation, meaning it is influential in a way that very few songs can hope to match.
There isn’t a single song that brought grunge into the mainstream. Still, if people were asked to name one, chances are good that they would pick this one. “Smells Like a Teen Spirit” isn’t just one of the most famous songs of the 1990s. No, it is often considered one of the most famous songs of the 20th century.
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