Organizing grunge

Diane,

It’s time we had a definitive ranking.  Here is the exact order in which you should care or not care about so-called grunge bands.  To keep this thing managable, I’m only including bands I can think of off the top of my head.  These are the originals, the other bands lumped into that category just because they were from Seattle in the early 90’s, and all the copycats that followed in their wake.

So the next time you’re thinking of indulging in an early 90s alternostalgia trip, consult this ranking and make an informed decision.

The Cream:

1. SOUNDGARDEN

Soundgarden was the heaviest behemoth on the grunge block, alongside fellow elephant-weights Tad.  What Soundgarden had over all their competition from day 1 was the wild vocals of Chris Cornell, who sounded a lot like Robert Plant halfway transformed into a werewolf, and the intriguingly off-kilter guitar work of Kim Thayil.  Thayil and Larry LaLonde of Primus (also of death metal pioneers Possessed… go figure) were the two best guitarists in alternative rock.  I don’t know if they were the best from a technical standpoint, but they were doing the most interesting things by far.  LaLonde was incapable of a normal solo or lick, and Thayil sounded like he was reconstructing Sabbath and Zeppelin riffs he had never actually heard with the help of a broken secret decoder ring.

Soundgarden’s early work was bizarre and interesting, and “Louder Than Love” – though flawed – is a terrifying, dark-hued beast with just enough leavening humor (e.g. “Full On Kevin’s Mom”).  But it all came together on “Badmotorfinger,” the band’s finest hour.  This and “Superunknown” have been treated very kindly by the passage of time, I think.  Cornell’s voice had gotten rich and whiskey-soaked in the lower register, and more resonant and precise in the upper; he shot past his most obvious influence (Plant) to become the best singer, by far, of his generation.  His work all throughout “Badmotorfinger” easily tops the disinterested stuff he’s done after Soundgarden broke up.  And Thayil is in top form on kareening metal rockets like “Rusty Cage” (the brilliant opening riff of which was omnipresent in the motorcycle videogame “Road Rash”).

2. AFGHAN WHIGS

“Wha..?” I hear you asking.  Probably because you don’t think the Afghan Whigs are a grunge band, or you don’t know who the Afghan Whigs are.  Both reactions are reasonable. 

The Whigs got lumped into the grunge movement for a while because they were on the Seattle uber-label Sub Pop, which also released albums by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, etc. etc.  You can see why people might be confused, even though the Whigs hailed from Cincinnati and played a raging mix of punk and soul music (rather than a mix of punk and early heavy metal like the other grunge outfits).  In a way the Whigs were a test case for how the media would differentiate Seattle-based and Sub Pop-released bands in the early alternative rock boom, and the answer was “Not at all.”  So this is only the first of several bands in this list who actually weren’t grunge.  They’re also the most underrated band from that time, never really getting a piece of the rather large pie that was being passed around so liberally.  They only flirted with pop success.

Luckily for us, the Whigs spawned the Twilight Singers and a solo album by singer Greg Dulli, and also left behind an impressive catalog – by my count, six full length albums, an EP of covers, and an almost uncountable number of fascinating B-sides that were never compiled and as such have driven Whigs fans mad tracking them down.  In their early days, the Whigs played fierce, raw alternative rock with a very dark undercurrent.  As of “Congregation” they started bringing in more pure craft (a lot of “Layla”-esque slide guitar for instance) and a slinky sexual vibe that was mostly absent from the He-Man Woman Haters in the grunge mainstream.  That all came together on their most successful release, “Gentlemen,” which is the album I’d recommend first to anyone new to this band.  Its follow-up “Black Love” is nearly as good, though strangely it got poor reviews at the time of release.

3. NIRVANA

This is an unimaginative pick, I realize, but the band deserves their due.  Cobain was a master at plucking the barest song ideas from the ether and turning them into something unforgettable.  And at their best (most of “Nevermind,” half of “In Utero,” maybe two songs on “Bleach”) Nirvana sounded like nitroglycerin going off, but with melody.  It’s just a pity you can’t listen to them with fresh ears any more.  Nirvana is one of my favorite bands that I will probably never listen to an entire album by again.

The Crop:

4. MUDHONEY

Mudhoney was a reliably chaotic band from the jump, and they are only somewhat more sophisticated and demure today.  Their early work gets a lot of talk because of one crushingly awesome song (“Touch Me I’m Sick”) and one singularly great release title (“Superfuzz Bigmuff”), but their high water mark was “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge,” a garage rock/punk kick to the giblets that you really need to hear.  Most of their subsequent releases were in a similar vein and about 1/2 to 2/3 as good.

5. ALICE IN CHAINS

What an odd career path this band followed.  In their early days they were underrated, with the grungier-than-thou types disregarding them because of their pop metal leanings, and their album kind of vanishing into an uncaring marketplace.  Then “Man in the Box” became a pretty decent hit.  Then “Dirt” came out, and songs like “Rooster” were ubiquitous in college dorm rooms – and suddenly Alice in Chains was pretty overrated (their acoustic songs notwithstanding).  When subsequently, Layne Staley died young and grunge gave way to nu metal and metalcore – both of which bear marks of serious Alice influence – Alice in Chains became a mortal lock for one of those bands that you just can’t say a bad word about.

Well, I’m here to say a bad word or two.  And a few good ones as well.  Alice in Chains was never that interesting of a band, at least when they were doing their Serious and Brooding Heavy Metal Shit.  “Man in the Box” is a good song; “Rooster” is basically ridiculous.  Many of their others are semi-tuneless and get by on the sound more so than the songwriting.  (Big exception for “Would” from the “Singles” soundtrack, which might be their finest hour.)  Their acoustic work, however, was unexpectedly well-done and elevates them on this list.  And Jerry Cantrell’s guitar work for the band was always solid (though Layne’s whine/yarl was kind of annoying, and paved the way for other noted annoying singers like Scott Weiland and the guy from Godsmack).

Alice in Chains is a major band I’ll most likely never listen to again except by accident, but they have their charms.

6. SCREAMING TREES

The Trees were always a black sheep operation throughout the grunge explosion.  They were contemporaries of huge acts like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, sharing a label and stage with many of those, but they never pushed through to become successful.  Partly I think it was their sleepy sound and presence.  Mark Lanegan always sounded like he was singing facedown on a bar somewhere, and the band’s warm maelstrom of sound never bludgeoned you like Soundgarden or stuck a shiv in your belly like Nirvana.  A lot of the time they sounded like a musically less interesting Pearl Jam.  They did put together a respectable, listenable body of work though, and Lanegan has gone on to a critically acclaimed, completely unpopular solo career, so I feel comfortable listing them this high.  (I always loved “Beyond This Horizon” – which is much better than their hit “Nearly Lost You” – and we’re nearing the dregs anyway.)

7. PEARL JAM

Yeah, I know, Diane – I’m a sonofabitch for putting them here.  But facts are facts, and these here are the facts: 1. “Ten” is a great album that the entire world is totally burned out on.  2. Not one of the fifty million albums they’ve made since has been as good, or even close.  3. Vedder has to answer for the crimes of inventing the yarl and smirking/eye-rolling while singing earnestly about angry children and little old ladies.  Pearl Jam was a misfit grunge band anyway, borrowing more from blues rock than from Sabbath or Zeppelin or punk.  In fact, despite Pearl Jam members’ history in Green River, I think the only thing that linked Pearl Jam to grunge was the time, the place, and the fact that Vedder sang a little bit behind the far superior work of Chris Cornell in “Temple of the Dog.”  Speaking of which…

8. TEMPLE OF THE DOG

I feel like a buttface for ranking them so low, but they only had the one album, and time has treated about half of that album not very well.  “Hunger Strike” and “All Night Thing” are still great songs though.

9. GREEN RIVER

Mudhoney precursor.  Not that interesting of a band but if you like Mudhoney you’ll probably like this.

10. STONE TEMPLE PILOTS

Oh my, do I have mixed feelings about this band.  On one hand, Scott Weiland looks and sings like a giant douche 90% of the time, and “Sex Type Thing” was one of the worst and most derivative debut singles ever made.  That song was probably the turning point in me starting to kind of dislike Alice in Chains, if that makes sense.  For a while everything about STP sucked: their name, their abbreviated name, and their big hits (let’s all admit that “Interstate Love Song” and “Plush” are both just boring, and the lyrics are terrible, OK?).  On the other hand, they released glam tribute “Tiny Music: Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop,” which suddenly made them kind of interesting.  And “Big Bang Baby,” a song you never hear at all any more, was easily their best hit.

The Crap:

11. TAD

I’m not crazy about kicking off the “crap” section with this band, because Tad wasn’t all that crappy.  In fact the first few minutes of any Tad album is usually quite convincing – thundering bass, chainsaw roar guitar, and the enraged bellow of the titular Tad.  Where Tad lacks is in delivering songs you want to hear more than a couple times.  They often bash away tunelessly for too many minutes in a row, and the brazen Pixies lifts don’t help (unlike Nirvana, who integrated them more seamlessly and usefully). 

12. MOTHER LOVE BONE

The guys from Green River realized they preferred blues and butt rock over punk and metal, and they formed a band with the very glam metal vocalist Andrew Wood, who died and as a result made this band way more retroactively famous than they really deserved.  Both Green River and Pearl Jam made more meaningful contributions to music; the best thing Mother Love Bone did was inspire Temple of the Dog and “Would” by Alice in Chains.  Sorry, Andrew.

13. COLLECTIVE SOUL

I don’t know if these guys even qualify as grunge, but they arrived at the right time (in the dying days of the Seattle scene) with a big grungy hit (“Shine”) and a yarling frontman, so they make the list.  There’s no denying that Collective Soul wrote a couple of catchy and moderately enduring hits, but they were also extremely cheesy and annoying, and “Shine” was a demo recorded with a crappy sounding drum machine.  The only reason they’re this high on the list is that the remaining bands are truly abominable.

14. BUSH

Fuck you, Gavin.  What kind of fucking rock name is Gavin anyway?  And what kind of fucking band name is Bush?  Razorblade Suitcase?  I’d like to shove your male model face in a razorblade suitcase and see how zen everything is after that.

15. SILVERCHAIR

Remember these guys?  The Hanson of grunge?  …Barely, you say?  Yeah, me too.  I guess they’ve released another album or two since those days, but back then they sucked.  I haven’t bothered to keep up with them.

16. CANDLEBOX

Another entry in a long list of three syllable, conjoined word bands.  I can only imagine that everybody was sitting around and trying to come up with a name as good as Soundgarden, and failing repeatedly.  They also failed to sound as good as Soundgarden.  Instead they repeatedly baffled the music-consuming public with songs that were completely unmemorable, poorly played, and very badly sung, yet were big hits on alternative rock radio and MTV.  This band stunk.

17. SEVEN MARY THREE

Seven Mary Three outstunk them all, though.  Just look at these morons.  They had the look and sound of a Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains cover band, which I bet is what they were before they inexplicably hit the big time with two of the worst songs ever written: “Cumbersome” and “Water’s Edge.”  The latter stole an idea from Richard Marx and a vocal from Eddie Vedder’s colon; the former… well, I think I need only reproduce a small section of lyrics from it:

I have become/ cumbersome/to this world
I have become/ cumbersome/ to my girl

Die, Seven Mary Three.  Die.

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8 Responses to Organizing grunge

  1. kit-chen says:

    Well, you are a bastard for putting the whigs in there at all. They are an awesome band indeed, but they just aren’t grunge at all. I mean, Michael Jackson was also making music at this time.

    But on the other hand I don’t know who you’d put in their place. I guess Pearl Jam is the natural choice here, but… meh. Yeah – I got nothing.

    Please continue.

  2. Ryan says:

    I would have tweaked Mother Love Bone a bit higher on the stength of a couple good songs, and I’d agree with your reasonable assesment that the Afghan Whigs transcended the grunge label, but otherwise it’s spot-on.

    The Speak and Spell moment on the Badmotorfinger was one of the few intentionally humorous moments in the grunge era.

  3. gb says:

    –Mudhoney is my number one the definitive grunge band, largely on the strength of their first album and EGBDF. They were arguably the originator of grunge back in Green River and were a huge influence on Nirvana and the whole rest of the scene.
    –Badmotorfinger is the third best Soundgarden album. There’s a fair amount of flotsam on that one.
    –If you put in the Whigs, you have to put in the Smashing Pumpkins, right? They were on Sub Pop, too, and while a Google search of their name with the words “grunge” shows a good number of debates on whether they’re grunge, not grunge or proto-grunge, I’d advocate their inclusion under your low entry standards. In which case, on the strength of their first two albums (everything they did after, including their concert primadonna act, annoyed me, despite some good moments on Mellon Collie) they’re in the second-tier at worst.
    –Also to consider, if you’re going to rank Seven Mary Three: the Melvins, L7, Hole (again, Hole’s annoying, but they had a couple good albums, ghost-written by Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain or not).

  4. I’m good with Mudhoney but I don’t think they were an artistic success on the same level as the three bands I ranked above them. Also there’s a good case to be made that Mudhoney and Green River both copped 85% of their moves from the Stooges. (As opposed to the 65% that Soundgarden stole from Zeppelin.) It just so happens that I love the Stooges, so Mudhoney gets a theft pass. At least they’re thieves with good taste.

    Your opinion on “Badmotorfinger” is noted. Even though I admit to a few filler tracks, I can’t see ranking too many other albums ahead of it. “Louder Than Love” is probably my sentimental favorite, but certain tracks are just ridiculous (mainly “Big Dumb Sex”) and others are just lackluster compared the key moments like “Gun” or “Hands All Over.” “Superunknown” is a little too slick and soft to get as much love from me. I don’t really consider the others to even be contenders.

    I debated on Smashing Pumpkins – honestly if I had remembered they were on Sub Pop I probably would have thrown them in there. I don’t know how highly I would have placed them though. I have a soft spot for “Gish” but I kind of hate what that band turned into. Especially Corgan and his annoying, pretentious, whiny persona. Middle tier somewhere is about right – they’re clearly better than all the Nirvana-bes that clog up the last third of the list. I might have gone as high as the spot the Screaming Trees are currently in.

    L7 and Hole were oversights. Sorry, can’t remember everybody. Hole is a definite miss, but I always thought L7 was basically worthless. “Pretend We’re Dead” is the worst college radio hit I can remember, especially the lyrics.

  5. Bob says:

    Dear Idiot,

    You left the Smashing Pumpkins off this list. PJ and Alice in Chains 7 and 5, is that a joke? Nirvana behind Soundgarden — another funny one.

  6. Dear Bob,

    Thanks, good to hear from a loyal reader!

  7. James says:

    I agree with this entire list. Soundgarden was musically and technically more superior due to the contributions of Thayl and Cornell. Truthfully Pearl Jam wrote some memorable songs but Vedder can’t sing for shit half the time, then sometimes he hits the good notes. Cornell still out sings Vedder but Cornell’s voice is not what it used to be. Good assessment.

    P.S. Smashing Pumpkins rank high on the stink scale regardless of sub genre placement.

  8. Mark Ampersand says:

    Late to the party, I know, but I have to say this is awesome for so many reasons. Agree with the above, the Whigs were hardly Grunge, but they somehow still fit in the whole thing.

    I’d do a bit of shuffling here and there, but all in all, it’s a pretty good list.

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