Opinion: Top-5 favorite 90s grunge albums of all time

Photo courtesy of Rocky Schneck

The grunge subgenre of rock rose to popularity in the mid-80s and quickly became a staple piece of the 90s. In particular, the city of Seattle fostered the growth of many of the most popular bands of this time, including Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Many of these bands have inspired me in my own journey as a musician, and I have grown to love their albums very deeply.

Here is the ranking of my top-five favorite grunge albums of the 90s:

1.  Dirt – Alice in Chains

Starting off strong with Alice in Chains’ second studio album “Dirt,” released in 1992. This album is certified five times platinum along with tracks “Would?,” “Rooster,” “Them Bones” and “Down in a Hole,” who all earned certifications in August 2022.

In my eyes, this album represents the definition of what “grunge” sounds like.

Behind front man and lead singer Layne Staley is the perfect ensemble of Jerry Cantrell’s shockingly simple but catchy guitar riffs, Mike Starr’s deep rhythmic bass and Sean Kinny’s unmatched versatility on the drums.

A clear strong point for this album is the heavy and blunt lyricism and haunting melodies that focus on themes of addiction and depression. An example of this can be heard in “Dirt” where Layne sings, “I want to taste dirty, stinging pistol. In my mouth, on my tongue. I want you to scrape me from the walls.” Layne Staley’s soulful and emotionally filled vocals carry these messages with ease.

Not only does this album take the number one spot in this ranking, but I would argue that this is the greatest album of all time. For first timers, I recommend giving the song “Would?” a listen.

2.  In Utero – Nirvana

What’s 90s grunge without a little Nirvana?

Best known for their hit songs “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are,” Nirvana have been a household name for many, and for good reason. The trio’s upbeat and ridiculous energy on and off the stage was something that drew many people in, including myself.

Nirvana’s third studio album, “In Utero,” released in 1993, was a perfect mix between the rawness of their earlier album, “Bleach,” and their more commercialized album, “Nevermind.”

[Album cover of “Dirt” by Alice in Chains.]
Photo courtesy of Rocky Schneck

In Utero was certified five time platinum in October 1996. 

This album has a strong personality whose intense tracks are balanced out by its slower ones. Though guitarist and lead singer Kurt Cobain usually wrote very simple chord progressions, in this album there was more intricate plucking and his guitar solos were hard to replicate.

“Tourette’s” is a track I think most will enjoy, and for those not easily turned away from the controversy that surrounded it, “Rape me” is one to take a listen to.

3.  Facelift – Alice in Chains

Alice in Chains, though one of the strongest grunge bands at the time, has always been underrated and overshadowed by more popular bands like Nirvana or Soundgarden. Despite this, “Facelift” went three-time multi platinum, along with their best known song “Man in the Box.” 

Their debut studio album, “Facelift,” released in 1990, has hints of the popular 80s metal sound and shows a much lighter and almost happier side of the band, while still staying true to their signature sound through the lyrics and vocal melodies.

If you’re willing to give them a chance, I recommend listening to “Put You Down.”

4.  Live Through This – Hole

Hole, best known for their song “Celebrity Skin,” released their second studio album “Live Through This,” in 1994. This album went certified platinum in 1995 and became a staple in the 90s grunge era, especially when talking about women-fronted bands who were doing well at the time. 

Many of the tracks combine soft melodic verses with heavy choruses giving Hole their edge. Bassist and backup singer Kristen Pfaff added touches of delicacy in her harmonies on top of front woman Courtney Love’s deeper and grittier vocal style to create this combination. 

Hole is another grunge band with very simple guitar and bass riffs, but this didn’t hold them back in writing an album I would characterize as the epitome of female rage.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, give “Plump” a listen.

5.  Ten – Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam’s first studio album, “Ten,” was released in 1991. This album is the home of many of their most popular songs such as “Alive” and “Even Flow,” and has done impressive numbers by becoming certified 13-time multi platinum in 2009. 

Upon first listen, this album may seem to be a typical rock album, but like Alice in Chain’s “Dirt,” this album tackles themes like depression and suicide, which is a dark contrast to the instrumental’s brighter tone.

Eddie Vedder is one of the strongest vocalists from this era, not only in his range but his deep baritone vocals and clear tone in which he sang. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s soft and melodic lead guitar alongside a superb rhythm section consisting of bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Dave Krusen are the ingredients in the making of this ridiculously catchy album.

“Jeremy” is a song that will sweep you off your feet in awe. Undoubtedly, it has its popularity for a reason. 

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