The 25 best grunge albums of the 90s: In Utero, Fontanelle, Candlebox, Foo Fighters, Vitalogy, Pablo Honey, Tostaky, Dust, Sweet Oblivion, Temple of the Dog, Houdini, Piece of Cake, Bricks are Heavy and more
When Nirvana released its album “In Utero” it didn’t capture the zeitgeist like “Nevermind” did, but it still made a huge impact on the music landscape of the ’90s. Nirvana was at the forefront of the grunge movement that characterized rock music in the ’90s. In honor of a great decade of grunge music, here are the 25 best grunge albums from the ’90s.
After the success of “Nevermind,” Kurt Cobain and company enlisted acclaimed, mercurial producer Steve Albini to try to tweak their sound for “In Utero.” The 1993 album is less commercial, but it’s still critically adored to this day. “Heart-Shaped Box” still managed to provide the band with a hit, one that had to shoulder the load going forward, as this would turn out to be Nirvana’s final full album, due to the suıcide of Cobain.
Let’s end things with Babes in Toyland, the all-female trio from Minnesota who worked its way into the grunge scene despite being far from Seattle. “Fontanelle” is a powerful and ferocious record that earned the band a (deserved) spot on the Lollapalooza tour. Though grunge is synonymous with scruffy dudes in flannels, it was also open to women like Babes in Toyland making their mark as well.
If you want an illustration of how trendy grunge was in the early ’90s, look no further than Candlebox’s debut album. It was its first release, and yet it went platinum four times over. Nobody talks about Candlebox these days, but it sold more albums than most bands could dream of now. It did have a few catchy songs that ended up on MTV, though, so it wasn’t completely absurd.
After the death of Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl naturally found himself in a weird, dark place. To cope, he turned to music, and he cranked out an album for a new project he called Foo Fighters. At the time, it was basically a one-man band, and while songs like “Big Me” definitely aren’t grunge, a lot of the album calls to mind the grunge era defined by Nirvana. To this day, Grohl’s self-titled debut is the best Foo Fighters album.
After “Ten,” Pearl Jam released “Vs.,” which wasn’t quite as well-received. The band was able to bounce back with its third release “Vitology,” a sprawling, nearly hourlong album. Pearl Jam’s sound was a little more diverse by this point, but at its heart, it was still a grunge rock band, led by the powerful vocals of Eddie Vedder.
Radiohead has made so many iconic albums, and these days they have a quiet, computerized sound. Thom Yorke and company couldn’t be further from being a grunge band. However, their debut album “Pablo Honey” is an entirely different thing. Just listen to the song that first made a splash for them, “Creep.” If that’s not grunge, then what is? As a bonus, that song is awesome, even if Radiohead hated it for a while.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of “Tostaky,” and that’s understandable. It’s a French album from the French band Noir Desir. Yes, there were French grunge bands. “Tostaky” apparently made quite the splash in its home country. The French version of “Rolling Stone” called it the second-best French rock album of all time.
It took Screaming Trees four years to follow up “Sweet Oblivion” with “Dust,” and by then, the grunge era was basically over. However, they still put out the album, which kept its grunge sound alongside some folk and blues influences. Despite the hiatus, “Dust” turned out quite well. “Entertainment Weekly” even gave it an “A.” Alas, it was also Screaming Trees’ final outing.
Do you remember the movie “Singles?” It’s a Cameron Crowe film about Gen Xers in Seattle around the burgeoning grunge era. It was kind of a hit, but it did have a successful soundtrack featuring many grunge bands. One of the songs that was on it was “Nearly Lost You” by Screaming Trees. It was on the album “Sweet Oblivion,” and that album ended up selling a ton of copies from people who loved “Nearly Lost You” from “Singles.” Fortunately, the rest of the album was good as well.
“Temple of the Dog”
Temple of the Dog only had one album, its 1991 self-titled release. It included the classic grunge song “Hunger Strike.” After that, the band members went their separate ways. Those band members included Chris Cornell and basically everybody who went on to form Pearl Jam (including Eddie Vedder, who provided guest vocals on a few songs).
Here’s how crazy the grunge boom was; a band like the Melvins got signed to Atlantic Records. The Melvins make noise, and they do to this day, as they’ve released 21 studio albums, including one in 2018. “Houdini” was their major label release, and it actually got surprisingly good reviews. The kings of sludgy grunge were able to keep their sound.
“Piece of Cake”
Mudhoney, another Seattle band, was one of the progenitors of grunge, though it didn’t become a huge star like others did. Its 1988 song “Touch Me I’m Sick” is arguably one of the first grunge songs, but obviously it doesn’t count when we’re talking ’90s grunge releases. “Piece of Cake,” the band’s best-selling album, does though.
Toadies only released one album in the ’90s, but they made it count. “Rubberneck” is the band’s entry into the grunge world, led by the single “Possum Kingdom.” Back in the ’90s, you could still sell albums off the strength of one song, and that was “Possum Kingdom.” That song has lasted through the ages, as it was included on “Guitar Hero II.”
“Bricks are Heavy”
L7, an all-female, take-no-lip rock band, released its first album back in 1988, before grunge was even a word on our lips. Its sound started to evolve, and around 1992’s “Bricks are Heavy,” it had developed into something akin to the sound everybody was enjoying. L7 is the rare band you will find on a list of the best grunge and Riot Grrrl releases, and “Bricks are Heavy” is probably its best offering.
Robert Christgau hated “Purple,” but he hated a lot of stuff. It’s still a fairly memorable album that has to be included in the story of grunge in the ’90s. The late Scott Weiland was a vital member of the grunge scene, thanks in part to the fact he had a voice that had, shall we say, more traditionally melodic qualities than his counterparts. After Weiland’s issues and the bubble bursting on grudge, the Pilots would never quite be the same.
Stone Temple Pilots, those elegant bachelors, hit it right out of the gate with “Core.” Their 1992 debut remains the band’s best-selling album and also their most critically respected. Songs like “Creep” and “Plush” are still considered signatures of the band. Stone Temple Pilots were able to capture that grunge wave just as it was taking off, which certainly helped.
Few people are going to call The Smashing Pumpkins’ huge hit album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” grunge. “Tonight, Tonight” just doesn’t have that grunge vibe. However, the prior album, “Siamese Dream,” definitely had a grunge feel to it. For those who think “Mellon Collie” is too stuffed and theatrical, “Siamese Dream” is considered the Pumpkins’ best work, and a lot of publications have declared it one of the best albums of the ’90s, full stop.
Silverchair is another divisive grunge band, but that’s more about whether or not people think it is actually good. The Australian trio has a litany of defenders, but it also didn’t get quite the critical acclaim of other grunge acts. Nevertheless, it also released its first album, “Frogstomp,” when all the members were 15 and then followed that up with “Freak Show.” After that, the band’s sound started to drift from grunge, but it had already made its impact.
Some grunge purists are going to be mad about this. They will probably claim that Bush was just jumping on a trend and it wasn’t “really” grunge. Hey, maybe that’s true. On the other hand, weren’t “Glycerine” and “Machinehead” catchy songs in the ’90s? Even if “Sixteen Stone” is faux grunge, and that”s up for debate, that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its virtues.
“Alice in Chains”
It’s odd when a band decides to go with a self-titled release after they’ve already released a bunch of material, but Alice in Chains decided to go that route with their third full-length album. This time out, Alice in Chains gives off vibes of heavy metal, and the album has a dark, foreboding sound. That’s probably fitting. It would be their last album for over a decade, and the final album featuring frontman Layne Staley before his drug-related death in 2002.
Alice in Chains are kind of the forgotten band of Seattle’s grunge scene. They are the Michael Collins to the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. (You can decide who is who for yourself.) However, Alice in Chains were huge in the ’90s as well, starting with their breakout 1992 album “Dirt.” If you were willing to go beyond “Nevermind,” you would find an album like this waiting for you.
“Live Through This”
Any narrative built around Courtney Love that focuses on her being Kurt Cobain’s wife and seemingly a bit of a drug casualty is doing her a disservice. Hole was a great grunge band that was arguably on par with her husband’s Nirvana. “Live Through This,” which “Rolling Stone” called the album of the year for 1994, is a triumph, highlighted by the song “Doll Parts.”
Soundgarden had released three albums prior to “Superunknown,” but it was the one that broke the band. The bad can largely thank “Black Hole Sun,” the quintessential song from its discography. “Superunknown” also featured “Spoonman,” which is still a weird, but catchy, little ditty.
While “Nevermind” is considered the album that sparked grunge, “Ten” by Pearl Jam actually came out earlier in 1991. Despite being the Seattle band’s first album — it was built out of the ruins of the band Mother Love Bone — it spawned three hits. That includes “Even Flow” and the controversial “Jeremy.”
You can’t talk grunge in the ’90s and only mention Nirvana once. “Nevermind” changed the world. There are those who claim that it killed hair metal. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was named the top music video of all time by MTV at the end of the ’90s. That alone makes it deserving of being on this list.
The 25 best grunge albums from the ’90s
When Nirvana released In Utero, it didn’t capture the zeitgeist as Nevermind did, but it still made a huge impact on the music landscape of the ’90s. Nirvana was at the forefront of the grunge movement that characterized rock music in the ’90s.