Never Mind Nevermind
Sept. 24 represents the 20-year anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind. The milestone has been marked by a special tribute concert in Seattle, a four-disc deluxe edition of the album (out Sept. 27), and countless articles and interviews pondering the impact of Nevermind. And while the album was certainly a watershed, even Kurt Cobain argued that a bevy of other Northwest bands deserved attention. Here are 10 essential albums from the grunge era not named Nevermind.
1. Tad, God's Balls (1989)
Nirvana toured England in 1989 with Sub Pop Records labelmates Tad, and many forget that some critics thought Tad put on the better show. Fronted by 300-pound former butcher Tad Doyle, Tad's sound was a swirling wall of wail and distortion. This is Tad's best album, but all are recommended, as well as the DVD Busted Circuits And Ringing Ears. Though never as popular as Nirvana, Cobain did write at least one song about Tad (or more accurately, Tad's gastrointestinal distress), "Imodium."
2. Mudhoney, Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)
Mudhoney found Sub Pop-level success before Nirvana even had a set lineup. They were also the one Seattle band that critics predicted would break through before Nirvana, mistakenly it turned out. This is their first album, and with the classic "Touch Me I'm Sick," their loudest salvo.
3. Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger (1991)
Soundgarden were always more of a hard rock group than a grunge band, and Badmotorfinger owed more to Led Zeppelin than it did any other influence. But any album with "Rusty Cage" deserves repeated listens. This wasn't their biggest seller — 1994's Superunkown was — but this was the truest slice of what the band sounded like live.
4. Pearl Jam, Vs. (1993)
Pearl Jam's second studio album became an immediate runaway smash, which wasn't the case with their debut, Ten. And while Ten is more iconic (due in part to video hits), Vs. is PJ's best studio album. "Animal," "Daughter" and "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town" have become concert staples over the years, played with a ferocity rarely found in "Jeremy."
5. Alice In Chains, Dirt (1992)
Alice In Chains were often considered slightly outside the Seattle grunge world — their early populist leanings were certainly far from punk and more glam. But on this, their sophomore album, vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell wrote some of their most enduring songs: "Down In A Hole," "Rooster," "Angry Chair," and "Would?" Few bands in Seattle, or elsewhere, ever had the nerve to be so unabashedly bleak, and to risk putting that darkness at the core. There was not another Seattle band as unselfconscious as Alice, which may be one reason their songs are still all over rock radio two decades later.
6. Screaming Trees, Sweet Oblivion (1992)
Screaming Trees formed before grunge hit, so this album, their sixth release, showed maturity that few in Seattle had pulled off by 1992. Fronted by the charismatic Mark Lanegan, their songs were also dark, but with intense shifts of mood into euphoria as in "Nearly Lost You." That song did show up on the Singles soundtrack, which brought them their one mainstream hit, but their entire catalog is to be enjoyed.
7. 7 Year Bitch, ¡Viva Zapata! (1994)
While the scene was often thought of by outsiders as a "boys with long hair" club, it was actually occasionally gender-balanced, and 7 Year Bitch rocked with the best. This album was particularly poignant in that it mourned the loss of Mia Zapata, the popular lead singer of the Gits, who was tragically murdered a year before this 1994 album. SYB veered more towards punk, which unfortunately kept them on the margins of the mainstream.
8. Love Battery, Between The Eyes (1992)
Love Battery's debut came out one month after Nevermind had reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and by that point they were lost in the wave rather than carried by it. Lead singer Ron Nine was an onstage dervish, while Kevin Whitworth's guitar playing was idolized by every other Seattle player of the era. Love Battery were the only grunge band with the guts to cover a Pink Floyd song ("Ibiza Bar"), but their sound did have hints of psychedelia thrown in.
9. Temple Of The Dog, Temple Of The Dog (1990)
Temple Of The Dog had the best pedigree of any grunge band. This album was put together as a memorial to Andy Wood, the much-loved singer for Mother Love Bone who had died of a drug overdose. The lineup of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, and Jeff Ament was a dream team of talent. And if "Hunger Strike" isn't Cornell's best vocal ever, then anything that could top it is still on the studio floor.
10. Nirvana, In Utero (1993)
No grunge list would be complete without Nirvana's best album, albeit one that sold only about half of what Nevermind sold. Even Cobain himself preferred In Utero, and that's not just because it was the last record he cut before he died. The strength of In Utero is not necessarily the harder-edged punk production by Steve Albini — that's proved too harsh for many tastes, even Cobain's. But Nirvana's third studio album is their best simply because Cobain's songwriting skill was at its peak. There is no better "grunge" lyric than "Serve The Servant"'s "Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old." Twenty years after the release of Nevermind, those who originally lived through the grunge era all truly qualify as old. But bored? Never….
(Charles R. Cross is the author of seven books, including his bestselling biography of Jimi Hendrix, Room Full Of Mirrors. Heavier Than Heaven, his Kurt Cobain biography, is currently being made into a film. He is presently writing a biography on Heart.)