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A Look Back at 5 Grunge Albums that Made Music History

In this photo essay, we take a look back at five iconic albums from the grunge era that left a lasting impact on music history.

In the early 1990s, Seattle, Washington became “The New Liverpool,” producing a new generation of musicians with roots in genres as diverse as punk rock and heavy metal. Underground, alternative bands found themselves front-and-center in mainstream publications, and a new term was born: “grunge.” These iconic voices didn’t necessarily set out to start a movement — in the words of the famous Seattle music journalist Charles Cross, “Kurt Cobain was just too lazy to shampoo” — but whatever their intentions, they resonated in hearts and souls around the world.

With hard-hitting but poetic lyrics, dramatic riffs, and angst-ridden vocals, grunge music spoke to the young and disenfranchised. This generation of hard-edged but vulnerable teenagers and young adults longed to be seen and understood. Like some of its stars, who died young and tragically, grunge was short-lived. By the mid-1990s, the phenomenon had already started to wane. But regardless of its brief and fleeting nature, grunge forever changed the course of music history. 27 years ago this month, Nevermind by Nirvana turned gold. In honor of that anniversary, let’s take a look back at some of the unforgettable moments that defined an era. You can also explore our full Grunge Era archive here.


September 24, 1991: Nevermind by Nirvana

With Nevermind, Nirvana brought grunge mainstream, all while staying true to their punk-rock roots. In a sense, frontman Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl were underdogs in the industry; in his Rolling Stone review at the time, Ira Robbins put it like this: “Nevermind finds Nirvana at the crossroads — scrappy garageland warriors setting their sights on a land of giants.”

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Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, 1991. Photo by Geoffrey Swaine/Shutterstock.
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Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Kurt Cobain in London, 1990s. Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock.

Of course, it was a big hit. Geffen Records had a goal of selling 250,000 copies of the album. Sales ended up multiplying that number by a factor of more than one hundred. By early 1992, it took the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s album charts, and Eddie Gilreath from Geffen admitted to The New York Times, “If you told me last year it would outsell U2 I’d probably die laughing.”

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Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, 1993. Photo by Stephen Sweet/Shutterstock.
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Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, 1993. Photo by Stephen Sweet/Shutterstock.

Even the band was caught off-guard by their rise to stardom. When the music journalist Karen Bliss called Nirvana in the weeks leading up to the release of Nevermind and asked, “Are you prepared to do an interview now?” Cobain responded, “No, I’m never prepared.” He also stressed the fact that he never cared about the numbers or the sales. That sense of humor and tendency towards candor were typical of the band. In January 1992, Cobain told SPIN, “Our record-company bio is nothing but a huge lie […] we made most of it up.”

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Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, 1993. Photo by Stephen Sweet/Shutterstock.
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Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Kurt Cobain in London, 1990s. Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock.

The band’s authenticity, raw honesty, and that rare combination of naiveté and angst made them the voice of a generation, even if they never expected to be. In January of 1992, a month before her wedding to Cobain, Courtney Love from the band Hole said, “Nirvana is plowing a new playground for all of us to play in.”


October 8, 1991: Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden

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Jason Everman, Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden, November 6, 1989. Photo by Larry Marano/Shutterstock.

While Soundgarden is widely credited for pioneering the “grunge” genre, they were hard to categorize back in 1991. “There was a lot of risk and experimenting going on,” the band’s lead guitarist Kim Thayil told Noisy in 2016. “There was no huge market for what we did. There was a market for hard rock and heavy metal, but not particularly for what we were doing.”

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Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, December 7, 1989. Photo by MediaPunch/Shutterstock.
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Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, September 23, 1989. Photo by Mediapunch/Shutterstock.

Even though Badmotorfinger was a major success, the band never strayed from their alternative Seattle spirit. “I mean, honestly, we don’t write accessible pop songs,” frontman Chris Cornell told SPIN in 1992. Soundgarden had something totally unique; in 1991, Bryan Huttenhower of A&M Records told the LA Times, “I had never seen anything quite like it before. They were very heavy, but in a melodic way… And Chris’ vocals were spectacular. It was like a sledgehammer. It hit you right over the head.”

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Chris Cornell, Soundgarden portrait session, Chicago, Feb 8, 1992. Photo by Mediapunch/Shutterstock.
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Chris Cornell of Soundgarden at Brixton Academy in London, Britain, April 1994. Andre Csillag/Shutterstock.

In that same interview, less than two months before the release of Badmotorfinger, Richard Cromelin of the LA Times asked the band about their hopes for the future. Thayil’s answer was simple: “Hopefully we’ll get to sell more records and play louder.”


September 29, 1992: Dirt by Alice in Chains

In true grunge fashion, Dirt by Alice in Chains tackled painful topics: addiction, depression, loneliness, and even war. Speaking with Rolling Stone, lead singer Layne Staley explained, “We don’t stuff our personal demons inside us, we get them out. It’s therapeutic.” With this album, Staley used “stacked vocals” (i.e. he layered multiple tracks) to elevate the heavy, haunting quality of his voice.

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Alice in Chains with Layne Staley, May 1991. Photo by Mediapunch/Shutterstock.

The band members’ personal narratives helped shape Dirt, but the album also came at an important time in US history. As guitarist Jerry Cantrell told Noisy this year, Alice in Chains had to leave LA on their first day of recording due to the 1992 riots. They were only able to return to work later.

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Alice in Chains, 1990. Photo by Mediapunch/Shutterstock.
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Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains, 1994. Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock.

Shortly after the release, Staley struggled with a badly injured foot; instead of calling it quits, he performed in a wheelchair, and he used it to the band’s advantage. In November, about two months after the release of Dirt, Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr admitted, “I really like the wheelchair effect. I don’t know, it somehow makes Layne look more … evil.”

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Alice in Chains, 1993. Photo by Shutterstock.
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Mike Starr of Alice in Chains, 1994. Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock.

Contrary to their public image, the band had a playful spirit. “Since our music is so depressing, everybody expects us to run around in black and whine about s***,” drummer Sean Kinney told Jon Wiederhorn of Rolling Stone in 1996. “But that’s such a misconception. We just get together and f*** around. We’re like the Monkees or something.”


October 19, 1993: Vs. by Pearl Jam

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Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam performing at Brixton Academy, London, Britain, July 1993. Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock.
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Pearl Jam Performing Live in Los Angeles, January 1, 1991. Photo by Kevin Estrada/Shutterstock.

By 1993, the grunge frenzy was in full-force, placing the “Seattle Four”—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam—in a blinding spotlight. Between the release of debut album Ten and sophomore album Vs., Pearl Jam rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard described it this way: “There’s so much hype you could choke on it.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vs. sold faster than any album so far that year.

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Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam performing at the Limelight in New York City on April 12, 1992. Photo by Mediapunch/Shutterstock.

Still, in many ways, the band remained unswayed by their widespread success. Lead singer Eddie Vedder, for instance, disliked the luxurious accommodations of the new studio where they recorded Vs., and, maybe in a small act of rebellion, he insisted on driving his old pick-up truck rather than swapping it for a more expensive model. Also, in November of 1993, Entertainment Weekly dubbed Pearl Jam an ultimate “fan’s band” for their anti-commercial attitude. “I would do anything to be around music,” Vedder told Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone a few days after the release of Vs. “You don’t even have to pay me.”


April 12, 1994: Live Through This by Hole

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Courtney Love and Hole, 1993. Photo by Charles Sykes/Shutterstock.

“I’m not quite sure why Live Through This is so iconic,” Hole frontwoman Courtney Love told SPIN in 2014. “I think it’s because girls don’t make angry records as much.” The band’s second studio album was and still is radical because of its unabashed expression of female rage and pain; themes like feminism, misogyny, and desire feature prominently in the lyrics, as did motherhood. It’s worth noting that Frances Bean Cobain, the child of Love and her husband Kurt Cobain, was less than two years old at the time.

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Hole Performing Live On the 1995 Lollapalooza Festival at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater in Laguna Hills, CA on August 14, 1995. Photo by Mediapunch/Shutterstock.
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Courtney Love of Hole, 1995. Photo by Ian Dickson/Shutterstock.

Live Through This was also the product of Love’s artistic ambition, apart from her famous marriage. Sean Slade, the album’s producer and engineer, later reflected, “The only memory I have of any kind of goal [Love] had was when she walked into the control room almost crying and said, ‘This album has to go gold.’” Sales met that goal that December, and eventually the album went platinum.

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Courtney Love, MTV Music Awards, 1995. Photo by Shutterstock.
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Courtney Love of Hole on Later… with Jools Holland, London, May 1995. Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock.

Hole released Live Through This four days after the Cobain’s death, giving its title a new layer of meaning. Months later, in December 2014, Love spoke to David Fricke of Rolling Stone about being onstage after the loss of her husband. She said, “When the lights are blue and there are two of them in front of me, often they will symbolize Kurt’s eyes to me.”


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