Seattle, the northwest Pacific coast city best known historically for its logging and sea port industries, became a famous cultural hub of music and creativity in the 1990s, as the world became aware of a music scene that had been bubbling away and building locally for a decade or so.
The music press jumped on the alternative rock sound emanating from the region, coining the phrase ‘Grunge’ in the process, a label that would forever be associated with a number of bands that came from the area. With its origins deep rooted in punk, the scene had a DIY ethos highlighted by local record label Sup Pop, who began releasing music by many local bands in 1988 and were themselves an integral part of the success of the movement.
As the sound resonated with a new generation and started to take over MTV, it played its part in ending the popularity of glamorous chauvinistic hard rock acts such as Motley Crue and Poison, who had been wildly popular in the eighties. It also had a hand in sending thrash metal back underground, with successful bands such as Metallica and Megadeth taking more of an alternative approach with their sound in order to survive and stay relevant. It was a rich and innovative time for new music, and we take a look at the ten albums which define the era :
1. // Nirvana : Nevermind (1991)
This was the album that put Seattle on the map as the worlds music press stood up and took notice, led by the unprecedented success of their music video for Smells Like Teen Spirit, which sent the popularity of Nirvana and interest in the scene that helped create them through the stratosphere! This was the album where it all came together for Kurt Cobain and Krist Novaselic, bringing in Scream’s Dave Grohl on drums adding a further creative spark and completing their legendary line up.
They had already been a popular band locally following the release of their debut album Bleach in 1989 through Sub Pop, but the collection of music on Nevermind features a host of their best and most recognisably defining songs. Perfectly written anthems for a new generation including Lithium, Come As You Are and In Bloom, which beautifully blended punk with a pop sensibility, and rubber stamped Kurt Cobain’s legend as a song writing genius in the process.
2. // Alice In Chains : Dirt (1992)
Alice In Chains had already established themselves as one of the first Seattle bands to break out of the northwest and sign to a major label (Columbia), and had experienced success with their breakthrough hit Man On A Box from their debut album Facelift in 1990. But it was with their second album Dirt that the band created their defining work, a dark and moody album of pure genius. AIC were at this point already a band living a life of excess both on and off the road, with Dirt epitomising their collective mood at the time.
There was an honesty written in their lyrics with many of the iconic songs including Down In A Hole, Junkhead and Dirt, dealing with the subject matter of drug use and addiction. While the album superbly blends the subtle guitar work of Jerry Cantrell, with the haunting harmonised vocals between him and legendary rock crooner Layne Staley. The record also features a number of the bands most captivating songs including Rooster, written by Cantrell in tribute to his father, and Would?, written in honour of their deceased friend and local Seattle legend Andrew Wood, the singer of Mother Love Bone.
3. // Mother Love Bone : Apple (1990)
By the turn of the 1990s Guitarist Stone Gossard and Bassist Jeff Ament were already well known players in the Seattle scene, having experienced some success with their former band Green River which also featured Mark Arm, who would go on to form Mudhoney. But it was in the aftermath of Green River when they teamed up with ex-Malfunkshun vocalist Andrew Wood, that it looked like Seattle was going to see the first superstar band produced from the local scene.
Andrew Wood had the charisma of a real rock star. He was flamboyant and confident in the way Axel Rose of Guns N Roses, or Sebastian Bach of Skid Row were, and the local hype became real when they recorded their debut album Apple for Polydor, and appeared to be on the verge of hitting the big time. But their world came crashing down, as in the days before the release of their record, Andrew Wood overdosed on heroin … and never recovered. Becoming the first, but sadly not last high profile casualty from the Seattle movement.
4. Pearl Jam : Ten (1991)
In the aftermath of Andrew Wood’s devastating passing, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament continued to find solace together in music, and a scene of friends and contemporaries who were able to support each other both mentally and creatively. They hooked up with local guitar wizard Mike McCready and after listening to a number of demos, found little known vocalist Eddie Vedder, combining to create one of the most successful rock bands of all time.
Pearl Jam announced themselves to the world with Ten in 1991, and have never bettered their iconic debut album. Songs including Once, Alive, Even Flow and the melancholic Black, are amongst some of the most perfectly executed songs in the band’s repertoire. Ten turned Pearl Jam into overnight superstars, a young band who had the world at their feet, and who are still touring and releasing records some thirty years later.
5. // Soundgarden : Superunknown (1994)
Along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, Soundgarden complete to make up the ‘Big Four’ bands of the Seattle scene. They were the first to achieve a major label signing and had diligently been plugging away in the late eighties with their first two albums Ultramega Ok (1988) and Louder Than Love (1989) before Badmotorfinger (1991) started to gain them mainstream success. However it was with Superunknown three years later that the band would really hit the big time.
Frontman Chris Cornell was an imposing figure at the time, an iconic rock frontman who’s soulfully rasping vocals perfectly accompanied the diverse guitar playing of Kim Thayill. Their song writing had clearly matured by the time they recorded Superunknown, and they produced their biggest hit in Black Hole Sun, alongside other such instantly recognisable songs as Fell On Black Days, Spoonman and The Day I Tried To Live.
6. // Temple Of The Dog (1991)
An alternative rock ‘supergroup’ of sorts, Temple Of The Dog joined a close collection of grieving friends, who had come together in the weeks following the death of Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, to write and record this one off classic album. The project was initially conceived by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who in the immediate aftermath of his death had written two songs, Reach Down and Say Hello To Heaven in tribute to his fallen friend.
Cornell then reached out to Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, who were still soul searching in the weeks following their band mates passing and in the early stages of putting together Pearl Jam, and invited them to write music in their grief together. The three friends were joined by Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Mike McCready to produce this timeless masterpiece, and introduced Eddie Vedder to the world, who sung backing vocals and was an unknown entity at the time, prior to Pearl Jam releasing their debut album.
7. // Nirvana : MTV Unplugged In New York (1994)
By 1994 Nirvana were one of the biggest rock bands in the world, having seen Nevermind catapult their status beyond what Kurt Cobain could ever have imagined, or as it turned out had hoped for. They followed up with the far less commercial sounding In Utero (1993) and had added Pat Smear (ex Germs) on guitar to help Cobain, who was struggling with singing and being the sole live guitarist, as a mammoth touring schedule and his escalating use of heroin started to take effect.
Shortly before Kurt would take his own life, Nirvana succumbed to record label pressure and finally accepted MTV’s offer to strip back and perform a televised set for their popular Unplugged series. By all accounts the band, not least Cobain were a rack of nerves prior to the gig, lacking confidence in how their material would sound without a wall of distortion to hide behind. But they would go on to perform one of the legendary live performances of all time, showcasing material from all three of their studio albums, alongside a handful of surprising covers from the likes of David Bowie and The Vasalines.
8. Mad Season : Above (1995)
Seattle’s second great collaboration of the nineties was created when Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready had checked himself into rehab, to help control the spoils of success he had experienced with the bands rise over their first three album. He met and started jamming with local gigging blues Bassist John Baker Saunders, before bringing in Screaming Tree’s Drummer Barrett Martin to help them start demoing instrumental tracks, providing a focus to their therapy.
Realising they were on to something great, they decided to take the project more seriously and needed a singer to complete the band. And in a state of new found sobriety decided that they would offer the role to another close friend who was struggling with his own addictions, Alice In Chains vocalist Layne Staley. His haunting voice fit the music perfectly, and an extraordinary album was conceived with a collection of stunning songs including Long Gone Days, I’m Above and Lifeless Dead. The band would go on to play a handful of now legendary local shows around the release of the record, before disappearing into the night, never to be heard together again.
9. Alice In Chains : MTV Unplugged (1996)
By the time Alice In Chains recorded their swansong live performance for MTV, cracks had begun to form in their relationship with Layne Staley whose drug use was spiralling out of control, and had put an end to their time on their road together, placing the band on an indefinite hiatus. They had previously followed up Dirt with their final and self-titled studio album, and in between had also recorded a stripped back acoustic led mini album Jar Of Flies, itself somewhat of a companion piece to their earlier released collection of more laidback songs on Sap.
After Layne had recorded and played shows with Mad Season his distance from AIC became greater, but the band pulled together for this legendary performance, drawing a set list from all of the above albums, proving that stripping away the electric guitars perfectly suited their dark, melancholic and emotionally charged music. Their performance of songs like Down In A Hole, Brother, No Excuses and Heaven Beside You, in many ways had never sounded so good. With Layne finding one of his last ever great live performances, before the dark days of his final years took hold, and he slipped into a life of solitude away from performing music.
10. // Melvins : Houdini (1993)
After the explosion of Grunge and the success of million selling records from the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, major labels were scrambling around trying to sign the next ‘big thing’, and Melvins were one such band who particularly benefitted from the interest in the movement. Championed as a major influence by Kurt Cobain, the veterans had been in and around the Seattle scene since 1983, and found themselves snapped up by Atlantic Records.
Led by out spoken frontman Buzz Osborne, the band also featured ex-Nirvana drummer Dale Crover, and in pursuit of maximising the return on their investment, Atlantic had arranged for Kurt Cobain to join in on the recording sessions as a producer. Although this did not end well as despite being a close friend of the band, he was eventually asked to leave the sessions on account of him being totally strung out on heroin at the time. Houdini was the eventual result of their work and is still the finest Melvins record in a long recording career. Featuring a collection of heavy sludgy metal songs, that in many ways perfectly define the less commercial sound of Grunge at the time.
Words by : Abstrakt_Soul
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