When Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released in 1991, it changed the face of rock music forever and helped pave the way for road warriors like Pearl Jam (who are celebrating their own 20th anniversary this year) along with shorter-lived acts like Alice in Chains. But plenty of acts from Nirvana’s home state of Washington and the rest of the country released albums that have remained overlooked to this day. Some came courtesy of Cobain’s favorite bands (Jesus Lizard, Hole) while others were coasting on the wave of Nevermind‘s wake. To celebrate 20 years of grunge, eMusic picked 20 of the most overlooked and underrated albums to come out of the era.
Formed in 1984, Green River served as the breeding ground for some of grunge's key players: Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard and Mudhoney's Mark Arm and Steve Turner. They split in 1988 before the Seattle sound thing truly took off, but the foundations of the genre are here: Arm howls his cynical ode to feeling trapped in a small town over crunchy riffs on "This Town," while "Queen Bitch" mines the sort of ramshackle psych-punk garage scuzz you'd hear in Mudhoney. Not all of it works: "Unwind" sounds like a basement jam delivered by a bunch of guys who can barely play 12-bar blues.
Mark Lanegan's band weren't part of the Grunge Goldrush that happened in the wake of "Teen Spirit" mania: They signed with a major label for their third record in 1990. In fact, Lanegan's tunes were more complex than the clichéd Seattle Sound. On Sweet Oblivion, the songwriter fuses crunchy guitars and clattering drums with his American Gothic-style of storytelling and nicotine-tarnished baritone. "Butterfly" and "For Celebrations Past" are haunting highlights, but "Nearly Lost You," which was featured on the classic soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's Singles, remains the group's most memorable anthem.
After splitting from Green River, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard went on to form Malfunkshun, which later morphed into Mother Love Bone. The grunge connection is mostly due to their Seattle provenance: Frontman Andrew Wood mined more of a Freddie Mercury vibe with his wild outfits and theatrical, near-operatic voice and Ament and Gossard got to try on their major-label ambitions a key factor in their split from Green River on slick, though admittedly gorgeous, tunes like "Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns."
Led by the oversized, outsized singer Tad Doyle, Tad remain grunge's unsung heroes: They were one of the first to sign with Sub Pop records and they tapped Butch Vig to produce their 1991 album 8-Way Santa, long before the Nevermind producer became rock's go-to guy for album production. They always seemed more jokey than angst-ridden bands — "Wired God" is a slack-jawed stoner-metal jam about driving drunk — but for sheer needle-in-the-red guitar riffage, it doesn't get much heavier than this album.
"We're Bikini Kill! And we want revolution! Girl! Style! Nowwwww!" With those words, Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna brought the riot grrrl movement to a national level, preaching feminist values for Sassy-reading alternagirls (and boys) over hot-wired lo-fi punk. On the Olympia, Washington, group's first CD release the movement's Magna Carta they dissed jocks, commanded you to suck their left ones, exalted the cool punk girl in a suburban town, and even took indie godhead Thurston Moore down a peg. And it still sounds as exciting and fresh 17 years after its release.
This Tacoma, Washington, quartet skewed more to the punk end of the spectrum than peers like Soundgarden and Mudhoney, yet they still found a home at Sub Pop Records, which released their finest album, Weak, in 1992. Credit goes to singer Aaron Stauffer for helping Seaweed stick out from the rest of the pack: Dude sang in a nasally pinched whine that owed more to L.A. punk than Seattle, and his heart-on-sleeve confessional "Baggage" laid the ground for emo long before Washington bands like Sunny Day Real Estate.
Founding members Chris Brady and Charlie Campbell grew up in Juneau, Alaska, before relocating to Portland, Oregon, to form Pond with drummer Dave Triebwasser. Their 1993 debut album — released on Sub Pop — shows that there weren't too many changes to be worked on grunge two years after it blew up, but Pond does pack a few charms: "Young Splendor" is Soundgarden for people who hate Soundgarden while "Agatha" might be the only time a rock band's been able to fuse stoner-metal sludge with an Arabic-style melody.
Like Courtney Love, Babes in Toyland's singer-guitarist Kat Bjelland might be better known for her fashion sense — she pioneered the kinderwhore look — than her music, but her group's terrific debut album remains one of the rawest punk records to come out of the '90s. (Cool fact: Love was briefly a member of Babes in Toyland before forming Hole.) Less slickly produced than their 1992 major label debut Fontanelle, Spanking Machine is an 11-track blast of bad-girl attitude and distorted mayhem. It starts with "Swamp Pussy," and ends with "Fork Down Throat."
Courtney Love had clear, perhaps calculated, career ambitions long before marrying Kurt Cobain in 1992. She tapped Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon to produce her band's 1991 debut, which added indie cred to a release many may have overlooked otherwise. Despite the star power, Love's tunes are unforgettable nightmares of tortured femininity ("Babydoll"), lost innocence ("Good Sister, Bad Sister") and twisted psycho-sexual encounters ("Mrs. Jones"), all delivered with her frightening gale-force caterwaul. The album-closing cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" (titled as "Clouds" on this album) is a shockingly great reinvention of the singer-songwriter's original.
From their Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-referencing name to the skimpy outfits they sometimes wore on stage, Veruca Salt may have seemed like a '90s version of a prefab band like the Runaways. But chief songwriters Louis Post and Nina Gordon were ace peddlers of power-pop candy, particularly on their major label debut Eight Arms to Hold You, released three years after their debut and way past the era when grunge was at its peak. Which is a shame: "Straight" starts with tinnitus-inducing blasts of distortion before gliding into a rousing chorus that's as fierce as anything Nirvana ever did. Ditto the teen-girl rock-star fantasy "David Bowie."
These Austin, Texas-based hardcore terrorists were one of Kurt Cobain's favorite bands — David Yow and Co. even teamed with Nirvana for the 1993 split single "Puss/Oh, The Guilt," which scored the Jesus Lizard their highest charting single in the U.K. So their 1994 album Down, produced by Steve Albini, was the highest-profile of their career, yet the band never compromised their sound for attention. Over skeletal, atonal hardcore grooves, Yow yelps, shrieks, burps, and screams unintelligible lyrics, as if he's in the throes of an Adderal-induced fever dream. Jesus Lizard would go on to sign with a major label and clean up their sound on 1996's Shot — how an A&R guy would think this band had any commercial appeal is a total mystery — but Down captures the Lizard right before they took a shot at the big time.
This Los Angeles group's 1992 debut is raw, filthy and corroded like Nirvana's In Utero. Which makes sense: Steve Albini produced the record, which features angular tunes like "Submission" and loud-quiet-loud anthems like "Something." Comfort failed to yield a Buzz Bin-worthy track, but their arty approach to rock makes it one of the weirder records to come out of the '90s.
When Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released in 1991, it changed the face of rock music forever and helped pave the way for road warriors like Pearl Jam (who are celebrating their own 20th anniversary this year) along with shorter-lived acts like Alice in Chains. But plenty of acts from Nirvana's home state of Washington and the rest of the country released albums that have remained overlooked to this day. Some came courtesy of Cobain's favorite bands (Jesus Lizard, Hole) while others were coasting on the wave of Nevermind's wake. To celebrate 20 years of grunge, eMusic picked 20 of the most overlooked and underrated albums to come out of the era.
The major-label follow-up to their 1988 Sub Pop debut doesn't work many changes on their sound or image: This all-girl group was loud, nasty, and could easily beat the shit out of any protein-shake-drinking club bouncer. Sure, they hailed from Los Angeles — the epicenter of hair metal at the time — but cue up "Fast and Frightening" and you'll discover they could play louder and faster than Warrant and Motley Crüe combined.
If there was any band poised to break on a level equal to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, it was Mark Arm's post-Green River group, whose 1988 anthem "Touch Me I'm Sick" remains grunge's National Anthem. Unfortunately, the band never took off, but their debut album is one of the genre's most overlooked records — and sounds amazingly polished for a Jack Endino-produced record. Highlights include the album opener "This Gift" and the blues-tinged anthem "Flat Out Fucked."
A side-project for Love Battery's Jason Tillman, Pooh fused the psychedelic edge of Battery with more avant-garde and punk leanings. It's loud and obnoxious stuff — particularly tracks like the careening "You Are the World" — but like any fun drunk at a basement party, essential for a good laugh or two.
Some Velvet Sidewalk ran with Olympia's K Records crew and, like most Northwest bands from the era, had a revolving door of members, including Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail. Avalanche is their most focused and comprehensive album: 11 demented lo-fi punk tunes powered by singer Al Larsen, who sounds like he huffed paint thinner for an hour before bellowing his slack-jawed musings on the Loch Ness monster and home cooking.
As the album title suggests, Love Battery specialized in psychedelic-tinged rock and their 1992 debut is a gorgeous collection of lo-fi drone and mid-tempo noise. Considering this is only their second album, it's pretty polished stuff: Dig the slide-guitar fills on "See Your Mind" and the swirling, somnambulistic riffs on album opener "Out of Focus," which sounds like the loudest tune My Bloody Valentine never recorded.
This Seattle-via-Ohio group were fronted by Mia Zapata, whose impressive pipes made her come off like the Janis Joplin of the grunge scene. Her band wasn't bad either: Drummer Steve Moriarty delivered complex drums with the precision of a jazzbo, and guitarist Joe Spleen achieved a full, arena-ready tone despite being the sole guitarist. Unfortunately, The Gits were short lived: Zapata was murdered in Seattle in 1993, but their debut album Frenching the Bully is a raucous legacy to leave behind. (The reissued version includes a hot 1993 live show from Portland, Oregon, and proves what an undeniable force they were in concert.)
From the Ventures-cribbing opener "Crooked Bird" to the goofy garage-rocking "Goat No Have," this Washington quartet were the comic book-loving, glasses-wearing nerds of the Northwest scene. "Appendix Gone" (a stoopid ode to emergency surgery) and "Quasimodo '94" are so-dumb-its-good throwaways, but Gas Huffer did prove they could deliver tunes to get a mosh pit revved up, especially the hardcore rager "Stay in Your House."