The ‘90s are back with a vengeance, and no music style defined the decade more than grunge. That legendary sound from Seattle knocked ‘80s hair metal off the charts and helped to define a generation, making its way onto fashion runways, into pop culture, and onto radio stations across the country.
Despite its fierce and immediate impact, grunge’s commercial success was relatively short-lived: By 1995, nu-metal had more or less replaced grunge as the dominant force in rock. Yet grunge’s impact on the ‘90s is undeniable. Here are 10 of the most important artists to come out of this era.
As arguably the most successful mainstream grunge band, Nirvana is synonymous with the genre. Their second album, 1991’s Nevermind, burst onto the airways as a surprise success and cultural phenomenon, making the group a household name. The band sold 30 million albums during their meteoric rise to the big time and “represented the leading edge of a movement born in the sub-basement of ‘70s punk and ‘80s underground,” according to BBC Culture.
While Nirvana achieved mainstream success, the band’s lead singer Kurt Cobain struggled with mental illness, a nasty stomach condition, and heroin addiction throughout his career; he died by suicide in 1994. Still, the impact Nirvana had on the musical (and pop culture) landscape of the ‘90s was immense and can still be felt to this day.
2. Green River
Green River (a name reportedly inspired by the Green River Killer) is another group behind the birth of the Seattle scene. Hailed by many as the first grunge band, they released their debut EP Come On Down in 1985 and helped boost the indie prestige of the Sub Pop label with their follow-up EP, Dry As a Bone, in 1987. The group‘s first—and only—full-length album, Rehab Doll, came out in 1988, but didn‘t make much of a commercial impact; they broke up shortly after its release.
Green River would turn out to be more than just a footnote in grunge history, however: After they disbanded, ex-members Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Bruce Fairweather went on to form Mother Love Bone in 1988, with Ament and Gossard later performing with Temple of the Dog and Pearl Jam, respectively. They weren‘t the only ex-members who would continue to flesh out that nascent grunge sound either, as fellow ex-members Mark Arm and Steve Turner teamed up to start Mudhoney, another seminal band from the era.
3. Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam was established in 1990 and draws its roots from Mother Love Bone and Green River—two bands that weren’t as commercially successful as some of their peers, but helped to establish the foundation for the grunge sound. Through radio and MTV hit songs like “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam‘s audience grew, and a show-stopping appearance at Lollapalooza in 1992 helped further cement the band‘s place in the music industry. Pearl Jam is one of the genre‘s most enduring bands, too, on account of how long they continued to release albums even after the grunge boom had passed. In 2020, during the band’s induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, it was noted that Pearl Jam has “inspired and influenced” a number of bands, including Puddle of Mudd, the White Stripes, and even the Strokes.
Established in 1984 in Seattle, Washington, Soundgarden was one of the original groups to release an album on Sub Pop Records, the Seattle label that helped put grunge on the map. Soundgarden’s EPs on the label inspired Kurt Cobain to start recording Bleach, Nirvana’s debut album, with Sub Pop in December 1988. While Soundgarden’s early success was dwarfed by the swift rise of Nirvana in the early ‘90s, the band was thrust into the spotlight with their 1994 album, Superunknown, thanks to the breakout single “Black Hole Sun.”
Though the group disbanded in 1996, shortly after the release of their self-produced album Down on the Upside, they reunited in 2010 and released their final studio album, King Animal, in 2012. Frontman Chris Cornell passed away in 2017, but the band‘s music is remembered as helping to carve out a sludgy, more guitar riff-centric sound within the grunge genre.
5. Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains was one of the heavier-sounding bands to emerge during the grunge era, in part due to its metal roots (original vocalist Layne Staley was in the ‘80s glam metal band Sleze, which was later rechristened Alice N‘ Chains). Their first album, 1990‘s Facelift, technically preceded Nirvana’s Nevermind, but didn‘t race up the charts as the latter did. The band went on to explore other sounds, like acoustic music with their EP Jar of Flies in 1994.
“We all play rock music, so there is some similarity,” guitarist and co-vocalist Jerry Cantrell told Rolling Stone in 1992 of the grunge scene. “Ours is a little more brooding and introspective.” While the band enjoyed major success as the ‘90s wore on, there were heightened tensions within the group due to Staley‘s substance abuse and they went on hiatus around 1996. They later reunited (with vocalist William DuVall replacing Staley, who died in 2002) and a seventh studio album is said to be in the works.
As an offshoot of Green River, Mudhoney was one of the first groups to gain attention off the Sub Pop label with their 1989 self-titled album. The band, established in 1988, did briefly score a major-label deal with Reprise Records/Warner Bros, leading to albums like 1992‘s Piece of Cake, which peaked at No. 189 on the Billboard 200. The group has continued to perform live sporadically since 2000, and released a remastered, deluxe version of their sophomore album, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, in 2021, in honor of its 30th anniversary.
7. Mother Love Bone
As a band, Mother Love Bone was the “bones” of what would later become Pearl Jam and influenced both grunge and the emerging alternative metal scene. While recording their full-length debut, vocalist Andrew Wood checked himself into rehab but later overdosed on heroin in March 1990, just a few days before the scheduled release of the band‘s only full-length studio album, Apple. The album release was pushed back to July 1990 and it ultimately received critical praise. The group essentially disbanded after that, but its legacy lived on.
In 1991, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, a former bandmate and roommate of Wood’s, conceived the supergroup Temple of the Dog as a tribute to Wood. The band also included Mother Love Bone's Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament; Matt Cameron of Soundgarden (and, later, Pearl Jam); and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and future lead guitarist Mike McCready. The band released just one album, 1991’s self-titled Temple of the Dog. But In the years since, some music critics have come to regard Wood‘s death as having had a decisive impact on the trajectory of Seattle music, akin to Cobain‘s four years later.
8. The Smashing Pumpkins
While The Smashing Pumpkins enjoyed tremendous success during the grunge era, the band is hard to define musically and drew heavily from goth and metal influences. They released their second single, “Tristessa,” on Sub Pop in 1990, but found mainstream success after signing with Virgin Records in 1991 and releasing 1993’s Siamese Dream, which included hits like “Today” and “Disarm.” The 1995 double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness graduated the band to stadium shows. Like other frontmen of the era, lead vocalist and guitarist Billy Corgan struggled with his mental health, and by the end of 2000, the group officially disbanded.
In 2005, Corgan took out full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, announcing his plans to reunite the band, and they subsequently released five albums, including 2020‘s Cyr. While the group has gone through many different lineups and projects over the years, The Smashing Pumpkins are best remembered for their genre-bending music, which stood out amid early ‘90s grunge bands.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1989, Hole initially pulled from punk influences: Frontwoman Courtney Love actually appeared in the 1986 Alex Cox film Sid and Nancy, about the doomed romance between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Love even auditioned for the lead role of Nancy, but didn‘t get it). Love gained international fame when she married Kurt Cobain in February 1992, but her status as Cobain‘s wife—and later, his widow—often times eclipsed her band‘s music.
Despite this, Hole has a distinct place in the history of grunge, thanks to their sophomore album Live Through This, which was released on April 12, 1994, just one week after Cobain‘s death. The album was a critical and commercial success, although rumors swirled that Cobain had written most of the songs on it—a claim the band strongly denies. In 1998, they released a third album, Celebrity Skin, featuring instrumental contributions from Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins (whom Love had dated before marrying Cobain, and who was rumored to be the inspiration behind the song “Violet“). Although the group dissolved in 2002, a 2010 album, Nobody’s Daughter, was released under the band‘s name with Love on vocals, but fellow founding member Eric Erlandson was not involved.
10. Stone Temple Pilots
Stone Temple Pilots is another band that didn’t exactly fit the grunge mold, yet still made a significant impact on the genre’s landscape. Originally known as Mighty Joe Young, their debut album, Core, was released on Atlantic Records in 1992 and featured notable hits like “Plush” and “Creep,“ which were on heavy MTV rotation in the ‘90s. The band has gone through a number of lineups over the years: Original frontman Scott Weiland (who was also the lead vocalist for the supergroup Velvet Revolver in the 2000s) was fired in 2013 and passed away in 2015; his replacement, Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, left the group in 2015 and was subsequently followed up by former X Factor competitor Jeff Gutt, who has performed with STP since 2017, including on their most recent album, Perdida, which was released in 2020.