The Top Most Influential Grunge Bands

During the 1980s and early 1990s, a collection of bands from Seattle, Washington, cultivated a distinct sound commonly known as grunge. A mixture of hard rock, punk, and metal, the so-called “Seattle Sound” helped foster the contemporary rock movement.

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Kurt Cobain

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No band did more to vanquish the reign of tacky '80s hair metal than this trio. Attacking his insecurities and social awkwardness with sardonic humor, frontman Kurt Cobain made punk palatable to the masses with impossibly catchy radio hooks. "Nevermind" was the group’s high-water mark, making the case that personal anguish could be the basis for powerful songwriting that reached millions of listeners. And when Nirvana imploded after Cobain's suicide, the group spawned one of contemporary rock's biggest acts: The Foo Fighters.

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Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam in Concert at Wetlands - 1991

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Nirvana's rival on the charts perfected an arena-rock variation of grunge, highlighted by singer Eddie Vedder’s booming, empathetic tales of teenage disillusionment and family dysfunction. "Ten" made their name, but subsequent albums have revealed a group interested in pursuing folk-rock, punk, and whatever other genres catch their fancy.

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American band Soundgarden in a posed portrait, 1989.

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Of the Seattle bands who catapulted to mainstream success, Soundgarden was the most indebted to bygone metal groups like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Chris Cornell had the pinup good looks and majestic pipes, but underrated guitarist Kim Thayil provided the dense thicket of power chords and fiery solos. "Superunknown" is both their best and bestselling album, the record that made the rest of the competition look positively puny by comparison. Cornell would go on to enjoy success as a solo artist and a frontman for the supergroup Audioslave, until his tragic suicide in May 2017.

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Alice in Chains

Lollapalooza 1993 - Mountain View CA
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Dark lyrical themes were a hallmark of Seattle bands, but nobody dug as deep as this quartet. Utilizing metal’s grim urgency while forgoing the accessibility of their popular grunge peers, Alice in Chains chronicled the scourge of drug addiction on albums like "Dirt" and "Alice in Chains." Frontman Layne Staley howled and whaled like a man up to his chin in quicksand, but, sadly, his subject matter wasn’t entirely fictional—he died in 2002 of an overdose.

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Screaming Trees

Screaming Trees Back Stage Fulham Greyhound London 1989
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Grunge was losing popularity by 1996, which might explain why even though this garage-rock unit released its strongest album, "Dust," that year, it barely made a ripple. Soon, the band broke up, but they left behind a legacy of gritty rockers that rejected studio polish for raw combustion. Lead singer Mark Lanegan has since moved on to contribute occasional vocals to Queens of the Stone Age.

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Green River

Sometimes, the true trailblazers of a movement are forgotten in the wake of the bands that followed. Such is the case with Green River, best remembered now as the group whose members included future Pearl Jam contributors. Their mid-'80s output remains a mystery to most rock fans, but seek out "Dry as a Bone/Rehab Doll," which plays like a blueprint of what was to come in the '90s.

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Mother Love Bone

An unhappy theme underlying the story of the Seattle sound is the number of artists who died young. Staley’s and Cobain’s deaths are more widely known, but Mother Love Bone’s lead singer, Andrew Wood, suffered a fatal drug overdose in 1990 just as his band seemed headed to prominence. "Stardog Champion," also known simply as "Mother Love Bone," compiles the group’s catalog on one disc, highlighting Wood’s melancholy spirit that was snuffed out much too early.

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Temple of the Dog

Temple Of The Dog In Concert - New York, NY
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A supergroup with a cause, Temple of the Dog united members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to pay tribute to their deceased friend Andrew Wood. Their self-titled album contains the expected ruminations on death, but Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell reveals a softer, more romantic side as well, looking to love as a way to help keep grief at bay. Of course, considering Cornell's eventual suicide, it's hard to listen to Temple of the Dog without this irony in mind.

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Mudhoney perform on stage on day 3 of MusicFest NW at Dantes on September 18, 2009 in Portland, Oregon.U.S.A.
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The class clowns of the genre, Mudhoney flaunted a messy looseness that guaranteed they’d never be superstars but which did result in a series of playful albums that sounded like they were recorded live in the garage. For the uninitiated, the best place to start is​ "March to Fuzz," a greatest-hits compilation that spans their '80s and '90s peaks, including their immortal single “Touch Me I’m Sick.”

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Candlebox at Woodstock '94
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They were roundly chastised for their homogenized grunge aesthetic when they become radio staples on the strength of their self-titled 1993 debut. But while there’s plenty of validity to the claims that the quartet represented the most cynical commercialization of the Seattle scene’s deeply-felt anger and disenchantment, hits like “Far Behind” have become the template for mainstream rock bands looking for a combination of tunefulness and introspection.