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. Here’s a look back at the 10 most influential Seattle bands.
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: Foo Fighters.
2. Pearl Jam
Nirvana’s chart rival 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.
Of the Seattle bands who catapulted to mainstream success, Soundgarden were 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.
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. 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.
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.
6. Green River
Sometimes, the true originators of a movement are forgotten in the wake of the bands that followed in their trailblazing ways. Such is the case with Green River, best remembered now as the group whose members included future contributors to Pearl Jam. 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.
An unhappy undercurrent to the story of the Seattle sound is the amount 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.
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.
The class clowns of the genre, Mudhoney flaunted a messy looseness that guaranteed they’d never be superstars but 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.”
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.