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In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a musical revolution emerged from the rainy streets of Seattle, Washington. This movement, known as grunge, captivated audiences with its raw energy, introspective lyrics, and distinctive sound characterized by distorted guitars and angst-ridden vocals. Bands like Nirvana, Pearls Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden became the voices of a generation disillusioned by mainstream culture and longing for authenticity.

Seattle, often dubbed the “birthplace of grunge,” served as the epicenter of this musical phenomenon. However, beneath the gritty allure of the music scene lay a dark undercurrent—a curse that seemed to haunt the city’s most iconic figures. Tragically, artists like Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Chris Cornell, among others, succumbed to the pressures of fame and the demons of addiction, leaving behind a legacy that continues to resonate with fans worldwide.

But amidst the sorrow and chaos, the music of grunge endures, offering solace and catharsis to those who seek it. Here are 10 essential songs that epitomize the spirit of grunge and serve as a gateway to its raw and unfiltered expression.

Check out our selection of the 10 essential Grunge Songs for beginners:

1. “Alive” by Pearl Jam

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“Alive,” featured on Pearl Jam’s debut album “Ten,” is an iconic grunge anthem. It narrates a tale of personal discovery and identity, tinged with themes of confusion and revelation. Eddie Vedder’s emotive vocals soar over a backdrop of intense guitar riffs, creating a powerful sonic landscape. The song’s raw energy and introspective lyrics resonate with listeners, capturing the essence of the grunge movement.

Released in 1991, written by guitarist Stone Gossard, it climbed the charts, reaching number 16 in the UK and number 9 in Australia.

2. “Blew” by Nirvana

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“Blew” by Nirvana is a raw and visceral exploration of disillusionment and alienation, characteristic of the grunge movement. From the opening chords to Kurt Cobain’s anguished vocals, the song exudes a sense of urgency and unrest, reflecting the band’s penchant for channeling their inner turmoil into their music.

Written by Kurt Cobain, it kicked off Nirvana’s debut album “Bleach” (1989). It also appeared on the “Blew” EP (UK, 1989), reaching number 15 on the Indie charts.

3. “Man in the Box” by Alice In Chains

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“Man in the Box,” Alice in Chains‘ signature grunge anthem, explores censorship and control. Released in 1991, it became a massive rock radio hit and earned a Grammy nomination. The song’s dark lyrics and distinctive effects-laden intro cemented its place in music history.

“Man in the Box” was a breakout hit for Alice in Chains, propelling them to mainstream success and solidifying their place as one of the defining bands of the grunge era.

4. “Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots

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Stone Temple Pilots’ 1993 hit “Plush” topped rock charts in the US, becoming a signature song. Inspired by ragtime and a news story, its lyrics explore loss and relationships. The award-winning music video combined live performance with symbolism. “Plush” remains a radio staple and a reminder of the 90s alternative rock scene.

5. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” by Temple Of The Dog

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“Say Hello 2 Heaven” by Temple of the Dog is a poignant and emotive tribute to the late Andrew Wood, lead singer of Mother Love Bone.

Written by Chris Cornell, the song is a cathartic expression of grief and loss, infused with haunting melodies and heartfelt lyrics. Cornell’s soulful vocals convey a sense of longing and sorrow, while the song’s soaring chorus serves as a powerful tribute to Wood’s memory.

“Say Hello 2 Heaven” was released as part of Temple of the Dog’s self-titled album, which was recorded in the wake of Wood’s untimely death.

Kurt’s solo starts at 2m10s.

6. “Seasons” by Chris Cornell

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“Seasons” by Chris Cornell is a hauntingly beautiful acoustic ballad that showcases the singer’s raw talent and emotive vocals. Featured on the soundtrack of the film “Singles,” the song captures a sense of melancholy and introspection, with Cornell’s soulful delivery evoking a range of emotions.

“Singles” soundtrack (1992) spotlights Seattle grunge with tracks by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden & Alice in Chains. A Deluxe Edition featuring 18 extras arrived in 2017, the day after Chris Cornell’s death.

7. “Rusty Cage” by Soundgarden

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“Rusty Cage” became a hit for Soundgarden in 1992. Its dark lyrics and innovative, down-tuned riff made it stand out. The song features a dramatic tempo shift and a unique, irregular meter. Released as a single, it received radio play and appeared in video games and car commercials.

8. “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” by Mother Love Bone

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“Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” by Seattle rock band Mother Love Bone is a revered composition, blending two tracks on their debut EP, “Shine” (1989). Though “Chloe Dancer” isn’t a standalone, “Crown of Thorns” appears on their sole studio album, “Apple” (1990).

Critics lauded it as one of their finest works, with descriptions ranging from “trancelike epic” to “fantastically melancholy.” Rolling Stone even dubbed it one of “The Fifty Best Songs Over Seven Minutes Long.” It gained further recognition through its use in films like Singles (1992).

Pearl Jam, featuring former Mother Love Bone members, often performs “Crown of Thorns” live, honoring the late Andrew Wood. Numerous artists, including Corey Taylor and Billy Strings, have covered it, attesting to its enduring impact.

9. “This Town” by Green River

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Characteristic of the band are heavy distortion and Arm’s frenetic vocals “This Town” paints a vivid portrait of urban decay and disillusionment, with the band’s lyrics reflecting on the struggles of life in Seattle’s underground music scene.

As one of the standout tracks on Green River’s album “Rehab Doll,” “This Town” helped to define the sound of grunge and establish Seattle as the epicenter of a new musical movement.

Green River (1984) pioneered grunge, paving the way for Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, and others.

10. “Touch Me I’m Sick” by Mudhoney

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Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” launched their grunge assault with dark humor. Released on Sub Pop, the song’s distorted guitars, snarling vocals, and sarcastic lyrics about sickness and sex became a grunge anthem.

“Touch Me I’m Sick” is a ferocious and unapologetic anthem, from its blistering guitar riffs to Mark Arm’s primal screams, the song exudes a sense of primal energy and rebellion. Lyrically, “Touch Me I’m Sick” is a visceral expression of nihilism and despair, with Arm’s provocative lyrics challenging societal norms and expectations.

Released as a single in 1988, the song became an instant underground hit, earning Mudhoney a dedicated following and cementing their status as pioneers of the grunge movement.

Kurt Cobain smashing a guitar on stage during a performance in Seattle in September 1990
Kurt Cobain smashes his guitar during a live performance in Seattle, September 1990. Credit: RetnaUK.
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