Grunge Music: The Background You Need to Know

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


It’s time to learn a little bit about grunge music and its history. Join us as we explore the grunge music scene and discover the stories behind some of the most iconic grunge bands.

What is Grunge Music?

Grunge music is a genre of alternative rock that emerged in the early 1990s in the American state of Washington. It is characterized by its distorted guitars, dark and pessimistic lyrics, and sludgy rhythms. Grunge music became commercially successful in the early 1990s, due in part to the release of Nirvana’s album Nevermind.

The Origins of Grunge

Grunge music is a subgenre of alternative rock that began in the early 1990s. It was associated with the Seattle music scene and grunge bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains.

Grunge music is characterized by its angst-ridden lyrics, distorted guitars, and heavy drums. The genre was marked by a do-it-yourself aesthetic and a DIY ethic. Grunge bands were often signed to independent record labels and many of them were from the Seattle area.

The term “grunge” was first used in print in 1985 by music journalist Mark Arm, who used it to describe the Seattle music scene. The term gained popularity in the early 1990s when it was used by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain to describe his band’s sound.

Grunge music became mainstream in 1991 with the release of Nirvana’s album Nevermind. The album featured the hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which helped to make grunge a global phenomenon.

In the wake of Nirvana’s success, other grunge bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains achieve mainstream success. By the mid-1990s, grunge was one of the most popular genres of music in the world.

However, by the late 1990s, grunge began to lose its mainstream appeal. In 1997, Kurt Cobain committed suicide, which many saw as symbolic of the end of grunge music. In the years that followed, grunge bands continued to release albums but they failed to achieve the same level of commercial success as they did in the early 1990s.

The Seattle Sound

Grunge is a subgenre of alternative rock that emerged during the mid-1980s in the American state of Washington, particularly in the Seattle area. Named after the dirty, muddy sound of the genre, grunge is characterized by distorted electric guitars, drums, and vocals.

Grunge music first gained mainstream attention in the early 1990s with bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Although grunge music initially developed in Seattle, it quickly spread to other parts of the United States and then to other countries. By 1994, grunge had become one of the most popular genres of music in the world.

The Seattle Sound is a subgenre of grunge music that is characterized by its heavy use of distortion and feedback. The Seattle Sound is often credited with being one of the defining characteristic of grunge music.

The term “The Seattle Sound” was first used by journalist Charles Cross in an article about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. In his article, Cross described the sound of Nirvana’s album Nevermind as “full-on assaultive three-chord rock delivered with punk’s hatred but without punk’s political punch.”

The Main Bands of Grunge

Though grunge music is often thought to be a product of the 1990s, the genre actually has a much longer history. Grunge music first emerged in the mid-1980s in the American Northwest, specifically in the Seattle area. The early grunge scene was influenced by punk rock and heavy metal, and it was not until the early 1990s that grunge became a widespread phenomenon.


Nirvana was an American rock band formed in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1987. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic were the band’s songwriters. Nirvana’s biggest hits include “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” “In Bloom,” and “Heart-Shaped Box.” The band popularized the grunge music style and Cobain became a Generation X icon. Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam is an American rock band formed in Seattle, Washington, in 1990. The band’s lineup comprises founding members Jeff Ament (bass guitar), Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar), Mike McCready (lead guitar), and Eddie Vedder (lead vocals, guitar), as well as Matt Cameron (drums), who joined in 1998. Keyboardist Boom Gaspar has also been a touring/session member with the band since 2002. Pearl Jam rose to prominence with its debut album, Ten, in 1991. Thanks to the popularity of the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Nirvana, a grunge precursor and the band’s main rivals at the time, achieved mainstream success a few months after Pearl Jam’s own breakthrough. Ten set a precedent for subsequent grunge releases in that it avoided the heavy metal aspects of its peers and featured an acoustic ballad (“Black”) among other hits “Even Flow” and “Jeremy”. However, some have criticized Pearl Jam for being too commercially successful and softening its sound over subsequent releases.


Formed in Seattle in 1984, Soundgarden was one of the leading bands of the grunge movement. The band’s sound was a mix of heavy metal and punk rock, and they were known for their dark, brooding lyrics. Soundgarden’s members were singer/guitarist Chris Cornell, bassist Ben Shepherd, drummer Matt Cameron, and guitarist Kim Thayil.

The band released their debut album, Ultramega OK, in 1988 to critical acclaim. However, it was their second album, Louder Than Love (1989), that really brought them into the mainstream. The album featured the hit single “Rusty Cage,” which helped to propel the album to gold status.

In 1991, Soundgarden released their third album, Badmotorfinger. The album featured another hitsingle, “Outshined,” and helped to establish the band as one of the leading names in grunge. Badmotorfinger was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance.

The band’s fourth album, Superunknown (1994), is considered their masterpiece. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and went on to sell over nine million copies in the United States alone. It features the singles “Spoonman,” “Black Hole Sun,” and “Fell on Black Days.” Superunknown won two Grammy Awards, including Best Rock Album.

After a hiatus in the late 1990s/early 2000s, Soundgarden reunited in 2010 and released a new album, King Animal (2012). The album received positive reviews from critics and debuted at #5 on the Billboard charts.

Alice in Chains

Alice in Chains is a rock band from Seattle, Washington, formed in 1987 by guitarist and songwriter Jerry Cantrell and original lead vocalist Layne Staley. The initial lineup was rounded out by drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr, who was replaced in 1993 by Mike Inez. While the band was labeled as heavy metal and often associated with the grunge movement of the early 1990s, its sound contains elements of both genres.

The band rose to international fame with its second album, Dirt (1992), released on Alice in Chains’ new label Columbia Records. The album peaked at number two on the Billboard 200 chart and has been certified quadruple-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The singles “Would?”, “Them Bones”, “Angry Chair”, and “Rooster” achieved mainstream success. A New York Times music critic called Dirt the best album of the year, andRolling Stone ranked it number four on its 1992 list of best albums. In 1994, Alice in Chains released Jar of Flies, an EP that debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 – becoming the first EP ever to do so – while setting a record for having all songs achieve positions on radio airplay charts. It has since been certified triple-platinum by the RIAA.

After Staley’s death in 2002, William DuVall joined as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, completing what has been considered the band’s definitive lineup since 1995. The band continued to tour throughout 2005–2006 to promote their greatest hits release before entering a hiatus from 2007 to 2009 due to DuVall’s arm injury in a motorcycle accident that occurred during filming for their DVD Live Facelift (2007). In 2013, Alice in Chains began touring again with new bassist Sean Kinney’s son Michael on bass as part of his gap year before starting college; Starr rejoined them briefly during this time but officially departed again soon afterward due to creative differences. In 2016, they toured in support of their fifth studio album, Rainier Fog (2018).

Alice in Chains has sold more than 30 million records worldwide and is one of the world’s best-selling music artists of all time. The band has earned multiple Grammy Award nominations over the course of their career; they won two Grammy Awards as part of Mad Season: Best Hard Rock Performance for “River of Deceit” (1996) and Best Metal Performance for “Would?” (1992). They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside fellow Seattle musicians Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam in 2019.

The Legacy of Grunge

Though it’s been over two decades since the height of grunge’s popularity, the genre’s influence can still be felt today. Grunge music is a style of alternative rock that emerged in the early 1990s. It was characterized by its dark, angst-ridden lyrics and stripped-down sound.

The Influence of Grunge

Grunge music is a genre that emerged in the early 1990s and quickly gained popularity around the world. The sound was characterized by distorted guitars, heavy drums, and angsty lyrics, and it became the perfect soundtrack for a generation of disaffected youth. Grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden brought alternative rock into the mainstream and helped to define an entire generation.

But grunge didn’t just have an impact on the music world; it also had a lasting legacy in fashion, film, and art. Grunge fashion was all about dressing down and looking like you didn’t care; it was the perfect antithesis to the glamorous styles of the 1980s. The film world also saw a wave of grunge-inspired films, including Singles and Sleepless in Seattle. And in the art world, grunge-influenced artists like Kurt Cobain and banksy emerged as major forces.

Today, grunge may be gone but its influence can still be seen all around us.

The End of an Era

The grunge era came to an abrupt end with the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994. Cobain’s suicide note famously included the line, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” and in many ways, his death signified the end of grunge as a viable commercial force. As grunge faded from the mainstream, many of its key players retreated into obscurity or disassembled their bands altogether. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden found themselves at the center of a public backlash against grunge, and both groups took steps to distance themselves from the movement. Meanwhile, Alice in Chains became one of the first grunge bands to disband following the death of singer Layne Staley in 2002.

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