Grunge Music in the 90s: The Icons

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

A look at the grunge music scene of the 1990s and the icons that emerged from it.

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana

Nirvana was one of the most influential grunge bands of the early 1990s. The band, which was made up of singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl, became a leading voice of the generation with their raw and emotional music. Nirvana’s breakthrough album, “Nevermind,” which was released in 1991, brought the band widespread success and catapulted grunge into the mainstream.

Nirvana’s major label debut, “Nevermind”

Nirvana’s major label debut, “Nevermind,” was released in September 1991. The album was a commercial success, reaching number one on the Billboard 200 chart and selling over four million copies in the United States by the end of 1992. The album’s lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” became a global smash hit, propelling “Nevermind” to the top of the charts and establishing Nirvana as one of the biggest bands of the 1990s.

Cobain’s suicide and the end of Nirvana

In early April 1994, Cobain was in Rome with Vig and Novoselic, preparing for Nirvana’s European tour. He had not been taking his prescribed medication for depression, and friends worried about his state of mind. On April 8, a fax was sent to Dylan Carlson (Cobain’s friend and the owner of the Gasworks, a Seattle music club) containing a list of potential targets for suicide bombers, including Target stores. The fax was traced to a call made from a payphone near Cobain’s Rome hotel. That day, Cobain’s wife Courtney Love attempted suicide in Los Angeles; she survived but was taken to the hospital. Immediately concerned, Novoselic and Vig flew to Los Angeles on April 10 to check on her recovery and ask her about Cobain.

On April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead at his home in Seattle by an electrician who had come to do some work. A suicide note was found near his body, and he appeared to have died three days earlier on April 5. He had shot himself with a 20-gauge Remington 870 shotgun. A high concentration of heroin and traces of Valium were found in his body. His death certificate stated that the cause of death was “suicide by gunshot”.

Pearl Jam

One of the most influential bands of the 90s, Pearl Jam, was a grunge band out of Seattle, Washington. The members were Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder, and Matt Cameron. The band was known for their dark and emotive lyrics, as well as their use of distorted guitars.

Pearl Jam’s debut album, “Ten”

Pearl Jam’s debut album, “Ten,” cemented the band as one of the icons of the grunge music movement of the early 1990s. The album’s popularity was driven by its singles “Jeremy” and “Alive,” which reached the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “Ten” was a commercial and critical success, selling more than 13 million copies in the United States and earning a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance.

The band’s fight against Ticketmaster

In the early 1990s, Pearl Jam rose to become one of the most popular bands in the world. Along with Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, they were responsible for popularizing the Seattle grunge sound.

The band’s popularity was largely due to their willingness to take on Ticketmaster. In 1994, Pearl Jam announced a summer tour in support of their album Vs. However, Ticketmaster had a monopoly on concert ticket sales and they were charging exorbitant prices.

In response, Pearl Jam decided to play small venues that were not under Ticketmaster’s control. This led to a series of lawsuits and countersuits that eventually went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Although Pearl Jam didn’t win their battle against Ticketmaster, they did raise awareness of the issue and force the company to change some of their practices. Moreover, their fight inspired other artists to speak out against unfair ticket prices.

Alice in Chains

Alice in Chains is a Seattle-based rock band formed in 1987 by guitarist and songwriter Jerry Cantrell and original lead vocalist Layne Staley. The band is known for their distinctive vocal style, which often incorporated harmonized vocals between the two musicians.

The death of Layne Staley

On April 5, 2002, Layne Staley, the singer of Alice in Chains, was found dead in his home in Seattle, Washington. He was only 34 years old. The cause of death was later determined to be a drug overdose.

Staley had struggled with drug addiction for many years, and his death came as a shock to many people.Alice in Chains was one of the most successful bands of the early 1990s “grunge” movement, and Staley was a big part of that success. With his unique voice and dark lyrics, he helped the band create a sound that was both heavy and vulnerable.

After Staley’s death, Alice in Chains released one more album, “Black Gives Way to Blue” (2009), with a new singer, William DuVall. But the band will always be remembered for the music they made with Staley.

The band’s reunion with new lead singer William DuVall

Alice in Chains officially regrouped in 2006 with a new lead singer, William DuVall, and released the album Black Gives Way to Blue in 2009. The reunion was short-lived, however, as Layne Staley died less than two years later, on April 5, 2002.


Grunge music emerged in the late 80s and early 90s as a response to the polished and excess-ridden hair metal of the 80s. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains brought the genre to the mainstream with their stripped-down sound and angsty lyrics. But of all the grunge bands, Soundgarden was the one that really pushed the boundaries of the genre. With their heavy riffs and dark lyrics, they created a sound that was both distinctly grunge and uniquely their own.

The band’s final album, “Superunknown”

In 1994, Soundgarden released their fourth studio album, Superunknown, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. The album features some of the band’s most well-known songs, including “Black Hole Sun”, “Spoonman”, and “Fell on Black Days”. Superunknown was nominated for five Grammy Awards, winning two for “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman”. Following the success of Superunknown, Soundgarden toured extensively throughout 1994 and 1995. In April 1996, Cornell announced that he was leaving Soundgarden to focus on his solo career.

Soundgarden’s breakup and reunion

The band’s final studio album, Telephantasm, was released on September 28, 2010. It contained the previously unreleased song “Black Rain”, which was recorded during the Badmotorfinger sessions but left off the final album. The album peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and was certified platinum by the RIAA in February 2011. On May 17, 2017, Cornell died by suicide by hanging at the age of 52. Following Cornell’s death, Thayil stated that Soundgarden would not continue as a band. However, on January 1, 2018, Kim Thayil posted a photo on his Instagram account with Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd with the caption “work”…

Other Grunge Bands

Seattle may have been the epicenter of the grunge music phenomenon in the early ’90s, but there were plenty of other great grunge bands worth listening to. Here are just a few of the other grunge bands that made great music in the ’90s.

Stone Temple Pilots

Stone Temple Pilots were one of the most successful bands of the early ’90s, thanks to their melding of pure pop hooks with heavy metal power, topped off with a charismatic frontman in Scott Weiland. The group’s sound was a major factor in Alternative Nation’s takeover of the mainstream in the early ’90s, and STP became one of the first grunge bands to achieve massive commercial success.


Mudhoney was one of the first Seattle grunge bands to find mainstream success. The band was formed in 1988 by Mark Arm and Steve Turner, who had been playing together in the band Green River. Mudhoney’s sound was heavier and more abrasive than many of their Seattle contemporaries, and their songs often featured dark, nihilistic lyrics. The band found success with their debut album, Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988), which spawned the minor hit single “Touch Me I’m Sick.” Mudhoney’s second album, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (1991), was also moderately successful, but it was with their third album, My Brother the Cow (1995), that the band finally achieved a measure of mainstream success. The album’s first single, “You Got It,” became a top 40 hit on Alternative radio, and the album itself peaked at number 35 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart. Mudhoney continued to record and release music throughout the 1990s and 2000s, though they never again achieved the same level of commercial success as they did with My Brother the Cow.

Screaming Trees

Screaming Trees were an American rock band formed in Ellensburg, Washington in 1985. The band achieved minor success with their debut album Uncle Anesthesia before finding mainstream success with their fourth album Sweet Oblivion, which peaked at number 24 on the Billboard 200 and number 7 on the Billboard Alternative Albums chart in 1992. The band became well-known internationally with the release of their 1991 album Uncle Anesthesia. The lead single “Nearly Lost You” peaked at number three on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance.

The band’s sixth album, Dirt, was released in August 1996 and was their most successful album, reaching number two on the Billboard 200 and selling over two million copies in the United States. The single “All I Know” peaked at number one on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance. Screaming Trees disbanded in 2000 after drummer Mark Lanegan left to focus on his solo career.

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