Looking back on it almost 30 years later, it’s hard to understand how the impact of Nevermind felt at the time of its release. Once the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit dropped on MTV, it was everywhere. It was inescapable. Radio, TV, magazines, everywhere. Compared to Bleach and it’s followup, In Utero, it’s an incredibly polished LP that stands in opposition to its “grunge” label in a way, thanks to the shiny Butch Vig production. The real secret to Nevermind is that it feels different inside, in the songwriting and in the performances. To me, side 2 is the stronger side and the side with some incredible songcraft in tracks like Drain You and Lounge Act. It's easy to look past Nevermind now and downplay its’ impact, but it’s a fantastic record deserving of the praise it originally received.
Pearl Jam may have been the surprise stars of the grunge era in many ways. Members of PJ had already been on a major label and toured the US. The album has one foot clearly placed in classic rock as much as alternative. Songs like Alive & Black feel tailor made for AOR radio. What truly makes Ten a great album are the performances it contains. The musicianship is amazing with Mike McCready ascending to guitar god status with just one album under his belt. The rhythm section, anchored by bassist Jeff Ament, is top notch and vocalist newcomer Eddie Vedder ties it all together. I lucked into seeing them numerous times over the tours for the first two albums and that heartfelt honesty and musicianship came through even stronger live that it did on the LP’s. Ten isnt my favorite Pearl Jam LP, but it’s still a great album.
Based more in metal and considerably darker than their 90’s counterparts, Alice In Chains - Dirt is a force of nature. From the opening blast of Them Bones, to the closer, Would?, which is one of my favorite songs, Dirt is an unrelenting assault. Mired in drug use and loss, Dirt feels like you’re going through the struggles of singer Layne Staley along with him. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell absolutely burns throughout the entire LP and it’s easy to forget that he also has an amazing voice. The vocal pairing of Jerry and Layne take their songs to another level. I’d say that Dirt is probably the 90’s album I still listen to the most and it still sounds fresh going on its third decade. Their debut, Facelift, is also about to FINALLY see it’s first vinyl reissue since its original release, so make sure to pick that up too.
Soundgarden - Superunknown
While I tend to lean more towards Louder Than Love & Badmotorfinger, it’s impossible to overlook Superunknown and its impact on music in the 90’s. Soundgarden was already loved by a ton of people, especially after MTV fell in love with Outshined on Badmotorfinger, but they were still a bit “heavy” for some folks. The release of Black Hole Sun pushed them into another level of fame though. MTV loved it and it was perfect for radio, leading to it being played relentlessly for months. The rest of the record is brilliant, with tracks ranging from the quiet pain of Fell On Black Days to the downtuned sludge greatness of 4th of July. Everyone should own Superunknown. Everyone.