On June 15, 1989, Nirvana released their overshadowed but immeasurably iconic debut album, Bleach. Originally, it had limited commercial success, selling around 40,000 copies. The release of Nevermind, of course, detonated the underground persona of Nirvana and burst them into superstardom, reigniting interest in their debut. Thirty years later and it's still the best-selling album of all time for Sub Pop, the prominent grunge label and subterranean persona pusher. In Sub Pop's offices, Bleach's gold record hangs in a fitting place for such an accolade: nailed above a urinal in the bathroom.
Kurt Cobain battling with his own image is a notion that is well-documented and has been dragged out far too many times to echo here, but it's maybe less well-known that Cobain was already grappling with these identity issues in his songs at Nirvana's genesis. Alongside a wealth of other bands—some further explored on this list below—Nirvana was a mere droplet in a bubbling grunge scene, and Sub Pop played on that characterization of the band and their place in the scene. A great deal of the aggressiveness on Bleach was aimed at the image they were supposed to depict by their label. To combat this view, Cobain purposefully cut some of the heavier songs and added songs that showcased his pop interests like "About a Girl" on the final cut of the record.
Back before grunge was a universal term attached to any mix of hard rock, punk, and metal from the late '80s and early '90s, bands were embracing the tumultuous style of music for their own amusement, not necessarily because it was a lucrative undertaking. Music was being played in DIY spaces with enough fuzz and grit to cultivate a burgeoning style of music that would eventually morph into a mainstream trend. Nirvana wasn't trying to be played on the radio with songs like the raucous "Negative Creep" or the sludgy and dissonant "Paper Cuts." But on Bleach, there are glimpses of the catchy songwriting Cobain was later known for, on tracks like "School" and "Blew." There's also a Dave Grohl–sized gap that illustrates just how influential Grohl's dynamic and polished drumming would be on Nirvana's later sound.
Bleach is the perfect snapshot of an era where grunge was teeming with possibilities, before Cobain cast a harrowing aura over Nirvana's history. It's the raw and unpolished entry-point to grunge's most symbolic band. Below, find five other vital records crucial to understanding the early days of the genre.
It would behoove us to begin this list with a Melvins record, as the industrious outfit functioned as one of Cobain's greatest influences. Furthermore, drummer Dale Crover can be found on some of Nirvana's earliest demos that laid the foundation for Bleach. While Melvins released Ozma the same year as Nirvana's debut, its roughness and inconsistency frame it as a less palatable entry-point than Bullhead, an excellent distillation of Melvin's sound in their early days.
The album's opener and three-chord highlight, "Boris," captures early grunge at its finest. Sometimes, when a simple riff sounds so innately heavy on its own, it's best to repeat it for eight-and-a-half minutes for full satisfaction. The song's effect was so potent, it inspired a punk and shoegaze band from Tokyo to name themselves after it.
The fierceness of "Boris" is equally matched throughout the remainder of the record. "Ligature" features the low-tuned guitars ringing out sludgy chords as Crover pounds the drums. Howling guitars anchor "Zodiac" as Buzz Osbourne finds himself the most audible and coherent. Other tracks like "If I Had an Exorcism" feature pure nonsense generally agreed to be transcribed as "Stin… stern… st'nning/Numzph-numonh, bleeargh!" On the whole, this record rips and would be appreciated by anyone who is a fan of Bleach.
As one can expect, any record that opens up with a behemoth of a man spewing "motherfucker" into a mic over and over isn't going to go on to be an especially happy one. The introduction to Tad came with their Sub Pop debut, God's Balls, positioning a burly butcher turned frontman Tad Doyle as the towering centerpiece. Tad continues to be regarded as one of the most brutal Seattle acts of the late '80s and early '90s, and rightfully so.
God's Balls is a paragon of the Seattle sound in its infancy, when the bands were mixing punk and metal for a niche crowd in lieu of pandering to the masses. There were no radio hits. There wasn't any commercial viability. Songs like "Cyanide Bath" and "Satan's Chainsaw" suggest Tad was doing everything they could to stay away from the mainstream. God's Balls starred Doyle violently hurling incoherent phrases into a microphone that sounds like it could very well be inside his mouth at certain moments, a prime example being the squawk fest "Nipple Belt." Tad employed raw objects like hacksaws, gas cans, and brass tubes to record, serving as a testament to the thundering vision the band set out to fulfill.
The prolific grunge producer Jack Endino recorded God's Balls in 1989, only three months prior to the release of his quintessential recording effort, Bleach. In the fall of '89, both Tad and Nirvana would go on a European tour with Sub Pop's poster band, Mudhoney. Naturally, Nirvana eclipsed both and the rest is history. Bleach captured Nirvana at their angriest, but at the end of the day, "I'm a negative creep and I'm stoned" is ultimately more relatable than anything you can manage to make out on God's Balls. Nevertheless, this record is a relic that freezes the undiluted chapter of Seattle's legendary grunge inception into 37 minutes.
Superfuzz Bigmuff is the seminal EP that would go on to influence not only the entire Seattle scene but loads of other bands outside of its scope. Named after two pedals that helped define their sound (the Univox Super Fuzz and Electro-Harmonix Big Muff), Superfuzz Bigmuff, along with Mudhoney's self-titled debut LP, secured them as Sub Pop's flagship band.
Mark Arm launched the band shortly after the dissipation of his earlier formative grunge act Green River, adding to the hype of Mudhoney's explosive start. On Superfuzz Bigmuff, Arm vehemently growls through most of the EP. Dan Peters lashes out on his drums in a temperamental manner. Steve Turner belts out spastic guitar solos, and ex-Melvins bassist Matt Lukin anchors the band with the low-tuned thrashing of his bass.
Many consider Mudhoney as the defining band to catapult the genre, as they were relatively successful well before the grunge explosion. It's bizarre to look back and see how Mudhoney was on track to being the most prominent band of their scene. Maybe it was never their intention to break the mainstream barrier like Nirvana accidentally did. The excerpt at the beginning of the EP's final track, "In 'n' Out of Grace" lays out their intentions rather clearly: "We want to be free / We want to be free to do what we wanna do / We want to be free to ride / We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man… And we wanna get loaded!"
Green River can be considered the inception of grunge for a myriad of reasons. Mark Arm fronted the band, backed by Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather (after replacing Steve Turner) on guitars, Jeff Ament playing bass, and Alex Shumway on the drums. Rehab Dolls stands as the only proper full-length the band ever recorded in the studio, and they had actually broken up well before the record was released. Mark Arm wanted the band to stay grounded, while the rest had a more grandiose vision of what Green River could be. Arm and Turner went on to form Mudhoney. Ament, Gossard, and Fairweather went on to form Mother Love Bone, which then spawned into Temple of the Dog and ultimately Pearl Jam.
Rehab Dolls is a way to look back and hear the origins of so many household-name grunge acts in a record that's overall a little more poppy than any other record on this list. It's not as heavy as, say, Melvins or Tad, leaning away from the metal inspiration and more into the hair-raising '70s riffs that came before them, peppered with a touch more angst. Rehab Doll's design is developed around Gossard and Fairweather's brash guitar playing.
The record is dirty enough to stay planted in the foundations of grunge, but the guitar work is reminiscent of their more-mainstream contemporaries like Guns N' Roses, exemplified on "Forever Means" and "Smilin' and Dyin'." Through and through, Rehab Dolls stands the test of time, and while it's a shame Green River ended before they ever really began, the bands that flourished out of its early demise speak to the talent that went into this record.
Though not from Seattle like every other band on this list, Los Angeles's L7 proved that the same mix of metal, punk, and hard rock that would define grunge wasn't restricted to Seattle's borders. L7 absolutely played a part in ushering in the era, being one of the only non-Seattle bands to sign to Sub Pop in that time. The ambiguity of the name added to the mystery of L7, who have since reunited and are extensively touring their latest album, Scatter the Rats, released in early May.
On L7's self-titled debut, the uncurbed four-piece released their initial imprint as a sludgy amalgamation of influences. Although it didn't always blend so well, it stands as the origin of the sound that would impress Nirvana, landing them an opening tour slot in 1990. L7 is irregular, jumping from one wave to the next, particularly on the album's opener "Metal Stampede," where after about a minute of violent blast beats, the band rips into a campy, deranged version of "Old Macdonald Had a Farm." Or on "Snake Handler," when after asking, "Are you a snake? Are you a man?," L7 fall into a rendition of the ancient snake charmer riff. Songs that stayed cohesive throughout are the highlights on the record, like "Uncle Bob," which resembles Melvins' "Boris" in a way, in that they found a few good chords and rode them into a thrilling cacophony.
L7's influence spread far and wide, helping spawn other female-fronted legends like Garbage and Bikini Kill. L7, famously known for their vulgar tendencies, like dropping their pants on live television or pulling out a tampon and throwing it into a crowd, kicked ass and didn't take shit from anyone. It was this kind of attitude that bestowed L7's place in history, as a revolutionary and formative harbinger of grunge.