"Grunge" is a form of Alternative Rock. A very popular one, at that. So popular in the early 1990s that it made Alternative Rock more popular. Without this genre the vast majority of us wouldn't know the Alternative Rock bands we listen to today, since Grunge broke it out of its niche/underground status and into the public eye. For good or bad, the vast majority of us wouldn't know most of the bands we take for granted without it.
Grunge itself is widely believed to have started in the indie rock scene in Seattle, and is sometimes referred to as "the Seattle sound" by nobody in particular, even though some bands weren't actually from there. Grunge was created by two groups — Malfunkshun and Green River — and started off underground, which was the philosophy of the music. As a backlash against big budget Hair Metal, which was big at the time (the mid-'80s), Grunge artists didn't care much for theatrics or their appearance, resulting in that trademark messy look characterized by flannel shirts (though several prominent acts, namely Alice in Chains and Mother Love Bone, started out as glam acts; the former later cast off all traces aside from a noticeable metallic edge, while the latter never really dropped it and was still not a million miles from something like Cinderella or Love/Hate when Apple posthumously dropped).
The music itself could be described as a strange combination of sludge metal, Black Sabbath,and Alternative Rock with even more influences from Hardcore Punk (Black Flag's sludgier, slower material from 1984 on was frequently cited as an influence). Indie rock’s noise is another influence, as is pop. The guitars have heavy distortion and plenty of feedback (usually), songs often consist of both loud and soft sections, and the lyrics are often pretty personal, and describing drug addiction (particularly heroin), depression, poverty, suicide. This introspective writt influenced lots of more angsty genres such as Nu Metal and modern emo bands. The vocals range from Perishing Alt-Rock Voice to Yarling, and all stops in between.
However, these were among the few traits that most of the acts had in common; while Nirvana, Melvins, Green River, and Tad could certainly be said to have lived up to most of those supposed hallmarks, they had little to do with Pearl Jam's arena rock stylings, Alice in Chains' dark thrash-meets-glam dirges, Soundgarden's mix of 70s hard rock spectacle with the grit and fuck-you attitude of traditional doom metal, Mudhoney's punky, bluesy garage rock, Mother Love Bone's sleazy, punkish blues glam, Hole's violent, abrasive, grindcore-tinged noise rock, and Screaming Trees' psychedelic leanings. In short, while there was something resembling a basic skeleton of grunge, there wasn't really anything resembling a codified style and the bands that did sound alike often did so out of coincidence or common influences.
So, Grunge started off underground, but of course something happened. Record labels decided it was the next “big thing” and signed anybody with a guitar and two songs. Heroin use and a few overdoses caused a moral panic in the media. What was this "something", you may ask?
Nirvana, a Seattle (by way of Aberdeen and Olympia) Grunge band fronted by Kurt Cobain, unexpectedly made it big in 1991 with their album Nevermind, containing the famed hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which, in typical "most famous song" fashion, was shunned by Cobain. The album drove away from the dirgy sludgy material that had defined the 'grunge' label and the bands earlier material to that point and instead experimented with less distortion and catchy pop hooks, a feature that when combined with Cobain's anguished voice and rugged good looks launched them into superstardom. With Nirvana's success, other bands from Seattle, as well as those that were similar in tone, such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, also made it pretty big, and less-popular groups (namely Mudhoney, Melvins, Screaming Trees, and Tad) also had their moments in the mainstream spotlight. Against their will. As for punk before it, being big and famous went against Grunge's philosophy, and many of the bands tried to avoid fame. Cobain himself was pretty depressed over this, as well as many other things, including his heroin addiction. This whole depression thing culminated in Cobain's shotgun suicide in 1994 (although some conspiracy theorists still maintain that he was murdered).
Then Nirvana disbanded, Alice In Chains went on hiatus, Soundgarden headed in a more alternative rock direction and released their most famous song ("Black Hole Sun"), and with the rise of commercial PostGrunge bands like Bush, Foo Fighters, Silverchair and Matchbox Twenty, grunge itself had begun to fade into the shadows cast by the mid-to-late nineties, including britpop, nu metal, pop punk, The Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. By the turn of the millennium, grunge in the mainstream was reduced to nostalgia and another blow was dealt nearly a decade after Cobain's suicide when Layne Staley, lead singer of Alice in Chains, died of a heroin overdose — on the approximate date of Cobain's death note , which is cause for concern and even more paranoid conspiracy theories. Courtney Love did it!
So, there you have it. The strange story of Grunge.
The "signature look" of Grunge, much to the distress of fashion designers everywhere, was loose-fitting jeans and a t-shirt with an open flannel shirt over it. This had been a "burnout" look among poorer teens for years — the members of grunge bands only wearing such clothes because it was literally the only warm clothing they could afford when they were struggling — and was now promoted to "cool" kids.
Although Grunge's time is over, the genre is still viewed as a landmark one due to its honesty and creative musicianship (especially compared to what it mutated into), and it still has a fanbase in certain corners, and the teens of the nineties are starting to look back upon it with nostalgia. Some of the bands have also had a significant influence on Doom Metal subgenres such as Stoner Metal and Sludge, which could be seen as a Spiritual Successor of sorts.
Not to be confused with PostGrunge, which, beyond being based around downtuned guitar, often has very little in common.
Bands typically categorised as Grunge include:
- Alice in Chains (often considered the heaviest of the lot; there was also some Hair Metal present on the demos and Facelift)
- Jerry Cantrell , though mostly by association
- Ash (often seen as bridging the gap between Grunge and Britpop)
- Babes In Toyland
- Bush (Often called Post-Grunge, but they could just as easily be called 'real' Grunge. You really, really shouldn't mention them around fans of Grunge, however.)
- Candlebox (Mixed with Post-Grunge on early work. Later considered straight up Post-Grunge.)
- Everclear (First two albums. Later went on to greater success as a Power Pop band.)
- Failure (also dipping into Alternative Rock and Space Rock)
- Fecal Matter (Ur-Example, best known as Kurt Cobain's band before Nirvana)
- Feeder (only during the Polythene era)
- The Fluid (also Garage Rock Revival)
- Foo Fighters (mostly only their self-titled debut)
- Fudge Tunnel is Grunge if you approach it with modern ears. They display all of the common tropes to Grunge and their music videos were shot in a very similar manner as grunge ones.
- Green River (Trope Maker) (Its members went on to form Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone / Pearl Jam)
- Gumball (Most well-known for being led by famed Alternative/Indie producer Don Fleming)
- Haji's Kitchen (Typically a Groove Metal/ Prog Metal mix but they are often considered Grunge as well)
- Hole (Courtney Love's band)
- KEN mode (Success, mixed with post-hardcore; one of the few genuine revivalists)
- King's X (particularly during the Dogman era, typically a hard rock/progressive metal act.)
- Love Battery
- Mad Season (A Grunge Supergroup consisting of members of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees, also blues rock)
- Malfunkshun (Ur-Example)
- Melvins (Trope Maker, along with Green River. Also associated with Doom Metal. Kurt Cobain was a fan, and Dale Crover occasionally filled in on drums for Nirvana.)
- Mother Love Bone (Cut short by the lead singer's sudden death from heroin overdose, two of its members went on to form Pearl Jam. Like Alice in Chains, they were also associated with Hair Metal.)
- Mudhoney the other TropeCodifier
- My Sister's Machine
- Neil Young (Often considered the Godfather of Grunge, with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) and Rust Never Sleeps (1979) having songs that can be described as Proto-Grunge.)
- Mirror Ball (1995, played with Pearl Jam)
- Nirvana (Trope Codifier)
- The Nymphs
- Pearl Jam
- Ten (1991)
- The Pixies note
- Radiohead (Only during the Pablo Honey era)
- 7 Year Bitch
- Screaming Trees
- Silverchair (Especially their debut Frogstomp, released when the band was in their mid-teenage years at the height of The '90s. They later moved on to Post-Grunge and later to more experimental material.)
- Skin Yard
- Soundgarden (Much like Alice in Chains, generally considered heavy enough to be Alternative Metal, and also sometimes thought of as an Ur-Example of Stoner Metal as well)
- The Smashing Pumpkins (Disputed, as they combine many influences. Alternative Metal would probably fit better.)
- Stone Temple Pilots (Early work. Later work is more experimental or could be considered Post-Grunge)
- Tad (Probably the heaviest example aside from Alice in Chains and Soundgarden)
- Temple Of The Dog (A one-album collaboration between members of Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden that helped lead to the formation of Pearl Jam)
- Tool (mostly Prog Metal, although some of their earlier works incorporate Grunge influences)
- Truly (A band composed of members of Soundgarden and Screaming Trees)
- Violent Soho (A modern day example)
- Whores. (Gold, along with sludge; another revivalist act)