When grunge hit in the late ‘80s, it sounded like it had come from nowhere. The no-frills songwriting, sincerity, and down to Earth stars were a million miles away from the hair metal bands who dominated the rock charts at the time; its rise was quick, unexpected, and totally refreshing.
But no art, of course, is created in a vacuum. While the sound was a wild step away from everything that was popular and commercial, its forebears can be traced backwards, both in the albums which clearly helped establish grunge’s sonic palette, and the records that convey an attitude which grunge artists took as their own.
All of these records share a few common characteristics. Each comes from bands or artists who forged their own paths, who remain much imitated but never bettered to this day. The music speaks to a certain outsider quality; often the records bucked the trend of the day, or otherwise existed in a subculture that many mainstream listeners couldn’t understand.
Above all, each carries with it a certain aggression, whether in the music itself or the way the artists carried themselves, with charisma, danger. It’s no wonder these are the albums that made grunge.
10. Pixies - Doolittle
Pixies may be the group most famously linked to kickstarting grunge, and it’s easy to hear why. Most importantly, it’s the dynamic. While Pixies probably didn’t pioneer songs that went from tense, quiet verses to ear splitting choruses, they’re the band most associated with it, and most dramatically inclined grunge acts took their cues.
They take this to the extreme on “Tame”, wherein Frank Black spends the verses muttering and whispering his dark fairytale before screaming his lungs out on the single word chorus. On closer “Gouge Away”, he adopts a gentle lure which turns into a sickly snarl.
Indeed Black himself is a major influence on the likes of Cobain and even Courtney Love; he found a way to roar without going full death metal, staying melodic no matter how vicious his performance. Coupled with Kim Deal’s melodic bass playing, Pixies retained a dark beauty however weird they became.
Perhaps most notable, though, was the ear for something radio friendly. Grunge was from the off a remarkably commercial proposition; it shifted units. Pixies knew how to keep the label sweet, throwing in a “Wave Of Mutilation” for every “Crackity Jones”, and the grunge acts that flourished did the same.