Perhaps there is not a single music lover in the world who's not familiar with this word and hasn't associated it with the band called Nirvana and Kurt Cobain in particular. However, everything is way more complicated than this. Let's take a roundabout approach to this topic. This is the genre that exists at the confluence of punk rock and metal, but its similarity with these progenitor genres is more than just nominal. Black Sabbath, Pixies, Black Flag, Stooges, and Sonic Youth are among the bands that have exerted the biggest influence on grunge.
It is thought that Seattle, a major American city that is situated in Washington state, is the actual birthplace of grunge. The name of the genre can be interpreted as “dirt”, “strain” or “defiance”, which is an almost perfect description of this genre of music. The dirty sound, the harsh vocals, and the true punky, devil-may-care attitude that is reflected in the lyrics and stylistics created by the musicians. That is the real grunge.
Mark Arm, from Green River, was the first musician who used this term to characterize the sound of his first band. Later, this word was popularized by the music label Sub Pop that played a very significant role in the evolution and the subsequent commercial success of the genre. The very first collections of musical singles and releases of music bands, some of which, like Soundgarden and Nirvana, became iconic, were released under the aegis of this Seattle-based label. Song compilations and successful releases (for example, Nirvana's debut album Bleach), and the relentless work of the label brought grunge a global popularity that reached its peak in the late ‘80s.
A bit later, grunge bands started to cooperate closely with major music labels. In 1991, Nirvana released the album called Nevermind, and the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” began the triumphal march around the world that continues to this day. By the mid-nineties, the grunge craze ended as suddenly as it had begun. The cause of its eroding popularity was that the two bands which had dominated grunge had ceased to exist. In 1994, Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and 1996 was the last year for Alice in Chains. It should be noted that the band didn't disintegrate formally; but in the period from 1996 to 2002, the year when the members officially announced that they were hanging up their instruments because of the death of the lead singer, the band was already on tenterhooks and had been for some while.
The genre itself has now split into canonical grunge and the less extravagant, commercial version that operates under the name post-grunge, with Nickelback and 3 Doors Down being its prominent representatives.
Nirvana – Bleach (1989)
Almost everyone, regardless of whether they wanted to or not, has heard the songs from Nevermind. The debut album always lagged behind in terms of popularity, but that doesn't mean that it's sub-par in any way. On the contrary, it represents that trademark raw, dirty, and punky sound that infatuated Seattle long before the big labels took control of the musicians.
Green River – Dry as a Bone (1987)
The band existed for just four years and never gained real prominence outside of Seattle. However, during the years that it was active, it had more impact on the development of grunge than any other band; therefore, Green River can be rightfully considered as one of the founders of the genre. I suggest that you get acquainted with their debut EP, which was released under the auspices of Sub Pop. By the way, in 2008, the band announced its return to the stage.
Alice in Chains – The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013)
One of the most prominent grunge bands, with a very complicated history. The members managed to recover after the death of the lead singer and continue their musical activities. Actually, I would like you to listen to their last album and appreciate how they worked their way from their debut album, called Dirt, to the present day.
Hole – Nobody’s Daughter (2010)
Let's move on to more recent times. This is the last album released by the band that was founded by Cortney Love, who was Kurt Cobain's wife. A very controversial person, whom many still suspect of direct involvement in Cobain's death. She plays the music that reminds many listeners of the good old grunge from 1989.
Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
Yet another album that has become iconic for grunge music. It was released in Seattle back in the ‘90s, but it is still considered as a grunge classic.