Although no one knew it at the time, Superunknown was released a month before Kurt Cobain took his own life, and it’s really the last grunge album that sounds fully whole as a result. I still consider Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy and the Foo Fighters’ debut, which were released in November 1994 and July 1995, respectively, to be grunge albums, but the cracks were clearly beginning to show by then. Soundgarden had achieved broader success with Badmotorfinger in 1991, but it lacked the pop hooks of Nevermind and the earnest rock & roll of Ten. It was more of a metal record, with a lot of sludge and grime on it characteristic of early grunge. And while I love Badmotorfinger, I’m not surprised in the least that the masses fawned over Nirvana and Pearl Jam instead.
When Soundgarden returned two and a half years later with Superunknown, anticipation was sky-high. The world was hungry for grunge, post-grunge and fake grunge, so when the godfathers of the movement released their sprawling, 70-minute set Superunknown, it was another instant classic in alternative rock. This time around, Soundgarden had loaded their disc with hit singles, as “Spoonman,” “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell on Black Days” all became modern rock classics. And then Cobain shot himself, leaving the grunge scene in disarray. Superunknown, with its darkly psychedelic, distorted reality, became the soundtrack of the summer, and “Black Hole Sun” became the biggest hit of Soundgarden’s career. Musically, I’m not sure there was ever a better grunge record, and in fact I would even go as far as to call it the high-water mark of the entire grunge movement.
Unfortunately, it just wasn’t meant to last — 1994 was an undeniably tumultuous year for grunge and alternative rock. On January 25, Alice in Chains released an awesome acoustic EP called Jar of Flies that featured a bunch of classics like “Rotten Apple,” “Nutshell” and “No Excuses.” On March 8, Soundgarden released Superunknown, and a month later, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was found dead. And when grunge started to sputter, the music industry swooped in and kept it going with a slew of “post-grunge” acts of varying quality. The first grunge band of questionable integrity were the Stone Temple Pilots. Somehow they have always been lumped in with Seattlites Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, despite hailing from San Diego. They also didn’t release their first record until 1992, so I would label them the first of these so-called post-grunge bands.
Their 1992 debut Core shifted over eight million copies, and their follow-up Purple sold six million copies upon its release in June of 1994. I don’t really listen to Stone Temple Pilots, but I have heard their songs on the radio countless times. They weren’t the only ones before long though, as the record labels started producing more radio-ready post-grunge in the hopes of selling records. (Kurt Cobain satirized this practice by writing a song called “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” on the In Utero album.) As you can probably guess, anything grunge-sounding was just flying off the shelves back then. I don’t really have anything against STP, it’s just that their songs clearly lack character, which is something all post-grunge bands struggle with to some degree.
Probably my favorite of these post-grunge albums is Live’s Throwing Copper, released just a couple of weeks after Cobain’s death, which features two of the greatest songs in alternative rock, “Lightning Crashes” and “I Alone.” Live draws its inspiration from R.E.M. more than any specific grunge heavyweight (particularly in the way they basically steal Michael Stipe’s vocals), but a criticism I have of Throwing Copper is that its texture is very monochromatic. It’s impossible for Live to overcome this particular flaw because they’re playing a type of music that isn’t really theirs. The interesting thing about grunge is that it’s impossible to truly replicate. It’s not like the blues where there’s a scale you learn and while there are different regional variations, the blues is the blues, and anyone can learn to play it. Grunge didn’t work that way.
Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana all sounded very different from one another and approached songwriting from completely different angles. The truth is, there really is no “grunge sound” per se. (It’s kind of an invention of the media.) You don’t pick up a guitar and play grunge, you play a song by Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana or Pearl Jam. It’s always specific, not generic. Unfortunately though, it made things more convenient from an industry perspective to think of it in such a generic way, and ever since labels have been trying to reproduce that grunge sound with fading success. Throwing Copper was a big hit, eventually going eight times platinum, but big alternative albums just don’t come along anymore. Another big post-grunge album from 1994 was Bush’s Sixteen Stone, which wound up selling six million copies in the United States.
Frankly, that’s six million more than a wannabe grunge band from England with a horrendous singer should have ever sold. (Seriously, how fake is that? Talk about not being from Seattle.) But if you want the white meat, the good stuff, the real deal, listen to Superunknown. Incidentally, my favorite part of the recent Pearl Jam Twenty documentary was when a journalist in the late ’90s asked Pearl Jam rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard something along the lines of, “Do you worry about the waning popularity of grunge?” His bewildered response: “I don’t even say that word.”