This time of year, everybody has a list. Top news stories of the year. Best films of the year. Top sex toys for 2016. Yes, everybody has a list, especially the big guy in the red suit. Not wanting to be left out, I felt like this was a topic that was long overdue.
The subject came up recently while playing pool with a friend. Yes, ladies, this is what men talk about when you aren’t around. Haven’t you seen High Fidelity? Either way, our discussion began with the obligatory debate over Nirvana or Pearl Jam at the top spot and flowered onwards from there. He schooled me on Soundgarten. I extolled the virtues of the Pumpkins. That’s how these things work.
Now let me begin by stating who I am not including. I love Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Sublime. I don’t know what the 90’s would have been without them. But for the purposes of this discussion, they are not really grunge bands, though I acknowledge such labels are probably a bunch of bs anyways. I am not including Creed because though I shamefully admit I kind of like some of their stuff, I cannot bestow accolades on a band that comes off all preachy and then gets caught in a sex tape scandal. I’m fine with either of those, but not both. Hypocrisy gets you bumped from the list. I am not including Hole just because they suck. Well, that and Courtney Love was the Yoko Ono of grunge. I swear Kurt Cobain offed himself just to get away from her. Ok, with those notable omissions explicated, let’s move on to those that did make the cut.
1. Pearl Jam. Sorry folks, there’s just no doubt about it. You can argue them as posers and sell-outs all you want, but they have always been true to what they wanted to do, so screw you and your judgment of their artistic vision. Stone Gossard is a transcendent talent and Eddie Vedder has the range and charisma that has defined the genre. His emotions are raw and they are real. Talent+Artistic Vision+Passion=Greatness.
2. Smashing Pumpkins. Speaking of artistic vision and talent, no one had more of it than the soaring riffs and high-minded self reflection of the Pumpkins. I remember feeling that every single note of Siamese Dream was the perfect aesthetic choice, that like Icarus, Billy Corgan flew perhaps too close to the sun of musical inspiration. For it was after that masterpiece that Corgan’s brilliance began to fade.
3. Blind Melon. Don’t remember them? You should. Shannon Hoon’s death from speed balling left their career tragically short (seriously speed balling, Shannon? Heroin and cocaine? You know that can’t be good, right?), but these guys were amazing. And yes, I know “No Rain” got too much airplay. It’s the worst song they recorded.
4. Dinosaur Jr. J. Mascis is a moody son of a bitch, but boy can that mofo play. A friend once told me that the only thing he didn’t like about Dino J was Mascis’s whining vocals. Agreed.
5. Soundgarden. I saw Chris Cornell doing a solo acoustic show recently at the Paramount Theater in Denver. It reminded me how much I liked Soundgarden back in the day. Cornell’s contribution to the Singles soundtrack, “Seasons”, might be my favorite song of the grunge era. His vocal depth and power are resounding, and it was good to see them still intact. Like Vedder, he exudes a genuine passion and soulfulness that is mesmerizing.
6. Alice in Chains. I heard a story a few weeks back about someone who ran into Layne Staley at a music festival just months before his death in 2002. Withdrawn and pale, they said he looked like a barely walking corpse. This is the sad irony of the tragic artistic soul. You create a beauty that brings such joy to others, but in doing so, destroy the self. But listen to their Unplugged album. The guitar playing is nuanced and rich, and Staley’s vocals are spot on.
7. Nirvana. Let the dissension commence! I know many will find this placement for Nirvana to be sacrilege. Let it be known I am wearing a Nirvana shirt as I write this. Yes, Cobain was a visionary and his lyrics were filled with an organic angst that fueled a generation. They pioneered the grunge movement, forcing a mainstream acceptance and rejecting it in the same brushstroke. And they had one of the best band names ever. Trust me, I get it. But there’s also no denying that Kurt Cobain was simply not that talented as a musician. His vocals were spotty and coarse. His guitar playing was simple and uneven. I remember reading an interview with Cobain as they were coming back with In Utero. Asked about the challenges of going back on tour, Cobain discussed the pressures of having to re-learn their songs, including the solo for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Really Kurt? Are you fucking serious? Your back catalog was hardly extensive, and the solo to “Teen Spirit” is only a few notes played over and over. Love ya, brother, but sorry, you can’t go higher than #7.
8. Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl is an amazing guitarist and frontman. How he held back from coming out from behind the drums, pushing Kurt Cobain out of the way, and taking over for Nirvana, I’ll never know. But read anything about him, and you know Dave Grohl is one of the coolest dudes in the biz. And he rocks…
9. Stone Temple Pilots. They were always the Cali version of Pearl Jam, but rest in peace, Scott Weiland. You deserve it.
10. Neil Young. I don’t care when he was born or when his career started. Listen to him with Crazy Horse. He is the true Godfather of Grunge.
Well, that’s all folks. Disgaree with my list? Good. You’re wrong, of course, but good for you. Leave a comment. If it’s good, I’ll read it….
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 words or less every TUESDAY and FRIDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com