Pearl Jam 30 marches on towards Gigaton with a look back at veteran CoS writers Collin Brennan and Ryan Bray debating the best grunge band of all time. Also, be sure to check out our definitive Pearl Jam album ranking and our favorite concerts.
Today, grunge is as immediately identifiable as hip-hop, R&B, soul, country, or any other musical genre. For that, we can thank Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden. Grunge’s top four musical exports helped dictate the course a wide swath of popular music would take in the ‘90s, and their songs and records still hold up today. But how well? And whose stand up the best?
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Singles soundtrack and Seattle’s rise to pop music prominence, CoS scribes and seasoned grunge gurus Collin Brennan and Ryan Bray broke down and analyzed all four bands in a number of categories to determine which has best stood the test of time.
Collin Brennan: I suppose we should start with the elephant in the room — that dreaded word, grunge. As with any general term used to describe a lot of specific things, it seems a bit reductive. To kick this off, Ryan, I want to ask a pretty vague question: How does the word “grunge” make you feel, and do you think we might be doing these bands a disservice just by means of tossing them all into the same box?
Ryan Bray: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve kind of pushed back against genre labels. The more time you invest listening to music, the more you realize how pointless it is.
But it’s not hard to understand how “grunge” came to be. All these bands not only shared a look and an image — they were from the same damn city. When Nirvana blew the barn doors off shit in 1992, it was inevitable that the Seattle scene was going to be packaged and pigeonholed. It’s just the way we’re programmed to understand things.
That said, I hardly think all of the bands that came out of the grunge moment are clones. In the case of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains, each band introduces enough wrinkles into the formula to stand on their own two feet. To that end, I think blanketing everything that came out of the Pacific Northwest as grunge kind of did a lot of bands a disservice. What say you?
CB: I actually got into Nirvana a few years after discovering bands like Ramones and Black Flag, and for a lot of the same reasons. I remember being 14 and running around telling anybody who would listen that Nirvana was a punk rock band, dammit! This seemed like a crazy revelation at the time, but looking back, it’s obvious that punk and hardcore played a tremendous role in shaping the grunge sound.
And one of the traits grunge inherited from punk is its very tangible sense of locality. You’re right, all of those bands can stand on their own two feet, yet somehow they’re all intrinsically connected by Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. I think if the term “grunge” has any use, it’s to sort of connect the dots between the various riffs on punk and hardcore and heavy metal that were going on in Seattle around the early ’90s.
So, I’m not going to feel too badly about what we’re about to do, which is to figure out, ONCE AND FOR ALL, which grunge band stands tallest among the heap.
RB: Full disclosure, I’m wearing flannel.
CB: Full disclosure, I haven’t showered in three days. So, we’ve gone ahead and broken this convoluted contest down into eight categories, some of which may be more subjective than others. We’ll see. Let’s rank ‘em by category, and let the devil sort ‘em out from there.
01. Pearl Jam
02. Alice in Chains
RB: Straight away, I sized this up as a battle between Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Nirvana and Alice never gave themselves to big, theatrical guitar solos the way the others did. Kim Thayil can wail, and he takes the lead on some of Soundgarden’s best work (“Rusty Cage”! “Spoonman”!), but it still doesn’t quite measure up to the combo of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard. Pearl Jam, especially in their early years, soared on the wings of those two guys. I think Ten, I think guitars.
CB: Obviously, Kurt Cobain is at a bit of a disadvantage in this category, being only one man and not possessing the four arms necessary for true riffage. I think Nirvana’s earlier work contains some of the best riffs in all of grunge (“Negative Creep”, especially), but yeah, it doesn’t quite measure up to the titanic riffzillas perpetrated by McCready and Gossard.
I think you’re really underestimating Alice In Chains here, though. Jerry Cantrell is a fucking badass, and I defy you to find any riff in Pearl Jam’s catalog that rips quite as hard as the first 30 seconds of “Dam That River”. HUUUYAH. Nobody in grunge leaned quite as hard on the wah pedal as Cantrell. We forget that Jimi Hendrix was from Seattle, too, and that shit really found its way into ol’ Jerry’s bones.
RB: Maybe, and I mean no disrespect to Jerry. Truthfully, I think any of the bands could floor the competition if they’re not sized up against one another. But tough decisions have to be made here. I need to give Dirt another go ‘round.
CB: Before we leave this topic, I’ve got to ask: What’s your all-time desert island Pearl Jam riff? I’m going to be a bit of a frontrunner and say it’s that woozy groove in “Alive”. Sorry, when it comes to Pearl Jam, my tastes are a little #basic.
RB: Ooh, good one. I could pick almost anything on Ten. That fucker’s a guitar riff treasure trove. But for the sake of digging deeper, I’ll go with “Blood”.
03. Pearl Jam
04. Alice in Chains
CB: I mean, come on, bruh. If you know anything about Consequence of Sound and our cultish obsession with Dave Grohl, you’ve got to know that Nirvana is going to win this one with an 11th inning walk-off home run.
But in all seriousness, nobody in this group slammed the skins quite like Grohl in his heyday. Say all you want about the iconic guitar riff behind “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but when I think of that song, I think first and foremost of the drums diving headfirst into the chorus. BA DUH DAH BA DUH DAH BA BAM!
RB: I’ve long been on record about my love of Dave Grohl the drummer. But even taking personal preference out of the equation, Grohl wins here by almost any objective measure. Not only did his force and power behind the kit help propel Kurt’s songs, but he also brought a lot of technical soundness. Grohl is to grunge what Bonham and Moon are to classic rock.
That said, can we talk for a minute about Matt Cameron? Simply incredible. The chops and musicianship he brought to Soundgarden in many ways made that band what it is. When he joined Pearl Jam, I think he brought that band into different musical spaces it wouldn’t have explored without him. I can’t imagine a record like Binaural or Yield with Dave Abbruzzese behind the drums, you know.
CB: Yessir. Back when Abbruzzese was making a stink about his non-inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I wasn’t really buying it. Cameron really brought a new dimension to that band that helped carry them to places way beyond what Ten and even Vs. might have predicted. And the fact that he also laid down some of Soundgarden’s more thunderous beats (and fucking WROTE songs like “Jesus Christ Pose” and the underrated “Rhinosaur”) means that he more than earned his place in the Grunge Hall of Fame, which I think is located in some dark alley near the Fremont Troll.
01. Pearl Jam
04. Alice in Chains
RB: Well shiiiiit. Four bands, four iconic frontmen. What to do? Chris Cornell obviously has the pipes and vocal range that his peers can’t touch. Layne Staley, on the other hand, really embodied the brooding sensibility that always lingered in the heart of the Seattle grunge scene. Still, this comes down to Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain.
Part of me is tempted to give this to Cobain, a guy who in the eyes of many is the figurehead of the grunge movement. But Vedder’s endurance and endless integrity have increasingly won me over over the years. Beyond being an incredible performer, he’s really evolved into a great Everyman frontman, if that makes sense. I look at him and see what pretty much every singer should aspire to, no posturing or douchebag rock star nonsense. Just grit and heart.
CB: This one’s like that proverbial race between the tortoise and the hare, ain’t it? It’s incredibly hard to overestimate Cobain’s influence on grunge and on alternative music in general. Turn on modern alternative rock radio in 2017 and you’ll still hear young singers trying desperately to ape his trademark wail, not to mention his brooding nihilism and introverted poetry. The guy is an icon who didn’t need time to evolve in the sense you’re talking about with Vedder — he came into the pop musical consciousness as a screaming banshee with a softer side, and that’s pretty much how he left us, too. Books will continue to be written and documentaries will continue to be made about Cobain until the end of the world because we’re fascinated with how much we still don’t know about him and enchanted by the clues he did leave us.
Vedder obviously doesn’t have the same mystique. He’s the guy who will party in the Chicago Cubs locker room and bring a 10-year-old guitarist on stage to jam just because it’s the sweet thing to do. I’ve always seen him as the Bruce Springsteen of grunge — the guy with the magnetic personality that everyone wants to see in concert and, if they’re lucky enough, hang out with in person. I’m more inclined to reward longevity and magnetism because those are inherently harder things to pull off, so I’m going with Vedder here. But make no mistake: When it comes to the “what could have beens,” nobody’s beating Kurt Cobain.
Best Live Performance
01. Pearl Jam
04. Alice in Chains
CB: For the same reasons I listed above, I’d have to go with Vedder and Pearl Jam in the category of live performance. Not only have they been at this for nearly three decades, but they’ve somehow continued to outdo themselves. Nirvana’s reputation as a live band is pretty legendary, but it’s hard to imagine them hanging around for as long as Pearl Jam have. No knock on them, because it’s hard to imagine anyone hanging around for as long as Pearl Jam have. They’re the cockroach of the grunge ecosystem. THEY WILL NOT DIE.
RB: To be fair, I’ve only seen two of the four bands play live. In the six times I’ve seen Pearl Jam, they’ve never disappointed. They’ve never even come close. I don’t think there’s another working band out there that tries so deliberately to make each and every one of their shows count as something unique and memorable. Soundgarden was great when I saw them in 2010, shaking off the rust of a 14-year hiatus like it never happened.
I will say that Alice In Chains is at a pretty unfair disadvantage here, though. With Staley’s fatal drug habit, I feel like the band never got to truly spread its wings onstage the way the other three did.
CB: Yeah, Alice in Chains is almost as tragic a case as Nirvana, though Staley may not be revered as an icon as much because he opted to “fade away” rather than “burn out” in a more spectacular fashion. In any case, and as much of a cultural moment as grunge was in its heyday, it’s difficult to imagine any of these bands selling out baseball stadiums and football arenas back in the early ’90s, the way Pearl Jam is doing now. Soundgarden still carries the reunion stink in a way I haven’t been able to shake off — sorry, I’m not one for reunions — but Pearl Jam has turned into something like a fact of life: They’re just there, and they’ll always be good if not great.
Best Band Name
01. Alice in Chains
02. Pearl Jam
RB: Alice hasn’t gotten too much love in this ranking so far, but man, I love that band name. Leave it to arguably the darkest band of grunge’s Big Four to subvert something sweet and whimsical into something bleak and ugly. The name captures the ethos of grunge perfectly.
As for the others, I like Pearl Jam for reasons I can’t really explain. It just fits. Nirvana always seemed too hippy-dippy sounding for a band whose music is, while great, so angry and tortured. Meanwhile, I’m still trying figure out what the hell a Soundgarden is more than 20 years later.
CB: Soundgarden is almost impressively bad. It’s like the name of a hi-fi store that’ll sell you an overpriced speaker cabinet and then throw in a spliff for free. I also get weird hippie connotations from the name, like I’m back in a college dorm room listening to some guy who’s hopped up on LSD and trying to convince me that music is like, growing all around us, man.
Nirvana I’m more OK with, because it’s vague enough for folks to interpret as they see fit. I also like the cognitive dissonance between a name that’s typically associate with quietude and a band that is very loud and heavy. I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, KURT.
As you have already eloquently noted, Alice in Chains is badass. The name is weird and dark and might be considered problematic in today’s climate, but it really fits a group of four lanky, long-haired dudes who look like they might want to kill you. I think that one wins handily over Pearl Jam, which makes me think of one semi-disgusting thing (jam bands) and one semi-intriguing thing (marmalade that’s made of pearls). Apparently, Pearl Jam used to be called Mookie Blaylock after the Atlanta Hawks’ feisty pass-first point guard. If they had kept that name, they’d be number one on this list with a swish.
RB: Yeah, can’t hate on a band called Mookie Blaylock. Still waiting for a band called Muggsy Bogues to pop up.
Most Staying Power
02. Pearl Jam
04. Alice in Chains
CB: Now we’re getting into the really heavy-hitting categories — no offense to Mookie Blaylock and his impressive professional career. This one’s another clash of the titans between Nirvana and Pearl Jam, two bands that continue to dominate the alt-rock landscape in very different ways.
RB: Yeah. I can’t help but think that Soundgarden and Alice are getting a bit of the short shrift in this debate. But I can’t help but make the analogy of Nirvana and Pearl Jam being to grunge what The Beatles and Stones were to the British Invasion. They’re unquestionably the pillars in what was an amazingly fruitful time and place for music. But staying power is a tricky thing. If we’re being absolutely literal, Pearl Jam obviously wins this category by a mile. They’re still here, they’ve never left, and they still seem wholly energized by what they do.
But if we’re to evaluate staying power by each band’s overall body of work, it becomes a tougher argument, and one I’d say Pearl Jam doesn’t win. Nirvana might benefit a bit here from the brevity of their career, but it seems like everything they put out in their relatively short life was vital. There’s next to no filler in their catalog, and songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are” are the kind of tunes that will burn on through generations. Pearl Jam wins the long game, but their late period work (let’s say post-Binaural) doesn’t quite have the same anthemic power.
CB: People will always be attracted to the mystique of Kurt Cobain, but the endless procession of box sets and special editions and documentaries we’ve had to suffer through over the years have made the whole cult-of-personality thing feel a bit boring. The fact that Nirvana’s actual music has stood the test of time is a testament to its raw power, because there’s so much “culture” swirling around the band and threatening to distract from it.
I think a lot of Nirvana’s appeal lies in how rudimentary they were. Three- or four-chord songs are the norm, not the exception. An 11-year-old kid can pick up a guitar and stumble his way through “Smells Like Teen Spirit” within a couple of hours, and there’s something sort of electric about that. It all goes back to Nirvana being a punk rock band, or at least taking the best, most timeless aspect of punk rock — its primitive brilliance — and repackaging it in flannel.
Most Prolific Output
01. Pearl Jam
03. Alice in Chains
RB: I’ll start with a general question: Would you call any of these bands prolific? I’d hardly call the bands that came out of the Seattle scene slouches in terms of their productivity, but they didn’t exactly turn out records hand over fist, either.
CB: I’d certainly say there’s a case for Pearl Jam, but only because they’ve been around for so long. Ten studio albums ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at, but when you spread it out over nearly 30 years, it starts to look a little less impressive. Nirvana obviously doesn’t make the cut as far as being prolific, and Alice in Chains only put out three albums in their heyday with Staley, so neither of those bands really hits the benchmark. Soundgarden’s kind of an interesting case in the sense that they got off to a pretty furious start (three albums in four years) and kind of cooled off after that. So … I guess my answer is no?
RB: “Steady” seems like a better word to describe these bands’ output during the ‘90s. Pearl Jam worked at a pretty good clip at the start, releasing four records between 1991 and 1996. Soundgarden also were pretty productive in their initial eight-year run, too, releasing five records in that stretch. Nirvana and Alice weren’t working quite as furiously, but again, neither were exactly resting on their laurels. Slackers my ass, amirite?
CB: Grunge doesn’t really lend itself to a furious and sustained pace of output, it would seem. We might also have pop culture to blame for that, because it had pretty much moved on from grunge by 1997. Pearl Jam did a great job of adapting and expanding their sound as the years went on, but every other band in this group suffered a more predictable fate.
01. Pearl Jam
04. Alice in Chains
CB: Given all the brilliant revelations we laid out above, I think it’s time to figure out if we’ve learned anything from this little fireside chat. Can you now point to a single band that stands tallest among these four?
RB: Stop me if you heard this one before, but this is between Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I really hope Chris Cornell doesn’t read this and come looking for me. I swear, Chris, you’re great.
CB: You’re right to be worried about Cornell, but I’d be more worried about his fans. I published a middling review of his last solo album, and they’ve been dogging me ever since.
RB: Soundgarden fans are a loyal bunch.
CB: Unlike music critics, whose job is simply to tear down everything you love and hold dear.
RB: Of course. I’d hate this gig if I wasn’t such a misanthrope. In any event, this is almost a coin flip between Nirvana’s gritty but melodic guitar pop perfection and Pearl Jam’s broader, arena rock aspirations. A friend of mine once said Kurt Cobain is what would have happened if John Lennon discovered and fell in love with punk. That might sound like a lofty comparison, but it’s really not. Kurt was a prodigiously gifted songwriter, both as a lyricist and in his ear for hooks and melodies. Nirvana connects with people because they had it both ways. They were the rare band that crossed over to audiences worldwide without giving an inch creatively. They had integrity and the commercial success. It’s a shame that the latter ultimately played a part in the band’s sad end.
Pearl Jam, on the other hand, are a totally different animal. Of the four bands here, I’d say they’re the least grunge. From day one, they always owed as much, if not more, to their classic rock influences as they did to punk and metal. I think the wider net their music cast is a big reason why they’re still with us today. Pearl Jam have always been arena-ready, and as a result, they were always better positioned to outlast their contemporaries.
We talked earlier about the importance of longevity, and I don’t think that can be understated in Pearl Jam’s case. All of these bands have songs that will endure, but Pearl Jam’s will arguably endure longer by simple virtue of the fact that they do actually continue to live. You can still pay your money and see Eddie, Stone, Mike, Jeff, and Matt play “Even Flow” or “Alive” or Yellow Ledbetter”. I don’t know if I need to make my case any further, except to say that Pearl Jam wins because they’re still with us.
CB: I agree, and I don’t think I’ve got anything to add after your neat and tidy breakdown here. I will say it’s a bit sad to crown a band the winner simple because “they’re still with us,” but what can we say? We’re millennials and we grew up with participation trophies.
And I don’t mean to disparage Pearl Jam here at all. Any band that can go toe to toe with the massive DISTORSHUN on “Drain You” or “Dam That River” and emerge victorious deserves all the praise I can throw at them. Thank you for this chat, Ryan. It has been a pleasure, and now I think I will go enjoy a well-earned shower.