Combining a punk ethos with garage-rock sound and put through a dirty filter of classic rock and metal, grunge exploded from the USA's Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s at a time when the world was hungry for a return to raw, expressive and rootsy guitar rock.
While Nirvana had the biggest and most surprising breakthrough success, and Seattle and proto-grunge record label Sub Pop were the scene's epicentre, the genre's Sabbath-influenced heavy guitar riffs, grooving basslines and blistering drum parts were also heard from Chicago to LA, and from the UK to Australia. Meanwhile, thrift-store flannel shirts and long hair were soon de rigueur amongst disaffected kids the world over. It's old enough now to be termed 'classic rock', but even thirty years hasn't dimmed grunge rock's bright flame, though it would burn out too soon for far too many of its proponents.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that grunge music is all crunching guitars and hating yourself, though; these accomplished records can be really good tests of all aspects of your hi-fi system's talents. Get your plaid on, then, and let's dig deep into our favourite grunge tracks with which to test any hi-fi kit's sound quality.
Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nevermind, 1991)
As the power trio's tour de force, Nevermind's lead-off track is perfect for testing how your system conveys the emotion, energy and drive of what was perhaps Kurt Cobain's defining moment, not to mention the classic quiet-loud-quiet structure that came to typify the genre. We could have gone for something from their incredible debut Bleach, but the eight-track basement production is a little less clearly defined in terms of hi-fi listening (arguably too raw to truly do justice to the best hi-fi) than producer Butch Vig's terrific work on Nevermind.
If your system is skilled in information retrieval there's a lot to pick out in Teen Spirit, from the spaces around the simple guitar notes in that quieter verse, through the build of the pre-chorus to the full-on power of the chorus itself. You should be able to feel the sizeable room in which it was recorded, and the physical placement of Dave Grohl's drum kit; and as with most grunge tracks it's the clarity of the drum hits and blisteringly fast drum fills that remain stoically present amidst the reverb and distortion of the squalling guitar.
Soundgarden – Burden In My Hand (Down On The Upside, 1996)
Soundgarden tend to suffer from the ignominious syndrome of only ever having one of their tracks ever played on mainstream radio, but there was, and is, so much more to the grunge pioneers than the admittedly brilliant Black Hole Sun.
Acting as the anthemic keystone to 1996’s rawer, more melodically focused Down On The Upside, Burden In My Hand opens with an earthy, almost country-style guitar before exploding into full-blown Black Hole Sun anthem mode. This one’s all about how a system communicates the pure power of Chris Cornell’s indomitable, throaty roar, as well as the angst and guilt beneath lyrics such as, “I shot my love today, would you cry for me?”
Screaming Trees – Nearly Lost You (Sweet Oblivion, 1992)
Late, great Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan was not a fan of Nearly Lost You, calling it "corny", but nevertheless it is the band's defining moment and an anthemic song that still sounds relevant 30 years on. This one demands good rhythmic drive from your system, as one of the more sophisticated tracks on this list in terms of its irresistible floor tom rhythms and sweet, grooving bass below its honkily overdriven yet beautifully accomplished lead guitar.
Lanegan was one of the finest of grunge's vocalists, and his later solo work and Queens Of The Stone Age contributions were proof of a rare talent. His deep, velvet timbre should be nicely picked out by a system refined enough to do justice to his timeless, wonderful delivery.
Pearl Jam – Alive (Ten, 1991)
Pearl Jam’s Alive has earned its place within grunge folklore as one of Eddie Vedder and co’s most fist-pumpingly iconic works, but it’s also transcended musical boundaries to become a bona fide rock staple. If tracks such as Jeremy and Black gained Pearl Jam a somewhat misanthropic reputation, Alive was a chance to let loose and blow out some speakers like the classic rockers of old.
On the surface, Alive is a heartbreaking delve into the confusion Vedder felt upon discovering the true identity of his own father, yet it’s as much a pure rock showcase as it is a reflective journey of self-acceptance. Those oppositional elements are reflected within the track itself, which starts measured and introspective before exploding into a Zeppelin-esque feast with that epic, Kiss-inspired solo from Mike McCready stealing the show at 3.38. Whack up the volume and see if you’re off your feet and air-guitaring like it’s 1991, but make sure Vedder’s lyrical content and earnest delivery are always pulling through, too.
Tad – Jinx (8-way Santa, 1991)
One of Seattle's more overlooked grunge bands, Tad's 8-Way Santa album on legendary Seattle label Sub Pop remains a classic of the genre, with Jinx perhaps best exemplifying their metal-edged take on grunge rock. The band's crunching riffs and relentlessly gut-busting heaviosity will test the timing of your system, as the chorus cracks through your brain like a pick-up truck breaking through ice on a frozen lake. The slower, chugging pace of the verses seamlessly picks up pace for the chorus, as Tad Doyle's deep, booming growl ensures you're never in doubt of his surly malcontent.
Your set-up should be able to pick apart these different elements, while the bassier nature of the track will test the lower registers – and again, timing is important to avoid the track sounding too grungey and ill-defined. Plaid-clad big lad Tad Doyle is an unsung grunge hero, and his band should have been bigger; but it was great to hear Jinx recently turn up on the soundtrack of Netflix show Beef.
Stone Temple Pilots – Interstate Love Song (Purple, 1994)
Grunge doesn’t have to be all crunchy guitars and roaring vocals – just see Pearl Jam’s Yellow Ledbetter or Nirvana’s About A Girl for proof. Like the aforementioned, Stone Temple Pilots’ Interstate Love Song does exactly what it promises in the title, offering up a love letter from the road that feels as sincere and heartfelt as anything found within the contemporary mainstream.
It’s a beautifully realised work, too. Characterised by full, bluesy guitar tones and Scott Weiland’s lyrical tale of heartbreak and escape, Interstate Love Song deserves a system that puts those emotions at the forefront of the performance, especially when it comes to lines such as “breathing is the hardest thing to do, with all I've said and all that's dead for you”. Oof.
Smashing Pumpkins – Bullet With Butterfly Wings (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, 1995)
An important and often overlooked facet of the best grunge songs is an unerring sense of groove, and few bands did this better than Chicago's Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan's songwriting can lean towards the whimsical, but when his band rocked, they rocked hard. Jimmy Chamberlin is absolutely one of modern rock's drum greats, and his parts lock in tightly with the grooving bass as big, fat distorted guitars playfully wail and tussle over the top.
The breakdown is fuzzy as all hell, but throughout this hard-charging tune your system should be tracking all the song's parts from the rhythm section's weighty contribution to the higher frequency guitar squeals, while ensuring that Corgan's emotion and fury come through with as much force and growling intent as possible through the unrelenting hammer-blows of that "rat in a cage" chorus refrain.
Afghan Whigs – Crime Scene Part One (Black Love, 1996)
Cincinatti's Afghan Whigs were there at the birth of grunge, and cemented their longevity by adding Motown soul to the punky garage rock formula to create some of the most interesting, downright sexy grunge tracks of the era. Greg 'the Barry White of Grunge' Dulli's breathy, soulful crooning is at the heart of the Whigs' sound; his earnest themes of love, and its flipside of betrayal, is something your system should nicely pick out along with the musically sophisticated instrumental arrangements.
The opening track from Black Love is a terrific builder of a song, with a choppy guitar part driven onward by an upfront bass line. And when things get heavy and slam the song into another gear, Dulli's crooning becomes a powerful, emotive rock performance with a bittersweetness that's hard to resist, and even harder to forget.
Mudhoney – In 'N' Out Of Grace (Superfuzz Bigmuff)
One of the genre's true originators (singer Mark Arm claims to have first used the term 'grunge' to describe their music to the press), Mudhoney could and should have beaten Nirvana to the punch – had guitarist Steve Turner not gone back to college, putting the band on hiatus. In the band's absence between this track and their major label return, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, the band had perhaps missed the boat their contemporaries had hijacked like flannel-shirted pirates.
This epic track from Superfuzz Bigmuff has everything; pace and power that never lets up, garage rock riffs so heavy they churn your insides, and even – whisper it – a bit of a drum solo. Dan Peters' drum breakdown, that sits back in the groove for an extended spell before powering back in with a foundations-shaking fill, is at the core of a track that embraces, if not exactly 'quiet' passages, a shifting dynamic emphasis and stop-start moments that allow Arm's plaintive wails the space to really get up in your face. If your system times well, those drum hits and blunt riffs should feel punk-rock raw yet distinct and organised despite the relentless buzz of the titular Bigmuff distortion pedal.
Alice In Chains – Down In A Hole (Unplugged, 1996)
Alice in Chain’s 1996 MTV Unplugged live performance is a thing of beauty, with the entire set offering some of the best renditions of the band’s excellent hits. The more nuanced, intimate but no less fierce acoustic version of Down In A Hole is a test track favourite in our listening rooms. You still get the sludge and crunch of this grunge track, but amidst the fuzz you should hear the clear plucking of guitar strings, of drums hitting with impact and underpinning the rhythm section alongside the deep, full bass and, most importantly, the achingly beautiful vocals.
The very best music system – whether you're listening through hi-fi separates, turntable, radio or headphones, on vinyl, CD or streaming – will reveal all the layers and textures of this warm but melancholy performance while ensuring it all gels together rhythmically. This track has a lightning-in-a-bottle quality, with every band member on stage working together as one, and your system should capture and reflect that to the fullest. But it’s lead vocalist Layne Staley’s raw, raspy-edged singing balanced against Jerry Cantrell’s more soothing vocals that are mesmering to listen to. It’s a livewire performance that still hits a nerve while allowing you to sink into the emotive lyrics and melody no matter how many times you listen to it.
Hole – Jennifer's Body (Live Through This, 1994)
A grunge classic, a feminist anthem, an absolute banger. While female grunge bands are largely overshadowed by the prevalence of their male counterparts, Hole cut through the noise with punk-tinged grunge/alternative hits that were raucous, defiant, personal and, in many cases, pure earworms.
While it doesn’t have the ferocious roar of Violet or the (relatively) subtler, more mournful nature of Doll Parts, the song Jennifer’s Body has all the hallmarks of grunge – and Hole’s – rough format of quiet/loud/quiet/louder. This means that not only does your system have to work hard to fully convey those vaulting dynamic shifts, but it also has to keep up with Patty Schemel’s propulsive drumming and Kristen Pfaff’s bass playing. It’s a stern test of timing and rhythmic agility, as the repeated chords should never sound dull or lose their intensity or momentum through the song.
And, of course, Courtney Love’s vocals are at the heart of it all, veering from almost-spoken verses to raw screams, all edged with a rebellious, passionate and incisive tone. If you’re listening to this track and you’re not feeling the inherent 'F- you' attitude course through your veins, you need a better hi-fi system.
Radiohead – Creep (Pablo Honey, 1993)
As the only British band on this list, Radiohead flew an early flag for Brit-grunge before ploughing their own more progressive path to ever greater success. Their debut single, Creep, though, was an international hit riding the coat-tails of Nirvana's popularity – but it's no less great a song and a powerful anthem for disaffected youth. Thom Yorke's nervy stage persona and lyrics about how he wishes he was cooler so he'd get 'the girl' (essentially) spoke to long-haired introverts the world over.
This track is a good test of dynamics, with the gentle, melodic guitar plucks of the verses punctuated with clear, bright drum and hi-hat hits giving way to those over-driven guitar crunches where it sounds like Jonny Greenwood had just remembered to plug his guitar in. The track's different moods, like the grungey, fuzzy guitar that follows the explosive chorus, as Yorke moves up the range for a more falsetto delivery, should be kept in check by your system. Every part should sound nicely separated, and the kick delivered by Greenwood's piece de resistance should never fail to raise your neck hairs.
Temple Of The Dog – Hunger Strike (1991)
While far from as well known as many of the other bands featured here, the importance of Temple of the Dog cannot be overestimated. A side-project of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who had written some new songs in honour of his late friend Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, Temple of the Dog featured Cornell and Wood’s ex-bandmates, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, plus Mike McCready and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron. Every band member barring Chris Cornell would end up in Pearl Jam.
Speaking of which, the most amazing thing about Hunger Strike is the presence of Eddie Vedder. Vedder just happened to be in the room during Temple of the Dog’s rehearsals and rather presumptuously (Pearl Jam didn’t even exist at this point) stepped in to sing the track’s lower parts when he saw Cornell struggling with them. The song suddenly became a Vedder-Cornell duet and went from being a filler track to the lead single of the band’s only album.
It’s the intertwined vocals that make Hunger Strike such an interesting test track, with your system needing to tonally and spatially separate Vedder’s warm drawl and Cornell’s banshee-like wail while ensuring they remain interlinked. If you can hear a bit of fuzz around the guitars, that’s supposed to be there – this is grunge after all – and don’t expect a huge dynamic shift from verse to chorus, but each instrument should be clearly represented even though the track is quite congested.
Silverchair – Tomorrow (Frogstomp, 1995)
Once nicknamed “Nirvana in Pyjamas”, Silverchair were still in their teens when debut album Frogstomp turned them into Australian grunge royalty. Like many bands who came late to clean up the crumbs of the genre, their sound was undeniably derivative but the worldwide success they enjoyed showed that it still struck a chord.
Tomorrow was their breakout track and does a fine job of delivering Grunge 101, from fuzzy guitar feedback and throat-scratching vocals to the familiar quiet-loud-quiet song structure. But it sure works.
How will it test your system? Well, it’s best heard loud (sure, like most tracks) and then you’ll find out how well your hi-fi can differentiate sounds and instruments under stress. You’ll want the dynamic range to get your heart really racing during that quiet-loud-quiet, and there’s plenty of rasping detail in Daniel Johns’ delivery for the best gear to uncover.