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30 Best Grunge Songs of All Time (Most Popular)

May 16, 2023
grunge songs

Everyone’s favorite moody, haunting Pacific Northwest subculture, grunge is one of the most enduring, emotionally impactful alternative breakaway genres in musical history.

Grunge manages to be hallucinatory and ethereal while maintaining a potent earthiness, and raw unvarnished materiality. 

The grunge songs that follow owe much of their existence to Seattle’s independent label Sub Pop which marketed grunge with shameless candor and vision.

Its earliest iteration had strong currents of underground punk and introspective metal.

Grunge is jealously reflective, enamored with the private inner worlds of its musicians and creators.

It brings a literary verve and a philosophical depth to alternative and it encounters difficult, provocative topics like neglect, alienation, isolation, and psychological undoing.

Grunge, more than any other genre, is deeply confessional and unflinching in its candor and intimacy. 

With that much-needed praise out of the way, let’s celebrate the best grunge songs together – bring some tissues as emotions will be running high.

1. “In Bloom” by Nirvana

Unrestrained and possessed of an urgent, disembodied frustration and restlessness, “In Bloom” is a song that commands strong reactions, and even discomfort.

It is forceful, with a cathartic current, and serves as a disruptive antidote to the trepidant, conformity-abiding mass culture. 

With the force of a hammer, “In Bloom” harnesses the carnal, excoriating highs that Cobain is capable of exploiting to such potent effect, and showcases the delirious possibilities of instrumentals divorced from polite conventions.

2. “Yellow Ledbetter” by Pearl Jam

One of the most poignant, affecting acoustic numbers in the grunge canon, “Yellow Ledbetter” has a diffuse, haunting sensibility and a folk-rock silhouette that caresses, soothes, and torments.

It is a song, nay, a tale, about grief, loss, and memory and it evokes such a potent sensation of melancholy that it is best listened to sitting down.

It proves, beyond all else, Pearl Jam’s mastery of a patent grunge-folk sensibility and their complete command over the guitar in all its iterations.

3. “Serve the Servants” by Nirvana

“Serve the Servants” is often neglected in appraisals of Nirvana’s best tunes, and in other critics’ defense, Nirvana’s catalog is so saturated with tectonic, revelatory anthems that we must forgive the occasional omission.

With some of the most textured, dynamic percussion in music history, and a slacker-core guitar tempo, “Serve the Servants” is a despondent, nonchalant masterpiece.

It is off of their second-best album, In Utero – go listen immediately.

4. “Black” by Pearl Jam

“Black” is an elegiac, a soaring, heartrending accomplishment that expands the very scope of what music can achieve.

“Black” is Pearl Jam’s magnum opus, a song with such an emotive profundity and visionary textural intricacy that it will lay the hardiest among us low for days. 

It builds on a bedrock of sorrow and grief until it reaches its sonic climax, creating an intoxicating, organic momentum that is enthralling and gut-wrenching.

5. “Doll Parts” by Hole

The raw poignancy of Courtney Love’s voice in “Doll Parts” is harrowing and quietly authoritative. 

Although the tone is measured and the acoustic is tender and pared-down, the song is deeply confrontational and visceral to behold.  

Hole’s most enduring strength is that they can convey emotional volatility and inner turbulence with a tightly-constructed, restrained power.

6. “Lithium” by Nirvana

Droning, unflinching, unfailingly dark – that’s “Lithium” for you.

One of the most unsettling, gripping, relentless anthems in the grunge canon, the song reverberates, leaving listeners shell-shocked.

Self-loathing, agony, and disdain drip from the scathingly wrought lyrics and remind us of the brutally nihilistic tendencies that differentiated grunge from its more mild-mannered alternative peers.

7. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

The anthem of a generation is perhaps a tired moniker, but in this case, the trite just so happens to be, well, right.

Nirvana displaced resistance and anomie into art in the form of a paranoid, venomous, delirious piece of sludgy majesty.

The guitar chords and tempo shifts alone are enough to elevate this song to a special place in the late twentieth-century canon, but it’s Cobain’s pained, all-knowing, lushly cynical vocals that imprint the song in the collective consciousness.

8. “You Know You’re Right” by Nirvana

Dirty, gritty, and possessed of a disconcerting, hollow paranoia, “You Know You’re Right” is a hell of a downer, and that is meant as the sincerest of compliments.

The instrumentals are tuned way down with a heady industrial patina and discordant tempos. 

Paired with Cobain’s ambivalent vocals, which deviate organically from apathetic despondency to animistic growls, the song is potent, and polarizing, and therein lies its distinctly grunge allure. 

The listening experience isn’t always pleasant or made for easy consumption, but it always confronts us with an unpalatable, open-veined candor. 

9. “River of Deceit” by Mad Season 

An earthy plaintiveness permeates “River of Deceit”, lending its measured, thoughtfully constructed acoustics a sublime, candid realism.

Candid and deeply felt, lyrics of self-reflection like “my pain is self-chosen” feel stirring, like an elegy of sorts. 

“River of Deceit” distills the pensive, cerebral, self-effacing current that runs like a vein through the grunge ethos and infuses it with an earthy folk streak.

10. “Would?” by Alice in Chains

How to explain Alice in Chains to a rookie? 

“Would?” is a good starting place for accessing their harrowing, unvarnished, unflinching intimacy.

It is turbulent yet tightly constructed, restrained yet saturated with unmediated sorrow and woe.

“Would?” can be a confronting experience, drawing listeners in with an elusive, throbbing tempo and alluring vocals from grunge iconoclast Layne Staley (may he rest in peace).

11. “Good Enough” by Mudhoney

Unvarnished and pared down to its instrumental essentials, “Good Enough” is a stellar blend of downtempo, apathetic restlessness, and plaintive self-reflection.

Dissonant machine-age feedback keeps the listener engaged while a monotone voice devoid of big emotions infuses the song with an approachable, elusive social dropout mystique.

Mudhoney is often overshadowed by their more commercially popular nineties peers, but it is worth worshipping their gospel – they were one of the OG Sub Pop acts and helped shape the boundaries of the genre. 

12. “About A Girl” by Nirvana

The most enduring album from Nirvana’s first album, 1989’s Bleach, “About A Girl” introduced the alternative underground to a self-assured, unrepentant, restless sound.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Bleach represented the birth of grunge, and ushered in many of the conventions that became gospel to the movement’s future acolytes.

We’re talking somber, melancholic themes and assertive, distorted electric guitar and gritty, sludgy vocals. 

13. “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog

The passion project concept band of grunge’s two kingpins Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, “Hunger Strike” is so Pacific Northwest it hurts, with the requisite gloomy atmosphere, scruffy unwashed locks, and flannel for days.

“Hunger Strike” is a political missive like none other, couched in a plaintive, down-to-earth melody that is somehow serene.

It is reflective, self-conscious, and wholeheartedly sincere, making it a staple for college-aged tree huggers, anti-globalization protesters, and bleeding hearts to this day.  

14.  “Don’t Follow” by Alice in Chains

Rivaling “All Apologies” as grunge’s most haunting, poignant, tender acoustic offering,
Don’t Follow” brings tears, memories, heartaches, and loss to the fore with an unparalleled, gentle force.

The melody is minimalist but dizzying in its purity and earnestness, and Staley’s voice contains a frayed, wearied elegance and dignity that is jarring, even upon repeated listens. 

It is quite simply an elegy and bespeaks a timeworn beauty that is worth building an altar for. 

15. “Rooster” by Alice in Chains

“Rooster” is a song that evokes and reflects the subject matter of which it speaks: the hypocrisy and venality of the Vietnam War and political violence more generally.

“Rooster” takes no prisoners and has a steely resolve that veers into the undaunted, slightly gothic territory. 

This is no uplifting fare and should be handled with care and given the reverence and appreciation it is due. 

You’ll leave the experience feeling flustered and disoriented and perhaps doubtful of the world of surfaces and conformity you’ve been raised to pay heed to.

16. “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden

The ultimate in cognitive dissonance and dreadful surrealism, “Black Hole Sun” is zany in the most unsettling, disassociative manner possible.

It beckons us forth into an upside-down world of tumultuous semiotics and turbulent associations, as though we’ve bitten from the poison apple or imbibed in a poisonous tea in some obscure Wonderland.

Yes, it is tense and doesn’t make for easy consumption, but there is an original vitality to its vision that makes it an urgent listening experience.

17. “Sex & Candy” by Marcy Playground 

Sensual in a laissez-faire, nonplussed kind of way, “Sex & Candy” is a downtempo, no-frills anthem of stunning proportions.

Honey vocals and a lo-fi sensibility allow the moody, intriguing lyrics and evocative imagery to carry the song.

The tender, intentional acoustics, and languidly intoxicating melody entice the senses and create a sense of well-earned intimacy. 

18. “Pretend We’re Dead” by L7

Untroubled, with a resolute cheeriness and a surly hedonism, “Pretend We’re Dead” is a cheeky number with the unrepentant assurance of a teen walking out of detention.

It is fun without being frivolous, and it contains some of the conventions that would later come to define pop-punk without ostentatious instrumentals and affected vocals. 

Go walk out of detention, or skip the office, and channel your inner slacker a la “Clerks” – we give you permission.

19. “Outshined” by Soundgarden

“I’m looking California, but I’m feeling Minnesota” – have there been more on-the-nose lyrics in the grunge canon?

“Outshined” is heavy-hitting, with metal-tinged guitar tempos and percussions, and a rhythmic, patient pacing that demands acquiescence. 

Cornell’s gravelly, whiskey-rounded vocals are both relentless and poised, with a command of the room that is preternatural and inimitable. 

20. “Violet” by Hole

Hole railed against various injustices in their heady, intoxicating careers, and “Violet” might be one of their most harrowing – and challenging – listens. 

Exploring domestic violence with poetic allusions and a carnal sorrow that can’t be imitated or faked, “Violet” needs a disclaimer for newcomers because it is certainly not for the weak-hearted.

The song is hoarse, enraged, volatile, and leaves a wrenching impact.

21. “Today” by The Smashing Pumpkins

“Today” introduced the mainstream to Billy Corgan’s dazzling vocal range that fluctuates even-handedly from dream drawls to its seductive depths.

His entreaties are provocative, alluring, and neo-surreal to great effect.

“Today” conjures up a well of strange and dissonant emotions, of pleasure and discomfort, of nostalgia and avoidance, of memory and of forgetting.

22. “Awful” by Hole

Darkly cheerful, “Awful” feels raw, unpolished, and wildly consumable at first listen but it rewards sustained attention, revealing more fascinating tangents upon further reflection.

From the first percussive notes and Love’s plaintive, frank vocals, the song drags you in and keeps you rapt for its entire duration. 

It demonstrates that grunge can code-switch easily, couching their provocative, erudite themes in lighter-sounding tempos.

23. “Glycerine” by Bush

“Glycerine” is one of those songs that is so meticulously, tightly crafted and elegantly controlled that it leaves a feeling of immense satisfaction in its wake, as though none of the essentials were left out.

Lead Gavin Rossdale has a warm, sensually-tinged vocal range and he commands the song with relaxed ease. 

The guitar riff is deep, expansive, and hearty, evoking a masterful restraint.

24. “Ava Adore” by The Smashing Pumpkins

“Ava Adore” is a stunning, lush take on Gothic with a heady atmosphere of dark romanticism and subversive eroticism. 

There is a vaudevillian horror film sensuality oozing from the pores of the song and it creates an eerie sonic tapestry that’ll have you feeling strangely surreal. 

It might not be the song to spin in polite society but it has a cerebral tension that is released in an elusive, stirring chorus.

25. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” by The Smashing Pumpkins 

An unrepentant song with an irreverent title, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” is a full-body intoxication experience.

It hits the jugular like a Victorian-era bitter tonic that might cause more harm to the internal organs than it will offer a cure.

It is darkly zany and refreshingly unpredictable with a confident pacing and a sensual, droning, urgent chorus that demonstrates an unconventional maturity.

26. “Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots

With a steady, even-handed guitar tempo and a crisply timed percussive intrusion like no other song, “Plush” is gratifying, hearty, and organically immersive.

Deep, refined vocals lend earthy materiality to the contours of the song, with the result that it feels fully inhabited.  

The song lingers with its insinuations, unstudied nonchalance, and frank matter-of-factness.

Stone Temple Pilots eventually took a turn towards post-grunge and sheer alternative, but “Plush” solidifies them as early masters of purist grunge.

27. “Neary Lost You” by The Screaming Trees 

The song is so damn satisfying that it could even be described as edible if we’re feeling creative.

A rollicking, generous guitar grabs us by the throat and a careening, self-assured voice stuns us silly. 

The song is permeated with humble hopefulness and a sense of lively sovereignty. 

The result is a tightly woven, intrepid, open-hearted anthem that feels refreshing and frank after multiple listens. 

It’s from the aptly titled album Sweet Oblivion, and that’s just about the effect it will have on you.

28. “Tomorrow” by Silverchair

Proof that grunge had global appeal beyond moody, misty Washington, Silverchair came out of sunny Australia with an unabashed despondency and lush candor.

Tomorrow” has a rousing, fully fleshed-out chorus with a rarefied blend of pensive and plucky and it brought an unprepossessing, organic verve to the genre.

The song demands a sing-along and it pares flawlessly with a stroppy road trip or a lonesome walk after getting rejected by your latest date. 

29. “Tyler” by The Toadies

A song about an assault, “Tyler” hits all the right notes with its compulsive tempo, intriguing melody, and urgent, gratifying climax – one of the best-executed build-ups of the genre. 

There is a finely-calibrated distance contained within the song, as though the musicians are eschewing close contact and putting up a veneer through which they can’t be fully encountered.

They brought a lo-fi Texas swagger and bad attitude to a genre that was already well-stocked with juvenile delinquents and detention regulars.

30. “Feel The Pain” by Dinosaur Jr. 

Slacker-skaters extraordinaire, Dinosaur Jr. was an OG eighties group of outcasts and chilled-out iconoclasts who embraced the grunge direction of the alt scene as the nineties dawned. 

Their sound felt nonchalant, with a nonplussed amicability and a laissez-faire philosophy that made for cool, consistent listening. 

“Feel The Pain” is approachable, mild, and totally unbothered. 

Best Grunge Songs – Final Thoughts

Is your head spinning?

Is your mood charting dark, introspective new territory?

Are your heart and soul plumbing the depths of the enigmatic, lonesome human experience?

Good, I’m happy to hear that the best grunge songs have gotten to you.

It is simply not possible to be a passive observer when it comes to grunge.

It draws you in, whether through poignant vocals, textured guitars, or tectonic percussion sets.

Go make yourself some black coffee, sit in the rain, and get in touch with your scruffy inner poet.  

You may also like: Best Grunge Bands & Best Grunge Albums

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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