The 1990s: Grunge vs. Jam Bands

Was there a decade with a more diverse selection of prominent musical genres than the 1990s?

Videos by American Songwriter

To open the decade, there was rap and rock. To close the decade, there were boy bands and bubble gum pop. But in the middle, there was grunge and there were jam bands. At basically the exact same time.

It’s a strange dichotomy. On the west coast, stemming largely from the Pacific Northwest (and Seattle, even more specifically), there were mega-wattage bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden. Sludgy, dreary, emotional rock music.

On the other coast, there were bright, jam bands like Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, Phish, and Spin Doctors. At times-goofy, at times-musical geniuses, the bands could turn a song like John Lennon’s “Imagine” into a 20-minute journey.

Today, both genres are looked at with a bit of a smirk. As if they both should be kept in the past. But no. Here is a celebration of the two styles that spawned more giant lawn concerts and ripped flannel and denim clothing than the mind can fathom.

Here, we will show some of the most memorable grunge and jam band songs.

1. “Dancing Nancies” — Live at Red Rocks by Dave Matthew Band, 1995

What was a six-minute song on the band’s album, Under the Table and Dreaming, has turned into a nine-plus-minute offering on the Dave Matthews Band live album from the Colorado venue, Red Rocks. Crowds cheer as the band’s violinist Boyd Tinsley screeches. Matthews’ acoustic rolls on as this extended version could be ten minutes longer if you ask most DMB fans.

2. “Come As You Are”— Nevermind by Nirvana, 1991

That droning guitar line with reverb and precarious depth. Kurt Cobain’s voice rips like a piece of paper as he sings, Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours, don’t be late! The song is a rain cloud. Nirvana the lightning and the thunder. Come, doused in mud, soaked in bleach, as I want you to be. A generation followed.

3. “Alone” — Live From The Fall by Blues Traveler, 1996

The penultimate song from the Princeton, New Jersey-born band’s debut album, “Alone” spanned seven-plus-minutes on that first LP. Here on the Blues Traveler live album, Live From The Fall, “Alone” runs nearly 16 minutes. Also on the album is a 15-plus-minute version of “Mountain Cry” and a nearly 20-minute version of “Imagine.” What a wild ride the mid-’90s were.

4. “Once” — Ten by Pearl Jam, 1991

The opening song from Pearl Jam’s acclaimed debut album, Ten, “Once” showcases frontman Eddie Vedder’s growl and his velvet tones, too. The song opens with an industrial crawl and it crescendos in a Mike McCready jolt of a solo. The Seattle-born Pearl Jam has always been more than one band at once and “Once” illustrates their sludgy roots and versatility, too.

5. “Two Princes” — Pocket Full of Kryptonite by Spin Doctors, 1994

This song is one of the most quintessential 90s songs ever. Lead singer Chris Barron bounces and glides on the song about a princely love triangle. Friends with Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors also have roots in both Princeton, New Jersey and New York City. Their music was often rollicking and the band came to be known for Barron’s comfy sweaters and endearing snow hats. Screeching solos that seemingly always bore a smile, too. Below is an extended live version of the jumpy track.

6. “Would?” — MTV Unplugged by Alice in Chains, 1996

The Seattle-born band, Alice in Chains, is a two-headed dragon, especially the band’s early version. Comprised of Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley, the band often put out dark songs that maintained a balance of metal, rock and roll, and sludgy grunge. On the MTV Unplugged album, the band provides a live version of their dooming song “Would?” Where the song could be extended like a hand, instead it’s a screaming fist.

7. “Fluffhead/Fluff’s Travels” — Junta by Phish, 1989

For most jam bands, their longer songs are found on their live albums only. Their studio LPs are more constrained. But the Vermont-born Phish is the rare band where songs can be quite long on record and on stage. Take for example the 15-minute song “Fluffhead/Fluff’s Travels” from the band’s debut album. It was so ahead of its time that it came out a few months before the ’90s hit. Check out the long song and if you dig it, make like a Phish-head and look for a 30-minute version online next. It’s out there.

8. “Fell On Black Days” — Superunknown by Soundgarden, 1994

Frontman Chris Cornell could have been a rock star in any era. It just so happens he was born in Seattle and came up in the ’80s and ’90s in a city birthing grunge stars by the carton. With a voice that could go brooding or shrieking, Cornell fronted the band that was made whole by Kim Thayil’s blissfully moody guitar playing. “Fell On Black Days” is the anthem of depression. With a splash of hope added in, too, for good measure.

Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival

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