In the late 1980s and 1990s, grunge music was at the center of popular culture. Born in the Pacific Northwest in the then-outpost of Seattle, Washington, the rock subgenre, which included dreary, emotional lyrics and muddy music bereft of guitar solos, became a phenomenon.
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As a result, bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden ruled the airwaves along with others from the city like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. But who were the icons of the genre and the lead singers (and songwriters) that we paving the way?
1. Kurt Cobain
While he’s the most famous face of the most famous grunge band, Nirvana, Kurt Cobain is rightly beloved. The singer who died in 1994 at just 27 has a voice that cuts like a blade made of lasers. Or rusty steel. Or both. Handsome and mysterious, Cobain remains an icon today thanks to his beautiful, piercing voice that showcases rock power and melancholy all at once. It shines and growls.
2. Chris Cornell
The frontman for the grunge band Soundgarden, which was the first of the major grunge bands to earn a record deal and tour the country, Chris Cornell, who died by suicide in 2017, was one of those singers who actually had two voices. He could scream, touching the tops of skyscrapers as well as go low and bellow with the best. It made both him and his band versatile beyond imagination.
3. Eddie Vedder
Today, Eddie Vedder is the last one standing from the genre’s perhaps most iconic vocalists. Yes, grunge has seen more than its fair share of tragedy. Nevertheless, Vedder with his crooning, gritty voice came to be a musical icon thanks to songs like “Alive” and “Jeremy.” Not only is he a musical legend, but he’s also known for his outspoken thoughts on the music industry and the environment.
4. Layne Staley
Layne Staley’s voice was effortless. It jumped off his tongue, ghostly and noble. He and Kurt Cobain died on the same day, April 5, just eight years apart. Staley died in 2002 from a drug overdose and when that happened the world lost one of its most sublime singers. Both his troubles and his talent are on display in the incredible MTV Unplugged performance from his band Alice in Chains.
5. Jerry Cantrell
The other half of Alice in Chains’ lead singers, Jerry Cantrell wrote a number of the group’s biggest songs, including “Rooster.” Cantrell was also one of the vocalists for the band—indeed, he deserves an award just for having the courage to croon in Staley’s shadow. Nevertheless, Cantrell, who still fronts the band today some 20 years since Staley’s passing, remains one of the most significant singers in grunge’s sordid history.
6. Mark Lanegan
If the Grim Reaper sang, it would sound like Mark Lanegan. His low, gravelly growl is the sound of the world ending. Lanegan, who passed away in 2022 after complications from COVID-19, was the former frontman for the Screaming Trees. He also sang with the grunge supergroup Mad Season and had an illustrious solo career. Like grunge’s Tom Waits, Lanegan was a one-of-one.
7. Courtney Love
While grunge music is a predominately male sound, Courtney Love, the now-widow of music icon Cobain, was one of the most impactful women when it came to the rock subgenre. With songs like “Violet” and “Doll Parts,” Love was as much the messenger for the morose and despondent as she was a blonde Hollywood bombshell.
8. Tina Bell
A local 1980s star in Seattle, Tina Bell and her band Bam Bam never quite got their due during their lifetime. But more recently, music fans are discovering Bell thanks to her bandmates and interested journalists trying to figure out the beginnings of the solemn rock subgenre. While Bell may not have been a traditional grunge singer like, say, Cobain or Love, she did help grow the foundations of muddy rock in the PNW. For that, she is likely grunge’s godmother.
9. Mark Arm
Where would grunge be without Mark Arm? His band Green River was one of the original grunge groups and his next band Mudhoney was one of its most popular. Arm’s voice strains under his passion, his message pushed out despite limitations. And isn’t that the quintessential quality of all grunge music? Success despite? In that way, Arm is grunge’s patron saint.
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