“Smells Like Teen Spirit” turns 25 years old this weekend. Originally released on September 10, 1991, the song became the biggest hit for Nirvana, and the signature tune on their breakthrough album, Nevermind, released September 24th that same year.
In many ways, “Smells” ushered in the mainstream success of Nirvana. In the same way, their mainstream success ushered in the mainstream success of the grunge genre.
When a song, album, and musical movement I associate firmly with my youth reaches the quarter century mark, well, you know you’re getting old. But it’s also probably a great time to walk down memory lane and revisit some of the other songs that defined those times.
There’s lots of ways to look at grunge. I could think out a “best of” list but, really, that’s too hard. I can appreciate (and anticipate) the arguments on multiple sides, too. Maybe it’s just safer to go with 5 of the other biggest hits that I also thought were good. For those of you born after these years, I feel safe in saying each of these songs is worth knowing.
5. “Alive” (Pearl Jam)
If I was doing this in order, and being totally personal about it, this would be my favorite song of the era. While I liked Nirvana, this song kind of did it for me more than “Smells Like” ever did. The song “Black” (also from from Pearl Jam’s album Ten) is my favorite song of theirs, even though it wasn’t a big crossover hit.
4. “Plush” (Stone Temple Pilots)
I can taste the 90s in my mouth when I hear this song. Certainly one of their biggest hits, “Plush” and Stone Temple Pilots never really got the respect of critics back then, who often saw them as more of a rip off of bands like Pearl Jam (or Alice in Chains) than as their own thing. But this song stuck it out in the end, didn’t it?
3. “No Rain” (Blind Melon)
Maybe the best indication of how much I love this song (and its almost iconic, genX video) is the way I find a way to work it into my music posts. It ain’t the first time and it won’t be the last!
2. “Outshined” (Soundgarden)
I first heard of and saw Soundgarden in October 1991, when they played the Claremont Colleges. There were less than 30 of us in a ballroom that could fit 200. We had a blast. After that concert they toured around a bit for only a month before becoming the opening act for Guns ‘N Roses Use Your Illusion tour. I suspect it was the last time they ever played for so few people. What I loved about them then, as I do now, is all in this song. Is it metal or is it grunge?
1. “Rape Me” (Nirvana)
My favorite song of Nirvana’s was “Lithium,” the fifth track on their 1991 hit album Nevermind. But when In Utero came out in 1993–their follow-up to Nevermind, which would also turn out to be their last studio album–I felt like grunge music reached its full maturity. This song is perhaps as much a source of that sentiment as any other, but I really think its the album as a whole that left me feeling that way. “Heart-Shaped Box” was a bigger hit, but this always felt more revolutionary.