The Road To Grunge: 10 Albums That Paved The Way For Nirvana’s Breakthrough

Nevermind by Nirvana didn’t just come out of nowhere in September 1991.

Mainstream music may have seemed to be dominated by hair-metal, dance pop, and aging rock stars come the dawn of the ’90s, but big sounds bubbling up from the underground had been pounding serious cracks in the firmament throughout the previous decade.

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Tagged “college rock” early on and later known forever after as indie rock, the punk-rooted, fan-driven underground music of the ’80s spawned two superstar acts fairly quickly: new wave guitar rockers U2 and folky southerners REM. In addition, European synth pop acts on the order of the Cure and Depeche Mode scored major MTV rotation and huge, just-left-of-mainstream fandom.

Harder-edged cult bands, however, remained below the mainstream radar for the next few years, with one particular strain of indie rock rising to prominence. The new, punk-rooted sound fortified its roots with heavy metal (similar to how thrash, simultaneously, was hopping up metal with punk), as well as further incorporating classic rock, psychedelia, avant-garde noise, ’70s radio hits, and other traditionally punk-shunned influences.

It all added up to a cultural atmosphere on the brink of bursting by Fall ’91 and the very moment when Nirvana’s Nevermind broke on through to the other side. Here now are ten crucial ’80s indie rock albums of that blazed the trail for ’90s grunge.

Black Flag My War (1984)

Watch: “My War”

Brilliant punk rock goon squad Black Flag had been scorching a crew-cutted path of destruction out of Southern California since the mid '70s before issuing 1981’s Damaged, which defined hardcore as a movement unto itself. It packed such a wallop, in fact, that an executive at MCA, which initially had distributed the record, decried it as “anti-parent,” and refused to handle it.

The fallout resulted in a legal snafu that prevented Black Flag from releasing new material for two years, but it inspired guitarist Greg Ginn to focus on his label SST Records and expand its line-up to include the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets, and other future cultural touchstones.

The break also motivated Black Flag to just keep touring, and thereby establish a nationwide network of clubs, art spaces, and other venues that continues to serve indie rock to this day. In addition, those long road journeys (as chronicled in front-beast Henry Rollins’ acclaimed memoir Get in the Van) enabled them to expand their musical vocabularies by listening to tapes of all sorts of artists.

By the time My War emerged, Black Flag had become the fiercest live act in existence and the album shocked fans with its dissonant ragers on one side and a second side of unprecedented sludge that pushed the group deep into the realm of doom metal.

Many punks revolted while others took the manic ride. Either way, Black Flag didn’t care and kept chasing their muse wherever it took them until the band imploded in ’86. In hindsight, My War is not only the group’s most pivotal record, it’s the one that brought Black Sabbath into the mosh pit.

From My War, it’s a short distance to the Melvins (Kurt Cobain’s favorite band) and the combination of punk and proto-metal influences that would rumble just a few years later as the men who would be Soundgarden moved to Seattle.

The Replacements Let It Be (1984)

Watch “I Will Dare”

Front-mess Paul Westerberg was a supremely gifted songwriter who seemed to prefer performing while supremely drunk, leading the ’Mats (as they were nicknamed) through live show demonstrations of destruction with a booze-fueled brio that went unmatched at the time anywhere outside of Sunset Strip hair metal hell-pits.

Guitarist Bob Stinson, an electrifying player, essentially took on the mantle of Keith Moon in a group full of John Bonhams (or vice versa), setting a fine example for his kid brother (and future Guns N’ Roses member) Tommy Stinson. Do take that “kid” aspect seriously, too: Tommy was all of eleven when he co-founded the band and just fifteen whey they released their defining masterwork.

For all the Replacements’ chaos in concert, though, an inherent raggedy beauty shone through even their roughest releases on Minneapolis’s Twin/Tone label. The band finally put it all together in 1984 with Let It Be, a collection of bracing songs in a diversity of styles united by downbeat perspectives, sharp humor, and an underlying song craft on par classic rock's greats.

Let It Be contains punk rave-ups (“Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”), cheeky ballads (“Androgynous”), sarcastic rockers (“Seen Your Video”), sideways love songs (“I Will Dare”), and a Kiss cover (“Black Diamond”). Put those elements together a few years hence and what the world heard was grunge.

Hüsker Dü Flip Your Wig (1984)

Watch “Makes No Sense at All/Love Is All Around”

Hüsker Dü arose from the same frozen hardcore pool that also begat the Replacements (their friends and sometimes rivals) and Soul Asylum (a group perceived as the younger brothers of the other two outfits). With bulky Bob Mould out front wailing hard on vocals and even harder on his Ibanez Flying-V, bassist Greg Norton sporting a waxed silent-movie-villain mustache, and drummer Grant Hart resembling a longhaired surf bum, Hüsker Dü didn’t look like any other hardcore act and they certainly sounded different as well.

The Hüskers issued several loud records at lightning-speed throughout the first half of the ’80s before inventing the punk rock concept album with 1984’s double-disc Zen Arcade. The following year, Flip Your Wig, the second album the band released that year, made history as one of indie rock’s first commercial breakthroughs and a landmark embodiment of a cultural time and place.

That Flip Your Wig was Hüsker Dü’s catchiest and most hook-laden effort to that point hardly dulled the record’s impact. In fact, it just upped each song’s inherent potency. Flip’s signature anthem, “Makes No Sense at All” is an onslaught of power pop and sheet metal punk guitars that’s so irresistible the band added their cover of “Love Is All Around,” the theme from the Minneapolis-set Mary Tyler Moore Show, as its B-side. The video for it even received MTV airplay, though it was mostly relegated to its alternative music program 120 Minutes.

Butthole Surfers Locust Abortion Technician (1987)

Watch “Seat Loaf”

While perhaps nothing could match the perilous, invigorating insanity of the Buttholes in concert, their first few records come admirably, even frighteningly close. 1987’s Locust Abortion Technician best embodies the band’s gloriously harrowing live trips. Its pitch-black soul and brain-damaging instrumentation, particularly from visionary Paul Leary on lead guitar, also laid the foundation for the most adventurous extremes of alt-metal in the years ahead.

“Sweat Loaf,” LAT’s opening track, is not so much a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” as it a fever nightmare that loves the original so much it has to destroy it.

Dinosaur Jr. You’re Living All Over Me –  (1987)

Watch “Sludgefeast”

Deep Wound’s (successful) commitment to being the hardest, fastest, and loudest punks around paid off with the member each developing ferocious instrumental skills. Frontman J. Mascis stepped from behind the Wound's drumstool and stood out as a genuine guitar god, drummer Murph pounded like a garage-rock Neil Peart, and guitarist-turned-bassist Lou Barlow could literally play anything.

You’re Living All Over me introduces the band as the sum of those punk-hardened parts as filtered through heavy-duty classic rock, in particular singer-songwriter Neil Young with flashes of Cream, Led Zeppelin, and even ’70s lite rock on the order of America.

Mascis, in addition, emerged as a towering rock-and-roll savant. He could write and sing with almost unbearable vulnerability, and then split skulls immediately upon plugging in his tattered Jazzmaster to ride the lightning into fuzz oblivion. Let's just say, a lot of guys got lucky in the ’90s copping his schtick.

Pixies Surfer Rosa (1988)

Watch “Where Is My Mind?”

After a killer 1987 EP Come on Pilgrim, the Pixies bowled over the indie world with Surfer Rosa. It’s a flawless assemblage of songs that blended lush beauty and wrecking ball brutalism with bizarre, but undeniably affecting lyrics. Guitarist Black Francis and bassist Kim Deal traded off lead vocals, creating as knockout a one-two punch as any in rock history.

Across the next three years, the Pixies issued a series of acclaimed LPs that won them huge swaths of new admirers, and each nudged them just a little bit closer to a mainstream breakthrough. Alas, as often happens, personal and creative matters tore the Pixies asunder come the dawn of the alterna-decade.

Still, if the Pixies hit just a little too late to be underground ’80s legends and they broke up too soon to fully flower into ’90s commercial stardom, the rapturous response to the band’s 2002 reunion tour makes plain how important and impactful they were to musicians and fans alike. So, too, does the iconic use of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” under the closing minutes of Fight Club.

Mudhoney Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)

Watch “Touch Me I’m Sick”

If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the “Stairway to Heaven” of grunge, then Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” is the “Louie Louie”—a primordial, perfectly formed before-and-after milestone that broke all previous rock-and-roll molds from the inside out and set a new bar for booming sonic command, visceral abandon, and communal joy.

Another analogy might be likening Nirvana to Jesus and Mudhoney to John the Baptist. For you non-Bible scholars, John the Baptist traveled the Holy Land announcing that the upcoming arrival of a savior and thereby readying mere mortals for their messiah to emerge. Applying that to grunge, for most of 1991, Mudhoney far surpassed Nirvana in being perceived as the Seattle rock squad to beat. They were the leading stars on SubPop Records to the point that Nirvana kind of came off as Mudhoney’s kid brothers. That pecking order changed abruptly by year’s end, of course.

The EP Superfuzz Bigmuff, named for Mudhoney’s favorite distortion petals, remains not only Mudhoney’s masterpiece, but is perhaps the single purest example of grunge proper. The six-song collection combines psychedelic sludge a la Blue Cheer and the Stooges with hardcore punk attitude, cheeky pop flourishes, and huge, sweaty love for ’70s metal. In a word, that’s grunge.

Jane’s Addiction Nothing’s Shocking (1988)

Watch “Mountain Song”

Shockingly indeed, Jane’s Addiction arose from a late-’80s Sunset Strip scene at peak hair metal overload. The poodle-heads listened. Prog and psych devotees followed. Hardcore kids moshed to the front of the pack. Everybody else, thereafter, caught up quick.

The sheer musical might of Jane’s Addiction simply mesmerized all comers. Frontman Perry Farrell proved fast to be one of the most iconic L.A. rock stars, while guitar wizard Dave Navarro stunned all by bringing extreme technical skill to bizarre, left field innovations. The songs were so strange, but they worked—for everybody.

Nothing’s Shocking, then, sounded like a revolution in utero, and it was. Farrell, of course, spearheaded the first global-scale charge in 1991 by creating the traveling Lollapalooza festival.

Constructed as a freak carnival and playing to millions, Lollapalooza’s first lineup included Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, the Butthole Surfers, Fishbone, the Rollins Band, and Living Colour. After a summer of those giants conquering the world, Nirvana released Nevermind. Boom.

Faith No More The Real Thing (1989)

Watch “Epic”

After nearly five minutes of lead singer Mike Patton and the hairy, scary band wailing and flailing before a cavalcade of apocalyptic overkill imagery—not to mention the brute funk, brash rap, and soaring guitar storms of the song itself—“Epic” builds to an orchestral climax that gives way to a spooky piano coda. On screen, a fish out of water graphically flops and gasps and, pointedly, does not make it back to safety by the fade out.

Though the group had been trudging in the post-hardcore-indie-alt-rock circles since the '80s, like Alice Cooper’s chicken sacrifice and Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat, Faith No More’s MTV fish trauma led millions to discover the band’s wild, challenging, genre-colliding music. The Real Thing, the album that spawned “Epic,” won fans in every contemporary subgenre of rock—punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, jam, neo-psych, you name it.

Commercially, The Real Thing also first broke the very ground from which would bloom the supremely odd reality, just a few years later, of little kids singing along to solid pop hits by the Meat Puppets and the Butthole Surfers.

Sonic Youth Goo (1990)

Watch “Dirty Boots”

Sonic Youth’s 1988 double album Daydream Nation galvanized rock critics, student DJs, and other media tastemakers as perhaps no other previous indie release ever had. So while Sonic Youth didn’t score a mainstream hit, Daydream Nation did push them to the forefront of a rapidly ascending alternative rock movement. Geffen’s major label subsidiary DGC Records came calling, and Sonic Youth answered.

Goo put cover art by Black Flag mainstay Raymond Pettibon into mall record shops everywhere, along with healthy doses of the group’s avant-garde underpinnings made palatable by classy song craft and cool, sly execution.

The following year, Kurt Cobain cited Sonic Youth as the reason Nirvana made the leap from indie label SubPop to the big leagues. The whole of grunge, along with the rest of the ’90s, went with him.

Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is the author of Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever! (Bazillion Points).

[Photo Credit: DGC Records]