Grunge became a revelation in the 1990s for rock fanatics and mainstream audiences alike. In spite of the newfound fame, this mixture of punk, heavy metal, and hard rock had been around. Yet, starting with Nirvana’s album Nevermind, grunge enjoyed tremendous, unexpected success, the likes of which alternative music has rarely benefited from again. Today, in spite of these artists abhorring all things commercial, it is time to look at the biggest-selling grunge albums of all time.
Note that for the sake of clarity we are concentrating on bands from the first era of Gunge. We are not limiting the choices to Seattle-based artists.
10. Soundgarden – Superuknown
Soundgarden was without a doubt one of the most accomplished bands to come out of Seattle in any era. By 1994 they were practically veterans of the scene. And, hard as it is to believe, commercially they were lagging behind their contemporaries.
Superunknown may have been a comment on their status as a group at the time. But, ironically it was also to be the album that propelled them to stardom. The singles and videos for Black Hole Sun, Fell On Black Days, Spoonman became MTV and radio staples. Soon Soundgarden was being greeted as a latter-day Led Zeppelin by the eager music press. Their songs remained treasured on grunge compilation albums and playlists.
The band would release only one more album in their original run. Superuknown remains their most famous offering. It has sold well over 9 million albums worldwide. It is a significant achievement for a group with a strong DYI spirit. Indeed, Soundgarden may have started out being labeled as a metal, or, even an indie band. By the time of Superunknown’s release, however, they were responsible for one of the biggest grunge albums
9. Nirvana – In Utero
In Utero was designed to be, by most accounts, the album that would trim Nirvana’s fanbase down to the core believers. The band even hired Steve Albini to produce the record. Albini had a long history of supervising important alternative rock albums by the likes of Slint, the Pixies, or the Breeders.
In spite of featuring less of a radio-friendly sound than its predecessor Nevermind, Nirvana’s final studio album proved successful. (It should be mentioned that the group’s record label waited in the background to have the singles remixed). It spawned the hit singles Heart-Shaped Box and All Apologies and has sold 15 million copies worldwide. Lyrics featured on the record continue to be oft-quoted grunge quotes. As swan songs go, it’s a fitting farewell.
8. Alice In Chains – Dirt
Alice In Chains appeared as striking as a heart attack when played on radio and MTV during the 90s. Yet, the group had started life as a Guns N’ Roses-inspired hair-metal band. Dirt showcased the group’s newly established musical maturity. Invariably, it also helped establish grunge 90s fashion. That’s not least of all because of the gloomy and, ultimately iconic grunge album cover artwork.
Lyrically it delved into subjects such as drug consumption, war, and death. The vocal harmonies of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell, coupled with the down-tuned riffing established a grunge style copied well into the decades ahead. Dirt is AIC’s most famous record, selling over 4 million copies worldwide and featuring some of the band’s best-known songs such as Rooster, Would? or Angry Chair.
7. Hole – Live Through This
Hole already had already released one critically acclaimed album ahead of 1994. By the time Live Through This was released all had changed for Courtney Love and her group. The singer’s relationship to Kurt Cobain was making the news. Love was discussed often, sometimes viewed as a feminist icon, sometimes as an attention-seeking fame chaser. Like or not, she was the grunge girl.
Featuring a fair deal of co-authorship from Cobain himself, the album performed very well. This, not least of all, is because of Love’s personality and distinct vocals. It produced hit singles such as Violet and Doll Parts. It has sold nearly two million copies. And, for a while, it made Hole into one of the most popular bands in the world. Their preferred sound did change afterward. However, Live through this, remains their most celebrated work and one of the biggest grunge albums.
6. Stone Temple Pilots – Core
Stone Temple Pilots seemed to be the critics’ whipping boys in 1992. That year they released their debut Core and attracted frequent comparisons to Pearl Jam. Pundits may have seen their writing and playing as opportunistic, but listeners flocked to the Scott Weiland-fronted group. The result was one of the biggest selling grunge albums.
Plush, Crackerman, Wicked Garden became big hits. Core sold well over 8 million in the U.S. Next, the band weathered the storm. By the time the group disbanded they had achieved a rare balance of artistic credibility and mainstream acceptance.
5. Stone Temple Pilots – Purple
Stone Temple Pilots paid little time in hearing out their critics. By 1993 they were ready to release their second album. Purple showcased the group dabbling in classic rock and glam. Comparisons to other Seattle groups were less a topic of conversation this time around.
Big Empty, Vasoline, and Interstate Love Song showed that Weiland and the group were their generation’s masters of blending art-house and commercial rock. Purple has sold over 6 million copies worldwide.
4. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York
Nirvana reluctantly agreed to perform on the MTV Unplugged series. However, their gritty, honest performance was to become the stuff of legend. Naturally, the fact that the record was released posthumously to Kurt Cobain’s death helped the record’s success. It sold over 7 million copies. Was this still a grunge album? While many of the familiar tropes of the style were whisked away, the live recording helped showcase Nirvana’s depth. After all, how many people would have expected a straight cover of the Meat Puppet’s Lake of fire.
However, from the digging up deep cuts, playing with the Meat Puppets on their best songs, or closing the show with a Leadbelly standard, Nirvana, once and for all, proved their quality as a live band, electricity be damned!
3. Nirvana – Bleach
Nirvana released Bleach in 1989. And, if the story of the band was to end here, decades later they would still be viewed as one of the most talented alternative rock bands of their time. Instead, the album displayed glimpses of Kurt Cobain’s terrific songwriting.
About a girl showed his love of the Beatles. School showed his love Black Sabbath. And, Blew proved he knew how to write a top-notch song, a skill that would soon come in handy. Nirvana would clean up their sound for their next release. But, Bleach remains a testament to their early vision.
2. Nirvana – Nevermind
Nirvana’s Nevermind may just be the most important rock album of the 1990s. Part alt-rock experimentation, part exercise in hit-making, Nevermind is an album like few others. Of course, the success of Smells like teen spirit caught all parties involved by surprise.
By the time the album had ended its initial run Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic were playing in one of the world’s best-known bands. It was chosen as The best grunge album by Rolling Stone. The album has sold over 30 million copies worldwide and continues to inspire countless new musicians.
1. Pearl Jam – Ten
Pearl Jam’s Ten was a landmark album. Pearl Jam was an old band, Mother Love Bone, with a new drummer, a new name, and, now with Eddie Vedder fronting them. In many ways, its influence was stifled by the momentum of Nevermind. Like it, Ten seemed to arrive out of nowhere with a fully fleshed vision and a gigantic sound. Cobain may have scoffed, calling it corporate grunge. However, the impact of songs like Jeremy, Black, Once, Evenflow is undeniable. It also, rather strangely, helped define the grunge aesthetic.
Ten has sold 13 million copies worldwide and remains Pearl Jam’s golden standard. The group would soon choose to change their direction, but their debut remains a high point in the story of the style sometimes referred to as grunge.