grunge rock

Grunge Match : Pearl Jam vs. Soundgarden vs. Alice in Chains

Which band is best :

  • Pearl Jam
  • Soundgarden
  • Alice in Chains

Which band had the best song, and what was it?

Which band had the best album, and what was it?

–       AA in Rochester Hills, MI

I cannot tell you…how excited I am…that you asked this question.  I love talking and/or debating about music, and being a fan of rock who just can’t quite get as excited for contemporary rock bands as I could for those of my young adult years – well, this is just in my wheelhouse.  I’m sure a significant amount of my bias is good old “it was better in my day” generationalism, but the Murderers Row of albums we are about to look at, released within only four years of each other, would fare well stacked against a similar cross-section at any point of rock history.

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First, to parse out some ground rules needed to answer the very open-ended questions.  I’m going to presume that in this case we are NOT talking about total career merits – because in that case the answer is obvious :

  1. Pearl Jam, because they have never stopped making music, are still somewhat relevant, and have an overwhelmingly stronger catalogue
  2. Alice in Chains, because although the singer has changed [you really need to see the new guy to believe him], they still tour and put out some credible music
  3. Soundgarden, in last place because Chris Cornell did this.

So I’m going to arbitrarily set start and end points to the competition, which admittedly coincides with a very influential and angsty time in my life, and possibly yours.  Based on the release timing of popular albums, we will look only at the window from 1990-1994 to answer the questions above.  This means that the first two Soundgarden studio albums – “Ultramega OK” (1988) and “Louder Than Love” (1989) are not considered; they may have been influential, but they weren’t especially relevant in the mainstream rock conscious.

The window also cuts off one album from each band while they were still largely popular, but these albums were clear commercial and critical dropoffs from the albums that preceded them for each band :

  • Pearl Jam “No Code” (1996)
  • Soundgarden “Down on the Upside” (1996)
  • Alice in Chains “Alice in Chains” (1995)

Looking only at the studio albums from this time frame, we will answer the questions above.  Note that although they were technically EPs, the Alice in Chains releases “Sap” and “Jar of Flies” are included in the evaluation.

The methodology is this – going track-by-track through each eligible album, worthy tracks are classified as “Notable” or “Great”, or not at all.  Although this is obviously subjective and open to all kinds of error, the guiding idea behind a track being called “Notable” is that most fans of this kind of music from this point in time will be able to recognize and name the song.  A track is called “Great” if, in addition to the aforementioned criteria, it would – if played in a bar with a large amount of thirty-somethings – cause at least one person to say “great song.”  Yes, that’s actually the criteria.









So, there you have the answers, which no one could ever possibly ever ever dispute.

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Best Band :

Pearl Jam

Best Album :


The best song, well, that will clearly need to be picked from the 24 songs noted as “Great” above, but that one is completely up to each individual.  Since it’s my mailbag, you’re getting my list.  Feel free to comment on your choice!

Best Song :

“Would?”  Alice in Chains



Finally, as an editorial  addition to the question, I’ve always bristled at the assumption that Nirvana was the “best” or “leader” of the grunge music era.  They certainly produced its defining song – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and you could argue they produced the best album in “Nevermind” – although “Ten” rates higher using the method above; but their body of work in the window defined actually puts them second or third of the four – definitely above Soundgarden definitely below Pearl Jam, and essentially a coin toss against Alice in Chains.


I honestly believe that if you swapped the timing of the tragic fates of Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain, the retroactive view of their standing in the genre swaps as well.


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