In the days following the 1994 death of Kurt Cobain, the dissolution of Nirvana, drug addiction problems for many grunge artists, and the rapid fade of grunge’s popularity, a neo-version of the form was already evolving. The post-grunge sound in the latter half of the ‘90s retained the characteristic heavy guitar distortion of the pure grunge bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden, but with a less nihilistic, abrasive lyric message and more polished pop melody and vocal style. The result was a commercially successful formula: keep the spirit of grunge, with only a tinge of distortion, but layer cleaner melodic lines delivered in a pop-ish vocal style. Success included shifting the lyrics away from metaphors of despair, self-doubt, and alienation and towards objective lyrics about relationships, love, and the hope of redemption from past personal missteps.
While the grunge bands of the early ‘90s achieved success despite their desire to push away from commercialism and popularity, the post-grunge bands accepted the success that came their way without any hesitation, anxiety, or feeling of hypocrisy. Though often shunned by pure grunge fans as merely substandard musical derivatives, the post-grunge bands ignored the slights and harsh dismissals and pushed ahead to form a more conventional musical and lyric path. No longer was isolation, independence, and non-conformity of prime importance. It was enough to build on previous musical ideas, adding new layers and accepting relationships, both personal and professional. Angst was over. Accessibility was now essential.
While many bands explored the post-grunge ideas at the end of the ‘90s, a few emerged as best examples of the style and on the top of the charts.
One Seattle-based band which transcended the grunge movement was Pearl Jam. Though their starting point was similar to that of Nirvana, Mudhoney, and others, Pearl Jam expanded beyond the confines of the grunge sound to a broader, more artistic, musical path. In many ways, they can be compared to the Beatles, starting within the conventional framework, then exploring what musical life exists beyond the more traditional fences.
Starting with members of dissolved Seattle grunge bands, Green River and Mother Love Bone, a new group was formed called Mookie Blaylock (after the professional basketball player). Though they went through a series of drummers, the key to their success came when they eventually added charismatic San Diego vocalist Eddie Vedder. The result was what might be called the ultimate “alt-genre” rock band. Renamed after vocalist Eddie Vedder’s grandmother, Pearl (and supposedly her peyote-laced jam, although it may have been influenced by extended concert improvisations by traditional rocker Neil Young), the band signed with Epic Records and began a series of highly influential albums.
Beginning in 1991 with their debut album, Ten, Pearl Jam would redefine the artistic path for “alt-grunge-punk-metal-art” music following the 1990s. While lyrically still influenced by the dark themes of the grunge-rock movement, Pearl Jam was already pushing beyond the simplistic intensity of grunge into a broader harmonic framework with classic alt-rock influences. Unlike other early grunge bands, Pearl Jam infused guitar leads into the production, causing some to question their “alt-authenticity.” Even before the end of Nirvana, Pearl Jam was being criticized by grunge purists and musicians like Kurt Cobain as being too “commercial” and selling out to the musical masses. Fortunately, the vocalist from Nirvana made amends with Pearl Jam’s vocalist Eddie Vedder and others from the band before his death in 1994.
After the incredible success of Ten (named after Blaylock’s jersey number) which would eventually go 13x platinum in sales in the United States, Pearl Jam began their reign of the alt-music world. Within the next two years, they would receive numerous awards, including four at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, several television appearances, and the Lollapalooza concert tour. Their second album, Vs., would set a record for the highest sales in the debut week, with over 900,000 sold. This was followed by their third album, Vitalogy, in 1994, which sold over 875,000 units the first week. No other artist or band has had Pearl Jam’s success with their first three records – which have collectively achieved platinum status 25x. Combined with extensive touring, a dozen Grammy nominations, an MTV Unplugged performance, eleven studio albums, and the release of over 200 recordings of live concerts with over five thousand songs, Pearl Jam has been a dominant force in American musical culture for the past thirty years.
Their 2017 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility confirmed their impact on rock music. With over 85 million albums sold worldwide, Pearl Jam has proven to be one of the few commercial and cultural musical icons to successfully bridge the 20th and 21st centuries. Though their stylistic roots were incubated in the grunge sound of Seattle, their musical and lyrical path would eventually take them through such diverse styles as folk-rock, experimental art rock, psychedelic rock, worldbeat, and classic rock. Few other bands could be included in a discussion of the history of rock ‘n’ roll with artists such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and U2. Pearl Jam’s longevity, success, and impact on other artists prove them legitimate citizens of the pantheon of historical rock demi-gods.
Following the end of Nirvana, Dave Grohl formed Foo Fighters, a band that was compared at first with the former but soon developed as part of the new post-grunge movement. Though Grohl’s new project found a similarity to Nirvana in the driving punk-like guitars and punching rhythm, the band’s longevity allowed them to expand and grow through twenty-six years of creativity. With Foo Fighters, Grohl brought the melody to a higher level of importance and appeal. With 12 albums, 12 Grammy and multiple MTV and other awards, chart-topping singles and albums, and gold and platinum records, the Foo Fighters have been continually a part of the American popular music culture for the past three decades.
As further evidence of Grohl and the Foo Fighters’ constant creative striving, in July 2021, the band released “Hail Satin,” a tongue-in-cheek album containing five covers of Bee Gees disco-era songs. The band, temporarily “renamed” the Dee Gees (for the “Dave Grohls”) for the project, brings their slight interpretation to classic disco songs like “You Should Be Dancing” and “Night Fever.” The result is a set of fun post-grunge-disco songs.
On October 30, 2021, the Foo Fighters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. In his induction speech, legendary rock icon Paul McCartney, who had worked with Grohl in the past, compared their paths: members of iconic bands (Beatles and Nirvana) which ended tragically, and moved on to create new bands (Wings and Foo Fighters), with new visions and sounds. He even compared their multi-instrumental talents. “He makes an album where he plays all the instruments himself. Do you think this guy’s stalking me?”
In 1994, the same year Grohl launched his Foo Fighters project, other post-grunge rock bands reached the charts. From England, Bush released their debut album Sixteen Stone in 1994, which would eventually go 6x multi-platinum. It was the first of several successful albums and top ten singles since the late ‘90s. Though initially labeled as “Nirvana-wanna-bes,” Bush established themselves as legitimate heirs of the grunge-throne, with a sound influenced by such diverse creative sources as the Pixies, Soundgarden, the Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and Tom Petty. With well over 20 million records sold internationally, Bush is an example of one of the finest post-grunge bands in rock history.
Also founded in 1994, Creed, from Tallahassee, Florida, was an essential part of the post-grunge movement. Like many of the post-grunge bands, Creed was influenced by punk and heavy metal and the classic rock sounds of bands such as The Doors and Led Zeppelin. Though they were only together for barely ten years, the band brought their spiritually-influenced lyrics and commercially sanitized post-grunge work to the mainstream with songs like “With Arms Wide Open” and “My Sacrifice,” both of which have had hundreds of millions of views each on YouTube. Perhaps due to their spiritually tinged messages or commercially contained songs, Creed has amassed a legion of both fans and critics. Despite massive popularity at the end of the ‘90s, Rolling Stone magazine named them the worst band of the ‘90s decade. Regardless of critical acclaim or condemnation, from the end of the ‘90s into the ‘00s, Creed mainstreamed a version of post-grunge that achieved chart success.
The mid-‘90s brought other bands in the post-grunge/neo-Nirvana mold. Collective Soul from Georgia had a series of albums in the last half of the decade that was commercially successful. Singles such as “December,” “Listen,” and “Heavy” were among several #1 hits from three successive albums at the end of the 1990s. Into the 2020s, the band continues to record and release ten albums. Though they haven’t reached the level of success they had in the late ‘90s, Collective Soul maintains a staunch fan base and tours extensively.
Other post-grunge/alt-rock bands of the late ‘90s include Candlebox, Puddle of Mudd, Staind, 3 Doors Down, and Nickelback, some of whose popularity wasn’t fully realized until the first decade of the 21st century.
In the sub-genre which has been titled “post-grunge”, the groups could be loosely gathered into two sub-groups. The first would be those who followed close to the grunge principals of Nirvana and Soundgarden from the early ‘90s. These retained a gritty, distorted guitar sound with power rhythm and pounding bass lines. The second group began with some of the post-grunge elements, but moved towards a more commercially acceptable sound, with lyrics based on a more conventional point of view regarding relationships and romance and a renewed emphasis on melody as a dominant part of the final mix. The best example of the first group can be found with Dave Grohl’s band, the Foo Fighters. The best examples of the second group could be seen in Pearl Jam, Creed, Bush, and by early in the next decade, the most commercially successful of this “version B” style: the band, Nickelback.