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‘Singles’, the definitive grunge album, still rocks

Thirty years later, ‘Singles’ remains the essential go-to album for anyone keen to explore Seattle’s grunge phenomenon

The late Chris Cornell.
The late Chris Cornell.

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I think it was just before the riots in Bombay (the city was yet to be rechristened Mumbai) in December 1992, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, that I found the Singles album on cassette at what was then the mecca for the city’s music lovers, Rhythm House—a downtown music store or, rather, trove, which doesn’t exist any more. The album was the soundtrack to the film of the same name, directed by Cameron Crowe; set in Seattle, it revolved around the lives of a group of young people intertwined with the emergence of the grunge movement.

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When Singles (both the movie and the soundtrack) came out in 1992, Nirvana, one of Seattle’s best-known bands and one that epitomised grunge, were already a phenomenon. Their second album, Nevermind, had come out in 1991 and grunge and alternative rock were beginning to go mainstream. But if there is any album that helped bring Seattle’s grunge sound properly into the mainstream, it was Singles.

The original Singles cassette has 13 tracks, most of them by the then ascendant musicians and bands based in and around Seattle, but also by others, including Minneapolis’ Paul Westerberg, a former member of the alt-rock band The Replacements, and Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins. It also had older musicians with Seattle connections such as Jimi Hendrix, whose song May This Be Love was featured on the album; and sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of the 1960s band Heart, who are featured as a duo named The Lovemongers on the album, doing their cover of the Led Zeppelin song The Battle Of Evermore.

But it is the grunge tracks that form the core of the album (and the movie). The late Chris Cornell features prominently—both as part of his band Soundgarden and as solo performer. Westerberg, who was then embarking on a post-Replacements solo career, has two songs, including the catchy Dyslexic Heart. And, although Nirvana were not featured, other rising stars of Seattle are there.

Some, such as Soundgarden, fronted by Cornell, became huge in subsequent years. Their song Birth Ritual is a stand-out track on the album. There are other noteworthy tracks. Pearl Jam, whose debut album Ten had come out less than a year before Singles, have two songs, Breath and State Of Love And Trust. The album opener, Would?, by Alice in Chains is an epic song bursting with high levels of energy—marking, in a sense, the adrenaline-driven spirit of Seattle grunge.

You might be wondering what the Bombay riots, in which at least 900 people lost their lives, have to do with the Singles album. I mentioned it because those riots cast a pall of darkness over the people of a metropolis that took pride in the fact that their city was a symbol of harmony and tolerance, with people from different communities coexisting in peace for decades. In the aftermath of those riots, people sought solace in different things. For me, solace was provided by the Singles cassette, which had already been on repeat during my long commutes to and from office in my battered old Maruti Suzuki 800. Somehow, grunge’s musical distortion and angsty lyrics steeped in social alienation seemed to create a mood that, at least then (and, now, in retrospect), seemed to help.

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Compact discs (CDs) were the go-to format at the time but back in Bombay, and on a journalist’s meagre earnings, they were not very affordable. I had no CD player in the car, though I did have a small CD-cum-cassette player at home, and very few CDs. The Singles album, however, became such an obsession that months later, after the city had limped back to normalcy, I went to Rhythm House and sprang for a CD of it. I still have it.

There are many other reasons the Singles album remains memorable. For instance, Soundgarden’s Cornell has a cool cameo appearance in the film. And, in 2017, to mark the 25th anniversary of the soundtrack, a deluxe edition was released in which other bonus tracks were featured, including six more songs by Cornell. Sadly, the anniversary edition was released just a day after Cornell’s death.

For my friends and me, the original Singles album was a deep dive into grunge. Besides the bands from the Seattle scene that later became huge (Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and so on), it introduced us to bands we were less familiar with, such as Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone. The latter was a short-lived group that disbanded after the death of its frontman, Andrew Wood, but some of its surviving members joined Cornell on the project Temple of the Dog, in which Eddie Vedder (still in his pre-Pearl Jam days) provided guest vocals.

For anyone wishing to explore Seattle’s grunge phenomenon in music, the Singles soundtrack is, and will remain, the essential go-to album.

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