It says something about the scene they sprang from that Soundgarden were generally thought of as a relatively untortured stadium rock band. With frontman Chris Cornell now having died at age 52 from a possible suicide, it’s pretty staggering to look back at how their most-famous, best-selling album was filled with titles like “Limo Wreck,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “Let Me Drown” and of course “Like Suicide” — delivered through Cornell’s signature howl as some of the few rock transmissions powerful enough to potentially reach into the, well, Superunknown.
But indeed, Soundgarden in their time were not viewed as particularly notable purveyors of existential angst or exorcists of personal demons. Even Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who today seems mostly like a cool dad who just wants to take his daughter to a Cubs game, was more likely to be dubbed “brooding” or “complicated” than Cornell. Most likely, this is because among the biggest ’90s grunge bands, Soundgarden most brought the hammer down like ’70s predecessors Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, with a sound as soaring and untamed as Cornell’s wild black hair, and as broad and gleaming as his oft-bare chest. They were the new Rock Gods. And Rock Gods don’t brood.
Of course, what made Soundgarden so singular of their time was that they were able to translate Seattle sludge and rain-soaked despair into something thunderous and broadly accessible enough to invoke Physical Graffiti comparisons, without turning Cornell’s barbaric yawp into something that was all sound and no fury. And that’s why, despite his impressive successes with Temple of the Dog, Audioslave and his solo career, it’s still Soundgarden that first comes to mind when considering Cornell’s legacy — it was the only outfit that really armed and deployed his voice properly, as a weapon powerful enough not only to take over the Pacific Northwest, but the entire rock-listening world.
Here are Soundgarden’s 15 best tracks.
15. “Flower” (Ultramega OK, 1988)
Soundgarden’s early EPs and pre-major debut albums certainly don’t rate as lost classics, but “Flower” is a pretty good dry run for the band’s fleshier later classics — chugging guitar and bass whose frantic fretwork causes your fingers phantom aches, a gorgeous psych-rock breakdown, and Cornell drawling out an alternately seductive and dire third-person lyric. His closing cry is oddly buried in the mix; the band would never make that mistake again.
14. “Dusty” (Down on the Upside, 1996)
“Nothing’s gonna put me out/ It’s backing down and under/ I’m down on the upside now.” The de facto title track to Soundgarden’s final LP in their first incarnation was a good example of that album at its most compelling — knotty, mysterious folk-prog that returned grunge from its rainiest days much closer to its arid, Neil Young roots. Dust never sleeps.
13. “She Likes Surprises” (Songs From the Superunknown, 1995)
Originally an international Superunknown bonus cut and an eventual bonus EP release, “She Likes Surprises” is one of the band’s most intriguing rarities: Psychedelic power-pop with one of Kim Thayil’s most electrifying guitar curls and one of Cornell’s Paisley-est choruses. Soundgarden were most traditionally seen as within the lineage of any number of ’70s rock Valhalla-seekers; “She Likes Surprises” shows that they could’ve been The Byrds, too.
12. “Spoonman” (Superunknown, 1994)
A riffer goofy and groovy enough (with a full on, funky-as-s**t spoon-drum break!) that Pearl Jam were probably furious they didn’t get it for their own contemporaneous Vitalogy — but hey, there’s a reason why Steve Aoki is remixing this and not “Satan’s Bed” 20-plus years later. And yes, there is a real Spoonman; his name is Artis and if you see him today maybe give him a hug.
11. “Room a Thousand Years Wide” (Badmotorfinger, 1991)
A production as expansive as its title implies, though it lacked the iconic chorus to make it as much of a radio perennial as the album’s further releases. No matter: The guitars make this one a classic, buzzing in one ear as Thayil’s pitch-bent leads wail in the other, while Cornell’s gut-wrenched cries for tomorrow become quickly devastating in retrospect.
10. “Pretty Noose” (Down on the Upside, 1996)
Not exactly the full-flight, pulverizing lead single fans might’ve been hoping from Soundgarden after they’d just released one of the decade’s biggest rock albums, “Pretty Noose” instead delivered a hazy and lyrically enigmatic churner that had Difficult Follow-up written all over it. The full-band lurch is still thick as a brick, though, and Cornell’s eerie closing “And I don’t like what you got me hanging from,” hard enough to shake for the last 20 years, is now guaranteed to linger over the group’s catalog forever.
9. “Rusty Cage” (Badmotorfinger, 1991)
Soundgarden as SST punk band — which they kind of were for a while, but never really — with a two-chord rager and a message of brittle defiance transmutable enough for Rick Rubin to convince Johnny Cash to have a go at it. Just about every other band would’ve cut it off at a sizzling 2:53; Soundgarden instead stomping around for another 90 seconds of head-banging caterwauling exemplifies everything both great and terrible about the band.
8. “Hands All Over” (Louder Than Love, 1989)
In the early days, you could probably argue Soundgarden were really just The Cult with a better frontman and cooler friends, and that’s not such a bad thing: “Hands All Over” is as undeniable a clarion call as any of that band’s definitive hits, and no one but Cornell could take an environmental cautionary tale with a chrous of “You’re gonna kill your mother” and make it sound this soaring and this sexy.
7. “Birth Ritual” (Singles OST, 1992)
One of the band’s most scorching rockers, with a pistoning 6/4 heave so enthralling that it inspires Chris Cornell to reach for notes on the chorus that he — even he! — struggles to hit. (Three notes he definitely can nail, though: “RIIII-TUUUU-ALLLLLL!!!!“) Cliff Poncier blows out his windows cranking up the car stereo speakers to this one every time.
6. “Fresh Tendrils” (Superunknown, 1994)
A road-tripping deep cut off Superunknown in which the band barely even seems like they’re trying as they switch up rhythms, time signatures and melodic motifs without ever breaking their own spell; credit to the versatility of drummer Matt Cameron for never letting the band’s instrumental indulgences rob them of the their funk. “Throw yourself away!” pronounces the frontman, a definitively Cornellian sentiment in its means-as-much-as-you-want bombast.
5. “Slaves & Bulldozers” (Badmotorfinger, 1991)
“Soundgarden was a metal band!,” someone you know’s older brother is undoubtedly shouting at the hundreds of obituaries for Chris Cornell today referring to his primary group as a grunge outfit. He’s not wrong, necessarily — though the moment when grunge lost its metal entirely is basically when it stopped being grunge — and this Badmotorfinger highlight would be his Exhibit A, an absolutely crushing seven-minute behemoth that gets maximum wattage out of all concerned. (Particularly Cornell, who you can practically see going lightheaded on his final “NOW I KNOW WHY YOU’VE BEEN TAKEN!” gut-busters.) It wouldn’t have gotten them to heavy MTV rotation on its own, but it showed why some of the headbangers whose ranks they joined (if not outright replaced) on the channel had to grumblingly give it up for them.
4. “Black Hole Sun” (Superunknown, 1994)
The smash that ensured that Soundgarden would have at least one song to offer to the ’90s pop canon. Not that it’s all that much more accessible or obviously crossover-friendly than any of their other singles — if Soundgarden ever meant to write a sell-out single, they must’ve sucked at it — but the ’90s were a weird enough time that a demented power ballad with an eerie intro riff, an apocalyptic mega-chorus and some bomb-ass drum fills could take over MTV alongside Coolio and Ace of Base. The best part? The abbreviated third verse, which loses the drums as a too-far-gone Cornell offers “Hang my head/ Drown my fear/ Till you all just disappear… ” It haunts more than the little girl in the video with the foaming mouth, and that’s really saying something.
3. “Burden in My Hand” (Down on the Upside, 1996)
Chris Cornell didn’t write narratives and might not have been very good at if he did; his lyrics were too abstract, too context-dependent, too much about the delivery rather than the message. “Burden in My Hand” was as close as he got to providing his own western theme; a murder ballad in flannel — though by that point, Soundgarden were spending way too much time in the desert to wear anything so cumbersome. The tune is as tight as a ’70s story song, though, starting with vocal in media res, promising “the truth is lying beneath the riverbend,” and peaking with a chorus of intriguing non-sequitur: “I left her in the sand/ Just a burden in my hand.” Augmented by guitar that teases on the verses and taunts on the refrain, it’s as mysterious, unsatisfying and ultimately hypnotic as an episode of Twin Peaks.
2. “Outshined” (Badmotoringer, 1991)
Undoubtedly the best song to ever inspire the title of a forgettable ’90s Keanu Reeves comedy, “Outshined” was Soundgarden’s first truly great chorus: Not as discrete from the ’80s rock timeline as they’d eventually get, certainly, but muscular and anthemic enough that the Bon Jovis and Def Leppards of the world had to know that the game had changed. It’s not all aggro — there’s a lovely pre-chorus breakdown whose gentleness is downright disarming, proving the perfect launching pad for the explosive chorus — but the video image of a topless Cornell howling his way through some hellish steel mill endures for a reason; it’s just kinda like that. Grunge, metal — “Outshined” is the kind of song that proves how dumb subgenres ultimately are; classifying it as anything other than simply “rock” seems misleading and insulting.
1. “Fell on Black Days” (Superunknown, 1994)
The song that best combined Soundgarden’s heavens-scaling grandeur with their ability to plumb the depths of the human condition — if not with Cornell’s lyrics, then with his ability to scream with such ferocity and conviction that you feel like he’s trying to literally spit his innermost feelings at you. “Fell on Black Days” is one of the best rock songs of the ’90s, but it’s also one of the best song titles — about as brutal an encapsulation of feeling defeated by depression as you could manage in four words — and it’s matched by the song’s woozy riff and its stark black-and-white video. “How would I know that this could be my fate?” Cornell howls with increasing urgency over an uneasy 6/4 march (truly, Soundgarden were the kings of that time signature) as if by song’s end, he’s actually expecting an answer. “Sure don’t mind a change,” he suggests in a broken warble at song’s end, clear that no such response is going to arrive.