Any real fan of the Seattle sound of the 1990s knows that Soundgarden are The Truth—the shining Holy Grail of what was actually being practiced musically in the Emerald City. It wasn’t Nirvana or Pearl Jam—the two groups that first found mega stardom, then shunned it—or even their head-banging brethren Alice In Chains. It was these four flannel-wearing locals who embodied the aim-for-the-mountain tops sound that so many hundreds, if not thousands, of other groups later imitated. This was the grunge sound everyone was talking about.
On their fourth album, Superunknown, a career spent in the shadows of their neighbors paid off artistically and commercially. It was worth the wait. The album debuted at No. 1 and produced five hit singles, including “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” which would win Grammys and propel the LP to sales of 3.9 million in the U.S., per Nielsen.
Even though Soundgarden was the first — the first to form (in 1984), the first to sign to local label Sub Pop (1989), the first to ink with a major label (A&M Records in 1989) — they were the last to make it big. They were quintessentially Seattle: Singer Chris Cornell was a hometown boy and even named his band for a wind sculpture in Magnuson Park. And they never compromised to achieve breakout success—their fourth album’s sound is a natural progression from long-haired, unfocused heavy metal experimentation to a swirling, dark psychedelia all their own (and Cornell, once a shirtless misfit, was now sheared and sporting a sexy grown-up look, complete with a soul patch). And that voice.
It’s a near perfect alt-rock record—perhaps closer to the divine than any of their contemporaries would ever come. To celebrate its 25th birthday (it came out March 8, 1994 on A&M), we rank its 15 tracks—a near-impossible task, but one worth doing. R.I.P. Chris Cornell.
To call this the LP’s worst song is an insult—instead, perhaps, it’s its sorest thumb. Written by bassist Ben Shepherd, it features heavy sitar-style riffing and a vocal effect stretching Cornell’s voice out like the Ganges. It’s a weird, heady trip of a song, inspired by the Beatles, that never really takes off. It’s a mood piece, but, frankly, this is not quite the vibe. But…
14. “Limo Wreck”
…this is closer. It’s maybe a little overbearing, but we’re getting warmer. Guitarist Kim Thayil goes for guitar god status, layering on cascading riffs and scaled taps on this moody and dark slow-burner. It’s perhaps the most cliché “grunge” song on the LP, nodding to their earlier heavier days, but still, Cornell lets ‘er rip: “I’m the wreck of you / I’m the death of you all / I’m the wreck of you / I’m the break and the fall.”
It’s Seattle sludge-pop cranked to 11. It’s a simple, duh-nuh-nuh riff with Cornell taking his vocals for a Sunday drive. The melodic pre-chorus is super catchy—“I know I’m headed the bottom”—then comes the wailing frontman we’ve come to know: “I’m riding you all the way!!!” That’s more like it.
12. “Fresh Tendrils”
Here the collision of classic rock, hard rock, punk and experimental psychedelia starts to take shape. Thayil’s guitar soars over a musical rhythm from bassist Ben Shepherd—the band’s second bassist, who joined in 1990, bringing a new style and creative spark—and drummer Matt Cameron. It builds and builds to Cornell’s plateau: “Shame shame / Throw yourself away / Give me little bits of more than I can take / If it sits upon your tongue or naked in your eyes.” It’s heavy, but with a poppy, memorable melody—Soundgarden’s sweet spot.
11. “Head Down”
Shepherd’s obsession with the Beatles sticks stronger on this heavy, poppier jam. Another slinky, India-inspired riff opens the track, before expanding with Thayil’s electric guitar and Cameron’s tribal drumming. “I see that smile / I see that smile on your face,” Cornell sings with water effects flowing over him. “Head high / You’ve got to smile / I see you try, I see you fail / Some things will never change.” It brings a darker, rainier (Seattleier) vibe to the Beatles’ India period.
It’s heavy, it’s simple, it’s poppy: “If you don’t want to be seen / Well you don’t have to hide / And if you don’t want to believe / Well you don’t have to try to feel alive, yea.” The mid-section has Cornell chanting—”Alive in the superunknown / Alive in the superunknown / Alive in the superunknown” – before the band breaks it down over a 1-2-3 punch. In a sense, here Soundgarden captures the classic rock version of what Nirvana did with punk rock on Nevermind. It becomes something larger than the sum of its basic parts.
9. “4th of July”
This sludgy dirge is, at first listen, a total bore; a grunge toss off. But give it a chance—the head-banging stoner riffs shade one of Cornell’s most visceral vocal performances: “Pale in the flare light/ The scared light cracks and disappears / And leads the scorched ones here.” Out in the Pacific Northwest the Fourth of July is a big deal—you can buy illegal arsenals from many a reservation—so you can imagine Cornell watching the fireworks light up the sky. “And I still remember your sweet everything / Light a roman candle / And hold it in your hand / I saw it in the wind / I saw it in the sky / I saw it in the end.”
Soundgarden turn up the aggression on this straight-for-the-jugular punk rocker. It’s 1:34 of straight head beats and fuzz-toned riffage. Cornell gets literal: “I got the urge to ride your trike… Come stand me up come stand me up come stand me up.” And… done.
About a dude in Seattle who literally plays the spoons as an instrument, the tune was initially written in 1992 for the film Singles, in which Cornell acts as a member of the fictional band Citizen Dick—an acoustic version of the song can be heard in the movie, written and directed by Cameron Crowe and starring Matt Dillon. Cornell decided they should record an electric version, too. Smart decision—it became the album’s first single and launched the band to mainstream success, reaching No. 3 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and No. 9 on the Alternative Songs chart.
6. “My Wave”
This is Soundgarden at their most Soundgarden, channeling their influences (namely the Beatles and Led Zeppelin) into a sound all their own. Written by Cornell and Thayil, and released as the LP’s fourth single, it finds Cornell singing in a loop-de-loop, call-and-response vocal style that’s an instant ear-worm. “Break, if you like the sound / If it gets you up / If it brings you down,” he spits. “Share, if it makes you sleep / If it sets you free / If it helps to breath.” The kaleidoscopic mid-section is where the band starts to redefine grunge. It would hit No. 11 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
5. “Let Me Drown”
A heavy guitar intro widens with Cornell’s vocal—for all his prowess wailing, the guy would tie a couplet that never lost the customer’s attention. “Stretch the marks over my eyes/ Burn the candles deep inside / Yeah you know where I’m coming from.” Then the band hits the gas on its psychedelic yet hard rockin’ edge: “So let it go, let it go, let it go, won’t you let it / Drown me in you, drown me in you, drown me in you.” It’s Cornell’s just-vague-enough abstractions—about depression, drug use, death, everything—that are forever enticing.
4. “Black Hole Sun”
It’s the band’s best-known track, having topped the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart for seven weeks, and it was written in 15 minutes on a whim while Cornell drove back home from a studio outside Seattle. Compared to many of the other sludgy, heavy tracks, this is straight up Beatles-style pop—a twinkling opening riff welcomes Cornell’s vocals, inspired by a newscaster on the radio talking about the Seattle weather (a “black hole sun” sounds about right for the forecast in wet, dreary Washington State winters). “Black hole sun won’t you come and wash away the rain,” he sings. Musically, it was a drastic departure, a bright, almost nursery-like sound. But its video brought the vibe back to where Cornell wanted it, with the sun swallowing up a suburban neighborhood, apocalypse style.
3. “Like Suicide”
This tribal jam finds Cornell letting loose alongside Thayil in one of their best joint performances on Superunknown. The seven-minute-long jam builds and builds, with Thayil going full classic rock hero, layering on the nimble riffs. Considering how Cornell died in a Detroit hotel room, it’s hard to listen to the lyrics of fragility and vulnerability, but his voice is too tempting: “Safe outside my gilded cage / With an ounce of pain / I wield a ton of rage / Just like suicide / With eyes of blood / And bitter blue / How I feel for you / I feel for you.”
2. “The Day I Tried to Live”
It’s a strong contender for No. 1 slot. Its opening, sliding guitar lines drop into a drum-and-bass combo that hit you like a punching bag, before dropping to allow Cornell’s tuneful vocal space: “I woke the same as any other day / Except a voice was in my head / It said seize the day, pull the trigger, drop the blade / And watch the rolling heads.” The pre-chorus is pure hook—“one more time around / one more time around”—before he goes for glory: “The day I tried to liveeeeeeeeee.” It’s moments like these that make the man a legend.
1. “Fell on Black Days”
Like “Black Hole Sun,” it’s a hyper-melodic, clean pop outlier on the album—a straight drum beat and simple riff finds Cornell mourning a sudden change in mood just “when every day seemed to greet him with a smile.” It’s a look into the psyche of the frontman, someone whose demeanor was threatened by the imminent arrival of dark clouds in many a form. “Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now / And whomsoever I’ve cradled, I’ve put you down / I’m a search light soul they say / But I can’t see it in the night,” he sang. And, lastly: “How would I know / That this could be my fate?” But he delivers it with a passion and a howl that sends it soaring boundless into those skies above.