Soundgarden evolved from a rumbling, sludgy hard rock group into a top-flight radio force within the span of 10 years. And while they have plenty of superb hits from which to choose, their all-time best songs also include some deep album cuts and overlooked early gems as well. With that in mind, here are my humble picks for Soundgarden’s 10 greatest tracks.
Arguably the first song people ever heard from Soundgarden, “Outshined” caught the Seattle quartet in a sonic period right between the grungy metal-rock of their early recordings and the more polished hard rock of their later career. In addition, the song featured frontman Chris Cornell’s magnificent voice, highlighting his skill at wailing and bellowing with a command that seemed both scary and compelling.
Of the bands that influenced Soundgarden, Led Zeppelin is probably the one most overlooked. But anyone who’s heard 1990’s “Hands All Over” will notice the debt Soundgarden owe to the legendary ‘70s hard rock band. Stretching to six minutes, “Hands All Over” demonstrates that Soundgarden, even at the beginning, wanted to make towering, arena-sized songs that merged a heavy sound with a soaring sweep.
Even though their melodic chops were on full display at the commercial height of their career, Soundgarden could still rock unabashedly – if anything, there were turning into an even more fearsome musical force. Superunknown’s title track is an absolute monster – Cornell screams into the void, the guitars rip through the walls, and Matt Cameron’s drums hold everything together with Brontosaurus force. The song is about a frightening hyper-reality that “steals your mind/and then it steals your soul,” but “Superunknown” creates such a musical high that you’ll happily give up your mind and soul to experience it again and again.
Why was this song not a hit? An underrated, visceral track, “Room a Thousand Years Wide” finds Cornell getting trippy over lyrics about a mysterious perpetrator inside his mind while repeating the phrase “tomorrow begat tomorrow” like a mantra. Kicking off with screaming guitars and ending in a hail of horns, this Badmotorfinger cut hinted at the ambition Soundgarden would display on their next album, Superunknown.
Soundgarden didn’t focus much on overt social commentary in their songs, but a brilliant exception was this Badmotorfinger track. In “Jesus Christ Pose,” Cornell criticizes a holier-than-thou friend who wants to push his religious beliefs on the singer. Kim Thayil’s guitar starts off sounding like an oncoming helicopter before he lays into some metal riffs as the song reaches its bleak conclusion.
One of Soundgarden’s earliest songs, “Flower” lacks the punchy production that might have made it a radio smash like so many of their later tracks, but as a testament to the band’s promise, it’s a wonder. A precursor to the grunge sound Nirvana would later explore on their first album, Bleach, “Flower” is all heavy guitars and drums, with Cornell’s voice floating in the middle of the sonic assault.
Cornell gets a lot of credit for Soundgarden’s success, but those accolades shouldn’t diminish his bandmates’ considerable contributions. Take “Rusty Cage,” which is a showcase for guitarist Kim Thayil’s dexterity. From its indelible opening lick to its full-speed-ahead riff to its slowed-down metal groove during the bridge, “Rusty Cage” is every aspect of Soundgarden’s guitar sound in one terrific package.
A graceful, quietly menacing ode to discontent, “Fell on Black Days” is Superunknown’s most articulate expression of the album’s central theme: learning how to live with a sense of lingering, unspeakable dread. On its surface, “Fell on Black Days” is just a pretty (albeit darkly textured) radio tune, but the creeping anxiety that suffuses the track has an almost hypnotic hold on the listener.
Soundgarden go to extremes on “Blow Up the Outside World,” transitioning from a lethargic, melancholy verse to an explosive, fuming chorus. Cornell sets the scene early with the opening line: “Nothing/Seems to kill me/No matter how hard I try.” From there, the song becomes a tour of the split-personality emotions that accompany the feeling of futility. Sometimes, you feel like you want to crawl into bed and die; other times you want to scream your lungs out.
For those who dismissed Cornell’s solo album Scream because of its pop leanings, it’s important to remember that those instincts existed within him even during his days with Soundgarden. Exhibit A: “Black Hole Sun,” an epic, almost apocalyptic power ballad about the desire to wipe the slate clean. No one knows exactly what the lyrics are about, but Cornell’s anguished vocals and the band’s taut, soaring musicianship are so powerful that you’ll hardly care.