The 15 Best Chris Cornell Songs

Music Lists Chris Cornell
The 15 Best Chris Cornell Songs

Nobody could sing like Chris Cornell. He was the voice of a generation, a movement, a style of music that will forever hold a critical place in rock history. Although he started his musical career as a drummer, Cornell’s abilities to turn a banshee shriek into a melodious howl thrust him into the spotlight. In fact, that penchant for creating and delivering memorable memories was one of the key factors distinguishing Cornell’s first major band, Soundgarden, from its grunge contemporaries like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney. Later in his career—amid five solo LPs, three albums with the supergroup Audioslave and one-off tribute project Temple of the Dog—Cornell elevated his peers through his vocal mastery weaving between their instrumental prowess. In addition to his singing, Cornell proved himself a formidable songwriter, narrating sometimes sentimental, sometimes tragic tales. In mourning his premature passing, and in memory of his life and legacy, we offer 15 of his best songs.

15. Soundgarden, “Flower”
Appearing on Soundgarden’s 1988 LP Ultramega OK, which received a superb reissue earlier this year, “Flower” sounds like the band that was yet to come. It’s less oppressive as some of the more punk tracks on the album (not to mention what appeared on earlier EPs Screaming Life and Fopp) and Cornell’s ability to turn a scream into something beautiful can certainly be heard on this early single. —Hilary Saunders

14. Soundgarden, “Birth Ritual”
The soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s Singles was, like the movie itself, a snapshot of an early-’90s Seattle scene overflowing with bands that deserved to be in the frame (minus Citizen Dick). Everyone you loved was there, and if you were an East Coast kid with no hope of making it to Seattle anytime soon, Singles seemed as close as you’d ever get to seeing Soundgarden play in a room where Campbell Scott is too busy trying to win back Kyra Sedgwick to notice what’s happening onstage. What he couldn’t see was that the star of the scene is Chris Cornell—lithe, shirtless, doing his prowling Osbourne-Plant thing on “Birth Ritual.” This was one of Soundgarden’s most propulsive, metallic riffs, with the machine-gun guitars leading to an unforgettable squalling one-word chorus—”RituaaaaaAAAALLLL!”—as Cornell stalked Crowe’s camera. The Singles soundtrack was the only place you could find “Birth Ritual,” and that seemed right; it was a perfect pairing of sound and image, the murky venom of the music matched only by that glorious jet-black hair. —Matthew Oshinsky

13. Soundgarden, “Like Suicide”
The news that Chris Cornell’s death has been ruled a suicide bears a cruel irony, given that one of his signature songs is titled “Like Suicide.” Culled from Soundgarden’s 1994 release, Superunknown the song’s dark, despondent tone draws from a rumination about snuffing out a crippled bird after it flew into Cornell’s front door. The starkness and sobriety is striking even by Soundgarden standards, making it an ideal requiem for a tragic, tortured soul. —Lee Zimmerman

12. Soundgarden, “Fell on Black Days”
Perhaps more than any other song Cornell wrote, “Fell on Black Days” takes on deeper and sadder meaning in the wake of his suicide. Known to struggle with depression, Cornell wrote about his incurable suspicion that darkness was his factory setting and that whatever happiness he might have felt was counterfeit: “I’m a search light soul they say / But I can’t see it in the night / I’m only faking when I get it right.” The song rides a tighter, if no less muscular, groove than Soundgarden had really attempted to that point, with Cornell and Kim Thayil’s lean guitars gliding along the beat rather than attacking it. It was the sound of an electrifying band harnessing their power, even if some old habits wouldn’t die. Cornell, coiled up and settled into his lower register, sounds adrift but alert (as Kurt Vile might put it) as he stares into the abyss, finally rising to cry “How would I know that this could be my fate?” —Matthew Oshinsky

11. Audioslave, “Like a Stone”
It’s painful to hear Audioslave’s second-ever single now, especially knowing the circumstances surrounding lead singer Chris Cornell’s death. Though the song’s meaning has been heavily debated, with some theorizing that Cornell was referring the late Alice in Chains singer, Layne Staley (he wasn’t), “Like a Stone” was actually about waiting for an idealized version of the afterlife — but then, like Cornell has said, “going to hell anyway.” Despite its all-too-telling imagery, this sludgy, mid-tempo radio staple will be forever immortalized in the supergroup’s canon. —Rachel Brodsky

10. Soundgarden, “Loud Love”
The semi title track off of Soundgarden’s 1989 major label debut Louder Than Love, “Loud Love” is a totem to noise. Slow churning and severe, the song showed traces of late-‘80s metal, but more importantly paved the way for alternative rock and grunge. As if demanding a new sound, Cornell exclaims, “There’s no time to keep it low / I’ve been deaf now I want noise / You stay down / But I won’t be quiet / I’ll hammer on until you fight.” Cornell’s near four-octave range really shines on “Loud Love,” upstaging the scream of Kim Thayil’s feedback heavy guitar in the song’s face-melting intro. —Madison Bloom

9. Soundgarden, “Outshined”
Possibly Cornell’s most relatable cut, “Outshined” hatched from the singer’s ambivalent self-image. “I definitely go through periods of extreme self-confidence,” Cornell told RIP Magazine in 1992. “But then someone will say something…and, all of a sudden, I’m plummeting in the opposite direction, I’m a piece of shit, and I really can’t do anything about it. That’s where “Outshined” comes from.” It was this vulnerability that allowed Cornell to pen one of the greatest grunge lyrics of all time, “I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota.” Despite his humility, Cornell’s self-deprecation does not outshine the iconic, heavy-hitting track. —Madison Bloom

8. Audioslave, “Cochise”
A thunderous first single that announced Cornell’s alliance with former members of Rage Against the Machine, “Cochise” heralded the dawn of Audioslave. More of an aural assault than a mere song, “Cochise” harnessed the maximum force of Cornell and RATM, elevating the term supergroup. Tom Morello’s guitar cuts like the rotor blade of a chopper, providing just enough force to support Cornell’s powerhouse wail. Heartbreaking in hindsight, Cornell’s lyrics convey pained generosity despite the song’s hard rock instrumentation. He cries, “And so I drink to health / While you kill yourself,” before pleading: “Go on and save yourself / And take it out on me.” —Madison Bloom

7. Soundgarden, “Burden in My Hand”
At first undistorted strum, Soundgarden’s “Burden In My Hand” sounds like the mildest thing the band ever wrote. But by the time the first chorus rolls around, the lead single off 1996’s Down on the Upside all but destroys that initial notion. Cornell wails in the chorus, “I shot my love today / would you cry for me,” rendering the song a perfect capitalization of the band’s newfound fame that still retains the band’s brooding basis. —Hilary Saunders

6. Soundgarden, “Spoonman”
Somehow among the behemoth tracks on Superunknown, “Spoonman” was the album’s first single, despite being chopped from the Singles soundtrack that Soundgarden had been working on with Pearl Jam. Cornell wrote the song based on one of the rejected band names that Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament had suggested for the band Matt Dillon fronted in the movie (Citizen Dick was the winner.) Regardless, the name “Spoonman” somehow inspired Cornell to write about a Seattle street performer he’d heard of through the grapevine, who jams out on metal spoons for passersby. Between when Cornell wrote the song in 1992 and it was finally released in 1994, Cornell met the now-infamous Artis The Spoonman who appeared on the album version. The song went on to win the Grammy for Best Metal Song in 1995 and it was a testament to how pure Cornell’s grunge mentality was when it came to writing songs. What he passively saw in his head in conceptualizing the song, worked seamlessly when the real Spoonman of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Seattle’s Pike Place Market became a part of it. The song not only launched Soundgarden into a mainstream trajectory that paved the way for “Black Hole Sun” to dominate the ‘90s, but it also gave Artis the Spoonman a long-standing career —he released an album himself in 1995 and even toured with bands like Aerosmith and Phish— as a relic of the grunge rock era. —Adrian Spinelli

5. Soundgarden, “Jesus Christ Pose”
Cornell’s voice always sounded like the man himself was carrying a load, no more so than in this song from Soundgarden’s breakthrough LP Badmotorfinger. He opens “Jesus Christ Pose” by depicting it ever so directly, “And you stare at me in your Jesus Christ pose / Arms held out like you’ve been carrying a load.” Matt Cameron’s drummer is downright ferocious here and Kim Thayil’s guitar work edges to the emotional precipice with tension-ridden bends nearly reaching the same pitch each time. Like the text at the beginning of the music video reads, “And God so loved Soundgarden he gave them his only song.” It must have been something holy, for this lead single helped turn Badmotorfinger into the record that changed Soundgarden’s career forever. —Hilary Saunders

4. Temple of the Dog, “Say Hello 2 Heaven”
The opening track to Temple of the Dog’s self-titled debut fully encapsulates the one-off band’s intent with that record. Cornell joined former Mother Love Bone players Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, as well as Stone Temple Pilots’s Mike McCreedy and Matt Cameron (who has played with both STP and Soundgarden) to pay homage to their fellow Seattlite and MLB frontman Andrew Wood, who died at 24 due to a heroine overdose. Cornell wrote “Say Hello 2 Heaven” about Wood, but it’s hard to listen to the six-and-a-half-minute explosive dirge today without pouring out a little for the original songwriter, too. —Hilary Saunders

3. Soundgarden, “The Day I Tried to Live”
The laser-like guitar slides at the beginning of “The Day I Tried to Live” are as smooth and precise as what I’d imagine laparoscopic surgery to sound like. But through all the crescendos of the opening—the leering guitar, the bass coming in with a slow rumble—the song finally lurches into its heavy sludge almost 75 seconds in when Cornell unleashes his howl of a chorus. An adapted version of that refrain closes the song, as he begins again, “The day I tried to win / I wallowed in the blood and mud with all the other pigs,” before snarling, “And I learned that I was a liar, just like you.” It’s a vicious testament to the human rat race. —Hilary Saunders

2. Soundgarden, “Rusty Cage”
Badmotorfinger was the first album I bought with my own money. “Rusty Cage” opened with that unforgettable riff that keeps on riffing and changed my life. This wasn’t like the other stuff I heard on the radio: There was something different going on here, and it later became obvious that this was the point at which Chris Cornell’s songwriting began to take incredible turns. Call-and-response guitars and a steady, pounding pace drive straight into a foreboding, sluggish breakdown and jagged narrative of a violent escape and a chase, or of the captive speaker’s hallucinatory dreams and visions of them. The music told a dark story that my 11-year-old brain could barely comprehend, made all the more powerful by having to hide a newfound love of heavy music from my family…and “Rusty Cage” was only the album’s first track. —Emile Milgrim

1. Soundgarden, “Black Hole Sun”
By 1994 Soundgarden was already a fairly popular band, but this is the song that propelled them beyond. It’s rarely the slow song that garners more fans for hard rock bands, but with its eerie, yet catchy melodies coupled with one of the most memorable, surreal music videos of all-time, it was impossible for people to not look and listen in droves. The song was a literal and figurative “summer hit”— a dreamy, almost humid arrangement, deliberately dragged with the lead guitar’s sticky tone. Its verses are obtusely metaphorical (perhaps even nonsensical), but the chorus provides a tasteful serving of apocalyptic wishful thinking that appealed to the masses. Despite it probably not being Soungarden’s intent, “Black Hole Sun” is the song that will unify angsty teenagers and bored suburbanites for generations to come. —Emile Milgrim

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