Late ‘80s heavy music was rapidly dying from the self-inflected wounds of pop success and melodramatic sheen. Meanwhile, subcutaneous cabals of alternative bands were wreaking havoc on milquetoast types from down below. Then came grunge, uniting the tribes and conjuring musical monstrosities that any fan of heavy music could bow down to. A dose of the devil made rock music dangerous again, and nothing could be more angelic than that. With the recent passing of Chris Cornell, one of the most immediately recognizable demonic-crooners in all heavy music, this list of the ten best Soundgarden songs is in memoriam.
Listed in order of release
Beyond the Wheel
Certainly, grunge was an exploratory, expansive beast, but there’s something to be said for the primordial power of sticking to your influences like tar, as on this Sabbath-primed metal behemoth. Other bands could serpentine all they wanted, but Soundgarden understood that thousand mile races were not the only heavy places in the metal world. Rather than raising a ruckus, the riffs of “Beyond the Wheel” cut out cavernous spaces to store their collections of souls and to display their skeletons. The music is as bruising as a brontosaurus, like it just crawled up from the depths of hell and is still writhing from the pain of birth. It’s also an early, stellar canvas for Cornell’s inimitable, multivalent voice, rising from reptilian lounge-lizard croon to a bilious screech only to careen into a soul-dead, malarial wallow in a matter of seconds.
“Hunted Down” is early Soundgarden, still untested and unsure, but these were hardly vagrant slackers preying on the primitive power of old timey rock ‘n’ roll without adding anything of their own to the poison vial. They kindle long-dormant sounds into a fire-storm, tightly coiled but barbarically unhinged. The result finds grunge at its most predatory, not even daring to wrangle itself into domesticity or submission. “Hunted Down” threads panting sexual desire and pangs of anxiety until you really can’t tell the difference, evoking Soundgarden at their most malevolent, reaping a dark harvest of classic rock from Sabbath to Stooges to Zeppelin. You can practically hear the band’s baby teeth hitting the floor and the chittering fangs growing in their place
Guitarist Kim Thayil’s riffs – metal core aside – were always lacquered in a coating of shimmering post-punk dissonance. Like primal magma, their sound was at once thick and concrete but diaphanous and capable of sliding between uncoiling, hypnotic prettiness and a maelstrom-stoking holocaust of pure noise. Likewise, Cornell’s wails were a veritable sensorium of maximalism, but there was something more diffuse about his voice, like it could fracture at any moment under the weight of its own emotions, and underneath the stomp of the musical plateaus erected around it. Rising higher and higher – or lower and lower, in the case of their most demonic tunes – was the only way to overcome the gale forces around them, and, like all of the band’s best numbers, “Loud Love” goes both ways.
Jesus Christ Pose
With riffs stone-cut on gravel, the full-blown, almost pathologically hurtling “Jesus Christ Pose” is Soundgarden’s first destabilized masterpiece, an unyielding onslaught of sound more akin to an ion storm wreaking wanton destruction than a structured symphony that sits around waiting for you to notice it. Befitting a band of such feline cunning, Soundgarden once adorned the Rolling Stones’ classic “Stray Cat Strut” with their infernal racket of chaos. But on “Jesus Christ Pose”, there was no time to slink or strut. In a rapidly uncoiling world, the only viable survival pace was full-on pounce. Cornell was thin as a razor in life, but his voice was even sharper, especially when submerged in obsession and coated in shrapnel like here.
One of guitarist Kim Thayil’s greatest riffs doesn’t so much jest or boast as skulk around on its belly into the crevices of the brain, abetted by one of the nastiest rhythm sections in modern music in bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron. An unholy meeting of hair metal swagger and alternative melancholy, “Outshined” showcased how Soundgarden soldered schizophrenic sounds together, igniting the shambles of metal and punk in a contradictory tension of opposites. And in this case, opposites have more devious work to do than simply attract. Many of their songs were more cutting-edge, but “Outshined” doesn’t particularly care – this snarling beast is just plain cutting.
Fugitive slivers of psychedelia always crept around Soundgarden’s tectonic, turbo-charged metal, but rather than deriving a lift of ecstasy from them, the band mutated the primal good-time id of classic rock and unleashed it to perform fiendish acts of rebellion. Cornell’s voice desperately tries to unearth some dredged-in, stomach-deep sense of loss here. But the queasy music, the riffs stumbling and staggering rather than racing to the finish, begs to differ. Brutal but dejected, “Mind Riot” is a reminder that Soundgarden preferred to thrive in interstitial spaces – between genres, emotions, sounds, appetites – rather than to settle into single-color territories.
Few bands have ever existed at the liminal point between gloomy, grey-tinged overcast and full-throttle, unyielding hurricane. Bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers were bringing out chicken-scratch guitars in the early ‘90s, but “Birth Ritual” shows the kind of harm genuine barbed-wire could do. The former band was only interested in bumping in the night, but Soundgarden scrapes. As with almost all their songs, “Birth Ritual” can be downplayed as a mere headbanger’s ball of catharsis. But there’s a knotty, thorny vibe to the dense instrumentation that exhumes the corpse of bands like Gang of Four as well as old favorites like Zeppelin, as if the band was adding in musical ideas not to enhance the emotions so much as disturb their purity by allowing the notes to catch on each other and mess up the ease of the rhythm. The guitars seem to draw blood on the body of the drums and bass, which fight back with messianic force, the song building itself up only by tearing itself apart.
All apologies to the justifiably famous “Black Hole Sun”, Superunknown’s unsung “Head Down” is Soundgarden’s true minor key masterpiece. A wilted, wounded, bruised beauty, “Head Down” is undeniably dire, the guitars swirling around a ghostly center that emits toxic fumes that corrode Cornell’s voice into a phantom version of itself shot-through with weakness and emptiness. For all their fist-pumping glory, “Head Down” is Soundgarden’s reminder that grunge was ultimately a mantra for burnouts looking to charge social miasma into shock treatment for the soul. While Cornell’s voice was brandished in many ways, its most dynamically turbulent gesture was always its ability to bound octaves with brio, jumping from the underground to the stratosphere – the depths of abjection to the summit of desire – like he was metastasizing split-second. Contrary to those bouts of musical bravado, “Head Down” infests the gut because Cornell sounds helpless, like he’s nursing a wound in the gut or frayed his vocal chords beyond repair. Harrowing stuff.
The Day I Tried to Live
Even Soundgarden’s radio-ready heavy-hitters vibrated with uncertainty and made room for swells of woe and dejection perched just below the surface at an ever-threatening subterranean level. “The Day I Tried to Live” pummeled with the best of them, but brutality was infected with vulnerability, and even the most bludgeoning numbers – actually, especially the most bludgeoning numbers – could not hide the low-level hum of unease and dissonance the band tended to leave untouched on their records. Drawing from sources like Sly and the Family Stone as well as punk, this ambient, unclarified hiss – not discernible as a specific pattern of “notes” emanating from definable sources – was the sound of some unknown tension, a felt but not easily grasped terror. Like a fight about to break out, or, sadly, a life about to end.
While Pearl Jam was on hand to rescue our wounded soul with their brooding heroics, Soundgarden was creeping around back reminding us to expect inclement weather. On “Ty Cobb”, the band reimagine themselves as ricocheting electrons in an over-crowded room gasping for air. For a band that never quite toed the party line of punk or metal, this post-apocalyptic Mad Max rush of off-kilter adrenaline proves that there was still primal energy left in a then-aging band. A completely maniacal mash-up of punk nihilism and metal entropy, this caterwaul reminded the world that Soundgarden, even on an album that often felt compulsory, could still kick out the jams. And knock them over. And pummel them with their guitars. You get the picture.
OK, Three More Honorable Mentions:
Room A Thousand Years Wide
Cosmic and enigmatic, a song of intangible vagueness that – like their epochal “Black Hole Sun” – wields dreaminess like paralysis or numbness, a breed of escape that is damaged at best and fictive at worst. Like most of the band’s songs, the ending offers a temporary remission of the tension – an arbitrary conclusion – but certainly no real resolution.
A seasick lurch of a song stumbling around in hope of a structure, this brutalized-Zeppelin single was the first sign of new music from Soundgarden after their world-conquering Superunknown and was proof positive that the band still had perfect pitch for veering leftward when you expected them to stay straight. Sinking into the sand of middle-age, “Pretty Noose” is the polar opposite of “Jesus Christ Pose” which lunged with youthful abandon just five years earlier, but both songs convey the sensation of terminal self-annihilation, the ’91 variant burning up in flames and the ’96 take drowning in murk.
Slaves and Bulldozers
Ben Shepherd’s bass secretes enough inky murk to drown in while Cornell emits bloodthirsty screeches on this cold-blooded, merciless epic from Badmotorfinger on which the negative-energy is pulverizing enough to melt flesh. whole song is the sound of a dogged trudge waiting for immanent collapse.