Of their contemporaries in the Seattle music scene in the ’80s and ’90s, none was louder, more abrasive, or as heavy, psychedelic, and captivatingly dark and twisted than Soundgarden. They are the critical missing link between Led Zeppelin and Bauhaus, Hüsker Dü and Black Sabbath, Killing Joke and Pink Floyd. They embodied everything that was great about rock, punk, and metal in a single package. Though Chris Cornell, who passed away two years ago, was the front man and penned most of the lyrics — and would find success later on as both a solo artist and the singer in Audioslave — each member wrote songs or added feedback to compositions that other people brought to the studio.
It is for that very reason that the band’s albums became progressively longer as the years wore on. There was simply too much material to work with and they didn’t want to cut things back. “One metaphor that either Ben or Chris came up with, I think, was that there are five fingers and we work well as a clenched fist,” Kim Thayil told Spin in 2014. “It’s not a bad metaphor if you’re talking about hard rock.” Those fingers, minus drummer Scott Sundquist and bassist Jason Everman, included: Cornell, powerhouse drummer Matt Cameron, intense lead-guitar player Kim Thayil, early bassist and self-described “butt-rocker” Hiro Yamamoto (who left the band to pursue a master’s degree in physics), and Yamamoto’s replacement Ben Shepherd.
Soundgarden’s career can be broken down to three distinct phases. The earliest portion accounts for the band’s indie years that began with their formation in 1984 and ran until about 1989. This was before they inked a deal with A&M Records, when they were putting out songs on local compilations like Deep Six for C/Z Records, the Screaming Life and Fopp EPs on Sub Pop, and their debut album, Ultramega OK, released by SST. Then came their golden period that ran from 1990 to 1996, when they became global stars on the back of era-defining records like Louder Than Love, Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, and Down on the Upside. After that, they went on a 14-year-long hiatus, before reuniting and entering their last phase, their legacy era, which roughly runs from 2010 up to Cornell’s death in 2017. During this period, Soundgarden released just one new album, King Animal; a few singles here and there; and a three-disc retrospective compilation, Echo of Miles.
Of course, the band’s pinnacle came between 1991 and ’94, specifically while riding high on their back-to-back multi-platinum monsters, Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. This was the period when the videos for “Outshined,” “Rusty Cage,” “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Fell On Black Days,” “Spoonman,” and especially “Black Hole Sun” became fixtures on MTV. And that’s when the network wasn’t showing the plaintive video for “Hunger Strike” by Cornell’s one-off Pearl Jam amalgamation, Temple of the Dog, featuring the singer wailing away alongside Eddie Vedder in tall grass. Cornell’s mustachioed mug was inescapable in the early ’90s.
To better assess Soundgarden’s legacy, we revisited all 134 singles, album cuts, soundtrack selections, half-finished ideas, covers, and B-sides that the band has released to date. Here they all are, ranked from worst to best.
134. “Ghostmotorfinger,” Fell On Black Days single (1995)
As the B-side to the fifth single offered from Superunknown — where it was originally called “Motorcycle Loop” — it’s the very definition of superfluous. Opening with a few light taps on a drum cymbal, “Ghostmotorfinger” quickly segues into a minute and a half of droning guitar noises that rise and fall like a shifting transmission. Near the end, you can just make out Chris Cornell asking, “What are we doing?” We would all still like to know.
133. “One Minute of Silence,” Ultramega OK (1988)
“One Minute of Silence” isn’t actually one minute’s worth of silence. It’s more like a minute of ambient feedback with a few finger snaps and stuff thrown into the background. It’s ostensibly based on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s track “Two Minutes of Silence” from their 1969 album, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions. I guess it’s a clever tip of the cap in its own way, but Ultramega OK would’ve been better off just ending with “Incessant Mace.”
132. “Bing Bing Goes to Church,” Superunknown: Super Deluxe Edition (2014)
A tossed-off rehearsal track that came out years after the fact on the supersized, rereleased edition of Superunknown. Cornell doesn’t even bother singing, instead opting to deliver an absurd spoken-word monologue over a tight snare/tom beat and a two-note guitar riff. You could be forgiven for mistaking it as the world’s worst Doors imitation. Sample lyrics: “Bing Bing goes to church in the tinkle rain of the twinkle stars.”
131. “667,” Ultramega OK (1988)
Soundgarden was not a band generally known for a sense of humor. For instance, while on tour with Guns N’ Roses in 1992, they were sometimes derisively referred to as “Frowngarden” behind the scenes. Though, in the face of the mania that was Guns N’ Roses at that time, almost anyone would look dour by comparison. Nevertheless, Soundgarden made several attempts to try to be funny throughout their career, most of which went over the heads of casual listeners and critical reviewers, much to the band’s enduring irritation — we’ll get to “Big Dumb Sex” later on this list. One of the earlier comedic endeavors was this song and its Ultramega OK counterpart, “665,” both of which were supposed to be parodies of so many ’80s doom-metal bands and their obsession with the sign of the beast, 666. Unfortunately, they went all the way in on the joke; both songs are borderline unlistenable cacophonies of hard-to-follow drum patterns, twisted feedback, and some truly hard-to-swallow caterwauling from Cornell.
130. “Half,” Superunknown (1994)
Ben Shepherd is one of the most solid and inventive bass players in all of rock. A rare disciple of both punk-rock legend Mike Watt and jazz icon Charles Mingus. That being said, he’s also responsible for some of the … let’s say … more adventurous-sounding songs in the Soundgarden canon. When his instincts are dead on, it’s awesome! When they maybe lead the rest of the band too far astray, well, then … yeah. His most maligned composition is “Half,” a song tucked away near the end of the band’s best-selling album Superunknown. There’s a distinct Middle Eastern flair to “Half,” and that’s perfectly fine on its own — it just doesn’t really feel like a Soundgarden song. And just in case I’m accused of being a hater, Shepherd himself told Spin a few years back that “I’d have to agree with 95 percent of the fans that hate that song.”
129. “Jerry Garcia’s Finger,” Songs From the Superunknown EP (1995)
Songs From the Superunknown was an EP tethered to a multimedia CD-ROM release titled Alive From the Superunknown that hit the shelves just in time for the holiday shopping season in 1995. (The ’90s!) It’s a largely inconsequential collection of tracks — the acoustic version of “Like Suicide” is the high-water mark — and the only wholly new composition included was “Jerry Garcia’s Finger.” It’s not really a “song” per se. It’s more of a sonic kaleidoscope of backward echo and tinging cymbals. Maybe it sounds better when you’re listening to it on a tower PC running Windows 95 while a slideshow of pictures of the band in different states of performance flash across the screen, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
128. “A Splice of Space Jam,” Blow Up the Outside World Single (1996)
Basically, the band was in the middle of a jam session and someone hit “record.” No more. No less. Clever title though. The 1996 vibes are very, very real.
127. “Earache My Eye,” Louder Than Live (1990)
An unserious take on Cheech & Chong’s surprise 1974 top-ten hit, “Earache My Eye.” Cornell is in full-on cheeseball mode before the whole thing falls over a cliff of jumbled drums and squealing feedback.
126. “665,” Ultramega OK (1988)
See No. 131.
125. “I Can’t Give You Anything,” Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path (2014)
A sludgy take on the Ramones that desperately craves a kick in the ass.
124. “Exit Stonehenge,” Spoonman Single (1994)
A ferocious hardcore track about being physically unable to see, feel, or touch a certain member of the male anatomy. This is obviously a throwaway, recorded as a lark and tacked to the B-side of the first single released from Superunknown. Take it for what it is: an outdated attempt at humor that hasn’t aged all that well 25 years later. Solid drumming from Matt Cameron as always, however.
123. “Night Surf,” Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path (2014)
This is another Ben Shephard entry that was recorded around 1993 but went unreleased until finding a place on Soundgarden’s triple-disc outtake collection, Echo of Miles, over 20 years later. Shephard’s drumming is a little clattery, but the backward echo and menacing piano melodies are enticing enough. It might have ended up much higher here had they taken the time to polish it up, throw some lyrics in, and advance it out of the nascent demo stage.
122. “Show Me,” B-side (1992)
The B-side to the “Rusty Cage” single is pretty unremarkable and sounds kind of flat. Cornell was someone who could typically elevate even the simplest rock songs to incredible heights with his otherworldly voice. Here, it sounds like he’s reading the words off a piece of paper for the first time.
121. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey),” Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path (2014)
A faithful, party-rock rendition of one of the more nonessential entries on the Beatles’ White Album, recorded for the John Peel Sessions on the BBC in 1989.
120. “Little Joe,” Screaming Life (1987)
Before Soundgarden became one of the undisputed kings of grunge rock in the early ’90s, they were just another one of the many buzzed-about, but largely anonymous, college underground rock bands trying to get traction in the ’80s — the same kind that Michael Azerrad wrote so eloquently about in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life. For those only familiar with their music on the “big” albums like Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, or Down on the Upside, their debut EP with Sub Pop, Screaming Life, would probably sound like a pretty radical departure. “Little Joe” is not a very good song. Chris Cornell isn’t quite the force of nature that he would become in just a few years — his voice actually cracks a couple of times while he’s singing about “sticks and fire” — but it’s a striking starting point for a band on the come-up. When you think Soundgarden, you don’t think clean, reverb-drenched guitars, and yet here we are. The live version recorded during the band’s 1992 gig at the Paramount Theater in Seattle that’s included on the deluxe edition of Badmotorfinger is a massive improvement.
119. “Search and Destroy,” Live on I-5 (2011)
A technically superior rendition of the Stooges anthem — Thayil comes tearing out of the gate like a flaming chain saw — but it’s no match for the chaotic original.
118. “Twin Tower,” Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path (2014)
There’s an old joke about drummers: “What’s the last thing the drummer said before he got kicked out of the band? ‘Hey, I wrote a song.’” Matt Cameron is one of the few exceptions to the rule. “Twin Tower” was a Cameron composition recorded during the Louder Than Love album sessions. There’s even a pretty great Kim Thayil solo tucked into the middle. Nevertheless, because they didn’t get around to doing anything substantive with “Twin Tower,” just like “Night Surf,” here it sits in the outskirts of triple-digit land.
117. “Kingdom of Come,” Fopp (1988)
A largely forgettable upbeat, ’70s-style rocker that kicks off the band’s second EP for Sub Pop.
116. “The Telephantasm,” Telephantasm (2010)
You can’t put out a greatest-hits album without throwing in one unreleased track in order to entice the diehard fans and completists out there to hand over their hard-earned money. That’s just the rules. “The Telephantasm” was a track written by Kim Thayil that the band left on the cutting-room floor during the Screaming Life sessions back in 1987. Twenty-three years later, Soundgarden decided to dust it off, clean it up, and serve it up as a bonus track on their compilation album of the same name. Unlike a lot of songs on Screaming Life that can sound a little muddy, “The Telephantasm” gets a sonic boost thanks to remix done by Steve Fisk. The only problem is that it doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s got a lot of energy, but much of the potential is wasted with Cornell opting to moan his way all over the charging rhythm instead of composing some cogent lyrics that might have taken it to greater heights. “The Telephantasm” could’ve been so much more.
115. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path (2014)
Finally answers the question no one was asking: What if Sly Stone had dabbled in doom rock at the Fillmore East in 1969?
114. “She Likes Surprises,” Superunknown (1994)
“She Likes Surprises” was a bonus track tacked on to the end of the international version of Superunknown, and while I know there are many people out there who would place this pretty high up on their own list of the best Soundgarden songs, that twisted riff that Thayil plays at the beginning of the song is so shrill it feels like someone is shoving an ice pick into my cerebral cortex every time I hear it. It admittedly gets better and denser through the middle of the song, but I’m hardly ever able to make it that far.
113. “Big Bottom,” B-side (1991)
Not many bands could get away with performing an earnest take of a Spinal Tap song, but Soundgarden isn’t most bands. The version recorded live at the Whisky A Go-Go and included on the Louder Than Live album kicks ass.
111. “Circle of Power,” Ultramega OK (1988)
Chris Cornell had practically nothing to do with “Circle of Power.” It was written by Kim Thayil and the band’s original bassist, Hiro Yamamoto, who, in his only time as a member of Soundgarden, also took on the role of singer. Let’s just say that Hiro doesn’t have the same vocal ability as his buddy Chris. For what he lacks in power or glass-shattering frequency, he tries to compensate with dexterity, shifting and modulating his voice throughout the song to hilarious effect. Nonetheless, it’s a fine punk-rock song with one of the fastest guitar solos Thayil ever whipped together.
110. “Halfway There,” King Animal (2012)
After a 16-year gap between new albums, Soundgarden finally reconvened in the studio in 2011 to work on a true reunion album titled King Animal. While the album was much better than a lot of folks were expecting, chock full of songs that ended up pretty high up on this list, “Halfway There” is its weakest offering. It feels a little too nice and not quite like a Soundgarden song. It’s bright and shiny, brimming with major chords, and generally feels at odds with the band’s long-standing and hard-earned punk-rock/doom-metal aesthetic.
109. “Tears to Forget,” Deep Six (1985)
Deep Six was the canary in the grunge-rock coal mine. We’re talking about the early, early days in Seattle, when “Sub Pop” was still just a monthly column written by Bruce Pavitt in the local zine The Rocket. It was a 14-track compilation album comprised of songs recorded by some of the most talented up-and-coming bands in the area in the mid-1980s, including the Melvins, Malfunkshin, Skin Yard, Green River, the U-Men, and, yes, Soundgarden. Put together by Chris Hanzsek and Tina Casale, the tape made its way to the public in March 1986, offering listeners tuned to the underground an introduction to many of the area’s defining bands. Soundgarden logged three songs on Deep Six, of which “Tears to Forget,” is the weakest. It’s a rage-fueled track that finds Cornell trying out his best grating, hardcore screamo voice over a frenzy of guitars that sound like a kicked-over nest of wasps. I know that description probably sounds badass, but it’s mostly just grating.
108. “Fopp,” Fopp (1988)
When you consider a band like Soundgarden, chances are good that your mind wouldn’t automatically lead you to the ’70s funk-and-R&B outfit the Ohio Players. Then again, the eclectic nature of their ever-expanding influences is what sustained the band’s career for so many years. Covering the sensationally funky “Fopp” was Thayil’s idea. The guitarist treasured that group’s 1975 album, Honey, from the time he was in high school, and in 1988, when it came time for Soundgarden to put out another EP, he pitched the rest of the group on putting their own spin on one of his favorites. “We thought we could take the song and make it AC/DC or something,” he explained to Guitar School in 1994. “We’d take the power chords, turn up the volume, and make it heavy.” Mission accomplished, but the “Fucked Up Heavy Dub Mix” version is far more interesting.
107. “I Don’t Care About You,” B-side (1992)
A bracing rendition of hardcore legend Fear’s fan-favorite track from their 1982 album, The Record, with a nice little Matt Cameron drum coda near the end.
106. “Hand of God,” Screaming Life (1987)
“Hand of God” is an interesting experiment cooked up by Soundgarden and Screaming Life producer Jack Endino. Apparently, Endino was sifting through tapes at a garage sale when he happened upon an old recording of a preacher giving a sermon from sometime in the 1950s. At some point, one of the recordings of the front of this song, by a magic bit of coincidence, synced up perfectly when they ran it through the 8-track. You haven’t heard a fire-and-brimstone preacher deliver a sermon about vanity until you’ve heard it while Kim Thayil impatiently chucks away on his guitar over the top. Cornell’s own crazed, faux sermon in the middle — “Let it be known today if you got two hands you’re supposed to pray!” — is a pretty nice piss-off too.
105. “Full On Kevin’s Mom,” Louder Than Love (1989)
“‘Full on Kevin’s Mom’ is about a friend of mine who slept with another friend of mine’s mom,” Cornell explained to Sounds back in 1989. “The guy who did it said to us, ‘Yeah, full on Kevin’s mom!’”
104. “Drawing Flies,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
“Drawing Flies” is a pretty weird song and marks the low point on the band’s third full-length album, Badmotorfinger. It’s two and a half minutes of Chris Cornell delivering this largely incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness rap over a two-note guitar riff with some sax blasts thrown in to mix things up.
103. “Stray Cat Blues,” Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas (1992)
An able cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1968 Beggars Banquet classic that was included on the special-edition EP Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas, released just ahead of the band’s appearance in the second Lollapalooza tour in 1992. There’s a certain endearing grittiness and looseness to the original that’s missing here. It’s almost like Soundgarden’s rendition is too good. Anyway, have you recognized that Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas is a palindrome yet? Pretty wild, right?
102. “Touch Me,” B-side (1992)
This song is so incredibly weird. It’s a cover of a track cooked up by the megaobscure ’70s pop band called Fancy, which was at one point fronted by a Penthouse centerfold named Helen Caunt. “Touch Me” was a top-20 hit in its day, and Soundgarden’s version adheres pretty strictly to the original structure of the song, even leaving in some of the original vocals, with Cornell going ape-shit on the choruses. It’s a wild duet and has this irreverent, boozy Beastie Boys feeling that’s kind of endearing.
101. “Can You See Me,” B-side (1992)
Future Seattle rock legends pay homage to Jimi Hendrix, one of the city’s favorite sons. Thayil nails the wah-wah debauchery.
100. “Black Saturday,” King Animal (2012)
“There’s something about the bass, the vocal delivery, and the melody that reminds me a little bit of the Beatles and Paul McCartney,” Cornell told Artist Direct about “Black Saturday.” The Beatles were Cornell’s primary musical inspiration in life, so I have to take him at his word on that, but I struggle to pick it up. Even while it doesn’t sound like “Hey Jude” or “Yesterday,” this song does have this really compelling, dark acoustic framework with a very solid chorus that’s touched off with a miasmic, vibey guitar solo thrown into the middle.
99. “Boot Camp,” Down on the Upside (1996)
“Boot Camp” sounds like Soundgarden doing its best The Wall–era Pink Floyd impression. There’s over a full minute of hazy wah-wah guitar flutters and choppy, half-buried chatter before Cornell even sings a word, and when he finally does, it’s all this opaque psychedelic imagery about clouds, and babies, and mice, and angels. Very trippy.
98. “Full On (Reprise),” Louder Than Love (1989)
There’s not much to “Full On (Reprise).” It’s essentially a dizzying showcase for some of Thayil’s best guitar playing with Cornell either moaning or shouting the phrase “Full oooooooon,” over and over again. It’s not a great stand-alone song, but it works really well as the final track and last word on Louder Than Love.
97. “Girl U Want,” Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas (1992)
Soundgarden turns a robotic, New Wave Devo song into a promiscuous rock-and-roll monolith.
96. “Attrition,” King Animal (2012)
Written by Shepherd, “Attrition” is one of the most energetic, straight-ahead rock tracks on King Animal. The ’60s throwback “hoo-hoo” harmonies through the end are delightful! This song was actually something that the bass player had been holding onto for several years, dating all the way back to 2003, when Soundgarden was still on ice. As he later explained, “I wrote it the day we started to raid Iraq. It was a commentary on the world around us.”
95. “Homicidal Suicidal,” B-side (1992)
For this B-side, the band decided to tackle an obscure selection from a group called Budgie, which was a part of the New Wave of British heavy metal during the ’70s and ’80s. With its dark lyrical content and heavy, chugging guitars, if you didn’t know the backstory, you’d be convinced this was a Soundgarden original.
94. “Waiting for the Sun,” Before the Doors: Live on I-5 Soundcheck (2011)
Chris Cornell drew several comparisons to Jim Morrison during his earliest years as a shirtless, writhing-on-the-ground front man who had an affinity for using snakes as a thematic device in his music. During a soundcheck in Oakland in 1996, he tried out the guise of “Mr. Mojo Rising” for real, crooning away on this Doors classic. In the hands of Soundgarden, “Waiting for the Sun” sounds far more jagged, way more intense, and entirely more psychedelic than the SoCal rock group’s original.
93. “Black Days III,” B-side (1995)
This was initially called “Fell On Black Days (Demo)” back when it was released as the B-side to that song in 1995. It only got the name “Black Days III” two decades later on the upgraded and expanded version of Superunknown. The new moniker fits a lot better than the former, because while there’s a lot of sonic DNA between the two tracks, they sound and feel quite different. “Black Days III” is a lot less resigned than “Fell On Black Days,” for instance. Where that song sounds like the prelude to a funeral, this feels more like a boozy wake scored by fuzzed-out guitars and a sledgehammer of a bassline.
92. “Fopp (Fucked Up Heavy Dub Mix),” Fopp (1988)
A far more adventurous, stretched-out, and delightfully weird take on the Ohio Players cover included on the band’s 1988 EP. There are weird keyboard melodies and voice modulators, echo effects, and even a spoken-word section tossed into the mix.
91. “She’s a Politician,” Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas (1992)
A perfectly fine, sub-two-minute-long garage rocker.
90. “Bones of Birds,” King Animal (2012)
“Bones of Birds,” as Cornell explained it, is about children losing their innocence as they age and being forced to come to terms with some of life’s harsher realities. Naturally, it’s pretty fucking dark. “Time is my friend,” he sings. “Till it ain’t, and runs out.”
89. “Zero Chance,” Down on the Upside (1996)
“Zero Chance” is a deceivingly tricky song. Though the chords and structure are pretty straightforward, there are a few subtle shifts in the time signature throughout. It opens with a light and clean melody in 11/8, before shifting into regular old 4/4 throughout the verses, but then there’s a subtle tweak to 5/4 at the end of the chorus. Shout-out to Ben Shepherd for keeping everyone on their toes.
88. “I Awake,” Louder Than Love (1989)
The lyrics to “I Awake” were apparently partially taken from a letter that Yamamoto wrote to his then-girlfriend, Kate McDonald. If it reads affirmational on paper, but it doesn’t sound that way in the song. “I Awake” begins with an admission to feeling depressed, before urging her to have a good day regardless. “Remember, I love you,” Cornell screams in agony.
87. “No Wrong No Right,” Louder Than Love (1989)
All hail Matt Cameron, lord of the tom-toms! This Yamamoto-composed track has a distinct, heavy Black Sabbath vibe, with Cornell filling out the verses with allusions to spiders and vipers and all kinds of off-putting and menacing things. The best part is definitely the intro drum solo that rolls through like a giant boulder chasing down Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
86. “Never Named,” Down on the Upside (1996)
“Never Named,” a bouncy, two-and-a-half-minute party-rock song, is one of the rare Soundgarden songs where Cornell directly addresses his own childhood. Couched with an exhilarating, up-tempo rhythm, he complains about being “just a baby who looks like a boy.” He adds, “I got my father’s sense and my big brother’s pants / And I look like a man and I feel like an ant.” Apparently, Cornell looked kinda young for his age as a kid, which caused a lot of people to look past some of his shenanigans like getting drunk and high while at school. A fine song, if a little forgettable among Down on the Upside’s 15 other tracks.
85. “Uncovered,” Louder Than Love (1989)
The energy in “Uncovered” is pretty flat until about the middle of the song, when Cornell finally starts using his screaming voice and elevates it from about a five to a nine. He really lets go on the second chorus in particular, holding the note while singing the name of the song for an impressive eight full seconds.
84. “No Attention,” Down on the Upside (1996)
A prototypical punk-rock song about prototypical punk-rock themes, like the pressure imposed upon you to conform by unnamed authority figures. “They’re going to tell you where to walk / When to smile and just what to say / They say, have your own fall, make your own mind / But don’t make no waves.” The key change in the second half of the song is an inspired choice. This also has one of the more visceral vocal performances by Cornell on Down on the Upside, one which alternates between annoyed growls and indignant wailing.
83. “Switch Opens,” Down on the Upside (1996)
“Switch Opens” begins with a hazy, almost disorienting clean guitar melody before Cameron comes hurtling in with the rest of the band to kick things to life with an unrelenting, four-on-the-floor snare beat. The harmonious, delay-effect on Cornell’s voice in the choruses is pretty cool.
82. “Power Trip,” Louder Than Love (1989)
Another Yamamoto song that feels like a Sabbath deep cut. That opening, glass-shattering scream certainly grabs your attention.
81. “He Didn’t,” Ultramega OK (1988)
A song about a guy who “did nothing perfectly” and “nothing quite well,” but he did it “much better than anyone I’ve ever seen.” I guess the message here is if you’re going to be mediocre, be the most mediocre version of yourself that you can possibly be. Vanilla is a flavor too.
80. “Worse Dreams,” King Animal (2012)
“Worse Dreams” opens with a frenetic but controlled riff that brings to mind AC/DC’s “Thunderstuck,” albeit with the dull moaning drone of another guitar layered over the top that sounds like the guttural death rattle of an ailing mastodon. It doesn’t take off with the same blast of supernova energy as the AC/DC track, but about three minutes in, Cornell unleashes the kind of blood-curdling scream that would almost certainly draw a doff of the cap from Brian Johnson.
79. “Fresh Deadly Roses,” Loudest Love (1990)
Loudest Love was an EP that the band issued initially only in Japan, before releasing it in the U.S. in October 1990. The first three songs were all taken from Louder Than Love, track four was the band’s first Deep Six cut “Heretic,” and track five was a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” The sixth track was this song. It’s definitely more compelling than many of the other tracks included on Louder Than Love, with Cornell flipping the usual script by shouting the verses with full vocal-shredding fury and calmly intoning the song’s title through the choruses. The overall effect is pretty chilling.
78. “Mood for Trouble,” Ultramega OK (1988)
The only acoustic song on the band’s full-length debut album, Ultramega OK. All right, that’s not entirely true: There’s like ten seconds of dual-layered acoustics, the strumming of a pair of chords seemingly as fast as they can go through the opening, but they’re quickly left by the wayside in favor of Soundgarden’s usual hurricane of frenzied electric guitars, heart-rate jacked drumming, and banshee screeching. Then you fall into a hazy pit of slowed-down chords and breathy-moaning in the middle, before the frenzy grips your ears once again. In many ways, it feels like the most advanced song on the album, one that points in the direction they’d head in the next several years.
77. “Get On the Snake,” Louder Than Love (1989)
One of the more conventional-sounding rock songs on Louder Than Love, albeit delivered in an off-kilter 9/4-time signature. You can chalk that up to Thayil, who wrote this one, but it’s Cornell who raises eyebrows by injecting it with some David Lee Roth DNA by way of his irreverent lyrics. I don’t really have to tell you what “Get on the snake” means, do I?
76. “Live to Rise,” Avengers Assemble (2012)
“Live to Rise” was the first single that Soundgarden released that they recorded after their onstage reunion in 2010, so the enthusiasm for it was pretty high among the band’s fanbase when it debuted. Joss Whedon approached them asking to see if they’d like to contribute a track to the Marvel blockbuster Avengers. Originally, they thought of just taking one of the tracks they recorded for King Animal and giving it over to the film, but as Cornell told Rolling Stone, “That thought lasted about three minutes.” The exercise turned out to be more challenging than he expected, however. “I went through a lot of different ideas that I scrapped,” he said. “Soundgarden does a lot of time signature changes and shifts and things like that. It felt like this should be a little more straightforward ’cause it’s for a broad audience.” Straightforward must be a relative term, because there’s actually quite a lot of complexity at work on “Live to Rise” in the alternating acoustic verses, the stratospheric choruses, and the meandering bridge that leads to a truly frenzied guitar solo. It was a heady return for a band people had long been waiting to hear from again.
75. “An Unkind,” Down on the Upside (1996)
A manic jam anchored by a solid, lightning-quick riff. Cornell’s vocals are a little too buried in the mix, or else it might have taken a higher spot.
74. “Head Injury,” Ultramega OK (1988)
In 2:21 seconds, Cornell manages to sing, scream, and speak the word “head” 30 different times.
73. “Bleed Together,” B-side (1996)
Included as “Burden in My Hand’s” B-side, “Bleed Together” was a track that the band’s label was keen to include on their fifth album, Down on the Upside. The members of Soundgarden decided against it, however, after listening to the mix and coming away unsatisfied with the way it sounded. It’s certainly one of the most energetic songs Soundgarden laid down during the sessions for that album, and the lively version they later remixed and released on Echo of Miles makes a convincing case that maybe the band should have listened to their A&R guy.
72. “Applebite,” Down on the Upside (1996)
Written by Matt Cameron, “Applebite” is an ominous collage of swelling, grand piano chords, dissonant phase effects, and this off-putting progression. Cornell’s voice is buried so deep underneath the sonic fog that I had no idea what the hell he was singing about for years. Turns out it’s a mostly nihilistic message about things like “decay.”
71. “Swallow My Pride,” Fopp (1988)
How much Seattle rock history can you pack into a single song? A lot, as it turns out. “Swallow My Pride” is a cover of a track written by the proto-grunge band Green River, which released it in 1985 on the EP Come On Down. Green River was fronted by Mark Arm and included guitarist Steve Turner, both of whom would eventually form Mudhoney. Both bands would sign to Sub Pop and account for that label’s earliest releases. Both versions of “Swallow My Pride” are pretty good. The Soundgarden take sears, while the Green River original sneers.
70. “Heretic,” Deep Six (1986)
Because it appears earliest in the tracklisting on Deep Six, “Heretic” holds the distinction of being the first officially released Soundgarden song. It’s definitely lo-fi, and they don’t quite sound like the Soundgarden the world came to know and love quite yet, but it’s an interesting listen regardless. The later version they recorded for the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack in 1990 is much more fully realized and a lot heftier.
69. “Non-State Actor,” King Animal (2012)
A Ben Shepherd song with lyrics that were written by both Cornell and Thayil. Whenever I hear “Non-State Actor,” it makes me think of another of the Pacific Northwest’s great rock bands, Sleater-Kinney. It just has that kind of vibe, with the hollow-sounding clean riff serving as the the song’s indispensable spine.
68. “Karaoke,” B-side (1996)
Another Down on the Upside–era track that didn’t make it onto the official album. Cornell described it as a song about how too many groups in rock at that time were formulaic, complaining to Rolling Stone in 1996, “Bands are imitating something that already exists.” The part he leaves unsaid is that the formula all those imitators were using to great success was written by Soundgarden to begin with. In that context, it’s kind of funny they buried it on the B-side of “Burden in My Hand.”
67. “Rowing,” King Animal (2012)
The last song on Soundgarden’s last official album. As far as final messages go, you can certainly do a lot worse. “Moving is breathing and breathing is life / Stopping is dying, you’ll be alright.” Even if you can’t see the sky, and the horizon is bare, “Just keep on rowing.”
66. “Overfloater,” Down on the Upside (1996)
“Overfloater” sounds menacing — it’s one of Cornell’s slinkier vocal performances — but buried underneath that simmering, foreboding vibe is an aspirational spirit, where he sings about a desire to “wanna make it right” and to “Feel medicine heal the lines of age.”
65. “Eyelid’s Mouth,” King Animal (2012)
“Eyelid’s Mouth” is kind of incomprehensible lyrically, but it contains one of Shepherd’s more compelling basslines and a deft solo from Thayil.
64. “Nazi Driver,” Ultramega OK (1988)
In an interview with Sounds in 1989, Thayil explained that “Nazi Driver” was “about cutting up Nazis and making stew out of them.” The only reason they called it “Nazi Driver,” he continued, was because it “sounds better than Nazi Stew, Nazi Soupmaker, Nazi Cup-O-Soup, or indeed Cup-O-Nazi.” Vegetarians, feel free to skip this one.
63. “Never The Machine Forever,” Down on the Upside (1996)
This was Kim Thayil’s greatest contribution to Down on the Upside — the only track where he wrote the music and the lyrics. It came out of a jam session with Greg Gilmore, a onetime member of the band Mother Love Bone, which included Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. It’s far and away the most brutal-sounding song on the record, but then that’s Kim Thayil for you.
62. “Entering,” Screaming Life (1987)
An eerie song with an eerie guitar riff and an even eerier spoken-word part thrown in the middle. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what Cornell is “entering,” but he’s doing it “without a sound,” on “wings I’ve found.” Sure.
61. “By Crooked Steps,” King Animal (2012)
“By Crooked Steps” was the second single released from King Animal. It’s a damn fine rock song that every member of Soundgarden had a hand in writing. It also did pretty well commercially, reaching No. 1 on the mainstream-rock charts. But while the song on its own is cool, the best thing about “By Crooked Steps” isn’t the actual music — it’s the video. Directed by Dave Grohl, the clip opens with a shot of Soundgarden playing poker in a darkened room. Matt Cameron cleans everyone out, takes the pot, and then they collectively don leather jackets and ride out into the night on … Segway scooters. Eventually, they make their way to a bar, where they stroll up onstage and confront a DJ in a colorful tank top with headphones on, presumably banging some EDM, unplug his laptop, kick him out, and proceed to rock. Naturally, the clip ends with a slow-speed police chase and the band in handcuffs. The biggest lesson learned here is that if Kim Thayil can’t look menacing on a Segway, no one can.
60. “Toy Box,” B-side (1989)
Recorded during the sessions for Screaming Life, “Toy Box” finally saw the light of day as the B-side to the single “Flower” from Ultramega OK. There’s a distinctively evil sensation that permeates this song, with Cornell slurring the verses as much as he sings them before hitting the stratosphere in the second chorus. It’s also another example of his affinity for the word “sun,” which he uses as a device multiple times through “Toy Box” — and to much greater effect on much more well-recognized songs in the years to come.
59. “Storm,” Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path (2014)
“Storm” is droning, and dark, and psychedelic, and depraved in all the ways some of Soungarden’s best songs sound. It’s also a great example of refusing to let a good song die on the vine. Cornell originally wrote it back in 1985, and it became a fixture of their live set in the days when Scott Sundquist was still on drums and Matt Cameron hadn’t entered the picture yet. They tried to record it when it was still fresh, but it wasn’t quite working, so they left it by the wayside until about 2014, when they linked up with the legendary Seattle-based producer Jack Endino, who worked with them on Screaming Life and laid down the fresh version heard on Echo of Miles.
58. “Somewhere,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
“Somewhere” was a song written by Shepherd (both the words and the music). It definitely has a kind of out-of-body sensation, filled with imagery of roses and willows and the dead. It’s not necessarily a nightmare, but more like an unsettling dream you wouldn’t mind waking up from sooner rather than later. The fade-out and fade-back-in near the end is a nice touch.
57. “HIV Baby,” B-side (1990)
While Kim Thayil isn’t a full-blown germophobe, he apparently isn’t too eager to share things like silverware, cigarettes, or drinks with other people either. While out on tour in the late ’80s, Ben Shepherd took notice of this peculiarity and called him out on it, exclaiming problematically, “Wow, Kim, you’re a total HIV baby!’ ” And thus the roots of this fierce but uneven punk rock B-side were born.
56. “Blind Dogs,” The Basketball Diaries Soundtrack (1995)
This weirdly sounds more like an Alice in Chains song than it does a Soundgarden song. “Blind Dogs” is methodical but not plodding. Heavy but not punchy.
55. “Smokestack Lightning,” Ultramega OK (1988)
An army’s worth of white boy singers have tried to tackle the oeuvre of the early black blues artists to diminishing returns. They get the words correct but fall short of nailing the weary, lived-in feeling that made those songs so enthralling. Cornell, however, gets pretty close to nailing it on Soundgarden’s rendition of this Howlin’ Wolf classic.
54. “Been Away Too Long,” King Animal (2012)
The understatement of the decade. What better way to end a 16-year-long hiatus between albums than by admitting to your fans that you’ve “Been Away Too Long?” Is it a little on-the-nose? Maybe. But in the face of that exhilarating guitar fade-in, Cornell’s blistering vocals, Cameron’s thunder of drums, and Shepherd’s reliable deep end, who can complain that much?
53. “Come Together,” Loudest Love (1990)
If the Beatles’ original version was a menacing bop, with McCartney trying to cover up Lennon’s plea to “shoot me” with a bouncy bassline, the Soundgarden take is a flaming wrecking ball, laying waste to a crumbling skyscraper. The riffage is savage, the solo is violent, Cornell’s singing is electrifying. And yet, as cool as it is, as a straight cover I have a hard time placing it within the top-50 Soundgarden songs.
52. “Holy Water,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
Despite, or more likely because of, his experience attending Catholic school as a kid, Chris Cornell had a complicated relationship with organized religion. He was a nonconformist by nature and was naturally skeptical of any doctrine being taught to him. That’s what this song is mostly about. “And they take thine/ Majesty so seriously / ’Cause It’s the big lies / More likely to be believed.” Ain’t that the truth. The heaviness comes from the drop-B tuning on the lowest string, which was also used on “Rusty Cage” and “Searching With My Good Eye Closed.”
51. “Ugly Truth,” Louder Than Love (1989)
If you like discordant guitar chords and listening to a guy wail about being unable to hide from the truth, this song is for you.
50. “Kristi,” Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path (2014)
Matt Cameron called this “one of my favorite Soundgarden tunes ever” in an interview with Drum! around the time Down on the Upside dropped in 1996. It’s easy to understand why he likes it so much. The drums in particular on this song smack into your chest like a trio of Bruce Lee kicks. It’s a plodding monster of de-tuned guitars and weird echoes. While it doesn’t figure as one of the best songs on Down on the Upside, I still don’t understand how this didn’t make it onto the final tracklist.
49. “Nothing To Say,” Screaming Life (1987)
The B-side to Soundgarden’s first single (“Hunted Down”) is a thick forest of drop-D tuned guitars and rage-fueled resentment. It’s also the song that first attracted Soundgarden to many of the major labels after it was included on a demo tape titled Bands That Will Make Money, made by KMCU musical director Faith Henschel. A&M was an early suitor after hearing this song, but it was forced to wait for the band to make records for both of the most renowned indie labels at the time, Sub Pop and SST, before landing them two years later for Louder Than Love.
48. “Blood on the Valley Floor,” King Animal (2012)
Brutish and blustery with a heavy, lumbering sway, this is one of the better tracks off King Animal. Granted, there’s not much thematically happening here. It’s mostly a series of unsettling allusions to things like dried blood and “11 million clowns” wielding razors, but that’s terrifying enough, I suppose.
47. “All Your Lies,” Deep Six (1988)
“All Your Lies” first appeared on Deep Six, but it’s the brasher version included on Ultramega OK that earns the elevated rating here. It’s a little faster and a helluva lot more intense than the original, with Thayil playing out of his fucking mind during the solo in the song’s back end.
46. “New Damage” Badmotorfinger (1991)
I’d like to nominate the scream at the very opening of “New Damage” for consideration as the best recorded scream that Chris Cornell committed to tape while a member of Soundgarden. There are many moans that could conceivably take this prize, but the way he holds that initial note, subtly shifts it up a step, then slowly drops it back down again is vastly impressive. Consider this exhibit A for why he’s considered by many to be the greatest rock singer of his generation.
45. “Kyle Petty, Son of Richard,” B-side (1994)
“Kyle Petty, Son of Richard” was recorded around the same time the band was working on Superunknown and was released as the B-side to “Fell on Black Days.” They later thought about adding it to Down on the Upside, but eventually gave it to the nonprofit group Home Alive for its fundraising compilation, The Art of Self-Defense. The song itself is a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, whose father was NASCAR driver Richard Petty, sung from the perspective of the son. “Daddy didn’t raise no fucking fools / Coming up on your right / Coming up on your right / No one is going to fuck with / Me tonight.” Fueled by a killer riff and some truly savage screaming, even as a joke it’s a pretty compelling song.
44. “Head Down,” Superunknown (1994)
For the longest time, I assumed the intro to this song was played on a mandolin or some other unexpected stringed instrument, but no — it turns out it’s just an acoustic guitar tuned to the C5 chord variant CGCGGE. The band used the same unorthodox tuning on “Pretty Noose” and “Burden in My Hand.” Much like “Half,” Shepherd’s other notable addition to Superunknown, there’s a worldly flair to “Head Down,” driven home by some off-kilter drumming from Cameron. Ostensibly, it’s a song spoken and sung from the perspective of a bully who gets his rocks off from slapping the smile from your face. A relatable experience whether you were the smiler or maybe even the one doing the slapping.
43. “Superunknown,” Superunknown (1994)
I’ve always been curious why they decided to name the album itself after this particular song. It’s a good track, pieced together from a collection of Kim Thayil’s riffs, but far from the best song on the record. It’s not even the most central song thematically on Superunknown. Granted, the word itself looks cool on paper, especially when you flip the word “unknown” upside-down like they did in the promo materials. Anyway, it’s fun to shout “Alive in the superunknown!” over and over again at the top of your lungs while shooting down the highway with the windows down. I suppose that’s reason enough.
42. “Taree,” King Animal (2012)
You know that this is a Ben Shepherd song because it was written in 14/4 time. Apparently, this was another piece of music that he’d been holding onto for years before finishing it with the rest of Soundgarden for King Animal. He’d even tried recording it with Matt Cameron for his own solo album, In Deep Owl, before deciding it wasn’t quite right. He ultimately showed it to Cornell, who he always thought would nail it in the way few others could, and here it sits now in all its simmering, bluesy glory.
41. “Rhinosaur,” Down on the Upside (1996)
It’s really all in the name. A vicious, romping, relentless monster of a song. The band’s fans liked it so much that it hit No. 19 on the rock charts as a B-side, while the A-side “Ty Cobb” didn’t make so much as a dent.
40. “Black Rain,” Telephantasm (2010)
“Black Rain” was technically the first song that Soundgarden released after getting back together in 2010. It was added to their greatest-hits compilation Telephantasm, as well as the Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock and Guitar Hero Live games. It was originally recorded during the Badmotorfinger sessions, and was salvaged, rearranged, and remixed nearly two decades later. It opens with this slightly grating, scratchy guitar progression that swells in volume until it’s consumed by a tidal wave of sound and fury and one of the most over-the-top vocal performances of Cornell’s career. If you haven’t heard it before, I’d recommend checking it out with the video, which was directed and animated by Metalocalypse creator Brendon Small and is just so delightfully bonkers.
39. “Cold Bitch,” B-side (1994)
“Cold Bitch” was another song that was meant for Badmotorfinger but didn’t make the cut, a choice that was to Ben Shepherd’s lasting chagrin. “It’s one of my favorite tunes that we’ve recorded,” he told M.E.A.T. Magazine in 1994. “It feels like the alienated child from the family, or the one that was left behind.” I can certainly see where he’s coming from. From the blood-curdling wails of seemingly torturous agony in the opening to the swaggering guitar riff that keeps Cornell grounded, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
38. “Into the Void (Sealth),” Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas (1992)
This is just brilliant. Instrumentally, it’s a pretty straight-ahead cover of Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void.” Lyrically, however, it’s adapted from a speech delivered by the Native American leader Sealth, or Chief Seattle, in the 1800s, which just happened to fit the meter of the song. Soundgarden had a propensity to sound a lot like Sabbath at times, so a straight-up cover might have been a little too nail-on-the-head. This is a nice little subversive nod that also netted them a Best Metal Performance Grammy nomination in 1993. They lost to Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish,” which, okay, fair, but still!
37. “Sub Pop Rock City,” Sub Pop 200 (1988)
Soundgarden was one of the driving forces behind the founding of that venerated Seattle label Sub Pop Records. Thayil was old friends with co-founder Bruce Pavitt from back when they both lived in the Chicago suburbs. The label’s other co-founder, Jonathan Poneman, was maybe Soundgarden’s biggest fan when they were still just another unsigned local act around town who not only had the cash but also the willingness to help them put out a record. Thayil served as a go-between between the two to broker a formal business partnership and altered rock history in the process. For whatever reason, Soundgarden didn’t make it onto the label’s first compilation in 1986, Sub Pop 100, but two years later, when they were putting together Sub Pop 200, the band gave them this irreverent punk-rock rager. It’s a total piss-take that sounds like a hybrid between a Van Halen party song and some insane thing the Butthole Surfers would cook up. The call between Thayil and Poneman and Pavitt in the middle section where he asks if it’s okay if they cut their sideburns is so gloriously weird you can’t help but laugh.
36. “Face Pollution,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
An epic barn burner about a guy “as numb as rigor mortis,” but who’s inexplicably “scared by monkey faces” and doesn’t want to feel, because “I fear I’m into you.” Near the end, Cornell screams the phrase “face pollution” over and over again, but I don’t have any idea how that has any bearing on the preceding narrative.
35. “Let Me Drown,” Superunknown (1994)
The goal of any good opening track is to grab your attention early, making you want to hang on for the long haul. At 74 minutes, Superunknown is a long haul indeed, so “Let Me Drown” certainly had its work cut out for it, but it comes through with some evocative, lyrical imagery and some truly superb drumming from Cameron. Cornell later explained to RIP Magazine in 1994 that this song “was originally about crawling back to the womb to die,” so you know, it’s pretty cheerful, too.
34. “Hands All Over,” Louder Than Love (1989)
There’s not a lot to “Hands All Over.” It’s basically a two-note melody and a three-note riff, with a bouncing bassline anchoring everything underneath. It’s really just a strong example of the way Cornell could elevate a track with his godlike pipes and some vivid lyrics. Also, not many rock bands were tackling the issue of man-made climate change in the late ’80s, so shout out to Soundgarden for that too.
33. “A Thousand Days Before,” King Animal (2012)
This is the best song on King Animal. Written by Kim Thayil, it’s in large part a nod to his own Indian heritage. There’s an emblematic raga feeling right from the get-go thanks to an open-slide tuning along with some electric tambura added by producer Adam Kasper. The song had been lying around, going all the way back to the Down on the Upside days, when he brought it back out again while working on King Animal. “Before we finished the song, its working title was ‘Country Eastern,’ because we incorporated some chicken-pickin’ playing, too,” Thayil told Premier Guitar. Listen close and you can also hear him playing the mandolin.
32. “Pretty Noose,” Down on the Upside (1996)
There are several songs in the Soundgarden canon that are frankly a little uncomfortable to listen to now, in the wake of Chris Cornell’s death. “Pretty Noose” is at the top of that list for obvious reasons. Even as good as the song remains with its pile-driving drums, catchy chorus, and inventive guitar solo, it just hits a little too close to home now.
31. “Dusty,” Down on the Upside (1996)
Alternately, “Dusty” is one of the most cheerful songs that Cornell wrote while a member of Soundgarden. “I think it’s turning back around / And I think I like it,” he sings through the verse. In the context of the rest of Down on the Upside, it’s a small oasis of hope amid a sea of despair. “Dusty” gets a few bonus points for name-checking the album title in the chorus.
30. “Kickstand,” Superunknown (1994)
Far and away the shortest and most precise entry on Superunknown, “Kickstand” stands out as a bracing, drop-D punk rocker that delivers a massive shot of adrenaline to the back half of that record. The lyrics don’t say much — “Kickstand, you got loose and I threw up / Kickstand, you got the juice to fill my cup” — but who’s paying attention to lyrics when you’re gunning it at 70 mph down the open road with the chopper roaring?
29. “Burden in My Hand,” Down on the Upside (1996)
Thayil once called this song the “Hey Joe” of the ’90s, and I can only assume that’s based on the line “I shot my love today, would you cry for me,” which parallels Jimi Hendrix’s woeful tale of a revenge murder precipitated by a cheating lover. “Burden in My Hand” is actually a lot more nihilistic than that. It’s about someone at his wit’s end, trying to drown himself in alcohol to escape the truth of what his life has become … or alternatively, to kill himself and “everything you love.” The jauntiness of the multi-layered acoustic-guitar melody that opens the song serves as an interesting counterpoint to the song’s inherent depravity.
28. “Like Suicide,” Superunknown (1994)
Another song that’s difficult to revisit in the wake of Cornell’s death, “Like Suicide” is a relatively tender tale about a robin, which flew into one of the windows of the singer’s home, that he was forced to put of its misery with a nearby brick. Death here becomes an act of mercy, but you can hear him grapple with the anguish of having to carry out the final act. The solo acoustic version on the deluxe version of Superunknown is even more evocative.
27. “Ty Cobb,” Down on the Upside (1996)
The quaint, lullaby mandolin melody at the top of “Ty Cobb” really doesn’t prepare you for the tidal wave of savage lunacy that blasts out of the speakers 20 seconds later. If this isn’t the fastest song that Soundgarden recorded, it’s definitely in the top three or four. It’s also shockingly vulgar, with Cornell really digging into the word “fuck” repeatedly through the chorus. It was originally titled “Hot Rod Death Toll,” but they changed it because the vibe matched far better the demeanor of the surly baseball player who was known for sliding into base with sharpened metal cleats.
26. “Fresh Tendrils,” Superunknown (1994)
One of Matt Cameron’s best contributions to the Soundgarden canon — the drummer was responsible for the music here and worked on the lyrics along with Cornell. The main riff has this cyclical pattern, much like an actual plant tendril spinning around and climbing higher up a fence post. Shepherd called this his favorite song on Superunknown, and we can see why. And yes, before you ask, the name “Fresh Tendrils” does refer to marijuana.
25. “Room a Thousand Years Wide,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
One of the very few Soundgarden songs that Chris Cornell didn’t write words or music for, but by God does he sing the ever-loving shit out of it. “Room a Thousand Years Wide” is a collaboration between Thayil and Cameron, and after listening to it, you almost have to wonder why the two didn’t link up like this more often. From the drone of that single guitar note that buzzes through the air like an annoyed yellow jacket, to the chugging rhythms, to the Stooges-style horn section near the end, it’s an inspired piece of music tailor-made for headbanging.
24. “My Wave,” Superunknown (1994)
“My Wave” is the closest grunge rock ever came to producing a classic surf song. By Soundgarden standards, it’s a pretty simply constructed, but what sets it apart is the pure ferocity of the way Cornell delivers some of those accented words through the verses. “PRAAAAY if you wanna pray / If you like to KNEEL!” and so on.
23. “Hunted Down,” Screaming Life (1987)
The very first Soundgarden single, pressed on blue vinyl and limited to 500 copies. It was released by Sub Pop Records on June 1, 1987, and I feel very comfortable calling it a promising start. They aren’t as polished or heavy as they would become in just a few short years, but they’ve already nailed that pissed-at-the-world attitude to a T. “Hunted Down” actually sounds the tiniest bit like an early Guns N’ Roses outtake, to be honest, especially once you hit the chorus. In the early days, Sub Pop used “Hunted Down” as the phone hold music, so when you called in to ask about an order or something, you heard a lo-fi rendition of the song over the phone.
22. “Limo Wreck,” Superunknown (1994)
It’s the grunge era’s greatest waltz!
21. “Mind Riot,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
“Mind Riot” stands as one of the most disorienting tracks in the whole Soundgarden canon. You can chalk that up to the unorthodox tuning, where every single string on the guitars has been adjusted to an E-note. The experiment was inspired by a joke made by Pearl Jam’s bassist, Jeff Ament. “Mind Riot” was written shortly after the death of Cornell’s onetime roommate and lead singer of Mother Love Bone, Andrew Wood. Just like the music he wrote for Temple of the Dog, it addresses that loss in a very direct and emotional manner: “Candles burning yesterday / Somebody’s best friend died / And I’ve been caught in a mind riot.” It’s the kind of song that sucks you in and distorts time as you fall deeper under its spell.
20. “Loud Love,” Louder Than Love (1989)
“Loud Love” was the lead single of the band’s first album on a major label, Louder Than Love. For many casual rock fans living outside the Pacific Northwest, it served as their first taste of Soundgarden, and it certainly acts as an entrancing, twisted appetizer for the rest of that record. If the goal of a single is to appeal to people from the jump, “Loud Love” goes about as far against that idea as you can imagine, opening with a full half a minute’s worth of wailing feedback. But then Cameron’s ferocious drumming breaks the spell, Cornell starts singing about wanting “something to explode,” and all you want to do is crank the volume to its maximum limit.
19. “The Day I Tried to Live,” Superunknown (1994)
A morose-sounding title that obscures the central message of the song itself, which is pretty uplifting in its own way. It’s about not letting yourself remain closed off from the rest of the world, even if that feels like a more natural and comfortable thing to do. The way that dreamy slide-guitar part weaves its way around the plunky guitar melody, which pressed right up against the speaker through the intro, remains utterly mesmerizing.
18. “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
The greatest use of the See & Spell children’s toy ever committed to tape. “A rooster says: (crowing sound) Here is a pig: (squealing sound). The Devil says: (Gaping scream of a billion souls damned to eternal hellfire).” And that’s just the first minute and a half! It only gets more twisted, psychedelic, and depraved once Cornell starts to sing.
17. “Blow Up the Outside World,” Down on the Upside (1996)
“Blow Up the Outside World’ is one of Soundgarden’s best loud-quiet-loud compositions. Cornell alternates between this unsettling, dead-eyed delivery in the verses before erupting into a volcano of pure fury in the chorus. It also has one of my favorite Thayil guitar solos, even if it was a little too bluesy for his own liking.
16. “Flower,” Ultramega OK (1988)
If you don’t start immediately banging your head when this savage Ultramega OK standout pops up in the rotation, congratulations, you’re probably dead inside. The weird, otherworldly sound at the beginning of “Flower” was achieved by Thayil laying his guitar on the floor in front of his amp and blowing across the strings. I only bring this up to note the lengths that this band would go to in order to achieve interesting and unexpected sounds in the studio.
15. “Birth Ritual,” Singles Soundtrack (1992)
Singles was director Cameron Crowe’s love letter to a Seattle music scene just on the cusp of explosion. Cornell contributed the dark, solo acoustic track “Seasons” to the film, and also makes a cameo as a curious on-looker while Matt Dillon is showing off the overly loud stereo system he installed in Bridget Fonda’s car. All of Soundgarden shows up during the club scene, where they’re onstage looking badass as they rip into this explosive, demonic track “Birth Ritual.” The coolest version, however, is the full outtake performance from the film, filmed at the Central Tavern in Seattle, where Cornell throws his microphone over a low-hanging pipe, pulls himself up, and hangs from the ceiling while screaming the word “Ritual” over and over again. Just another day at the office, really.
14. “Big Dumb Sex,” Louder Than Love (1989)
Unless you tell people something is a parody, they’re not going to understand that it’s a parody. “Big Dumb Sex” is a prime example, a song in which Soundgarden cosplays as one of the big, dumb, sex-obsessed hair-metal bands of the ’80s, like Motley Crue and Poison. They gamely hit all the clichés, with Cornell repeatedly expressing his desire to “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you!” The gambit sailed over people’s heads — Thayil even had to explain the intent to the band’s bass player, Hiro Yamamoto, who was no fan of the song (which should have tipped them off that most folks wouldn’t get it) — but once you’re clued in, the whole thing is actually pretty hilarious. Imagine trying to sing, “I’m the beast and you’re the master / You’re the meat of the matter,” with a straight face. Even Axl Rose skipped that particular line on Guns N’ Roses’ interpolation on their covers album, The Spaghetti Incident? Of course, all these years later, when the distinctions between the various subgenres of rock have all blended together under one big tent, “Big Dumb Sex” just kicks ass.
13. “Spoonman,” Superunknown (1994)
I defy you to listen to “Spoonman” even just once without getting that massive opening riff stuck inside your head for the rest of the day. Can’t be done! This was the very first single released off Superunknown and was originally inspired by a fake demo tape that Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament made for the film Singles. Cornell saw the tracklist on the back and made real songs based on the titles of the made-up ones. One of those was “Spoonman,” based on the local street performer called Artis the Spoonman, who entertained crowds with just a set of spoons. Cornell held onto the song until he was goaded into working on it by Matt Cameron during the Superunknown sessions. To spice things up, the band even included the Spoonman himself, who recorded a solo in the middle that kind of feels similar in spirit to the percussive breakdown in Joe Walsh’s song “Funk #49” with the James Gang. The whole thing is glorious and preposterous in the best possible way.
12. “Incessant Mace,” Ultramega OK (1988)
There were a lot of critics and naysayers who derided Soundgarden for sounding too much like Led Zeppelin back in the early portion of their career. Among indie-rock purists in the 1980s, Zeppelin was anathema, as Cornell explained to Marc Maron during his appearance on the WTF podcast: “If … someone said, ‘That last song you played reminded me a little bit of Led Zeppelin,’ for most bands, that was the kiss of death.” The prime example was “Incessant Mace.” The riff and content sound extremely close to the Zep song “Dazed and Confused,” albeit with a little more evil and dread. Now that sounding like Led Zeppelin isn’t the kiss of death, we can just enjoy this top-notch psychedelic ride for what it is.
11. “Jesus Christ Pose,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
While it just misses out on the top ten of this list, “Jesus Christ Pose” no doubt takes the prize for the most bracing of all of Soundgarden’s many, many hurricane-force rock tracks. It’s an eviscerating critique of popular media figures who use religion to paint themselves as operating on a higher plane of thinking and moral rectitude than the rest of us. “You’re staring at me like I / Like I need to be saved!” Cornell angrily screams. It’s been alleged that the song was inspired by a shot of Jane’s Addiction front man Perry Farrell, but it just as easily could have been about any number of self-serious celebrities in the early ’90s.
10. “Mailman,” Superunknown (1994)
From about 1986 onward, there had been a highly publicized string of workplace shootings in post offices (hence the expression “going postal”). They were especially prominent in the early ’90s, with incidents taking place in New Jersey, Michigan, and California. “Mailman” is basically a song told from the perspective of a disgruntled post-office employee who’s pissed off at his boss and is considering taking violent action. “I know I’m headed for the bottom / But I’m riding you all the way.” It hasn’t aged very well, given the rise of domestic shootings across the U.S., but the music itself, written by Cameron, is incredibly heavy and dynamic. By now, it’s a certified Soundgarden classic.
9. “Tighter & Tighter,” Down on the Upside (1996)
“Tighter & Tighter” is one of the darkest songs Cornell wrote during his life, and that is certainly saying something. Written originally during the sessions for Superunknown, the band opted to hold off and revisit it for their next album. The song is an unsettling plea for an unnamed person to “sleep tight for me” before he’s gone. He “fell too far to start again” and craves “one last sin before I’m dead.” The combination of Cornell’s eerie, chorus-effect-drenched voice and Thayil’s whinnying wah-wah acrobatics make it the most enticing cut on Down on the Upside.
8. “Fell on Black Days,” Superunknown (1994)
“Fell on Black Days” is another one of those difficult tracks to revisit now that Cornell is gone. The track finds him singing about the conditions, conflicted feelings, and raw emotions that dragged him into a darker headspace at so many different points in his own life, including the very end. “Just when everyday seemed to greet me with a smile / Sunspots have faded, now I’m doin’ time.” It’s an incredibly poignant portrait of the monster that is depression. And yet it remains an utterly beautiful piece of music. The way the band just hangs there in midair at the end of the verse, all their instruments chiming out and slowly decaying into nothing, before Chris begins to sing again through the verses, is just breathtaking.
7. “Beyond the Wheel,” Ultramega OK (1988)
I have it on good authority — i.e., I asked him myself one time — that this is guitarist Kim Thayil’s favorite Soundgarden song. He described it as “psychedelic, heavy,” with “a little sprinkle of evil.” It’s definitely the pinnacle of Ultramega OK. Cornell wrote “Beyond the Wheel” as a defiant reaction to so many people in power all too eager to send young men — like himself and his friends at the time — off to war in far-off lands for their own benefit. He’s pissed off, and he and the rest of the band sound positively Leviathan as they excoriate their invisible masters.
6. “Gun,” Louder Than Love (1989)
The version of “Gun” on Louder Than Love is good, but the live version is far superior, because even as molasses-slow as the rhythm begins in the studio, it starts out even slower onstage before building to a chaotic, breakneck pace created by Cameron on drums that the rest of the band can hardly keep up with. Still, it’s great on wax: It’s a severe, anarchic swarm of satirical sarcasm, where Cornell croons about “an idea of something we can do with a gun,” namely, “sink load and fire till the empire reaps what they’ve sown.”
5. “Rusty Cage,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
Here are the best things about “Rusty Cage,” ranked:
The fact that Johnny Cash thought highly enough of it to make a cover version just a few years after it was released, even though he had to be convinced to do so by his producer Rick Rubin. “That was one where I had to rerecord the song to present it to him, because when he heard the original recording of the song, it really terrified him,” Rubin told Performing Songwriter. “He thought it was unrealistic and that I was crazy for suggesting it.”
Shepherd’s bass playing. I don’t think there’s another Soundgarden song where it sounds so present. Especially that tricky little fill just after the chorus.
The frenetic opening riff, which Thayil nailed by leaving his wah-wah pedal in the up position to get that distinct, higher-pitched tone.
The speed. Both the breakneck pace it starts out with and the more methodical stomp in the back half.
The fade into the word “Fooooooor” and “Yeaaaaaaaaah” at the top of the first lines of the song. It sucks you in from the jump.
4. “Slaves & Bulldozers,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
“Slaves & Bulldozers” isn’t the best Soundgarden song, but, already intense on record, it is the best Soundgarden live song. Check out nearly any version that the band performed during one of their hundreds of shows through the years, and prepare to pick your jaw off the floor. The nine-minute long rendition officially released on Live on I-5 is a torrent, but the earlier version from their show at the Paramount in Seattle included on the deluxe edition of Badmotorfinger is absolutely insane, culminating in waves of brain-shattering feedback. The way the song begins at a crawl and slowly picks up speed, going faster and faster and faster as it progresses, makes it ripe for crowd-induced madness and mayhem.
3. “Black Hole Sun,” Superunknown (1994)
Even if you’ve never heard of Soundgarden, chances are good that you’ve heard “Black Hole Sun” somewhere at some point over the last quarter-century. It’s the band’s biggest hit by far — more than 135 million views on YouTube and counting — and one that netted them a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. It’s a psychedelic monster of a track with Cornell’s high-low double-tracked vocals creating this weird, disorienting effect. Quaint, chorus-painted arpeggios give way to towering walls of wicked, overdriven noise. Cameron’s loose-sounding snare snaps have never sounded better. “If you read the lyrics to the verses, it’s sort of surreal, esoteric word painting,” Cornell told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t trying to say anything specific; I was really writing to the feel of the music and accepting whatever came out.” Substance doesn’t really matter in the face of something unique and so riveting stylistically. You can really read whatever you want into “Black Hole Sun,” but why even bother getting that analytical about it? It just sounds cool.
2. “Outshined,” Badmotorfinger (1991)
“I’m looking California / And feeling Minnesota.” In the long list of some of Chris Cornell’s attention-grabbing lyrics, that has to be the most evocative. It says so much while hardly saying anything at all. It was so enticing, in fact, that it inspired the title of the 1996 Keanu Reeves–Cameron Diaz rom-com Feeling Minnesota. It’s one of the earliest instances when the singer got really confessional about the way he felt in his personal life. The rock-god posture that he showed to the world could belie an intense bout of self-doubt just under the surface. “I definitely go through periods of extreme self-confidence, feeling like I can do anything,” he said to RIP in 1992. “Or I’ll get something in my head 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.” But great songs aren’t made by a single lyric. “Outshined” takes the No. 2 spot on this list through its combination of killer riffage, a scream-along chorus, and the martial-drum breakdown just near the end. Oh, and have you seen the video? The band supposedly hated it, but it’s so over the top as to be endearing now. Cornell, shirtless, playing along with the rest of the band in a factory that appears to manufacture fire and welding sparks, swaying on a chain-link net and stomping his black boots to the beat.
1. “4th of July,” Superunknown (1994)
The goal here is to rank the relative quality of each and every one of Soundgarden’s songs, and the best one the band ever recorded was “4th of July.” Tucked near the end of Superunknown, “4th of July” opens with a brutal churn of doom-laden, de-tuned guitar chords. Cornell starts to sing in this dreamy, far-off manner, through the first verse, that instantly puts you ill-at-ease, before kicking things up a notch with a shrieking high harmony and the introduction of Cameron’s eerily lackadaisical drumming. If the Apocalypse were nigh, and the Four Horsemen emerged from the heavens bringing destruction and chaos and pain with them, I imagine they’d be galloping across the blood-soaked plains to the tune of this song. It probably wouldn’t shock you to discover that Cornell wrote “4th of July” while reminiscing about an acid trip where he saw two figures, one in a black shirt and one in a red shirt, who followed him around for a day and spoke to each other behind his back. “I feel it in the wind / I saw it in the sky / I thought it was the end / I thought it was the 4th of July.” It’s everything great about Soundgarden in a single, five-minute package.