For a while there, it seemed like people forgot about Soundgarden. If you got into Soundgarden in the ’00s, you got into them during what was a bit of a wasteland for the band. While their peers and contemporaries flared out tragically (Alice In Chains, Nirvana) but in ways that solidified legacies, or others continued soldiering on in a decade where their relevance waned, singer Chris Cornell decided to front the remaining members of Rage Against The Machine as Audioslave, and then embarrass himself with one solo album that was a bastardized mash-up of alt-rock and adult contemporary (2007′s Carry On), and another that was just an ill-advised, mis-matched collaboration with Timbaland (2009′s Scream). Matt Cameron became the longest-serving drummer in Pearl Jam, and seemingly a truly pivotal member in that band as well, ending their bad luck streak with drummers and preventing them from becoming Spinal Tap. The rest of Soundgarden stayed pretty quiet, the (always underrated) guitarist Kim Thayil contributing to a few things here and there, bassist Ben Shepherd essentially falling off the map.
It seemed as if Soundgarden was truly dead and gone. Its members had moved on in ways that (OK, for the moment) seemed a bit more permanent, and never seemed to entertain the idea of a reunion, or getting back together with a different singer, or whatever other variation numerous ’90s bands had exhumed themselves in. Due to some legal stuff, you couldn’t even find throwback merchandise. All you could do was hear the same few Soundgarden hits repeated on radio, which began to feel more and more like ghostly transmissions from ten or fifteen or twenty years past. Soundgarden was absent in a way other ’90s remnants weren’t. They were relics before their time.
That was always a bit weird, not just because Soundgarden was a seminal artist in the early ’90s rise of grunge, and not just because they’d left behind a catalog that was widely critically adored, but also because out of any of the other big ’90s bands, Soundgarden seemed as if they would still have something to offer another generation of musicians after nu-metal had finished defiling the corpse of grunge. In one sense, they were very much of their era. Like many of their grunge contemporaries, Soundgarden generally drew inspiration from the ’70s mainstream and ’80s alternative, creating a mix that quoted equally from punk, post-punk, metal, classic rock, and, later, psychedelia. Soundgarden sounded like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and name-checked the Beatles, but had grown up listening to Gang of Four. Different parts of that sentence could be applied to any of the other Seattle bands in different ways.
The difference with Soundgarden was that they were always a little weird, and the definition of what that meant changed throughout their career. For a while people wanted them to be an alternative-minded metal band. They could open for Guns ’N’ Roses in arenas, and then for Skid Row, and then hop on Lollapalooza with Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were intellectual and mature compared to a lot of mainstream metal, but not quite as artsy as some of their friends in the alternative world. They seemed to always have each foot in a different world. Where some of their contemporaries eventually aged out into becoming classic rock of a sort, Soundgarden can often still sound unique, thanks in large part to that psychedelic bend they began incorporating with Superunknown in 1994.
Soundgarden took their name from a permanent installation in Seattle called A Sound Garden, a series of 12 steel towers with hanging organ pipes that would produce different tones when the wind passed through them. In one example, there at the beginning, you can see how all of Soundgarden’s existence was going to be one of multiple identities. A sculpture of wind and steel, symbolic of a band that would always sound monumental, but with a power equal parts elemental and industrial. They quoted from a lot of the same artists as the other big grunge acts, but took those influences to a darker, more nuanced sound. Lyrically, Cornell would often dwell on diving into the deeper, most uncomfortable recesses of human existence, while musically their twilit version of psychedelia offered its own kind of difficult catharsis. There are things on Superunknown and Down On The Upside that still sound overwhelmingly new and exciting, things that on one hand make you grateful that the band stopped when they did, keeping one part of their legacy intact, but also making you wonder what greatness was left to be mined. This is why it was so weird to live through that time where nobody really talked about Soundgarden anymore — there still seemed to be things left unexplored, for listeners and new musicians alike, things that should’ve kept Soundgarden relevant as an influence even if they seemed determined to fade away.
Of course, all of that’s been undone now. Soundgarden did finally reunite, and after playing shows for a while, they actually put out a new album, King Animal, late last year. It’s a lot better than you might’ve expected given Cornell’s more recent work, or the decade-plus gap since their last outing. It might lean a little on their heavy side for a bunch of aging rockstars, but it also held glimpses of how they might continue to grow as Soundgarden, with new explorations of their psychedelic side glimpsed here and there, and the unsettling alt-blues of “Rowing” a concise vision of what an old Soundgarden might become. At this point, though, it’s all for the fans that already existed; nobody is going to care about King Animal or whatever follows it unless they already care deeply about the music Soundgarden made during their first run. At least the band is present again.
A quick word on the song selection for this list. You’ll notice that there are a few rock radio staples absent, tracks that would dominate a Soundgarden greatest hits compilation and many would most readily associate with the band. I’m not trying to troll you or be contrarian, I’m honestly just sick of hearing “Black Hole Sun,” and I’d have to imagine most people would be sick of reading about it, too. What follows are ten of Soundgarden’s most enduring, interesting, best-written songs — ten I would recommend to a new fan, ten I would posit as the stuff that still makes this band exciting and worth attention from artists of my own generation. Some are hits, some aren’t. If you’re up for that, here’s my admittedly idiosyncratic take on Soundgarden’s ten best songs.
10. “Loud Love” (from Louder Than Love, 1989)
The almost-title-track to Soundgarden’s second album, “Loud Love” remains a high water mark of their earlier, more overtly metallic sound. It begins distant, with a dual set of wails — Kim Thayil’s mutated feedback intro, oft-mistaken for an e-bow, bleeding directly into Cornell’s rising scream. It’s curious at first, but gripping as soon as it lands. “Loud Love” is a key example of how the band was so adept at crafting grooves that were heavy and infectious at the same time, contrary to their frequent protestations of pop-aversion. Not that “Loud Love” is bubblegum, but it took the vaguely artsy brooding that characterized their first two albums, and whipped it into a new form. Where some of the earlier, more sludgy-riffed Soundgarden songs could get a little ponderous, “Loud Love” was propulsive even while mid-tempo, boasting solid melodies while still giving you something to bang your head to, making it an early example of a dichotomy that would run through their career.
9. “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” (from Badmotorfinger, 1991)
While much of Soundgarden’s third album, Badmotorfinger, was still firmly within their brand of alternative-tinged metal, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” pointed towards the stylistic expansion that would come with its follow-up Superunknown. Though not devoid of the aggression that characterizes much of Badmotorfinger, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” leans towards psychedelia. Cornell’s verse melodies are spacey, mantra-like, but anchored by the rumble of Shepherd’s bass, which is particularly massive in the first verse, before Thayil starts adding riffs over it. Though it can be hard to discern meanings from Cornell’s lyrics sometimes, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” also feels like a thematic centerpiece to Badmotorfinger. “Is it to the sky, is it to the sky?/ Looking to the sky and down/ Searching for a ground/ With my good eye closed,” Cornell sings in the chorus, summing up a sense of disillusionment, anger, or confusion with the outside world that his lyrics seem to grapple with throughout Badmotorfinger. What might have passed as revery in the verses soon gets torn asunder, Cornell’s increasingly desperate repetitions of “Is it to the sky?” growing into an outro of screamed questions and gnarled guitar solos from all sides, reminding you that there’s little solace to be found on Badmotorfinger.
8. “Fresh Tendrils” (from Superunknown, 1994)
Soundgarden’s masterwork Superunkown is made up fifteen songs, each essential in their own way, clocking in at a total of 70 minutes. Dominated by the singles that would garner the band their biggest mainstream success, there’s bound to be some gems that get lost in the shuffle. Long one of the most overlooked songs of Soundgarden’s catalog, “Fresh Tendrils” was penned by Matt Cameron, an important reminder that while Cornell was responsible for some of the band’s most recognizable songs, Cameron and Shepherd were integral contributors when it came to fleshing out the band’s stranger sides. That weird, rhythmic melody underneath the guitars in the verse? That’s a clavinet, of all things, an instrument so readily associated with funk music (think Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”), used here to a kind of persistent, guttural effect. It’s one of those subtle moves that immediately makes a Soundgarden song feel a little weird, the element that takes it beyond a normal grunge song and into a more singular headspace. God knows what the title’s supposed to refer to, but many of the lyrics seem to allude to substance abuse of some sort. The constricted groove of the verses boil over into choruses with Cornell singing “Shame, shame/ Throw yourself away/ Give me little bits of/ More than I can take/ If it sits upon your tongue/ Or naked in your eyes/ Give me little bits of/ More than I can try.” It feels like the rhythm of addiction, the pressure getting tighter and tighter until, finally, something has to break.
7. “Pretty Noose” (from Down On The Upside, 1996)
It seems like Down On The Upside gets a bad rap in hindsight, written off as a worn, drawn-out gasp of a swan song, a blurrier successor to Superunknown. That’s all true, but that’s also why it’s always been one of the most interesting, and best, Soundgarden albums. Down On The Upside feels rawer and world-wearied, a vulnerable, almost shambling version of Soundgarden that was rarely glimpsed in all the metallic precision of their earlier records. “Pretty Noose” is a perfect opener for it, Thayil’s wah-assisted guitar providing a languid moan of an intro. Though a pretty successful single in its own right, “Pretty Noose” didn’t reach some of the pop heights of the Superunkown singles. Maybe it’s because of the fact that it hasn’t been subjected to the same overexposure via ad-nauseum radio replays in the interim years between Soundgarden’s dissolution and reunion, but “Pretty Noose” also still feels fresher than those songs. Which is a bit ironic, given how much it encapsulates the relative dustiness of Down On The Upside. I guess it comes down to the fact that with much of Soundgarden’s music remaining so assured and monolithic, it’s thrilling to hear them sound a bit battered.
6. “Head Down” (from Superunknown, 1994)
Ben Shepherd was responsible for the two trippiest moments on Superunknown: the Middle Eastern-tinged interlude “Half,” and “Head Down.” A thing of otherworldly, unsettling grace, Soundgarden never recorded anything else quite like “Head Down,” though it could certainly be located as a genesis point for some of the explorations that would later occur on Down On The Upside. Superunknown is a primarily dark affair, not as screeching or hard-edged as Badmotorfinger, but plenty grinding and despairing in its own ways. “Head Down” is too unnerving to be considered a moment of lightness from all that, but it feels like a detour that simultaneously deepens the character of the album. It was with psychedelic tracks like this that Soundgarden marked the borders of their new expansive sound. It glides rather than thrashes, but it seeps out of the same darkened mind and heart as the rest of Superunknown. “We hear you cry/ We hear you wail/ We steal that smile from your face,” Cornell sings, later ending the song with “Head down, head down, head down, hide that smile/ Head high, head high, head high, you got to smile.” It’s all delivered in a smooth, almost-detached lilt, proving that sometimes the best way to be haunting is not through heavy guitars and screams, but through the misleading sweetness of a strangely tuned guitar and an enticing rhythm.
5. “Outshined” (from Badmotorfinger, 1991)
Out of any of the songs on this list, “Outshined” perhaps still feels the most rooted to its particular time and place but, man, who even cares. It still sounds incredible. Featuring one of the most memorable riffs of the ’90s, “Outshined” possesses a simple but unforgettable power. It was almost as if Soundgarden had figured out how to distill all of their late ’80s work into one perfectly streamlined, catchier package. But while it spoke of their own past, it also laid groundwork for the definition of a genre. Played with a drop-D tuning — which would become de rigueur in ’90s alt-rock — and with Cornell singing in a slightly lower register than usual, “Outshined” now sounds like a prototypical grunge song that is at once a classic and an unfortunate blueprint for a lot of bad post-grunge bands. What their host of imitators missed was those details that, despite maybe not overly evident to most listeners, give Soundgarden’s music its uniqueness. In this case, it’s the way the 7/4 time signature makes the verses serpentine rather than lumbering. Any lesser band would turn this riff into a neanderthal chug. With Soundgarden, it has a swagger that’s still potent.
4. “Fell On Black Days” (from Superunknown, 1994)
One of Soundgarden’s most famous singles, “Fell On Black Days” is one of the moments where Cornell’s meaning is actually plain and relatable, not obscured and purely introspective. Though the phrase “fell on black days” easily evokes the idea of depression, there’s a specificity to it. For Cornell, it’s the realization of the depression. As he told Melody Maker in 1994: “You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting — when all of a sudden you realize you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to…” In some ways, that’s one of the most unsettling concepts of any of Soundgarden’s material, but it’s deployed through one of their more pop-friendly songs. Despite revolving around a 6/4 riff, “Fell On Black Days” doesn’t feel off-kilter in any way. Rather, it’s mellow in a way that the band had never been up until that point, with Thayil looking back and describing it as “subdued.” That initially irked Thayil, maybe because the song’s relative accessibility (including that gorgeous guitar break at 2:20) blurred its meaning. At any rate, it’s aged incredibly well — you know it’s a classic ’90s song, but unlike some of the other songs on this list it wouldn’t necessarily sound strange if a band put it out today.
3. “Blow Up The Outside World” (Down On The Upside, 1996)
From the start, Down On The Upside centers on a destructive relationship with the world around you. “I caught the moon today/ Pick it up and throw it away, all right,” Cornell sings in the beginning of “Pretty Noose,” a sentiment carried on and expanded in “Blow Up the Outside World.” Musically, it’s an outlier for Soundgarden, or at least for Thayil, who delved into a bluesier style of playing for his solos. Even more so than on Superunknown, Cornell was moving away from his high, metal-indebted wails and singing more soulfully, emphasizing the increasing prominence of pop influences on the band’s music. While those moments are part of the continuing stylistic expansion that came with Down On The Upside, they also seem to expose the way the band was splitting and fraying, stubbornly pulling in various directions — Thayil’s bluesy solo here is more or less a concession, for a moment tabling his frustration with the album’s less riff-based approach. One of the last singles Soundgarden released in their initial run, “Blow Up the Outside World” became a sort of final statement on a whole lot of things at once. It was a personal frustration, an individual narrative put forth by Cornell about the idea of wanting to destroy all the structures around you just to be left alone. You could say it meant the same thing for the band on two levels: their collective frustration with the binds of the music industry (each member has at some point attributed their initial breakup to the “business” ruining Soundgarden) or their individual frustrations with Soundgarden itself. Arriving in late ’96, it felt like more of a generational statement than its more famous cousin “Black Hole Sun.” For a set of alternative-minded musicians who stumbled into massive fame, then hated it, “Blow Up the Outside World” was one more wearied attempt at letting the world know just how much they didn’t want to be a part of it.
2. “Jesus Christ Pose” (from Badmotorfinger, 1991)
“Jesus Christ Pose” was saddled with controversy upon its release. Some listeners took issue with what they perceived as a critique on Christianity, and MTV decided to ban the song’s video primarily because of the image of a woman crucified. The song was misunderstood, being not so much enraged with religion as with the way famous people co-opt religious imagery when they want to seem superior to other people. “You just see it a lot with really beautiful people, or famous people, exploiting that symbol as to imply that they’re either a deity or persecuted somehow by their public,” Cornell told SPIN in 1992, and he’d later cite Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell as a prime example. Despite a nonreligious Cornell having no personal stake in how people used Christian imagery, the song is one of the most biting, aggressive things Soundgarden ever recorded. This is largely thanks to the instrumentation — Soundgarden sounds like such a powerful unit here, every member furiously thrashing away unabated for nearly six minutes, but never deviating from the solidity of the whole song. The sum is an unrelenting maelstrom emanating out from Cameron’s frenetic drum pattern. Collectively, it’s one of those perfect Soundgarden moments that feels mechanistic and animalistic at once, with Thayil characterizing the song’s groove as sounding like “helicopter blades.” It’s been twenty-two years and this thing still sounds punishing.
1. “The Day I Tried to Live” (from Superunknown, 1994)
“The Day I Tried to Live” is a quintessential example of almost everything that made Soundgarden great and unique. It features one of their weirdest alternate tunings (EEBBBB, compared to the traditional EADGBE) and alternates between 7/4 and 4/4. Each move is characteristic of their writing style, but “The Day I Tried to Live” is maybe the best example of how Soundgarden could subtly incorporate odd tricks into rock music, giving their music a slight exoticism without descending into gimmickry. In this instance, they give the song a dissonant, hypnotic pull. It’s still a bit heavy, but doesn’t sacrifice the hooks. It’s some of the band’s best songwriting, strengthened by some great vocal melodies that have ensured that the song has aged particularly well. The poppy qualities might’ve struck some fans with another sort of dissonance, given that many have interpreted “The Day I Tried to Live” as a suicide note of a song. Rather, it turns out it’s one of the few hopeful moments in Soundgarden’s catalog. Like so much of Superunknown, it does deal with themes of depression and alienation, but the idea behind the phrase is a man trying to move past his tendency to withdraw from other people and the world at large, and even though he keeps failing, “One more time around/ might do it.” There’s a lot of darkness on Superunknown, and in Soundgarden’s career in general, and this glimmer of brightness feels not only earned, but crucial. “The Day I Tried to Live” might not be the band’s most famous song, but it has everything that Soundgarden excelled at, with less characteristic flourishes for added depth. It’s still one of the most rewarding songs they’ve ever recorded.
Listen to the Spotify playlist here.