Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.
Growing up, Soundgarden was always the cool Seattle band to follow. Maybe it was Chris Cornell’s carnal pipes, or Kim Thayil’s sludgy riffs, or the way everything sounded as if it was ripped straight out of a post-apocalyptic world from Mad Max, but the band’s sound traditionally connected with those who had a predisposition to cynicism. Not just any cynicism, but rather a learned cynicism, as if they were in on some sort of secret that disabled all hope in favor of a mature sense of realism. Then again, it could have just been the kids at my lunch table. Who knows.
What we do know is that Soundgarden were one of the hardest rock bands of their time. They were the Zeppelin to Pearl Jam’s Who, a kinetic force that worked less like a hurricane and more like a typhoon. Yet unlike your average metal band, they had a soft spot, and that gooey middle could wrench out a harmony from even the muddiest distortion. Much, if not all, of that had to do with Cornell, whose solo work and side gigs have long proven that he’s always been on the melodic side over, say, the razor’s edge. I mean … have you heard him sing “Ave Maria”?
We’re still in shock that Cornell is now no longer with us, and that won’t change for years — if ever. Because, despite the moody sentiments wired into every Soundgarden song, there was always this feeling that he’d brush aside the clouds and find some sunlight. So, the idea that he’s actually gone — joining his grunge brethren in Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley — is a little more than surreal. It’s downright depressing. Alas, the only thing to do is celebrate what he’s left behind, and when it comes to Soundgarden, you can hardly do better than these 20 songs.
20. “A Thousand Days Before”
King Animal (2012)
I’m out of the business of telling bands what to do. If you want to call it quits, keep going, or get back together again, you won’t hear boo from me. As much as 2012’s King Animal, which I gave a so-so grade to as a critic, reminded listeners that bands can’t ever truly go back again, I’m still so glad Soundgarden reunited to tour and make that album. Listening to that sitar-style opening, a vocal style that I thought only Perry Farrell could pull off, and another one of Cornell’s outside-looking-in songs driven home by a matured version of his patented wail, well, who could begrudge the Knights of the Soundtable one final quest? Not me. –Matt Melis
19. “Birth Ritual”
Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1992)
Fun fact: Soundgarden were the first grunge band to sign to a major label, and when you first listen to the thudding violence of “Birth Ritual, that little bit of trivia seems like an anomaly. But then you start to notice the subtle things, like how Cornell’s voice surfs off the waves of distortion in a manner that’s both catchy and familiar. This song is one of many Cornell compositions that helped illustrate the sonic palette of Cameron Crowe’s Singles, and they even sing it on screen in the film. “To anybody who has attended a Soundgarden concert, in any era of the band’s popularity, the powerful emotional heft of the group is hard to forget,” Crowe writes in the liner notes for the soundtrack’s new reissue. “I was anxious to feature a live performance in the movie.” Well, that anxiety paid off and helped usher Soundgarden into the mainstream, and this cut deserves some of the credit. –Michael Roffman
18. “Black Hole Sun”
There are a handful of songs that can stake a claim to being the de facto “grunge” anthem. “Black Hole Sun” definitely deserves consideration, especially today, the day that Cornell left us. It feels like that catchy, cosmic bit of psychedelic pop, which Cornell always claimed was just a bit of nonsense, finally has some definitive meaning. One thing that rankled Cornell a bit was that listeners often didn’t recognize how sad the song actually is due to the pretty melody and singable chorus. “Hang my head, drown my fear/ Till you all just disappear,” resolves the song’s protagonist. Today, it’s hard to hear anything but significance and sadness in this anthem. –Matt Melis
17. “Face Pollution”
Like much of the grunge scene, Soundgarden has at least one root in the punk world, and the jagged “Face Pollution” embraces it. Sure, bassist Ben Shepherd wrote most of it in the very un-punk 9/8 time signature, Ernst Long adds a trumpet to the guitar riff, and the unison section gets a bit proggy, but the full-steam ahead thrash and Cornell’s screed against conformity and fake selves is pure punk. While other bands get the apathy tag more often, “I don’t feel like feeling/ feeling like you” hits that nail pretty well on the head. –Adam Kivel
16. “Head Down”
On record, “Head Down” was a tad overshadowed given its placement next to grunge-era classics like “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun”, which is unfortunate because it encompasses the best elements of the band as good as any one song they’ve ever produced. From the dark minor key chords to the odd time signatures, Thayil’s penchant for guitar heroics to Matt Cameron’s other-level drumming, it’s a song that perfectly boasts the prog-meets-metal technicality that helped lift the Seattle band a notch above their flannel-clad peers. –Ryan Bray
Ultramega OK (1988)
As the only single on the band’s debut album, “Flower” stands as Soundgarden’s introduction to the world outside of the Pacific Northwest. That introduction is a charging rhinoceros through the speakers, a blend of swirling psychedelia (complete with feedback caused by Thayil blowing over his guitar strings) and monster metal riffs. The main attraction, unsurprisingly, is Chris Cornell’s voice, equally impressive in its menacing grit as its apocalyptic yowl. –Adam Kivel
14. “Ty Cobb”
Down on the Upside (1996)
The actual Ty Cobb was a fantastic baseball player in the early 20th century, and purportedly had a terrible temper and was a huge racist piece of shit. According to the band, they just used “Ty Cobb” as place-holder of a symbol that everyone would know as a notorious piece of shit. It’s not really about baseball, the lyrics aren’t “I’m hitting/ fuck you all” it’s “hard-headed fuck you all.” Hey, at least he’s got a stubborn cardio-punk song to his name. –Jeremy D. Larson
13. “Loud Love”
Louder Than Love (1989)
That isn’t an E-bow at the beginning of “Loud Love”. “I simply stood in front of the amp, got the note ringing until it was feeding back, and slid my finger up the fret on the string and dragged the feedback with it,” Thayil once explained. Too many ’90s guitarists dabbled in ’70s rock, but Thayil really made it work again, soldering Black Sabbath’s late-night distortion to Zeppelin’s whimsical riffage to create a fine plateau. Regardless of the peaking aural altitudes, Cornell kept climbing, and on this one his straggly hair’s caught up in the atmosphere. –Michael Roffman
The nuclear engine chug of “Mailman” employs some of the most open-ended dark lyrics in the Soundgarden catalog. While Cornell reportedly told a crowd once that the song was about killing your boss, the chorus (“I know I’m headed for the bottom/ but I’m riding you all the way”) evokes a knowing sneer for anyone ready to take somebody else out. Thayil’s downtuned guitar crunch seems to have already spent a good deal of time at that bottom, and Cornell’s howl ups the creep factor, every inch of the tune spitting catharsis through gritted teeth. –Adam Kivel
11. “Burden in My Hand”
Down on the Upside (1996)
Great songs don’t just resonate with the best parts of our being – they connect with the frustrated, down-and-out parts as well. Despite its gorgeous melody, “Burden in My Hand” remains one of those songs that makes us squirm. Thayil called it an update on “Hey Joe”, as a troubled protagonist lures a lover out into the desert to meet her fate. Cornell totally sells it; he’s almost slurring, stumbling, a conflicted wreck who seems powerless to stop what he’s about to do. And some sick part of us – that part that belongs in a rusty cage — can’t help but sing along and clench our fists. –Matt Melis
The origin story of “Spoonman”, everyone’s favorite non-Marvel superhero, also ties back to Singles. The title for the song was initially on Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament’s list of proposed fake band names for the film. Although Citizen Dick won out in the end, “Spoonman” still found a way to swoop into the film — as an early acoustic jam — and you can hear this rendition on the deluxe edition of the soundtrack. Naturally, the song would resurface two years later on Superunknown, fully electrified and unconsciously primed for a Grammy, which it won in 1995 for Best Metal Performance. Not bad for a little ditty about a California street performer. Heh. –Michael Roffman
09. “Rusty Cage”
Before nu-metal bands bought 7-string guitars to make all their dirty riffs even lower and gnarlier, Thayil was downtuning his E string to a low B back in 1991, and there’s hardly a Soundgarden song that felt that harder than “Rusty Cage”. The Route 66 highway chase of the verses and choruses are only parenthesis for the bridge — one of the quintessential head banging moments in Soundgarden’s catalog. The song announced the new guard of Soundgarden, a fleshed out metal band. Or was it grunge? “Rusty Cage” leans hard into both genres, feeling both like a Pearl Jam and Led Zeppelin song. –Jeremy D. Larson