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