Chris Cornell was one of the greatest songwriters of his generation and a singer without peer. He was a musical wanderer who, as the head of multiple iconic groups like Soundgarden, Temple Of The Dog, and Audioslave, as well as a solo artist, crafted songs filled with intrigue, dread, bombast, pain, levity, and gut-wrenching human emotion. His gripping material was fueled by a four-octave voice, capable of lifting his songs into the stratosphere, or straight down into the deepest, darkest trenches of the Earth’s crust.
As a member of so many different outfits, and with literally hundreds of pieces of music to his name, it might be a bit daunting for some to know where to begin with Cornell’s vast catalog. With that in mind, here is a collection of 20 of his greatest musical achievements that’ll help give a better overall picture of who and what this singular artist was really all about.
20. “Big Dumb Sex” – Soundgarden
It might be a bit of a stretch to call this song “controversial,” but it certainly raised the hackles of pearl-clutching set when it dropped on Louder Than Love in 1989. “Big Dumb Sex” was meant to be taken as a parody of the overt, over-the-top sexuality expressed by so many glam and hair metal bands of the 1980s, but the subtlety of the message was lost amongst Cornell’s pleas that he knew just what to do, and that he was going to “f*ck, f*ck, f*ck, f*ck, you!” Win some, lose some.
19. “You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell
When the producers of the James Bond series looked to reboot the franchise around 2006 with Daniel Craig in the lead role for the film Casino Royale, they decided to turn to Chris Cornell to craft an electrifying opener capable of matching the action-packed nature of their film. Needless to say they were in good hands. “You Know My Name” is one of the few Bond themes not to co-opt the title of the movie. Cornell styles 007 as a man who needs no introduction, and marries some of the best elements of Tom Jones seductive crooner elements on “Thunderball” with the over-the-top orchestration of Paul McCartney’s “Live And Let Die.” Not only is it one of Cornell’s best tracks, it also remains one of the finest musical entries in the James Bond musical canon.
18. “Incessant Mace” – Soundgarden
Early on in their career, Soundgarden was praised by many for sounding like “Led Zeppelin, but in a good way.” You see, throughout most of the ‘80s, Zeppelin was knocked by punk rockers for spawning sounds and lookalikes like White Snake; effete, whimsical, drivel-producers. Soundgarden on the other hand, embodied the best and most foreboding elements of Jimmy Page and company, while remaining appropriately underground. Never was that more true than on their Ultramega OK track “Incessant Mace” which shares a very similar, riff to the immortal Zeppelin hit “Dazed And Confused.” It’s a devastatingly heavy track that Cornell himself likened as being “European Gothic.”
17. “Spoonman” – Soundgarden
Many people are under the impression that the song “Spoonman” is about heroin. It’s not. It’s literally about a street corner entertainer in Seattle who played spoons for passersby. Cornell first crafted the song for the fictional band Citizen Dick in Cameron Crowe’s film Singles, then later dusted it off and revamped it for inclusion on Soundgarden’s multi-platinum monster Superunknown. The arrangement of this song is riveting, from the call and response structure, the descending guitar riff, to the breakdown in the middle that kind of mirrors a similar interlude in Joe Walsh’s immortal “Funk #49.” Extra points for getting Artis The Spoonman to actually appear on the song.
16. “Like A Stone” – Audiosoave
Chris Cornell wasn’t someone who prescribed to the traditional ideas of organized religion. His mother enrolled him in Catholic School as a kid, but the teachings and principles didn’t stick. “I feel sorry for the people who honestly swallow it,” he told Request Magazine in 1994. “To me they’re fish. I don’t wanna be a fish.” That being said, a staggering number of his songs are loaded with religious themes and iconography, like this Audioslave single “Like A Stone” from the band’s first album. In it, Chris seems to be on his own quest to figure out what lays in the great beyond. “And on my deathbed I will pray to the gods and the angels / Like a pagan to anyone who will take me to heaven / To a place I recall, I was there so long ago / The sky was bruised, the wine was bled, and there you led me on.” He may not have believed in Catholicism, but a belief in something bigger remained a part of who he was.
15. “Jesus Christ Pose” — Soundgarden
Like, “Like A Stone” this is another tracked packed with religious iconography, but instead of looking skyward, in “Jesus Christ Pose” Chris is looking around at his peers on the cover of rock magazines and he doesn’t like what he sees. “The key word in that song is pose,” he told Rolling Stone. “That was a response to seeing a bunch of different photo shoots of models and rock stars doing the Jesus thing, posing on a crucifix. I’d seen it so much that year, and it seemed silly. It’s silly for other people to use it in some way to project themselves.” The song’s jittery guitar lines, lightning quick choruses, and of course Cornell’s piercing wails marked it as one of the best offerings off Soundgarden’s 1991 release BadMotorFinger.
14. “Mailman” — Soundgarden
One of the most brutal guitar riffs Soundgarden ever produced, the content of “Mailman” is no less unforgiving. You see, back in the ’90s, there was a rash of mail delivery officials who, for whatever reason, decided to shoot up their places of employment. In “Mailman” Cornell adopts the pose of one of those aggrieved employees, someone who recognized that they’re “Headed for the bottom,” but is determined to get there by “riding you all the way.” Its a song that lacks for subtlety, but for anyone that’s ever had a boss that makes them feel like they “disappear,” there’s a modicum of empathy to be found.
13. “Hunger Strike” – Temple Of The Dog
“Hunger Strike” from Temple Of The Dog’s one and only self-titled record, remains the highest charting single of Chris Cornell’s career. It’s mostly remembered today however, for being the song that helped solidify Eddie Vedder as the new face in rock as the nobody singer from the just-then assembled group Pearl Jam. “I was singing the chorus in the rehearsal space and Eddie just kind of shyly walked up to the mic and started singing the low “going hungry” and I started singing the high one,” Cornell recalled to Rolling Stone. “Chris really welcomed him,” Pearl Jam singer Mike McCready said. “He was like, ‘Hey, welcome to Seattle. I love Jeff and Stone. I give you my blessing.’ From then on he was more relaxed. It was one of the coolest things I saw Chris do.”
12. “Pretty Noose” — Soundgarden
There are more than a few songs in Chris Cornell’s oeuvre that have taken on a new light after his tragic suicide. It’s just human nature that people would try to find deeper meaning and warning signs in tracks such as “Like Suicide” and this one, “Pretty Noose.” But, as he told MTV nearly two decades earlier, “If you write a song about feeling bad in a particular way and then someone hears that song and they think, ‘Wow, I really identify with the way he felt when he wrote this so there’s someone else out there who feels like me, I’m not the only one.’ What happens? They feel better, so even if it’s a dark theme, it can actually have a positive effect.” Here’s hoping that people might be able to see past the darkness and continue to find light in his music.
11. “Slaves And Bulldozers” — Soundgarden
If you wanted to show someone the Soundgarden-iest Soundgarden song, you could do a lot worse than “Slaves And Bulldozers.” As the name suggests, its a brutal track, filled with sludgy guitars and sinister vocal passages. It alternates between quiet and loud, shooting skyward and dropping to Earth on a dime. As guitarist Kim Thayil told the Dallas Observer, it “embodies a lot of that spirit that I think has been with Soundgarden since its inception,” adding that it, “it has its heavy element, it has a very loose, wild and chaotic free element to the way the song was performed; it’s got a cool groove, it’s got swagger, it’s sexy.” Sadly, “Slaves And Bulldozer” carries the distinction of being the final song that Cornell ever performed, with a coda of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time Of Dying” tacked on to the end at a show at the Fox Theater in Detroit on May 17, 2017.
10. “Cochise”– Audioslave
“I think it was probably the epitome of what people had guessed that band would sound like,” Cornell told the A.V. Club in 2015 about the sonic makeup of one his biggest hits with Audioslave. “I think if you did the math on paper with Rage Against The Machine and then me screaming over it, it’s gonna be “Cochise.” That’s a pretty spot-on assessment if you ask me. “Cochise” is maybe the finest hour of Cornell as a screamer. You can almost hear his vocal cords fraying as he rips into the opening verse, but, being the gawd that he is, he never loses control, and never lets himself get overshadowed by Tom Morello’s glitchy, funky guitar lines. It’s definitely one of the best pure rock songs of the mid-2000s.
9. “Fell On Black Days” — Soundgarden
Throughout his life, Cornell was pretty forthright about his constant battles with depression and substance abuse. The fifth single off Superunknown is probably his purest expression of those feelings that he ever put to tape. It’s a dark song, that begins simply, before ultimately blowing off in a torrent of screams and guitar noise. “I had the title and the idea I wanted to write about probably three years before that song was finally written,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “‘Fell On Black Days’ is the feeling of waking up one day and realizing you’re not happy with your life. Nothing happened, there was no emergency, no accident, you don’t know what happened. You were happy, and one day you just aren’t, and you have to try to figure that out.”
8. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” – Temple Of The Dog
You really can’t talk about Chris Cornell without mentioning Andrew Wood at a certain point. Wood was the striking blonde frontman at the heart of another up and coming Seattle rock band named Mother Love Bone. Cornell and Wood were extremely tight with one another, even rooming together at one point. Sadly, the singer died 1990 from a heroin overdose. Cornell got together with the remaining members of his band and recorded an album titled Temple Of The Dog in his honor, with this incredible ballad at the center. As far as tributes go, “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” is an all-timer. You can feel the pain and the love in Cornell’s voice as he bids goodbye to his friend. “I never wanted / To write these words down for you / With the pages of phrases / Of things we’ll never do.”
7. “Gun” — Soundgarden
Savage. Absolutely f*cking savage. And even more so if you were lucky enough to catch it live. “Gun” is the best offering from Soundgarden’s 1989, major label debut Louder Than Love. What begins as a plodding, ferocious guitar riff picks up more and more speed until by the middle, the band is straining just to keep up with drummer Matt Cameron. The ideas in “Gun” are a lot more complex than the title would suggest as well. It’s not a glorification of the weapon itself, but a call for revolution against a power-hungry government apparatus who would rather see us all pacified. “Sink load and fire till the empire reaps what they’ve sown!”
6. “Shadow On The Sun” — Audioslave
“Cochise” is great, “Like A Stone” is awesome, but the best track that Audioslave ever produced was “Shadow On The Sun.” Quick interlude, have you seen that scene in the movie Collateral when Jamie Foxx and silver fox Tom Cruise are driving through L.A. at night in a taxi with a dead guy in the trunk and they see a wolf just walking down the street? Absolutely iconic. The song itself is filled with such a diverse and wide sonic and emotional palette. From the arpeggiated intro and tender opening lines, to the tornado of screams that mark it’s end. It almost sounds like Cornell’s soul is trying to leave his body as he wails “Suuuuuuuuuuuuun!” to close everything out.
5. “Rusty Cage” — Soundgarden
Speaking to Spin, Cornell admitted that “Rusty Cage” was his attempt to create a “hillbilly Black Sabbath crossover that I’d never heard before.” I’d say mission pretty well-accomplished. The opening track on BadMotorFinger is filled with angst, anxiety, and like three, separate killer riffs that any other band would crave to co-opt. Just like Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” you really owe it to yourself to check out Johnny Cash’s late-career cover as well. “I thought it was a stupid idea…it didn’t make sense to me. Lyrically, it did, but I was hung up on it sonically,” Cornell later said. “Later, when I heard the arrangement that Rick had somebody work up on the radio, I felt so stupid.”
4. “4th Of July” — Soundgarden
Superunknown is without question one of the greatest albums of the 1990s. It’s a towering monolith of dark lyrics, twisted guitars, barbaric bass lines, and ferocious drumming. Many of its songs remain forever enshrined amongst the immortals in the larger canon of alternative rock. While it might run counter to some people’s thinking, it’s my belief that outside of one track which you’ll catch above, the best song from Superunknown resides comfortably near the very end of the record, a discordant wall of sludge and grime titled “4th Of July.” Though it was never released as a single and pales in popularity to many other tracks from that album, there’s just something so utterly engrossing about Cornell’s disembodied voice crooning away over that elephantine riff, both of which ultimately explode out into a supernova of volume and chaos. Cornell later claimed that “4th Of July” was written about a vivid acid trip where he saw a figure in a red shirt and a figure in a black shirt talking behind his back, and yeah, that totally checks out.
3. “Seasons” – Chris Cornell
In nearly every single description of Cornell’s earliest solo offering on the Singles film soundtrack, you are bound to hear or see an allusion to Led Zeppelin’s immortal third album. This is fair. Compared to the bombastic sonic onslaught you heard from Soundgarden at the time, “Seasons” is a clear break into more pastoral territory. Less “Whole Lotta Love” and more “Tangerine.” “Seasons” is a song drenched with dread. It’s the sound of a man wondering who is and where everything is headed. “And I’m lost, behind / The words I’ll never find / And I’m left behind / As seasons roll on by.” Like Cameron Crowe told Rolling Stone, “You just can’t help but go, ‘Wow.'”
2. “Black Hole Sun” — Soundgarden
There is absolutely no denying that “Black Hole Sun” is the biggest and most widely recognized song in Chris Cornell’s catalog. At last check, the iconic video had over 104 million views on YouTube alone. The reason for its popularity is not hard to miss. The chorus tone-painted melodies, the impressionistic verses, the laconic vocal delivery that crescendos at the end with a wall of human wailing. Played ad nauseam during the height of MTV, the visuals and music became part and parcel of the entire mid-1990s era of rock music.
“’Black Hole Sun’ was written in a car when I was driving home from the studio one night…it was very stream-of-consciousness,” he told Spin. “It’s very esoteric and the only thing about it, I think, that makes sense, in terms of how it could have been an international hit, is singing the lines of the chorus. But when you don’t overthink it or even think of it in any way, just let it be what it is creatively, maybe that strikes a chord in people because there’s no analytical mind polluting it.”
“Black Hole Sun” would eventually net Chris and Soundgarden two Grammy awards.
1. “Outshined” — Soundgarden
The greatest Soundgarden song, and the greatest song Chris Cornell ever wrote, recorded and performed wasn’t not their most popular hit, but it was an important one. “Outshined” was a turning point in Cornell’s career as a songwriter; the moment when he realized he could imbue some of his own personal experiences and feeling into his music. The results of course were stunning. The almost demonic, drop-D guitar riff totally captures the desperate vibe of the song’s narrator, someone who cops to “Looking California, while feeling Minnesota.”
Cornell wrote the song, and that iconic line — which later inspired the title of Keanu Reeves film Feeling Minnesota — after catching sight of himself in a mirror while on a long tour with Soundgarden. “I remember thinking that as bummed as I felt, I looked like some beach kid,” he told Details Magazine. “As soon as I wrote it down, I thought it was the dumbest thing. But after the record came out and we went on tour, everybody would be screaming along with that particular line when it came up in the song. That was a shock. How could anyone know that that was one of the most personally specific things I had ever written? It was just a tiny line. But somehow, maybe because it was personal, it just pushed that button.”