by Jeff Fiedler and Frank Lettieri
Chris Cornell was more than just one of the greatest vocalists in ‘90s rock – the man projected more passion than just about anyone to come out of the grunge scene, both in his delivery and in his words. Cornell certainly could craft some first-rate melodies, but first and foremost, he was one of the best lyricists of his era, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any fan of his that wasn’t inspired or moved in a very profound way by something he had written. Simply, Cornell’s music – both the records he made with bands like Soundgarden and Audioslave and those he made on his own – are a perfect demonstration of just how emotionally cathartic music can be for performer and listener alike. Yet Cornell’s best work often floated under the radar and failed to perform as well commercially – or even critically – as it perhaps deserved to, his masterful solo debut Euphoria Morning being a perfect example. So let us take a moment to list off – in chronological order – Cornell’s ten most vital albums and delve into just what makes each of them so enjoyable. If you’re not particularly familiar with Cornell and his work, we hope this might help serve as a useful introduction to his music and help you to figure out where you want to start if you wish to explore his catalog and discover for yourself why this grunge-rock icon is so highly revered ...
Louder Than Love, Soundgarden (1989, A&M)
Louder Than Love, the second album from Soundgarden, is by no means the best album the band ever made, but it’s noteworthy for many reasons. For starters, they would never again sound quite as heavy and abrasive as they do here, the disc leaning a bit more towards neo-metal than the grunge-rock they would ultimately become famous for. Secondly, it would prove to be the last album they would ever make with original bassist Himo Yamamoto. But perhaps most notably, it’d mark their transition from an indie-label outfit (their debut, Ultramega OK, had been issued through SST, once home to Husker Du, Black Flag, Sonic Youth, and the Minutemen) to a major-label act. The band’s still in a rather embryonic form at this point – they’ve yet to quite find their niche, and Cornell hasn’t settled into a groove as a lyricist yet, either – but you can clearly hear the potential of the band, and they do generate quite a bit of excitement on the better moments contained within like “Hands All Over,” “Get on the Snake,” and “Loud Love.” [It’s noteworthy to add here that, though this is technically only the band's second full-length, they had made their on-record debut with a pair of EPs on Sub Pop, Screaming Life and Fopp, which the label would later combine and reissue on a handy single CD after the group made the leap to A&M. The former is the better of the two EPs, containing the crucial songs “Hunted Down” – the band’s first-ever single – and the excellent “Nothing to Say,” which gained immortality of sorts after it was utilized on the CD-ROM encyclopedia Encarta in the mid-‘90s. It’s one of the harder discs from the band to track down, but it’s worth the hunt.]
Temple of the Dog, Temple of the Dog (1991, A&M)
A posthumous tribute to Andrew Wood, former frontman for the short-lived Seattle grunge band Mother Love Bone, this very underrated disc finds Cornell and his Soundgarden bandmate Matt Cameron teaming up with former Mother Love Bone members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, who were soon to leapfrog into the rock-and-roll elite as members of Pearl Jam. [In fact, their future Pearl Jam bandmates Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder also take part in the proceedings here, the former as the group’s lead guitarist and the latter as a co-lead vocalist on “Hunger Strike.”] Though there may be more Pearl Jam members here than Soundgarden members, Cornell very much gets to inject his own style into the mix – this disc is more reminiscent of his later solo work than anything he’d yet done with Soundgarden to this point and, in fact, Cornell not only wrote all the lyrics here, he wrote most of the music as well. Though the disc initially only sold seventy thousand copies and really didn’t take off commercially until A&M started re-promoting it after Soundgarden and Pearl Jam both suddenly became household names, the disc eventually going platinum, it still remains something of a lost treasure, as nothing on here gets nearly the amount of radio play that Soundgarden’s and Pearl Jam’s biggest hits do. “Hunger Strike,” “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” “Pushin Forward Back,” “Call Me a Dog,” and “Times of Trouble” all should be much better known than they are.
Badmotorfinger (1991, A&M)
The band hasn’t modified their sound much since the last record, but there are two major differences between this disc and Louder Than Love that deservedly resulted in Cornell and his partners taking a great leap forward as a band artistically and becoming one of the more prominent groups of its genre at the same time: Ben Shepherd – whose own songwriting talents tend to be underrated – has replaced Hiro Yamamoto as the band’s bassist (one-time Nirvana member Jason Everman had filled in on bass on tour in the interim), the band’s new lineup having an even greater chemistry than its previous one, and just as crucially, the band seems to have focused more on improving their craft as songwriters. The move paid off, too – “Rusty Cage” and “Jesus Christ Pose” would deservedly give the band their highest-profile singles yet, while “Outshined,” the hypnotic and very underrated “Searching with My Good Eye Closed,” the Cornell/Shepherd collaboration “Slaves & Bulldozers,” the furious “Mind Riot,” and the Zeppelin-recalling “Holy Water” all similarly show off the band’s growth as writers to great effect.
Superunknown (1994, A&M)
One of the most iconic and influential albums of the early ‘90s – ranking right up there with Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten as one of the most defining albums of the grunge era – this album is the one that truly catapulted Soundgarden into superstardom, going platinum five times over in the U.S. alone. The band continues to get even better in the songwriting department, and they even managed to shed their cult status at long last and score a significant crossover hit with the ballad “Black Hole Sun,” which brilliantly fused the sound of ‘90s grunge to the melodic psychedelia of John Lennon’s best late-‘60s work with the Beatles. Though “Black Hole Sun” may be the song most people remember Soundgarden for, that’s far from being the only grunge classic on the disc, and songs like the haunting “Fell on Black Days,” the chugging rocker “Spoonman,” and the inventive rhythms of “The Day I Tried to Live” are nearly every bit as essential, while the album also sports one of the most underrated singles of Cornell’s career in the tight grooves of the infectious “My Wave,” which you can surprisingly almost even dance to and may surprise listeners who only know the band for its ballads and mid-tempo rockers.
Down on the Upside (1996, A&M)
Though the album wasn’t received nearly as warmly by critics as either of its two predecessors and the disc failed to yield a crossover hit quite as big as “Black Hole Sun,” you could actually make a really strong case for this being a better album than Badmotorfinger and, yes, perhaps even Superunknown. It might have a better reputation than it does if it weren’t quite so long, the disc containing sixteen tracks, and if the band hadn’t noticeably softened its sound a bit here, which naturally upset some of the band’s oldest fans. Cornell has a heavier influence here than normal – but to very positive results, the band’s songwriting taking on a whole new level of focus – and the disc consequently foreshadows the direction he would move in on his solo debut, Euphoria Morning, so fans of that album should like this disc nearly every bit as much, though it’s understandable why some Kim Thayil fans may be disappointed by this disc. Song-for-song, the disc is remarkably underrated, and the band has arguably never re-captured the sound of Led Zeppelin as well as they do on “Burden in My Hand,” while “Pretty Noose” is surprisingly catchy for a song of its complexity. The alternately hazy and manic moods of “Blow up the Outside World” and the furious rocker “Ty Cobb” are here as well, while the album also boasts a generous helping of the best non-singles in the band’s catalog. The Ben Shepherd-composed “Zero Chance” in particular might be the band’s most underrated song, while “Tighter and Tighter,” “Rhinosaur,” “Switch Opens” and “Never the Machine Forever” are all fabulous as well. Unfortunately, band relations soured during the making of the album – lead guitarist Kim Thayil was reportedly upset over the band’s shift away from heavier material and contributes only one song here as a writer – and the band would call it quits shortly after the album’s promotional tour.
Euphoria Morning, Chris Cornell (1999, A&M)
Cornell’s solo debut may not be nearly as famous as most of the Soundgarden or Audioslave albums, but it just might be the most underrated album he ever made, and it’s a shame that this album isn’t as well-revered as Superunknown. Cornell is truly at the top of his game here as a composer and lyricist both – he’s baring his soul here like never before – and the disc remains his masterpiece as a solo artist. It’s a bit head-scratching why this album didn’t fare better commercially than it did, because it’s arguably his most radio-friendly-sounding record yet – this is still very much a rock record, but it never sounds quite as sludgy as your average Soundgarden disc, nor is it quite as somber as your average Soundgarden album, either. It’s simply the sound of Cornell striking a masterful balance between the hard-rock shadings of his former band and his desire to explore more subtle – and slightly more pop-oriented – territory as a singer-songwriter, while still turning out music that’s every bit as emotionally cathartic as his best work with Soundgarden. Just try not to be affected by such songs as the defiant and catchy rocker “Can’t Change Me,” the stark “Sweet Euphoria,” the passion of “Disappearing One,” the resigned balladry of “Preaching the End of the World,” the psychedelic folk-rock of “Follow My Way,” or the uncharacteristically bluesy “When I’m Gone,” the opening minute of which finds Cornell surprisingly backed by little more than jazz-styled piano and light percussion.
Audioslave, Audioslave (2002, Epic/Interscope)
An album that was almost impossible for fans of ‘90s rock to not get excited about, this supergroup found the frontman (Cornell) of one of the biggest grunge bands of the previous decade (Soundgarden) teaming up with the three-member rhythm section (Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk) of the best rap-metal band of the ‘90s, Rage Against the Machine. While it may be true that this debut album never quite reaches the majestic heights of the best albums of either former band and has a bit more in common with Rage Against the Machine albums than anything of Cornell’s (though Cornell does put his own creative stamp on the disc by penning all the lyrics), it’s still an extremely fun and appealing listen with an especially rock-solid first half boasting such great cuts as “Like a Stone,” “Show Me How to Live,” “Cochise,” and “Gasoline.”
Out of Exile (2005, Epic/Interscope)
Even better than their debut album, this album finds the supergroup evolving quite a bit here and attempting to shake off criticisms that they merely sounded like Rage Against the Machine being fronted by Chris Cornell. The music seems a bit more genuinely collaborative – and Cornell’s influence a bit more obvious – this time around, and the band benefits greatly – and gives itself a more distinct identity – as a result, songs like “Be Yourself,” “Doesn’t Remind Me,” “Dandelion,” and “Your Time Has Come” arguably outshining the best songs from the last album.
King Animal, Soundgarden (2012, Universal/Republic)
Cornell surprised fans in 2010 by announcing that Soundgarden had reformed, initially just with the intention of re-learning the old songs and going out on the road. By the next year, though, they had begun work on a new album, and King Animal would turn out to be their first studio album in sixteen years. Though it doesn’t quite match the greatness of their last few albums together, the band impressively doesn’t embarrass itself, either, and it proves to be a better – and more tasteful – reunion disc than it really has any right to be considering how much time had elapsed since they had last played together. Cornell doesn’t have quite as big an influence here as he did on Down on the Upside and Thayil is a bit more involved in the songwriting this time around, but the band’s chemistry is still very much intact and they thankfully approach the project as if they’re merely picking up where they left off and don’t try to radically reinvent themselves or update their sound too greatly for the modern era, songs like “Been Away Too Long,” “Worse Dreams,” “By Crooked Steps,” “Bones of Birds,” “Rowing,” and “Non-State Actor” making fine new additions to the band’s catalog.
Higher Truth, Chris Cornell (2015, Universal)
Though he had earned the distinction in the intervening years since his solo debut of joining an elite class of artists who have been tapped to write and record a James Bond theme (in Cornell’s case, Casino Royale’s “You Know My Name”), Cornell’s previous two solo albums, 2007’s Carry On and 2009’s Scream had received a lukewarm reception, if that, from fans and critics alike, the former because it was simply too much of a mixed bag and the latter because it was perceived as a sell-out, the former Soundgarden frontman working with producers like Timbaland and Ryan Tedder and duetting with Justin Timberlake. Wisely, Cornell returned to what he did best on his next record, bringing in Brendan O’Brien (best known for his work with Pearl Jam) to produce and returning to more distinctly rock-oriented territory. It also helps that Cornell brings his best set of songs since Euphoria Morning to the table here, songs like “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” the title cut, “Before We Disappear,” “Only These Words,” and the delightful album closer “Our Time in the Universe” serving as his most memorable and emotionally powerful sides in years, and it’s reassuring to see Cornell return to such strong form here. Unfortunately, this would sadly turn out to be the last studio album – whether as a solo artist or otherwise – he would ever release before his untimely passing.