On the morning of May 18, music fans around the world were stunned with sadness at the news of Chris Cornell’s unexpected passing. As the lead singer of Soundgarden, Cornell was one of the most prominent pioneers of the grunge scene emerging from Seattle in the 1990s. Cornell’s influence spread past music, even making a cameo in the 1992 film Singles, a testament to the importance and popularity of the grunge movement in Seattle. Simply put, Cornell was an icon. While he was best known as the frontman of groups like Soundgarden and Audioslave, Cornell also had an impressive discography as a solo artist and as a collaborator on various projects. Though all of his work has something to offer, and I highly recommend listening to his albums in their entirety, here are some of the best and most essential sounds of Chris Cornell.
Cornell began his music career as the lead singer and frontman of the rock/grunge band Soundgarden. Their debut album Ultramega OK was released in 1988 and was immediately followed by Louder Than Love in 1989. While both albums put them on the heavy metal rock map, it was not until the release of their third studio album, Badmotorfinger (1991), that the band would achieve both critical and commercial success. The record is a monument in the archives of grunge history: “Slaves and Bulldozers” is a pure example of grunge, but lead singles like “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined” stand out, and helped Soundgarden gain a healthy amount of radio play. In 1992, the band released a recording of a live performance at the Paramount Theater in Seattle on VHS called Motorvision. The video features 8 songs, mostly from Badmotorfinger, and truly captures the essence of the era.
In 1994, Superunknown launched the band and Cornell to another level of stardom. The lead single, “Black Hole Sun,” is undoubtedly the best known song, in regards to the band and the rock genre in general. Its post-punk guitar lick throughout the verses switches to heavy, driving, broken chords during the chorus, working in tandem with Cornell’s haunting melody to create a lush force of sound.
Temple of the Dog:
In 1991, while still in Soundgarden, Cornell collaborated with Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron, and Eddie Vedder to form Temple of the Dog (Gossard, Ament, McCready, Cameron, and Vedder would later go on to create another iconic grunge band, Pearl Jam). The band was a tribute in honor of the late Andrew Wood (Malfunkshun, Mother Love Bone), arguably the grandfather of grunge. The self-titled album became a classic to grunge fans, and the band reunited for a tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary in 2016. The album offers classics like “Hunger Strike,” which features a duet by Cornell and Vedder, who are now considered some of the best voices of their time.
If you like alt-rock, then there is a 99.9% chance that you know “Like a Stone” off of the band’s self titled debut album released in 2002. Cornell’s next musical venture lasted from 2001 to 2007, with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk. In the six years that the group was together, they produced solid songs like “Show Me How to Live,” “Getaway Car,” “Be Yourself,” “Revelations,” and, of course, “Like a Stone”. With the pressure of being compared to both Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave skillfully avoided being reduced to a “side band” by successfully creating a unique sound for themselves.
While working with other musicians and lending his talents to several bands, Cornell also made time for himself. Through his solo career, Cornell made it clear that his musical ability expanded far beyond the categories of rock and grunge. He released four solo albums over the course of 1999 to 2015, all varying in sound and style. The most shocking of the four was his 2009 album Scream, in which he worked with producer Timbaland, who is known for producing tracks for hip-hop, rap, and r&b songs. Some of his most notable solo songs are “Can’t Change Me,” his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” “Scream,” “Nearly Forgot my Broken Heart,” and a feature on the Zac Brown Band song “Heavy is the Head” in 2015. That same year, he also performed a flawless cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” at the SiriusXM studio.
Cornell was an accomplished guitarist and songwriter, but what he will best be remembered for is his one of a kind voice, that smooth, yet rough around the edges, voice that settles warmly in the pit of your stomach. It managed to be colorful and musical while maintaining the drowsiness that classified grunge vocalists. Upon hearing the melody of “Black Hole Sun,” your brain’s eyes could begin to see the warm, orange and red hues of the Superunknown cover art.
His love for music defied the musical boundaries placed on artists tied to specific genres. While the means of Cornell’s death are indeed tragically intriguing, we should all focus on appreciating the life and work of a talented artist, father, husband, and friend. Cornell was constantly pushing his musical range, and because of that, we were granted with almost 30 years of honest and quality music. And we are lucky he decided to share it with us. Rest in peace, Chris Cornell.
Written by Rebekah Gonzalez