I remember in 1994 when Kurt Cobain died how unmoved I was, even as everyone on the radio that day acted like the musical world had come to an end. I remarked to somebody that day something to the effect of, “When Chris Cornell dies, I’ll be this upset.”
That day has arrived, and although I’m certainly not at that level of despair, I’m sad as one of my favorite rock vocalists and one of the best things to come out of the Seattle grunge scene has passed away. Chris Cornell was only 52 years old when he committed suicide just hours after a Soundgarden concert in Detroit.
Normally people put this statement at the end of articles about celebrities who have committed suicide, but I want to get this out right here at the top: If you’re considering suicide, you’re not alone, and you can receive help and hope. Please read these words from my friend Kira Davis (who has faced her own demons of depression), and click here to get help, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-275-8255 or text the organization at 741-741.
Cornell had an astounding four-octave vocal range, and he put it to use in so many different vehicles — from the grunge of Soundgarden, to the bone-shaking rock of Audioslave to a spotty solo career and tons of guest appearances. He was a gifted songwriter, weaving intelligent lyrics with Biblical and literary references into rock poetry. Here are his ten best songs. Enjoy!
10. “I Am the Highway” (Audioslave, 2002)
When I first heard that Cornell was teaming up with most of Rage Against The Machine, I had a feeling that I wouldn’t ever listen to them. RATM is one of the bands whose politics are so execrable to me that I won’t listen to them. But a friend of mine played some of Audioslave’s self-titled album, and I loved a couple of the songs.
“I Am The Highway” was one of those songs. The Biblical allusions and the storyline that suggests the Prodigal Son set the lyrics apart from the political storm I was expecting. The big, expansive sound was unlike most anything I had heard. And, of course, the icing on the cake is Cornell’s vocals. This wouldn’t be half the song it is with anyone else singing lead, and that speaks to the power of Cornell’s voice.
9. “Spoonman” (Soundgarden, 1994)
At the risk of sounding dismissive, it’s easy to look back at “Spoonman” and see it as a funny little novelty song, but it’s the song that helped launch Soundgarden into the mainstream. It was the first single from the Superunknown album, and it sounded like nothing else on the radio with its shifting time signatures and spoon solo, courtesy of Artis the Spoonman, the real-life subject of the song.
“Spoonman” is quirky, and it’s fun, but most importantly, it rocks! So don’t merely dismiss it.
8. “Like a Stone” (Audioslave, 2002)
Back when we were looking at “I Am the Highway,” I remarked that it took listening to a couple of Audioslave’s songs to lead me to drop my political fears of the band and listen to their self-titled debut album. “Like a Stone” was my favorite moment on that record.
Cornell is in fine voice on this song, and he complements Tom Morello’s fine guitar work throughout. The lyrics about a man facing his death take on a greater poignancy today, but I could listen to this one over and over.
7. “Can’t Change Me” (solo, 1999)
When Cornell launched his solo career, I was intrigued. The Euphoria Morning album was unlike anything I had heard from him previously, and the album’s only single, “Can’t Change Me,” trades in the grungy Seattle sound for gorgeous Beatlesque textures.
The song weaves a tale that’s as old as rock and roll itself: the man whose woman wants to reform him but can’t. Cornell wrote and produced a song that’s soaring and surprising here, and it certainly deserved a wider audience than it got.
6. “Fell on Black Days” (Soundgarden, 1994)
“Fell on Black Days” is my favorite song from the Superunknown album, and it’s one of their songs that has stuck with me the most over the years. It’s another tune in a weird time signature (6/4, for those of you playing along at home), and it allows Cornell to explore the depth of his range.
The lyrics tell a tale of someone suffering from a temporary depression. Cornell said this about the song:
It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting—when all of a sudden you realize you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared.
It’s certainly a universal topic, but Cornell tackles it in a way that’s compelling and real. Maybe that’s why “Fell on Black Days” resonates with so many people.
5. “Hunger Strike” (Temple of the Dog, 1991)
Temple of the Dog was a one-off collaboration between Cornell and members of Pearl Jam. They got together in memory of their friend and Cornell’s former roommate Andrew Wood, the deceased leader of Mother Love Bone, and they recorded one album that came out in 1991, before both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam made it into the national consciousness.
The best song on the album is “Hunger Strike,” in which Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sits in to duet with Cornell. Vedder’s guest spot came about almost as an accident, because he sang the parts that were too low for Cornell to sing well that day. The result is the closest thing to grunge royalty, and the song remains striking and powerful to this day.
4. “Pretty Noose” (Soundgarden, 1996)
First off, I’m aware how unfortunate it is that one of Cornell’s best songs dovetails with his suicide, but “Pretty Noose” is the best song from Soundgarden’s 1996 album Down on the Upside. It also happens to be my all-time favorite among their songs.
On that record the band distanced itself just a little from the grunge of their previous output and even explored psychedelic influences.
Cornell once described the song as being about “something that seems great at first and then comes back to bite you.” Much like fame, isn’t it? As much as my heart breaks thinking about how Cornell took his life, we have the incredible legacy of songs like these by which to remember him.
3. “You Know My Name” (solo, 2006)
The genre of James Bond theme songs is spotty, with over five decades of hits and misses (and not a whole lot of in between). The Daniel Craig era came in with a bang, as the film Casino Royale kicks off with a gritty scene showing 007’s first kill, and then the film kicks into overdrive with Cornell’s blistering theme song “You Know My Name.”
After so many dramatic ballads, to have a rocker start off a Bond film was bracing, and Cornell, co-writing with composer David Arnold, pulls of a stunner that works as a standalone song as well as a Bond theme. Why it didn’t grab an Oscar nomination is completely beyond me.
2. “Heavy Is the Head” (Zac Brown Band featuring Chris Cornell, 2015)
I wrote about Zac Brown Band’s expansive, astonishing album JEKYLL + HYDE right here two years ago this week. One of the standout tracks on that album was a collaboration with Cornell, in the grunge-evoking rocker “Heavy Is the Head,” which gave the country-fusion band (to borrow a term from Rolling Stone) a number-one rock hit.
Cornell jumps in with ZBB on this track to do what he has always done best – wail. It almost sounds like he adopts a surprisingly good Southern accent on the track, and if so, it works. The pairing feels natural, and the song succeeds because Cornell’s pipes mesh perfectly with the band’s virtuosity.
I only wish I could have seen him perform it live with Zac Brown Band.
1. “Black Hole Sun” (Soundgarden, 1994)
This one is probably Soundgarden’s best-known song, and it’s because it’s also their best. Evocative and poetic (yet weird) lyrics and a memorable melody – so much so that I heard somebody singing it around the church office earlier this week – combine in a way that makes the song exceed the sum of its parts.
“Black Hole Sun” works because Cornell delivers it so convincingly. His vocal performance reflects the angst of Generation X far better than anything Kurt Cobain and company could have dreamed of. Certain songs are destined to be classics from the moment they are released, and “Black Hole Sun” is that classic for Soundgarden.
Oh, and that video? It still freaks me out.
What are your favorite Chris Cornell tunes? Let me know in the comments section below, and let’s celebrate the life of one of the greats together.