While we have lost far too many talented musicians over the last few years, many of whom have had a considerable role in the music industry, few of these have hit me as hard as the untimely loss of the Soundgarden, Temple of The Dog, and solo vocalist Chris Cornell four years ago. After a long and inspiring career in grunge and hard rock music, Chris was found dead in his hotel room on May 17th, 2017, having died by suicide after playing his last show ever at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, MI.
It’s hard to verbalize just how much of an impact Chris had on me, not only as a fan of music but of rock and roll specifically. Groundbreaking artists like the late Chester Bennington considered Chris not only a big inspiration but a close family friend, as Chester was the godfather to Chris’ son. As for myself, my love of Soundgarden in the early ‘90s opened up doors to worlds of music that I hadn’t previously known existed. Suddenly, through the heavy riffing of Kim Thayil and the four-octave range of the irreplaceable Chris Cornell, I began a journey of discovery into hard rock music that has continued to this day. Because of Soundgarden, I became hooked on Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and later Stone Temple Pilots. “Spoonman” became one of the first songs that I utterly fell in love with; to this day, I still feel the same magic while listening to it as I did back then.
When Chris first passed away four years ago, various tributes poured in as his peers, friends, and family attempted to put together the pieces and come to grips with the loss of one of rock’s most talented vocalists. Today while listening back to a live performance recorded with both Chris and Chester Bennington, I felt inspired to go back through his discography and compile a collection of what I believe to be the most outstanding and notable singles and performances of the late, great Chris Cornell.
If you’re considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255 in the US) or speak to someone you know. Reaching out is the first step. Regardless of how hopeless it may seem at the moment, life can and will get better. Remember: you matter, you are loved, and you deserve to be here.
Featuring a voice that was new to the scene at the time – Eddie Vedder – now of Pearl Jam fame – this duet stands as a timeless Grunge classic, bringing together two of the genre’s best vocalists in a haunting collaboration that perfectly showcases Chris’ undeniable range.
Here we have a spellbinding performance by two of hard rock’s greatest vocalists. This performance is made even more poignant in retrospect, given their tragic deaths by suicide, which occurred only two months apart. Before his untimely passing, Chester dedicated a gut-wrenching performance of his band Linkin Park‘s track “One More Light” to Chris just after his death. Chris’ daughter Toni would later return the favor by paying tribute to both her father and Chester with a performance of Hallelujah, a song Chester himself sang at Chris’ service. Listen to the “One More Light” performance here and Toni’s cover of Hallelujah here.
Written in response to the passing of his close friend Andrew Wood (frontman of Mother Love Bone), this song serves as the opening track to Temple of The Dog‘s debut album, working double duty as an introduction to Grunge’s biggest super group, as well as a heartbreaking ode to Wood, a man many credit as The Godfather of Grunge.
No list of Chris’ greatest hits would be complete without the introduction to Soundgarden‘s 1988 label debut Ultramega Ok, “Flower”. In a Pre-Nirvana era when most rock music on the radio was still accompanied by tight pants and big hair, the boys of Soundgarden offered a darker and far moodier alternative. This was a raw and guttural performance that laid the foundation for Soundgarden’s sound and their rise to become one of Grunge’s most influential acts.
Armed with a greater songwriting focus (brought on by the addition of Ben Shepherd on bass), 1991’s Badmotorfinger found Soundgarden experimenting with unique time signatures, alternative tuning, and ambiguous lyrics, resulting in music that critics dubbed both “arty” and “cerebral”. Two of this album’s singles (“Outshined” and “Rusty Cage”) would become smash hits, leading to it becoming the band’s highest charting album at the time.
Soundgarden – The Entire Superunknown Album
Okay, so this might be cheating as it includes many songs, but who cares? My personal introduction to the band as a child, this album is an absolute masterpiece. Featuring many of the band’s staple songs (“Spoonman”, “Black Hole Sun”, “Fell On Black Days”, “The Day I Tried To Live”), this album just had so much going for it. Chris’ voice is flawless, the band’s inspirations are on full display, and who can forget that trippy “Black Hole Sun” video? The psychotic housewife with the fish still creeps me out. This was Soundgarden’s biggest selling album and earned them international acclaim from the first track onwards. It’s not difficult to see why.
The last Soundgarden track on this list, I consider this song to be quintessential Soundgarden. Why? Because it’s one of their best songs, from one of their most underrated albums. Every single element of this song shows each band member at their absolute peak. From Kim Thayll’s distinctive and easily recognizable Wah-Wah riff to begin, Ben Shepherd’s filthy bass, the infectious stomp of Matt Cameron’s shuffling drum beat and finally Chris Cornell’s awe-inspiring vocal performance, this is a song that shows why Soundgarden were truly a sum of all of their parts. It’s sad, then, to consider that this would be the band’s last album for sixteen years, as tensions in the group would lead to their breakup after this record.
No stranger to super groups, Chris left his mark on yet another incredible band when he and members of the rock band Rage Against The Machine joined forces to launch this high-octane single in 2002. Featuring some of the most talented and influential musicians in the game, the marriage of Tom Morello‘s guitar work and Chris’ aggressive refrain of “go on and save yourself!” was a match made in heaven.
I could go on and on about Chris’ incredible voice (and let’s be honest, I have), but if there is one song I would choose to demonstrate all the gorgeous textures of his vocal talent it would be “Like A Stone”. Bluesy, somber, haunting, and melancholy, his voice and his lyricism are on full display here as he sings about the struggle in life to do your best, whilst not being guaranteed entry to heaven at the end of the road. In discussing the track, Chris stated: “It’s a song about concentrating on the afterlife you would hope for, rather than the normal monotheistic approach: You work really hard all your life to be a good person and a moral persona and fair and generous, and then you go to hell anyway.”
If there is any track on this list that might provoke disagreement from our readers, it’s this one. Vastly misunderstood and even derided by fans and critics alike when it was released, it elicited many harsh attacks of its sound. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails said Chris had “embarrassed” himself (a comment he later apologized for) and AllMusic referred to the album as a “big budget disaster”. Regardless of where you fall on the review spectrum, Scream is an album that certainly didn’t deserve the hate it received on release. Years before rock bands attempting pop music became a thing, Chris gambled with this club-friendly track and proved that no matter the genre, he could make anything work. It’s catchy, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it knows how to have fun, which is more than can be said for the legions who trashed this song somewhat unfairly on its original release.
There’s a comment on this video on YouTube that I feel sums up the performance perfectly: “written by a genius, sang by an angel, covered by a legend”. Originally written by Prince, and made a smash hit by Sinead O’Connor, Chris’ rendition shows that covers are sometimes way better than the original. While many will associate this song with Sinead, Chris makes it completely his own, singing over a stripped down acoustic rendition and backed by a gorgeous cello that compliments his transcendent performance. He would later release a studio version of the track after Prince’s death in 2016, with another version featuring his daughter being released posthumously in 2018.
And perhaps ‘Nothing Compares’ is a perfect end to this list, as the song title itself is a fitting description and send-off to one of the best voices in rock. Chris Cornell was a generation- and genre-defining artist who inspired many young people and many musicians who came after him. It’s been over four years, but the hole that his passing has left in rock music is still felt today.
Rest In Peace, you absolute legend.