Saturday, May 18, 2024

Top Ten Things: Chris Cornell Albums

**Originally published 5/21/17, updated in 2022**

Welcome to a special Top Ten Things here at

Chris Cornell's suicide last week has left a ragged, gaping hole in the music world many of us are still struggling to come to terms with.  As my colleague Dan Moore talked about HERE, Cornell was a golden-throated force of nature, whose mindbending vocal range and soulful power were unmatched in rock music.  He rose to prominence as one of the pioneers of grunge but later explored genres as wide-ranging as singer/songwriter rock, adult contemporary, folk, and even dance pop.  Few artists have created such a wildly divergent body of work, and for me no other singer ever wielded his instrument with such effortless agility and emotive grace.  My coping mechanism has been to learn and record as many of his songs as I can and hope I do them even a modicum of justice (You be the judge).

But today I'll be talking about his amazing discography as I count down my ten favorite Cornell albums.  Here we go.....

HM. Chris Cornell - Scream

Cornell's most divisive album was 2009's Scream, an electronic pop collaboration with hotshot producer Timbaland that combined Chris's rock songwriting sensibility with a hooky R&B sound.  The results were understandably mixed, but the album yielded some excellently written songs, like the bleakly syncopated "Time," the anthemic, strikingly mature love song "Never Far Away," and the title track, a gloomy ode to relationship strife.  While far from Cornell's best work, Scream showed an artist cheerfully exploring new territory and reinventing himself.

HM. Soundgarden - Louder Than Love

Soundgarden's sophomore effort showed an improvement over its predecessor both in production and in songwriting, with songs like the anthemic lament of environmental destruction "Hands All Over," the dark and violent "Gun," the tongue-in-cheek "Full On Kevin's Mom" (about a friend of Chris's who actually hooked up with their friend Kevin's mom) and "Big Dumb Sex" (a parody of 80s cock-rock tunes), and the de facto title track "Loud Love."  Soundgarden were emerging as the leaders of this new, strange rock n' roll movement coming out of Seattle, and Chris's soaring vocals were beginning to garner mainstream attention in a big way.  But the band's third album would show exponential creative growth....

10. Chris Cornell - No One Sings Like You Anymore, Vol. 1

The first of what will hopefully be numerous posthumous releases, NOSLYA is an album of cover songs, recorded in 2016 and put out in 2020 by Cornell's estate.  The eclectic material all lends itself well to Chris's unique interpretation, and he put his own beautiful stamp on all ten songs.  From well-known favorites like Guns N' Roses' "Patience" and Prince/Sinead O'Connor's mega-hit "Nothing Compares 2U," to John Lennon's semi-deep cut "Watching the Wheels" and songs I was unfamiliar with like "Sad Sad City" by Ghostland Observatory, this album is a bittersweet reminder of Chris's transcendent gifts, and a wonderful little addition to his already incredible discography.  I can't wait for Volume 2.

9. Soundgarden - King Animal

Cornell's grunge quartet had split in 1997 but reunited 13 years later for a tour, and began writing new music for their sixth studio album.  The result was King Animal, a safe but fairly triumphant return for the grunge pioneers, that fit right in with their previous output.  Album highlights included the Sabbathy "Blood on the Valley Floor," the eccentric, off-balance "Bones of Birds," the folky "Halfway There" which would've been at home on a Cornell solo record, and the classic Soundgarden feel of "Eyelid's Mouth."  It was a long time coming, but King Animal would be a worthy Soundgarden record and ultimately the band's final completed work.

8. Audioslave - Out of Exile

After his first solo album's disappointing commercial performance, Cornell was able to reinvigorate his career by forming a supergroup with three members of then-defunct Rage Against the Machine, creating an unusual groove-rock hybrid.  Their second album is our #8 entry on this list.  Released in 2005, Out of Exile may not have been the hard rock powderkeg of the band's debut, but it was a perfectly sturdy followup, providing trademark Tom Morello guitar riffs in songs like "Your Time Has Come" and the title track, and some gentler, more thoughtful tunes like "Be Yourself" and "Doesn't Remind Me."  Out of Exile built on the successful formula of the first record and in retrospect serves as a fine companion piece.

7. Soundgarden - Down on the Upside

Soundgarden's last album before their 1997 breakup was easily their most eclectic, expanding their sound past the constraints of the fading grunge movement and into more straightforward alt-rock.  The album's mood was quieter and a bit gentler than Soundgarden's previous records, and while perhaps a bit disorganized and uneven, boasted a few of the band's standout songs.  The nihilistic "Blow Up the Outside World" and the jangling "Burden in My Hand" became staunch radio hits and showed off Cornell's broadening songwriting skills, while atmospheric deep cuts like "Tighter & Tighter" and "Switch Opens" had an oddly serene quality.  The eclecticism of Down on the Upside seemed to reflect the band members' growing dissatisfaction with the Soundgarden project and feels like a fitting denouement (for the time being at least).

6. Chris Cornell - Higher Truth

Cornell's final original solo album was 2015's Higher Truth, a folky, acoustic-driven collection of songs helmed by alt-rock veteran Brendan O'Brien.  Perhaps no other album in his catalog illustrated Cornell's pure singer/songwriter abilities; Higher Truth is an intimate, deeply personal set of tunes that create a meditative, zen-like atmosphere.  The album's first and only single "Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart" harkens back somewhat to Cornell's dexterous writing/vocals on Euphoria Mourning while songs like "Dead Wishes" and "Worried Moon" recall the adult-contempo sounds of Carry On.  Cornell also taps into some of his longtime Beatles influence on the worldly, contemplative "Higher Truth" (think John Lennon's "Imagine") and the Eastern-infused "Our Time in the Universe."  This is a compelling album of varied styles and textures, from a true rock n' roll legend.

5. Temple of the Dog

In 1990 Chris's roommate Andrew Wood (of Mother Love Bone) died of a heroin overdose, and Cornell decided to record an album in tribute to him.  Recruiting MLB members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, and rounding out the lineup with Mike McCready and Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, Cornell formed Temple of the Dog (essentially the future Pearl Jam lineup fronted by Cornell).  The album is a versatile, fairly mellow collection of grunge and rock tunes, led off by the spectacular "Say Hello 2 Heaven," which boasts one of Cornell's most soaring vocals.  From there the album takes a soulful turn on "Reach Down," followed by Cornell's famous duet with future Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder on the single "Hunger Strike."  Later album tracks like the bluesy "Call Me a Dog" and "All Night Thing" foreshadow Cornell's turn to more traditional rock styles on his solo records.  Recorded over a scant 14 sessions, the Temple of the Dog album remains one of the standouts of Cornell's discography, illustrating his burgeoning penchant for expressive mainstream rock songs that eschewed the gloom and doom of Seattle grunge.

4. Audioslave

The debut album from the Rage/Cornell supergroup was an instant masterpiece.  Tom Morello's signature effects-laden guitars, Tim Commerford's gritty bass, and Brad Wilk's thunderingly simplistic drums would surprisingly feel right at home beneath Cornell's towering vocal gymnastics, and this Zeppelin-esque hard rock record yielded a staggering number of great songs.  The opener "Cochise" was like an explosive band introduction, while "Show Me How to Live" and "What You Are" boast a timeless classic rock vibe.  Cornell's affecting vocals come through best on the mournful "Like a Stone," "Shadow on the Sun" and "The Last Remaining Light," all of which also allowed the former Rage members to stretch their legs.  Audioslave launched out of the gate at a breakneck pace, with a fierce rocker of a debut that offered a modernized take on ballsy arena rock.

3. Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger

Soundgarden's breakthrough album was this grungy 1991 juggernaut.  Improving leaps and bounds over their first two records, Badmotorfinger showed a band that had fully found itself.  Cornell's vocals now incorporated a tempered swagger while still pushing his dazzling range, and new bassist Ben Shepherd added an idiosyncratic sensibility to the band's sound.  Standouts included the energetic gallop of "Rusty Cage," the sledgehammer guitar riff of "Outshined," the harsh dissonance of "Jesus Christ Pose," and the bluesy passion of "Holy Water."  Batmotorfinger is for many the definitive Soundgarden album, one that fully established their signature sound before their popularity exploded in 1994.

2. Chris Cornell - Euphoria Mourning

The album that made me truly fall in love with Cornell's voice was his 1999 solo debut, Euphoria Mourning, a distinct departure for the former Soundgarden frontman.  Mourning maintained a hint of Cornell's morose alt-rock roots but also showed off his talent for folk, blues and soul-oriented rock.  Heartwrenching songs like "Wave Goodbye" (a tribute to another departed friend, Jeff Buckley), and the mournfully gorgeous piano ballad "When I'm Down" (maybe Cornell's greatest vocal performance) showed a pensive new side to Cornell's art, while the George Harrison-esque "Mission" and psychedelic "Moonchild" drew on his 1960s inspirations.  Mourning is for me Cornell's defining solo work, and the one album that fully exemplifies his impossibly elastic voice and uniquely detailed songwriting.  It is his non-Soundgarden masterwork.

1. Soundgarden - Superunknown

The greatest album of Cornell's incredible career though has to be Soundgarden's fourth album Superunknown.  This 70-minute opus captured a band at its creative apex, having merged their Sabbath-inspired riffage with psychedelic and metal elements to create a nonstop bevy of grunge classics.  Superunknown contains one of the longest streaks of unforgettable songs I've ever heard, from the the archetypal Soundgarden opener "Let Me Drown" to the tentatively hopeful "The Day I Tried to Live," there's nary a falter (Only the brief "Kickstand" and bizarre "Half" strike me as B-material).  This album is stuffed with killer tracks - the depressive "Fell on Black Days," the disturbing ode to murdering your boss "Mailman," the trippy megahit "Black Hole Sun," the apocalyptic "Limo Wreck" and "4th of July," and the darkly beautiful closer about a dead bird Cornell found outside his window, "Like Suicide."  Superunknown remains part of a triumvirate of universally beloved grunge albums, and along with Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten, helped define an era in music and pop culture.  This will always be Chris Cornell's greatest and most lasting achievement.

Well I hope you enjoyed my look back at some of Chris Cornell's albums.  It will be a long and painful process for his fans and loved ones to accept his absence; rest assured, there will never be another like him.  

Rest in peace Chris.  You left the art of music far better than you found it, affecting so many of us on a profound level.  "No one sings like you anymore."

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this piece. Rest in piece, Chris and thanks for the Impressive oeuvre.