Chris Cornell, one of the last burning embers of the great rock renaissance of the early 1990s, has died. A virtuoso rock star and songwriter with a howling voice of sandpaper grit and effortless range, Cornell was a seminal figure at the turn of the 21st century thanks to his iconic Seattle grunge-rock band, Soundgarden. The band was such a driving force in grunge rock’s early years, even Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder recounts being a fan in the Soundgarden audience, not long before partnering with Cornell in Temple of the Dog.
Though Cornell’s first stint with Soundgarden resulted in perhaps his most prolific and memorable songwriting period, the artist rose again several times after the band’s first dissolution in 1997. Cornell found success both as a solo artist and as part of the supergroup Audioslave, forged with members of the band Rage Against the Machine. All told, Cornell went platinum nearly 15 times over, and left behind some of rock’s most stirring and powerful recordings and live performances thanks to his fiery charisma and otherworldly vocals.
Little is yet known about the details surrounding his death, but it has been confirmed that his wounds were self-inflicted. Cornell was touring with the reformed Soundgarden at the time of his passing, having just completed a show in Detroit, Michigan. As is so often the case in these moments, we’re now left with little more than a litany of questions, and a rich catalog of songs. As such, we’ve compiled some of Cornell’s best musical moments to help you mourn the legendary singer and his many faces, now burned forever into the rock ‘n roll edifice of time.
Black Hole Sun
The massive hit single from the band’s 1994 breakthrough album, Superunknown, the song — and its accompanying surrealistic video — put Soundgarden on the map and into the homes of millions of Americans from coast to coast. Few will forget the first time they heard Cornell’s stirring lines prophesize the burning apocalypse with a double-vocal chorus so sickly-sweet, we almost welcomed the coming storm.
Fell On Black Days
While he was perhaps at his best when he let his whiplash vocals soar free in the rafters, this track is a perfect example of Cornell’s ability to simmer with soft lyricism and haunting melodies, only building the tension before letting his high notes fly in the final moments. Written about his fear of being utterly unhappy, even when events in his life are going extremely well, the song encapsulates the dread that many feel in the throes of depression.
A duet with Eddie Vedder for Temple of the Dog’s lone studio album in 1991, the collaboration happened almost by accident as Vedder took the mic while waiting for the start of rehearsal with his own band, called at the time Mookie Blaylock. As the story goes, Vedder instinctively began singing the lower vocal exactly as Cornell had envisioned it, and thanks to the contradicting counterpoint of the two very differing legendary voices, this simple protest song became one of the most powerful (and popular) collaborations of its era.
Like A Stone
While not exactly a lyrical masterpiece, the chilling mix of Cornell’s dark melodies and Tom Morello’s rolling tremolo guitar created an instant hit for Audioslave, cementing the newly formed partnership between Rage Against the Machine and their blue-blooded new rock vocalist as a force to be reckoned with in the aftermath of the grunge era, just as the burgeoning alt-rock movement began to take flight.
Another excellent track from Soundgarden’s brilliant Superunknown, Spoonman was written about a local busker/street performer, Artis the Spoonman, who was known for his rhythmic performances on double spoons along the streets of Seattle’s Pike Place Market. The song was another hit single for Soundgarden, using the titular spoons to drive the rhythm for an odd-meter rock hit that plays liberally with the format. The song gained traction during Soundgarden’s 1993 tour with Neil Young, and helped set the stage for the band’s inevitable breakthrough.
The standout single from Soundgarden’s 1991 LP Badmotorfinger, Rusty Cage was one of the first indications the band would be more than a flash-in-the-pan local favorite. A song very much of its time, the recording is raw and the format simple: A driving, straightforward rhythm with dusty guitar and dual-octave vocals. The single helped bring Soundgarden notoriety on the level of their Seattle contemporaries, just as the music industry at large began to descend upon the city to help cultivate one of rock’s great resurgences, rolling aside the bloated carcass of ’80s hair metal.
Burden in My Hand
The smash hit from Down on the Upside, Soundgarden’s more pop-friendly follow-up to Superunknown, Burden in My Hand helped prove Soundgarden could stand in the world’s biggest spotlight and hold it steady. Bursting through with a brilliantly singable melody riding on the waves of Cornell’s perpetually seismic vocals, the song is expertly produced, blending track after track of rich distorted guitar, while Chris sings of a violent relationship that ends in tragedy in the desert.
A solo track written for the soundtrack of the film Great Expectations, Sunshower shows Cornell’s impressive writing chops, the range of which extended nearly as far as his counter-tenor voice. A beautiful, acoustically driven track, the song builds sweetly beneath Cornell’s echoing vocals, spinning a love song that offers some pleasant surprises in both its chord structure and its raw sentimentality.
You Know My Name
Co-written with composer David Arnold, You Know My Name marks not only a turn for Cornell as a songwriting gun-for-hire, but also the return of one of the most iconic franchises in cinematic history. As the first theme song for the new James Bond era, the song helped launch Daniel Craig as the grittier, more realistic iteration of the sexy superspy in Casino Royale.
Blow Up the Outside World
A chilling track given the revelations surrounding Cornell’s suicide, the song is ostensibly about a powerful figure who can’t seem to end his own pain, and is unable to get rid of the ambient entities that encroach on his well-being. “I’ve given everything I could,” Cornell sings, “to blow it to hell and gone.” The music has flavors of late Nirvana, and even some tinges of late Beatles writing circa 1969. It marks another moment of vocal eruption from the powerful singer-songwriter, who takes the final chorus to a fever point with raspy force until a repetitive tide at the end floats away into blurred electric distortion.
The Day I Tried To Live
The last tune on our list is a final reminder of the burning force of Superunknown, which will live on as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. “One more time around,” Cornell aptly sings in the chorus, awash in grungy guitar tones, before folding back into the odd-rhythm verse that builds into a powerful anthem. Written about his attempt to break free of reclusion, the song’s intro guitar melody sets the stage for the beautiful and haunting notes to come — a perfect tribute to the man who left behind a storied music catalog as troubled and sorrow-laden as it is memorable and enduring.
Like all the greats, Chris Cornell leaves behind a legacy unlike any before him or any that will come after. As powerful a songwriting force as he was a singer and frontman, his scorching vocals will forever bounce around in the reverb chamber of one of rock’s greatest eras. Rest in Peace, Mr. Cornell. You will be missed.
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