Coming off the back of Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, Soundgarden’s fifth album, Down On The Upside, has often been unfairly overlooked, even though it debuted at No.2 on the Billboard chart and moved 200,000 copies in its first week of release. With hindsight, however, despite the changing trends of the times (the grunge movement had peaked by 1996, and newer scenes like nu-metal were coming to define alt.rock), Down On The Upside stands as a powerful offering from a band at a crossroads.
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Scrutinising the lyrics of some of its songs, fans have often speculated that Down On The Upside was designed to be Soundgarden’s swansong – after all, they split following its release, before eventually reuniting 16 years later to record 2012’s King Animal. As guitarist Kim Thayil revealed in a recent interview with Blabbermouth, however, that wasn’t what the band had intended.
“When we were making that album, [drummer] Matt Cameron and I had talked about there being a next Soundgarden album,” he said. “The fact that there were songs [such as final track ‘Boot Camp’] thematically referencing conclusions on Down On The Upside – well, ultimately that’s a coincidence.” Indeed, Down On The Upside ably demonstrates that Chris Cornell and company were rapidly evolving and clearly had plenty still to offer.
Straying into new territory
In the run-up to making the record, Soundgarden were adamant about one thing: reproducing Superunknown was not an option. They’d already road-tested and stockpiled some new material at European festivals during 1995, but they were eager to break free from the constraints of their signature hard rock sound and they also hoped to self-produce and capture their new album live in the studio.
In the end, the band compromised a little. They made good on handling the production chores, but they drafted in Superunknown’s assistant engineer, Adam Kasper, for recording sessions held at two Seattle complexes, Bad Animals and Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s Litho Studios, early in 1996.
Though less polished than the peerless Superunknown, the record Soundgarden emerged with, on 21 May 1996, was arguably the most diverse of their career, and certainly one of their most captivating. Their aggressive trademark sound still made its presence felt on the coruscating ‘Never The Machine Forever’ and the intense lead single, ‘Pretty Noose’, but elsewhere the four musicians relished straying into new territory on the jangly, R.E.M.-esque ‘Switch Opens’ and the hybridised ‘Ty Cobb’, the latter an astonishing mash-up of punk and Americana wherein mandolins went head to head with Cornell and Thayil’s thrashing guitars.
However, Down At The Upside really hit its stride when Soundgarden slowed things down a little. Though ostensibly an ominous murder ballad, ‘Burden In My Hand’ switched deftly between pastoral, Led Zeppelin III-esque folk-rock and stadium-sized choruses, while the band played with admirable restraint on the brooding ‘Blow Up The Outside World’ and the melancholic ‘Boot Camp’ (“There must be something else/There must be something good far away”), with the latter providing an atypically poignant postscript.
Down On The Upside, then, requires urgent reappraisal more than any other album in Soundgarden’s illustrious canon. Owing to their split after the gruelling subsequent world tour, it became the band’s epitaph by default for 16 years. But for a record that inadvertently presaged their demise, it still sounds pretty damn life-affirming.
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Seattle’s Soundgarden were simply a force of nature. Not only were they fronted by the singular Chris Cornell, but they could also draw upon the immense firepower of guitarist Kim Thayil and one of rock’s most colossal rhythm sections, Ben Shepherd (bass) and Matt Cameron (drums). They will always be synonymous with grunge music, but the best Soundgarden songs transcend fads and fashions.
Below, we’ve chosen 20 songs that demonstrate why Soundgarden remain one of rock music’s most iconic bands, but maybe we’ve missed one? If you think so, let us know in the comments section.
Listen to the best of Soundgarden on Apple Music and Spotify, and scroll down to read our 20 best Soundgarden songs.
Best Soundgarden Songs: 20 Tracks That Outshine The Competition
20: ‘Beyond The Wheel’ (Ultramega OK, 1988)
Though Soundgarden felt it failed to capture their inherent ferocity, 1988’s Ultramega OK is a formidable debut album, and its furious amalgam of swaggering hard rock, proto-punk and DC-style hardcore arguably drew up the blueprint for grunge. The brutal ‘Beyond The Wheel’ is powered by guitarist Kim Thayil’s first truly monolithic riff.
19: ‘Flower’ (Ultramega OK, 1988)
Ultramega OK’s other stand-out cut, ‘Flower’, features a gloriously unexpected raga rock-esque breakdown, while the song encourages Chris Cornell to display his star quality for the first time, relaying a third-person lyric that’s alternately angst-ridden and seductive. An early classic and a sure sign of the greater things that would come from the best Soundgarden songs.
18: ‘Been Away Too Long’ (King Animal, 2012)
The opening track from 2012’s long-awaited Soundgarden reunion album, King Animal, the muscular, anthemic ‘Been Away Too Long’ proved that Cornell and company were firing on all cylinders after a 15-year leave of absence. Indeed, the album as a whole was lean and hungry, and, as one review so succinctly declared, it “plugged back into the sound that made them the moodiest and heaviest of the Seattle grunge bands”.
17: ‘Birth Ritual’ (Singles soundtrack, 1992)
The soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film, Singles, concentrated primarily on Seattle’s ascendant grunge scene. Consequently, classic cuts from fellow scenesters Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees and Mudhoney rubbed plaid-clad shoulders with Soundgarden’s ‘Birth Ritual’: an enthralling six-minute epic based upon a relentlessly heavy, yet ultra-hypnotic groove which the band had first nailed during the sessions for 1991’s Badmotorfinger.
16: ‘Hands All Over’ (Louder Than Love, 1989)
Soundgarden began to transition from hotly-tipped local heroes to fully-fledged global icons with their second album, 1989’s Louder Than Love, from which the psych-tinged ‘Hands All Over’ is as powerful and memorable as any of the best Soundgarden songs. Cornell also turns in one of his most soaring vocal performances, and while the ominous chorus (“You’re gonna kill your mother!”) has been widely misconstrued, ‘Hands All Over’ is actually an ecology-related protest song.
15: ‘Ty Cobb’ (Down On The Upside, 1996)
The least-known of the four singles from 1996’s Down On The Upside, ‘Ty Cobb’ represents a radical – and fascinating – departure from Soundgarden’s signature grunge sound. Though superficially a throwback to the band’s hardcore punk roots, this aggressive rocker is accompanied by mandolins and mandola, which gamely ride shotgun and add an unexpected, Americana-style edge to an already astonishing track.
14: ‘Loud Love’ (Louder Than Love, 1989)
Another high-water mark from Soundgarden’s second album, the compelling ‘Loud Love’ opens with muted, e-bow-esque feedback from Thayil, before Cornell’s rising scream introduces a well-crafted groove and the track morphs into one of the band’s trademark anthemic rockers. Pulling off a trick they’d polish to perfection over the next few years, ‘Loud Love’ is infectious and radio-friendly while still providing plenty for the discerning headbanger.
13: ‘Searching With My Good Eye Closed’ (Badmotorfinger, 1991)
Soundgarden’s classic line-up fell into place when bassist Ben Shepherd replaced Hiro Yamamoto prior to their third album, Badmotorfinger. An able songwriter as well as an accomplished musician, Shepherd’s arrival gave the Seattle quartet a shot in the arm, which Kim Thayil noted, when he told Rolling Stone, “The dark psychedelia which was replaced by a visceral heaviness on Louder Than Love came back.” He wasn’t kidding. ‘Searching With My Good Eye Closed’ was sky-kissing psych-rock at its best, with the guitars wailing and moaning and Shepherd’s rumbling bass anchoring Cornell’s mantra-like vocals.
12: ‘My Wave’ (Superunknown, 1994)
The fourth single from the band’s multi-platinum flagship album, Superunknown, ‘My Wave’ is well titled, for it feverishly rolls and swells around a complex 5/4 time signature. In typical Soundgarden fashion, however, it’s also irresistibly catchy. With drummer Matt Cameron performing minor miracles behind the kit, and Cornell summoning a suitably gutsy vocal, it’s no surprise that ‘My Wave’ is a constant pick among fans’ best Soundgarden songs.
11: ‘Room A Thousand Yards Wide’ (Badmotorfinger, 1991)
Another killer cut from Badmotorfinger, with a production as expansive as the song’s title implies, ‘Room A Thousand Yards Wide’ represents Soundgarden at their widescreen best. Cornell’s gut-wrenching vocals inevitably get singled out for praise, but Thayil’s wailing, pitch-bent lead breaks are among his most abrasive and the rhythm section ride a monster, shape-shifting groove. Magnificent.
10: ‘Burden In My Hand’ (Down On The Upside, 1996)
The experimental Down On The Upside repeatedly demonstrated that the best Soundgarden songs stretched way beyond the constraints of grunge. They pulled it off with aplomb on ‘Burden In My Hand’, which switched effortlessly between rootsy, Led Zeppelin III-esque verses and a chorus (“Out in the sunshine, the sun is mine!”) which seems atypically euphoric until you realise the lyric concerns a man who murders his girlfriend and leaves her in the desert. Kim Thayil later likened ‘Burden In My Hand’ to “a ‘Hey Joe’ of the 90s”. Its radio-friendly sound helped it sneak into the UK Top 40.
9: ‘Pretty Noose’ (Down On The Upside, 1996)
Written by Chris Cornell, Down On The Upside’s muscular first single, ‘Pretty Noose’, concerns what the song’s video director, Frank Kozik, described as “your average bad girlfriend experience”. Launched by a distinctive wah-wah guitar riff, the song has an intensity which remains palpable and it connected across the board, scoring a UK Top 20 hit and a nomination for Best Rock Performance at the 1997 Grammy Awards.
8: ‘The Day I Tried To Live’ (Superunknown, 1994)
Like much of Superunknown, the brittle, angular ‘The Day I Tried To Live’ deals with depression and alienation, yet its lyrics have frequently been misinterpreted. Chris Cornell actually wrote the song while feeling he needed to step out from his natural reclusiveness and spend more time hanging out with his friends. Consequently, its uplifting chorus (“One more time around might do it”) ensures this memorable anthem takes its place among Soundgarden’s most life-affirming songs.
7: ‘Blow Up The Outside World’ (Down On The Upside, 1996)
The stand-out cut from Down The Upside, ‘Blow Up The Outside World’’s nihilistic title suggested the song could well be a sonic pile-up akin to the savage ‘Jesus Christ Pose’. However, while Cornell’s lyric was undeniably fraught with frustration, his vocal was full of soul and the song itself was a world-weary, Beatles-esque ballad which Soundgarden performed with admirable restraint.
6: ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ (Badmotorfinger, 1991)
Accurately described by Kim Thayil as “an insane car wreck”, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ is performed with an intensity that almost defies nature, with Cameron and Shepherd somehow keeping the song’s speeding juggernaut of a rhythm track on the rails and Thayil swooping in with otherworldly squalls of guitar. Cornell’s messianic vocal and provocative lyric (“Thorns and shroud, like it’s the coming of the Lord”) attacked superstars’ deity-like persecution complexes, but it was the song’s promo video – which featured images of a crucified woman – which proved especially controversial and led to an MTV ban. Divorced from the hubris, however, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ represents Soundgarden at their visceral, pulverising peak.
5: ‘Spoonman’ (Superunknown, 1994)
The idea of a rock song performed in a drop D tuning with a with a bizarre septuple meter in 7/4 time becoming a mainstream smash seems beyond comprehension, but it came to pass when Soundgarden released ‘Spoonman’ as the lead single for 1994’s Superunknown. A tribute to renowned Seattle street artist Artis The Spoonman – who also plays a spoon solo on the track – the estimable ‘Spoonman’ was a daring choice for a single, but the band were right to stick to their guns. One of the best Soundgarden songs of all time, it peaked at No.3 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and bagged them a Grammy Award in 1995.
4: ‘Outshined’ (Badmotorfinger, 1991)
Built around an absolute doozy of a Thayil riff, ‘Outshined’ is one of the classic grunge anthems with an appeal that’s unlikely to fade anytime soon. Badmotorfinger’s second single and Soundgarden’s breakout US hit, it’s hard and heavy, yet eminently accessible. The dash of self-deprecatory wit in Cornell’s lyric (“I’m lookin’ California and feelin’ Minnesota”) only adds to the song’s perennial appeal.
3: ‘Fell On Black Days’ (Superunknown, 1994)
Brooding and instantly memorable, Superunknown staple ‘Fell On Black Days’ will always rank as a contender among the best Soundgarden songs. Like many of their key tracks, it’s performed in an unusual time signature (in this case, 6/4), yet because Matt Cameron plays the song’s beat in a straight and unfussy manner, it doesn’t seem so strange. Lyrically, Cornell also ditches any obfuscation, singing lines about depression (“Just when every day seemed to greet me with a smile/Sunspots have faded and now I’m doing time”) which are easily relatable, and all the more powerful for it. Moving, timeless and universal in appeal, ‘Fell On Black Days’ has barely aged a day.
2: ‘Rusty Cage’ (Badmotorfinger, 1991)
Vacillating between fast, hypnotic, krautrock-esque grooves and Black Sabbath-style bombast, Badmotorfinger’s striking memorable opening track, ‘Rusty Cage’, was later released as the album’s third single, picking up widespread attention via MTV. The song also famously enjoyed a remarkable second life when Johnny Cash invested it with some Southern gothic drama on 1996’s Unchained and picked up a Grammy nomination for his singular, Rick Rubin-assisted reinvention.
1: ‘Black Hole Sun’ (Superunknown, 1994)
Arguably Soundgarden’s signature song, ‘Black Hole Sun’ is simply a masterpiece by anyone’s standards. A slow-burning power ballad soaked in psychedelia and coated in additional Beatlesque flavours by dint of Thayil’s guitar part feeding through a Leslie speaker, this classic rock epic topped the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart for seven consecutive weeks. ‘Black Hole Sun’ proved a game-changer for Soundgarden and played a significant part in its parent album, Superunknown, moving almost 10 million copies and elevating the group to rock’s pantheon of greats.
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