Screaming Life/Fopp (1987, 1988; Sub Pop, 1990)
Ultramega OK (SST, 1988)
Louder Than Love (A&M, 1989)
Badmotorfinger (A&M, 1991)
Superunknown (A&M, 1994)
Down on the Upside (A&M, 1996)
A-Sides (A&M, 1997)
Nirvana and Pearl Jam emphasized grunge rock's punk attitude, but the genre owed at least as much to the sound and fury of heavy metal, and no Seattle band made that connection more obvious than Soundgarden. However much Chris Cornell's sinewy tenor recalled Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, and Kim Thayil's grinding, slo-mo riffage inspired comparisons to Black Sabbath, Soundgarden avoided the stylistic excesses typical of mainstream metal. Solos were few and far between, and there was more to each song than a sturdy, head-banging riff. Indeed, the group's biggest hit, "Black Hole Sun" (from Superunknown), was almost Beatlesque in its approach to melody and texture.
Soundgarden didn't start off so ambitiously. Screaming Life/Fopp (which compiles two late-Eighties EPs) is far less interesting when the group performs its own tunes than when it covers the Ohio Players ("Fopp"), while Ultramega OK, despite its texturally adventurous use of feedback and multitracking, squanders the band's fevered intensity on forgettable, post-Sabbath riff rockers.
But Louder Than Love upgrades the melodic content and better exploits the contrast between Cornell's keening vocals and Thayil's slab-o-metal guitar grind, lending a sense of majesty to "Hands All Over," and a dizzying, hypnotic power to "Loud Love." Badmotorfinger continues in that vein, from the relentless momentum of "Rusty Cage" and "Outshined" to the savage psychedelia of "Searching With My Good Eye Closed." But it's with Superunknown that the band truly makes its mark. Although suffused with melancholy, it turned grunge on its head, painting downcast self-obsession in hues of grandeur, giving an epic sweep to "Fell on Black Days" and "The Day I Tried to Live." Meanwhile, the semipsychedelic "Black Hole Sun" and vaudeville-ish "Spoonman" significantly broadened the band's palette.
Soundgarden lost its edge soon after. Down on the Upside offers a reasonable simulacrum of the band's sound and attitude but lacks anything in the way of a first-rate melody (though "Blow Up the Outside World" comes close). The group disbanded not long after, with Cornell going on to sing in Audioslave and make some forgettable solo records. The ironically titled A-Sides compiles what would have been the Soundgarden's singles, had it ever released any.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).\
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