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Chris Cornell: 15 Essential Songs

The singer’s most memorable moments: Soundgarden’s grunge classics, Audioslave’s hits and his poetic solo material

Chris Cornell was one of the signature voices of Nineties rock alongside peers Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Layne Staley – and that voice was the boldest and most virtuosic of them all. The Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman, who died Wednesday at 52, will forever be remembered for his soaring, feral wail, maybe the movement’s clearest link back to larger-than-life Seventies forefathers like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. He was also an extremely versatile songwriter, who made effortless transitions between menacing metal and reflective folk, with detours into sleek electro-pop and epic soundtrack fare. Below are 15 songs that give a hint of the scope of his artistry.

Chris Cornell

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Soundgarden, “Black Hole Sun” (1994)

“I wrote the song thinking the band wouldn’t like it,” Cornell told Rolling Stone about Soundgarden’s most iconic song, “then it became the biggest hit of the summer.” Cornell wrote Soundgarden’s most iconic song in about 15 minutes, telling Rip magazine about its Magical Mystery Tour-esque lyrics: “It’s just sort of a surreal dreamscape, a weird, play-with-the-title kind of song,” and later clarifying to Entertainment Weekly, “I had misheard a news anchor, and I thought he said ‘black hole sun,’ but he said something else. … [A]fter that I thought, ‘Well, he didn’t say it, but I heard it,’ and it created this image in my brain and I thought it would be an amazing song title. It was a thought-provoking phrase, and it became that song.

“‘Black Hole Sun’ wasn’t safe as milk, but it wasn’t glass in someone’s eye either. It was the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down,” guitarist Kim Thayil told Billboard in 1996. “Now it’s the ‘Dream On’ of our set.”

Chris Cornell

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Soundgarden, “Fell On Black Days” (1994)

Not as immediate as the other Superunknown singles, “Fell on Black Days” still packed a moody punch. On the bluesy, slow-burning rocker, Cornell confronted his history with depression. “It’s a feeling that everyone gets,” he told Melody Maker in 1994. “You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realize you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realize one day that everything in your life is fucked!”

Chris Cornell

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Soundgarden, “Pretty Noose” (1996)

The lead single from Soundgarden’s 1996 album Down on the Upside, “Pretty Noose” announces itself with a menacing haze of detuned psychedelia. Guitarist Kim Thayil’s vaguely exotic wah-wah riffs at the top set the stage for Cornell’s feel-bad, impressionistic lyrics. He’s describing a situation that’s truly at odds with one’s needs: “Pretty noose is pretty hate.” In a 1996 interview with MTV, Cornell explained that he wrote the song about an “attractively packaged bad idea … something that seems great at first and then comes back to bite you.”

Chris Cornell

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Audioslave, “Cochise” (2002)

The supergroup Audioslave announced themselves with this furious track, the perfect marriage of Rage Against the Machine’s driving alt-metal stomp and Cornell’s piercing wail. Tom Morello, who was reading about the “fearless and resolute” Native American chief at the time, came up with the title. Of the song’s angry refrain – “Go on and save yourself, and take it out on me” – Cornell said that it was an instance of “me yelling at me, looking in the mirror.”

Chris Cornell


Audioslave, “Like a Stone” (2003)

“Like a Stone,” the second Audioslave single, turned out to be the highest charting song of Cornell’s career. The singer shows off his famous range with incredible passion and grit.

Chris Cornell

during The John Varvatos 4th Annual Stuart House Charity Benefit - Inside at John Varvatos Boutique in Los Angeles, CA, United States. (Photo by for John Varvatos)

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Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name” (2006)

By blaring through the theme to 2006’s Casino Royale, Chris Cornell ushered in the gritty Daniel Craig era – and became the first man to sing a James Bond theme in nearly 20 years. (To put it in perspective, the last was Morton Harket of a-ha). Cornell was a fan of both Bond and Craig, but also loved the parallels to Bond themes of yore. “I’m a Paul McCartney fan, and I remembered how he had written and sung the Bond theme ‘Live And Let Die,’ Cornell told Songwriter Universe. “So it was thrill that I could do a Bond theme. … We recorded it at George Martin’s studio in England; it was the perfect place and experience to make a James Bond record.”

Chris Cornell

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 12: Musician Chris Cornell performs at the Dallas Premiere of the Paramount Pictures film ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ at the AT&T Dallas Cowboys Stadium on January 12, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by )

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Chris Cornell, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (2016)

The final Cornell track to chart before his death serves not only as a gorgeous tribute to Prince, but a warm, unexpected epitaph to the singer himself. Cornell’s virtuosic pipes bend past the melody on the intimate, raspy recording. “Prince’s music is the soundtrack to the soulful and beautiful universe he created, and we have all been privileged to be part of that amazing world,” wrote Cornell upon the song’s release. “‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ … has a timeless relevance for me and practically everyone I know. Sadly, now his own lyrics in this song could not be more relevant than at this moment, and I sing them now in reverence as I pay tribute to this unequaled artist who has given all of our lives so much inspiration and made the world so much more interesting.”

Chris Cornell and Soundgarden played old favorites in Detroit hours before the singer was found dead. Watch here.

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