The Best Soundgarden Songs, Ranked


Next month, one of the great rock albums of the 1990s turns 30: Superunknown by Soundgarden. Released on March 8, 1994, Superunknown went platinum six times and spawned alt-rock standards like “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell On Black Days,” “My Wave,” and “The Day I Tried To Live.” More than that, it represents the peak of grunge right before the subgenre was codified, cleaned-up, and beaten like a dead flannel-clad horse. The hooks are sharp, the fuzz is thick, and the musicianship is murderous. It is the very mountaintop for this kind of music.

But there’s more to Soundgarden than just one album. While well-regarded in their time, Soundgarden has been overshadowed historically by their Seattle peers Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Well, the time has come for this great band to step out of the shadows. Here are my 25 favorite Soundgarden songs. This band will not be outshined! Won’t you come and wash away the rain with me?


This scene was directed by Tony Scott, a brilliant technician known for making extremely good-looking B-movies. It was written by Quentin Tarantino, an iconic stylist who applied his generational screenwriting talent to elevating disreputable cinematic forms. And it stars Brad Pitt, a great actor and classically handsome leading man most celebrated for playing creeps, lowlifes, misfits, and morons.

Have you noticed the recurring theme? These men are experts at appearing to be dumb while actually being very smart. And that is why Soundgarden is a perfect soundtrack for this scene. What is Soundgarden, anyway? The lead singer is frequently shirtless and sings like Ronnie James Dio if he had worked in a lumber yard. The guitarist plays heavy guitar riffs that evoke the music of Led Zeppelin, all while publicly professing his intense dislike of Led Zeppelin. They literally wrote a song called “Slaves And Bulldozers.” They literally called themselves Soundgarden. On paper, they appear to be very dumb. But in execution, they are simply one of the finest hard-rock bands of the last 30 years. Don’t condescend them, man.

25. “Incessant Mace” (1988)

The most confusing aspect of Soundgarden has always been their aversion to music that sounds the most like Soundgarden. “I always hated Led Zeppelin — too pretentious,” Kim Thayil told Spin in 1994. “And Black Sabbath had really cool riffs, but they stretched them out in really stupid ways. We were way more into stuff like Scratch Acid at the time.” That same year, Rolling Stone asked Chris Cornell if he ever liked early ’70s metal and he replied flatly, “Not at all. Not even slightly.” Instead, he pledged allegiance to Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, and the Butthole Surfers as well as “European bands” like Wire and Joy Division “that weren’t together anymore.”

This is like Martin Scorsese declaring that he hates gangster films. It makes no sense whatsoever. I think these guys were lying — to the press or themselves or both — in order to go along with the restrictive taste politics of the alternative rock era. If I had to define grunge in six words it would be “metalheads who pretended to be punk.” And Soundgarden is the definitive example of this archetype. But let’s take them at their word. Let’s believe that these guys had the soul of Unknown Pleasures but were trapped inside the body of Physical Graffiti. They swung the hammer of the gods, but only grudgingly. They rocked hard, though in a strictly underground way, man. Fine. Whatever.

This song from their so-so debut Ultramega OK was the first indication of the larger-than-life Viking souls that lurked behind the flannel and Dr. Martens. It lumbers for eight minutes like a dream sequence from The Song Remains The Same. Of course, in that Rolling Stone interview Cornell claims that sounding like Zep was the only way for Soundgarden to be … punk? “People would hate it,” he told the magazine about “Incessant Mace.” “That was the first reaction, really: that this was the most uncool thing anyone could do at this point in music in this city. That was a turning point in our career as a band. Because we could play any atonal, post-punk, ridiculous, quirky shit, and everyone thought it was great. But we’d play that song, and it would create more of a reaction. So we started doing that more.”

If that’s the mindset you need to sell the larger-than-life Viking soul shit to the Scratch Acid fans in your cohort, so be it.

24. “Hunted Down” (1987)

To be fair: Soundgarden did have a meta aspect to them early on that was borderline jokey. Up through 1989’s Louder The Love, as Jonathan Gold observed in his astute Spin article, they aped ’70s rock conventions with air-quotes detachment that aligned with fellow Seattle band Mother Love Bone, whose star-crossed lead singer Andrew Wood was Cornell’s roommate and friendly songwriting rival until his death by drug overdose in 1990 at the age of 24. The following year, Soundgarden put out Badmotorfinger, their first “no B.S.” album that finally eschewed the cock-rock irony of songs like “Big Dumb Sex” from Louder Than Love. It was also the first Soundgarden record to go platinum.

Soundgarden’s most successful music of the pre-Badmotorfinger era is also their straightest, hitting like a beta version of the psychedelic metal they perfected in the early ’90s. Their first great song is the opening track from their debut EP, Screaming Life. In Spin, Gold praises the song for Thayil’s “bottom-string guitar notes that didn’t bend, exactly, as much as they refused to commit to a single pitch,” Cameron’s “spare and sort of thuddy” drumming, and Cornell’s wail, which sounds “like a goddamn trumpet.” The future legend of L.A. food writing concludes that it’s “a record capable of making you forget everything but the overwhelming need to shake your long hair in front of your eyes.” I could not put it better so I won’t even try.

23. “Mailman” (1994)

I left off the last part of Kim Thayil’s quote about Black Sabbath’s “really cool riffs,” so I’m circling back because it’s important. He says Soundgarden’s goal in the beginning was to “do, like, Black Sabbath songs without the parts that suck.” Setting aside the controversial and frankly hurtful claim that Black Sabbath songs have parts that suck — even the imbecilic piano lick on “Changes” is fantastic — I think you can plainly hear Soundgarden achieve this objective on “Mailman,” a deep cut from Superunknown. This song is also a good time capsule for the now-forgotten but once-seemingly-common early ’90s phenomenon of post office workers shooting up their workplaces. This tragic occurrence inspired the slang term “going postal” used to describe everyday workday stress. (It also denoted the nihilistic Gen-X practice of laughing about mass murder.)

22. “Jesus Christ Pose” (1991)

In a smart 2022 Substack post, the critic Eli Enis wrote about the wave of so-called “grunge revival” bands that first sprang up in the early 2010s and took their cues from Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Alice In Chains. Only to Enis’ ears none of these groups sounded authentically grungy, and he put the blame squarely on the singers. The original grunge wave was powered by dudes with huge voices who also, more often than not, looked incredible on stage. “Have you heard what Cornell sang about (see: “Big Dumb Sex”) and how he looked when he sang it (shirtless)?” Elis writes. “There’s a reason grunge was able to catapult from basements to arenas, and it wasn’t that these guys were rubbing shoulders with Buzz Osborne and Phil Anselmo. It’s that their singers performed the way rock musicians used to perform.

Chris Cornell loved punk, but when it was time to step up he could credibly affect Robert Plant-style vocal dynamics and swagger in a manner that seems to elude modern rock singers. And I’m not sure why. My best guess is that Cornell and his peers had the benefit of proximity: Led Zeppelin had only broken up seven years prior to the first Soundgarden EP. It’s like a new singer-songwriter emulating Lorde’s Melodrama in 2024. It’s not that long ago. Whereas someone trying to make a record like Superunknown in 2024 would be like Soundgarden copying the first Herman’s Hermits record in 1994. It would have looked silly and anachronistic. (Or like how Greta Van Fleet looks now.)

Chris Cornell leaned into being a sexy male rock singer in a manner that feels practically problematic now. But he was also self-aware about the preposterousness of messianic “rock” posturing, as the lyric to this Badmotorfinger classic shows.

21. “Mind Riot” (1991)

Cornell is acknowledged as an all-time frontman. But he’s still underrated as a songwriter. If Kurt Cobain is the undisputed king of Seattle grunge tunesmiths, then Cornell deserves the silver medal. As he matured as an artist, fully coming into his own with Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, he displayed a real flair for embedding Beatlesque pop hooks inside vast neanderthal rawk soundscapes. One reason that Soundgarden songs are so re-listenable is that Cornell takes his compositions in unexpected directions. A furious headbanger might go from a jackhammer riff to a breathtakingly lovely bridge, just as a power ballad will beguile and then go for a crushing lyrical jab.

Here’s another example of Cornell not making it easy for himself: He titled a song “Mind Riot.” Imagine writing a good song called “Mind Riot.” It seems impossible. But Chris Cornell somehow made it work.

20. “Somewhere” (1991)

The first time I saw Soundgarden play live, it was via pay-per-view as the opening act for Guns N’ Roses on the Use Your Illusion tour in 1992. The concert was in Paris, and I was in my friend Matthew’s basement with about five other dudes. (I think it was the night of the last day of eighth grade, the worst year of my life, but I might be unintentionally misremembering this to make the story seem more like an episode of Freaks And Geeks with an early ’90s spin.) I definitely recall being involved in a medium-intense moshpit when the ‘Garden played “Rusty Cage.” Even at the time, it felt a little uncool. But the band was powerful nonetheless.

I bring up this story to illustrate Soundgarden’s distance from other Seattle bands. Or at least Nirvana and Pearl Jam, both of whom could have toured with Guns N’ Roses in 1992 but definitely would not have done such a thing. (Alice In Chains is a different story.) Badmotorfinger made Soundgarden mainstream rock stars, but Superunknown made them mainstream ALTERNATIVE rock stars. On their prior record, they still scanned as a slightly left-of-center metal band, like Faith No More without the slap bass. Nevertheless, “Somewhere” indicates that the seed of Superunknown was already apparent on the predecessor record.

19. “Applebite” (1996)

Here is what I suspect is the least controversial statement you could make about Soundgarden: It’s a toss-up between Badmotorfinger and Superunknown for the distinction of being their best record. (To the three percent of the population that irrationally adores Louder Than Love and is currently tweeting at me: I’m sorry but no.) But an album I love almost as much as Soundgarden’s twin masterpieces is Down On The Upside. And that’s because I have a weakness for post-peak records made by bands in the process of imploding. This aspect of the album was no doubt implanted in my brain when David Fricke likened Down On The Upside to Led Zeppelin’s Presence in his Rolling Stone review.

Actually, I just looked up the review and it appears he did not do that. I’m still going to discuss the version of the review that I remember reading 28 years ago, Mandela Effect be damned. Because the Presence comparison is so apt! Down On The Upside is Soundgarden’s version of taking over the world and then realizing that you have no idea what to do next, so you start drinking and drugging too much while fretting about whether you should totally remake your sound or write 16 variations on “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell On Black Days.” In the end, they chose both options on Down On The Upside, with mixed results.

Down On The Upside starts strong with some catchy, radio-made rockers that pick up from the killers on Superunknown. Then, in the back half, things take a dark and weird turn, starting with this foreboding instrumental written by Matt Cameron, which must have struck fear in the hearts of A&M Records executives hoping for a holiday bonus at the end of 1996. Down On The Upside was not going to make that possible for them.

18. “Zero Chance” (1996)

Actually, Down On The Upside is a bummer on the first half of the record, too. There are despairing choruses and then there is the chorus of “Zero Chance”:

They say if you look hard
You’ll find your way back home
Born without a friend
Bound to die alone

When I listen to this song, I think about the ’94 Rolling Stone profile and how Kim Neely happened to be with Soundgarden while on the road in Europe the day that Kurt Cobain’s body was found. She captures a scene of Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd drinking at the hotel bar in which Thayil says, with cinematic mournfulness, “I just wish I knew whether he won or lost.” This song makes it clear that as far as ’96-era Soundgarden was concerned, the answer was the former.

17. “Superunknown” (1994)

There’s an alternate timeline where Soundgarden takes a year or two off after the Superunknown tour, gets themselves right mentally, and then reconvenes for the next record in a better collective headspace. And maybe on that timeline, Soundgarden doesn’t break up. Because before Down On The Upside, they really did seem like a band that would just continue on forever. They had inherent sturdiness. On Superunknown, they effectively remade themselves as the smoking doors R.E.M., a group of collaborators on equal footing who could both serve up heavy riffs and shiny choruses with equal skill. The title track, while not one of that album’s five singles, nevertheless epitomizes the “smoking doors R.E.M.” era perfectly.

16. “Let Me Drown” (1994)

The one time I saw Soundgarden in person was on the tour in support of their (pretty good!) 2012 reunion record, King Animal. I loved the band as a teenager and assumed I would never see them live, so for that reason alone the show was a tremendous thrill. But I was genuinely surprised to see how much the guys on stage enjoyed each others’ company. When you go to a reunion show, you can tell which bands are there because they have put the old resentments to bed and now want to pick up where they left off, and which bands are there because the lead singer just got divorced. And this was definitely the former situation.

On stage that night, the Soundgarden guys were monsters of rock who treated each other like teddy bears. One of the songs I remember most fondly was “Let Me Drown,” which came second in the encore 18 years after kicking off Superunknown. Old-guy bands are naturally woolier and chunkier than their younger selves, and that served this song well, supplying that rolling groove with an even stronger undertow of muscle and guts.

15. “Black Hole Sun” (1994)

This, of course, was the first song of the encore. And it was the tune that was most commonly played in tribute to Cornell after he died in 2017. Which makes sense when you consider that it’s easily Soundgarden’s most famous hit, though in practically every other way it’s a very odd song to put on after a person has taken their own life. The preponderance of death anthems in Cornell’s catalog was impossible to ignore in the wake of his suicide. It was hard to ignore years before that, too, though most of us did exactly that. “Black Hole Sun” to my ears has always been a song about how death can feel like an escape in a world where “times are gone / for honest men.” And the lushness of the music only adds to this seductive conception of oblivion.

Typing these words feels strange and depressing, but what’s stranger (if also sort of amazing) is that “Black Hole Sun” was an omnipresent pop song in 1994. You heard it back then like it was a Megan Thee Stallion banger. I have no idea the degree to which this damaged all of our brains but I imagine the answer is “immensely.”

14. “Pretty Noose” (1996)

This song, along with “Like Suicide,” are the most obvious examples of Soundgarden tracks that became much more difficult to stomach after Chris Cornell died. I still don’t really like listening to “Like Suicide,” even though I think it’s a good song. But I have come back to “Pretty Noose,” because the chorus is catchy enough to make me forget what he’s singing about and the horrible act it presaged.

13. “Slaves And Bulldozers” (1991)

Look, I’m not going to play the game where you psychoanalyze the actions of a person who commits suicide. It’s a pointless exercise. I’ll just say that when you watch this video of the last song Soundgarden ever performed on stage it simply does not compute that the guy hollering his damn face off about slaves and bulldozers is going to then walk to his hotel room and never walk out.

Then again, how was he supposed to act? What sort of behavior would have made his final act explicable or logical? He did what he lived for, and then he stopped living. It doesn’t make sense because it was never going to make sense. Still: When I woke up the next morning and heard that Chris Cornell had died, and then immediately wrote an obituary, my conclusion was “I sort of can’t believe it.” And that’s still my conclusion seven years later.

12. “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” (1991)

Let’s lighten the mood: How about another example of Kim Thayil negging himself? Before the release of Badmotorfinger, Thayil was asked for his opinion of the record.

“Sounds too much like Rush,” he said.

There are at least three layers to this self-burn that need to be addressed: 1) Badmotorfinger does not all that much sound like Rush, even the somewhat “grungy” albums that Rush put out in the ’90s; 2) Even if Badmotorfinger did sound “too much” like Rush, this would not be a bad thing, as Rush is a great band; 3) The phrase “sounds too much like Rush” implies that there is a proper amount of sounding like Rush, and I would argue that “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” is the proper amount for Soundgarden, i.e. it’s vaguely reminiscent of Caress Of Steel.

11. “Room A Thousand Years Wide” (1991)

This song title sounds like Rush, but the actual music sounds like driving in a Lamborghini at 175 mph while Tony Iommi pours a gallon a Jack Daniels down your throat.


5. Chris Cornell, “Sunshower” (1998)

In the time between the breakup of Soundgarden in the late ’90s and the beginning of Audioslave in the early aughts, it looked like Cornell was going to build a solo career around cranking out variations on the part Beatles/part Sabbath “Black Hole Sun” template. His 1999 solo debut Euphoria Morning has that vibe, as does this song from the Great Expectations soundtrack. It’s a cool vibe! But in the end it was a road not taken.

4. Alice In Chains, “Right Turn” (1992)

Chris Cornell and Layne Staley duet! This is like the less famous (and more tragic) version of “Hunger Strike.”

3. Audioslave, “Like A Stone” (2002)

Audioslave’s “Black Hole Sun,” only it’s more popular. (It has been streamed more than 1.2 billion times on YouTube alone.) Alex G later claimed that it was an influence on his most recent album, God Save The Animals, excitedly telling the New York Times, “This is the best thing I’ve ever heard!” He should hear the next two songs on this sub-list.

2. Chris Cornell, “Seasons” (1992)

When Cornell died and I wrote his obit, this is the song I listened to on repeat. If you asked me to name the three best songs he ever wrote, I would probably include “Seasons.” I was tempted to not only put it at No. 1 on this list, but also on the overall list. But I am a coward who must instead go with the more famous and obvious song.

1. Temple Of The Dog, “Hunger Strike” (1991)

I’ve already written about this at length, but I just want to reiterate Cornell’s generosity on this track in the way that he cedes space to a then-unknown Eddie Vedder and really lets his friend’s star power shine. It’s the opposite of rock-star diva behavior, and it never fails to touch me when I listen to “Hunger Strike.”

One more thing: Goin’ hungrrrrrrrrrrrr-YEEEEAH!

Back to the list.

10. “Ugly Truth” (1989)

The first song from Louder Than Love on this list. Honestly, I’m as surprised as you are. In my mind, I think of Louder Than Love as a capital-G great Soundgarden album. But the process of writing this column made me realize that the first two songs are so incredible — and the album cover looks so amazing — that it makes me overlook stuff like “Get On The Snake” and “Full On Kevin’s Mom.” Louder Than Love is an album I adore in spite of including the Soundgarden songs I hate the most, and that’s a testament to the greatness of “Ugly Truth.”

9. “Hands All Over” (1989)

The other incredible song from Louder Than Love. And the one that makes me question Kim Thayil’s performative Led Zeppelin hatred the most. With the exception of Dave Navarro, no guitarist in the ’80s American alt-rock underground squeezed the lemon harder than Kim. And “Hands All Over” is the apotheosis of theoretical juice running down Soundgarden’s metaphorical leg.

8. “Blow Up The Outside World” (1996)

“Nothing seems to kill me / no matter how hard I try.” My god, Chris Cornell is a grunge ghost haunting us all. This song is David Berman singing “All My Happiness Is Gone.” This song is Jeff Buckley singing “Last Goodbye.” This song is Robert Johnson singing “Hellhound Of My Trail.” You feel like he’s telling you how his story ends 21 years in advance. But “Blow Up The Outside World” also signifies something bigger than Chris’ tragic fate. If you listen closely to this exquisitely melodic bummer, you can hear the last breaths of the alternative rock revolution. 1996 was a year loaded with post-peak albums by multi-platinum alt-rock bands entering their “less commercial” eras, but Down On The Upside is the saddest because Soundgarden had just reached their full potential with Superunknown. They looked indestructible, and then they were destructed. Soundgarden didn’t blow up the outside world. They blew up the inside world.

7. “Fell On Black Days” (1994)

In a 2014 radio interview, Cornell expressed pride that this song was a radio hit in spite of being in a 6/4 time signature. Perhaps I should reconsider if Soundgarden is too much like Rush after all.

6. “The Day I Tried To Live” (1994)

This is the sixth-best Soundgarden song, but it has the No. 1 best chorus. The “one more time around” part is the single catchiest bit that Cornell ever wrote. Just thinking about it puts the chorus in my head for a week. Also, given how depressing a lot of these songs are, the idea of merely “trying” to live registers as wild optimism. It’s Soundgarden’s version of “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s like doing a cartwheel doing the aisle of a Baptist church while Jesus Christ himself preaches the gospel compared to most of these tunes.

5. “Burden In My Hand” (1996)

The best example of Soundgarden in “smoking doors R.E.M.” mode. Just an impossibly sturdy rock song. You could beat it like Joe Pesci at the end of Casino and that rolling Matt Cameron drum part would not waver one iota. Hard to believe that songs like “Burden In My Hand” once appeared regularly on the radio. We used to be a proper country, etc., etc.

4. “My Wave” (1994)

Speaking of Matt Cameron: He has been a member of Pearl Jam longer than he was in Soundgarden. He’s played a major role in that band’s longevity. Nevertheless, he will always be the drummer in Soundgarden first and foremost in my mind. And his playing on “My Wave” has a lot to do with that. The man plays the drums like a sniper plays his rifle. He is always precise and exacting, and his output is always heavy and devastating. Also: The man has not aged a day since 1991. He can play a three-hour rock show, and then go mountain biking for another three hours. His cheekbones could shatter glass. When the bomb drops, it will be Matt Cameron, Keith Richards, and the cockroaches.

3. “Outshined” (1991)

Going into this column, I was confident that Superunknown was the best Soundgarden album. But as I revisited the catalog, my certainty eroded. Badmotorfinger put up a ton of points in the fourth quarter and made it a dead heat. Ultimately, I still give Superunknown a slight edge because it’s more consistent. But the highs on Badmotorfinger are higher than the highs (save one song) on Superunknown. “Outshined” obviously is one of those highs. It is a Black Sabbath song without any of the parts that suck.

2. “Rusty Cage” (1991)

The definitive Soundgarden song. Everybody kills it. Kim Thayil’s riff is insane. Matt Cameron’s drums are the epitome of chaotic good. Ben Shepard’s bass is rubbery and unstoppable. Chris Cornell’s vocal is banshee screaming at its finest. And that’s just the performance. As for the actual song, when Johnny Cash can play it on acoustic guitar and make it sound like an Old Testament sermon, I believe you have written a standard.

1. “4th Of July” (1994)

Here’s the thing: I was going to put “Rusty Cage” at No. 1. I know I should put “Rusty Cage” at No. 1. But I’m not putting “Rusty Cage” at No. 1. I’m putting “4th Of July” at No. 1. And I’m doing this because it’s the Soundgarden song I have played the most in my life. Sometimes I’ll be working at my computer or taking a walk outside or driving my kids and I’ll suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to PUT ON FREAKING “4th Of July” BY SOUNDGARDEN. It’s not the most sophisticated or accomplished Soundgarden song. It sounds filthy, like a demo caked in grime and banana peels. Matt Cameron sounds like he did a massive bong rip before stepping behind the drums. Kim Thayil plays the guitar like it just slept with his wife. Cornell sings like a zombie version of himself. It’s extremely evil and I can’t get enough of it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to light a roman candle and hold it in my hand.