On this saddest of days, when the world has lost another rock music icon – the multi-talented Chris Cornell – I am shocked and saddened for multiple reasons. He was too young, he was so talented, I didn’t see it coming – all the generic clichés that we’ve become all too familiar with as the last two years have seen the afterlife evidently building a hell of a band. Chris Cornell may not have had half a century of music like Bowie, or been the superstar Prince was, but in three decades he built a body of work that was beyond impressive.
He first found fame as the frontman for Soundgarden, one of the many bands to ride the grunge wave out of Seattle and into our mainstream consciousness. Of course, Soundgarden was no grunge band, but neither were most of the bands given that label at the time. After achieving unprecedented mainstream success with the five-times-platinum Soundgarden album Superunknown, he then went on to a solo career with his first album Euphoria Morning. Next, he formed the one of the most head-scratching alliances in modern music by forming Audioslave with the three guys from Rage Against the Machine who weren’t Zack de la Rocha. Then came more solo albums, movie soundtrack contributions, and other collaborations.
I tried to come up with a “Top Ten” list that would do justice to his legacy, but would it be a top ten best performances? Top ten most obscure performances? What I ended up realizing was that his career cannot so easily be summed up. Chris Cornell was versatile, prolific, and not easily categorized. And he was one of the greatest rock vocalists of the last three decades. Name another “grunge” band that had a singer with pipes like his. You could, but you’d be delusional. Most of the grunge band vocalists could barely sing – they could mumble and scream – but they couldn’t do what Chris Cornell did.
Instead of a traditional top ten list, I put together a list of performances that highlight the many different qualities Chris had as a singer and performer:
1. I know isolated tracks can be tedious to listen to, but check out the isolated vocal track from Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”. His ability to go seamlessly from low range to a higher range in his vocals was on a level with Robert Plant.
2. And then there was his Temple of the Dog project, a tribute to his friend Andrew Wood, lead singer of Mother Love Bone. Chris wrote most of the songs for Temple of the Dog and collaborated with Mother Love Bone members and future Pearl Jam members to create an album that still has people crying, “More, please!” It’s such a great album that I can forgive him for unleashing Eddie Vedder on the world. One of Chris Cornell’s greatest and most passionate vocals is found on the Temple of the Dog album and today, as I reflect on his untimely death, the lyrics have even more meaning than before. “Say Hello to Heaven,” Chris. And say hello to Andrew, Kurt, and Layne for us too.
3. For a vocalist who rose to prominence singing for a hard rock band, Chris Cornell had remarkable control over his voice and could sing softly with nuance, as made evident on “Preaching the End of the World” from his first solo album, Euphoria Morning.
4. He could hold his own with an audience, armed with just an acoustic guitar and a microphone. He was fearless at times. Not only was he great at covering and/or reinterpreting the work of other artists, he didn’t pick the easy ones. Here he tackles one of the most complex songs The Beatles ever did, “A Day in the Life”.
5. Cornell was clever in his reinterpretation of other people’s works – e.g. Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, later ripped off by American Idol contestant David Cook who probably won because of it. But his live performance of U2’s “One,” where he replaces the lyrics with those of Metallica’s “One” is beyond brilliant in that it actually works! It also shows that he had a sense of humor.
6. Another quality of a great musician is the ability to wing it; improvise, perform a song you’re not even sure you know. Cornell does exactly that with Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”.
7. Chris Cornell collaborated with many other musicians throughout his career, sometimes just doing a guest vocal. I had a hard time picking just one, but since I stated earlier that he had a voice comparable to Robert Plant, I’m going with his collaboration with Carlos Santana on the Led Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love”.
8. Chris Cornell was a songwriter, and his abilities as a songwriter were sought after before he even recorded his first solo album. He contributed two songs to Alice Cooper’s 1994 concept album The Last Temptation. His songs “Unholy War” and “Stolen Prayer” were the best songs on an otherwise mediocre album. Give a listen to the demo version of “Stolen Prayer”:
9. During his career, Chris Cornell contributed to several soundtracks, as a solo artist, and as a member of Soundgarden and Audioslave. I was actually surprised to discover that Soundgarden contributed a track to one of my favorite movies Pump Up the Volume (1990) starring Christian Slater. Cornell’s vocal on this early Soundgarden track, “Heretic,” are the most raw and unhinged he ever sounded.
10. Chris Cornell could also share the stage with a vocalist and not overpower a duet partner as he proves in this live television performance of another movie soundtrack contribution, “Misery Chain” from 12 Years a Slave, sung with Joy Williams of the band The Civil Wars.
11. I’m going Spinal Tap here and bringing it up to 11 because I think it’s important to remember that, beyond all of his amazing contributions to the world of popular music, he was also someone’s son, friend, and father. Here he is performing Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with his daughter Toni.
Honorable Mention Cover Songs:
Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”
Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”
Honorable Mention Soundtrack Contributions:
“You Know My Name” from Casino Royale
“Disappearing Act” from William Friedkin’s creepy movie Bug.
Honorable Mention Collaborations:
“Promise” with Slash
“Ave Maria” with Eleven
RIP Chris Cornell. Thank you for giving us the best you had.