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Soundgarden – Superunknown (1994)

I know, it’s clearly not Tuesday, but I figure at least the proper acronym will still be in place if I do a Classic Album Thursday. Because if I’m being honest, I’d feel a little phony doing a full-on eulogy for Chris Cornell, who passed away earlier today in perhaps the most heartbreaking way for a grunge superstar to pass away – suicide. No, this would ring a bit false because I’ve never quite loved Soundgarden. But I don’t think you have to love Soundgarden to enjoy Superunknown, because it’s arguably the best album the grunge era ever produced, and displays in mind-blowing fashion why Chris Cornell was perhaps the most gifted rock singer of that era.

Also, I should probably clarify that when I say Superunknown is the best grunge album, I wouldn’t consider Nevermind or In Utero to be grunge albums (though I’d say Bleach is). Meanwhile Soundgarden, and in particular on Superunknown, seemed to embody the heavy metal and classic rock influences that seeped its way into the Seattle sound along with the punk bands that also laid the groundwork for the grunge explosion. And while 1994 saw a lot of their peers veering away from the spotlight that had brought this underground rock movement into the mainstream, Soundgarden kinda just went for it on this album.

In fact, it’s hard not to talk about Superunknown without reverting to what sounds like bullshit hyperbole. But I honestly don’t think there are many albums that accomplish what it accomplishes, and there certainly haven’t been any mainstream bands since that have pulled off this kind of grandeur without sounding ridiculous. Because this album is just the heaviest, hugest, catchiest, most epic sounding album this side of Zeppelin or Sabbath. And the fact that they did it in a time when that kind of hugeness was I’m sure scoffed at by many of their contemporaries, I think just makes this album all the more impressive.

As for Chris Cornell, really what is there to say? He had one of the most awesome, octave-y voices in rock, though I feel like his passing has somewhat recontextualized Cornell as a singer. It’s easy to label his window-rattling histrionics as pure cock-rock machismo, but when you listen to a lot of the lyrics from his songs, I don’t know. There’s clearly a pain and darkness to his lyric-writing that maybe gets overlooked because of how emphatically he expressed this pain and darkness. But then again, I don’t know whether to read too much into his songs, since he always seemed like one of the more level-headed figures to come out of grunge.

I guess I’ll also mention that I spent a lot of today listening Cornell’s music being played on KEXP, an institution that much like Soundgarden owes much to the always vibrant music community here in Seattle. And I think for a lot of Seattle music fans, Cornell’s death does feel like one more broken link to the pre-tech boom years of Seattle, when it was just a weird rock and roll lumberjack town. Though I’d be lying if I said I had more connection to Seattle’s grunge years than its tech years (on account of me being 2 years-old when Nevermind hit). But I still can’t help but feel sad that just like Cobain and Layne Staley, Cornell wasn’t given the long formidable career that the rock stars of the ’60s and ’70s have seen. But hey, at least the music’ll always be there, to wash away the rain…

Favorite Tracks: “My Wave”, “Fell On Black Days”, “Black Hole Sun”