Soundgarden may have begun as the project of music hobbyists but ended up being regarded as one of alternative rock’s greatest bands. Their albums still mark, for many, the genre’s upper limits.
But Soundgarden was also an unusual band that had shifted through indie-rock, post-punk, and stoner metal by the time they achieved their commercial breakthrough in the early 1990s during the “grunge era.”
Today I am looking at the entire discography created by singer Chris Cornell and his Seattle cohorts, and I am ranking Soundgarden’s albums from worst to best.
Soundgarden Albums Ranked
7. “Screaming Life/Fopp” (1990)
Soundgarden recorded their debut EPs with the help of fellow Seattle musicians Jack Endino and Steve Fisk, and their music reflected their sprawling musical taste.
While not technically a full studio album, this combined release gives a good glimpse into the band’s early creative impulses.
There are a few things that casual fans will find surprising. These are artsy recordings inspired by independent rock and stand in stark contrast with the commercial hair metal of the time. In fact, Chris Cornell would point to his band and Jane’s Addiction as starting points for the alternative rock movement.
How influential was Soundgarden? What did Kurt Cobain think of Soundgarden, for example? According to his “Journals,” Cobain was a big fan of the band’s early demos.
What Alice in Chains think of Soundgarden? AiC changed a lot of their early pop-metal sound and image due to hearing and befriending Soundgarden.
Secondly, Chris Cornell’s vocals are good but clearly in the developing stages, as is Kim Thayil’s playing.
Lastly, the band’s sound is already muscular. Fellow Seattle groups Screaming Trees and Mother Love Bone would quickly find out that their music contrasted the band’s name. However, there’s a deep psychedelic, quirky tinge to all the recordings here.
“Screaming Life/Fopp” is a good indicator of the band’s early sound, one on which they would quickly develop.
6. “Ultramega OK” (1988)
Soundgarden was far from an overnight success. But this suited the band just fine.
They’d spent their formative years playing clubs, developing a small but dedicated following, and honing their chops.
By the time of their debut album, the band’s sound was dominated by a mixture of garage rock and psychedelic metal.
“Flower” and “All Your Lies” are good early indicators of the band’s strength. Their cover of “Smokestack Lightning” sounds like a jump-off point for their later release “Slaves & Bulldozers.”
Chris Cornell would later criticize the production found on “Ultramega OK.” And while the album sounds excessively murky at times, there’s undoubtedly something to the sound that the Seattle quartet, which included Hiro Yamamoto on bass and Matt Cameron on drums, had developed.
5. “King Animal” (2012)
Soundgarden was an anomaly in the world of rock music. Their discography included no duds. They’d split up in 1996, staying on good terms with each other. And their singer had achieved commercial success outside of the band (as a solo artist and with Audioslave).
There was little forcing a reunion of the Seattle quartet. And, so, they got back together.
Energized and looking to avoid the critique of merely piggybacking on their hits, they quickly released an album of new material.
As always, the band shows little willingness to answer expectations. “King Animal” feels like a continuation of their early work, with no gentle winks given to the subject of their reunion.
Kim Thayil’s riffs and Matt Cameron’s drumming are stronger than ever. Meanwhile, Ben Shepherd collaborates successfully with Cornell on several tracks.
“A Thousand Days Before” and “Been Away Too Long” find the band nailing the dramatic Sabbath/Zeppelin hybrid that they’d used in the past.
Cornell’s brooding and recognizable songwriting touch is added to songs like “Black Saturday” or “Bones of Birds.”
Sadly, it would turn out to be Soundgarden’s final album after Chris Cornell tragically passed away in 2017. However, in embracing their legacy as a no-nonsense working band rather than a global rockstar, Soundgarden made the best strategic move. “
Based on the assumption that the style they represented could still be reproduced, this is one of the best grunge albums.
“King Animal” caps off what I believe to be a nearly perfect collection of studio albums.
4. “Louder Than Love” (1989)
“Louder Than Love” is a more direct, less sonically confusing album than its predecessors. It finds Soundgarden willfully accepting their status as potential stars of the burgeoning alt-rock scene.
To this end, the band also begrudgingly tolerates a move away from Sub Pop and SST and toward a major label, A&M Records.
The shift has an immediate effect on the sound quality. Terry Date’s production and the added recording budget come in handy in cleaning up Soundgarden’s sound while retaining its power.
But there are plenty of unusual detours as well (“Get On The Snake”), quirky humor (“Big Dumb Sex”), and even attempts at writing a single (“Loud Love”).
3. “Down on the Upside” (1996)
The music press had hailed Soundgarden as an example of grunge’s wide range and potential. But by 1996’s “Down on the Upside,” most of their Seattle contemporaries had already called it a day.
With little more to prove, Soundgarden embrace their creative impulses fully but base most of the songs on older ideas. This is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it the fact that not every song on the record sounds like a potential single.
Cornell’s ever-more direct songwriting comes to the forefront on the Beatles-like “Blow Up The Outside World” or “Burden In My Hand.”
And if “Superunknown” had a morbid feel about it, “Down on the Upside” could as well be the soundtrack to a funeral. “Pretty Noose,” “Tighter & Tighter,” and “Zero Chance” tread dark ground.
Meanwhile, “Ty Cobb” echoes the manic, punk pranks of some of their early recordings.
“Down on the Upside” is a strong release but also a confounding record that never attempts to make the experience comfortable for the listeners.
2. “Badmotorfinger” (1991)
“Badmotorfinger” is a culmination of all of the ideas Soundgarden had developed in their early days. Sonically, this is a powerhouse of a record that willfully takes in the pungent aroma of the stoner rock bands with which the band found themselves touring.
But “Badmotorfinger” is also a lean, carefully crafted record. Some of the band’s most aggressive songs can be found here (“Face Pollution,” “Outshined,” “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Rusty Cage”), but the band won’t allow for any needless meandering.
The one exception is the long jam format of “Slaves and Bulldozers,” the best of Soundgarden’s suite of psychedelic-doom-metal songs. Here, in particular, Chris Cornell’s vocals reach almost unparalleled heights.
For these reasons, Cornell, Thayil, Cameron, and new bassist Ben Shepherd would begin acquiring a reputation as one of heavy metal’s most capable groups of musicians.
“Badmotorfinger” is an inspired release and one of Soundgarden’s best albums, if not their greatest. Commercially it helped the group earn more fans, but did not achieve the same success as Pearl Jam‘s “Ten” or Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” Even Alice in Chains, a band they’d heavily inspired, had leapfrogged them in terms of commercial success.
Are Soundgarden underrated? In many ways, considering the appeal of their Seattle contemporaries, Chris Cornell and co. may still be considered relatively underrated.
With their next release, Soundgarden would stop being merely an underground sensation. “Badmotorfinger” might just capture the group’s essence at its least tainted.
1. “Superunknown” (1994)
“Superunknown” came nearly a decade into Soundgarden’s career and set the band on an entirely new trajectory. Nobody could deny that their new commercial success had been warranted. Still, it was not one that the band had necessarily courted.
Still, the fact that it is a more dynamic record, complete with less aggressive numbers, can’t have hurt sales. “Superunknown” is one of the biggest grunge albums. It’s typically ranked among the best rock albums of the 1990s.
This, however, should not take away from the fact that “Superunknown” is a nearly perfect album. It immediately earned comparisons to some of classic rock’s greatest triumphs. And, three years into grunge’s reign, Soundgarden became MTV darlings.
The Beatlesque “Black Hole Sun” was the album’s smash hit. However, with “Fell on Black Days,” “4th of July,” and “The Day I Tried to Live” Chris Cornell further proved the extent to which his songwriting skills had grown.
“Limo Wreck” and “Mailman” find the singer performing incredible vocal acrobatics. “My Wave,” “Let Me Drown,” and the title track are a reminder of Thayil’s ability as a writer of powerful guitar riffs.
And the sinister, acoustic guitar-based “Like Suicide” suggest that Soundgarden may have one of the most bizarre MTV success stories of the 1990s.