Virtuoso performances that show Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell was one of rock’s greatest vocalists

Never outshined.
Never outshined.
Image: Reuters/Mark Blinch
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Chris Cornell, the lead singer for the grunge trailblazer Soundgarden and later for Audioslave, has died at age 52. A representative for Cornell confirmed that he died last night (May 17) after a show with the reunited Soundgarden in Detroit, and a medical examiner later ruled that Cornell hanged himself in a suicide.

Cornell will be remembered for his powerful, stunningly versatile voice and expansive vocal range. The frontman came to widespread national attention in the US with the 1991 release of Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, an album that bridged Soundgarden’s metal roots and the rising wave of grunge. In the years since, as a singer with Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, and as a solo artist, he had belted out some of rock’s most memorable vocal performances. When Rolling Stone in 2011 asked readers to vote for the greatest singers of all time, they placed Cornell at number 9, just behind John Lennon.

Cornell could do more than scream out soaring high notes. His voice had a depth that made it equally impressive crooning slower verses or even singing ballads. Here are just a few of the tracks, including some isolated vocals, that highlight the voice that fans will long remember:

Soundgarden, “Rusty Cage”

The song off Badmotorfinger, powered by guitarist Kim Thayil’s metal riffs, was one of Soundgarden’s early hits. Cornell’s vocals shine through on the studio version, but they’re even more spectacular on their own, showing the bluesy feeling underlying the song’s hard rock. There’s a reason legendary country singer Johnny Cash covered the song.

Soundgarden, “Black Hole Sun”

Soundgarden’s big radio hit from its 1994 album Superunknown was inescapable for a time in the US. Cornell’s melodic songwriting blended with the decidedly dark lyrics for a beautifully disturbing tune. Those qualities come through even more clearly on the gorgeous vocal track, which shows off Cornell as much more than a simple rock singer.

Chris Cornell, “Seasons”

Cornell’s voice was a prominent feature of the soundtrack for the zeitgeisty 1992 movie Singles, which was recently reissued. This song, with its echoes of Led Zeppelin, lets Cornell move across his large range for a track that rivals those of rock’s greatest singers.

Chris Cornell, “Billie Jean”

The live cover of the song takes Cornell far from his typical sort of performance, and reimagines Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit as a plaintive blues track. “When I started reading the lyrics, I realized it’s a lament, not a dance track,” Cornell told Rolling Stone in 2009. His voice is vulnerable and soft, rising at times into a pained rasp. It’s an emotional powerhouse.

Audioslave, “Like a Stone”

The track off the 2002 studio debut of Audioslave, made up of Cornell and former members of Rage Against the Machine, shows off the steadiness of Cornell’s rich voice and lets it soar without resorting to the standard rock-star screech. Cornell is able to lounge around in his voice’s sweet spots and turns in another great performance.

Soundgarden, “Outshined” live

Cornell’s voice inevitably started to show its age over time, but it also matured. “As time has moved on, I have less range and less ability to easily go in and out of different registers,” Cornell admitted in a 2015 interview, “but I feel like I have a much better ability to emotionally connect with any song.”

In his recent performances with Soundgarden, which reunited in 2010 and has been playing shows since, you can occasionally hear that Cornell’s voice lacks the power it formerly had, but it isn’t diminished. The singer still knew how to deliver a song, as is evident from this live performance of one of the classics off Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger.

This story has been updated with the medical examiner’s ruling that Cornell’s death was a suicide.