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Every Soundgarden Album, Ranked

'Superunknown' just turned 30, but the debate about whether it’s superior to 'Badmotorfinger' rages on
Soundgarden in 2012 (photo: Albert L. Ortega / WireImage)

Soundgarden literally stood tall over the world of Seattle rock in the grunge era – every member of the band’s classic lineup was at least 6’1”. As additionally the heaviest and most unabashedly ambitious band in the scene, Soundgarden leapfrogged quickly from Sub Pop to a major label in the late ‘80s. Frontman Chris Cornell, a bare chested rock god who could both sing and scream with uncanny melodic precision, eventually revealed a sensitive side and a gift for Beatles-esque psychedelic pop, while lead guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron kept the band’s thunderous sound rooted in Sabbath and the Stooges.  

With the arrival of bassist Ben Shepherd in 1990, Soundgarden’s music became more complex and collaborative as they explored alternate tunings and unusual time signatures. Singles like “Outshined” and “Spoonman,” and a formative Lollapalooza stint in 1992, pushed the band to platinum sales, but Soundgarden broke up in 1997 before ever mellowing out or becoming predictable.

Cornell continued making hits as a solo artist and with the supergroup Audioslave, but Soundgarden’s relatively amicable split left the door open for a triumphant reunion in 2010. They continued touring and recording until Cornell’s death in 2017, at which point they had worked on at least seven songs for a planned seventh studio album. After a protracted legal battle between the band and the singer’s widow Vicky Cornell, a settlement was reached in 2023, hopefully clearing the way for a final Soundgarden album release in the future.

Soundgarden’s best-selling album, the dizzyingly diverse 70-minute opus Superunknown, was released 30 years ago last week. Is it their best? Below, we’ll wade into the eternal Badmotorfinger versus Superunknown debate and take a side.

8. Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path (2014)

Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path is an appropriately nerdy title for a compilation tailor made for Soundgarden completists – a sprawling triple album divided into originals, covers and oddities. Highlights like the Superunknown outtake “She Likes Surprises” and “Blind Dogs” from the Basketball Diaries soundtrack are secret gems of the catalog. Hearing the band take on Devo and Spinal Tap songs is a kick, while other material showcases the band’s spacey experimental side. The new recording on the collection, “Storm,” was written in 1985 and finished nearly 30 years, and it holds up surprisingly well. Still, Echo of Miles is for hardcore fans only, and easily skipped by everyone else.

7. Louder Than Love (1989)

Soundgarden’s major label debut for A&M Records came at an awkward time when their sound was a little too dark for mainstream hard rock, but future Seattle compatriots Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains hadn’t yet primed alternative radio for something heavier. The singles “Loud Love” and “Hands All Over” are great, but Louder Than Love is a strange, meandering album, and the band’s camaraderie was faltering. Original bassist Hiro Yamamato left Soundgarden soon after the album was finished to pursue a Masters degree in chemistry. The glam metal parody “Big Dumb Sex” was later covered by Guns N’ Roses, who perhaps didn’t get the joke. “This AOR reclamation job isn’t retro because so many of their culturally deprived boho contemporaries have pretty much the same idea,” Robert Christgau wrote in the Village Voice review.

6. Screaming Life/Fopp (1990)

Soundgarden’s first two EPs from 1987 and 1988, later released together on CD, are as important to Sub Pop’s early history and what would eventually be called “grunge” as Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff or Nirvana’s Bleach. It’s impressive how fully formed Soundgarden was on Screaming Life – “Nothing to Say” sounds like it could’ve been on Badmotorfinger. Fopp is a little more flimsy, making the compilation feel lopsided. There’s only one original song, and 10 minutes are devoted to “Fopp,” a top 40 hit from the Ohio Players’ 1975 funk classic Honey playfully rendered as an AC/DC-style rocker and a long, weird dub remix full of Godzilla sound effects.

5. King Animal (2012)

During Soundgarden’s 13-year breakup, Cornell and Cameron continued playing arenas with Audioslave and Pearl Jam, respectively, while Shepherd led Hater and Thayil collaborated with a host of pals. Turns out the members of Soundgarden simply sound better with each other than with anybody else, and King Animal rekindles that old chemistry with ease. Cornell’s voice had started to lose some of its power and range in middle age, and “Been Away Too Long” is an uncharacteristically unimaginative comeback anthem. For the most part, the band picked up where they’d left off in the ‘90s with gnarled, heavy grooves like “Non-State Actor” and “A Thousand Days Before.”

4. Ultramega OK (1988)

Soundgarden were already getting offers from major labels after their early Sub Pop releases, but opted to first make a smaller jump to a more established indie, the California institution SST Records, for their debut full-length. Soundgarden recorded on the cheap with the label’s recommended producer Drew Canulette, who’d worked on a Black Flag live album, and they were ultimately unhappy with the sound and considered remixing it. “There are some weird phasing issues with guitars and some cymbals,” Thayil told author Jim Ruland in the 2022 book Corporate Rock Sunds: The Rise & Fall of SST Records. Despite the flawed production, Ultramega OK is a sharp and hard-hitting album, with impressive songwriting contributions from each member and more interesting left turns than on the eventual Louder Than Love. The album solidified Soundgarden’s early reputation as a heavy band, garnering airplay on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and their first Grammy nomination (for, somewhat comically, Best Metal Performance). In 2017, a Jack Endino remix was finally completed and released on an expanded reissue of the album.

3. Down on the Upside (1996)

1996 was a famously rough year for alternative rock’s commercial prospects, as many of America’s biggest bands suddenly found their new albums selling half as well as previous efforts. That may have been a welcome adjustment for Pearl Jam, who’d been shell-shocked by their rapid rise, but it seemed to take the wind out of Soundgarden’s sails, as they announced their breakup less than a year after Down on the Upside hit stores. Upside retains the richly rewarding anything-goes vibe of Superunknown despite fewer standout hits, bouncing from the mandolin-flecked punk of “Ty Cobb” to the smiley, elastic Zeppelin groove of “Dusty” and the Moog atmospherics of “Applebite.” “Soundgarden doesn’t sound so much like Rush anymore. There’s a new rhythmic tilt in a few songs that suggests the influence of the unjustly maligned ‘70s boogie tradition – you can practically hear ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ hovering behind the backbeat of ‘Burden in My Hand,’” wrote Ivan Kreilkamp in the SPIN review.

2. Badmotorfinger (1991)

Michigan producer Terry Date spent the second half of the ‘80s helping heavy bands such as Metal Church, Dream Theater and Fifth Angel record their debut albums before he brought Soundgarden roaring into the big leagues with the brooding bombast of Badmotorfinger. Cameron and Shepherd formed a pummeling new rhythmic core for Soundgarden on “Jesus Christ Pose,” while Cornell began stretching out with arty epics like “Searching With My Good Eye Closed.” Soundgarden would never wail with the same consistent intensity after Badmotorfinger as they pivoted toward more colorful and varied albums, but the speed and fury of “Rusty Cage” and “Face Pollution” is undeniable.

1. Superunknown (1994)

By the time Soundgarden began recording their fourth album, Cornell had already revealed a quieter, more nuanced side with the 1991 Pearl Jam-assisted side project Temple of the Dog and his classic solo cut “Seasons” from the Singles soundtrack. The band’s first set of demos for Superunknown, however, stuck to Soundgarden’s tried-and-true hard rock sound, until producer Michael Beinhorn prodded Cornell to write songs more like his classic rock heroes Cream and the Beatles. The result was a new crop of tunes that included the psychedelic “Black Hole Sun” and the slow but powerful “Fell on Black Days,” which propelled Superunknown into a sextuple platinum blockbuster and proved Soundgarden wasn’t just for the metal heads. Shepherd’s eerie “Head Down” and the clavinet-assisted groove of “Fresh Tendrils” were new territory, and even the biggest straight-ahead rocker from the album, “Spoonman,” was an unlikely collaboration with the eccentric Seattle percussionist known as Artis the Spoonman.