Since Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell’s recent, tragic suicide, tribute after tribute has affirmed his status as a towering icon of 90s grunge and a powerful presence in contemporary music ever since his first band emerged from Seattle with their sludgy metal riffs and operatic choruses. Sure, all of the members of Soundgarden deserve credit for that band’s thundering awesomeness. But as for Cornell’s continued success and renown long after most 90s stalwarts had burned out or faded away—well, you already know the answer: it’s that voice, an instrument over which, as Luke O’Neil writes at Esquire, the singer had “complete mastery.” Though it defined a specific time and place, Cornell’s voice also “transcended generations.”
The singer’s near four-octave range “made his live performances an incredible sight to watch” and his recordings a stirring experience to listen to, whether they showcased his own material or his unique talent for covering songs across a spectrum of styles and genres. “The imposing architecture” of Cornell’s voice, writes Pitchfork in a retrospective of some of his finest recorded moments, “was part and parcel to his legacy, but it would be nothing if he didn’t also know how to brilliantly arrange it.”
Hitting every note on the beat, “building tension until the exact moment it unlocks.” Hear that dynamic control above, stripped bare of instrumentation, in the reverb-drenched, isolated vocal tracks for Superunknown’s “Black Hole Sun,” a song—with its disturbing video—that widened Soundgarden’s already considerable fanbase when it debuted in 1994.
For contrast, and to get a sense of just how rhythmically attuned Cornell was, listen to the studio release before and/or after the stripped version at the top to hear how the vocal gives the song its spine, bearing the meter, melody, and mood. L.A. Times critic Mikael Wood describes Cornell’s voice as a “brawny yet soulful wail, grounded in sorrow but always reaching upward for a way out of the muck.” I can hardly think of a better way to characterize such a uniquely moving singer, one who, for many of us, remained a benchmark for rock vocals—in various bands and solo projects—for a solid thirty years.