Rock ‘n’ Roll Troubadour – Chris Cornell’s Best Covers
Chris Cornell’s exceptional skill as a songwriter was unmistakable. By utilizing alternate guitar tunings and some of the weirdest chords you’ll ever hear, songs like “Black Hole Sun,” “Like a Stone,” and “Say Hello to Heaven” cemented Cornell’s place in rock history as one of the most poignant writers of his generation.
In addition to his impressive catalog of original songs, Cornell also showcased his hauntingly beautiful interpretations of other artists’ works in a way that gave reverence to those musicians whom he admired. Had he never written an original tune, Cornell would still be revered today as one of rock n’ roll’s greatest singers.
These selections are only a small snippet of Cornell’s amazing repertoire featuring his unique arrangements and sincere vocal performances. After his untimely death at the age of 52, his music will live on forever in the new Great American Songbook, along with that of those with whom he shared his love of melody and the craft of songwriting. Here are some of Chris Cornell’s best covers of these classic songs.
12) Stargazer – Mother Love Bone
The Seattle grunge scene was always mired in angst and suffering and in a way born out of tragedy. In 1991, when Chris’ roommate Andrew Wood, lead singer of Mother Love Bone, was found dead from a heroin overdose at the precipice of his band’s rise to stardom, Cornell along with members of Mother Love Bone and Green River created a musical tribute to Andrew’s legacy and the supergroup Temple of the Dog was formed. After bringing in a young singer named Eddie Vedder to accompany them on the song “Hunger Strike”, the band’s members went on to form Pearl Jam while Chris returned to fronting Soundgarden. Ever since, Cornell proudly carried a torch for those whom he respected and admired. “Stargazer” was a fan favorite from Mother Love Bone’s debut album, Apple, and hearing Chris sing it, you can feel his love and loss for his old friend. In fact, he references the song on the Temple of the Dog tune “Say Hello to Heaven.”
11) Thank You – Led Zeppelin
Critics have often compared Soundgarden’s raw, melodic sound to that of the legendary Led Zeppelin. While the juxtaposition of acoustic ballads and powerful rock provides a justifiable comparison of the two bands, here Chris’ vocals do a masterful job at carefully handling the delicate lyrics first sang by Robert Plant in 1969. Cornell was undoubtedly a big fan of the band having covered Zeppelin classics such as “Tangerine,” “Immigrant Song,” and “Going to California” throughout his career. It is fitting that last song he ever sang was a Led Zeppelin song, as Soundgarden closed their final set in Detroit with “In My Time of Dying” on the night of his death.
10) Girl You Want – Devo
First released in 1991 on the bonus disc to Soundgarden’s album Badmotorfinger and later included as the B-Side to Superunkown’s 1995 hit single, “Fell on Black Days,” this song by 80s new wave group Devo, is a favorite among diehard Soundgarden fans. You can also find the track on the 3-CD compilation Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path which features this song along with 16 other covers Soundgarden recorded as part of the band’s collection of rarities and unreleased material.
9) One – Metallica/U2
One of Cornell’s more inspired interpretations, this unlikely mashup features the lyrics of Metallica’s “One” set to the melody and music from the U2 song of the same name. Though the two bands are miles apart on the rock n’ roll spectrum, the universality of the simple word “One” works brilliantly in this instance. On this cover Chris effortlessly manages to take these two very different tunes and turn them into one beautiful arrangement.
8) Long As I Can See the Light – Creedence Clearwater Revival
John Fogerty, lead singer of the seminal 1960s swamp-rock group Creedence Clearwater Revival, is an amazing songwriter in his own right, having penned 11 Top 40 hits from 1969 to 1972, Cornell himself described Fogerty as a “genius”. In this clip Chris reveals how he came to discover that the singer-songwriter was his neighbor and performs the CCR song “Long As I Can See the Light” as a tribute to Fogerty’s enduring influence.
7) Imagine – John Lennon
“Imagine” has been played by practically every musician at one time or another, so it’s no surprise that Cornell would attempt to tackle the Lennon anthem and give it his own spin. The lyrics’ message of hope and understanding lends itself particularly well to Chris’ hauntingly honest voice and soulful melodies while remaining true to the spirit of the song.
6) A Day In the Life – The Beatles
Another Lennon composition, “A Day In the Life” from The Beatles’ masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, demonstrates Cornell’s ability to strip down, deconstruct, and reassemble legendary songs into stunning creations of his own. The build-up during the bridge reduces George Martin’s 40-piece orchestral freak-out down to a single acoustic guitar while still retaining the power of one of the song’s most memorable moments.
5) I Will Always Love You – Dolly Parton
Famously covered by Whitney Houston on the soundtrack to 1991’s The Bodyguard, “I Will Always Love You” was originally written by country music superstar Dolly Parton. The song features a simple but soaring melody that Chris handles flawlessly here. His voice sounds at once both hopeful and full of melancholy, perfectly capturing the essence of those classic lyrics.
4) Redemption Song – Bob Marley
Despite the demands of being a rock star, Chris always found time to spend with his children both on and off the road. Here his 12 year old daughter Toni accompanies him on this Bob Marley classic performed at the Beacon Theatre in 2015. This moving duet is a touching moment between father and daughter that demonstrates Cornell’s love for his family. Following his death Toni said of her father, “Our special connection was always the arts. Poems, books, music, writing. We both have an unconditional love for it.”
3) River of Deceit – Mad Season
Though Cornell often covered “River of Deceit” during his concerts, this version was recorded at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall with former Mad Season members; Barrett Martin and Mike McCready (Pearl Jam, Temple of the Dog), featuring Duff McKagan (Guns n’ Roses, Velvet Revolver) and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Part of 2015’s Sonic Evolution reunion/tribute concert to the late Layne Staley’s popular side project, Mad Season, whose one album, Above, remains a 90s rock classic; it perfectly captures Chris honoring his friend through song just as he and McCready did years earlier for Andrew Wood with Temple of the Dog.
2) Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
Chris Cornell’s dark arrangement of “Billie Jean” from Michael Jackson’s 1982 blockbuster Thriller was included on Chris’ second solo record, Carry On, as well as on his live acoustic album, Songbook. The ferocity with which Cornell sings about an obsessed fan is appropriate here and is perhaps a testament to his own experiences with an alleged stalker in 2014.
1) Nothing Compares 2 U – Prince
No other performance on this list captures the beauty and sincerity of Chris Cornell’s voice like “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Prince penned this tune in 1989 and it was later famously covered by Irish singer Sinead O’Connor in 1991. Yet Cornell’s version will stand the test of time as one of the greatest covers of a Prince song ever. The lyrics speak to anyone who has had a broken heart and Chris delivers each line with the pain and longing inherent in the song’s lyrics. In a letter written to her father after his passing, Toni Cornell says, “Who’s going to introduce me to movies like ‘Purple Rain‘ and songs like ‘The Beautiful Ones’ now?” Clearly Prince’s music meant a lot to Cornell and his family and to hear him sing this legendary song is truly a special moment.