Release Date: Jun 3, 2014
Record label: Universal
Genre(s): Rock, Grunge
Upon its release on March 8, 1994, Superunknown wasn’t just a highly anticipated album from a critically acclaimed rock band—its multi-platinum success and Grammy wins practically felt predestined. This was Soundgarden’s long overdue turn to come out on top. Though they were the first late-’80s Seattle-scene spawn to sign to a major label, and dutifully embarked upon traditional career-building exercises like opening stadium tours for Guns N' Roses, they would be soundly leapfrogged on the charts by their Emerald City peers in Nirvana and Pearl Jam; by comparison, Soundgarden’s metallic sonatas were seemingly too knotty (and naughty) to inspire the same magnitude of crossover success.
Soundgarden started in 1984 with a strange progressive / punk / thrash sound—with a bit of Black Sabbath thrown in—that predated what is now known as “grunge”. In their early days they covered unlikely songs and dabbled in unlikely genres (see the dance / dub track “FOPP” from their second EP) before settling into their signature, albeit evolving, sound. As musical tastes changed along with the turn of the decade into the 1990s, Soundgarden was no longer featured in heavy metal magazines or in rotation on MTV’s Headbangers Ball, but were promoted along with the more “alternative” bands of the era until they finally became enormous commercial successes thanks to their breakthrough album Superunknown, 20 years ago.
The defining moment from an unclassifiable band remains brilliantly off-kilter as metal, crushingly moody as alternative and strangely reassuring as classic rock. This 20th-anniversary reissue of the grunge era's most ambitious statement adds a second disc of mostly unnecessary music (the five-disc superdeluxe version adds more). Demos and rehearsals let you hear Chris Cornell's powerful voice go occasionally out of tune; B sides drag ("Black Days III") or are goofs ("Exit Stonehenge") – and the best ones from this period, like the cubist hair metal of "Cold Bitch," or a sludgy take on Devo's "Girl U Want," aren't included.
Superunknown proves that a grunge record can endure without the romance of a dead singer. In some ways, the album bests In Utero, Nirvana’s last official mark on the world that came out just half a year earlier, at the end of 1993. It’s less raw, but more technical; less humorous, more tightly woven. Soundgarden never threw up their hands and tossed musicianship to the wind like Nirvana.
[Weighing in at two CDs, the Deluxe edition of Superunknown isn't as generous as its five-disc cousin. On the first disc is the remastered version of the 1994 album, including the bonus songs "She Likes Surprises," while the second disc is 16 tracks of highlights from the big box. Thankfully, this does include the major non-LP B-sides -- "Exit Stonehenge," "Black Days III," "Kyle Petty, Son of Richard" -- along with demos of "Let Me Drown," "Black Hole Sun" and "Half"; an acoustic "Like Suicide"; and exciting rehearsals of "Head Down," "Limo Wreck," and "The Day I Tried to Live.