One of the prominent bands who lead the Grunge Movement of the early nineties, Alice In Chains were apart of the “Big Four of Grunge.” They propelled a sound that was all their own in stark contrast to the individual styles that became synonymous with the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. It was a dash of Heavy Metal, with a caldron of gloom, despair, drug addiction, and personal demons stirred in nicely with that razor-sharp Alternative essence that would soon change the landscape of Generation X, among other things.
Singer Layne Staley had formed an earlier incarnation of Alice In Chains in 1987 until meeting friend Jerry Cantrell, who would thereafter be the guitarist and primary songwriter for the band; they soon recruited bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney. This was the original lineup that started it all; not taking anything away from the undeniable spirit of longstanding bassist Mike Inez or current vocalist William DuVall With Layne Staley’s wily switcheroo between quiet and detailed vocals to gruff jowls that serviced each song with a purported conviction, there was no denying that he was one of the most gifted singers of his generation, and there’s no telling what could have been of his legacy had he not passed away so soon. Each band member brought their own flare to the sound that would feed the angst and hopelessness of the post-baby boomer nihilists. So enjoy our top ten Alice In Chains tunes:
10.) Real Thing
This was the song to close out their debut record, Facelift, and it doesn’t disappoint in leaving a lasting impression on you once you reach the end of the line of this album. With its whiskey-soaked riffs, sinister lyrics laced in violence and excess, Staley’s bombastic joviality in the way his screams jostle you by the collarbone, and its all-embracing vibe that’s befitting for brawling to, Real Thing is classic Alice In Chains. Also, be on the lookout for a Coming to America reference at the very end of the song.
9.) Sludge Factory
Their 1995 self-titled album is probably their most misunderstood, meaning that it’s much more structured than their previous albums and not as pulse-pounding; there’s still the fair share of heavy guitar utilization, but it’s a much more distinctive sound with more emphasis on melody than loudness. Sludge Factory is an exception; it’s undoubtedly the heaviest song on the album. It’s a perilous journey into the descent of utter madness can’t be ignored, even over the Black Sabbath-influenced swagger that’s carried throughout; the spoken word outro that sounds like a coked out robot dragging you closer towards Thanatos is pretty memorable.
8.) Rain When I Die
Several songs off of their classic sophomore album, Dirt, will be quite ubiquitous on this list. The song starts off with one of the meanest bass licks before descending into multilayered guitar work that grinds against your nerves like aroused chain saws with screeching wah wah that sounds like Catrell’s axe is having a seizure. Then there’s that main riff, man; you’d be hard-pressed not to be head banging to it. And the way the song slowly fades out towards the end before elevating its pandemonium and Staley’s bellowing chants until it abruptly cuts off; simply fabulous.
7.) Bleed the Freak
This was released as a vinyl-only single off of Facelift. It’s one of the bands most menacing tunes that reflects on those certain kinds of people who are only looking to strike you down every chance they get; It’s a potent anthem that fights off that kind of skepticism. Plus, it has one of their darkest riffs; pure doom, baby!
This is loneliness, sadness, and death in its rawest form. Though it wasn’t released as a single, it’s still recognized as one of their best; although, it takes a special kind of mood to sit down and listen to it without having to get up and take a shower. The MTV Unplugged live version is obviously the superior version; you can hear the cries of a frail and vanquished man putting every bit of his soul in those grim lyrics. This acoustic number is nothing short of masterful.
5.) I Stay Away
When Alice In Chains released Jar of Flies in 1994, they had no idea it would become the first E.P. in music history to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Here is where the band took a stylistic detour, substituting their heaviness for equanimity; See Nutshell for an obvious example. Co-written with bassist Mike Inez, I Stay Away is the bands only song to feature a string orchestra, and generates a more stirring tone that is completely unlike their usual gloom. Layne Staley has never been more vocally harmonious than he is here, and that’s why this song is top 5 material.
This is such a beautiful and hard-rockin’ song about the psychological effects of war. Jerry Cantrell wrote the song about his father who fought in Vietnam; Rooster was the nickname given to him when he was young in reference to his hair that would always stick up. The lyrics go through each harrowing stage of war and the damaging corollaries it has on the mind, body, and spirit. With its lingering chord progression drenched in flanger, those impending croons courtesy of both Staley and Cantrell, and that clobbering chorus with that impactful line, “no we ain’t gonna die,” Rooster stands as one of their most engaging.
3.) Man in the Box
If you’re looking for a worthy introduction to Alice In Chains, here’s the song for just that. It’s has everything you need: killer riffs masked in talk box, ambiguous lyrics dressed up in disturbing symbolism, a murderous guitar solo, and Staley busting out bazooka-sized range in his pipes. There’s a reason this song is their most well-known and most beloved.
2.) Down In A Hole:
This is arguably their most vulnerable composition that presented the band at a very profound point in their career. It was a ballad written for Cantrell’s long-time love, but don’t let its tender sensibilities fool you; the song still packs a wallop. The embellishments are something to savor; everything from its A flat Minor progression, the wonderful unison between Staley and Catrell’s vocals, and the tasteful imagery in the lyrics. The mechanics are almost poetic; something that’s not usually omnipresent in an Alice tune. One can not deny the beauty in the line, “I’ve eaten the sun so my tongue has been burned of the taste,” or this line in the chorus: “I’d like to fly, but my wings have been so denied.” There’s something angelic about the song when visual interpretations like take over.
It took some time trying to pick out a song that’s the self-proclaimed “best,” but we feel as though this is the very song that sums up the band. It was just the right bookend to cap off a near perfect album. Would? served as a touching eulogy to fellow Seattle singer of the band Mother Love Bone, Andrew Wood; he died of a heroin overdose in 1990. It was one of their biggest hit singles, and for self-explanatory reasons. The rolling bass riff, gyrating rhythm, the reserved presence of the guitar, and its evocation of the heart of the nineties makes this their most essential song. A fun fact: It was first featured in the 1992 movie Singles, which was about the Seattle grunge scene, and was directed by Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe; Alice In Chains made a cameo appearance, along with Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, where they performed the song live.
Top 10 Alice In Chains Songs
Updated Nov 10, 2020
Alice In Chains : Photo By Jenya Campbell from Olympia, USA (Alice in Chains on tour) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Layne Staley Photo: By Ghostone7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Article written by Matthew Pollard.