The 20 greatest Alice In Chains songs – ranked
Alongside their Seattle grunge brethren in Nirvana, the original Alice In Chains had one of the greatest impacts across one of the shortest timeframes in the history of rock. Formed in 1987 by guitarist and vocalist Jerry Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney, they would work with bassists Mike Starr and Mike Inez, and one-of-a-kind frontman Layne Staley on three EPs, three LPs and an iconic MTV Unplugged live album between 1990 and 1996, when Layne’s spiralling drug use ground activity to a halt. The vocalist’s death, from a heroin overdose in 2002, seemed to draw a line under an unprecedentedly innovative, unassailably brilliant catalogue.
Eyebrows were understandably raised by 2005’s ‘reunion’ show for a south east Asia tsunami relief benefit, with stars like Maynard James Keenan and Ann Wilson of Heart performing Layne’s parts. The decision, the following year, to give Comes With The Fall vocalist William DuVall – a friend of Jerry’s from years before – a chance to play with the band was revelatory, however, and his permanent position kickstarted an unlikely resurgence that’s seen three excellent albums produced between 2009 and 2018 – as well as breathing new life into Layne’s old songs in the live arena.
With two distinct, deserving eras of the band to explore, it’s nigh-on impossible to select the 20 greatest tracks without being swayed by sentiment, subjective preference or sepia-toned memory. We’ve done our best to offer a fair cross-section, though, but feel free to to check your brain for anything we’ve missed in the comments…
20. Over Now (Alice In Chains, 1995 / MTV Unplugged, 1996)
The final song on Alice In Chains’ third album (their last with Layne) feels both oddly upbeat and eerily pre-emptive a quarter-century down the line. Written about the band’s temporary break-up in 1995, its lyrics are blunt – ‘You know it’s been on my mind / Could you stand right there / Look me straight in the eye and say / That it’s over now’ – but the emotions within are utterly cutting. Over Now’s definitive iteration is from the 1996 MTV Unplugged performance, which was released as the lead single from that iconic live recording – at seven minutes and 12 seconds, it stands as their longest single release to date. It’s been notably absent from live sets since, perhaps just too painful a memory to revisit.
19. So Far Under (Rainier Fog, 2018)
The first Alice In Chains song written entirely by William DuVall would become the second single from their underrated sixth album Rainier Fog. Dealing with feelings of being up against the world as layer after layer of bullshit crushes life away, So Far Under is vintage AIC, but it’s the outrageously heavy composition that earns a place on this list. The main riff lands with a viscous sludge metal feel that would do Electric Wizard proud, while that woozily distended chorus (‘So far under / Far I’ve never fell / Now forever dwell / So far under’) and asphyxiating guitar solo heighten the atmospherics to another level. Get down.
18. What The Hell Have I? (The Last Action Hero OST, 1993)
Cropping up on the soundtrack to gunpowder-loaded cult Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Last Action Hero, logic would have it that What The Hell Have I? should be a high-octane departure from the Alice In Chains standard. It’s a departure alright, but of the slower burn, more psychedelic variety – cut from the original recordings for Dirt. With Jerry Cantrell fooling around with an electric sitar-guitar hybrid for the mind-bending main riff, and lyrics that vividly paint the narcotic experience in a not-entirely negative light, it remains a shimmering highlight in their otherwise murky catalogue.
17. Bleed The Freak (Facelift, 1990)
It’s easy to be wrong-footed by the third single from AIC’s debut Facelift, with that easygoing intro dropping away into one of their most venomous compositions. Ultimately, it’s an unforgettable hate anthem to all those naysayers who tried to undercut the band, born from a time long before their immortality was guaranteed. “The song is us against the world, those people who put you down,” Jerry would explain in the liner notes to 1999’s Music Box compilation. “I put up with many years of you putting us down and watching us bleed, now I’d like to see you bleed some back.” Bloody brilliant.
16. Rain When I Die (Dirt, 1992)
Alice In Chains weren’t exactly renowned for their tender love songs. This savage cut from Dirt saw them grappling with matters of the heart with as much potency as any of their grunge peers, though. ‘Is she ready to know my frustration?’ begs Layne. ‘What she slippin’ inside, slow castration / I’m a riddle so strong, you can’t break me / Did she come here to try, try to take me?’ As gut-wrenching as those lyrics feel, the track’s six minutes unfold with all the soul-swelling mastery of a classic power ballad, and would certainly have received a prominent single release on a less jam-packed LP.
15. We Die Young (We Die Young, 1990)
Although the title-track and first single from Alice In Chains’ debut EP would take on its own meaning for many fans following the untimely passing of Layne, the song was originally written as an indictment of gang violence in their native Seattle. “It just seemed like things were getting out of hand,” the frontman would explain in a 1991 interview. “Incidents where kids were getting shot, and getting their tennis shoes ripped off their dead bodies.” Jerry, meanwhile, explained that he was inspired to write while looking out the bus window on the way to rehearsals and seeing numerous pre-teens already dealing drugs. Three decades later, it still makes for a hauntingly heavyweight 153 seconds.
14. Sludge Factory (Alice In Chains, 1995)
There aren’t many songs out there more aptly titled than the suffocating third track from Alice In Chains’ self-titled third LP. Apparently written after a call Layne and producer Toby Wright took at the studio from Columbia executives Don Ienner and Michele Anthony – where Don gave them nine days to finish work after a drawn-out process – you can feel the weight of expectation bearing down across its seven-plus minutes. More than that, the spectre of addiction haunts proceedings: ‘Now the body of one soul I adore / Wants to die / You have always told me you’d / Not live past 25.’ Moments of hip-hop and funk swagger peek out from the morass, but the overwhelming feeling is one of sheer desperation.
13. Black Gives Way To Blue (Black Gives Way To Blue, 2009)
Returning almost 14 years after 1995’s self-titled LP, fans were understandably trepidatious as to whether Alice In Chains could realistically recapture the old magic with virtually unknown newcomer William DuVall at the helm. Not only was William able to rejuvenate the band with a vocal style eerily close to that of the late Layne, but he also evolved the sound with an aura of effortless cool that often felt wholly different to the tortuous tension of what had come before. The title-track to 2009’s Black Gives Way To Blue was a cathartic reckoning on Layne’s passing, with piano contributions by none other than Elton John underlining a crossover of cultural significance that had only built up since.
12. Choke (The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, 2013)
The 21st century revival continued apace with 2013’s The Devil Put Dinosaurs here. The album’s name is a reference to the bizarre fringe-creationist belief that Satan himself hid dinosaur bones in the earth to sow seeds of doubt over whether existence really began just a few millennia ago. Many of the themes contained within deal with frustrations over the absurdity of the faith-versus-science divide. ‘I am wise and you don’t know,’ ring the ferociously sardonic lyrics. ‘A cloud is my home / Only some get in / Got a ’maginary friend… Jesus don’t like a queer / The devil put dinosaurs here.’ Meanwhile, brilliantly clashing acoustic and electric instrumentation illustrate ebbs and flows of exhaustion and anger.
11. Got Me Wrong (Sap, 1992)
Originally featuring on 1992’s Sap EP, relatively easygoing deep cut Got Me Wrong remained criminally overlooked until it cropped up on the soundtrack to 1994 slacker-comedy classic Clerks. Jerry has explained that the track is an exploration of relationship problems and the pursuit of love, explaining in the Music Box liner notes: “That’s about a girl I was dating in between one of the times I broke up with my true love [Courtney Clarke]. A lot of times you’ll tell someone how you don’t want to be in a relationship and why, and what kind of person you are, and they hear all that but think that they can change you.” It proved the perfect way in for Generation X‑ers who had been daunted by AIC’s darker lyrical content.
10. I Stay Away (Jar Of Flies, 1994)
Alice In Chains’ second acoustic EP (after Sap), Jar Of Flies found the band experimenting and building on a lesser-known but no less accomplished side of their sound with elements of blues-rock, jangle-pop and AOR. I Stay Away is perhaps the disc’s most stylistically strident moment, with a nightmarishly droning chorus (‘Why you act crazy? / Not an act, maybe / So close, a lady / Shifty eyes, shady’) clashing against flourishes of trumpet and strings. Layne wrote the song during a spell of sobriety after rehab (No Excuses is the EP’s relapsing counterpoint) but a feel of dark, uncontrolled psychedelia still pervades. Nick Domkin’s unsettling stop-motion music video only adds to the guitar-powered bad trip.
9. Hollow (The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, 2013)
The cryptic first single from The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here blindsided fans like a sludge metal asteroid from on high. Jerry Cantrell has explained that the song came into being on the last night of Alice In Chains’ 2010 Black Diamond Skye tour alongside Deftones and Mastodon, and the combination of cutting-edge progginess and gut-punching heft across its near six-minutes owes much to those heavyweight icons. The simultaneously soulful and anguished vocal hooks, however (‘Silence so loud, silence I can’t tell my up from down’) could only ever have come from AIC. Emptiness never felt so substantial.
8. Rooster (Dirt, 1992)
Although he has written better songs, it’s hard to argue that any of them are more important to Jerry Cantrell than the fourth single from Dirt. As a young man, there was a seemingly unbridgeable rift between the guitarist and his Vietnam War veteran father (Jerry Cantrell Sr, nicknamed Rooster for his youthful cockiness), but here Jerry Jr. adopted the perspective of a young soldier forced to take part in a questionable war to understand the psychological scars the experience left. The hauntingly poignant track would become a foundation stone for reconciliation between the father and son.
7. Check My Brain (Black Gives Way To Blue, 2009)
The key songwriter for one quarter of Seattle’s Big Four, there was always going to be a sense of disconnection when Jerry upped sticks and moved to Los Angeles in 2003. The guitarist channelled that feeling brilliantly into Black Gives Way To Blue’s juddering second single, Check My Brain. “There’s a certain aspect of sarcasm, I guess, being a guy from Seattle who lives in LA, ex-drug addict who lives in the belly of the beast and doesn’t partake, and being totally cool with that,” he explained in an interview with The Pulse Of Radio. “It’s like being the bad gambler and living in Vegas!” A cooly chaotic masterclass.
6. Would? (Dirt, 1992)
First appearing on the soundtrack to seminal grunge-era romcom Singles (in which the band had a cameo), and also featured on Dirt, Would? was written in honour of the late Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood. With his lost battle with heroin addiction foreshadowing Layne’s death a decade down the line, there is genuine poignancy in lyrics that grapple with the difficulty of rehab, the struggle against relapse, and the uncertainty of the future. Even those with no insight into the track’s background couldn’t escape that chest-thumping, stadium-sized chorus, of course: ‘Into the flood again / Same old trip it was back then / So I made a big mistake / Try to see it once my way.’
5. Angry Chair (Dirt, 1992)
One of the few AIC songs written entirely by Layne, the third single from Dirt found the vocalist weaving memories of being put into time-out by his father into a soundscape of incredibly dense foreboding, threat and escape that was really about – you guessed it – heroin. The guitars play a massive part here, with that echoey riff and a tearaway solo around the midpoint piling on darkness, but Angry Chair’s lasting legacy is ultimately about Layne’s autobiographical examination: ‘Saw my reflection and cried / So little hope that I died, oh / Feed me your lies, open wide / Weight of my heart, not the size, oh.’ Matt Mahurin’s highly stylised music video – which saw Layne cavorting with a reticulated python and a galago (a type of African “night monkey”) – was another unforgettable cut.
4. Nutshell (Jar Of Flies, 1994)
The depth of feeling in Alice In Chains’ music is always above and beyond, but surely even the hardest of hearts get choked up listening to this achingly bittersweet Jar Of Flies classic. ‘We chase misprinted lies,’ Layne sings. ‘We face the path of time / And yet I fight / And yet I fight / This battle all alone.’ Another of the vocalist’s own lyrical compositions, relatively straightforward words on the struggle of getting from one day to the next are endlessly enhanced by the threadbare hope and arresting resignation in his delivery. Coming when it did, the MTV Unplugged version might be even more heartbreaking. Nutshell was never released as a single, but for fans and the surviving members of the band, it is an enduring reminder of times past and great talents lost.
3. Down In A Hole (Dirt, 1992)
A comparatively tender offering written about the long-term love of his life, Courtney Clarke, the story has it that Jerry Cantrell almost didn’t present Down In A Hole to the rest of Alice In Chains as he was unsure it was the sort of material the collective wanted to perform. Thank the grunge gods he did. True, the atmosphere of sun-beaten dreaminess feels a thousand miles from some of their gloomier work, but the intrinsic melancholy and intertwining harmonies are vintage AIC, while Layne’s charged lament of being ‘Down in a hole / Out of control’ seemed to insinuate a darker secondary meaning than merely having one’s heart broken.
2. Them Bones (Dirt, 1992)
The opening track from Dirt shrieked its way into the popular rock consciousness three decades ago and has echoed there ever since. The chromatic riff and layered vocals still feel like a perfect showcase of Alice In Chains’ signature style, but it’s the wryly fatalist pitch-black humour and message that one day we’ll all just be bones in the ground that really hang in the memory. “I was just thinking about mortality, that one of these days we’ll end up a pile of bones,” Jerry explained in the Music Box liner notes. “It’s a thought for every human being, whether you believe in an after-life or that when we die, that’s it.” Ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt. Music like this, though, lasts forever.
1. Man In The Box (Facelift, 1990)
There are so many great things about the first ‘proper’ single to be culled from Alice In Chains’ debut LP. The strange, abrasive musicality – combining down-tuned riffage, talkbox guitar, and almost gothically droning vocals – was unlike anything mainstream rock fans had been exposed to before. The blunt, provocative lyrics (‘Jesus Christ, deny your maker / He who tries, will be wasted’) were a righteous cry against the increasingly pervasive music censorship of the time. The formula it showcased would go on to individually characterise and ultimately define one of grunge’s greatest bands. Indeed, there was a cruel irony, given the song’s title, that Man In The Box was the last song they would ever perform live with Layne, at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri on July 3, 1996. Perhaps it was a fitting farewell, all the same, still ringing with vital urgency all these years down the line.
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