Alice In Chains are widely revered by hard rock fans (and guitarists especially), though their critical standing is secretly kind of a wash. They weren’t lambasted like Stone Temple Pilots, but they weren’t lavished upon like Nirvana, or Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden’s eventual breakthrough, Superunknown, either. Most ’90s alt-scholars agree that Dirt was their magnum opus, and the Billboard #1 Jar Of Flies EP is held in similarly high regard. 1995’s Alice In Chains isn’t anyone’s idea of a classic, though 1996’s Unplugged really should be; it’s the Unplugged In New York to Dirt’s Nevermind. They more or less broke even; they’re widely beloved by people who don’t need much convincing, and they also stay out of Radiohead or Neutral Milk Hotel’s way in ’90s compendia. That’s an enviable position to be in — how many bands would love to be purely regarded by the fans? Even the angst-ridden Tool, from nearly the same era, are a little too ripe for parody and their supporters a little too cultish for the kind of almost utopian evenhandedness that these guys receive. Even after frontman Layne Staley tragically died in 2002, Alice In Chains’ two albums with the uncanny Staley soundalike William DuVall (2009’s Black Gives Way To Blue and 2013’s The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here) have enjoyed success and respect that’s almost as equidistant from utter embarrassment as it is from AC/DC’s best-selling upheaval with Brian Johnson.
But AIC have made as much great, distinctive music as any of the above-named bands, just scattered across endearingly odd products (1991’s Sap EP was a reverb-y “acoustic” thing named for a prophecy drummer Sean Kinney had in a dream) and a few missed opportunities (neither 1999’s box set Music Bank nor its pared-down Nothing Safe: The Best Of The Box were satisfying-enough homes for the uncollected material they contained). Dirt and Unplugged are the master texts, but they could’ve filled two more. Even DuVall-era material like 2009’s silly “Check My Brain” and 2013’s ambitious “Lab Monkey” belong in the picture. (Hell, Jerry Cantrell’s solo “Psychotic Break” and “Cut You In,” with Kinney’s trademark odd drumming, would’ve been fearsome additions to any post-Dirt AIC record.)
Cantrell and Staley’s nearly always harmonized vocals, Mike Starr and then Mike Inez’s oblong bass figures, and Kinney’s off-kilter beats made for something more unique than simply Staley’s groan, whose imitators would go on to ruin mainstream rock radio for a few years (shouts to legitimate slapper “Touch, Peel, And Stand” though). A simple enough riff like “Got Me Wrong” was as catchy as anything thrown to the airwaves in 1991 and the Zeppelin-esque knottiness of 1990’s “Confusion” as elaborate as any art-rock. They mastered the whole of ’90s rock dynamism: short, long, fast, slow, loud, soft — a song was usually excavated beneath all that intentional and sadistic murk in AIC’s audio and minds. They bent guitars and voices into miserably beautiful shapes, and sometimes radio agreed. They have a lot of great songs, but these are their 10 best.
10. “Died” (from 1999’s Music Bank)
There’s no actual way around the sad, hardly-precedented-yet-unsurprising fact that the last song Layne Staley ever released was his literal farewell. “Died,” the finale from 1999’s 3xCD (plus CD-Rom — ’90s, man) clearinghouse, Music Bank, was no “Keep Me In Your Heart,” but shared a spirit with Warren Zevon’s usual métier: Vantablack comedy. “I could climb until I reach where angels reside / Ask around to find out where the junkies applied,” he sang, warmly layered under the usual quilts of Cantrell counterpoint, thick-mixed blues-rock chug and unusual melodic turns as connective sinew. Eventually it turns out the protagonist may be in heaven searching for a lost friend: “My heart’s is dried up, beating slow / It’s been deflating since you died.” In the end, it doesn’t matter whom it’s about or how much Staley’s grim outlook imitated his grim reality and vice versa. His band’s death fetish was certain from “We Die Young” to “Died,” their opening salvo and closing procession. Their fully realized music was proof enough of life in between.
9. “What The Hell Have I?” (from The Last Action Hero soundtrack, 1993)
Loads of Western alt-rock bands picked up a sitar in the ’90s — from the Offspring to Dave Matthews Band. But our sludge factory workers’ obligatory go of the 19-string (well, an electric modification because Jerry Cantrell couldn’t figure out how to play one) sounded less like an appropriating, exoticizing detour than one of their typically queasy bent-string set pieces. Among Alice In Chains songs, however, it is alone in making drugs sound fun. The verses are nearly psychedelic (“The face before me flies,” “Your soul served on a plate”), with Cantrell and Staley’s moan-onizing around that sitar figure and Sean Kinney’s dizzying drum line. The chorus rages in to cut the bullshit, though, with thick ‘n’ chunky block chords borrowed from some vintage glam or Aerosmith ditty, and feels like a rebirth each time it starts up. “It’s hard to start things over,” warbles a defeatist whose songs will go on to outlive him. We felt the fire around them. Bonus points for saving the title for the very last line.
8. “Rain When I Die” (from Dirt, 1992)
The only reason “Rain When I Die” wasn’t released as a single from the unstoppable Dirt is because there were already five of them, and at least half already qualified as kinda-power-ballads. But once the minute-long atmospherics are done fucking around, and the verse has made its distorted wah riff crabwalk all over Jerry and Layne’s calls and responses, respectively, there’s that chorus. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a Layne, soaring with full-throated abandon with a performance so powerful it sounds optimistic: “I think it’s gonna raiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnn…” But oh, right: “…when I dieeeeeeeeee.” At their best, Alice In Chains’ melodies are a prismatic beacon shining from impregnable darkness, and even that darkness often comes harmonized, hummable. The phrase “slow castration” shouldn’t sound so gummy.
7. “Fear The Voices” (from 1999’s Music Bank)
Here it is, what could’ve been. While it’s astounding how much the current incarnation of Alice honors the Layne years with William DuVall’s uncanny vocal resemblance, that whole Doing Justice thing is kind of a feint. They’ve yet to prove themselves as weird or catchy or as off-the-wall as the original lineup, they’re just keeping the wheels from rusting. And that’s not just due to Staley’s absence: Original bassist Mike Starr penned this stuttering funk-metal grinder that would’ve made it onto Dirt if not for Starr’s impending exit from the band (telling the leader he “didn’t sing it right” isn’t the way to get your song on the album, third-banana bassists!), or the fact it didn’t fit at all. Loads of Cantrell guitar parts sound like they’re actually horns (the verses on “Grind,” all of 1998’s solo “Cut You In” until actual horns take over) but “Fear The Voices” is the horniest by far, despite Cantrell’s actual contributions to the tune being questionable. (His lack of involvement in writing it was allegedly part of why it didn’t make the album.) The song’s just too fun for a traditional Alice release, full of chutes and ladders like a jazzy intro, Staley trying on a fake Ohio Players falsetto, and — good God, are those politics? The band name-checked Washington State Governor Booth Gardner and referenced his absurd 1992 bill to get anyone jailed who purchased an “erotic” album for a minor. As Alice In Chains’ topical moments mostly boiled down to “Rooster” and an early satirical misfire wherein Staley sang “I’m not no queer / Go fuck a steer,” this was something else. It wasn’t right for Dirt at all, but it was unjust to bury on 1999 box set Music Bank. Starr was vindicated when the pretty hummable tune did actually win some belated airplay, but it belongs on a best-of comp right between “Would?” and “No Excuses.”
6. “Sludge Factory” (from Alice In Chains, 1995)
“Your weapon is guilt,” churns an altered voice fit for hostage-taking during a particularly seasick denouement even for this band. “Sludge Factory” is AIC’s mostly aptly titled tune in a crowded canon of “Junkheads” and breaks down their core aural philosophies into components: the brick-to-face three-chord opening riff, Cantrell’s mocking, haunted-hayride harmonies, and Staley’s penchant for unsettling imagery that’s never quite in focus (“Your eyes dilate / You shake and I’m high”). The ominous opening gambit, “You insult me in my home,” makes clear that there is an anger in this song, or as Kurt Cobain put it, a denial. In lambasting a fellow struggling addict, Staley doubles down on the unreliable-narrator role he portrayed in Dirt’s scariest rationalizations, while Sean Kinney’s vaguely hip-hop beat and Cantrell’s surprisingly funky guitar solo made this the most surprising (and surprisingly successful) inclusion for the band’s Unplugged taping one year later. But the original seven-minute chugdown couldn’t have been approximated by any other band; certainly not Godsmack, who aren’t twisted or dirty enough. Few good bands are, either.
5. “Love, Hate, Love” (from Facelift, 1990)
For the most part, these guys have managed to stay on the meat-and-potatoes side of soft metal and hard rock despite varying it up a lot more subtly than their outwardly feminist Seattle peers. But they accepted the sinister responsibilities of their riffs at times, too: “I want to peel the skin from your face,” Staley mutters on his debut’s darkest tune. “Love, Hate, Love” is the obligatory, high-drama six-minute-plus centerpiece, a deathless hatefuck and a space-core expedition. It’s a showcase purely for Staley, with no signature riff to fence with, just Cantrell puttering in the background with some swirling Pink Floyd effects and chugging like an ascending staircase on the amazing pre-chorus that turns out to lead to a cliff. The song is neither easy nor fun to listen to, but it is a captivating piece of atypical theater from some secretly disciplined hookmeisters. More importantly, it’s the finest vocal performance Staley ever recorded; he threw himself into the dripping contempt here as surely as Eminem did on “Kim.”
4. “Rooster” (from Dirt, 1992)
Dirt concerns addiction from every angle, beginning with a funeral (“Them Bones”) and ending with a wake (“Would?”). It posits the dangerous idea that we all die anyway, so why bother with “books and degrees” when heroin presents an alternative for those who “Hate To Feel,” as one of the darkest songs put it. The album’s lone exception is still about men who make a life out of risking death, but as the flipside: a sober, well-respected, honorable choice. The slow-building blues of “Rooster” is entirely about Jerry Cantrell Sr. serving in Vietnam, titled after his nickname, and references not just the war zone but the chasm between a divided family: “Gloria sent me pictures of my boy.” As tales from the grunge family tree go, it’s less neurotic than Eddie Vedder’s oedipal “Alive” or Nirvana’s childhood fever dream “Sliver.” Like most of Cantrell’s songs, there’s an acceptance and calm toward the idea that the damage being sung about has already been done. Staley’s built-in weariness was born to buttress the idea of war as unwinnable apocalypse. “Rooster” is a gripping reminder of the stories he was capable of telling.
3. “Over Now” (from MTV Unplugged, 1996)
On 1995’s eponymous Alice In Chains, nothing went right. Layne Staley was so addicted to heroin that his manager recalled him falling asleep in a meeting. A planned tour got cancelled at the last minute. A song with a chorus about “peanut butter on the brain” was permitted to touch down at nearly six minutes. On turgid, sometimes gripping processions like “Brush Away” and “Head Creeps,” nihilism was the benchmark, the accepted standard of feeling and riffing. Whereas their previous smash Dirt faced Staley’s illness head-on in songs like “Junkhead” that couldn’t be more literal, the band was self-conscious here of no new narrative. They were supposed to be clean by now. This was supposed to be a victory lap, as Rick Ross fans say. The self-titled album went triple platinum, but it couldn’t be enjoyed by many close to it. If anything, it was scary to think of what Staley could buy.
Its final track though, imagined the peace that its tortured preceding songs like “God Am” openly pleaded for. “Over Now” is a simple lyric, and a beautiful, bluesy progression, which turned out to be rendered even more richly with acoustic guitars and subtracted murk on next year’s Unplugged session, which was quickly repackaged into the band’s second-best album. “Over Now” is one of the reasons why, de facto end-credits music for a configuration of Alice In Chains that was no longer looking like a dream. “We’d pay our debts sometime,” sings Cantrell as the seven-minute epic goes starry and solos off into the sunset before that descending refrain once again. It closed Alice In Chains but Unplugged held out for one final glimmer, “Killer Is Me,” another pretty thing that sounds a lot less finished. They had to twist the knife and show us an alternate ending that would never come to fruition, as did the self-explanatory “Get Born Again” and “Died,” the true final Layne tracks that bookended 1999 box set Music Bank. But this was the end. “I think that’s it,” Staley says after the Unplugged version finishes. “Hey, fuck you man” replies an audience member. No matter how many times this band told the faithful “We Die Young,” no one was ready.
2. “No Excuses” (from the Jar Of Flies EP, 1994)
“No more hiding or disguising truths I’ve sold,” sang the intertwined Simon & Garfunkel of grunge, and on the poppiest song they ever wrote, too. They didn’t hide or disguise much to begin with, and they continued to sell the bleakest worldview in multiplatinum rock, but no matter; this was a sign of hope in a hopeless catalogue. “No Excuses” demonstrated a chiming-guitar loveliness you’re more likely to hear in R.E.M. songs of the era than a band who names the world’s first #1 EP Jar Of Flies. The verse riff is just two chords nudging each other gently while sticksman Sean Kinney demonstrates his tropical-funk abilities behind the kit. If any Alice song could be thought of as “radio-friendly” in a vacuum where Staley’s warble didn’t go on to corrupt a generation of Godsmacks and other RC Colas of hard rock airplay, this was it. In fact, it probably bests Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says” as the most indelible two chords of the touring-Lollapalooza era. Alice In Chains did a lot of things better than anyone, but their ability to surprise tends to get shafted. Jar Of Flies wasn’t just a heavy band hunkering down for a slow one, it was a new palette — talk box, blues, jangle-pop, strings. The sparkling clean guitars were the total opposite of Dirt’s horror show, the light at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel, with “No Excuses” the centerpiece and warmest of all: “You my friend / I will defend / And if I change / Well, I love you anyway.”
1. “Them Bones” (from Dirt, 1992)
What instantly set apart Alice’s debut Facelift from the waning metal of their late ’80s brethren was that it had punk in it. The sprawling goth dream “Love, Hate, Love” was one signature; another was “We Die Young,” 152 seconds of chug-boogie with a reluctantly anthemic chorus that knew when to quit. For an encore, they didn’t just demonstrate this spectrum, they stacked it with frightening power. Their masterpiece Dirt chopped two seconds off the old opener and gave it a riff like concrete in a trash compactor. As a curious pre-teen in one of those try-before-you-buy CD stores, I slipped a used copy of Dirt into the player and donned the oversized headphones without realizing the volume was dialed to 10. It’s impossible to have literally fallen out of your chair at the first “Ahhh!” of “Them Bones” and its lopsided 7/8 chug as your first Alice In Chains experience and not consider it the peak of their conjurings, the chorus and acidic guitar solo a perfect storm of their ugly-beauty powers. Many artists have sounded this alive when careening about their inevitable demise. So few put up this much of a fight.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.