Written By: Sheila Esmaili-Doki
Alice in Chains recently entered the studio to begin work on their sixth full-length album, and fans can only hope for a 2018 release. Many bands have been around for one-fifth as long as Alice (who formed in 1987) and have released just as many albums, if not more — so it’s interesting: a band so enduring, so innovative and timeless, honestly doesn’t have the huge back catalog one may expect.
But this is where the old “quality over quantity” cliché rings true. It’s rare to find a sub-par song in the AIC discography, and rarer still to encounter a band so capable of producing raw, uninhibited, bone-chilling emotion. It’s so apparent on each of their records and undoubtedly contagious and beautifully impacting on the listener. There is an indescribable, tremendous desolation unique to Alice in Chains, and nothing could ever possibly compare.
When it comes to the “best of the best” with Alice, the obvious massive hits (“Man in the Box”, “Rooster”, “Down in A Hole”) come to the mind of many. However, this is a band that needs to really be “dug into” to discover the most glorious, the ones which truly conquer all. Many of the absolute finest Alice in Chains moments come in songs that are less frequently praised.
10. “Head Creeps” from Alice in Chains, 1995. This whole album just sounds insane in the best way possible. Even the well known singles (“Heaven Beside You”, “Again” and “Grind”) are anything but a stereotypical, catchy rock radio hit; however, this song is truly something else. The unpolished, scattered paranoia of “Head Creeps” is perfected by the mud-battered riffs and Layne Staley‘s morose, multi-layered vocals. Staley composed this entire song — a rarity in the primarily Jerry Cantrell-penned Chains discography. It takes unexpected turns, takes some time to really understand, and its bleak nature is inimitable.
9. “Private Hell” from Black Gives Way to Blue, 2009. This is the defining moment of Black Gives Way to Blue, the best album of the 2000s next to AIC guitarist/vocalist/main songwriter Jerry Cantrell’s Degradation Trip. The lyrics are bitter, reflective perfection, current AIC vocalist William DuVall harmonizes incredibly well with Cantrell throughout the goosebump-evoking “Down in a Hole”-esque verses, and the despondent “uh-huh…uh-huh…uh-huh”s leave no question in even the most skeptical listener’s mind that Alice in Chains is alive and well.
8. “Rotten Apple” from Jar of Flies, 1994. What better way to open the most extraordinary EP of all time than with the proclamation of “Hey-ah-na-na, innocence is over”? The inclusion of “Rotten Apple” is far too easy. The darkness of the deeply melancholic vocal melodies paired with the gripping, heartbreaking sound of Cantrell on the guitar and Mike Inez’s amazing bass line makes this a consistently mesmerizing song. One cannot help but marvel at its tremendous, soulful beauty.
7. “Brother” from Alice in Chains Unplugged, 1996. This song, originally featured on the 1992 EP Sap, excels in a live environment. Unplugged, it is exponentially more pensive and unique. The indisputable highlight comes when the music stops and all is silent except Cantrell and Staley softly singing: “Pictures in a box at home / yellowing and green with mold / so I can barely see your face / wonder how that color tastes.” Perhaps this is one of the most remarkable musical moments of all time, not just limited to Alice in Chains.
6. “Would?” from Dirt, 1992. As fantastic as “Man in the Box” is, this is actually the catchiest Alice in Chains song ever. Striking in its simplicity, the contrast between Cantrell’s quiet observations in the verses and the urgency in Staley’s voice during the soaring chorus leave a lasting impression, and Mike Starr’s most excellent, instantly memorable bass line helps to create a real masterpiece. Nothing could possibly close Dirt better. As somber as the album is, this song somehow seems to hold a strange optimism or victory. The last forty-five seconds of the song are especially striking.
5. “Hate to Feel” from Dirt, 1992. With a disoriented sway reminiscent of Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”, this is the perfect portrait of the anguish, isolation and haze so wonderfully embodied throughout Dirt. The jarring transitions from the drawled vocals to maniacal, half-screams are flawlessly executed. This is another song composed solely by Staley. Somehow, “Hate to Feel” remains one of Dirt’s most overlooked tracks, which is a real shame, considering it’s one of the most remarkable.
4. “Don’t Follow” from Jar of Flies, 1994. The bluesy, self-examining, harmonica-laden nature of “Don’t Follow” cannot be described; any words imaginable surely underestimate its sprawling beauty. As it transpires, Staley offers a commanding performance in the bridge, but the real spotlight here is Cantrell’s performance — nothing short of stunning, the definite key to the song. Experiencing this song live is the ultimate route to understanding its significance.
3. “Love, Hate, Love” from Facelift, 1990. What a twisted, phenomenal ballad, and the most distinctive, heart-wrenching moment of AIC’s debut album. Anyone questioning the placement of Layne Staley as the most emotive, awe-inspiring vocalist of all time would do good to check out “Love, Hate, Love”. Wandering from a gritted-teeth lamentation of “I tried to love you / I thought I could” to mind-bending, forceful cries of“Innocence creates my hell”, Staley’s vocal prowess is unmatched, and “Love, Hate, Love” remains one of his most impressive performances. The instrumentation is no slouch either, obviously — Cantrell, Starr, and drummer Sean Kinney provide the perfect cloudy background to Staley’s agonized wails.
2. “Rain When I Die” from Dirt, 1992. This song is intense and delightfully foreboding. It effortlessly showcases the strength and pure feeling of Cantrell’s guitar riffing in each way. The delicate, wondrous moments in the vocal harmonies in the verses give way to Staley at his most powerful. What a gifted and eclectic singer — this is yet another fine example of his untouchable talent. The lyrics are some of Cantrell’s most interesting: “Could she love me again / will she hate me? Probably not, I know why / Can’t explain me.”
1. “Nutshell” from Jar of Flies, 1994. A popular choice? Maybe. However, it is instantly clear to any Alice in Chains follower that this song so perfectly captures the essence of what makes them such a great band. The lyrics are simple yet heartbreaking. The soft “oooh / hooo” murmurs are wonderfully accented by Cantrell’s weeping guitar melodies. Culminating in Staley’s soul-baring confession of “If I can’t be my own / I’d feel better dead,” it’s tough for the tears not to fall. The magic of this really never fades away, even throughout multiple listens. One does not have to be in a morbid or tormented state of mind to completely understand the overwhelming sadness of this song. It is so, so lovely and the most captivating Alice in Chains song of all time.