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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Alice in Chains

If anyone were to hear Alice in Chains in their practice space circa 1985-86, it would have been hard to predict that they would become one of the pioneers of grunge music; their sound at that point was an offshoot of glam metal, and their musical heroes were bands like Van Halen and Guns n’ Roses. By the time Alice in Chains released their debut, Facelift, in 1990, they had developed their sound into something of a redheaded stepchild – their influences were simultaneously ambiguous while maintaining a direct lineage to the rockers who came before them. Earlier on, the tormented singer with the voice of a fallen angel, Layne Staley, said they were just a “heavier blues” band. The primary songwriters of the band, in the early days, were Layne Staley and the founder and leader, Jerry Cantrell, who was in charge of co-lead vocals and guitar duties. 

Alice in Chains were blessed with the pristine ability to write incredibly catchy songs with soaring choruses. They fit somewhere in between metal and hard rock, containing the best elements of both genres. In 1991, Alice in Chains embarked on the Clash of the Titans tour, during which they supported co-headliners, Anthrax and Megadeth. While AIC were certainly heavy, they weren’t the hefty hitters like Megadeth were. On the subject, Jerry Cantrell recalled their time on this tour: “It was not easy, but it was fun. The guys in the bands were really supportive. We spent a lot of nights playing with foreign objects flying at our heads and sometimes it got pretty brutal, but we wouldn’t stop. We’d get right in people’s faces, we’d jump the barricade, we’d throw stuff right back at them. We gained a lot of respect because we didn’t wimp out.”

Their debut album, Facelift, spread like wildfire: they sold 40,000 copies in the first six weeks, and it peaked at number 42 in the charts. They successfully established themselves as the forerunners of grunge, along with Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and later, Nirvana. It seemed that the musical and cultural landscape for grunge music was ripe and ready for all these bands who symbiotically fed off each other within the Seattle scene, while also developing their own unique versions of grunge all at the same time. If one band needed money or a van for a tour, another band would give them a hand. The Seattle scene was very supportive and existed as the cultural mecca of misfits who rejected society’s expectations. It was not completely unlike the punk scene in the ’70s, which greatly inspired these grunge bands, along with glam metal. With the mixture of these two offshoots of rock ‘n’ roll came grunge: messy clothes, dirty hair, loud guitars, and unlike punk music, the grunge musicians were more technically adept. 

Alice in Chains were also a part of that breed of band, one that was able to survive the death of their lead singer. Layne Staley passed away from a concoction of heroin and cocaine in 2002. Jerry Cantrell, the band’s leader, decided to continue, being the primary songwriter; all he needed was another co-lead vocalist to replace Staley. They recruited William Duval in 2006. Unpredictably, they released a few albums of equally good music: Black Gives Way To Blue in 2009, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here in 2013, and Rainier Fog in 2018. 

When developing a list of Alice In Chains’ six most definitive songs, we took these later albums into equal consideration. Below, you’ll find that list.

Alice in Chains six most definitive songs

‘Man in The Box’ – Facelift (1990)

Alice in Chains’ first single. This song changed everything for the dirty grungers who were, previous to this release, living in a practice studio and in rock ‘n’ roll squalor. Alice in Chains beats Nirvana to the punch, for penning the definitive grunge anthem. Released a year prior to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, as well as Pearl Jam’s debut record, Alice in Chains truly earned the title of ‘Grunge kings’. Naturally, the music video for ‘Man in The Box’ was also the first grunge video in the MTV rotation, although it wasn’t until grunge started gaining attention on a national level that people started catching on to this amazing single.

The track also showcases the dynamite dynamics of both Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell sharing lead vocal duties. Cantrell takes the first part of the chorus, and then Layne Staley soars to unimaginable heights when his voice kicks in on the higher note while screaming, “Jesus Christ, deny your maker.” 

Tragically but fatefully so, this song was chosen as a set closer for Alice in Chains’ last show with Layne Staley in 1996. The band didn’t officially break up after this concert, but due to Staley’s increased drug intake, he would not be able to maintain a consistent presence in the band. Staley overdosed in 2002.

‘Would?’ – Dirt (1992)

Dirt was Alice in Chains’ second full-length album and is their second record of hard rock songs. Following an unconventional path for a rock band – especially in those days when albums still meant something – their sophomore release, Sap, showcased a softer side; in a show of audacity, AiC recorded an all-acoustic album. The single off their third LP, the song would first make its debut on the soundtrack for the Cameron Crowe film, Singles. AiC also played a part in the film as a bar band.

‘Would?’ was written by Jerry Cantrell about one of the original grunge rockers of Seattle who played an integral role in influencing all the major bands from that scene. Andrew Wood, who was the singer of Mother Love Bone (they would later become Pearl Jam), died of a heroin overdose in 1990. ‘Would?’ is one hell of a rocker and deserves to be on any list of definitive songs of the ’90s.

‘Rooster’ – Dirt (1992)

Arguably one of their best songs, if not the best, ‘Rooster’ was the fourth single off Dirt. Jerry Cantrell wrote this one as well and named it after his father whose nickname was rooster when he was a child. Cantrell Sr. fought in the Vietnam War and survived and came back to the States. The song is about this and his sense of resilience, “They come to snuff the rooster/ but he ain’t gonna die.”

Jerry Cantrell recalled his feelings regarding the song: “He’s only seen us play once, and I played this song for him when we were in this club opening for Iggy Pop. I’ll never forget it. He was standing in the back and he heard all the words and stuff. Of course, I was never in Vietnam and he won’t talk about it, but when I wrote this it felt right… like these were things he might have felt or thought. And I remember when we played it he was back by the soundboard and I could see him.

“He was back there with his big grey Stetson and his cowboy boots – he’s a total Oklahoma man – and at the end, he took his hat off and just held it in the air. And he was crying the whole time. This song means a lot to me.”

‘No Excuses’ – Jar of Flies (1994)

Alice in Chains’ fourth release and second extended play album of acoustic songs, the band released Jar of Flies as part of their then established formula of releasing one LP of rock songs followed by an EP of acoustic numbers. There has been a lot of speculation that this song explored Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley’s relationship and how the latter’s drug addiction affected it. In an interview that Staley did a few years prior to his fatal overdose, he was very forthright in his description of his battles with addiction: “This fucking drug use is like the insulin a diabetic needs to survive,” he said. ]

“I’m not using drugs to get high like many people think. I know I made a big mistake when I started using this shit. It’s a very difficult thing to explain. My liver is not functioning and I’m throwing up all the time and shitting my pants. The pain is more than you can handle. It’s the worst pain in the world. Dope sick hurts the entire body.”

‘No Excuses’ is an exemplary song and a masterclass in writing a beautiful pop song coupled with honest, dark, and confessional lyrics.

‘Check My Brain’ – Black Gives Way To Blue (2009)

Black Gives Way To Blue is Alice in Chains’ fourth LP and their first with singer William Duval who replaced Layne Staley. It was a commercial success proving again that a band can in fact survive the death of an enigmatic frontman. The record debuted at number five on the Billboard 200. According to the writer of the song, Jerry Cantrell, he wrote the track about his move to LA from Seattle after he kicked his own drug addiction. There was a certain irony about it, as LA was, as he describes it, “The belly of the beast”, in terms of drug activity.

Cantrell elaborated on this point: “There’s a certain aspect of sarcasm, I guess, being a guy from Seattle who lives in L.A., an ex-drug addict who lives in the belly of the beast and doesn’t partake, and being totally cool with that,” he said. “It’s like being the bad gambler and living in Vegas. It’s right there. It’s just the irony of that and a little bit of sarcasm. And it’s not putting this place down at all. It’s just kind of like, ‘Wow, you know, check my brain, wow.’”

‘Hollow’ – The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013)

When Layne Staley died and the band recruited William Duval, their sound didn’t change all that much. Alice in Chains maintained their signature heavy blues sound, tinged with a hint of metal; the most alluring and unique part of their overall sound is their dual vocal. Even this didn’t change all that much; to the untrained ear, one might even think that Layne Staley is alive and well. Having said that, Duval doesn’t try and pretend to be Staley, but there is certainly an inflexion in his voice that echoes Staley’s vocal mannerisms. Either way, it doesn’t take away from the authenticity of their songs; while there was never a drastic change in the traits of their sound, Alice in Chains certainly did evolve, however.  

‘Hollow’ from their 2013 album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, is a return to form from which they never really diverged, to begin with. What is the evolution of their development, then? Their sound as presented on the 2013 effort and perfectly reflected in their single, ‘Hollow’, is pristine and immaculately executed. It contains the best elements of what we have come to know as the Alice in Chains sound. In no way is it true that their prime came and went by the mid-90s. What this shows us, is that Jerry Cantrell is the driving force behind the band.