Alice in Chains' contribution to rock music can't be understated. While straddling metal, grunge, hard rock and more, the Seattle titans have helped keep heavy music in the mainstream over the last three-plus decades. Crucially, guitarist-vocalist Jerry Cantrell and the late Layne Staley achieved enormous success without compromising anything, and the band have continued to write fantastic songs in the post-reunion years of the 2010s to now.
In honor of Cantrell's upcoming solo album, Brighten, as well as the recent 25th anniversary of their legendary MTV Unplugged performance, we decided to look back on the 15 greatest songs in the AIC discography. From metallic bangers to acoustic ballads, these are the best of the best.
"The One You Know" is the intro cut and lead single from Alice in Chains' most recent album, 2018's Rainier Fog, and it's proof of how much gas the band has left in the tank. The way the tense, metallic lead riff juxtaposes Cantrell and William Duvall's pillowy harmonies during the chorus creates a hot-and-cold effect that's classic AIC with a modern twist.
Are Alice in Chains a metal band? There's a strong case to be made that they are, and "Phantom Limb" could serve as Exhibit A. This standout from 2013's The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here sounds like Slayer gone sludge — gargantuan riffs, intense vocals from Cantrell and the eerie refrain, "I'll just haunt you like a phantom limb."
At six-and-a-half minutes, "Love, Hate, Love" is the longest track on AIC' 1990 debut, Facelift, and it's the one that Cantrell once dubbed "the masterpiece" of the album. Featuring one of Staley's first knockout vocal performances, this slow-burner tackles the nuances of love and hatred, two passionate feelings that are often enmeshed in the most unpleasant ways. All of that tension comes through on here.
Written from the perspective of Cantrell's father, who served in Vietnam but refused to open up about his traumatic experiences to his son, "Rooster" is one of the most personal songs in the AIC catalog. The Dirt centerpiece is also a musical stunner, with an explosive chorus and wave-like guitar riffs that ripple forcefully to create a grandiose metal ballad.
"Check My Brain" was the first official single from AIC' comeback album, 2009's Black Gives Way to Blue, and the band's second-ever track to feature Staley's replacement, William DuVall, on the mic. The late frontman is so revered that whoever filled his shoes was always going to be controversial with some fans, but this song is a goddamn ripper that offered triumphant reassurance that the band were still a hard-rock machine.
As the story goes, Cantrell was hesitant to taint AIC's reputation as a fiery rock outfit by presenting his bandmates with a tender ballad, but "Down in a Hole" ended up becoming one of the most beloved songs on their 1992 sophomore LP, Dirt. Crawling, slightly psychedelic and unmistakably Sabbathian, this moody gem about the guitarist's then-girlfriend demonstrated the emotional and sonic range of the band to great effect.
The title says it all. "Sludge Factory" is a highlight from their 1995 self-titled LP that pulls from the mucky side of metal and dots it with playful "oo-oo" falsettos from Staley. It's long, meandering and oddly structured — which could be a result of the band writing it with just nine days left to finish the album. However, with the pressure on and no room for overthinking, this track's creepy energy and weird spoken-word passage toward the end are adored by fans.
"Down in a Hole" may be their most iconic ballad, but the material on AIC's two semi-acoustic EPs is some of their best. "Got Me Wrong" first appeared on their 1992 EP, Sap, but the song's brilliant synergy between Staley and Cantrell's vocals got a major boost when it was included in the 1994 cult film, Clerks. It's one of the band's most musically uplifting tracks, and its softer dynamic palette suits them well.
Looking back today, one might think that AIC were drawing influence from Metallica's "Black Album" on "We Die Young," but this groove-metal stomper actually came first. At a brisk two-and-a-half minutes, the Facelift opener is one of the shortest tunes in their catalog, but it packs a walloping punch into that runtime, as well as macabre lyrics that Cantrell wrote after witnessing 10-year-old kids dealing drugs.
AIC made history when 1994's Jar of Flies became the first EP in history to peak at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and "Rotten Apple" shows why it happened. The intro track from the band's second acoustic EP boasts god-tier harmonies from the two singers, which slither in between a sultry guitar lick that's drenched in phaser effects. It's way more blues-rock than it is grunge or metal, but AIC never sound out of their element .
Amazingly, "Rotten Apple" isn't even the best song on Jar of Flies. The seven-song release also contains the greatest stripped-down track in the band's discography, the glimmering "Nutshell." Even without the force of blaring amplifiers, the band sound totally locked-in for this highlight, which boasts a gnarly yet tasteful solo, subtle drums and a sweetly melancholy vocal performance from Staley.
AIC can bring the fucking heavy, and "Them Bones" is one of their foremost crushers. With palm-muted metal chugs that recall Pantera, a monster truck of a hook and guitar tones that are smothered in muddy distortion, this sinewy Dirt banger is 10 tons of pure hard-rock destruction that still makes room for piercing reflections on mortality. Hearing Staley croon, "I feel so alone/Gonna end up a big ol' pile of them bones," is positively chilling.
AIC usually prefer to traverse the back roads of metal, hard rock and alt-rock, but they also excelled at down-the-middle grunge. After a jammy, psychedelic intro with plenty of wah-wah pedal abuse, "Rain When I Die" contains the most early-Nineties Seattle chorus on Dirt, while also maintaining their own signature flair. It's a true classic of their early catalog.
"Man in the Box" is by far the band's most popular song, and it deserves every single rock-radio spin that it receives. This Grammy-winning hit from Facelift features Staley's most recognizable vocal part, a wordless howl that weaves itself into the main guitar riff in a way that's tremendously catchy. Staley said that he wrote the lyrics about the idea of government censorship, but that he was "really, really stoned" when he penned them, so that might not translate. Either way, the song is one of their best.
This is the one. Cantrell wrote "Would?" about his late friend, and Mother Love Bone frontman, Andrew Wood, who died of a drug overdose in 1990 at just 24 years old. One of many tragically prescient songs in the AIC playbook, its balance between emotionally turbulent lyrics and generally fun-to-listen-to sound make it the quintessential Chains song, and one of Staley's most well-rounded vocal performances.