Endlessly imitated but never matched, Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley was without question one of modern rock's greatest singers — brutally honest and recklessly adventurous, with a bluesy edge to his voice and a stunning ability to translate raw emotion into beautifully crafted sing-along hooks. Last week, which marked 16 years since Staley's untimely death, we asked you, our fans and followers, to pick his single best vocal performances and the responses rained in on social media. Below, are the ranked results.
For a record about drug addiction, Dirt had so many high points. Maybe the most perfectly crafted song on the LP is "Down in a Hole," which shifts from acoustic number to hard rocker between the verse and the chorus. Staley's incredible vocal is the most impressive element about the classic, flexing his incredible range while playing pied piper down the path of broken dreams and depression.
From its stuttering opening notes, "Junkhead" is heavy blues. The main verse is all mostly within the same area vocally, with Staley at his low vibrato, and then once that chorus comes around the bend he's in a full-on scream. A perfectly pitched scream, that is. It's definitely one of his most impressive vocal performances, and one that showcases his earth-shaking range over just five too-short minutes.
"Love Hate Love" is Alice In Chains' sonic attempt at calling the apocalypse, and maybe the best example of the Staley's vocals being able to convey a disturbed mindset (in this case, a sociopath). He holds notes that seem to hang on forever. "I'm the only one" hits a mountain range of different timbres. Three quarters through the song where he repeats the song's title, his voice growing more and more impassioned as the song winds down, taking the song down with him in a vocal fire storm.
Often cited as one of the greatest songs of the Nineties, "Would?" finds Staley laying all of his cards on the table as a vocalist: his prolonged, anguished wails, throbbing with palpable pain; his queasy harmonies, melting and warping throughout; and most hauntingly of all, his forlorn tenor, ironclad but vulnerable. It's a winning hand, to say the least. Accordingly, "Would?" remains one of the band's best-known tracks to this day, making its high ranking on this list inevitable.
It will always be overshadowed by Nirvana's masterful appearance on MTV's Unplugged, but Alice in Chains' turn on the show was arguably even more poignant, raw and stunning — nowhere more so than on the group's rendition of Jar of Flies cut "Nutshell." With quiet intensity and from behind sunglasses that can't mask his pain, Staley puts ever ounce of his being into the haunting meditation on loneliness and death. Asked what song most makes him think of Staley, Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez responded without hesitation in a 2013 Revolver interview, "I think the No. 1 for me is 'Nutshell.' Layne was very honest with his songwriting. And in 'Nutshell,' he really put everything in a nutshell for everybody. That song still gets me choked up whenever I play it." As do we when we revisit this Unplugged performance.