Alice in Chains has one of the darkest, most-influential catalogs in rock.
AIC’s catalog spans six studio albums, three EPs, three live releases and a handful of singles scattered within various compilations. When looking at the catalog as a whole, it seems insane that after a number of years of eligibility, the band has yet to even be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time the Rock Hall overlooked obvious greatness.
We celebrate Alice in Chains by ranking their 30 best songs. Scroll through the gallery below to see if your favorites made our list and where they ranked.
“Stone” is the most recent Alice in Chains song to top Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart, which is determined solely on radio airplay. The chugging riff was written by Cantrell during a time when he actually couldn’t play a guitar. He said in an interview with Ultimate-Guitar.com that he was still recovering from shoulder surgery, so he just hummed the riff into his phone, which only proves that even when he’s unable to play, Jerry Cantrell is still better than most other guitarists. He’s just that good!
“Never Fade” serves as a tribute to multiple people: Chris Cornell, who died shortly before AIC began recording ‘Rainier Fog’; William DuVall’s grandmother, who died during the recording sessions for the album; and Layne Staley, whose presence will forever linger in the band. As a result, lyrics like, “You're never far away, I always see you/And when it all goes dark you light my way through” cut extra deep.
Bluesy and a little twangy, “Shame In You” is easily one of AIC’s most overlooked ballads. That might be due to being featured on the band’s inconsistent self-titled album. But a great song is a great song, and you don’t want to sleep on this one.
Five years after the release of ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,’ Alice In Chains came roaring back with ‘Rainier Fog’ and its lead single “The One You Know,” complete with a crunchy, heavy AF opening riff. Nearly three decades on, AIC show they’re still darker than most and have plenty left in the tank.
“Am I Inside” is one of two songs on ‘SAP’ to feature Heart’s Ann Wilson, and her addition is super-sonic. (Seattle pun WAY intended.) But in all seriousness, Wilson, Staley and Cantrell’s voices together are nothing short of sublime, and it’s moving to feel just how much of the grunge bands of Seattle revered Heart.
AIC’s episode of ‘Unplugged’ featured some of their biggest hits and fan favorites, but it also included the new track “Killer Is Me,” which is as great and poignant as the entire set was.
“Get Born Again” was one of the final songs AIC recorded with Staley before his death in 2002. Even though his substance issues were finally getting the best of him, Staley still managed to deliver lyrics and a vocal performance that were pretty much a return to form circa AIC’s ‘Facelift’ and ‘Dirt.’
The Staley-penned lyrics of “Again” are set to an infectious, uptempo (for AIC) riff, but the despair cannot be ignored. In the years since it’s release, “Again” has only grown eerier.
The third and final single released from ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,’ “Voices” is the strongest song from the LP, the second to feature William DuVall. It’s undoubtedly one of the most radio-friendly tunes Cantrell has written in recent years, but it’s uncompromisingly still an AIC tune.
“Over Now” closed out the band’s 1995 self-titled LP, but we’re opting for the version from their 1996 ‘Unplugged’ album. The latter version has a slightly faster tempo, and Cantrell’s vocals are somehow stronger. Also, just go back and watch the AIC episode of ‘MTV Unplugged.’ You can find all of the songs from the show on the band’s YouTube channel. It’s one of the best episodes of the series and one of its most underrated, which is almost seemingly a constant theme for Alice in Chains.
The fourth and final single from ‘Black Gives Way to Blue,’ “Lesson Learned” is a rather straightforward alt.rock song, but its hook is simply undeniable.
“We Die Young” was Alice In Chains’ very first single, and it really did set the table, subject-matter-wise, for what would come from the band. When your first single is about young kids dealing drugs on the streets of Seattle, you should buckle up for a jarring ride. While it wasn’t a commercial hit, it is beloved by fans.
Wake up and smell the Black Sabbath influence on this one! Clocking in at 6:26, Staley’s vocals on “Love, Hate, Love” are just extraordinary, and he’s also credited for the lyrics.
“Right Turn” features not just the vocal stylings of Staley and Cantrell, but also Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm. Some smartass fan might be quick to say, “Um...actually, this isn’t an Alice in Chains song. It’s by Alice Mudgarden.” And sure, they would be technically right since that how it’s billed in the liner notes, but it’s on an AIC EP, so pipe down.
Bandmates fight. That’s just part of rock and roll, and “Dam That River” is proof of that. Cantrell wrote the song following a fight with drummer Sean Kinney that resulted in Kinney breaking a coffee table over Cantrell’s head. At least Jerry had the sense to realize after being likely concussed that, “Oh...this will make for a great song.”
“Don’t Follow” is just a devastatingly gorgeous acoustic blues song. If you can’t recall just how deep this song aches, go listen to it right now. I’ll wait...SEE! What did I tell you?!
The third single from ‘Facelift,’ “Sea of Sorrow” really shows off AIC’s metal influences, especially with Cantrell’s opening riff. All these years later, Sean Kinney’s piano playing on the track is still surprising.
Featuring Heart’s Ann Wilson on backing vocals, “Brother” is an olive branch to Cantrell’s actual younger brother, David. Separated by four years, the brothers were literally separated when they chose to live with different parents following their parents’ divorce. While “Brother” is an incredibly touching, powerful song, it’s still not Cantrell’s best song about a family member, but you’ll read more about that one later.
“Angry Chair” is credited entirely to Layne Staley, who also plays rhythm guitar on the track. Simply put, the song is a really intense look at the belly of Staley’s beast, especially on lyrics like, “Corporate prison, we stay yeah/I'm a dull boy, work all day/So I'm strung out anyway.”
While included on ‘SAP,’ “Got Me Wrong” wouldn’t be released as a single until 1994 after being included on the soundtrack of the Kevin Smith film ‘Clerks.’ Melodically, it’s perhaps AIC at their most jaunty, which is definitely not the first adjective anyone would think of to describe the band, but alas, that’s what “Got Me Wrong” is even with its biting lyrics.
Any unease about Alice In Chains releasing new music after a decade-long hiatus and the 2002 death of Layne Staley went away upon hearing “Check My Brain.” William DuVall proved to be an incredible vocal compliment to Cantrell and remains that way to this day. Plus, the track’s whimsical, sarcastic lyrics of Cantrell commenting how he now lives in Los Angeles after years in Seattle is a pleasant change of pace.
‘Alice In Chains,’ as a whole, is a bit labored, but the album isn’t without its bright spots like the haunting “Heaven Beside You.” Style-wise, the song would’ve felt right at home on ‘Jar of Flies,’ and lyrically, you could say the same. Cantrell wrote the song following the split from his girlfriend of seven years and handles the lead vocals on the track which takes an already very intimate song to another level.
“I Stay Away” isn’t just a standout on ‘Jar of Flies’ it’s a standout in the whole AIC catalog. No other song of theirs really sounds like it. Whether that was by design since it was the first song the band wrote with bassist Mike Inez following the exit of Mike Starr, who knows. But between Jerry Cantrell’s solo and that beautifully tense string section, “I Stay Away” provided yet another intriguing layer to the range of the band.
“Nutshell” is very stripped and raw due to its acoustic nature, but it’s also due to the simple, straightforward lyrics written by Layne Staley. “We chase misprinted lies/We face the path of time/And yet I fight/And yet I fight/This battle all alone/No one to cry to/No place to call home.” It’s a sincere gut punch that stays with you and only makes you miss Staley more.
Featured first on the soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film ‘Singles’ where Alice In Chains makes a cameo, “Would?” served as a tribute to Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, who died in 1990 from a heroin overdose. The song features an awesome bass intro from Mike Starr whose playing on the song is just outstanding. Staley’s voice just soars and roars in the chorus and shows off his unique power.
“Down In a Hole” is pretty universally loved by critics and AIC fans alike, and yet it somehow might just be one of the most underrated ballads in rock. As rock fans, we’re often conditioned to highlight the bombastic “power” types when discussing ballads, but “Down In a Hole” should always be part of the conversation, especially with lyrics like, “Down in a hole and they’ve put all the stones in their place/I’ve eaten the sun so my tongue has been burned to the taste.” Seriously…damn, Jerry!
“No Excuses” was AIC’s first number one on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart, which is determined solely from radio airplay. It’s easy to see why, especially when you listen closely to the outstanding rhythm work of Sean Kinney and Mike Inez. One of the catchiest songs ever about a strained friendship, “No Excuses” was penned by Cantrell about his relationship with Staley. Even though things were rocky, there’s still so much heart here, especially in the final verse, “You, my friend, I will defend/And if we change, well, I’ll love you anyway.” And Cantrell still does to this day.
The breakout single for AIC, “Man in the Box” is just a monster of a track. It’s the song the band has played the most live in their entire performing history, according to Setlist.fm. When you get down to it, it was the first real, serious warning shot out of the Seattle grunge scene putting the entire rock landscape on notice. If you’re looking for the biggest example of the song’s staying power, it might be this: In the 2010s, “Man in the Box” was the second-most played song on active rock radio, according to a decade-end report from Nielsen. (FYI: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was number one.) The song is now 30 years old, and it STILL is that vital.
Serving as the opening track on ‘Dirt,’ “Them Bones” barrels out the gate and sets the tone for one incredibly dark, but brilliant sophomore LP. Part of AIC’s secret sauce, if you will, has always been balancing the bleak with the badass. With a blunt chorus of, “I feel so alone, gonna end up a big ole pile of them bones,” it doesn’t get more bleak and badass than that. Add in Staley’s fervent screams of “AAH!”, and you have the recipe for grunge gold.
An epic in every sense of the word, “Rooster” is the type of song you’d imagine Bruce Springsteen writing if he were a grunge artist. The kicker is that unlike a lot of The Boss’ iconic storytelling songs, “Rooster” is about a real person. The song gets its title from the nickname of Jerry Cantrell, Sr., and the track itself serves as a tribute from Cantrell, Jr. to his father, who was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. It’s a stunning, fiercely personal song about the horrors of war and one of the finest examples of storytelling in all of music, not just in the Alice In Chains catalog. Every member of the band is at their best on “Rooster,” especially Staley and Cantrell whose harmonies are at their most chill-inducing and hair-raising. A variety of Alice in Chains songs could be argued as being number one on this list, but you just can’t snuff “Rooster” from the top spot.