If grunge was the great asteroid that wiped the slate clean after hair metal sent heavy metal back to the stone age, Alice In Chains are the equivalent of finding a woolly mammoth walking through the streets of Croydon on a Tuesday afternoon. While their peers in Nirvana and Pearl Jam disdained all things 80s metal, Alice In Chains' vocalist Layne Staley started out very much in the thrall of spandex and hair spray, singing with the band Sleze, who eventually transformed into Alice N' Chainz, glam rockers with such delightful song titles as Lip Lock Rock and Fat Girls.
Nonetheless, Staley's time in Alice N' Chainz brought to him to the attention of Jerry Cantrell and in time the pair would team up for an entirely different kind of band... sort of. For while their sludgy riffs and dour demeanour were worlds away from the glamour of the Sunset Strip, Alice In Chains never particularly hid their love for metal and could often be found on bills alongside everyone from Slayer and Megadeth (where they opened the legendary Clash Of The Titans bill) to Ozzy Osbourne. Slipping just a little glam flair into their sound helped AIC become one of the first major grunge success stories – their 1990 debut Facelift was the first of any 90s Seattle band to go Gold in the US – and the band enjoyed enormous commercial appeal across the decade.
Layne Staley's tragic death in 2002 crushed any hopes that the band's original incarnation would ever come back, but sporadic reunion shows from 2005 to 2008 ultimately gave way to a new incarnation of Alice In Chains with new vocalist William DuVall. Their first release, 2009's Black Gives Way To Blue was the kind of triumphant comeback rock legends are made of and the band's subsequent activity – tours, albums, celebrations – has ensured their legacy has not just remained in tact, but actively grown in the decade-plus since their return.
Here, we dive deep into band's discography to definitively rank their albums (and EPs) in order of greatness.
9. The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013)
Alice In Chains' 2009 comeback Black Gives Way To Blue showed they were still a creative force to be reckoned with, uninterested in re-treading past glories as they added extra dimensions of heft to their sound whilst still remaining recognisably AIC. For its 2013 follow-up, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, the band directly acknowledged their past whilst continuing their sonic evolution – the sludgy dirge of Hollow is quintessential modern AIC, but balanced out somewhat by the inclusion of the reflective rock of Voices (a track which feels like a spiritual companion to previous track Heaven Beside You) or Scalpel.
The low placement of The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is less a reflection of its comparative lack of quality as it is an indication of how good the rest of their catalogue is, the album suffering by pure virtue of being just another good Alice In Chains release. Peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard 200, the album was yet more proof that Alice In Chain's post-2000 incarnation were still pushing themselves and delivering the goods.
8. Rainier Fog (2018)
Recording in Seattle for the first time since 1995, Alice In Chains' Rainier Fog is as much a meditation on their unlikely status as rock'n'roll survivors as it is the band embracing the fullness of their sound. If The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here was the band dipping their toes into the past, Rainier Fog sees them fully reckoning with that past while maintaining the perspective that inherently comes with the passage of time.
While a level of weighty sludge is always to be expected from Alice In Chains, Rainier Fog brings back Cantrell's appetite for enormodome guitars that soar over the muck to remind the world that there is more to AIC than low-end dirges. From lead single The One You Know to the driving rhythm of the title track, Cantrell flexes his muscles without taking away from the overall package. While not as commercially successful as its predecessors (peaking at no. 12 on the Billboard 200, faring marginally better in the UK where it achieved a top 10 placing at no. 9), Rainier Fog represents an Alice In Chains that have embraced their scars and are ready to share the lessons learned.
7. Sap (1992)
Alice In Chains' decision to put out a (mostly) acoustic EP in 1992 was hardly controversy on the level of Metallica including acoustics on Fade To Black or Dylan goes electric, but it was still a fairly bold move for the band that had not long come off touring with Slayer and Megadeth. Nonetheless, the Sap EP foreshadowed the direction many 90s rockers would take (not least Nirvana, and later AIC themselves, with MTV Unplugged), showing a softer, more reflective underbelly after the sludge-meets-arena-rock of Facelift.
Short and sweet at a little under 21 minutes, Sap is Alice In Chains showing off their most sublime melodic inclinations, oceans of melancholy and wistfulness translated into a soulful catharsis. Opener Brother marked the first time Jerry Cantrell took over on lead vocals, and Heart's Ann Wilson contributes to the vocal harmonies of Am I Inside and Brother. Right Turn features something of a grunge all-star line-up, with Mudhoney's Mark Arm and Soundgarden's Chris Cornell each singing a voice (even being credited as "Alice Mudgarden"). Such a stacked guestlist paid off nicely for the band: by 1994 Sap had gone Gold, while Got Me Wrong achieved further acclaim as a single when it was featured on the soundtrack to the 1994 movie Clerks. Now that's how you do an EP.
6. Alice In Chains (1995)
The threat of oblivion was an ever-present force hanging over Alice In Chains in the 90s, with drug use more than just a lyrical mainstay but a genuine threat to their existence. The band's self-titled third release comes off as especially unhinged at times, opener Grind sounding very much like a band who had fallen and were waiting for the inevitable impact of the earth below, while lines like 'you'd be well advised not to plan my funeral 'till the body dies' seem to poke at tabloid gossip but became sadly prophetic when singer Layne Staley died of a drug overdose in 2002. It's almost in spite of the fact that this was the last time Alice In Chains were able to come together as a full unit that Alice In Chains sounds as glorious as it does, the band finding beauty amidst the dirt one last time.
It's an album of extremes. Brush Away has an ethereal quality that would later be replicated on the title-track of The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, but is sandwiched between the gnashing crush of Grind and Sludge Factory. Heaven Beside You evokes the kind of southern rock balladry beloved of Black Label Society and Hellyeah but is a stylistic anomoly when compared to other ballad fare like Shame In You. There is a fatalism throughout Alice In Chains that became only more poignant in context, the fact the album even ends with the track Over Now making it feel almost like the band knew destruction was all that was left for them.
5. Facelift (1990)
Alice In Chains' debut full-length is in effect a meaner, scuzzier take on the kind of rock that had dominated radio and filled arenas and stadiums throughout the 80s. Jerry Cantrell's guitars could come right from the school of Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde, and he even had the temerity to use a talkbox for Man In The Box – what did they think this was, Livin' On A Prayer? Whatever it was, it worked; Man In The Box reached the Top 20 of the US Billboard Mainstream Rock charts and its video received heavy airplay on MTV, also getting nominated for a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance.
Facelift paved the way for grunge's ultimate commercial success, going Gold in September 1991 whilst easing the transition from glam to grunge by serving as the missing link. For all of its miserablist tendencies, Facelift feels both radio-and-arena ready, massive tunes like Bleed The Freak and We Die Young anthems for the ages. The latter half of the album may take a decided dip towards the frivolous – I Know Somethin (Bout You) is fun, but a funk rock ditty after over 40 minutes of soulful existential angst is always going to rankle – but Facelift remains an all-time classic in Alice In Chains' canon, the record that launched a million sales (and the rest).
4. MTV Unplugged (1996)
Alice In Chains hadn't toured for two-and-a-half years when they appeared on MTV Unplugged, and the show ended up being one the last times Staley would perform with the group. That alone lends a sense of poignant emotional finality to the performance, but the fact is Alice In Chains had already proven that going acoustic was the perfect way for them to express their more melodious inclinations on both Sap and Jar Of Flies, so a full acoustic performance – including hits like Down In A Hole, Rooster and Would? – was effectively money in the bank.
While Nirvana's Unplugged is (rightly) ensconced in legend, Alice In Chains' own Unplugged performance is equally deserving. Nutshell and Rooster are especially soulful, Staley's live vocal adding a tangibility that is near electric to behold, while the band's vocal harmonies prove as bewitching as they ever were in the studio. The sheer wistfulness of the songs and energy of the band makes this essential listening for any Alice In Chains fan, a bittersweet swansong for one of the 90s' most successful and consistently brilliant bands.
3. Black Gives Way To Blue (2009)
'Hope, a new beginning...', the opening lyric to Alice In Chains' first new album since the 2002 death of Layne Staley was about as perfect a summation of where the band were at in 2009 as anyone could have wanted. The ball started rolling in 2004 when its members reconvened to play a benefit show for the victims of a tsunami, using a rotating roster of guest singers to fill their vacant vocal spot. By 2006 the band were actively touring – albeit still with a revolving door line-up of singers – and the ball was truly moving for a new Alice In Chains album, ultimately materialising when Comes With The Fall vocalist William DuVall was confirmed as their new singer.
Black Gives Way To Blue's greatest strength was that it didn't pick up where the band had left off almost 15 years previous, but was the sound of a band who had grown and matured, while DuVall's vocal offered a different flavour that made it clear Alice In Chains weren't just playing karaoke with their legacy. The album remains a masterclass in how to effectively come back after a long absence, its mixture of songs sure to please AIC fans of all stripes. Reaching no. 5 on the Billboard 200, Black Gives Way To Blue proved Alice In Chains' comeback was less a reformation as it was a creative resurrection.
2. Jar Of Flies (1994)
How many artists can say they topped the US charts with an EP? The answer is eight, if you're interested – that includes two releases by the cast of Glee, Linkin Park's Jay-Z collab Collision Course and pop megastars like The Weeknd and BTS – but Alice In Chains were the first in US history to reach that lofty top spot when they released Jar Of Flies in 1994. Flying high from the success of Dirt, the band were again expressing their melodic side on Jar Of Flies in much the same way they had with Sap two years earlier. But where Sap had an all-star roster of guests, Jar... stood entirely on the merit of the band's own songwriting sensibilities.
After the tortured angst of Dirt, Jar Of Flies feels akin to the first breaking of dawn. The darkness still lingers (just listen to the oceans of sadness in the lyrics of Nushell), but songs like I Stay Away strike an almost hopeful (if resigned) tone that suggested that even though the road ahead was long, the worst had passed. Added strings and harmonicas lent extra gravitas to the band's most melodic offerings, but there are still signs of heaviness and unease to keep the core dynamism of AIC's sound in tact – just listen to the elements at play in I Stay Away, its queasy verses at odds with the soaring vocal-and-string combo.
Certified triple-platinum in the US, Jar Of Flies achieved a level of success astounding even for grunge's peak years, cementing the legendary status of the band and serving as possibly their most ambitious release of the 90s.
1. Dirt (1992)
With an almighty shriek and the impact of a truck flattening a Mini Cooper, Them Bones saw Alice In Chains dive right back into the heavy for the opening of 1992's Dirt. While Sap had let them indulge their softer side (and likely emboldened them to write the likes of Down In A Hole), the band were laying it on thick with wailing guitars and stomach-churning low-end across their second record. The twisted arena rock sensibilities of Facelift were near-perfected on Dam That River, while the lurching tar of Mike Starr's bass on Rain When I Die effectively coined sludge before the NOLA scene had even taken its first toke.
Decidedly more jaded and agitated than they had been on Facelift, Dirt captured the existential terror that threatened to tear the band apart, vocalist Layne Staley making no secret of his struggles with heroin addiction on the likes of Sickman, God Smack and Junkhead (subtle, no?). Recording amid the unease and chaos of the 1992 LA riots hardly helped matters, the album seemingly picking up every negative vibe in the city and amplifying it.
Uneasy listening as it is, it also maintains an inexplicably addictive quality that leaves it resting over the listener like a comfort blanket forged entirely of misery, vocalising internal and societal strife in ways that were so much bigger than just the views of a few metal-loving kids from Seattle. Dirt remains Alice In Chains' most vital release, a critical moment where everything turned and they were firmly established one of grunge's most crucial voices.