Alice in Chains

Above – Mad Season

Release Year: 1995

Rating: 8.5/10

Sometimes an artist gets the urge to do something different that doesn’t necessarily fit in with their established work. This is where side bands come in. Some are amazing. Others are questionable. Layne Staley and members of Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees felt the urge and formed the supergroup Mad Season in 1994. Supergroups pose their own problems, like sounding too much like their main bands. Mad Season ensured this wasn’t an issue with their stellar, diverse debut album Above.

What makes this album remarkable during an era where grunge infiltrated everything is its diversity. Some results are better than others, but this project allowed everyone involved to play with different genres. We hear this right from the beginning with “Wake Up.” It starts with a low, muted bass like its rumbling in your stomach. The rest of the music slowly builds up with a jazzy vibe. As the song gets more intense, the guitar grows bluesy, especially the solo that adds fire to the song. Layne’s vocals are outstanding here. He switches between a haunting croon to intense screaming. Surprisingly, the result is beautiful.

River of Deceit” has a country/folk sound with the prominent acoustic guitar taking over the track. The song is mellow with Layne singing sweetly, but it has some dark connotations. One of the heaviest lines is “My pain is self chosen,” which can be linked to his struggle with drugs. The song is inspired by his personal life and The Prophet by Khalil Graban. It shows how fragile Layne could be at times. “Long Gone Day” is one of the odder moments on the album. The opening bongos, twinkling music, and occasional saxophone makes it sound like a lounge song from the 70s. As the song goes on, the band continues to mix different genres and sounds making it hard to pinpoint. It’s unexpected, even on this album, but it stands out from the other tracks for an unexpected, great song.

The band may play around with sound on the album, but there are more straightforward rock tracks as well. Several of the songs stem from psychedelic rock, like the smug “I’m Above.” Everything here is louder, heavier, and more intense than the previous songs. The most notable element is the thick guitar riff reminiscent of Black Sabbath. “Lifeless Dead” has a similar mood with dirty fuzzy guitars blasting throughout the song. Again, it has that 70’s rock vibe; everything is bigger and better. The dizzying “I Don’t Know Anything” follows a similar vibe as the aforementioned tracks. What makes this song different from the others are Layne’s trance-like vocals and the mechanical pounding near the end. All of these songs are heavy and aggressive enough to fit in on an Alice in Chains record. It serves as a break from the experimentation on the record. It also lets listeners know there were no plans for abandoning their roots.

The last two songs, “November Hotel” and “All Alone,” are atmospheric experiences. The former is completely instrumental. It has soft, mellow music with thumping percussion adding a rumbling beat. This is broken up with ambient noises that sound like a cold wind blowing. Midway through everything explodes and turns into a psychedelic jam session. It constantly shifts moods and sounds before coming back to its mellow music. It’s a strange musical roller coaster. “All Alone” has very few vocals and what sounds like a pulsing organ. The light, ethereal structure of the song and Layne crooning “We’re all alone” makes it sound like an otherworldly hymn. It’s a fitting, yet somber way to end the album.

Above is a great record because of its diversity. These are all musicians known for their work in grunge music. This band gave them the opportunity to go outside of their comfort zone and do something else. And it showed they could do more than play fuzzy guitars and scream. The integration of blues, jazz, and psychedelic rock make for an album that’s exciting, but mellow. There are times when they let aggression through, but for the most part, it’s a slower, emotional record. Staley also shows immense talent both as a songwriter and a vocalist. Though his work has seen more appreciation over the years, he still seems to be overshadowed by a certain grunge artist. The album is a gem from the 90s you should check out, especially if you’re an Alice in Chains fan.

Top 10 Songs About Other Musicians

Even though musicians are famous, have tons of fans, and perform across the world it doesn’t mean they can’t fan out from time to time. Musicians aren’t afraid to address each other in song. Sometimes it comes from a place of love or an homage to someone they admire. Other times, it can be kind of ugly, a snarky tune dedicated to someone they don’t care for. The songs can be obvious and other times the dedication is well hidden. There are too many songs about other musicians to name, so here are ten of the most notable songs about other musicians.

10. “Obsessed” – Mariah Carey

Ever since his third album, The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem claimed that he and Mariah Carey were once an item. But aside from dropping her name in a few songs, neither one have commented further on the supposed relationship. When her name appeared again on “Bagpipes from Baghdad” with the rapper calling out her then-husband, Nick Cannon,Carey decided she had enough. She wrote this song in responsive to the rapper’s claims calling them false, saying he’s obsessed with her, and that he’s delusional. And to make things even clearer, Carey plays an unnamed rapper in the video chasing after…herself. Of course, Eminem didn’t take this lightly and released his own response titled “The Warning.” What’s even more strange than the situation is thought of Eminem and Mariah Carey dating in the first place.

9. “Michael, You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For” – Duran Duran

The Michael in question here is INXS’ Michael Hutchence. The song kinds sound of somber, especially with the singer’s death, but it didn’t start out that way. The song is actually about Simon LeBon’s friendship with Hutchence. In an interview with Q Magazine, LeBon says the song is about Hutchence being “a naughty boy” in France and London. He apparently did so many substances LeBon couldn’t keep up. The song was released a month before Hutchence died on November 22, 1997. It’s sad that an ode to friendship took on a sad meaning not shortly after it was released.

8. “Tunic (A Song for Karen)” – Sonic Youth

Karen Carpenter, singer, and drummer for The Carpenters, tragically died in 1983 due to complications from anorexia nervosa. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon wrote this song years later trying to put herself in the late singer’s shoes. The frenetic guitars and the memorable hook of “You are never going anywhere” don’t exactly mask the dark connotations of this song. There are references to Karen’s eating disorder and lines about losing who you are. There’s even a verse where Gordon imagines the singer up in heaven, happy, and playing drums again. When asked about the song 20 years later, Gordon said “I was trying to put myself into Karen’s body. It was like she had so little control over her life, like a teenager – they have so little control over what’s happening to them that one way they can get it is through what they eat or don’t. Also, I think she lost her identity, it got smaller and smaller. And there have been times when I feel I’ve lost mine.” It’s a tribute to the singer that catches you off guard since it’s not sappy or sad.

7. “Dude Looks Like a Lady” – Aerosmith

Probably best remembered for its use in Mrs. Doubtfire, this song talks about an androgynous guy who is mistaken for a woman. Looking at the lyrics it doesn’t seem Steven Tyler minds all that much saying “you may be wrong/but you know it’s alright” and he even does a little cross-dressing of his own in the video. The origin story for the song changes depending on the source: Tyler says the song came from hearing Motley Crue saying “Dude!” all the time. Vince Neil says the song was inspired by a New York bar where the waiters dress in women’s clothing. But Nikki Sixx says the song is actually about Tyler mistaking Vince Neil for a woman in a bar. It’s wasn’t hard to do; did you see the way he dressed in the 80’s? It doesn’t really matter how the song came about because it’s an Aerosmith classic. Though I prefer to believe it’s about Vince Neil; it’s funnier that way.

6. “Tearjerker” – Red Hot Chili Peppers

Many songs were written about Kurt Cobain after his shocking death. The Chili Peppers added their contribution with this track from their sixth album One Hot Minute. It’s a ballad where Anthony Kiedis sings about his reaction to Kurt’s death and what he liked so much about the singer. With lines like “I liked your whiskers/I liked the dimple in your chin/your pale blue eyes” and “you never knew this/but I wanted badly for you to/requite my love” it’s more like a love song to Cobain. Though the two worked together on an MTV special, they weren’t all that close. But Kiedis explains Kurt was someone everyone felt close to. “I don’t know why everyone on earth felt so close to that guy; he was beloved and endearing and inoffensive in some weird way. For all of his screaming and all of his darkness, he was just lovable.” It’s a sweet song that’ll make Nirvana fans smile.

5. “Cry Me a River” – Justin Timberlake

Though Timberlake has denied it since the song’s release, we all know this song is about his ex-Britney Spears. The basis of the song is a bad break up and pretty much not giving a shit about the person. It also makes several references to infidelity, which is what apparently ended the pair’s relationship. And to top things off, Timberlake’s lover in the video looks like Spears. Anyone who saw the video pretty much knew who he was talking about. The singer finally admitted in 2011 that he wrote the song after the two had an argument. So even if the song isn’t a direct attack on Britney Spears, she was still an inspiration. The break up was nasty, but maybe now he can thank her since it gave him one of his biggest songs to date.

4. “Suicide Blonde” – INXS

INXS frontman Michael Hutchence was known as a playboy in the 80s, but his most infamous relationship was with Kylie Minogue, you know the one responsible for that song. Rumor has it the Aussie singer inspired Hutchence to write the song since she dyed her hair blonde for a role in the film The Delinquents. Neither one ever confirmed the song’s origin, but with lyrics about a red hot lover who has men landing at her feet, it makes a lot of sense. Only Hutchence knows the true significance. Either way, it ended up being an INXS classic and has that sexy flair only Michael Hutchence could pull off so flawlessly.

3. “I’ll Stick Around” – Foo Fighters

Though Dave Grohl wrote a beautiful and touching song about Kurt Cobain called “Friend of a Friend” that deserves to be mentioned, his song attacking Cobain’s widow Courtney Love, gets him on the list. It’s a fan favorite and many picked up that Grohl was attacking someone. With lines like “I don’t owe you anything” there was speculation it was about Cobain. Grohl finally admitted in 2009 it was actually about Courtney Love, which you can see in lines like “how could it be/I’m the only one who sees/your rehearsed insanity.” He sings about how he regrets letting her and Cobain hook up and that he can see through her deceptiveness. It’s a hate filled song of the best kind, but it seems Grohl has forgiven Love in later years. The two made amends at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Grohl wouldn’t be the only artist to blast Love on a track; Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” is about the Hole singer as well.

2. “Ms. Jackson” – Outkast

“Ms. Jackson” is the best song by Outkast with sick flows and a memorable hook you’re still singing to this day. The duo sings about “Ms. Jackson” who doesn’t approve of her daughter’s relationship with a guy and when they end up having a baby, it only makes things worse. Turns out, the song is based on true events. Andre 3000 dated Erykah Badu and the two ended up having a child out of wedlock to the disapproval of her mother. 3000 said he felt he never got to explain his side of the story and didn’t like being kept out of his kid’s life on purpose. As a way of reaching out to her mother, he wrote this song to apologize and say how much he wanted to be a part of his kid’s life. Badu’s mother loved it and hopefully it patched up their relationship. Hearing so much truth put into this song makes it even more appealing and it’s still a hit 16 years after its release. Wait, really? Now I feel old.

1. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” – Temple of the Dog

In March 1990, Andrew Wood, frontman of Mulfunkshun and Mother Love Bone, died of a drug overdose. Chris Cornell, Wood’s friend, and roommate took the news hard. Soundgarden were touring Europe at the time of his death and feeling like he had no one to talk to, wrote two songs: “Reach Down” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” Instead of putting it on a Soundgarden album, Cornell teamed up with most of Pearl Jam and formed Temple of the Dog in his honor. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” is a tribute to Wood where Cornell deals with his grief and even makes a reference to not knowing the demons his friend was dealing with. It’s a powerful song where Cornell let’s his insane vocal range fly near the song’s end. Wood’s death didn’t only affect Cornell. It also had an effect on Alice in Chains, who wrote the song “Would?” about him along with others in the grunge scene that tragically passed. It’s sad to think Layne Staley would meet a similar fate 10 years later.

Honorable Mention:

“Starfuckers Inc.” – Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor hates celebrities and pop culture. He makes this clear in this single from The Fragile. Being one of Reznor’s heaviest and aggressive songs, it takes the piss out the vanity and shallow commercialization of fame. It even makes a reference to Carly Simon’s famous song “You’re So Vain.” But rumor has it the song is actually about Marilyn Manson. Reznor had a falling out with Manson twice, though Manson does appear in the song’s video. Others say it’s about Courtney Love. Reznor hasn’t confirmed or denied the rumors, so the track ends up getting an honorable mention. It’s just too biting and sassy to leave off.

There are more than ten songs about musicians, so which ones did I miss? Which ones are your favorites? Let me know in the comments!

Jar of Flies – Alice in Chains

Release Year: 1994

Rating: 9/10

There’s a lot of activity surrounding Alice in Chains these days with a new in-depth book, new footage being found of their early days, and being eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Seeing them pop up so much lately got me in the mood for more of their music. This time I wanted to look at their third EP, which has since been named one of the best rock releases of all time and one of the best releases of 1994. But what about this EP makes it so special? How does it differ from their already stellar sophomore effort? The EP goes to places Alice in Chains hadn’t been to before.

The story goes after the band returned from their Dirt tour, they learned of their eviction from their residence after failing to pay rent. This along with Layne Staley’s drug issue, left the members feeling depressed and lonely. They channeled these feelings into music that they originally had no intention of releasing. And these feelings are painfully obvious on all of the songs. “Rotten Apple” starts with a guttural bass to set the mood before the wah-wah of the guitar comes in, but it doesn’t make the dark mood any better. There’s this great musical build up before a hypnotizing Staley comes in singing “Hey ah na na.” Everything from the apathetic lyrics to the music really gives the listener a sense of loneliness the band was feeling at the time. That same feeling is found on “Nutshell,” which is thought to be written about the singer’s frustration with lack of privacy. The most telling is “My gift of self is raped,” which makes you shudder when you hear it.

I Stay Away” has some of the best and most intriguing instrumentation from the band. The opening verses are very soft with an acoustic guitar that has a slight country feel to it. It continues this route until the pre-chorus where things get sludgy and dirty with fierce electric guitars. During these parts, Staley draws out his singing making him sound haunting and slightly sinister. The song gets really powerful and awe inspiring when the frantic violins come in, something you wouldn’t expect from the band. It’s such a beautiful, yet sorrowful song that’s still one of their best today. Out of all the songs on the release, this one shows their musical range; they obviously knew how to do more than what was expected of them.

All of the songs continue down this path of darkness and isolation. The only upbeat track is “No Excuses,” which throws you for a loop with how bright it sounds. It begins with an upbeat, grooving drumbeat followed by really light flowing guitar. Rumored to be about Jerry Cantrell’s strained relationship with Staley, this song is one of the few optimistic moments on the album. But we’re shielded from the light once again with the country inspired “Don’t Follow.” With the opening lines “Hey, I ain’t never coming home/Hey, I’ll just wander my own road” Layne sounds vulnerable and ready to let go. It’s so mired in sadness you want to cry as Layne pushes his vocals to their full capacity.

The closing track “Swing on This” is a whole different side to the band. It begins with this jazzy bass line before that comforting dirty guitar comes in. As Layne sings about friends worrying about him, his vocals sound more soulful, which matches with the overall jazz/blues feel of the song. What’s interesting about the lyrics is how they seem to reference Layne’s drug addiction. There’s a part where he says “I’m fine/just a little skinny,” which seems to address how people began to worry about his appearance. He later talks about pushing people away and how he didn’t mean it, which suggests he knew his behavioral changes but still tried to convince people he was just fine. The song is so different from what the band was used to doing with the blend of rock, soul, and blues, but it works so well. It’s part of what makes it a stand out track on a stellar EP.

Jar of Flies earns its title as one of the best releases of 1994. It seemed Alice in Chains were flying high on their mainstream success with the reception of Dirt. In reality they were dealing with personal demons and figuring out how to keep a distant Layne Staley with the band. You can hear all the heartbreak, anger, sadness, and loneliness on all the tracks. It does a scarily good job at showing where the band’s mindset was at the time. It has some of the band’s best work on it, but it’ll make you depressed after listening to it.

Singles OST

Release Year: 1992

Rating: 8/10

In the early 90s grunge exploded on the music scene, which meant several companies wanted to cash in on the phenomenon. Fashion shows featuring flannel, “grunge lingo,” and even movies wanted to adapt the genre, which is why we have Singles. It’s a romantic comedy about the lives of people in their twenties blah blah blah. The movie is notable for two things: it has a brief appearance by Alice in Chains and the soundtrack. Look up any best soundtracks of the 90s list and this will most likely make an appearance. But now that every record company isn’t trying to sign the next Nirvana, is it really any good?

The album is pretty much a compilation of the big Seattle bands along with some underdog players of the grunge scene. Some of the tracks were written for the LP while others were featured in the movie. It begins with Alice in Chains’ “Would?” their dedication to Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Similar to most of their songs, this one is great, even a little haunting thanks to Layne Staley’s eerie echoing vocals. It would later appear on their amazing album Dirt. Pearl Jam make two contributions here with the first being “Breath.” I’ll admit, I’m not their biggest fan, but I thought this song was pretty cool, though typical for the band. “State of Love and Trust” is the more interesting of the two since it’s surprisingly upbeat and makes you want to dance. It’s pretty fun to listen to and catchy, especially when the mindless “hey na na na na” singing comes in. This track was apparently inspired by the events of the film itself.

Chris Cornell is featured a couple times too both solo and with Soundgarden. “Seasons” is a slow, acoustic song that has a sense of foreboding. The music is soft, yet is not comforting and you can’t understand why. The song works really well because you can hear the awesomeness and power of Cornell’s voice. “Birth Ritual” is one of the best on the album. With clashing music, a heavy vibe, and Rob Halford-esque vocals from Cornell, the song is intense as fuck. Again, Cornell shows his vocal range while hitting some pretty high notes. If all you listen to is Superunknown, you may not’ve known his voice could reach those heights. Mudhoney’s contribution “Overblown” is guaranteed to make you smile since it takes the piss out of the grunge hype. With shaky groovy music, Mark Arm sings about everybody loving their town and how it’s getting creepy. He talks about how the Seattle scene went from friends playing music together to being a mainstream thing. Even though he’s rebelling against the whole thing, it’s kind of ironic that the song appears on soundtrack made to appeal to the masses. Or maybe that was the point.

The rest of the tracks are pretty solid and none of them are what I would call bad. “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting for Somebody” both by Paul Westerberg, are upbeat, melodic, and have sing song qualities to them providing some uplifting moments on the album. Lovemongers AKA Heart provide an excellent cover of the Led Zeppelin epic “Battle of Evermore” and the fantastic “May This Be Love” by Jimi Hendrix adds a bit of classic Seattle history. One of the most powerful and moving songs here is “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” by Mother Love Bone. It starts out sounding like the typical piano ballad, but Andrew Wood’s vocals add this grittiness and edge to it that keeps you listening. As the song goes on the music keeps building with slight changes to keep away from cheesy ballad territory. By the end, everything clashes at the end of the bridge and everything turns up until you reach the harrowing end. It’s beautiful, yet kind of eerie considering the many references to death Wood drops.

The album closes with “Drown” by Smashing Pumpkins. It’s a slower number from the band with soft light music that sounds like it’s lulling you to sleep. The music is very dreamy with a hint of psychedelia, something Smashing Pumpkins does well. What keeps it from getting dull is when a single electrified note rings out in the middle of the song signifying things are about to kick up followed by heavy, energetic music. Billy Corgan sounds like he’s flying as he sings “ I wish, I wish, I wish/I could fly.” The solo that closes the track sounds out of this world with it’s harsh notes and stark vibe, but it goes on a bit too long.

Final verdict? Yeah, it’s a good soundtrack. All of the songs are enjoyable with some that definitely stand out from the others. The line up is solid, though with most of the grunge Big 4 featured, you gotta wonder where Nirvana is. The album is like grunge for beginners, but it’s a nice mix of the big name acts along with some underground ones. If someone asked me where they should start with grunge music, I would probably point them to this album. I still think the soundtrack and the movie were made solely to cash in on the Seattle trend, but it at least helped to push grunge into the mainstream, which could be good or bad depending on who you ask.

Dirt – Alice in Chains

Release Year: 1992

Rating: 8.5/10

If you were asked to name one of the best albums of the 90s this would be on the list. Though this was the band’s second release, it’s the one that made them grunge superstars. Not only is it filled with hit songs that defined the era, it finds the band going in a darker, bleaker direction. The songs touch on themes of death, anger, depression, and drug abuse, which is eerie considering what frontman Layne Staley was going through at the time. 23 years later it still sounds as brutal, heavy, and haunting as before.

Them Bones” opens the album on a heavy note with a rough, sludgy riff that oozes throughout the song. Staley’s unmistakable wails open up the track before he starts singing. Right away we’re hit in the face with the dark themes as he sings “I feel so alone, gonna end up a/Big ole pile of them bones.” Dealing with the topic of death, it’s says no matter what we do we all end up as bones in the end. “Dam that River” speeds things up with a driving guitar riff that isn’t as heavy as the rest of the album. While it’s a good song, it doesn’t stand out musically or lyrically compared to the rest of the record.

What really captured me was how fucking dark this album is both in terms of the music and the lyrics. “Sickman” has this upbeat, chugging rhythm which goes against the ambiguous, bleak lyrics. It gets down right creepy during the bridge when random voices and eerie laughter is heard over Staley’s singing, like ghosts somehow got in the recording booth. “Rooster” is based on Jerry Cantrell’s father in the Vietnam war and provides a disturbing account on how you’re never sure you’re gonna make it another day when you’re in battle. “Junkhead,” “Hate to Feel,” and “Godsmack” are all about drug use. The second song is about Staley’s drug use, which he blames on his father. It’s eerie to hear him sing things like “You can’t understand a user’s mind/But try, with your books and degrees/If you let yourself go and opened your mind/I’ll bet you’d be doing like me/And it ain’t so bad.” At the time of recording, the singer resumed his impairing drug habit, which unfortunately caused his death in 2002. It’s songs like these where it feels like you’re trapped in his mind and crawling to get out.

The ballad “Down in the Hole” stands out musically because it uses a soft acoustic guitar to create this mellow, yet somber mood. It even finds Staley crooning during the opening, sounding wounded and hurt. Written by Cantrell, the song is dedicated to his “long-time love” and how it’s difficult to dedicate yourself to a long term relationship. There are some gut wrenching lyrics here that hit you like a bullet, such as “I’d like to fly/but my wings have been so denied” or “Down in a hole/I don’t know if I can be saved/See my heart I decorate it/like a grave.” Something about those lines are really powerful and emotionally charged; this is someone who wants to be free and has given up. These also add to the dark, haunting mood of the entire album.

Angry Chair” is one of their most popular songs and still holds up years later. It starts with this resonating riff giving off a eerie feeling of isolation. Just as with many of the songs here, this one has its share of bleak lyrics with my favorite being “Saw my reflection and cried.” Something about that image is really creepy, like he doesn’t know who he is anymore. But some of the most fucked up lyrics are found on the title track. There are several references to suicide with the most poignant being “I want to taste/a dirty stinging pistol/In my mouth/on my tongue.” When I heard this, I had to take a step back and go whoa. Shit just got really heavy. Lyrics like these are part of what makes the album so memorable.

Years after its release, this remains Alice in Chains’ essential album. During a time when grunge bands were as common as the flu, Layne Staley and crew separated themselves from the crowd thanks to their provocative lyrics and intense music. The songs are raw, honest, and sometimes disturbing. They put you inside the claustrophobic mind of Staley, who was dealing with drug addiction yet again. Based on the lyrics alone, it’s not a nice place to be. But it’s part of what makes the album so good. It puts you in that mindset and takes you on a dark journey. Some haunting masterpieces came out in the 90s and this is one of them.