Alice In Chains was a pinnacle Seattle band, and they were part of the Seattle movement that was so prevalent in the 90s, and they carved a niche for themselves in the music world. They had tasted the triumphs of success and they also tasted the bitter pills of defeat (the death of singer Layne Staley was the worst of it all). Many compilations have come to fruition out of the Alice In Chains catalog. MUSIC BANK was the best of the bunch because not only did you get a helping of 3 CDs compiling hits, rarities, and remixes, it included a cd-rom and a comprehensive booklet inside detailing the history of the band itself. Before that was NOTHING SAFE: The Best of The Box, and although it had it’s share of the hits, it was merely a sampler and a very small portion of what could have been a huge meal. Then Sony Special products released the pointless 10-track collection GREATEST HITS, which was a complete dud because tons of great songs were left off at the expense of giving the consumer something cheaply manufactured and made. But now, we’ve got another compilation from Sony entitled THE ESSENTIAL Alice In Chains. Now another question comes to mind here: is this compilation any better? Well, the answer is mostly yes, with a nay for a major single and a few minor hits that were left off this compilation.
The thing this compilation does nicely that MUSIC BANK also did was compile the songs in chronological order. Here’s how it runs down on each of the compilations hearty two discs.
On disc 1 you get the pummeling “We Die Young”, the classic “Man In The Box”, the underrated epic feel of “Sea of Sorrow”, and the unadulterated pleasure of the chilling “Love, Hate, Love” from FACELIFT. While these four songs truly represent the meat of FACELIFT, they also represent the origins of Alice In Chains…the majestic building of their monolithic sound and power. Next up we get the entire SAP ep minus that goofy final hidden track, although not in the order of the original ep, which is no big deal because all four songs are excellent tracks. “Got Me Wrong”, “Right Turn”, “Am I Inside”, and “Brother” all blend acoustic and electric nuggets of alternative metal, with “Am I Inside” being a ballad of sorts. From there we dive right into the songs from the masterpiece album DIRT. This is where the compilation runs into a major flaw. You do get the hits such as “Rooster”, “Them Bones”, “Would?” (found on the end of disc 2), and “Angry Chair”. You also get other tracks from dirt like the thrash of “Dam That River”, the disorienting title track, and the thundering “God Smack”. But my question is why the hell did they leave “Down In A Hole” off of this compilation? What in their right minds made them leave off such a classic song that was a big, big song on the radio and a hit video as well? Well, the folks at Sony must have been smoking crack. This flaw may irk many fans including myself, so it almost renders this compilation completely unnecessary as we have the comprehensive MUSIC BANK. So that’s the one major flaw this overview runs into, but it’s pretty much the only major flaw here.
Now we go into disc two, which represents the later years of Alice In Chains. We pick up with two fine songs from JAR OF FLIES to start disc two, the shining radio nugget “No Excuses” and the angsty majesty of “I Stay Away”. But I think “Rotten Apple” and “Don’t Follow” should have been included on this compilation as well, so those are two other more minor flaws here, especially since “Don’t Follow” could be heard on the airwaves at that point. But then next we head right into the self-titled “tripod” album, and the slow burn of “Grind”, the catchy stomp of “Again”, and the folky metallic bluesy “Heaven Beside You” all represent the album quite well, showcasing the classic rock stylings that made the album different sonically from the past Alice In Chains records. Then we get two non-album tracks in remix form, with “What The Hell Have I? and “A Little Bitter”, both featured on the LAST ACTION HERO soundtrack. The remix versions sound almost no different from the original versions except that they’re sound is a bit heavier and thick than the cleaner metal of their almost mirror counterparts. Then you get two nuggets from the unplugged cd, with the classic “Nutshell” and the quiet dynamics of “Over Now” providing respite from the heavy rock that made Alice In Chains a household name. The compilation comes to an end with 3 more songs, the previously released recordings of “Get Born Again” and “Died”, which have bite but sound a little unfinished and leave you feeling the void that has been left from Staley’s death. And the last song, the big, mighty majestic roar of the classic hit “Would?” ends the two-disc set with a bang, providing the band’s biggest hit and most impassioned performance. It became a staple of 90s radio singles and also was featured on the SINGLES soundtrack. It was among the best of a handful of songs in their catalog.
So to the Alice In Chains fan I say only get this to complete your catalog if you want to have everything by Alice In Chains. If you’re merely curious about the band and want to get a taste of AIC and not take a bite out of your wallet, then this compilation will serve you well. Although this compilation leaves off a couple of songs that would have made the title “essential” stand true, this compilation does do a nice job of capturing the best parts of Alice In Chains in all their primal, disorienting and bleakly monstrous glory. This was a band whose time was cut short by tragedy, but who ultimately left a huge mark on the music scene. ESSENTIALS is essential for AIC completists, and a good introduction for first timers. But be warned: if you want to get all the hits and get your money’s worth, then track down MUSIC BANK.