One of my favorite vocalists of all time. Top five. Layne and Jerry Cantrell have a way of setting an eerie-ass tone that is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Half of the songs Layne sings sound like he’s dying, or desperately seeking help (which, turns out, is kind of true), and it’s just so sad. His trademark “snarl to a scream” is what makes Alice in Chains, well, Alice in Chains. I think heroin is a terrible drug, but some of their best songs are about heroin, drugs in general, depression, and hopelessness. Layne could easily identify with every one of those. The man’s voice gives me shivers, even during some of their more humorous songs. The beginning of ‘God Am” off of 1992’s Dirt, for example, starts off with a bong toke and then Layne says, “Sure, God is all-powerful, but does he have lips?” and then a ridiculously stoned Layne goes, “Whoaaaa…”. Even his goddamn speaking voice surrounded by an edgy, anxious guitar sound makes me shudder – in a good way.
In 1996, Alice in Chains played MTV Unplugged. Although I’m almost 100% sure that all the members of Alice were pretty haggard, Layne stuck out the most. He still had his childlike face, but once he took off his sunglasses, he let the audience see his horribly sad eyes. His face was sunken in and it was clear that his heroin addiction was starting to take a depressingly slow turn for the worse. Hell, even on the cover of the MTV Unplugged album it shows the members of Alice with only the shadow of Layne.
Alice in Chains were a rather odd band. They came out of Seattle before Nirvana did – but then again, most of the popular and/or influential Seattle bands were before Nirvana – and they were kind of a mixture between Mudhoney, with their crazy weird guitars, and the heavy vocals and eerie, far away quality of Soundgarden. They are their own band, but I can see why it’s kind of hard for people to categorize Alice in Chains. If you ask any of the grunge guys, they’ll pretty much all say that “grunge” never existed, or even the “Seattle sound” for that matter. Of course there was a Seattle SCENE, but they don’t like the term “grunge”.
There is also a huge debate of who, out of the grunge era, had the best voice. The main choices are Layne Staley, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Here’s my opinion:
Layne Staley has a great vocal range, has the coolest atmospherics with his vocals, and just plain looks COOL. Like I said before, his “snarl to a scream” is incredible, and he could do amazing things with his voice. A lot of his songs are almost painful to listen to – in a good way. He sounds like he is in pain, and most likely, he was. He has the eeriest voice I have ever heard, and when harmonizing with Jerry Cantrell, it’s like a creepy, but hauntingly beautiful Heaven. He also has the style of a man who would sing like that, although it’s hard to believe that such a powerful voice could come out of such a lanky and awkward looking guy. His vocals suit Alice in Chains’ style of music perfectly. His voice was an incredible instrument.
Chris Cornell has an absolutely INCREDIBLE vocal range. Doesn’t mean he has the best vocals (second favorite, though), but it means that classically, he is a better singer than Layne Staley, Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain. AGAIN, it doesn’t mean he has the best voice. He has a falsetto that can shatter a window and a vocal range that goes on for miles. It just so happens that Cornell has model good-looks to go along with his powerful voice – it’s an added plus. His vocals suit Soundgarden’s distant/far away sound.
Eddie Vedder is a member of one of the only Seattle grunge bands to survive the Nineties. He also has a great voice, but it does get tiring sometimes. He is great at the calm/suddenly anxious thing he has going on in his vocals, and that is what a lot of people like about Pearl Jam. There is no doubt that Vedder puts every ounce of emotion into his songs, and that makes it genuine. It’s also hard to believe that such a voice comes out of such a short, sweet-faced guy. His low, growly voice goes perfectly with Pearl Jam’s mostly bleak music.
Kurt Cobain… possibly one of the most overrated vocalists and songwriters ever. Nirvana must have done something right, or else they wouldn’t have been the most well-known band to come out of Seattle in the early Nineties… ya know, “Nirvanamania”. I’m not doubting Cobain’s ability to write great songs, and in some cases, they do sound more like some of grunge’s pioneers, like Mudhoney (Kurt Cobain idolized Mark Arm from Mudhoney). Of course, after he committed suicide, Nirvana’s legacy got even stronger, and suddenly Kurt Cobain’s sludgy, or, more appropriately, “grungy” guitar sound is still important to rock music today.
My point is that it’s so hard to compare the “big four” of “grunge” because each vocalist is so ridiculously different. It’s like comparing James Hetfield, Dave Mustaine, Joey Belladonna and Tom Araya! Oh wait, that is a common debate…
There are also more bands to come out of Seattle with success than just the tiring Nirvana and Pearl Jam: Green River, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Malfunkshun, Tad, Mother Love Bone, Mad Season, etc.
Well, anyway, I do still believe that Layne Staley had the most “unique” voice out of all those singers, and unique is generally a good thing. I’ve heard singers sound similar to Vedder, Cornell, and Cobain, but no one like Staley. Well, of course, Sully Erna from Godsmack, but if you haven’t figured it out already, “God Smack” is the name of an Alice in Chains song, and Godsmack was originally an Alice in Chains cover band before they started writing their own material. Other than that, Layne Staley has one of the most original voices I have ever heard in my entire life, and it’s a shame that heroin and other drugs controlled his life so much that he ended up a victim of his addiction.
God Bless Layne Staley