30 Songs in 30 Days: #1 – “Them Bones” (Alice in Chains)

I recently saw a Twitter acquaintance revisit a Facebook 30-songs-in-30-days challenge from a few years back. In short, each day has a category associated with it (“a song that makes you happy,” “a song that reminds you of someone”), and you compile your list as the month counts off. I thought I’d give it a shot myself, as I’m always listening to music, always looking for new songs/albums/bands to add to my collection, and often inspired in my writing by songs I’m listening to at the time. I’ll reveal my list in a series of blog posts, one for each day of the challenge, consisting of explanations for my choices and links to each song on YouTube.

Introduction: Although my immediate answer when asked what music I listen to is ‘90s alternative rock, I think I have quite a diverse taste.  I grew up on the music of my parents’ generation: doo-wop, Motown, and the Beatles. My older brother laid the groundwork for my interest in rock with bands like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, as well as rap like the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill. I identify most with alternative and post-alternative rock, the music of my high school and college years. And most recently, my SO has injected a healthy dose of heavy metal, as well as European pop and kitsch, into my music library (SO: “What about classical???” Me: “It didn’t make the list!”). Almost all of these genres are represented in my list, and there will probably be a few surprises too. And let me say, with as varied and extensive a catalog as I have, it was a struggle to pick just one song for many of these categories. Diversity was key in a lot of these choices.

And now, let’s start this musical journey through my catalog and, in a way, my life.

Day 1: Your favorite song

This choice was probably the most difficult to make. When you’ve been listening to an ever-growing music collection for close to three decades, spanning all the genres and eras that are included in twice that much time, how do you pick one all-time favorite song? Well, I had to make some executive decisions for this entry. I came up with songs for the rest of the list first, then noticed that, considering how much I promote alternative rock as my favorite genre, some of the big names were missing. In particular, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, some of the founding fathers of grunge, are nowhere to be found. So I went with a song that I felt embodies the genre in many ways – “Them Bones” by Alice in Chains.

“Them Bones” is the first track on Alice in Chains’ seminal album Dirt, which was incidentally one of the first albums I bought (and on cassette, no less). What a way to open an album. Layne Staley’s terse, feral screams punctuate churning guitars and relentless percussion, all in a disorienting 7/8 time during the verses. Which, by the way, consist of the plaintive, anti-harmonious dual wails of Layne and Jerry Cantrell, confessing a fear of inevitable death and subsequent irrelevance. All in all, it’s a far cry from their hard-hitting but more straightforward debut Facelift. It almost feels like, in true alternative rock fashion, the band shunned the success of Facelift, and any ties to the glam/hair metal roots already waning on their debut. Instead they go heavier, darker, and more despondent, which serves to foreshadow the untimely death of Layne, the tortured soul of the band.

Certainly one of my favorites on Dirt, or any Alice in Chains album, the two-and-a-half-minute “Them Bones” reflects the entire lifespan of alternative rock. It is hard-charging and raw, brashly and bluntly introspective, and both shirks and pays homage to its hard-rock and heavy-metal forebears like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. And, just like the band who wrote it, “Them Bones” ends far too soon.

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