Photo: Marina Chavez (1995) / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records

The 15 Best Red Hot Chili Peppers Songs

5. “Snow (Hey Oh)” from Stadium Arcadium

Single released: 20 November 2006.

It’s no surprise that “Snow” was a number one hit on Billboard‘s Modern Rock chart. With an infectious opening guitar riff, a chorus that was written to inspire a sing-along, and universal lyrics about overcoming life’s hardships, it was bound to be successful. Lyrically, it’s an update of “Knock Me Down” from Mother’s Milk. Its lyrics are deeply personal and confessional, yet manage to have a mass appeal. Ultimately, it speaks to the joy of having the opportunity to start again in life. In this way, it’s also an update of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”.

4. “The Zephyr Song” from By the Way

Single released: 17 August 2002.

The Chili Peppers bring a light touch to “The Zephyr Song”. It’s in the tradition of classic California songs of escapism like those produced by the Beach Boys in the 1960s. The second half of the chorus even features ’60s-style backing vocals. The speaker encourages his love interest to “Fly away on my zephyr… and in this perfect weather, we’ll find a place together”. Unlike many of the Chili Peppers’ escapist tracks, though, this one has a certain gentleness and innocence about it. Whereas Kiedis often writes about losing himself in sex and drugs, this time it seems to be all about the healing power of nature and human connections.

3. “Scar Tissue” from Californication

Single released: 25 May 1999.

I remember when “Scar Tissue” was all over the radio. The meaning of the song’s lyrics was much debated. Was Kiedis singing, “With the buzz I share, it’s a lonely view” or “With the birds, I’ll share this lonely view”? The latter is clearly correct, although the former could almost make sense in the context of the song as well. Presumably, the implication is that the drug-addicted speaker is getting high, hence “flying” with the birds. The pleasure he gets from drugs, though, is coupled with a sense of pain and loneliness, hence the “scar tissue that I wish you saw”. To take this song’s lyrics too seriously, though, is to miss the point entirely. The reason “Scar Tissue” caught so many listeners’ ears is because of the jaunty, shuffle-oriented beat, the infectious guitar riff, the catchy central melody, and, of course, the simple, melodic guitar solo.

2. “By the Way” from By the Way

Single released: May 2002.

“By the Way” is a summation of all that is beloved about the Chili Peppers’ music. The gentle, melodic chorus finds the band in prime balladeer mode, whereas the chant-like, caustic verses harken back to the funk-rock of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Listening to this song again, I am reminded of the final 20 minutes of Goodfellas, in which Martin Scorsese’s chaotic editing style reflects the paranoid, drug-afflicted mind of protagonist Henry Hill. Similarly, Kiedis gives us a choppy, stream-of-consciousness account of a night in L.A. While it is clear from the chorus that the speaker is standing in line for a show and was supposed to wait for someone somewhere, the verses only give us impressionistic, jagged phrases that do very little to clear up the song’s narrative (“Steak knife / Card shark / Con job / Boot cut”). Perhaps “By the Way” found commercial success because the avant-gardism of the verses is tempered by the calm normalcy of the chorus. This is one of the Chili Peppers’ most fun roller coaster rides, and it’s worth getting on again and again.

1. “Under the Bridge” from Blood Sugar Sex Magik

Single released: March 2002.

“Under the Bridge” went Platinum in the US and moved the band into the world of the Top 10. It’s probably the Chili Peppers song that most people, regardless of how familiar they are with the band’s work as a whole, are most likely to have heard. The reason “Under the Bridge” finds itself at the number one spot, though, is not because it’s the most popular Chili Peppers song, but rather because it has unprecedented emotional appeal in the band’s vast catalog. Listening to this song with fresh ears, it holds up for me just as well as it did when I first heard it during my formative years.

“Under the Bridge” is an anomaly on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, an album filled with songs of bombastic self-aggrandizement. In the middle of such a loud record comes a song of stark vulnerability. It’s a song about the pains of addiction, the agony of loneliness, and the relentless omnipresence of the past. It starts with a starkly simple guitar riff and Kiedis’ vocal proclaiming the city of Los Angeles itself as his only friend, and ends with a choir joining this devastated voice as it narrates the horrific events that occurred under the bridge. Perhaps this song is associated with the Red Hot Chili Peppers more than any other because of the simplicity of its chorus (“I don’t ever want to feel like I did that day / Take me to the place I love, take me all the way”). At their best, the Chili Peppers are able to do just that for the listener.