Red Hot Chili Peppers have unquestionably produced some of the most memorable and influential rock songs of the past couple decades. Here are their 15 best.
Few bands from the alternative era have not only survived, but thrived, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Los Angeles group formed in 1983 and featured original members Anthony Kiedis (vocals), Flea (bass), Hillel Slovak (guitar), and Jack Irons (drums). Slovak tragically died of a heroin overdose in 1988, after which Irons also left the band. Slovak and Irons were ultimately replaced with John Frusciante (guitar) and Chad Smith (drums). The group's first three albums, Red Hot Chili Peppers (1984), Freaky Styley (1985), and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987), helped the group gain an underground following, yet failed to break through to the mainstream. These records did establish the Chili Peppers' signature early sound, though, funky grooves coupled with a punk rock attitude. Mother's Milk (1989) garnered critical praise for the mature, introspective nature of tracks like "Higher Ground" and "Knock Me Down".
With the Rick Rubin-produced Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991), the Red Hot Chili Peppers became rock stars for the masses. The confessional single "Under the Bridge" reached the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and became one of the defining alternative rock songs of the 1990s. Guitarist John Frusciante, not keen to deal with the band's newfound stardom, abruptly left the group and was replaced by former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. While their next album, One Hot Minute (1995), was a commercial success, its downtrodden lyrics and pseudo-psychedelic guitar sounds failed to impress critics.
After Navarro's departure from the group, the Chili Peppers were on the brink of splitting up. In 1998, though, Frusciante, fresh out of rehab, agreed to rejoin the band. Californication (1999) was the Chili Pepper's big comeback, with three #1 Modern Rock singles and widespread critical acclaim. The album was more melodic and thematically unified than previous efforts. By the Way (2002) spawned five hit singles and saw the band continue their lyrical approach. The album was notable for the increased artistic presence of Frusciante, with the musician often layering multiple guitar parts and writing string arrangements for several songs. The band's most recent effort, Stadium Arcadium (2006), was their most sprawling record to date, a two-disc set which spawned multiple hits.
Now, John Frusciante, who once again left the band, has been replaced by guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. The group's tenth studio album, I'm With You, drops in several European countries on August 26 and in the United States on August 30. On the occasion of this new album's release, it's worth revisiting the Chili Peppers' extensive catalog. I have often found the Chili Peppers' records to be inconsistent efforts, sometimes overly long and in need of a collaborative editor/psychoanalyst. However, the band has unquestionably produced some of the most memorable and influential rock songs of the past couple decades.
The following list simply reflects the 15 Chili Peppers songs that I most frequently return to. There is obviously plenty here to spark debate. True, I didn't include any tracks from the first three records. Although I find these first efforts interesting, they don't really resonate with me emotionally. There are plenty of hits conspicuously missing. No "Otherside", "Californication", or "My Friends"? Nope. While these tracks made an impact upon their initial release, they don't really hold up for me in 2011. So, disclaimers aside, here are the 13 Chili Peppers tracks most worth listening to here and now...
15. “Aeroplane" from One Hot Minute
Single released: March 1996
Off of the much-maligned One Hot Minute comes one track that has withstood the whips and scorns of time. Flea's signature slap bass line is accompanied by Dave Navarro's crunchy rhythm guitar and, late in the song, a children's chorus. The lyrics describe the simultaneous pleasure and pain the speaker gets from music. Songs have the power to help the speaker "float away" from his troubled life, make him choke with excitement, and, more darkly, cut his throat. This juxtaposition of dark imagery and unbridled joy is one of the Chili Peppers' most redeeming qualities.
14. “Higher Ground" from Mother's Milk
Single released: 8 April 1989.
The band recorded this spirited version of Stevie Wonder's classic not long after the fatal drug overdose of Hillel Slovak. It became one of the most well-known cover songs from the era, having been featured in numerous movies and TV shows. The fact that the track was recorded in the shadow of Slovak's tragic death lends it a degree of spiritual poignancy. Lead singer Anthony Kiedis was dealing with inner demons of his own, and this song, with its lyrics about improving one's self and contributing to humanity, seemed to have a cathartic effect. From Flea's opening funk line to the arresting double-time breakdown in the song's final moments, the Chili Peppers manage to elevate Wonder's already brilliant anthem to an even higher ground.
13. “Tell Me Baby" from Stadium Arcadium
Single released: 17 July 2006.
The city of Los Angeles is one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' most consistently interesting subjects. "Tell Me Baby" reflects the dreams and ultimate disillusionment of thousands of pilgrims who move to L.A. seeking fame and fortune ("They come from every state to find / Some dreams were meant to be declined"). The track begins with a slow, bare electric guitar line peppered with high-pitched, tinny piano notes before abruptly kicking into the main funky groove. The speaker suggests that one need not travel far to find everything one desires ("The thing we need is never all that hard to find").
12. “Knock Me Down" from Mother's Milk
Single released: 22 August 1989.
"Knock Me Down" was a transitional song for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band previously known for its bombastically adolescent, sex-drenched, and sarcastic lyrics. This track is musically more adventurous than previous songs, with its exploration of several different tonal centers and double-lead vocal. Most significantly, though, the lyrics reflect a maturity and vulnerability not heard before in the Peppers' music. It's a request from one friend to another to keep him humble and sober ("If you see me getting mighty / If you see me getting high / Knock me down / I'm not bigger than life"). A song deconstructing the myth of rock stardom by a group of rising rock stars is still a fascinating listen.
11. “If You Have to Ask" from Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Single released: 1993.
“If You Have to Ask" is one of the most fashionably funky tunes the Chili Peppers have ever recorded. The surrealistic lyrics are reminiscent of the P-funk era (“Don't ask me why I'm flying so high / Mr. Bubble meets Superfly in my third eye"), and the stylized, falsetto vocals on the chorus pay tribute to Sly Stone. It's kind of hard to imagine the same band that recorded this tune going on to have hits with such alternative anthems as “Californication" and “Scar Tissue". In fact, “If You Have to Ask" seems wildly incongruous with “Under the Bridge", which appears later on the same record. This central tension between the playful funk band and the introspective rock balladeers is one of the group's most intriguing aspects. As for the meaning of this song's lyrics, “If you have to ask, you'll never know."
10. “Give It Away" from Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Single released: September 1991.
"Give It Away" was one of the band's key breakthrough tracks, landing at the top of the Billboard Modern Rock chart and later being added to the list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock" by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The lyrics were supposedly inspired by Kiedis' former girlfriend Nina Hagen giving him a jacket he liked. The song seems to simultaneously support a' 60s-style philosophy of free love while criticizing attitudes of consumer excess run rampant in the late 1980s. The song's ubiquity in the early '90s anticipated the rock-rap hybrid tracks that would become popular throughout the decade. What exactly is being given away in this song? Love? Diseases? Possibly both.
9. “Universally Speaking" from By the Way
Single released: 15 July 2003.
On the second track from 2002's By the Way, the Chili Peppers managed to create the psychedelic sounds they failed to capture on One Hot Minute. The jangly rhythm guitars sound a little like the Byrds' "Turn Turn Turn". The drum pattern is different than anything the Peppers had done before, embodying the spirit of Roy Orbison. There are some Beach Boys-style backing vocals on the chorus and some quirky guitar washes reminiscent of the Beatles circa "Tomorrow Never Knows". It's one of the catchier tunes from the latter part of the Chili Peppers' career and proves their versatility, showing that they're capable of creating a killer track without even a hint of funk.
8. “Readymade" from Stadium Arcadium
Album released: 9 May 2006.
"Readymade", with its subtly shifting, hard-driving drum pattern, killer John Frusciante guitar solo ("Clean it up, Johnny"), and occasionally surrealistic lyrics ("I've gotta sister making babies with a Black and Decker blow torch"), is one of the most underrated songs from the Chili Peppers' catalog. It was never released as a single and wasn't accompanied by an official music video. It's a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Ramones, and Jane's Addiction, but it also retains the Chili Peppers' sense of humor and unbridled energy. It also includes one of the cleverest pop-culture appropriations of a prominent Iraq War-era George W. Bushism ("And if I stay the course, I'll stay the night").
7. “Around the World" from Californication
Single released: 14 September 1999.
Californication begins with a bang. Flea, employing a heavy fuzz bass, lays down a simple blues riff before Frusciante enters with a choppy lead line. Overall, this album takes California and its distinctive culture as its subject. However, there's a sense of universalism about this opening track. The speaker talks of having been around the world and seen everything, yet still embracing the people he loves and the place he calls home. "Around the World" establishes the West Coast spirituality vibe that pervades the whole record. After the doldrums of One Hot Minute, this opening track reassured Red Hot Chili Peppers fans that the boys were back in town.
6. “Dani California" from Stadium Arcadium
Single released: 4 April 2006.
"Dani California" is a perfect storm of intoxicating groove, soaring melody, and sophisticated narrative. Never in the Chili Peppers' history had they weaved such an elaborate story. The tune gives the history of a young Southern girl who moved to California and lived a relentlessly hedonistic lifestyle. Kiedis has stated that Dani is a composite of all the women he has ever dated. "Dani California" is also notable for inspiring the most creative music video of the band's career. The band members wear attire from various musical eras -- rockabilly, psychedelia, glam rock, grunge, etc. -- before finally "becoming themselves".
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
“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.
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