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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 Stadium Arcadium (2006) was their most sprawling record to date, a two-disc set that spawned multiple hits.
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 now. So, disclaimers aside, here are the 15 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.”