The 20 Greatest Deftones Songs – Ranked
Forming in Sacramento, California all the way back in 1988, and releasing eight outstanding LPs over the last 25 years (with number nine on its way), Deftones have indelibly shaped the alternative metal genre while remaining a band apart. Always one step ahead, that bit smarter, sharper, more daring than even their closest peers, they rapidly outgrew the nu-metal boom from which they emerged, changed the game with third album White Pony and have proceeded to drive towards the horizon ever since.
Although the core dynamic between vocalist Chino Moreno’s art-rock fixation and guitarist Stephen Carpenter’s far heavier metal influence remains key, the collective has always been crucial, with Abe Cunningham’s pounding drums propelling the vision, electronic-specialist Frank Delgado layering it up since his arrival in 1998, while tragically-departed bassist Chi Cheng and his successor Sergio Vega add a warmth and fullness of body.
Choosing just 20 songs to represent a catalogue this complex and universally rewarding feels almost reductive, but we’ve had a crack at distilling down what has made Deftones’ journey so fascinating nonetheless. As always, we look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments…
20. Beware (Saturday Night Wrist, 2006)
Fifth album Saturday Night Wrist was the product of unprecedented tension in the Deftones camp. Moving away from long-time producer Terry Date with a view to working with Gorillaz collaborator Dan The Automator before eventually settling on legendary Pink Floyd recordist Bob Ezrin, they were in unfamiliar territory from the off. Add into that Chino’s struggle with addiction and a failing marriage – not to mention his preoccupation with (excellent) side-project Team Sleep – and they were being truly stretched. Although the resultant album remains a thrilling listen, Beware is its only standalone track to make this list. A cautionary tale from Chino against the lure of sex, drugs alcohol and any other vice that can derail the creative process, it pulsates with temptation and threat.
19. Diamond Eyes (Diamond Eyes, 2010)
Deftones were already working on their sixth album – tentatively named Eros – when bassist Chi Cheng was involved in the car crash that would leave him in a semi-comatose state for the next four-and-a-half years before ultimately claiming his life. That work was put on ice, no longer representative of its creators as artists or human beings in the wake of the accident. When they did return in 2010, this title-track opened the album which would define their onward journey. Devastatingly heavy yet painfully beautiful, it came on like the soundtrack to some metaphysical horror movie, with Chino declaring, ‘I am the shadow, and the smoke in your eyes / I am the ghost, that hides in the night’ as it builds towards its utterly cataclysmic climax.
18. Digital Bath (White Pony, 2000)
If the brilliance of White Pony is in its delicate balance of beauty and menace, then Digital Bath might be its purest distillation. The album was the first to feature keyboard/turntable specialist Frank Delgado as a permanent member, and his fingerprints are all over this, lending the quieter passages of its turbulent song structure both shimmering stillness and unfathomable depth, irresistibly inviting the listener to dive in. The deeper inspiration of Chino’s pseudo-sexual 5am musing on what it would be like to predatorily lure a woman into a bath, electrocute her, then dry her off and dress her back up again lends the composition another, more nightmarish dimension.
17. Prayers/Triangles (Gore, 2016)
A showcase of the perpetual motion – that churning ebb and flow – that has always pulsated at the heart of Deftones’ work, the lead single for eighth album Gore felt immediately familiar to the band’s faithful following. At the same time, it is bathed in a warmth which feels more aligned with Chino’s blissfully ambient side-project Palms. Although the ethereal lyrics (‘There’s a new strange godless demon awake, inside me / There’s a force divine terrorising the angels I keep’) are a reckoning on the light/dark, good/bad dichotomy within the human psyche and the art we create, it is the sense of tentative positivity here that wins its place on this list.
16. Romantic Dreams (Koi No Yokan, 2012)
Although seventh album Koi No Yokan might be the band’s least-compelling body of work as an overarching collection – scant criticism in the context of this back catalogue – its numerous stand-out moments are amongst their most individually bracing. Fourth and final single Romantic Dreams burns like the last embers of a hazy summer night. That album title is a Japanese term referring not to love at first sight, but the expectation of falling in love at a later point, and the concept is reflected in Chino’s strange, soaring lyrics (‘I promise to watch and raise your babies’ and ‘I wish this night wouldn’t end’). All the while Carpenter’s riffage provides an anxious, chaotic counterpoint, touching Meshuggah levels of heaviosity.
15. Minerva (Deftones, 2003)
The lead single (and by some distance, the finest track) from Deftones’ self-titled fourth album is one of their most majestic compositions, and provided the first real signpost of the dreamier sounds the band have been exploring since. Full of shoegaze influence, it layers-up its numerous textures into a crushingly heavyweight whole, indebted to Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream era and Chicagoan alt.rockers Hum. A sea of feedback swells and subsides as Chino reckons on the desensitisation of heartbreak, ‘I get all numb when she sings it’s over / Such a strange numb and it brings my knees to the earth.’ Conversely, the epic music video – shot over 22 hours in California’s Colorado Desert – is the spectacular outcome of its makers having painfully endured sandstorms and sub-zero conditions.
14. Rocket Skates (Diamond Eyes, 2010)
Another heavyweight Diamond Eyes banger, Rocket Skates is all about that bludgeoning main riff. Less the soundtrack for a trip to the skate park than for some awesomely destructive spree, its almost unrelenting aggression and that distinct screech of ‘GUNS! RAZORS! KNIVES!’ grab the listener by the throat and refuse to let go. We could deconstruct the latent sadism and twisted mystery of Chinos lyrics, or Rocket Skates’ role in the evolution of the quiet/loud formula in the Deftones DNA, but this is less a song to be fastidiously pored-over than a visceral statement best experienced at full volume.
13. Back To School (Mini Maggit)
A re-worked version of the seven-minute (also excellent) Pink Maggit which appeared on White Pony’s original release, disdained by the band as their attempt at writing a by-numbers hit single for the inevitable reissue it may have been, but Back To School captures a pivotal moment in time, bridging the first three albums spectacularly. Merging the crunchy rap-rock of Adrenaline, Around The Fur’s coming-of-age excitement and the artsy experimentalism of White Pony, it became the gateway drug for so many Millennial nu-metallers to move on to higher-minded sounds. The Paul Hunter-directed, Grant High School-set music video is a classic of the era.
12. Bored (Adrenaline, 1995)
Deftones’ debut LP proper (having released five extended demo tapes over the first half of the 1990s) was more about raw potential than any kind of balanced realisation of broader vision. Bored feels like a stand-out amongst the harsh, unrefined crunch elsewhere on the album, with the authenticity of Chino’s anguished wail (‘I GET BOOORED!’) and the thumping confidence of his bandmates’ composition demanding that they were talked about in the same breath as mighty Californian comrades Korn who had emerged the previous year.
11. Beauty School (Diamond Eyes, 2010)
A high-finesse sonic spectacle, Beauty School is as well-suited to pushing high end audio equipment to the limit as it is to stirring listeners’ souls. Interpretations of Chino’s characteristically arty/schlocky lyrics – ‘I like you when when you take off your face / Put away all your teeth / And take us way underneath / ’Cause you could die if you take it alone’ – have varied from the gently metaphorical (it being about embracing the beauty within) to the more playfully literal (a warning on the dangers of ingesting MDMA solo). Regardless of your reading, there’s a seductive yet insidious power that swirls throughout.
10. Lotion (Around The Fur, 1997)
One of the most powerfully tortured compositions on Around The Fur, Lotion was another prime example of Deftones’ harsh/soothing balance. The gut-punch as Chino wretches ‘I feel sick, I feel sick, I feel sick’ is countered by his conciliatory ‘It’s classical anyway / How cool are you I remember’. Crucially, rather than blending into perfunctory angst, every emotion is keenly felt. The contemptuous message to less committed contemporaries bleeding from lyrics like, ‘You’re just plain boring and you bore me to sleep’ and, ‘Hop off the train for a second and try to find your own fucking heart’ still feels relevant 23 years on.
9. Leathers (Koi No Yokan, 2012)
Leathers wasn’t officially a single off 2012’s Koi No Yokan, but it was the first music leaked out to a ravenous fanbase through the band’s official website. It felt like a guarantee that even after Chi Cheng’s accident and the subsequent upheaval (he would pass less than a month after the album was released), the band were able to continue on as powerful as they had been before. If anything, the drop from that distinctive ambient intro into one of their heaviest ever riffs – Chino seething, ‘This is your chance revolt, resist! / Open your chest, look down, reach in!’ – felt like a promise that they’d processed the pain of preceding years into some of their most inspired sounds.
8. Teething (The Crow: City Of Angels Soundtrack, 1996)
A crashing stand-alone release, it’s bewildering that Teething seems to have been lost to everyone but Deftones die-hards. Cropping up on the soundtrack to questionable The Crow sequel City Of Angels’ soundtrack alongside a host of heavyweight contemporaries like White Zombie and Korn, there are nu-metal hallmarks – the snarling, spring-loaded riffage, Abe Cunningham’s primal percussion, Chino’s furious rhymes – but the song was also a showcase for the uncompromising intelligence of a band happy to unleash their most angular attack on what was a huge commercial opportunity at the time. ‘How the fuck you gonna tell me what you don’t know,’ Chino rhymes with fitting defiance. ‘You got hair, clothes, the fashion, the cash flow / How the fuck you gonna tell me something? You’re this close to fashion, the cash flow!’
7. Tempest (Koi No Yokan, 2012)
Over the course of the Koi No Yokan cycle, struggling through a complex emotional process, the band frequently found themselves pondering on the end of the world. Although the idea of a whole album on the apocalypse was nixed, Tempest made it as the most compelling track on the album. Layering up from a murky first 60 seconds into one of their most powerful statements of foreboding, there is a breathtaking marriage of wonder and dread. When Chino says, ‘I’d like to be taken apart from the inside / Then spit through the circle right to the end’ you believe every word.
6. Knife Prty (White Pony, 2000)
Reportedly inspired by an unusual tourbus get together where everyone involved found themselves brandishing a separate blade from drummer Abe Cunningham’s knife collection, there’s a trippy, serrated power about Knife Prty. Chino expanded the scenario into the concept of an imaginary secret society where the tension between sex and violence is palpable. Actress/singer Rodleen Getsic, who was working next door to the band’s studio lends to that concept with beguiling guest vocals. On first hearing the album, the studio wanted this to be the lead single from White Pony, but Chino fought the idea because the song was too weird. Even more weirdly, popular Australian EDM duo Knife Party are named after this very song.
5. 7 Words (Adrenaline, 1995)
Written when Chino was just 16 years old, there is a seething anger about this top-of-the-class cut from debut LP Adrenaline that endures a quarter-century down the line. Lashing out at the oppression familiar to so many Latinos of a similar age in central California, the sense of subjugated rebellion is channelled into the pure mosh energy of the album title. Honed by a half-decade of live shows together up to that point rather than any real studio tinkering, there is an incendiary immediacy that strikes from the very first listen. All together now: ‘Suck, suck, suck, suck, suck it, bitch!’
4. Passenger (White Pony, 2000)
Flanked by a host of other incredible tracks it may have been, but no song encapsulates the overarching, boundary-busting brilliance of White Pony better than Passenger. Welcoming aboard Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan at the height of his powers, its six minutes unfold as a showcase for two of the greatest vocalists in alternative metal going full-tilt. Ostensibly charting the experience of getting it on in a car, the song overflows with psychosexual subtext as Chino reckons, ‘Here I lie, still and breathless, just like always…’ as his counterpart slithers in the background like a voice inside his head. Maynard’s ‘Roll the windows down, this cool night air is curious’ hook is arguably a moment to match anything he’s delivered with Tool or A Perfect Circle.
3. Be Quiet And Drive (Far Away) (Around The Fur, 1997)
The final single from Around The Fur was also one of the first showcases of the brilliance waiting to be unlocked with their next stop down the road. Opening with a guitar line that could’ve belonged to any number of their nu-metal brethren before unfurling as a more melancholic, textured offering than what had been seen before – the purposeful androgyny of Chino’s voice a riposte to the meat-headed machismo of so much of the rest of the scene – Be Quiet And Drive felt like a rallying cry for a band and fanbase ready to step away. Sounding at times like an evolved version of Foo Fighters’ early work, it also promised that Deftones had what it takes to be utterly huge.
2. Change (In The House Of Flies) (White Pony, 2000)
The lead single from White Pony remains Deftones’ most commercially successful. More than that, it redefined who the Sacramento quintet were at the dawn of the new millennium – an apt buzz-builder for their transmogrification from nu-metal outsiders to alt.metal messiahs. A moody, widescreen soundscape becomes the canvas onto which Chino draws his abstract lyrics, imagining the metamorphosis of a person into a fly before they’re taken home to have their wings ripped off. Delivered with psychosexual sultriness, the band have teased that the song is a metaphorical examination of the change in a person after suffering a traumatic break-up. Whatever the meaning, that woozy delivery – ‘I took you home, set you on the glass / I pulled off your wings, then I laughed’ – remains the peerless vocalist’s most unapologetically creepy-crawly.
1. My Own Summer (Shove It) (Around The Fur, 1997)
Twenty-three years down the line, the lead single from Around The Fur feels like a throwback in many ways. Powered by a Stef Carpenter riff that bites as hard as the sharks featured in its famous music video, and that simple, quiet/loud dynamism that suggested the Californians might be spiritual heirs to Nirvana, My Own Summer has little of the horizon-driving scope or layered complexity of their more recent output. Taken on its own terms, however, it remains their most effective, impactful statement. Arriving amongst the angsty bombast of nu-metal, it was living proof that intelligence, subtlety and artfulness (‘The shade is a tool, a device, a saviour,’ Chino sings. ‘See, I try and look up to the sky but my eyes burn’) were commodities with which the band could make themselves legendary. That initial excitement felt by thinking fans of heavy music at the time lives on with every pulse-quickening, crowd-surging deployment of this smasher in the live arena.
Read this next:
Metal artists don’t sit around listening to metal all day – inspiration comes in many forms. Here are just some of the indie records to influence the realm of heavy music…
Korn are hitting the road with Staind for a huge 28-city tour throughout August and September.