The 20 greatest Guns N’ Roses songs – ranked
If one were to set out to build a prototypical badass hard rock band in a lab, chances are they’d end up looking a hell of a lot like Guns N’ Roses. When a delinquent William Bruce “W. Axl” Rose upped sticks from Lafayette, Indiana for Los Angeles, California in 1982, the pieces began falling into place. After Axl’s stints with Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns, a fledgling Guns N’ Roses took shape, with childhood friend and guitarist Jeffrey Dean Isbell (aka Izzy Stradlin), fellow six-stringer Saul “Slash” Hudson, bassist Michael Andre “Duff” McKagan and drummer Steven Adler forming the definitive line-up. Living at full-throttle was the name of the game, with the sex and drugs of life on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip distilled directly into their edgy, anarchic sound.
Burning bright and fast across those first three full-length albums between 1987 and 1991, the Los Angeles outlaws were simply untouchable, transitioning from Appetite For Destruction’s lean-and-mean approach to Use Your Illusion’s double-album pomp with crazy assurance. Even splintering and cycling out through the absurdity and ignominy of Chinese Democracy’s interminable writing-recording process (and somewhat limp release), there was a mythical unpredictability and flashes of fractured genius. Since their 2016 Not In This Lifetime… reunion, we’ve been thrown few curveballs, but with fans regularly gorging on three-hour-plus marathons of some of the greatest rock songs of all time, few have cared to complain.
Although those recent 28-song set lists – shorn of their cover versions, of which we could do a whole separate run-down – highlight the band’s choice of career highlights, we maintain our own 20-song set would make for one hell of an onstage spectacle. Let’s hear in the comments which tracks would make yours…
20. There Was A Time (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
The protracted, 18-year gestation of sixth LP Chinese Democracy had become so much of a running-joke through the early-’00s that the album’s eventual release on November 23, 2008 felt somewhat surreal. Although the record predictably failed to meet the impossible expectations that had brewed in the interim – not to mention questions over its authenticity as an actual Guns release, with Axl as sole original member – it boasted several banging tracks, with I.R.S., Madagascar and Better highlighting an evolved sound. The boundaries were truly busted by near-seven-minute pièce de résistance There Was A Time, however: a song that combined influences as disparate as Danny Elfman, The Eagles and Carlos Santana and packed in guitar-work from Axl himself for a shapeshifting late statement of twisted genius.
19. Coma (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
When Axl choked down a bottle of pills amidst the pressure cooker mania of the band’s pre-Appetite era, it could’ve robbed us of some of the greatest songs in rock history. Instead, with the singer writing with the bitter clarity of retrospect for Use Your Illusion, the experience fed one of the blackest (and longest) cuts in the GNR songbook. Understandably complex, it walks a fine line between luxuriating in the darkness and pointing towards a more hopeful outcome, eschewing the idea of a chorus in favour of a more strung-out stream-of-consciousness style, wrapping lyrics around pulsating, at times staccato sounds that play out into a squeal of distortion mimicking the flatline of an electrocardiogram. That furious closing passage is a barely-veiled rebuke of the band’s previously self-destructive ways.
18. Breakdown (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
As many commentators have noted over the years, the aptly-titled seventh track on Use Your Illusion II saw Guns’ trademark hellraiser sound deconstructed right back to its classic rock roots. Featuring dazzling keys from newcomer Dizzy Reed and even a lick of banjo from Slash, it is a deeper, less dilute exploration of Axl’s Southern Rock infatuation than they had previously hinted at on Sweet Child O’ Mine, with the singer cutting loose in a diatribe against the challenges of superstardom. ‘Sometimes we’re so far off the beaten track,’ he muses, ‘We’ll get taken for a ride.’ The closing passage – Axl’s recitation of a monologue from druggy 1971 action-thriller Vanishing Point – feels initially nonsensical, but leaves off with real punch.
17. Right Next Door To Hell (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Although they couldn’t quite replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance of Welcome To The Jungle, the curtain-raiser for Use Your Illusion remains one of Guns’ most uncompromisingly abrasive tracks. Beneath its relatively blunt title it feels particularly lyrically scathing, even by Axl’s serrated standards, as he tears into one-time West Hollywood neighbour Gabriella Kantor, who famously accused him of assault with a bottle of Chardonnay and a piece of chicken. Fired-up by Duff McKagan’s San Andreas fault-bothering bass, Izzy and Slash’s six-strings and a repurposed contribution from Hanoi Rocks’ Timo Kalito dating back to 1988, this remains a marble-heavy monument to that colourfully absurd rock’n’roll episode.
16. Out Ta Get Me (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
The Hollywood spotlight might’ve drawn out the spiky, almost-antagonistic defensiveness in Axl Rose to an exaggerated extent, but the fourth track on Appetite For Destruction proved he was a rebel without a cause long before he hit Hollywood. Harking back to his days growing up in Lafayette, Indiana, Out Ta Get Me remembers the life-changing discovery that he was adopted while going through insurance papers in his family home, the self-destructive spiral that led to more than 20 arrests in the years that followed, and the feeling that his hometown had failed him; ultimately compelling the singer to hit the road with girlfriend Gina Siler in 1982.
15. You Could Be Mine (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Even now, the first single from Use Your Illusion feels like a statement. On one level, it was an intimate outburst, originally written in the Appetite For Destruction era about Izzy Stradlin’s break-up with actress/model Angela Nicoletti. Beyond that, however, it was a statement of intent: the comeback song from the biggest band in the world (the double-album was still three months away) dropped in support of the biggest film of the year, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Revving and clattering like the engine of a Harley Davidson before dropping into a prototypical hard rock swagger, it was a promise that these lads – and this sleazy liquid-metal sound – would be as stubbornly unstoppable as those cyborgs up on the silver screen.
14. Civil War (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
‘What’s so civil about war anyway,’ asks this rare protest song, which originally appeared on the 1990 Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal charity album before cropping up again as a heartfelt highlight on Use Your Illusion II. Although they weren’t exactly renowned as a political band, the songwriting from key trio Axl, Slash and Duff found GNR ruminating over the high-profile assassinations of 1960s’ political leaders President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the futility of the Vietnam War. The use of a sample from 1967 countercultural prison movie Cool Hand Luke, a whistled melody from 1863 Civil War anthem When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and the words of Peruvian guerrilla group Shining Path hammer home a powerful message. It was also the final song to feature original drummer Steven Adler. Falling apart due to a heroin addiction, his contribution had to be assembled by studio engineers from piecemeal segments into one coherent track.
13. Mr Brownstone (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
“I hate to do this on stage, but I tried every other fucking way,” announced Axl Rose between songs as GNR were supporting The Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Forum on October 18, 1989. “And unless certain people in this band get their shit together, these will be the last Guns N’ Roses shows you’ll fucking ever see. ‘Cause I’m tired of too many people in this organisation dancing with Mr. Goddamn Brownstone.” The Mr. Brownstone to whom Axl referred was, of course, heroin. Written in an apartment belonging to Izzy’s stripper girlfriend Desi Craft – on the back of a grocery bag – the song of the same name charted the other end of Izzy and Slash’s infatuation with the drug. ‘I get up around seven,’ boast the brashly autobiographical lyrics. ‘Get outta bed around nine / And I don’t worry about nothin’ no / ‘Cause worryin’s a waste of my, time…’ The cycle would quickly need to be broken, but the song is a powerful echo of those narcotic thrills.
12. Patience (G N' R Lies, 1988)
It had become a ubiquitous cliché, by the late 1980s, that hard rock bands would record soft ballads to release as singles. Where so many contemporaries stuck to the tired formula of an acoustic intro building towards electric crescendo, however, GNR stripped their sound right back on Patience, removing bass and drums entirely with Axl singing (and whistling) softly over breezy acoustic guitars courtesy of Slash, Izzy and Duff. The sole single taken from stopgap mini album G N’ R Lies, the understated six-string interplay and soul-baring feel ensured the track felt anything but insubstantial, setting the acoustic standard for the iconic MTV Unplugged series in the years that followed.
11. It's So Easy (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
‘It’s so easy / When everybody’s tryin’ to please me baby,’ sings Axl on the second song (and nominal lead single) off Appetite For Destruction. ‘Turn around bitch I got a use for you / Besides you ain’t got nothin’ better to do…’ If Welcome To The Jungle was a high-octane introduction to the seedy swagger of their Sunset Strip existence, this was a deeper dive into the headstrong, at-times downright misogynistic mindset of twenty-something rockstars off their heads and using anything (and anyone) at hand to get by. Axl’s deeper delivery and Duff’s throbbing bass lend a sense of additional menace to a song that mightn’t quite have delivered the breakthrough desired by their now-legendary A&R Tom Zutaut and his Geffen bosses, but it remains a warts-and-all snapshot of that somewhat squalid moment in history.
10. Locomotive (Complicity) (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
The eight-plus-minute progressive standout from Use Your Illusion feels brilliantly like a song pulled in multiple directions. On the face of things, it’s a showcase for Slash, with the guitarist layering up his parts (reportedly often with the wah-pedal left on), from the incisive main riff through the outrageous solos that see the song through to its close. Beyond that, however, it’s a vehicle for Axl – deploying a deep baritone – to examine a failed relationship (presumably with then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour) as he rails with real fire (and at length) that ‘it feels as though you raped me / ‘Cause you climbed inside my world / And in my songs…’ before admitting, aptly, ‘I know it looks like I’m in-saaa-aaane!’ Excess all areas.
9. My Michelle (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
When friend of the band Michelle Young mentioned to Axl on one noteworthy night drive – having just listened to Elton John’s Your Song over the car stereo – that she wished someone would write a song about her, it’s safe to say this probably wasn’t what she had in mind. Where contemporaries like Poison, Whitesnake and even Mötley Crüe tended to reimagine experiences in soft focus or high sheen, Guns thrived on brutal truth. ‘Your daddy works in porno,’ Axl writhes on that iconic opening verse, ‘Now that mommy’s not around / She used to love her heroin / But now she’s underground…’ Proof that even the troubled personal lives and family struggles of third parties were fair game to fuel their lyrical lake of fire.
8. Sweet Child O' Mine (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
They say the biggest hits often come from the simplest writing sessions, but the tale behind GNR’s most popular song surely takes the biscuit. Goofing around in the band’s legendary Sunset Boulevard Hell House, Slash found himself gurning like a loon while playing through a simplistic string-skipping exercise. His bandmates spotted real potential in the intended joke, though, and after 60 minutes of riffing along, the skeleton of the song was down. Axl’s now-iconic vocals – paying tribute to then-squeeze Erin Everly – are a play on the heartwrought twang of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but that famous outro (‘Where do we go now? / Where do we go?’) was a literal response to not knowing how to end the damn thing. Initial concerns that the relatively sappy number might dampen their fiery reputation didn’t last long as the track promptly made them superstars.
7. Don't Cry (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
There are two versions of Don’t Cry featured on the Use Your Illusion set, with the Vol. II rendition featuring alternate lyrics, while a third (demo) version included on the single showcases an early iteration that didn’t make the cut for Appetite… It’s a wonder they bothered, as the Vol. I version gets tantalisingly close to perfection. A moody, haunting ballad written by Axl about having fallen in love with Izzy’s girlfriend Monique Lewis, it is very nearly the match of November Rain and features a soulful solo from Slash for the ages. Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon, who grew up near Axl in Lafayette, adds guests vocals and also appears in that famous video that marked the beginning of a mind-boggling Andy Morahan-directed trilogy – loosely based on Without You, a short story written by Axl’s friend and journalist Del James, and completed by November Rain and Estranged.
6. November Rain (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Is November Rain the greatest power ballad of all time? We wouldn’t argue against it. Originally over 20 minutes long, Axl took the best part of the 1980s to pare his magnum opus down to the majestic nine-minute epic we know today. Reportedly influenced by the singer’s love of Elton John, the deployment of piano, orchestral backing and choral vocals give it a peerlessly epic feel, and Elton himself even joined the band in their performance at the 1992 MTV VMAs. Its iconic music video – with a budget over $1.5 million – featured Axl’s then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour playing a role inspired by his ex-wife Erin Everly that somehow only added to the sense of overblown glee. Unfortunately, this would be the straw that broke the camels’ backs for other members of the band who preferred the original edginess to such wilfully OTT luxuriance.
5. Nightrain (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
Never has a song captured the high-velocity madness of young men living fast and struggling not to come off the rails better than Nightrain. Named after the high-strength, low-cost E&J Winery-manufactured fortified wine of the same name (think an American version of Buckfast), Axl’s yelps of ‘I’m on the Nightrain / Love that stuff! / I’m on the Nightrain / An’ I can never get enough!’ were very much literal. Building a juggernaut momentum around its cowbell-adorned beat, it’s like a rollercoaster guided trip through the bright lights, pimps and dealers of the 1980s Sunset Strip. A one-way ticket to chaos.
4. Estranged (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Credited to Axl alone (he thanks Slash for “the killer guitar melodies” in the liner notes), the final single from the Use Your Illusion albums is a deep dive into the darkness of the frontman’s psyche during the tumultuous end to his marriage to Erin Everly. Although never an obvious single choice, the complex intertwine of Slash’s wailing guitar and Axl’s heart-heavy keys have made it a fan-favourite. The $4 million(!!!) video – which saw Slash rising out of the ocean and miraculously riding the waves – would be the final (and craziest) instalment in that Andy Morahan-directed trilogy.
3. Rocket Queen (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
Opening with an absolutely filthy bass riff, snarling six-strings and Axl’s world-worn lyrics written from the perspective of teenage friend (and brothel madame) Barbi Von Greif, the final track on Appetite For Destruction saw the band burn out with smouldering sex and sleaze. ‘I might be a little young but honey I ain’t naive,’ the lyrics tease. ‘I’ve seen everything imaginable / Pass before these eyes / I’ve had everything that’s tangible / Honey you’d be surprised…’ The insertion of sex moans – courtesy of Steven Adler’s on-off girlfriend and band dancer Adriana Smith having sex with Axl in the studio – was the lewd cherry on top of a dirty, dirty cake.
2. Paradise City (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
It only took three chords for Guns N’ Roses to raise the bar for stadium rock. Where most of Appetite For Destruction rattled uninitiated listeners, having been drawn uncomfortably from the cutting-edge, the infectious opening hook to Paradise City worked as a bridge, proving GNR’s anthemic potential before the song cuts loose in its second half. Reportedly written over beers in the back of a van heading home from a show in San Francisco, Slash’s lyrical contribution (‘Where the girls are fat and they’ve got big titties’) was overruled by the rest of the band, in favour of a more wide-eyed and awestruck retelling of country-boy Axl’s journey west in search of big city thrills.
1. Welcome To The Jungle (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
Legend has it that Axl was approached by a random stranger on an early trip to New York City, greeted with the immortal line, ‘You know where you are? / You’re in the jungle baby / You’re gonna die!’ Written across the continent in Seattle during their infamous 1985 Hell Tour, the song that encounter inspired would become just as much an abrasive introduction to Guns N’ Roses for a whole generation of rock fans. Simultaneously tantalising and terrifying, it was the perfect opening statement from a rabble of outlaws soon to be heralded as The Most Dangerous Band In The World. Following lacklustre sales, it was also the track to reignite a career that almost fizzled out before it had even started, with a single 5AM Sunday morning airing on MTV triggering a domino-effect that soon saw Appetite… shifting 200,000 copies a week. ‘Watch it bring you to your shun n‑n-n-n-n-n-n‑n knees…’ Indeed.
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