The 20 greatest Red Hot Chili Peppers songs – ranked
So all-encompassing has been Red Hot Chili Peppers’ mainstream ubiquity and accessibility over the past 30 years that many ‘real’ rock fans seem to have forgotten the things that made the Los Angeles quartet great in the first place. Formed as a one-off “joke” all the way back in 1983 (yes, almost four decades ago) by vocalist Anthony Kiedis, bassist Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary, guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons, foundations rooted in the punk-funk of bands like Defunkt and Contortions were built on with elements of the emergent alt.rock genre, while personal experiences with addiction and the 1988 death of Hillel bled a darkness into their sound. At their best, the Chilis became capable of striking stylistic shifts quite unlike anyone else.
The definitive (and, as of writing, current) line-up featuring Anthony, Flea, guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith first came together in 1988 and are responsible for the decade-defining twin masterpieces Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) and Californication (1999), though with John’s ongoing substance struggles, six-stringers such as Dave Navarro and Josh Klinghoffer have also been involved. Their combination of genre-melding mischief, taboo-busting sexuality, streaks of emotionally-resonant melancholy, oddball eccentricity and sheer crossover listenability has seen them become, by far, the most successful alt. band in history: over 80 million album sales, countless turnstile entries, six GRAMMYs and a 2012 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame are all under their belts.
Narrowing down a discography hundreds of songs deep, which encompasses several distinct stylistic eras, is a frankly thankless task. Some like it funky, some melodic, some melancholic and some downright psychedelic. With variety being the spice of life, we’ve gone for a bit of everything in our Top 20, and if you don’t like it you can go ding dang dong dong ding dang dong dong ding dang…
20. Dani California (Stadium Arcadium, 2006)
Red Hot Chili Peppers really do love a song about California, don’t they? When it came to dropping the first single from sprawling 2006 double-album Stadium Arcadium, they went for this sort-of ode to their home territory, which showcased both the resurgent funk and stadia-swelling alt.rock sides of its parent record. Interestingly, the Golden State doesn’t actually get a mention in the song itself, though Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Indiana, Minnesota and North Dakota do. Anthony Kiedis has commented that the titular Dani is a catch-all representation for every woman he’s met in his life, as well as being the same Dani mentioned in 2002’s By The Way, and the ‘teenage bride with the baby inside’ from 1999’s Californication. She did well for them, of course, with this song picking up GRAMMYs for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal in 2007 and still cropping up on party playlists today.
19. Subway To Venus (Mother’s Milk, 1989)
Fourth album Mother’s Milk was very much the teasing forbear to 1991’s globe-conquering Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but the high-energy funk attack of third track Subway To Venus remains a standout. ‘Step right up and listen please,’ Anthony spits, like some crazed busker on the tube. ‘You’re gonna get it with the greatest of ease / Everybody gather round all aboard the underground / You’ve got to get in before you get out.’ The body-shaking bassline, feather-light guitar work and rapid-fire brass attack ensure it’s earwormed its way into your subconscious long before you’ve had a chance to ask what the fuck ‘space is king or so I sing – subway to Venus’ actually means…
18. Soul To Squeeze (Coneheads OST, 1993)
Bizarro 1993 sci-fi comedy Coneheads saw Dan Aykroyd and Bonnie Turner playing (armour-piercing) bullet-headed aliens, who try to come to terms with their new existence stranded on Earth. On the face of things, the wild, fun-loving Red Hot Chili Peppers were the obvious picks to deliver an up-tempo soundtrack to the hijinks on screen. Instead, their OST contribution was one of the slower-paced, more emotionally luxuriant songs of their entire career. ‘I got a bad disease / Out from my brain is where I bleed,’ sings Anthony on defiantly laid-back form as John Frusciante makes his guitar gently weep. An early sign of the Californians’ spikily sentimental, mainstream-crushing potential.
17. Fortune Faded (single, 2003)
‘They say in chess you’ve got to kill the queen, and then you made it,’ Anthony ponders on this standalone 2003 single, reckoning on the band’s steady ascent into the absolute top tier of rock superstardom where playing a show to fewer than 50,000 fans would’ve seemed intimate. In a sense, the subject matter betrays the song’s purpose as an original composition to throw onto the same year’s Greatest Hits collection, but there is no cynicism on show here. Instead we get a surging, prototypical showcase of the effervescent, yet still somehow poignant, sound that saw RHCP leave even their most esteemed peers in the dust. That light-echo-infused music video is also one of the most iconic of the early-2000s, too.
16. Behind The Sun (The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, 1987)
Speaking of Greatest Hits albums, that 2003 release wasn’t the first the Chilis had been part of. All the way back in 1992, EMI put out the cheekily-titled What Hits!? compilation, encompassing material from their first five LPs. Behind The Sun had originally been featured as the sixth track on 1987’s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, but was rejected as a single release because its melodic composition was at odds with the pumping funk image that was being pushed for the band at the time. In the wake of 1991’s uber-successful ballad Under The Bridge, however, it would be given its due, with original guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons’ dreamy contributions helping it to Number Seven on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
15. Dark Necessities (The Getaway, 2016)
Arguably the greatest song of the Josh Klinghoffer era, the first single from Chilis’ 11th album The Getaway goes back to their trusted formula of dreamy funk-rock as the vehicle for Anthony’s reflections on a gritty past experience and those titular, narcotic Dark Necessities. Josh’s brilliantly woozy guitar solo feels like a fitting riposte to those who criticised his time with the band, while the striking music video – directed by Hollywood actress Olivia Wilde and featuring renowned female long boarders Carmen Shafer, Amanda Caloia, Amanda Powell and Noelle Mulligan skating through Los Angeles – added another layer of unimpeachable cool.
14. Snow (Hey Oh) (Stadium Arcadium, 2006)
On the face of things, the third single from Stadium Arcadium felt almost too lightweight, with John Frusciante’s gorgeous guitar riff so perfectly evoking the magic of soft snowfall and Anthony Kiedis’ vocals full of the wistful melancholy that had become RHCP’s stock-in-trade. In truth, though, this was a prime example of the band’s ability to smuggle deceptively dark themes into the mainstream, with that ‘snow’ really referring to cocaine and China White heroin, while Anthony’s lyrics lament the difficulty of escaping addiction to start anew. With retrospect, it feels like a fitting farewell from John, before his subsequent decade-long departure from the band.
13. Sir Psycho Sexy (Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 1991)
Telling the story of the fictional, um, knight of its title (supposedly an exaggerated version of Anthony Kiedis’ persona), the 16th track from Blood Sugar Sex Magik was never released as an official single, but its deployment of OTT innuendo and flat-out sexual invitation has made it an enduring fan-favourite. Flea’s rubbery bassline feels like the perfect platform for the series of dirty vignettes, while the psychedelic six-strings and producer Brendan O’Brien’s mellotron contributions leave a sharply psychedelic aftertaste. The eight-minute-plus runtime is (probably) an allusion to Anthony’s prodigious, er, stamina…
12. Around The World (Californication, 1999)
Starting with Flea’s chest-rattling 100mph bassline before weaving through a maze of hairpin turns and expansive, vocal-led passages, the funk-tastic second single from Californication was a love-letter from Anthony to the world (and the people in it) he’d watched through the tour bus window. Even two decades on, his imagery feels so fresh and vibrant you could almost reach out and touch it. Although, retrospectively, this was very much the sound of the Chilis entering the mainstream, the line, ‘I try not to whine, but I must warn ya, about the motherfuckin’ girls in California’ kept Around The World off numerous radio stations until the band went back and produced a clean version.
11. Venice Queen (By The Way, 2002)
Necessarily, perhaps, for a rock band who’ve written as many songs as they have while achieving a superlative level of mainstream dominance, this Top 20 is bulging with already-celebrated single releases. Of their less discussed tracks, the final song from By The Way deserves particular elevation for its inspired distillation of the melancholic side of the Chilis sound, turning it into something utterly unforgettable. Anthony’s lyrical tribute to his friend and drug councillor Gloria Scott, who died of cancer, is an obvious emotional anchor point, but John Frusciante’s irresistible guitars are the song’s soul. Heartbreakingly brilliant.
10. I Could Have Lied (Blood Sugar Sex Magic, 1991)
Although she has since denied any real relationship ever actually took place, the sixth track from Blood Sugar Sex Magik was reportedly written about Anthony’s break-up with Irish songstress Sinead O’Connor. There’s a real rawness in the lyrics, as Anthony tries to reason out how he could have saved the relationship through simple deception: ‘I could have lied I’m such a fool / My eyes could never never never / Keep their cool / Showed her and I told her how / She struck me but I’m fucked up now.’ The instrumental treatment is every bit as striking, with the bursts of potent electric guitar firing over an acoustic base in an obvious tribute to Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan classic All Along The Watchtower.
9. By The Way (By The Way, 2002)
Much has been made, in some circles, about the creative tension between stalwart bassist Flea and guitarist John Frusciante, whose sporadic tenures with the Chilis have tended to coincide with their greatest hits. The clash between John’s soft, melancholic textures and Flea’s aggressive punk-funk bassline was never more apparent than on 2002 album By The Way, with the title-track slingshotting between styles with almost unhinged abandon. Anthony’s peerless vocal dexterity, alongside Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Crazy Taxi-inspired music video, helped fans make sense of the sonic chaos.
8. Aeroplane (One Hot Minute, 1995)
Alongside their cover of Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster, the third single from 1995 LP One Hot Minute is the highlight of Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro’s time with the band. Based on a traditional blues song called Jesus Is My Aeroplane, this is a celebration of how music takes the Chilis to a higher place. Lyrics like, ‘I like pleasure spiked with pain’ and, ‘Sitting in my kitchen, I’m turning into dust again’ might’ve been dark references to Anthony’s relapse into drug usage, but this feels very much like Flea’s song. Not only was the bassist given free rein to get funky, but the children’s vocals featured were recorded with his daughter Clara’s kindergarten class.
7. Suck My Kiss (Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 1991)
Some fans might’ve felt that Red Hot Chili Peppers were beginning to sell out on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but third single Suck My Kiss arrived with all of the uncompromised funkiness with which they first broke through. A love song of the basest nature, it tells the story of a man so in love with his partner that he simply can’t stop making out with her. ‘Hit me you can’t hurt me, suck my kiss,’ Anthony sings. ‘Kiss me please pervert, me stick with this… Your mouth was made to suck my kiss.’ It comes across a little aggressive nowadays, but the singer has repeatedly stressed that the song was meant to depict a wholly positive relationship.
6. Can’t Stop (By The Way, 2002)
Another slice of brilliantly bonkers instrumental interplay between Flea and John Frusciante, the third single from By The Way is a prime example of the Chilis’ ability to improvise special songs from their sometimes disparate parts. Writing after the instrumental was composed, Anthony’s nonsensical vocals (‘White heat is screaming in the jungle / Complete the motion if you stumble / Go ask the dust for any answers / Come back strong with 50 belly dancers’) were inspired by the propulsive sound and the images of life around him. The music video mirrored that impressionist sensibility, utilising a series of works by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm called One Minute Sculptures to hammer home the non-narrative structure.
5. Otherside (Californication, 1999)
The death of Hillel Slovak from a heroin overdose, after returning home from The Uplift Mofo Party Plan European tour, would become perhaps the defining moment for the Chilis. Having struggled with addiction for years himself, and haunted by the memory that Hillel had lain dead, undiscovered for days following his passing, Anthony would struggle severely with survivor guilt across the years that followed. Tied to John Frusciante’s incredible 13-note guitar-riff, Otherside is his most potent expression of those clashing feelings panic and resignation, grief and helplessness: ‘Centuries are what it meant to me / A cemetery where I marry the sea / Stranger things could never change my mind / I gotta take it on the other side.’
4. Give It Away (Blood Sugar Sex Magic, 1991)
The lead single from Blood Sugar Sex Magik was a game-changer. The archetypical early-’90s Chilis song, it sees Flea’s bass roaming untethered, John’s guitar probing with angular sharp edges, Chad’s drums keeping an easy pace and Anthony pouring on the sleaze with rapped lyrics that tell listeners, ‘What I got, you gotta get and put it in you.’ The song would even help spawn one of the all-time great Simpsons gags during legendary episode Krusty Gets Kancelled, when the beleaguered clown asks the band to change the aforementioned lyric to, “What I’d like is I’d like to hug and kiss you.” Everyone can enjoy that!
3. Scar Tissue (Californication, 1999)
The first single with John Frusciante back after substance issues had kept him out of the band for much of the 1990s was a poignant showcase of what makes his contributions so utterly essential. Those somewhat surrealist lyrics (‘Blood loss in a bathroom stall / A southern girl with a scarlet drawl / I wave goodbye to Ma and Pa / ’Cause with the birds I’ll share / With the birds I’ll share this lonely viewin’’) deal with themes of damage and healing, but it was the soulful sound of John’s returning six-string that confirmed the band could survive years of aimlessness to go into the new millennium back on top of the world. Stephane Sednaoui’s evocative, road trippin’ music video even dared put the (driving license-deficient) guitarist behind the wheel of a car.
2. Under The Bridge (Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 1991)
It’s no coincidence that the song that gifted the Chilis superstardom was the same track where Anthony Kiedis dropped the swaggering bravado and bared his soul. Dealing with heroin addiction from the user’s perspective, Under The Bridge’s lyrics were originally composed as a piece of poetry, but super-producer Rick Rubin stressed the need for the band to turn them into a song. As the warm melody and wholesome feel of the intro develops through a more urgent midsection and on out to the stark climax, there was just as much for casual listeners to latch onto as those invested in the struggle behind the song. So timeless are both elements that Under The Bridge remains an immovable radio-rock fixture three decades down the line.
1. Californication (Californication, 1999)
Given the contrasting eras and different facets of their sound, it’s harder to pick a favourite Red Hot Chili Peppers track than for most other bands. Give It Away remains untouchable for its taboo-busting provocation and in-your-face bravado. Under The Bridge is a snapshot into its key players’ souls. Otherside has the heartwrought sense of unresolved history. But we’ve chosen the title-track and fourth single from sixth album Californication as a representation of the Chilis’ enduring appeal and ability to commandeer the zeitgeist by injecting strange, whimsical sounds directly into the mainstream. Loading on pop culture references that touched on everything from Star Wars to Nirvana (‘Cobain can you hear the spheres singing songs off station to station and Alderaan’s not far away, it’s Californication’), it’s not only a rejection of the plastic, celebrity-obsessed culture of modern America, but an irresistible alternative amusement, deploying its mass-marketable melodies while daring listeners to think for themselves.
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