All 80 Guns N’ Roses Songs, Ranked
From embarrassing to transcendent — it starts ugly, but it gets much better in a hurry
You wouldn’t believe it these days, seeing Axl Rose wheezing or laid up with a broken leg and Slash with a dadbod, but there was a time when Guns N’ Roses wasn’t just a band, they were a threat. They chainsawed their way into the late 80s, a time when pearl-clutching parental outrage was alive and well, not a quaint memory.
Now, of course, “Welcome to the Jungle” is played at JV football games and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” at baby showers; repetition has watered down the lethality. But for a few weeks in the summer of 1991, for instance, every Guns N’ Roses concert was like a 2016 Trump rally, a must-see spectacle teetering on the edge of riot. As it turned out, the Last Great Rock Band could survive anything except itself.
As Guns N’ Roses rolls onward through what will certainly be an incredibly lucrative, and surely riot-free, reunion tour, it’s time to take a look back at the band’s catalogue, all 80 officially released recordings, from the embarrassing to the transcendent. It starts ugly, but it gets much better in a hurry.
[UPDATE: Here’s an iTunes playlist of the whole list created by reader PeteSoPete. Listen, love, enjoy.]
80. “One In A Million” (G N’ R Lies)
Here we go. The nuclear song. If this one were released today, Guns’ career would be over in an instant, dead in the water thanks to the casual racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia throughout and the n-word dropped — no, spat, with venom — midway through. It sparked controversy upon its release in 1988, but Axl rode it out, claiming to be “in character” or something. Thing is, the “that’s right!” he drops right afterward indicates he knows exactly what he’s doing by trying to shock you. Then he doubles down with anti-gay, anti-immigrant garbage that still resonates today; this song is a Twitter egg set to music.
Best moment: I mean, the guitar here is pretty cool, but beyond that…
79. “My World” (Use Your Illusion II)
Look, this song is awful by any measure. It’s a robo-stompy stub, an appendix that Axl apparently tacked onto the end of Illusion II without notifying at least some of his bandmates. This is look-how-angry-I-am Axl, raging theatrically at the inability of us peons to understand the drama that swirls around him every day, or something like that. On the plus side, “A socio-psychotic state of bliss” sounds like the title of a particularly pretentious Ph.D. thesis. You can make the argument that there’s one hell of a single album inside Illusion I and II, and if you were to create said album, this would be the first song you’d kick into the wilderness.
Best moment: The one right before you get subjected to this mess.
78. “Look At Your Game, Girl” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
And here’s another Guns song that’s impossible to analyze on its own merits. “Look At Your Game” is an acoustic tune that hits on all the sensitive-Axl hot spots: deceptive woman, chill Southern California acoustic vibe, big primary-color emotions (“What a mad delusion/living in that confusion/frustration and doubt/can you ever live without the game?”), and, oh yeah — it was written by Charles Manson. If you’re going to go the Norman Mailer route and say that art demands to be free regardless of who’s creating it, then hey, there’s no problem with covering a song by a mass murderer, but if you’re going to exhibit some basic human decency, this might be a tune you want to pass up. If nothing else, it’s just a fundamentally weak song; it’s not like Manson was writing “Let It Be” before he went all murdery.
Best moment: Yeah, uh … nothing here, either. Let’s move on.
77. “Back Off, Bitch” (Use Your Illusion II)
Viewing ‘80s-era Guns N’ Roses through a 2010s-era social lens is an exercise in frustration at best, disgust at worst. Any band that tried to get a song like this through in 2016 would get absolutely buried in sanctimonious Pitchfork denunciations and Medium thinkpieces. And indeed, it’s tough for anyone who either A) is a woman B) has a mother, sister, or daughter or C) has ever talked to a woman to listen to this song and several others in the GnR repertoire without a twinge or cringe. But, hey: this is an ‘80s metal band focused more on remaining actually conscious than socially conscious. So, with that caveat: yes, “Back Off Bitch”’s message is as garbage as it is obvious. The music is garden-variety Guns: propulsive, relentless, and — given this is from Illusion — overproduced to a glistening sheen. Everything done here is done so much better elsewhere.
Best moment: N/A. This is a leftover from the band’s earliest days, a juiced-up demo that really should’ve been left un-juiced.
76. “Sorry” (Chinese Democracy)
OK. The Unfortunate Four are out of the way. Everyone makes mistakes; let’s not dwell on ’em. Time to dig into actual songs. Alas, the plodding groove on “Sorry” isn’t even lively enough to be called languid. Yes, it’s got all the hallmarks of Guns-related product — somebody who’s done Axl wrong, ascending blues-rock stomp in the chorus, multiple Axl voices (the crooner, the banshee) — but it’s like vinyl played too slow, a somnolent jam that never gets out of first gear.
Best moment: The desperate shriek at 1:40 belongs in a better song.
75. “I Don’t Care About You” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
Part of the problem with covering punk tunes is that the originals are so intertwined with the persona and identity of the creators that anyone trying to play them comes off about as convincing as a kid wearing a Batman Halloween costume. The authenticity that defines so much of punk — screaming about spending the night in jail and watching old men die in the streets of Manhattan — seems like little more than play-acting here — though, granted, with a quality jackhammer backbeat. (The irony, of course, is that nobody cared more about you, and specifically what you thought of him, than Axl in the early ‘90s.)
Best moment: When you think this song’s over, closing out the covers album with a flourish. Oh, but there’s that one more song buried deep within (see No. 78) …
74. “Buick Mackane/Big Dumb Sex” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
What happens when you try to turn a sample into a whole song? The droning riff at the center of “Buick Mackane” sounds like something a stoned teenager would come up with screwing around on a bass at 4am, and even the mighty GnFnR can’t redeem this T. Rex cover. The band then thunders into Soundgarden’s “Big Dumb Sex” with all the grace of a backhoe grinding into another gear. This is warmup material, nothing more.
Best moment: The idea behind this mashup. Medleys are underrated. Would’ve loved to see this band hammer another 15 songs together into a 20-minute medley.
73. “Scraped” (Chinese Democracy)
Most of the songs on “Chinese Democracy” leaked years before the album was released, but this was one of the few that didn’t. It wasn’t exactly worth the wait. A hypnotic dirge, densely layered multi-Axl vocals, a skitter wah-wah solo that comes in out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly — this is the worst example of what can happen when you keep tinkering and tinkering and tinkering with songs. Sometimes you’ve got to kick them out of the nest.
Best moment: Envisioning Axl Rose in a barbershop quartet.
72. “Reckless Life” (G N’ R Lies)
“Hey fuckers! Suck on Guns N’ fuckin’ Roses!” With some promoter’s bellow, Guns’ first live album, and the hurry-up, follow-up to Appetite For Destruction, hits your cassette deck hard and running. The song isn’t anything special, typical I’m-a-wild-child-running-wild hair-metal jet fuel. “I lead a reckless life / And I don’t need your advice,” Axl banshee-wails, a line that brings nods of agreement rather than fear all these years later. Still, you can hear the seeds of what was to come — falling-down-the-stairs solo, stutter-step-into-hell return to the chorus, Axl shattering windows with his shriek. Forgettable on its own, fascinating for what it foreshadowed.
Best moment: Stephen Adler and Duff McKagan racing each other to hold onto the beat. It’s like watching a kid who doesn’t quite know how to ride a bike taking on his first big downhill.
71. “If The World” (Chinese Democracy)
You only need listen to the first 30 seconds of this song to see how far GnR — well, Axl — veered from the early days of G ’N R Lies to Chinese Democracy. You’ve got a samba-esque beat, a Middle Eastern-influenced sitar line, a synth orchestra, and your standard Western rock band bass line all layered atop one another. Throw in industrial guitar lines, Billy Joel-esque piano arpeggios, squealing Axl and transistor-radio Axl, and you’ve got an awful lot of flash and dazzle piled atop yet another ambling, mid-tempo Chinese Democracy song that doesn’t really have the heft to warrant so much attention.
Best moment: Uh … Axl’s car-alarm shriek? There’s really nothing here to hold onto at all.
70. “Raw Power” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
Guns playing two-chord punk tunes is like LeBron and Steph Curry showing up at a church-league basketball game — they’re working at a level so far above this that it’s almost like slumming. This old Stooges song is three minutes long, and I’d bet it took them less time than that to record the entire thing. It’s not that this is an objectively bad performance; it’s just the equivalent of a layup line.
Best moment: Seven seconds in, when the guitar, bass, drums and piano all come down on the beat. That’ll knock you on your ass.
69. “Nice Boys” (G N’ R Lies)
The first half of the Lies album is an allegedly “live” four-song set of covers and whatnot, including this frenetic tune that’s less “lethal punk jolt” and more “puppy chasing its tail” (“Nice boys don’t play rock and roll / I’m not a nice boy”). Pretty much everybody sounds like they’re amped to the gills here, each off on their own jag, and what’s amazing is that this song doesn’t collapse into noise halfway through.
Best moment: Slash’s slide solo beginning at 1:30, the audio version of a multi-car pileup on an icy highway.
68. “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
Duff McKagan, the rock star we all want to be when we grow up, deserves love as the world’s most successful punk fan, and here, he indulges his love of the genre in a way that I absolutely would if I were in the world’s greatest rock band. The source material he’s working with is pretty precious and fragile at this point, but Duff’s earned the right to get a little sentimental here.
Best moment: Duff, who has no sleeves, wears his heart on his bass, dedicating this one to the late punk avatar Johnny Thunders.
67. “Get in the Ring” (Use Your Illusion II)
This is prime Illusion: overproduced, with piped-in cheers and double-tracked Axl over a sprinting Slash groove. It’s somehow both punk attitude and assured rock, like a linebacker that can outrun you. So why’s it so low on the list? Because of the pissy little “punks in the press” rant and insecure desperation that completely sabotages the entire song. It’s a very good thing Axl didn’t come of age in the Internet era, or he’d put out an entire album of rants at commenters. (“Come at me, fataxl4395!”) Dude, you were winning at everything. Don’t go punching down! Dumb then, absurd now. (Also, the only way that band weighed in at 850 pounds is if they all were holding their equipment and amps.)
Best moment: When the band just keeps playing as Axl settles score after score, like the final scene of The Godfather played at quadruple speed.
66. “This I Love” (Chinese Democracy)
Chinese Democracy is the Batman vs. Superman of albums: overwrought, unnecessarily drab, full of forced gravitas, but with the seeds of a decent core buried deep within. This is such a strange little tune, a spiritual successor to “November Rain” in that it’s a pleading piano hymn but also in that it’s overproduced to the point of suffocation. If you lit the mid-70s Elton John’s piano bench on fire and shot blow-darts at him as he played, you’d end up with something like this. Which is not a complaint, exactly.
Best moment: The Indiana-gothic atmosphere that suffuses this entire song, like if you made Hoosiers with vampires.
65. “You Ain’t The First” (Use Your Illusion I)
Those dang women, they never listen! Here’s another GnR tune about a faithless and unreliable ex-lover (“I’ve tried so hard to get through to you / but your head’s so far from the realness of truth”), this time with the twist that it’s all on acoustic guitar, making it a cheerily bitter campfire song! Everybody sing along!
Best moment: “Goodbye to you, so long, farewell, I can’t hear you crying, your jivin’s been hell” is a pretty solid little ditty to hum after a breakup.
64. “Move To The City” (G N’ R Lies)
We’re starting to shed the more embarrassing elements of the GnR discography now. Just as every writer has to write stories about writers, every rock band has to write songs about rockin’. It’s a rite of passage, a way to get one’s stability while not drifting too far out of the realm of one’s experience. This particular tune starts off with an underrated element of GnR’s arsenal — the rock-boogie swing — and you could almost, almost mistake Rose for a Janis Joplin knockoff here.
Best moment: The perfectly timed cowbell that kicks off Slash’s solo at 2:34.
63. “I.R.S.” (Chinese Democracy)
The most disappointing thing about this relatively insignificant song is that “I.R.S.” literally stands for, yes, “Internal Revenue Service.” As with so much else on CD, it’s three or four different songs pasted together, the soft-hard, quiet-loud dynamic repeated yet again over some WTF lyrics (“Gonna call the president, gonna call a private eye/Gonna call the I.R.S, gonna call the FBI”). But I’ll be honest: if some woman broke Axl’s heart, I am certain he would indeed try to call the president about it.
Best moment: The knockoff-Slash solos, done by … well, I’m not really sure. Was this the last album that had distinct, everybody-clear-outta-my-spotlight guitar solos? It’d be appropriate if Guns threw the last dirt on the casket of that particular musical motif.
62. “Dead Horse” (Use Your Illusion I)
This one’s a paint-by-numbers lyrical adventure from Axl, all woman-done-him-wrong-and-twisted-up-his-syntax (“Sick of this life, not that you care / I’m not the only one with whom these feelings I share”). The rest of the song is classic Guns kick … you hear this, and you want to run around the room lip-syncing like you’re running around a 100-foot stage, Axl-style. (Another underrated element of Axl’s stage routine: the way he would run, then stop, stand straight up, and deliver a kicker of a line; it was the Klay Thompson pull-up three-pointer of its day.)
Best moment: I have no idea what they snapped at the 56-second mark to give that crunch that starts the electric portion of this song, but it’s suitably cringeworthy.
61. “Human Being” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
“Nimble” isn’t a word you’d ever associate with Guns N’ Roses, but when the band was in the right frame of mind, it could be Godzilla running a crossover dribble. This cover of the New York Dolls swings, at least as much as Guns could swing. This was a band in full control of its awe-inspiring power, and it’s a damn shame that this was the last material from most of the original band. Ridiculous end tag: someone (probably Axl) playing the chorus melody on a kazoo.
Best moment: Dizzy Reed banging the piano keys right through to the floor.
60. “Black Leather” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
If there’s a problem that’s common to all Guns covers, it’s this: the band all too often just jacks up the original with extra bass and a heaping helping of Axl. Same tempo, same key, same arrangement and instrumentation, same everything. It’s interesting but not necessarily revelatory (as opposed to, say, Hendrix on “All Along the Watchtower” or Johnny Cash on “Hurt”). That’s the case with “Black Leather,” an old tune by The Professionals, who were the Sex Pistols’ version of Velvet Revolver.
Best moment: Axl’s nasal, back-of-the-throat bass voice was made to sing the words “Black leath-aaaa.”
59. “Think About You” (Appetite for Destruction)
More cowbell! This is one of the songs that’s the bridge between the 90-mph-driving-blind G N’ R Lies and the more nuanced, wicked Appetite. The verse is straightforward jackhammer rock, but it’s in the chorus, with its delicate (!) guitar-work sketching out chords, that you start to see the signs of the band to come.
Best moment: This song could have been a tender acoustic ballad. Thank heaven it wasn’t.
58. “Shotgun Blues” (Use Your Illusion II)
I have absolutely no reason to think this, but “Shotgun Blues” seems like a soundcheck song — a single blues-rock riff played over and over, while Axl freestyles torrents of rage over the top of it all. This is one of those songs that you could play for anyone born between 1965 and 1990 and they’d know within three bars, yep, that’s Guns N’ Roses. Paint-by-numbers, but damn good painting.
Best moment: The couplet “You, you can suck my ass/I think you’re so low-class” is damn near Shakespearean.
57. “Bad Apples” (Use Your Illusion I)
This was Guns N’ Roses at Maximum Swagger, stomping and swinging at the same time, with a bit of roadhouse piano thrown in just to give this whole endeavor a Stones-on-HGH feel. The draw-and-release of the chorus shows what’s missing from Chinese Democracy: the simple pleasure of an unadorned, kickass riff.
Best moment: The “Why let one! Bad! Apple! Spoil the whole! Damn! Bunch!” banger that closes off the chorus and practically begs for you to smash something in rhythm.
56. “It’s All Right” (Live Era ‘87–’93)
A gentle piano ditty, a cover of an old Black Sabbath tune that usually served as an intro to “November Rain” during shows, this is — again — an example of how good and affecting this band could be when they cut out all the ancillary, overproduced crap. It’s just Axl and a piano, and it’s more heartfelt than almost anything else in their entire catalog. Sometimes, less is far, far more.
Best moment: When you realize that Axl might have a bit of skill on the piano after all.
55. “Down on the Farm” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
You listen to the all-covers Spaghetti Incident, and you can hear this band shredding itself to pieces. Musically, they’re the tightest crew on the planet, the Zeppelin of their era. But they’ve already become slick, packaged … there’s nothing remotely “punk” about them anymore. They’re not a knife in the ribs, they’re an 18-wheeler through the front door. Moreover, Axl is pursuing ever-more-self-indulgent whims, like the goofy Cockney accent he tries here, or the two-line play that closes this off, where Axl plays both the roles of sheep and sheep-…uh, let’s say “sheep enthusiast.” (“Baaa!” “Hold still.”)
Best moment: “Boredom eats me like CAN-SAH!”
54. “Anything Goes” (Appetite for Destruction)
And here we start getting into the meat of the Appetite lineup. This song, even with its hoedown-on-Sunset intro, just absolutely kicks ass. Imagine this song showing up in the middle of the Reagan-Bush ’80s, with its rusty-axe chop and zero-metaphor imagery (“tied up, tied down, up against the wall / be my Rubbermaid, baby, and we can do it all”). The band was so tight through three tempo changes that this ends like a slamming door. This is the kind of song that was giving parents and other bands nightmares, but for very different reasons.
Best moment: Slash breaking out the old Peter Frampton vocoder for the wooah wooah guitar sound.
53. “So Fine” (Use Your Illusion II)
When you’ve got a double album, you’re going to have a decent swath of filler, and that’s “So Fine.” A nice little heartfelt duet between Rose and McKagan, it’s right there on the edge of Chinese Democracy-style overproduction, but way too close to “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” to be essential to the overall Guns catalog.
Best moment: The lyrical curiosities. “The sweat I make for you/I think you know where that comes from.” The hell does that even mean?
52. “Attitude” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
This is one of the few Spaghetti Incident songs to persist through the current reunion incarnation, and with good reason: this tune’s a goer. Sure, we’re back in the misogynistic territory here (the “attitude” of the title refers to the emotional state of a particularly uncooperative girlfriend), but if you can just repeat to yourself “they’re playing characters” over and over, you’ll ride the jackhammer beat just fine.
Best moment: All of ’em. The song’s not even 90 seconds long.
51. “Riad n’ the Bedouins” (Chinese Democracy)
If you took out all the slow-burn intros on CD, you’d lop about a third of the album’s running time. Yep, there’s another one here. What does this song mean? What’s the point here? No idea, but it rocks in an antiseptic, post-Slash way. When the Rolling Stones split up and did solo albums, you could clearly tell who had brought what to the table overall, and that’s obvious here as well: Axl brings attitude, Slash brings swing and groove, Duff brings heft and weight. It’s why CD, as well as all of Slash’s solo albums, have been largely B-list efforts; you need all the interplay between the two leads, along with Duff’s bass foundation, to make the entire whole worth really listening to multiple times.
Best moment: Axl’s Kashmir-meets-Sunset-Strip chanting that comes in after 45 seconds of intro nonsense.
50. “The Garden” (Use Your Illusion I)
This one begins with a classic Slash-Duff slither, then come the arena-rock echoing drums, and finally an edgy-ethereal slide guitar leading into an Alice Cooper guest spot. It’s thematic kin to “Welcome to the Jungle,” Axl and Alice acting as creepy-ass tour guides. A smooth groove, but this cannot possibly be anyone’s favorite Guns song.
Best moment: Alice Cooper, checking in from the golf course for a faux-spooky verse or two.
49. “Shackler’s Revenge” (Chinese Democracy)
You know, it’s possible that when you spend 15 years in a studio working on one album, you might just be gilding the lily a wee bit too much. The pre-chorus (“Don’t ever try to tell me how much you care for me …”) is pretty sweet, but the verses are a sonic mess that’s got more in common with a pasted-up school collage than Appetite for Destruction. Further proof that there’s a great album lurking beneath the cream-cheese icing of Chinese Democracy.
Best moment: This song came out as part of a Guitar Hero download, and if you played it perfectly, you got invited to play on tour with GnR. (Joking…or am I?)
48. “Double-Talkin’ Jive” (Use Your Illusion I)
Another case where the production works against the song’s intent: this is one of Guns’ meanest riffs, blades of sound undercut by the dated drum sound and, of course, Axl throwing in his devil-on-your-shoulder asides (“No more patience, man. You dig what I’m saying?”)
Best moment: The flamenco outro is pretty sweet.
47. “Mama Kin” (G N’ R Lies)
It’s not hard to sound slicker than early Aerosmith, a band for whom falling out of bed was the height of grace. But GnR manages to keep the swing in place (what up, Steven Adler) while still cranking through the classic blues grind. Guns appeared headed on the same path as Aerosmith until Illusion blew away any ambitions Steven Tyler and Joe Perry might have had. But on the flip side, we didn’t get Guns’ version of “Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.” Yet.
Best moment: I always thought this was a song about writing your mom letters to know you’re alive, but Axl’s line of “sleepin’ late and suckin’ me” suggests maybe he has a different interpretation.
46. “Oh My God” (End of Days soundtrack)
Here’s a bit of strangeness tucked into a forgettable Schwarzenegger-movie soundtrack, what was at the time the first new Guns song in a decade. It was positioned right between the excess of Illusion and the industrial-skronk of Chinese Democracy, with enough classic flourishes to keep us hoping. A decent tune, even if it sounds like it was bolted together from the spare parts of five other songs.
Best moment: When Axl starts barking something at the 25-second mark. It’s not particularly great, but it was the first time we’d heard him sing something new in more than half a decade, so we were all over it.
45. “Prostitute” (Chinese Democracy)
Leave it to Axl to saddle one of his sweetest-sounding intros with a dismissive title like “Prostitute.” Like most of CD, it’s a mess of different genres, verse and chorus probably recorded eight years apart, but somehow it still manages to hold together, mostly through sheer force of Axl’s will. It probably doesn’t need to be more than six minutes long, but then you could say that of pretty much every song on this album.
Best moment: A chirpy little song that leaps into anthemic epic at the three-minute mark, like a Spongebob episode that suddenly seeks to explain the bleak meaninglessness of life.
44. “Hair of the Dog” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
The ’70s were one hell of an era for big ol’ burly sweaty dudes playing rock music in t-shirts and jeans, and you don’t get any burlier or sweatier than this song. It’s like the entire tune, from riff to now-ya-messin-with-a-sonofabitch chorus, was written just for Gn’R to come along and supersize two decades later. Not a transformative cover, but a damn good one.
Best moment: When Axl nails the “now you’re messin’ with a SON OF A BEEEEIITCH” with authority.
43. “Sympathy for the Devil” (Interview with the Vampire soundtrack)
Despite their shared musical heritage, Guns hadn’t really done a whole lot of Stones crossovers. There’s a yowling “Jumping Jack Flash” cover out there on the Internet from the band’s early days. Axl ranted from the stage when Guns opened for the Stones back in the late 1980s in what must have seemed like a charming temper tantrum to Jagger and Richards. And Axl and Izzy joined the Stones onstage to cover “Salt of the Earth” once. This version of “Sympathy” is, like much late GnR, too slick and clean to scare anyone; it’s as if rock’s last great band was too intimidated by one of rock’s greatest songs.
Best moment: Axl’s yowling in the background gives this a more cartoonish feel than the original, but it still works well enough.
42. “Catcher In The Rye” (Chinese Democracy)
It is just as easy to think that Axl sees himself as a modern-day Holden Caulfield calling bullshit on the phonies of the world as it is to imagine he’s never even cracked the book that’s the favorite of too-sarcastic-for-their-own-good high schoolers everywhere. (‘Sup.)
Best moment: The song suffers from the usual CD problems — ten pounds of half-formed musical ideas stuffed in a five-pound sack — but the “nah nah nahhh” pre-chorus holds down a solid anthem in the GnR canon.
41. “Chinese Democracy” (Chinese Democracy)
This one hits all the over-slathered CD marks: absurdly long intro (46 seconds of ambient noise and conversation? Come on), sub-Slash-style guitar, piles of Axl vocals. And yet, it alllllmost works, because Axl gets in and out of this one in about four minutes (including that long intro and a 30-second-long coda). Less is more here.
Best moment: That Axl rode this whole Chinese Democracy idea for 15 years. That’s dedication to the cause, man.
40. “New Rose” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
Duff used Guns as a means to infuse his beloved ’70s punk with steroidal muscle, and this, a cover of The Damned, is a perfect version of that. Duff and Axl combine on vocals, while Slash slathers the whole song in gasoline and sets it on fire. The too-slick production sounds dated now, but what’s undeniable is that GnR could take any song and make it their own.
Best moment: “Is she really goin’ out with him?” Yeah, man, she is. Sorry, bro.
39. “Out Ta Get Me” (Appetite For Destruction)
It’s saying something that the 11th or 12th best song on Appetite is mean enough to outdo anything on Chinese Democracy. This was songwriting as pure id, rage and venom and paranoia and propulsion. Probably recorded in about as long as it took to play through once, it’s the last vestiges of the ragged old Lies-era GnR.
Best moment: Axl shouting “Let me see ya try!” at 2:45. Who’s he shouting at? What are they gonna try? Why’s he so dang angry? It doesn’t matter.
38. “Coma” (Use Your Illusion I)
At more than 10 minutes, it’s easily Guns’ longest song, a confessional that cuts loose of the typical rock structure to float somewhere above our heads, like a dying man watch his own passing. It’s moody, it’s a little affected with the ambulance workers’ voices trying to save our narrator, and it somehow pulls together for a raging, shrieking climax. Not exactly one to sing along to, but you can put this one on the headphones and assure yourself that you’re not alone in your madness.
Best moment: When the paramedics roll in at 2:55 as the riff thunders on. Sure, it’s cheese, but it’s the best kind of cheese.
37. “Garden of Eden” (Use Your Illusion I)
I mean, how can you NOT love a band that’s so damn self-indulgent it places songs entitled “The Garden” and “Garden of Eden” on the same freaking album within a few slots of each other. This one’s a frenetic whipsaw of a song, another of the many on the Illusions that’s probably better left as a soundcheck, but hey, whatever. Experimentation isn’t always a bad thing.
Best moment: The insanely frantic single-camera video above.
36. “Perfect Crime” (Use Your Illusion I)
This is the logical successor to songs like “My Michelle” on Appetite, a jackhammer of a song that, thanks to Illusion drummer Matt Sorum, stomps rather than swings. Another one that’s nobody’s favorite, but always effective in that Eternal High School Parking Lot that we all cruise through, windows down. Also: in and out in 2:30. That, as we’ve seen, is not always easy for Guns to do.
Best moment: Axl shrieking something about a blind man following him in chains at the 45-second mark. One of the best parts of GnR’s most frantic songs is listening to everyone try to keep up with whoever’s setting the pace.
35. “You’re Crazy” (Acoustic) (G’n’R Lies)
In the ’80s, hair-metal bands followed a common formula: release the ass-kicker song, the one on Side 1 of the cassette, first, followed by the sensitive acoustic ballad. Guns turned that bit of branding on its ear by releasing a quickie album of acoustic numbers, including this rework of an Appetite burner. This version of “You’re Crazy” is more sinister and threatening than anything Glass Tiger or White Lion or Dokken or Enuff Z’nuff or Kix or anyone else could ever imagine.
Best moment: Axl’s scat routine at the two-minute mark, where he basically yelps out a guitar solo.
34. “Madagascar” (Chinese Democracy)
Look, the “Good King Wenceslas” horns that begin this song are more than a little silly, and the snippets of MLK (and, once again, Cool Hand Luke) woven throughout are way too goofy and self-indulgent, but I admit to a fondness for this one. It’s a discount-rack version of “Estranged,” and for that, I kind of love its overwhelming ambition and designs on an epic scope.
Best moment: The sweeping movement that begins at 1:10 just begs for another incomprehensible GnR video.
33. “It’s So Easy” (Appetite For Destruction)
If this song were on any other album by any other band of the 80s — Motley Crue, Poison, anybody — it would be the best, meanest song on the album. Here, it’s the third man off the bench. Double-tracked Axl works to great effect on the “see me hit you, you fall down” break.
Best moment: “You think you’re so cool … why don’t you just FUCK OFF” line inspired a billion high school students’ yearbook quotes.
32. “Dust N’ Bones” (Use Your Illusion I)
One of two cowboy-blues-rock Izzy-led tunes on the Illusions, this one is both an indelible product of the 90s and a timeless groove. You wonder what the band lost when Izzy decided to wander away; with his influence, they might well have kept blues-driven four-on-the-floor rock relevant through the 90s and early 2000s. Alas, we’ve got this and precious little else.
Best moment: The sinister pre-chorus that begins “Sometimes these things, they are so easy…”, like someone creeping up behind you. Maybe even right now.
31. “You’re Crazy” (Appetite for Destruction)
I do love a song that sounds like a juiced Mustang barreling brakeless down a mountain road, and this is that, a three-minute sprint that relents only to reload. If the band tried this one today at album speed, they’d need a pit stop midway through.
Best moment: The main riff is badass enough. But when Slash comes in over the top to harmonize at the 10-second mark, this thing turns lethal.
30. “Bad Obsession” (Use Your Illusion I)
The best Guns songs are the ones where Slash’s guitar sounds like a chainsaw cutting through a lamp post, and this fits right in that mold. Throw in the bluesy harmonica and cowbell, and this riff is wicked enough to steal your car. Fun fact: this came out at the same time as Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart,” and is a much better musical backing that fits to the exact same lyrics.
Best moment: The slide guitar welling up from somewhere down below to anchor the harmonica-and-cowbell intro.
Guns’ best early tunes were the ones you didn’t listen to, you hung onto. This is perhaps the best example of that, a rolling coke-and-whiskey-filled stomp that’ll give you a hell of a ride until you fall off … and you will fall off.
Best moment: Even the damn cowbell sounds ominous.
28. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (Use Your Illusion II)
This #hottake won’t win many points with the Rolling Stone types, but I’d posit that in 2016, the two best-known Bob Dylan tunes are still Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” and this version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Everybody, and I mean everybody, starts swaying like Axl as soon as you strum out that G-D-C chord progression. HAY HAY HAY.
Best moment: The snake move that you’re doing right now.
27. “There Was A Time” (Chinese Democracy)
Yet another reason why Chinese Democracy was so maddening: there’s a really good song buried under the goop. It’s classic late-period Axl, drenched in nostalgia and shot through with still-simmering rage and peculiar metaphor (“lonely teardrops”…?) But the chorus, which finally shows up more than three minutes into this six-minute beast, is one of those soaring orchestral jobs that almost verges on greatness.
Best moment: Axl keening like the Axl of old, screaming “I would do anything for youuuuu” starting around the 3:57 mark.
26. “Live & Let Die” (Use Your Illusion I)
It has now been more time between right now and Use Your Illusion than between Use Your Illusion and the original Wings version of “Live and Let Die.” Damn. Anyway, the foundation of this song was so damn strong, and so damn ’70s, that GnR wisely didn’t mess with it and instead just amped everything up across the board. On the plus side, that led to an already kickass riff getting even kick-assier; on the minus side, it helped GnR veer straight into Vegas territory when they brought out the line-dancing horn section during their late Illusion-era concerts. (When Axl takes the dive into the audience at 2:36 above? That was at the Hampton Coliseum in 1991, I was about three rows away, and Axl had a “I’ve made a terrible mistake” look on his face when security hauled him out of the mire.)
Best moment: Axl shrieking “AAAAAAAAHHHHHH” over the unforgettable main riff right after the song’s midpoint. This was the moment in every concert when you wondered if the dude was going to be able to speak when he was 40.
25. “Yesterdays” (Use Your Illusion II)
This is one of the many “young man getting older and realizing that the world still kind of, you know, sucks” songs that Axl can spin out like the rest of us write grocery lists. (He sings “Yesterday’s got nothin’ for me” when he’s in truth obsessed with the past! Irony!) The song’s a little all over the map here, delicate fingerpicking slamming into a growling chorus, but still: a decent little tune.
Best moment: Axl sears the mic with a “YESTERDAY-UH-HEY-UH-HEY-UH-HEEEEEY-YEAH” at the 2:27 mark. No human being other than Axl has ever come close to making that kind of sound.
24. “Since I Don’t Have You” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
Sort-of-but-not-really answers the question of what GnR would have been like had they used Doc Brown’s DeLorean to go back to 1958. (Damn, THAT would be a movie.) This cover never really rises above the level of, “Cool, GnR crooning a ’50s tune,” mainly because the band handles any song with the delicacy of a gorilla trying to do needlepoint. As usual for this album, Axl makes like Guy Fieri with the spices, slathering needless tomfoolery everywhere (the wry “Yep, we’re fucked” at the start of Slash’s solo, the didgeridoo humming at the song’s end).
Best moment: The hint of menace when the band hammers into the “When you walked out on me…” bridge makes the whole song worthwhile.
23. “My Michelle” (Appetite For Destruction)
This shovel-to-the-face song includes some of Axl’s most vibrant gutter poetry (“Your daddy works in porno now that mommy’s not around / She used to love her heroin, but now she’s underground”). It’s still somehow a hopeful song, or at least has the appearance of hope … and that’s about the best you could get in late-80s Los Angeles. Side note: I once had a girlfriend named Michelle, and one of the many reasons she dumped my ass was that I used to sing this song to her instead of the Beatles’ “My Michelle.” Take heed, kids … if anybody ever names their kid Michelle again, don’t make my mistake.
Best moment: Right when the joy of the bridge ends and the relentless chorus slams shut like a damn prison door at 2:20.
22. “Pretty Tied Up” (Use Your Illusion II)
Once again, we trot out the Don’t Judge A 1991 Song By 2016 Lyrical Standards mantra; the subject of “Pretty Tied Up” is, indeed, tied up; upside-down, matter of fact, and Axl sings of what could ensue. The song is subtitled “The Perils of Rock n’ Roll Decadence,” which comes perilously close to “careful what you wish for,” but this song is like that fifth whiskey of the night … you know it’s no good for you, no good at all, but damn, does it go down easy.
Best moment: When Axl inexplicably calls for “cool ranch dressing” at 3:17.
21. “Better” (Chinese Democracy)
This was one of the first songs to leak out of the CD sessions, and while much of it is a squawking, squeaking grind, there’s one section — the break, at about three minutes into the video above — that redeems the entire song, if not all of the entire album. Axl shrieks through all the sludge and muck of this ridiculously overwrought album and brings back memories of the demons that used to drive him. It’s a hint of what the album could have been — industrial rock rage — and then it’s gone.
Best moment: “I NEVER WANTED YOU TO BE SOAP AND A HANDLE!” Or something like that. I can’t quite tell. But it’s pretty cool.
20. “Used To Love Her” (G N’ R Lies)
The crowning achievement of the “remember this was written in 1988; that doesn’t make it right, but still” manifesto that encompasses so much of Guns’ oeuvre. The whole cheerful “kill my girlfriend” vibe sounds way, way off in 2016, but man, was it ripe for sing-alongs back in the ’80s. Poor Axl would get buried in the backyard himself if he released this today. We’ll go with the “take it for what it is” line, though.
Best moment: The jaunty kick at the start of the song, right when the bass rumbles to life but before you realize we’re talking about murder.
19. “Don’t Cry” (Original) (Use Your Illusion I)
You don’t hear this song much anymore, which is a bit of a shame, because it’s the apotheosis of the late-‘80s/pre-grunge metal song: grinding, hammering guitar married to almost naïve emotion, with a ridiculously over-the-top high-concept/badass-performance video. (If you think you know what was going on in that video, you’re lying.)
Best moment: The Triple Axl in the video. No idea what the hell it means, but it’s cool.
18. “Don’t Cry” (Alternate) (Use Your Illusion II)
The exact same damn song with different lyrics, which I like slightly better, so it gets the nod. Also: Where’s Izzy?
Best moment: “So many seem so alone/ There ain’t no one left to cry to,” a lyric where Axl’s voice burns through the production and grabs you by the throat.
17. “Don’t Damn Me” (Use Your Illusion I)
This tune hasn’t quite weathered the years as well as many other GnR ones, but damn, did I love this one back in the day. It’s a scream of pure id — don’t damn me for speaking my mind, maaaaan— underlain with the kind of zero-to-60 stripping-gears guitar that characterized the best Guns songs. But the three different Axls popping up here, plus the glossy production, plus the frothing Lewis Black-esque sputtering don’t age so well. But man, it still kicks like a caffeinated mule.
Best moment: Coming out of the bridge at 2:48, Slash puts an end to the Rush-like lyrics (“We judge a book by its cover and read what we want/Between selected lines”) by just scissoring out the wicked main riff once more, with authority.
16. “14 Years” (Use Your Illusion II)
This, along with “Double-Talking Jive,” is a hint of where Guns could’ve gone, the greatest blues-bar band since the Stones. It’s all Izzy, slathered through with that early-‘90s echoey drumming and such. Axl wanders in on the chorus, throwing in a couple extra vowels to remind everyone that he’s surrendering the spotlight for just a moment but could grab it back at any moment. By the way, it’s been TWENTY-FIVE years since the Illusions were released. You are old.
Best moment: The piano-and-guitar duet at 1:14. At its best, this band could do damn near anything it wanted.
15. “Ain’t It Fun” (The Spaghetti Incident?)
You hear the sinister snaking lead line here, and you hear Velvet Revolver’s “Slither,” the greatest Guns N’ Roses song that Gn’R never recorded (above), and you get a look at where this band was headed before detonation. As always, it’s lyrically a confessional that veers into cartoonish, but man, is this a mean-sounding band here.
Best moment: If ever a riff could wrap itself around you python-style, Slash’s does here, starting at the 20-second mark.
14. “Breakdown” (Use Your Illusion II)
Here’s where you start to think that maybe, just maybe, there was something to the insane trainwreck of styles that was Chinese Democracy, between the fiddle and the plaintive piano that begin this and the epic guitar soaring that carries it. The difference between this song off Illusion II and CD, of course, is that this has the rest of the band to anchor it, while CD was nothing but Axl’s untrammeled ego. I have no idea what the hell is going on in this song — regret over a failed relationship? A longing for the open road? Something about tigers and doves and whatnot?
Best moment: “Funny how everything was roses when we held on to the guns” might just be Axl’s best lyric ever.
13. “Street of Dreams” (Chinese Democracy)
This right here is the one song that pulls together everything that Axl surely wanted Chinese Democracy to be: rage and longing and fury and raw emotion, Elton John fronting Radiohead and covering Aerosmith songs. And unlike most of the other sonic shish-kebabs on this album, “Street of Dreams” hangs together sonically from start to finish, building theme atop theme into something that, yes, ranks among the best second-tier Guns songs. It’s incredible to imagine that the same band put out this and, oh, “Mr. Brownstone” — yes, technically, it was an almost completely different band, but roll with me here — and the reason why a song like this almost hurts is because it’s a hint of the promise that this band had.
Best moment: The break at 1:47, where Axl has to come to terms with the fact that “what I thought was beautiful don’t live inside of you no more.” This is the song he’s been trying to write for decades.
12. “Patience” (G N’ R Lies)
Viewed from a distance of a quarter-century, this seems impossibly naïve now, a fingerpicked major-chord ballad where the tough guys get sensitive. It was a huge hit in the late ’80s because it was a GnR song your mom could listen to during carpool, and for that reason alone it was brilliant.
Best moment: The jagged closing chord sequence at 4:12, where Izzy seems to be railing against the chains of this goofy-ass tender-rock-n-roller convention and Slash slithers in with some wicked slide guitar to remind you that flowers aren’t the only part of this band’s name.
11. “Civil War” (Use Your Illusion II)
Fun fact: this song was first released on a 1989 charity benefit CD for … something. I remember hearing this and thinking it was a quantum leap past anything on Appetite for Destruction. Lyrically, it’s middle-school-level political commentary (“What’s so civil ‘bout war, anyway?”), but this ambition showed that the band was aiming for more than just the Camaro-tape-deck crowd. Plus, this is a ridiculously hard song to bang your head to.
Best moment: The post-chorus guitar break at 2:00, where Slash tears off the nastiest riff this side of “Simple Man.”
10. “November Rain”
Where do we even begin with this song, the apotheosis and pinnacle of everything that was right and wrong with ’80s rock in general and Guns N’ Roses in particular? If you’ve ever heard the original piano-only bootleg, you know that this song was originally a tender little lament for a lost love, but once it got ground through the Guns machine, it became an apocalyptic view of a ruined future, a world where orchestras and thunderclaps presage death, destruction, and dudes jumping through wedding cakes. It’s the most overwrought rock song since “Stairway to Heaven,” and you’ve gotta give Guns credit for shooting so high.
Best moment: The outro that starts at 6:48, the keening guitar over Axl’s screams that sounds like the demons you’ve always tried to outrun coming to drag you back down to hell.
9. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (Appetite for Destruction)
You’ll be hearing this song forever, and you know what? That’s fine. It’s built on a rock-solid foundation (can’t go wrong with the chords from “Hey Jude”, after all) and a nice, simplistic lyrical theme. Plus, the wickedness embodied in the song’s break is beyond anything that any of the now-forgotten hair bands that were Guns’ contemporaries could possibly envision. It’s as if the singer knows this is all an illusion, that we’re all drifting through life with no direction even if we look like we’re happy.
Best moment: The opening notes. Slash thought they were dopey as hell, and indeed they are, but no song since “Stairway to Heaven,” and no song since, has inspired quite so many guitar-store virtuosi.
8. “Right Next Door To Hell” (Use Your Illusion I)
I saw Guns in June 1991 at the Hampton Coliseum, months before Illusion would even reach stores. They opened with this song, which nobody knew, and absolutely tore the roof off that battered old arena. This song — which is apparently about Axl’s fight with a neighbor, but who cares — could get preschoolers trashing their nursery room, hammering away relentlessly. Maybe Axl’s thirteen-second-long “FUCK YOUUUUUU” at 1:57 is computer-enhanced, but probably not; the dude had enough rage to go three times that long.
Best moment: The bass line, charging straight from the depths with you in its sights.
7. “Rocket Queen” (Appetite for Destruction)
This is the equivalent of dancing on the graves of your enemies — no, strike that, this is like paving over the graves of your enemies and obliterating any trace of their existence. After 11 songs that absolutely vaporized any band that had recorded anything since Never Mind the Bollocks, Guns closed their debut with this beast of a song, a hard inversion of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that, instead of a choral interlude, apparently features Axl having sex with Stephen Adler’s girlfriend on-mic. If you were a band in the 1980s and heard this song closing the album, you’d be tempted to go back to selling couches. And you’d be wise to do so.
Best moment: Axl standing up for his rocket queen, declaring with throat-searing sincerity that “No one needs the sorrow, no one needs the pain, I hate to see you walking out there, out in the rain…” It ain’t Springsteen, but it’s close enough.
6. “You Could Be Mine” (Use Your Illusion II)
The second song, after “Civil War,” to be released early from Illusion; this one came out as part of the Terminator II soundtrack. Unlike “Civil War,” though, this one hits hard and just keeps hitting harder. This is one of those songs that still sounds damn fine coming out of car windows, even if said car is a minivan and you’re in between running the kids to their Saturday afternoon soccer games. Twenty-five years on, though, and I still have no idea what “your bitch slap rapping and your cocaine tongue” means.
Best moment: The drum beat, courtesy of Matt Sorum, that just pummels you into jelly long before the riff even starts. Sorum changed the band’s groove from sleek to propulsive, and here, it’s exactly what’s needed.
5. “Welcome to the Jungle” (Appetite for Destruction)
This is one of those songs that you can’t even listen to with anything remotely approaching objectivity; you’ve heard it too many times, in too many places, with too many associations in your life. It’s as much background noise as planes taking off. The killer lead descending riff, “Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got what you need,” the unstoppable rhythm, “sha-na-na-knees”… when we’re all dead and gone, this is one of the songs they’ll be playing to sum up the late 20th century. And you were here to hear it.
Best moment: That stuttering, indelible intro, inevitably sliding down, down, down, like a man trying to climb up the steep sides of a pit but only slipping lower.
4. “Mr. Brownstone” (Appetite for Destruction)
One of Slash’s underrated merits is his ability to use the guitar like a percussion instrument, to caress or slice or whack the crap out of the strings and bring forth a sound unlike anyone has ever heard before. That’s in force here on “Brownstone,” which starts with a sinister shuffle before segueing into a dance-with-the-devil groove. The best song of the many Guns wrote about the grips of addiction. Plus, “I get up around 7, get out of bed around 9, and I don’t worry about nothin’ because worryin’s a waste of my time” is a pretty solid life ethos.
Best moment: “Show usually starts around 7, we go onstage around 9.” Yeah, right.
3. “Locomotive” (Use Your Illusion II)
This one lurks deep in the middle of UYI2, so buried that you might almost blow right past it, ignore it in favor of the better-known songs. Don’t. This is as hard and brutal as Guns gets, the very definition of a band in total control of itself, its sound, its audience, its scope. Listen to the riff, two notes, back and forth, jittering like, well, like a locomotive on the tracks. Unlike “Welcome to the Jungle” or “Mr. Brownstone,” this riff ends where it begins, looping over and over again, forever and ever. Axl spits some of his usual hallucinatory paranoiac hostility (“Gonna have some fun with my frustration/Gonna watch the big screen in my head”), but here, like in few other places, it works.
Best moment: Forty seconds in, when the band locks into its tightest groove ever. This is rock, weaponized.
2. “Estranged” (Use Your Illusion II)
The yin and yang of Axl Rose is that he’s always pinwheeling between rage and desperation, between fury and sentimentality. Every Guns song, even the very worst ones way back at the top of this list, mixes these two, but none encompasses the maniacal vulnerability of Axl Rose quite like “Estranged.” More ambitious than “November Rain,” more coherent than anything on Chinese Democracy, “Estranged” somehow gives loneliness an epic scope (“Still talking to myself/And nobody’s home,” Axl laments before an elegiac Slash riff cuts him off.) This is all the promise of the biggest band in the world blown straight to hell.
Best moment: The instrumental break at 1:12, when Slash’s guitar cuts a searing, mournful line that connects a triumphant past to a broken future.
1. “Paradise City” (Appetite for Destruction)
You know this song by heart, but listen to it with fresh ears. The strummed chords linger and gather in the air, the drums trace out a martial beat, Axl begs and pleads for salvation, and then the brutal, crushing truth arrives: there’s no such thing as Paradise City, not now, not ever. This whole song is one last, violent scream of defiance against a world that doesn’t just ignore you … it wants to tear you apart. It’s bleak and transcendent all at once, and when the whole thing devolves into anarchy at the 4:43 mark, you thrash and rage and pump your fists, because that’s all you can do.
Best moment: The police whistle at 1:19 that cuts the whole damn thing loose. This was rock music’s last great high-water mark; this is where the great wave begun by Elvis, propelled by the Stones, powered by Led Zeppelin, championed by Van Halen, finally broke and receded. Guns N’ Roses wanted to be the biggest band in the world, and if they’d only recorded this one song, they’d still have a claim to the title.
So there you have it. Eighty songs, almost that many members, one kickass band. Guns N’ Roses won’t ever hit the heights it did in the early 1990s, but at this point, neither will anybody else. They didn’t just slam the door behind them; they burned the place to the ground as they left.
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Sixty artists who achieved the No. 1 song on the Billboard pop chart, then disappeared into obscuritymedium.com
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