After such a long career studded with so many hits, the Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t make it easy on anyone trying to narrow down their catalog to 10 essential tracks. With that in mind, this list will probably start a few disagreements, but these songs are the group’s most enduring. Got a bone to pick with my list? Then feel free to sound off in my forum.
As one of L.A.’s most iconic bands of the last 25 years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have steadfastly chronicled their hometown. For the title track of their 1999 album, the band produced a somber, epic song about the city’s dark side, as frontman Anthony Kiedis sings of drug addiction and pornography. “Californication” does a superb job of capturing both the city’s glamour and its repellent excesses.
The band transitioned into elder-statesmen status in the 21st century, and “Snow ((Hey Oh))” was a good example of the group’s newfound interest in laidback, slightly funky pop tunes. RHCP’s rhythm section powers the song along, and guitarist John Frusciante gives the track a feel-good vibe that helped it catch on with mainstream audiences.
Frusciante left the band during the making of 1995’s One Hot Minute, replaced by Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. The band’s new member acquitted himself well on this song about life’s intersections of pleasure and pain, a thematic staple of the Chili Peppers’ lyrics. Bassist Flea shows off his skill, but Navarro’s flashy guitar technique is equally memorable.
“Behind the Sun” first appeared on RHCP’s 1987 album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, but after the band became superstars thanks to 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the track was reintroduced to the group’s growing fan base on a greatest-hits collection. Featuring guitarist Hillel Slovak, who died a year later, “Behind the Sun” is a psychedelic, vaguely Middle-Eastern joint about talking dolphins and islands in the sky. They would make more polished songs later in the career, but here’s an early example of their playful, hippie essence.
When the Red Hot Chili Peppers write a love song, it tends not to be a straightforward tale. Take this Blood Sugar Sex Magik cut. Kiedis is lamenting a girlfriend who seems to have left him, but “Breaking the Girl” is just as much about his own inabilities to love and his complicated relationship with his father. Featuring acoustic guitar and Mellotron (provided by Brendan O’Brien), the song’s unusual musical arrangement is as disorienting and engaging as the singer’s candid, rambling thoughts.
When Kiedis wrote his 2004 memoir, he titled it Scar Tissue. Not surprisingly, this song, which was released five years earlier, is equally confessional, detailing his problems with drug abuse. But the real star of “Scar Tissue” is Frusciante, whose mournful, slow-motion guitar riffs and solos recreate the feeling of being at the end of your rope and wondering what the point is in walking up tomorrow morning.
Emphasizing the “sex” portion of Blood Sugar Sex Magik’s title, “Give It Away” is a salacious, slippery ode to gettin’ freaky. Well, that’s what it sounds like anyway – Kiedis raps random lyrics about Bob Marley and his virility, while Flea lays down a booty-shaking bassline. “Give It Away” is about capturing a feeling, and audiences understood the message: It’s time to get the party started.
The height of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “mature” era, “Otherside” combines emotional lyrics and subdued, complex musicianship for a plea for transcendence. Kiedis sings about his difficulties with cleaning up his act, and the band deliver an articulate mixture of stripped-down instrumentation that complements their frontman’s quiet anxiety.
One Hot Minute tends to be disparaged by the band’s fans, but it produced one of RHCP’s most soulful ballads. In “My Friends,” the narrator combats his loneliness by acknowledging that everyone goes through similar depression – and sometimes at the same time. “I love all of you hurt by the cold,” Kiedis sings on the chorus, making this big-hearted track on par with R.E.M.’s equally comforting “Everybody Hurts.”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ career can be divided into two halves – the period before and after “Under the Bridge.” The band’s most famous ballad established the template for many of the group’s later hits – introspective lyrics, a melancholy melody, and a rousing sing-along chorus. After “Under the Bridge,” RHCP were clearly determined to become a superstar band, but this song remains their most memorable and cathartic moment.