The further from their peak we get, the crazier it feels that Guns N’ Roses ever happened. The Los Angeles-bred group behind the most streamlined, gut-punching street-rock singles and the most artistically confused orchestral epics (and their accompanying music videos) of their era, GN’R were too big to fail, and too failed to stay big. They covered the Skyliners and Charles Manson on the same album. They venerated the underground bands that eventually came to destroy them. They were the most overexposed group of the MTV era, until they disappeared for good. It’s a meaningless statement to say that there’s no equivalent for Guns N’ Roses in 2016 — there shouldn’t have been one in 1988 or 1991, either.
But indeed, Guns N’ Roses are back this year, in the closest incarnation to their classic lineup that fans have seen in over two decades, with frontman William Bruce “W. Axl” Rose, guitarist Saul “Slash” Hudson, and bassist Michael Andre “Duff” McKagan all in tow. When they play Coachella, they’ll be pulling from one of the most fantastic, f**ked-up, and occasionally outright unforgivable song catalogs in rock history — one we’ve decided to rank all the way from worst to best. In doing so, we largely acknowledge debut LP and accepted fan favorite Appetite for Destruction as the crown jewel in the band’s discography, but reject the notion that it cast a shadow over the rest of the band’s recorded work — which remained just as fascinating and rewarding, if often grueling, up until the release of 2008’s long-delayed Chinese Democracy.
And so, without further adieu, the 79 — yes, only 79, though with songs released in more than one version, we only counted our favorite rendition — commercially released songs in GN’R’s history, from the most disgustingly bloated to the most delectably sinful. Hop on the nightrain, and let’s get strange.
79. “Sympathy for the Devil” (Interview With the Vampire OST, 1994)
Slash described GN’R’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ classic as “the sound of the band breaking up,” and that pretty much nails it. Whereas the Stones are loose and breezy and quick-footed, Guns trudge through their cover — and because the music is so sluggish, Axl overacts to fill up the extra space, his vocal a miserable dramatic interpretation. Gone is the legendary build, and a legendary band with it: This was the last song original members Slash and Duff would play on. — REBECCA HAITCHOAT
78. “Shadow of Your Love” (“It’s So Easy,” 1987)
Guns N’ Roses don’t have a ton of non-album B-sides, and based on the thrashy throwaway “Shadow of Your Love,” we wouldn’t be missing much with them anyway. It’s an interesting look at what GN’R might sound like with Motörhead as their guiding light instead of Aerosmith, but not one that leaves enough of an impression to inspire much second-guessing. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
77. “Oh My God” (End of Days OST, 1999)
Be honest, you do not remember this song. You don’t remember that it’s not really “industrial” other than some faint Crystal Method-style blips underscoring its relative quiet parts. You don’t remember that, despite its presence on the End of Days soundtrack slotted directly between Limp Bizkit and the Prodigy, it’s far less “nu-metal” than the Korn-y intro’d “Shackler’s Revenge” nearly a decade later. You don’t remember that Axl gives the Manson-esque chorus his all, just like his pipes always do. You definitely don’t remember the disco section. It’s just an unusually tuneless GN’R cut; you do remember it’s a mess. — DAN WEISS
76. “This I Love” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
The oppressively overdramatic — yes, even by GN’R standards — climax to Chinese Democracy, and the biggest reason the album feels 40 minutes longer than it actually is. Axl always had Andrew Lloyd Weber pretensions, but his unflattering Phantom envy was never clearer than him howling, “So if she’s somewhere near me / I hope to God she hears me” from some subterranean studio. — A.U.
75. “Mama Kin” (Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, 1989)
Word about Guns N’ Roses spread in the summer of 1986, when metal mags started publishing advance reviews of an “indie” EP by the Hollywood phenoms. Anything but indie (it was cleverly put out by Geffen as a limited-edition release), it wasn’t even a live recording, the band jokingly adding crowd noise to their existing demo. The tactic worked, as Guns N’ Roses were on the lips of everyone in the metal scene as 1987 rolled around. This cover of Aerosmith’s classic “Mama Kin” is by-the-numbers, but the energy is palpable, and you can hear a faint trace of the magic that was about to happen on their debut album. — ADRIEN BEGRAND
74. “Back Off Bitch” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
A title that could’ve graced an unfortunately hefty number of GN’R Mk. 1 screamers, and even an uncharacteristically mush-mouthed Axl sounds kind of bored by his own predictability here. — A.U.
73. “Shotgun Blues” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
The sort of halfhearted filler that might’ve been necessary on UYI to balance out the tracks where the band sounds like they’re physically opening their chamber valves out onto the tracks, but this song wouldn’t even make anyone’s 90-minute best-of from the two sets. — A.U.
72. “Black Leather” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
A cover of forgotten Sex Pistols’ offshoot the Professionals that sorta sounds like the “You Could Be Mine” single played at 33 rpm. Accomplishes the band’s mission of establishing their unlikely punk cred, but little else. — A.U.
71. “Riad N’ the Bedouins” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
An incomprehensible character theme for the rock opera that Chinese Democracy most decidedly was not, making the album’s second side as confusing as the end of the “Estranged” video. Best remembered today for getting the band sued for plagiarizing nu-gaze producer Ulrich Schnauss, of all people. — A.U.
70. “Move to the City” (Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, 1986)
A rare sax appearance on a GN’R record, on this swinging original from the band’s debut EP. It’s slight for early Guns, but it’s a better early-band invocation of the Toxic Twins’ streetwise strut than their “Mama Kin” cover. — A.U.
69. “Anything Goes” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
The song that any insistence of Appetite’s All-Killer-No-Filler status conveniently overlooks: an exciting first 30 seconds wasted on a phoned-in chorus and less-than-egalitarian couplets like “Panties ’round your knees / With your ass in the breeze.” — A.U.
68. “Prostitute” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
The Chinese Democracy closer, and for at least its first minute, probably the only GN’R song that would ever make sense as One Tree Hill montage music. “If my intentions are misunderstood, please be kind,” Axl pleads, seemingly unaware that he’s already at least 20 years too late. — A.U.
67. “Buick Makane (Big Dumb Sex)” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
Axl’s momentous ego only extends to his need to channel his influences through himself. Thus a solid quarter of his published discography are covers, which have two uses: proving his stature (McCartney, Stones), or honoring his fellow dirtbags. This wah-swallowed 1993 mashup positions GN’R as the historical link between T. Rex at their greasiest and Soundgarden at their most macho-parodic. It’s so easy. — D.W.
66. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Guns N’ Roses first carted out their cover of the Bob Dylan classic in 1987, and it worked so well that they decided to toss a studio version on Use Your Illusion II. If it faded out on Slash’s solo three minutes and change in, the song would have succeeded mightily, but the latter half cranks up the sanctimony with an absurd phone message, preening by Axl, and, worst of all, a gospel choir. It could’ve been great, but inflated egos killed it. — A.B.
65. “I Don’t Care About You” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
A charming if inconsequential cover of early-’80s L.A. punk heroes Fear that has fun pretending that GN’R’s anger as a band was a lot more righteous than it actually was. The apparent final track on “The Spaghetti Incident?,” it’s only right that it was ultimately undercut with a Charles Manson cover. — A.U.
64. “Reckless Life” (Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, 1986)
The most convincing track on GN’R’s loud-fast-and-outta-control debut EP, chugging with adrenalizing abandon. Still somewhat anonymous compared to later Guns, but Slash yelling, “Hey f**kers! Suck on Guns N’ f**kin’ Roses!” as the band’s opening statement on wax is perfect enough to secure the song’s legacy. — A.U.
63. “Hair of the Dog” (“The Spahgetti Incident?,” 1994)
Though most of the band’s Spaghetti Incident cover choices were crit-respected acts from the punk and glam worlds, the band was honest enough to throw in one ’70s middle-of-the-gutter classic with Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog.” Doesn’t exactly add a ton to the original, but if anyone was ever meant to caterwaul “Now you’re messing with a SONUVABIIIITCH!!” over cowbell-saturated boogie, it was W. Axl, for sure. — A.U.
62. “Scraped” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Choral vocal echoes like something from a Kate Bush record explode into the band’s best-ever Soundgarden impersonation, Axl spewing, “All things are possible / I am unstoppable.” — A.U.
61. “Nice Boys” (Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, 1989)
Along with the debut albums by Montrose and Van Halen, Rose Tattoo’s 1978 self-titled album was a major influence on what would come to be known as sleaze-rock in the late 1980s. When you hear Guns N’ Roses tear into “Nice Boys,” it feels like it was written especially for them, Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide showing that the young pups not only had the chops, but knew exactly where their music was rooted. — A.B.
60. “Whole Lotta Rosie” (“Welcome to the Jungle,” 1987)
Guns N’ Roses’ cover is AC/DC’s fan-favorite hopped up on a little hit of speed. Even if it’s a little too feverish, it suits them. — R.H.
59. “My Michelle” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
Everybody knows the story behind “My Michelle”: Axl was in the car with an old friend of Slash’s, Michelle Young, when Elton John’s “Your Song” began playing. Young said she always wanted someone to write a song for her, and welp, be careful what you wish for. The song comes on strong, like a gritty, sinister after-school special, but the uninspired chorus weakens its message. — R.H.
58. “My World” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
The jaw-dropping, 90-second industrial rap-rock closer to more than 150 minutes of Use Your Illusion, the sound of Axl Rose’s subconscious finally bursting out of his skull, rocking a goatee and a badass pair of sunglasses. Mostly unlistenable, of course, but don’t act like the first half-minute didn’t invent “Closer,” “Army of Me,” and the Judgment Night soundtrack all at once. — A.U.
57. “Street of Dreams” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Nobody knows what it means to walk along the lonely street of dreams quite like William Bruce Rose, though this Chinese Democracy deep cut is actually more Bruce Springsteen than David Coverdale, all racing piano and burrowing regret. Largely powerful stuff, though you have to imagine Geffen execs hearing lyrics like “What this means to me / Is more than I know you believe” and rolling their eyes at the $13 million and 15 years in sunk cost. — A.U.
56. “New Rose” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
One of the great riffers in punk history makes for hugely refreshing GN’R fare, the sounds of Slash and Matt Sorum pummeling their way through a half-decade’s worth of memories of musical over-reaching, and remembering that fun was a thing that rock was once actively encouraged to be. — A.U.
55. “Double Talkin’ Jive” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
One of three songs sung by guitarist Izzy Stradlin on the outstanding Use Your Illusion I, “Double Talkin’ Jive” is by far the darkest. Blending grisly imagery (“Found a head and an arm in the garbage can”), dramatic lead fills by Slash, and Stradlin’s frighteningly confrontational singing, it’s one track on this bloated double-album extravaganza that cranks up the badassery and comes through sounding darker than ever. — A.B.
54. “Down on the Farm” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
Lending their diesel-truck power to various glam and punk obscurities on “The Spaghetti Incident?” was one of Guns N’ Roses’ most benevolent moves to begin with, but adding a Wayne’s World-worthy, almost Southern-fried intro riff to U.K. Subs’ original punk tantrum proved they really cared. It’s a shame Axl didn’t become some kind of in-demand producer or something — his “Down on the Farm” remake really shows how his perfectionism extends to even his favorite songs by others. Not to mention Matt Sorum’s kick drum and crash cymbal. — D.W.
53. “Perfect Crime” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Another track whose relentless motöring does Lemmy & Co. proud, already at 60 mph by the time Sorum’s drums come speeding through for the first time, Slash’s rising riffing blowing the thing through stop signs and red lights. Would’ve been great on the Point Break soundtrack. — A.U.
52. “Raw Power” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
Q: How do you faithfully cover the Stooges and still stand out from the thousands of other fleabags doing the same? A: Rev it up much, much, much faster. Special award for whichever Gun and/or Rose starts off by snarling, “Yo Ig, check this out.” — D.W.
51. “I.R.S.” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Love it or hate it, Chinese Democracy is many things and simple is not one of them. The blessedly uncomplicated “I.R.S.” is a sane four-and-a-half minutes, a sane four chords, and, despite a handful of interstitial trip-hop moments, it boils down to a riff that isn’t all that far removed from “In Bloom” — as well as the most memorable chorus on the least-hooky arena-monster album of all time. And it helps for believability that Axl Rose probably really has conversed with at least one president, a private eye, definitely the I.R.S., and the F.B.I. isn’t out of the question, either. — D.W.
50. “If the World” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Despite actually having a hit covering one of the damn things, nobody would ever shortlist Guns N’ Roses for a potential Bond theme — they could be sexy, dangerous, and sweeping, but rarely all three at the same time, and never in a way vague enough to be equally applicable to a debonair British spy and a maniacal displaced hayseed. “If the World” was probably as close as they came, with a slinking groove halfway between Moon Safari and “Come Undone,” Axl hypothesizing, “If the world would end today / Then the dreams we had would all just slip away.” A mite too fatalistic for Bond, but certainly beautiful and blustery enough. — A.U.
49. “Attitude” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
48. “Don’t Damn Me” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
A rare underrated GN’R riff that doesn’t come from “The Spaghetti Incident?” or Chinese Democracy, “Don’t Damn Me” has a subtle “Brown Sugar”-thing going on in its key changes, lovingly wed on Use Your Illusion I to goofy proto-rapping that recalls some irresistible bats**t hybrid of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the Addams Family, and Ariel Pink. And that’s all before it goes full-psychedelic Siamese Dream slo-mo in the bridge. — D.W.
47. “Human Being” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
David Johansen is nothing like Axl Rose; he cares far too much about the human condition and he looks better in fishnets. But he did write the hot lines that Rose was born to solder into a hot song: “If I’m acting like a king, don’t you know it’s ‘cuz / I’m a human being / And if I want too many things, don’t you know it’s ‘cuz / I’m a human being.” The New York Dolls’ original took their self-titled juggernaut of rhinestone-studded proto-punk over the cliff. GN’R’s version makes the crucial addition of giving it a rough f**k by millionaires. For seven respite-free minutes, the Dolls’ proud deadbeat protégés snort up the ivories and impale each other with the guitars, as Axl goes into cardiac arrest on the high notes. The finale? A kazoo. — D.W.
46. “Bad Apples” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Marrying piano-tickling saloon tunes with bang-your-head hard rock has always been a strength of GN’R. The gratifyingly Stones-y “Bad Apples” might not be among their most famous hits, but it’s super funky. — R.H.
45. “Sorry” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Undoubtedly the list of people it’s too late for Axl to say sorry to is a long one, but it should come as little surprise that the title here isn’t one of apology, but one of patronizing sympathy — “I’m sorry for you, not sorry for me / You don’t know who you can trust now, or you should believe.” The potential vileness is undercut by one of Chinese Democracy’s finest arrangements, a sublime, patient power-ballad crawl that feels more like one of Layne Staley’s quietly guttural howls than Axl’s usual brand of widescreen self-pity. — A.U.
44. “So Fine” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Get past the annoying heavy breaths, and this solo composition and vocal performance by Duff McKagan turns out to be surprisingly strong, especially 25 years later. It might have been written in tribute to Johnny Thunders, but musically “So Fine” is ripped straight from Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. Starting off as a plaintive ballad but then crescendoing à la “All the Young Dudes,” it blasts into a forlorn barroom rocker, as Mick Ronson Slash sends the song skyward with yet another gorgeous solo. — A.B.
43. “Ain’t it Fun” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
Axl Rose is more Pete Townshend than Stiv Bators; that is, he’s more the type to grouse, “Hope I die before I get old” and live to 100 estranged in a mansion than to sing, “Ain’t it fun when you know that you’re gonna die young” and actually top out at 40. He imbues the late Bators’ anthem with a never-look-back nihilism assisted by duet partner Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks, who lost their drummer Razzle at age 24 due to Mötley Crue’s Vince Neil driving drunk. If there’s even a small chance that any of these men lived with regrets, this bluesy Dead Boys cover doesn’t hint at it. — D.W.
42. “Used to Love Her” (G N’ R Lies, 1989)
Eeeeek. In 2016, it’s difficult for a woman to praise a song with the lyrics, “I used to love her, but I had to kill her / She bitched so much, she drove me nuts,” even if they were written as a “joke.” Strip away the misogynist, dark, and twisted fantasy, though, and you’ve got a terrific, rootsy little mimic of an Allman Brothers’ on-the-road jam. — R.H.
41. “Paradise City” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
Easily the most overrated song in the Guns N’ Roses catalog — a stadium anthem more fit for ballgames than concerts, since all the good parts of it are out of the way in its opening 45 seconds of chest-beating. “Paradise City” runs out of ideas halfway through its triumphant first refrain and yet still lasts for six more minutes, a long-enough slog for you to realize just how redundant and silly even the chorus is. (Slash’s original idea for the hook, “Where the girls are fat and they got big titties,” was at least more genuine in its sleaze.) Worth keeping for its “Ride of the Valkyries”-like introductory minute, but otherwise a scourge on classic-rock radio and absolute karaoke anthrax. — A.U.
40. “Look At Your Game, Girl” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
I’ll be blunt: My insides hurt when listening to this song, written by convicted murderer Charles Manson, who’s not nearly rotted enough at a stomach-turning 81 years old as he serves out his nine life sentences in Corcoran State Prison. And it makes me even more nauseated to do my job, which is admitting that Axl Rose’s lounge-act, acoustic-and-congas cover of Manson’s song is Legitimately Kind of Good. Urp — are you using that wastebasket? Excuse me for one sec. — D.W.
39. “Madagascar” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
The closest thing Chinese Democracy has to an “Estranged,” Axl delivering his most frail and confused vocal since the fraught UYI climax over a “Stairway to Heaven”-like melody, if not “Stairway” grandiosity. It doesn’t need all those movie snippets and MLK samples in the bridge, certainly, but with our protagonist croaking, “I can’t find my way back anymore,” it’s affecting end-credits music to the GN’R story. — A.U.
38. “Dead Horse” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
“Sick of this life / Not that you care.” The penultimate cut on Use Your Illusion’s first volume perfectly exemplifies what makes the album so fascinating: One of Axl’s most wallowing lyrics is not matched with self-indulgent dramatics and sensationalized orchestration, but one of his most ’70s-radio-ready chord progressions and jauntiest chorus swings. “It may sound funny but you think by now I’d be smiling,” he repeats over the song’s closing groove, reminding of that old Charlie Chaplin refrain: Grin evilly, though your heart is breaking. — A.U.
37. “Pretty Tied Up (The Perils of Rock N’ Roll Decadence)” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
You know you weren’t making it through two discs of Use Your Illusion without some goddamn sitar, here introducing Izzy Stradlin’s freaky tales of experimenting with bondage and increasingly expensive drugs. The song is subtitled “The Perils of Rock N’ Roll Decadence,” but the band sounds like they’re having too much fun to remember the message of their cautionary tale — which might just be something along the lines of “don’t expand your id’s horizons too much, or getting an under-the-table blowjob in the back of the Rainbow Room bathroom just won’t do it for ya anymore.” — A.U.
36. “Chinese Democracy” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Sure, Axl snoozed long enough that System of a Down swiped his big fakeout-pause intro seven years before Chinese Democracy, but Chinese Democracy also gestated long enough that nu-metal thermodynamics no longer had any sway over whether or not his songs were good. This album was never going to be timely, so let ‘er rip. We’re all better off that his lyrical shortcomings limit the Kundun-inspired title track to taunts like “It would take a lot more time than you have got for masturbation,” which don’t distract from Buckethead and Robin Finck’s Tom Morello-influenced squealing. They try to do for the Great Wall what U2 did for Berlin, failing miserably under a sky full of extravagant guitar fireworks. — D.W.
35. “Think About You” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
Immediate success and pure ambition plunged Guns N’ Roses into self-indulgence, narcissism, and arrogance — all of which suited them to a tee — which unfortunately happened at the expense of the sweetness that snuck into Appetite for Destruction amidst all the sleaze. One of Izzy’s most underrated compositions, “Think About You” has a wistful quality that’s downright irresistible, the touches of acoustic guitar during the chorus filling the song with heart — throbbing, not bleeding, for once. — A.B.
34. “14 Years” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
The Izzy-sung “14 Years” slips right in that GN’R sweet spot of half-freewheeling billiard hall tune, half-smash-your-guitar rager. Shame that the band’s true frontman comes in on the chorus, though — as much as Izzy must’ve wanted to sing lead, he just ain’t got it like that, and Axl on backup duty makes that doubly obvious. — R.H.
33. “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
Whatever spiritual connection the band felt to late proto-punk Johnny Thunders, it manifested in a couple of their more affecting ’90s power ballads, most obviously in this cover and Spaghetti Incident emotional climax — performed almost entirely by Duff McKagan, of all people. It helps, perhaps, that the titular sentiment would be an appropriate subtitle for the next 15 years of W. Axl’s life off the record, attempting to recapture old magic with a new band in a new world — though Johnny’s advice of “It doesn’t pay to try” certainly went unheeded. — A.U.
32. “Live and Let Die” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
The Use Your Illusion I take on Paul McCartney and Wings’ 1973 classic succeeds in every way that “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” fails. Like the Dylan cover, “Live and Let Die” does not deviate from the original one bit, but the band gives it just the right amount of heavy-metal theatricality, as those massive, dramatic chords pack a satisfying punch. Although former timekeeper Steven Adler’s sense of swing is sorely missed throughout Use Your Illusion, Matt Sorum’s stadium-rock drumming works brilliantly on this track. — A.B.
31. “Right Next Door to Hell” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Along with advance single “You Could Be Mine,” a misleading opening salvo to the UYI experience: another propulsive, bass-led banger that could’ve fit on Appetite, if not for the creeping dread smothering Axl’s vocals and the walls-closing paranoia that the rest of the band seems boxed in by. The song was inspired by a feud the frontman had with former West Hollywood neighbor Gabriella Kantor, whose complaints about Rose’s behavior led to MTV giving away his condo in the 1991 “Evict Axl” contest, about as telling a tableau as existed for early-’90s GN’R, and maybe pop culture in general. — A.U.
30. “There Was a Time” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
This is the one that really delivers everything Chinese Democracy promised, with a choir, some looped tintinnabulations, a sea of distorted guitar roil, and orchestral interjections poking out like shark fins. Bluesy piano and slyly cinematic passages set up the highest notes Axl’s full-health throat has ever belted, and the stratospheric, take-me-higher solo makes an honest shot at toppling “November Rain” from its post in Valhalla. You bet your ass it’s seven minutes long, used to be titled “T.W.A.T.,” and includes more parts than a class production of Rent. — D.W.
29. “Bad Obsession” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
As they often did on the piano-laden and blues-rockier Use Your Illusion I, GN’R bang that cowbell and turn up the twang on this harmonica-laced number. Underneath its swampy roots — penned by Izzy and friend of the family West Arkeen — are some typically dark themes, though: When Axl crows about “doin’ it one more time,” the “it” in question are drugs that make him call his mother the c-word. — RACHEL BRODSKY
28. “Breakdown” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Sorta amazing that it takes 23 tracks into the UYI experience to get to a song of this title. It finally shows via a power ballad that sounds like Elton John’s take on “Wanted Dead or Alive,” with Axl’s piano running rampant over a shapeshifting boogie, peaking with the singer finding himself a kindred spirit in Vanishing Point protagonist Kowalski six years before Primal Scream. For its implications of internal disarray, “Breakdown” is actually one of the most musically impressive songs on the double-album set, almost Born to Run-worthy in its multi-act drama and road ambition. — A.U.
27. “Rocket Queen” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
The final track on Appetite for Destruction is its ideal denouement. The six-minute track starts with a wickedly filthy riff by Slash as Axl spews menacing lyrics from teenage friend Barbi Von Greif’s perspective (“I may be a little young but honey I ain’t naïve”). After a notorious bridge that features sounds of Axl and Adriana Smith (Steven Adler’s then-girlfriend) having sex — never a dull moment in this band — “Rocket” suddenly launches into a much more positive-sounding coda, Axl switching to his own unexpectedly supportive perspective: “If you need a shoulder or if you need a friend, I’ll be here standing until the bitter end.” That contrast between danger/lust and sweetness/sentimentality creates an incredible dynamic, and is still key as to why Appetite retains so much appeal nearly 30 years later. — A.B.
26. “Catcher in the Rye” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
It’s easy to picture Axl empathizing with J.D. Salinger and his most famous protagonist even before he disappeared from the public eye for the better part of two decades. But ironically, “Catcher” was meant as something of a takedown of Salinger’s definitive work — “utter garbage,” he called it in a 2008 online chat, explaining that the song’s outro was written as a tribute to John Lennon after seeing a program about assassin (and Salinger devotee) Mark David Chapman. It’s a rare GN’R expression of sympathy for the victims rather than the abusers, and one of the band’s most compassionate overall songs, demonstrating more humanity in a stretch of Oasis-like “Na na naaaa naaaa“s than on entire sides of earlier records. — A.U.
25. “Dust N’ Bones” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
One big reason to not totally buy into the reunited Guns N’ Roses is the (likely) absence of Izzy Stradlin. Behind the incredible dynamic Axl and Slash created, Izzy played the Malcolm Young role on rhythm guitar; the straw that stirred the toxic drink. And does he ever shine on Use Your Illusion I, providing lead vocals on three of the album’s best tracks. Tops among them is “Dust N’ Bones,” a raw slice of barroom blues rock that hearkens back to Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones. Izzy sounds particularly laconic, even world-weary, adding the dry line, “Time’s short, your life’s your own, and in the end we’re just dust and bones.” — A.B.
24. “Civil War” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
As far as war protest songs go, you could do much worse than Axl Rose opening one by whistling “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” over an iconic Cool Hand Luke sample, Worldmusicfestsning out like a Tasmanian devil in the middle, and closing it by murmuring, “What’s so civil about war, anyway?” Since it’s (unfortunately) timely as ever, expect to hear “Civil War” at all the GN’R reunion shows this year. — R.H.
23. “You’re Crazy” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
Axl ain’t the first jilted ex to refer to onetime honeys as nuts but GN’R grit the sentiment up with Slash’s rapid-fire chords and piercing solos, and Axl’s not-entirely-sane-sounding “ha-ha-ha!” All because a woman opts for “satisfaction” over “love,” that makes her “f**kin’ crazy.” Careful who you’re calling psycho there, Rose. — R.B.
22. “Garden of Eden” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Axl’s tongue-twister verses bleed together to such an extent that they end up sounding like a prolonged cat’s yowl. But a closer look at this breakneck-speed cut reveals some heavy dissatisfaction with societal issues like “racial violence” and “kiss-ass sycophants” (i.e., the sort of well-connected politician Bernie Sanders might rail against). GN’R aren’t optimistic about change; against blazing guitar lines they instead sarcastically dub the world a “Garden of Eden” and push back against the establishment with rock’n’rooooollllll. — R.B.
21. “Yesterdays” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Personal growth is hard to achieve by constantly reliving the past — a lesson GN’R deconstruct in this piano-trimmed power ballad. “Yesterdays” finds its singer remarking on the aging process, replacing innocence with experience, and ultimately realizing the impermanence of everything. By holding on to the song’s “time-faded pictures,” he’s inadvertently preventing his own forward motion, which for Axl is best accomplished by putting an intangible thing like “prayers in my pocket” and “movin’ along” unfettered by memories. — R.B.
20. “Out ta Get Me” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
Nobody has ever wondered why Axl Rose became a star, but if they did, I’d point them to the video of Guns N’ Roses performing “Out ta Get Me” at the Ritz in 1988. The rock-star prototype wearing skinny leather and a louche grin and sporting sinewy arms and a sheen of charisma, Axl is supremely at ease transitioning from high kicks to his sexy lil’ snake dance. He screeches every 15-year-old boy’s rebel yell, “They’re out ta get me,” exactly as they wish they could scream it, and launches a million 15-year-old girls’ bad-boy fantasies. It’s a bratty song, yes, but it’s galvanizing, solely because of the man singing it. — R.H.
19. “Coma” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
The other self-indulgent masterpiece on Use Your Illusion I — and like “November Rain,” it features towering performances by the band’s two key frontmen. Musically it’s a staggering composition by Slash, its nonlinear, formula-free structure reminiscent of the shock-rock freakouts of early Alice Cooper records, but it’s held together thanks to its bevy of riffs and sense of theatricality. Lyrically, on the other hand, “Coma” is a stark, honest, and bleak commentary on the last days of ‘80s glam-metal, as Axl reflects on an overdose of pills years before. “It’s so easy to be social, it’s so easy to be cool, it’s easy to be hungry when you ain’t got s**t to lose,” he says at one point, wryly referencing one of the most infamous songs on Appetite for Destruction. Mere months later the grunge scene would explode, wiping out glam-metal’s commercial appeal in one fell swoop, but ironically, that scene of “integrity” and “substance” would yield far more high-profile premature deaths than the Sunset Strip ever did. — A.B.
18. “Shackler’s Revenge” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
In some ways, this Rock Band-debuted single is just a steroidal update of what the flailing, pointless “Oh My God” was probably supposed to be: screeching Deftones opening riff, programmed industrial funkadoodles last heard in 1997, and disco midsection, check, check, double-check. But in other ways, there’s just no other band that sounds like this. None of their hair-metal contemporaries cared about technology or progress like GN’R’s reclusive frontman, and no Nine Inch Nails disciples have a world-class singer to build soaring melodies or laser-beam soloing around. So here’s an unholy marriage of the two, with a twist on what sounds like a classic Axl-denial-zonked chorus of “I don’t believe there’s a reason”: He called it his response to school shootings. It’s a step toward solicitude, the last thing anyone expected from Chinese Democracy. — D.W.
17. “One in a Million” (G N’ R Lies, 1989)
The most controversial song by the most nihilistic superstar in American rock history, one man’s misanthropic invective against the society that spawned him. The Bad Words alone would get “One in a Million” blackballed today, and William Bruce Rose sinks into them with unblinking villainy — at one point even commenting, “That’s right,” just in case you doubted his intent. But as vile as Axl’s credos against “immigrants and faggots” and “police and niggers” are, it’s impossible to read them as straight-faced — the song’s picturing of Axl as small-minded country boy is as cartoonish as him still chewing on a hayseed when getting off the bus in the “Welcome to the Jungle” video. (The irony is writ large by the final group Axl calls out: “Radicals and racists.”) Delivered over Neil Young minor chords and eerily disembodied whistling, its clear that “Million” is meant as its writer’s chilling parody of his own sense of cultural displacement, of historically poor race relations in late-’80s L.A., and of protest songs in which any artist ever pretends to be totally above the fray themselves. — A.U.
16. “Since I Don’t Have You” (“The Spaghetti Incident?,” 1994)
The Skyliners’ clean-cut 1958 doo-wop smash found new life as the lead track to GN’R’s Spaghetti Incident, with the band keeping keeping the original’s plinking piano and waltzing pace, but adding in Slash’s searing solos and Axl’s glass-cracking squall — one of the band’s greatest, if least-characteristic, all-around performances. Sadly, this slow-dancing single also birthed the last video to feature original band members Duff McKagan and Slash, as well as drummer Matt Sorum and rhythm guitarist Gilby Clarke. But it does have a maniacal Gary Oldman playing a gleefully grinning demon, which really is an ideal way to fizzle out on MTV. — R.B.
15. “You Ain’t the First” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
You can take the boy outta the country but you can’t take the country outta the boy. What was so beautiful about Axl’s voice is how he could careen from caterwauling in one song to humming a lullaby in the next. In the swinging, bluesy shuffle “You Ain’t the First,” Izzy’s high, sweet backing vocals and aching lyrics about love wearin’ out its welcome snap together like puzzle pieces with the tinge of redneck that will (hopefully) always linger in Indiana-born Axl’s voice. A near-perfect sweet-and-lowdown rock ballad. — R.H.
14. “Get in the Ring” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Few artists outside of Michael Jordan carried chips on their shoulders quite like Axl Rose. And so three quarters of the way through the grandest full-length statement of his career, he wedged in “Get in the Ring,” a hilariously petty and bullying track that names names of every writer and publication — yes, including this one — who dared besmirch his and his band’s good name, ultimately declaring: “I don’t like you / I just hate you / I’m gonna / KICK YOUR ASS!” But no rock star sounds as much in his element when playing the small-time antagonist like Axl, who seems to be having the time of his life spitting venom over the song’s bizarrely lithe, sashaying groove, powered on by the imaginary sound of the fans cheering from home. It takes a special kind of self-delusion to still view yourself as an underdog when your band is the biggest thing the music industry has seen since the other MJ, but that’s a large part of what made Axl such a singular figure in rock history, and “Get in the Ring” remains the window with the best view into his intoxicating madness. — A.U.
13. “Don’t Cry” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
The first chapter in GN’R’s unofficial three-part “Illusions” video series inspired by writer and friend Del James, “Don’t Cry” is one of the last great power ballads of the pre-grunge era, with Axl begging his soon-to-be-ex partner to show him one final sign of affection over a gratifyingly huge chord descent. GN’R’s sorrowful tone (helped with backup vocals from Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon) is only made more powerful by Matt Sorum’s slow, echoing percussion, Slash’s reverberating wail, and Axl’s crushed-sounding tonigh-ayayayayayayahhhhh. — R.B.
12. “It’s So Easy” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
When Appetite for Destruction came out in 1987, it first hit young listeners like an elbow to the head. If opener “Welcome to the Jungle” wasn’t harrowing and tough enough, “It’s So Easy” comes in, right on its heels, and blasts into the meanest, nastiest, most swaggering heavy rock since the New York Dolls. Axl ditches his usual squawk for a snide drawl, which suits the song perfectly as he spews brash lines about Hollywood groupies: “It’s so easy, easy when everybody’s trying to please me.” The misogyny is undeniable, sung by an arrogant, 25-year-old kid who’s so wrapped up in the Sunset Strip scene that he doesn’t know any better: “You get nothing for nothing if that’s what you do / Turn around bitch, I got a use for you.” In this age of self-serving “thinkpieces” and critics with hurt feelings, a rock group wouldn’t dare to even go that far anymore, but 29 years ago, bands still could be dangerous. Tipper Gore targeted Guns N’ Roses, parents were pissed off, but their sons and daughters bought the album in droves. — A.B.
11. “Estranged” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
This nine-minute epic chronicles a troubling time in Axl’s romantic life, in which his marriage to model Erin Everly (for whom he previously wrote “Sweet Child O’ Mine”) was annulled. The resulting lyricism portrays an aching, broken person who feels disproportionately aged (“Old at heart but / I’m only 28 / And I’m much too young / To let love break my heart”) and who’s starting to lose the plot (“When you’re talking to yourself / And nobody’s home…”). “Estranged” augments its singer’s frayed emotions with one of the band’s most complex orchestrations; Slash churning out a series of heart-bursting guitar wails and Rose punctuating his saga with weighty piano chords. — R.B.
10. “You Could Be Mine” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
It took four long years for Guns N’ Roses to put out a new heavy-rock single in the wake of Appetite for Destruction, and “You Could Be Mine” was a brilliant choice. Written by Axl and Izzy Stradlin prior to the recording of GN’R’s debut (the line “With your bitch slap rapping and your cocaine tongue, you get nothing done” appears on the inner sleeve of Appetite) the band smartly saved it for the next record, and the song, released partially to help promote Terminator 2: Judgment Day, kicked the summer of 1991 off with a shotgun bang. Led by a thunderous intro by former Cult drummer Matt Sorum, it’s a potent piece of sleaze, proof that the band had not lost a step. In fact, they were leaner and sleeker than ever before — though Guns N’ Roses were firmly entrenched in the mainstream in 1991, the attitude of ’87 was still there thanks to this old nugget. — A.B.
9. “Mr. Brownstone” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
The only “Old Hollywood” that interests me is Sunset Strip in the 1980s – gold lamé leggings, all-leather everything, hair teased with so much spray you had to be careful when flicking your lighter, and absolutely zero chill. Galloping right out of the gate, “Mr. Brownstone” manages to hold that pace, sprinting right in the middle with a typically face-scrunching guitar solo from Slash. But it’s more than just a barely veiled, extremely danceable ode to heroin: “I used to do a little, but a little wouldn’t do,” Axl sings in double time, neatly summing up the inevitable tumble of all opiate users and the era of excess, while foreshadowing the eventual destruction of both. — R.H.
8. “The Garden” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Written prior to GN’R’s 1987 debut, but released on the band’s second full-length album, “The Garden” famously features both Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon on backing vocals and two spoken-word asides from shock-rock virtuoso Alice Cooper. “No, you aren’t losing your mind,” Axl promises with Mad Hatter-like perfidy. “You’re just in the garden.” The simple drug metaphor extends itself into sonic highs and lows, with woozy — even blissful — guitar whimpers and Cooper’s hallucinogenic growl, forcing the listener to submit to the alternately entrancing and terrifying “crazy man’s utopia.” — R.B.
7. “Patience” (G N’ R Lies, 1989)
This tender ballad, one of four acoustic tracks on the 1989 stopgap release G N’ R Lies, turned out to be one of Guns N’ Roses’ biggest hits, not to mention a highly prescient song for American popular culture. Written by Izzy Stradlin, it showed that these bad boys of Sunset Strip rock‘n’roll had a sappy side, but unlike Poison, whose approach to acoustic balladry was puppy-dog-cute, there is so much musical substance to “Patience.” Just listen to the six-string interplay between Izzy and Slash: The chemistry and artistry on display is sublime. Axl, meanwhile, sells the love song brilliantly, sounding like he’s baring his soul rather than pandering to his audience, conveying more feeling in two bars of whistling than in most hair-metal power choruses. Seven months after the single stormed the charts, MTV debuted their Unplugged series, and soon every rock band was following Guns N’ Roses’ lead, desperate to pull off their own “Patience” but never succeeding. — A.B.
6. “Better” (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Many Guns N’ Roses songs realign themselves several times through melodic sections, mean rejoinders and thrashing turns from one movement to the other, usually on the back of a virtuosic, bleeding-rainbow guitar solo. The unexpected highlight of the band’s most-resented album compresses these parts into a crowded, claustrophobic elevator where they’re forced to sit more still than they prefer, and they rage appropriately within the confines of the glass. Not quite a power ballad, “Better” nonetheless has a salty sadness streaking down its bulging neck veins — it’s closer to something Henry Rollins would shout outside a recent ex’s window. But therein lies the gift of this band, who serve as the adenoidal voice of the overly heard. Males in extremis have commanded artistic situations in such wide-ranging works as Raging Bull and The Marshall Mathers LP. And longtime contributor, first-time caller Axl Rose’s high-pitched sputtering through artless bits like “I never wanted you to be so full of anger” might help convince you that bitterness can have soul. — D.W.
5. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
That now-iconic weeeeer-ner-ner-ner-NER-ner-NER-ner guitar lick is just the start of what would become GN’R’s most commercially successful single, their only U.S. No. 1. Written for Axl’s then-wife Erin Everly, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is a love song in the most classic sense of the term: A grin from her is enough to send Axl spiralling into euphoria, and too long of a gaze at her beauty could reduce him to tears — c’mon, you know the words. But aside from its enduring emotional resonance, “Sweet Child O’Mine” is an improv success story. Not only was Slash’s introductory solo taken from a guitar warm-up routine, but the ending breakdown of Axl’s “Where do we go now?” was a result of him literally asking his bandmates how to wrap up the track. Turns out he had the answer all along. — R.B.
4. “Locomotive” (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Axl Rose habitually examines failed romance in his songs, but rarely as brutally as in “Locomotive,” which claims that its antagonist, assumed to be then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour, “raped me because you climbed inside my world and in my songs.” Such unfiltered hate-writing hasn’t always been well-received — the eight-minute anthem is frequently cited as another example of Axl the Misogynist. (“I’ve been doing a lot of work and found out I’ve had a lot of hatred for women,” he acknowledged in 2012). But gender-based judgement aside, no other band could keep a song as big and volatile as this on the tracks — few moments in the GN’R catalog are as suspenseful or stunning as how Axl seems to lose the rhythm on the song’s chugging chorus, but gains it back just in time to careen into his “I know it looks like I’m in-saaa-aaaane” wail. “Locomotive” embodies everything for which the band — and most notably Axl himself — is legendary: their rhythmic and emotional combustibility, fist-pumping guitar chunks, bruised lyrics, and ceaseless quest to understand the oft-confused space between an artist’s reality and illusions. — R.B.
3. “Nightrain” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
“Well I’m a West Coast struttin’, one bad mother / Got a rattlesnake suitcase under my arm.” Track No. 3 of one of the greatest opening trifectas in rock’n’roll history, “Nightrain” might get its title from a particular brand of cheap wine the band drank, but it’s all about attitude, and the song simply bursts with it. The opening lick and subsequent riff is total Aerosmith/New York Dolls worship, but when that ferocious, anthemic chorus kicks in (“Loaded like a freight train…”), it becomes a clear-cut original, all five members coalescing into one mean machine: “I got a Molotov cocktail with a match to go / I smoke my cigarette with style.” When it comes to pure, visceral, celebratory energy, no Guns N’ Roses number comes close to topping this one. — A.B.
2. “November Rain” (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
The song that proved, once and for all, that Axl Rose wasn’t totally full of s**t. In a catalog chock full of failed commentary, misguided rabbit-hole dives, and general reach-exceeding-grasp hubris, “November Rain” is the band’s one epic statement that is absolutely everything it promises to be. It soars like “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” it invigorates like “Dream On,” it evolves and surprises like “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s so cinematic in scope that its peerlessly iconic music video feels less like an accompanying short than a necessary visual outgrowth. And its sense of understanding and empathy — always tricky concepts for Axl & Co. — is not only undeniable, it’s stunningly potent, making the countless aphorisms that comprise its lyrics resound like the simple truths more frequently found in Smokey Robinson or Paul McCartney songs. As much as GN’R are defined by their violence and vileness, “November Rain” showed that the band was as capable of embracing humanity as they were denying it. It’s not the first song you think of when Guns N’ Roses comes to mind, but it’s the reason they still come to mind as frequently as they do. — A.U.
1. “Welcome to the Jungle” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
By 1987, the glam-metal of Hollywood had gotten so high-gloss, so mousse-abused, so stinking of Aqua Net, that bands were focusing primarily on the glitter instead of the gutter. Nikki Sixx woke out of his drug-fueled stupor to write Mötley Crüe one brilliantly gritty slice of L.A. life with “Wild Side,” but aside from that, the scene was far more populated with bands trying to score their own “Home Sweet Home”. Then along came Guns N’ Roses, with that false-start riff that spirals downward rather than skyward. Instead of looking up quixotically at the marquee at the Whiskey, you’re gazing down at broken bottles, dirty needles, and used condoms. The wide-eyed rural boy or girl stepping off the bus thinking they’re going to make it big will surely be eaten alive in a world of demeaning work and shattered dreams.
“Welcome to the Jungle” struts almost playfully, Axl sounding like a West Coast Ratso Rizzo giving a tour of Hollywood, sharing a savage take on the American Dream. He offers a word of warning masked as a lascivious come-on (“And you’re a very sexy girl, very hard to please / You can taste the bright lights, but you won’t get there for free”) and then ropes the subject in (“When you’re high you never, ever want to come down”). It’s all “fun and games” before the bottom falls out, the song descends quickly into hell — brilliantly echoing the sinister drama of Alice Cooper with the ominous bass line and screeching guitars — and Axl delivers the pay-off: “You know where you are? You’re in the JUNGLE, baby! You’re gonna DI-I-I-I-IE!” Another victim is claimed, a myth is debunked, and rock‘n’roll history is rewritten thanks to a landmark song that, with one hack of its machete, rendered the entire Sunset Strip scene irrelevant. — A.B.