Today it's the top ten greatest songs by one of the most controversial rock n' roll bands of all time, Guns N' Roses.
Formed in 1985, GNR combined the lineups of singer Axl Rose's Hollywood Rose with that of guitarist Tracii Guns' band L.A. Guns, creating a dangerous hard rock powderkeg that drew from the decadence of the '80s L.A. music scene along with the blues-rock sensibility of '70s supergroups like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith.
Their first full-length album, Appetite for Destruction, was released in 1987, and about a year later on the heels of the wildly successful singles "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Welcome to the Jungle," reached Number 1 on the Billboard charts. The band was the hottest act in rock music, seemingly overnight. Appetite went on to become one of those universal records that literally everyone owns, like AC/DC's Back in Black, Michael Jackson's Thriller, or Metallica's "Black Album."
Three years later came their long-awaited followup, a double album called Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 that featured several epic songs and a much larger musical scope. The albums contained a combined thirty tracks spanning over two-and-a-half hours, and spawned multiple radio hits. The band had graduated to touring stadiums and it seemed they'd remain one of the biggest groups in the industry for the rest of their career.
But soon after releasing a rather ill-conceived covers album in the early 90s, Guns N' Roses split up due to personal and creative differences and went dormant, with Axl retaining rights to the band name, while the other members pursued their own projects. The band seemed to have almost been erased from rock history, becoming largely irrelevant, until rumors surfaced a few years later of a new GNR album with a new lineup, called Chinese Democracy. After several aborted recordings and lineup changes, Democracy was finally released in 2008, and while it failed to reach the success of previous albums, it was pretty well received by the critics and proved that Axl could still deliver that signature high-pitched howl.
GNR continues to tour (now with Slash and Duff McKagan back in the band!) and are working on a followup to Chinese Democracy, but given their track record who knows when it'll actually come out? My money's on 2062, Axl's 100th birthday.
Anyway, enough history. Here now are the ten best GNR songs in my estimation....
10. Don't Cry
A classic GNR-style ballad about Axl's breakup with Erin Everly (which inspired several songs on Use Your Illusion), "Don't Cry" was recorded in two versions. The first was released as a radio single and had simpler, more radio-friendly lyrics - "Talk to me softly/there's something in your eyes/Don't hang your head in sorrow/And please don't cry," where the alternate version on UYI2 has a darker tone with more complex and introspective lyrics - "I thought I could live in your world/As years all went by/With all the voices I've heard/Something has died." In either case, "Dont' Cry" is a somber but very hooky breakup song that builds to a soaring final chorus and that weird, sustained multitracked vocal note at the end.
9. Rocket Queen
The closer of Appetite is a dark, sprawling guitar boogie inspired by a female rocker friend of Axl's and his attraction to her. Famously Axl brought a girl into the studio and had the engineers record their sexual encounter for use during the guitar solo. After the third chorus the tone shifts to an uplifting message of friendship and support, giving Axl a chance to show off his vocal aerobics and more sensitive side.
8. Street of Dreams
While Chinese Democracy was met with a pretty lukewarm fan reaction, I consider it an underrated album containing several hidden gems, the best of which is this bittersweet piano-driven ballad. "Street of Dreams" boasts more a more mature outlook than some of Axl's earlier ballads but would fit comfortably on Use Your Illusion. It also gave Axl a chance to show off his impossible vocal range; this is probably his best performance on the album.
7. Don't Damn Me
A medium rocker with an insanely intricate guitar riff, this song deals with Axl's myriad of controversial remarks over the years and the press's perception thereof. The message of the song is essentially, "I'm just sayin' what I feel." But he also decries those who would blindly idolize him simply because of his status as a rock star: "Your only validation is in living your own life/Vicarious existence is a fuckin' waste of time". Lyrically this is one of the more complex on Use Your Illusion, and it's always been a favorite of mine.
6. Mr. Brownstone
A sardonic ode to heroin addiction, this song is one of the band's most famous. It features a snaky blues-rock riff and an exaggerated low-range Axl whine during the first half, which then gives way to his emblematic power falsetto. Not much else to say about this one, it's simple and awesome.
5. Welcome to the Jungle
Probably the band's signature song, "Jungle" was allegedly inspired by an exchange Axl and Izzy had with a homeless man upon arriving in L.A. This treacherous blues-metal shuffle kicks off Appetite with an instantly recognizable delayed guitar riff that repeatedly descends the blues scale, before Steve Adler's toms come thundering in and the song shifts into full gear. Axl then announces his presence as a future rock icon with a gleefully wicked growl, warning an unnamed young woman of the perils of living on the seedy streets of Los Angeles. If there's ever been a song more perfectly demonstrative of any band's sound I'm not sure what that is.
4. Civil War
The band's first epic, "Civil War" has all the hallmarks of a protest anthem, with lyrics attacking America's violent political tendencies ("I don't need your civil war/it feeds the rich while it buries the poor") and a whistled reference to "Johnny Comes Marching Home." The song starts out desolate and thoughtful before exploding into a wall of distorted power cords. "Civil War" was the last song recorded with drummer Steven Adler, and the first with keyboardist Dizzy Reed, whose percussive piano adds a bouncy 70s groove to the later sections. This song was released about 18 months before Use Your Illusion, but would ultimately herald the band's more classic rock-infused sound.
Speaking of epic, GNR's longest track comes at the end of Use Your Illusion I. The ten-minute-plus marathon "Coma" deals with an incident during which an overstressed Axl OD'd on a bottle of pills, and during his convalescence had an epiphany that he still had more to offer creatively. Structurally the song is quite complex, featuring no choruses and eventually building to a climactic barrage of quickly-delivered verses, which Axl claims just poured out of him one night upon waking from a nap. I first learned of this song from a sit-down interview Axl did with MTV the year before, and his description intrigued me. When I finally heard the song for the first time I immediately fell in love with it - "Coma" is really a masterpiece of progressive-rock angst.
2. Sweet Child O' Mine
The song that put them on mainstream radio, "Sweet Child O' Mine" seems like a simple ballad written by Axl to his then-girlfriend Erin Everly, but musically it is so much more. From the iconic opening lick derived from a Slash finger exercise to the saccharin verse-chorus structure, to the much darker bluesy third act, SCOM is an amazing piece of songwriting, taken to the next level with some of Slash's best-ever lead guitar playing (that middle solo is one of my favorite guitar solos of all time). The song was also the first single to show off Axl's incredible four-octave vocal range, as the end section reaches both ends of his spectrum. This song has become a classic rock staple, for good reason.
Quite possibly the most emotively complex "breakup song" of all time, "Estranged" runs over nine minutes and contains enough musical sections for three or four tracks. Axl's lyrics explore the disintegration of his relationship with Erin Everly (what a shock), and its tone runs the gamut from bleak to poignant to hopeful, almost mimicking the emotional states one goes through during such a separation. Once again Slash supplies exceedingly significant contributions in the form of beautifully mournful lead guitar melodies, which may comprise the most memorable bits of the song. I myself was in the midst of a dissolving relationship shortly after this came out, and "Estranged" provided a strong catharsis for me, capturing what I was feeling at the time. So its placement on this list is partly due to its personal impact on my late-teenage years. Regardless, in my opinion this is the most profoundly revealing and expressive song in the GNR catalog, transcending genre and betraying the sometimes sophomoric nature of their earlier material. "Estranged" is a piece from a group of mature songwriters in full command of their art.
That wraps it up for this edition of Top Ten Things - comment below with your top GNR picks! Join us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe, and YouTube!