The Ultimate Ranking of Every Guns N' Roses Song
Original Photo by Marc Canter / Designed by Art Tavna
I discovered Guns N' Roses in the '90s, when MTV was deciding what we liked. At 8 years old, running around my bedroom in Superman briefs, my first exposure to a genuine rock star was Axl Rose, who seemed like a pirate hijacking my TV screen when he told me that we were in the jungle, baby, and that we were gonna die.
Since then, they've become my all-time favorite rock band.
Being a GNR fanboy in 2016 is ridiculously liberating. It's kinda like eating at a cheesy chain restaurant as a protest against foodies, or listening to KROQ instead of KCRW as a protest against pretend-to-be-broke hipster bands.
To paraphrase critic Chuck Klosterman: GNR was the last rock band that didn’t appeal to college kids. Critics born in the "indie-rock" era, myself included, are preprogrammed to see GNR as a symbol of chest-beating maleness that can, at times, be so overtly rockist that it seems counterproductive. It's a threat to decency — or at least to the Silver Lake yuppie who owns a Prius and listens to The National.
GNR never benefited from a shocking death like Kurt Cobain, the indie messiah, so the critics never had their martyr to deify with Photoshopped angel wings and sappy documentaries. GNR also didn't noticeably influence today's culture or aesthetic, or spawn a legion of imitators. Their impact was finite and ugly — like Mike Tyson as heavyweight champ.
So, friends, a closer look at the GNR canon isn't about originality or cultural impact; it isn't about redefining GNR's work from 1985 to 2008, or trying to make sense of it all. No, the following ranking is simply a manifesto for anyone who wants to rediscover the primeval spirit of rock, and wear it like a monstrous erection at a farmer's market.
Stipulation: I’ve only included material from GNR's studio albums. The Spaghetti Incident? isn’t part of this list. Google it if you want the obvious reason why.
See also: Slash's 10 Strangest Guitar Tracks
64. “My World” - Use Your Illusion II (1991)
By the '90s, Axl Rose wanted to “bury Appetite," so he decided to experiment with industrial beats. Bjork’s “Army of Me” has a similar groove, except she didn’t try to flow over it like Ice-T — which was, let’s be real, still a bit much for a white guy in 1991.
63. “If the World” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
If only Axl had a voice of reason in the early 2000s — like Slash or Duff, instead of Buckethead and Chris Pitman — to keep him from mixing an industrial beat with Spanish guitar and Andrew Lloyd Webber-tinged interlude — which is overreach, like a bad Bond theme.
62. “Riad N' the Bedouins” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
Further proof that Axl has larger range than Beyoncé and Mariah Carey (just reporting facts). It’s also an exhibition of petulance: “Ohhhh my salvation/AlllI my frustrations/Caught in the lies,” which is Axl’s most recycled songwriting theme, where he constantly reminds us that he’s been fucked over.
Useless fact: Buckethead installed a chicken coop in the studio during the recording of Chinese Democracy. What a guy. Not Buckethead — Axl. He put up with some shit while making that record.
61. “Scraped” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
Axl opens by harmonizing over himself in four difference octaves. Then he reminds us, again, that he’s fighting to overcome the haters, i.e., his clingy exes and former bandmates. Includes one of Axl’s career-defining positions: Don’t believe the lies you read about me.
Personal note: Chinese Democracy is criminally underrated. It’s now the ultimate “I used to hate it but now I love it” record, especially for fanboys who want to suck up to Axl.
60. “Mama Kin” - Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide / GN’R Lies (1986 / 1988)
An Aerosmith original from ’73 where Axl uses cheeky humor to give it some edge: “This is a song about your fucking mother.”
59. “Nice Boys” - Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide / GN’R Lies (1986 / 1988)
A Rose Tattoo cover in which GNR siphons the spirit of Aerosmith from Toys in the Attic, which has less to do with unoriginality than homage, like The Beatles in ’64, who sounded like a mashup of their influences.
58. “Move to the City” - Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide / GN’R Lies (1986 / 1988)
GNR with a horn section, which gives it an E Street Band quality that makes this the closest GNR ever got to sounding like Springsteen.
57. “Shackler's Revenge” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
The NIN-sounding intro shows Axl pushing the limits of his audience, again, especially as the first single to be released off Chinese, on all things, Rock Band 2. Kinda sounds like The Prodigy to my '90s-MTV ears.
Some history: The Jimmy Iovine mixes of Chinese Democracy were leaked by a hacker on June 18, 2008. Which was four months before the label officially released “Shackler” via Rock Band 2.
56. “There Was a Time” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
An electronic symphony written about an ex, which is obvious, but the most important takeaways are two guitar solos — which include all the melancholic notes Slash would bend on Axl’s ballads on UYI, except they feel stiff without Slash’s sticky fingers stretching them.
55. "Reckless Life” - Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide / GN’R Lies (1986 / 1988)
Originally written by Hollywood Rose (which included members of GNR), this is now the apologist's best defense against punk snobs who schvitz every time Duff asserts GNR’s undeniable punkness. This. Is. Punk.
54. “Catcher in the Rye” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
Opens like a piano ballad by Queen, which would have sounded a lot more like Queen had Brian May’s solo remained. But it was cut during edits, scarring Chinese’s Holden Caulfield ballad with undeserved disappointment and concern — like, was Axl going to disappear on us like J.D. Salinger?
Personal history: Axl singing the finale of "Bohemian Rhapsody" at the '92 Freddie Mercury tribute at Wembley stadium is, for me, the only time I've ever seen a Queen cover that didn't suck.
53. “I.R.S.” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
A semi-bitter take on Axl’s ex-wives lawyering-up on him, which includes a Buckethead solo that's a sad reminder of how his greatness was buried under a KFC chicken bucket.
52. “Garden of Eden” - Use Your Illusion I (1991)
Other than “Civil War,” this is GNR’s only other semi-protest song, which gets lost in all the gimmicky sound effects and jive.
51. “This I Love” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
Axl’s saddest song, which is saying a lot. But there's no bitterness here, just sorrow. Not the schlocky, Bon Jovi shit — real anguish from a man struggling to move on, not dance the night away.
50. “Pretty Tied Up” - Use Your Illusion II (1991)
GNR fanboys like their “Izzy songs." This one opens with a sitar probably inspired by Keef (Izzy’s favorite Stone). The lyric “Crack the whip cuz that bitch is just insane” sounds offensive today, but in 1991, everyone was GNR’s bitch.
49. “Don't Cry” (Alt-Lyrics) - Use Your Illusion II (1991)
They released the same ballad, twice, on basically the same album, with different lyrics. I should note that sequels were a thing for Axl in the ‘90s. Anyhow, here’s the logic:
-“Don’t Cry” (Original): Axl realizing his girlfriend is about to break up with him, which he accepts, while she cries because he isn’t bitter about it.
-“Don’t Cry” (Alt-Lyrics): A song about forgiveness, on Axl’s terms. Ultimately a bittersweet “I told'ya so.”
48. “Chinese Democracy” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
Sorta wondered a few things here, like what's a “Falun Gong," which I had to Google, or why Axl suddenly wanted to explore Chinese politics. To his credit, Axl isn’t espousing some cheap gimmick (he visited China), so when sings about totalitarianism and “Chinese stew,” it doesn’t feel as fake as Bon Jovi writing about the Old West.
47. “Dead Horse” - Use Your Illusion I (1991)
If past lives are a thing, then Axl is the reincarnated Billy the Kid, or Janis Joplin with a penis. Which is utterly useless thinking as it relates to a song that isn't about an actual horse, or an “old cowboy,” but Axl’s frustration with a woman. Includes one of Slash's most throwaway solos.
46. “Street of Dreams” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
Every fanboy wanted this to be the next "November Rain," but ultra-personal lyrics like, “What I thought was beautiful don’t live inside of you anymore” and, “What I thought was true before were lies I couldn’t see” weren't grandiose enough to warrant the comparison.
45. “You're Crazy” (Acoustic) - GN'R Lies (1988)
A softer version of a song that's Appetite’s punkest rampage of leather, lipstick and crazy chick-syndrome. Ultimately a less electric version of the original, that's about it.
44. “Bad Obsession” - Use Your Illusion I (1991)
This is GNR reviving the Stones on a harmonica-driven drug song that strikes a balance between the silliness of “You Ain’t the First,” and the angry maleness of “Back Off Bitch.”
43. “Double Talkin' Jive” - Use Your Illusion I (1991)
A bluesy song by Izzy about GNR’s reckless past, with a reference to a head they actually discovered in a dumpster. The real kicker here is Slash’s Spanish guitar on the coda, which twinkles into the distance as the melancholic piano of “November Rain” takes over on the next track.
42. “You Ain't the First” - Use Your Illusion I (1991)
A drunken, stripped-down blues sing-along that feels like a less cheeky, more hillbilly version of “Used to Love Her.” Another song by Izzy that kinda sounds like Keef.
41. “Bad Apples” - Use Your Illusion I (1991)
GNR getting their funkiest on the intro is less interesting to me than hearing Axl ape Mick Jagger aping a black blues singer when he says, “I got some genuine, imitation baaaad apples.”
40. “You're Crazy” - Appetite for Destruction (1987)
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” needed to be followed by something fast, pissed-off and unambitious. This was it, a hard-hitting GNR track that captured the spirit of finding love on the sex-fueled Sunset Strip.
39. “Sorry” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
There’s a live performance of this from Rock in Rio 2011, where Axl’s wearing a yellow raincoat, drenched like Gene Kelly in “Singin' in the Rain,” giving the audience the crazy-eye and looking fuckin’ sinister (like he's got a dirty secret to tell). What a showman.
38. “So Fine” - Use Your Illusion II (1991)
Written by Duff as a love-letter to Johnny Thunders (who died in ’91), it includes Slash’s most gushingly romantic solo, along with Axl breathing heavily, like he's trying to have sex with Johnny Thunders, or just confuse us.
37. “Prostitute” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
An “incredible song,” according to GNR fanboy Nicolas Cage. “Prostitute” is a credit to Rose’s heart-on-sleeve lyricism as he sends a message to both his critics and fans. So it's not about a hooker, but a metaphor for being misunderstood and treated like one.
36. “Shotgun Blues” - Use Your Illusion II (1991)
Stripped-down rock & roll on an album filled with complex ballads. It's also intense because it's Axl quasi-threatening a girl with shotgun, in order to put her in her “motherfuckin’ place." Axl is every guy without their mother getting in the way of their id.
35. “Yesterdays” - Use Your Illusion II (1991)
In hindsight, I think of this as a cheerier take on the material covered in “Prostitute” and “Sorry,’’ which is the burden of fame and expectations. Incidentally, this one of six ballads on UYI II.
34. “Perfect Crime” - Use Your Illusion I (1991)
There’s a video out there of Axl performing this wearing an aircast and Marlboro T-shirt, dripping sweat and pounding out a caffeinated rain dance that captures everything this song is about: burying Appetite with firepower, paranoid rage, a Slash solo that might qualify as his most ballsy, and Izzy at his Keefest.
33. “Dust N' Bones” - Use Your Illusion I (1991)
A quintessential Izzy song that adds to his growing catalog of trashy but cool, sweaty, B-movie-inspired blues. It doesn’t appeal to the Axl shill in me — who wants, no needs something more ambitious.
32. “Anything Goes” - Appetite for Destruction (1987)
A raunchy song about rough-and-tumble sex that demonstrates what Steven Adler gave GNR: giddy recklessness, an "anything goes" unpredictability that defined their status as the Strip's uncivilized rebels.
31. “Think About You” - Appetite for Destruction (1987)
On the chorus, with Izzy playing lead, Slash trickles in a jangly acoustic guitar that sounds like something Johnny Marr would have played. Unfortunately, it's a track that got buried between the betrayal of “My Michelle” and earnestness “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
30. “Better” - Chinese Democracy (2008)
There’s an insane-asylum vibe to this song, a credit to Buckethead’s creepy funhouse guitar riff and solo. This should have been Chinese's first single because of how instantly gratifying it is. There's a music video out there, somewhere.
Fact: GNR’s last pre-Chinese Democracy music video was for their cover of The Skyliners' “Since I Don’t Have You."
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