Red Hot Chili Peppers' 20 Best Songs Ranked

Despite what cynics might say, RHCP have written some classics over the past 40 years

Photo: Matt Forsythe

BY Alex HudsonPublished Oct 12, 2022

It would be easy to write the Red Hot Chili Peppers off. Their horny funk-rap jams are sure to push the tolerance of anyone with a low threshold for cringe, and their revolving door of members has long prevented them from settling into the graceful late era one might expected from an arena rock band with a 40-year history. People sure love to bring up that famous Nick Cave quote — "I'm forever near a stereo saying, 'What the fuck is this garbage?' And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers" — which is admittedly quite funny.

But just when it seemed like the Chili Peppers might fade into irrelevance once and for all, they're back. The return of classic-era guitarist John Frusciante has yielded Unlimited Love, their best work in years, as well as the quick follow-up, Return of the Dream Canteen (out this Friday, October 14). With Frusciante back at their side, bassist Flea, singer Anthony Kiedis and drummer Chad Smith are finally taking their victory lap.

It's the perfect moment to acknowledge that, despite what cynics might say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have amassed some incredible songs over the past 40 years. They're a true singles band, responsible for enormous anthems that are perhaps the newest music regularly heard on classic rock radio.

With ubiquitous hits and a smattering of fan favourites, spanning elegant ballads and defiantly silly party jams, these are the Red Hot Chili Peppers' 20 best songs.

20. "Breaking the Girl"
Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)

There's nothing else in RHCP's catalogue quite like "Breaking the Girl" — a 12-string acoustic strummer in 6/8 time featuring Mellotron flute and a percussion solo played on trash cans and scrap metal. The textures are strange and lovely, but it's the melody that elevates it from curiosity to standout.

19. "Behind the Sun"
The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987)

The prevailing wisdom is that the addition of Frusciante pushed the band away from their funk-punk origins toward a more refined pop sensibility — but early highlight "Behind the Sun" suggests that transformation was already underway with original guitarist Hillel Slovak, who added a sitar to complement the song's psychedelic sweetness. In an apparent callback, recent single "Black Summer" namedrops the song: "No one stands alone behind the sun."

18. "Savior"
Californication (1999)

Kiedis's depraved upbringing with father Blackie Dammett is the stuff of legend, and there was even a planned HBO show about those wild years. But paternal tribute "Savior" has none of the salacious gossip — just forgiveness, and Kiedis's heartfelt revelation, "To celebrate you is greater now that I can."

17. "Dark Necessities"
The Getaway (2016)

Interim guitarist Josh Klinghoffer never quite managed to fill Frusciante's shoes — but by his second album with the group, produced by Danger Mouse, the new lineup began to find their groove. The Getaway's lead single, "Dark Necessities," perfectly matches the usual RHCP elements (Flea's slap bass, Kiedis's references to depression and addiction) with something new (vibey piano, atmospheric guitars that dissolve into the ether).

16. "Can't Stop"
By the Way (2002)

"Can't Stop" perfects the formula that RHCP laid out with "Around the World" and later ruined with "Tell Me Baby": gleeful funk-rock gibberish that blows wide open into gorgeous pop choruses. When people think of the quintessential Chili Peppers sound, this is probably it — all the more fitting, then, that it's a go-to set-opener at shows, with a feverishly building intro that's perfect for getting crowds hyped.

15. "Aeroplane"
One Hot Minute (1995)

Dave Navarro never gelled as the band's mid-'90s guitarist; even his pinnacle with the group, "Aeroplane," has a solo that sounds like it was plucked straight out of a Jane's Addiction song. But even if Navarro doesn't quite fit, his bandmates raise their game, with Flea slapping a melodic funk groove and Kiedis soulfully belting one of his best-ever vocal performances. It achieves takeoff during a soaring chorus that lives up to its own lyrics about music's transportive qualities.

14. "Venice Queen"
By the Way (2002)

RHCP tend to write by jamming, but By the Way is their deepest dive into a more refined, cerebral style of pop songwriting — and six-minute closer "Venice Queen" reveals the extent of their compositional mastery at that time. With Frusciante effortlessly gliding between minor-key moodiness and a triumphant major-key finale, and the rhythm section subtly building to support his arpeggios, Kiedis offers a beautiful tribute to his late drug counsellor, Gloria Scott: "I see you standing by the sea / The waves you made will always be / Your kiss goodbye before you leave / G-L-O-R-I-A is love."

13. "Slow Cheetah"
Stadium Arcadium (2006)

Stadium Arcadium contains some middling singles, like mid-tempo rockers "Dani California" and "Snow (Hey Oh)," which are huge hits but melodically pedestrian. The double album's true treasures are the deep cuts — like the spine-tingling ballad "Slow Cheetah," which features drop-dead gorgeous acoustic arpeggios from Frusciante, and a sublime outro that floats through a psychedelic netherworld of backmasking.

12. "Here Ever After"
Unlimited Love (2022)

Unlimited Love is notable for marking the long-awaited return of John Frusciante — but its best song finds him taking a backseat to the rhythm section. Frusciante brought the initial idea for "Here Ever After" to the rest of the band, and they absolutely ran with it, as Flea digs into a dirty post-punk bassline, Smith propels it forward with a thunderous tom groove, and Kiedis tears into giddy rhymes with a string of different deliveries and cadences.

11. "Otherside"
Californication (1999)

"Otherside" is a quintessential example of the band's strengths in the Californication era: a catchy riff and guitar solo so rudimentary that a beginner guitarist could learn them; a golden vocal hook with lyrics that cryptically allude to addiction and psychic pain; yearning harmonies that tap into the song's emotional core. The raw simplicity of "Otherside" leaves its aching feelings plainly exposed. Shame about the mastering.

10. "Soul to Squeeze"
Coneheads: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack (1993)

How on earth was this left off of Blood Sugar Sex Magik? This standout outtake, released as a single through the Coneheads soundtrack of all places, touches on some of the same sonic and thematic terrain as "Under the Bridge," with Frusciante going full Hendrix with chord embellishments and Kiedis offering a sobering reflection on addiction and his still-in-progress journey towards getting clean. Only Kiedis could tell a story this beautiful and then cap it off with a chorus of scatting: "Doo-doo dingle zing a dong bone / Ba-di ba-da ba-zumba crunga cong gone bad" is how it's widely transcribed online.

9. "By the Way"
By the Way (2002)

Ah, the dichotomy of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. About half of "By the Way" is a glimmering chorus full of honey-sweet harmonies and a classic pop chord progression. The other half is goofy funk-rap that's tailor-made for air-humping, with Flea attacking his bass as Kiedis spits non-sequiturs through a vocoder effect. Both parts are classic RHCP, and neither would be as good without the other.

8. "Californication"
Californication (1999)

The running joke about the Chili Peppers is that every single one of their songs is about California. Perhaps the most famous example is the title track of Californication, a wizened reflection on the band's home state that places California squarely at the centre of the universe, calling attention to both its artificiality and its influence. There's a reason why Kiedis keeps on returning to the state for lyrical inspiration: because he's really good at it.

7. "Knock Me Down"
Mother's Milk (1989)

The classic lineup's first album together offered this taste of the brilliance to come, as the band tapped into a tuneful sweetness previously missing from their catalogue — even as Flea's slapping and popping remained as aggressive as ever. Kiedis offers a vulnerable plea for friendship and support, with Frusciante answering his call by doubling the nascent singer's shaky vocal. "If you see my getting mighty / If you see me getting high / Knock me down / I'm not bigger than life," they howl in unison — a request that would soon be put to the test by the band's quickly rising fame.

6. "Don't Forget Me"
By the Way (2002)

Even RHCP's silliest, sunniest songs have an undercurrent of pain and darkness. "Don't Forget Me" takes that shadowy subtext and blows it up to grand proportions, with Flea ka-chunking his way through a progression of ominous power chords as Frusciante conjures otherworldly textures with his two-hand tapping. Kiedis's lyrics obliquely allude to addiction and self-destruction — but it's his pained, wordless yowl in the chorus that says the most.

5. "Give It Away"
Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)

Leave it to Anthony Kiedis to somehow find a way to roll the non-existent "r" in the phrase "give it away." Of the band's pure funk-rap material, "Give It Away" is the peak — a frenzied outpouring of exaggerated bass slides, choppy chromatic guitar riffs and absolutely gigantic drum fills, with Kiedis spitting an anti-materialist manifesto that essentially boils down to: wealth bad, sex good. With a bigger recording budget and Rick Rubin producing, they managed to refine the dynamics of their early sound without sacrificing any of the youthful energy. 

4. "This Velvet Glove"
Californication (1999)

Buried in the back half of Californication and never released as a single, this haunting highlight finds RHCP at their most heartfelt and meditative. Frusciante carries this gorgeous song through its emotional peaks and valleys, his chiming guitar riff and ghostly harmonies laying the groundwork for a towering, cathartic chorus. The band have only played it live a handful of times, likely due to the way it relies on two distinct guitar parts, keeping it relegated as perhaps their finest deep cut.

3. "Wet Sand"
Stadium Arcadium (2006)

This beloved fan favourite is the glorious pinnacle of Stadium Arcadium's two-and-a-half-hour runtime, its suite-like structure gradually building before crescendoing in an epically layered refrain: "You don't form in the wet sand." It's sage-like proverb that's better felt than understood, its exact meaning left unclear. After that, there's only one place for the song to go: a gut-wrenching "YEAHHH" from Frusciante followed by one of the most epic guitar solos he's ever committed to tape. 

2. "Under the Bridge"
Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)

No wonder it's their most popular song — "Under the Bridge" is a plainspoken, universally relatable expression of loneliness, which takes on new meaning when considered in the context of heroin addiction. Inspired by a rock-bottom moment in which Kieidis bought drugs under a bridge in downtown Los Angeles, producer Rick Rubin gets the credit for recognizing that this poem from the singer's notebook should be turned into a song. After wandering the city alone, the vocalist finally finds "the place I love" amidst Frusciante's finest Hendrixisms and a literal choir of angels.

1. "Scar Tissue"
Californication (1999)

Red Hot Chili Peppers conquered the music world in the early '90s, but then spent most of the decade floundering, torn apart by addiction. Frusciante was newly clean, while Kiedis was still grappling with demons when the classic lineup reunited with a renewed sense of gratitude for their musical and brotherly bond. Their comeback single was "Scar Tissue" — a simple, stripped-down song that contends with all of the pain while finding joy in an achingly beautiful chord progression. Kiedis revisits the lyrical themes that made "Under the Bridge" so devastating, once again feeling alienated from humanity and finding a companion in his surroundings: "With birds I'll share this lonely view." As is so often the case in RHCP's best songs, it's Frusciante who pushes the song to its emotional peak, delivering three weeping slide solos that illustrate how these four musicians continue to bring the best out in one another.

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