The Foo Fighters released their 10th album last week. It’s called Medicine At Midnight. As a person professionally obligated to listen to every new Foo Fighters LP, I am sad to report that it is not very good, just as the previous two Foo Fighters albums aren’t very good.
However, this band does have some songs that are, in fact, good.
After revisiting the band’s catalogue in recent weeks, I have deduced that there are exactly 30 good Foo Fighters songs. I have listed them here in order of personal preference, along with detailed explanations about how this band, one of the most popular mainstream rock acts of the last 25 years, got to where they are.
What have we done with innocence? Let’s find out now, together.
30. “Good Grief”
My favorite Foo Fighters album is the self-titled 1995 debut, which I feel like used to be the consensus choice for the band’s best record but now seems largely forgotten. When I saw the Foo Fighters perform in 2018, I was disappointed that they didn’t play a single song from the first record. It’s not as if the setlist didn’t have room for it — as it was, the show was larded with a drum solo and a guitar solo, as well as numerous classic rock covers. I suspect Foo Fighters has been memory-holed because it’s not a band record, but rather a glorified demo made almost entirely by Grohl. (It’s his version of Paul McCartney’s first post-Beatles solo record.) That homemade quality is what I love about it, along with the quality of the songs, many of which you’ll see later on this list. This is also the only Foo Fighters album that would describe as genuinely heroic, even more than the LP that literally has “My Hero” on it. The Foo Fighters are now looked at not only as the epitome of a middle-of-the-road mainstream rock band, but also as an inevitable band, the sort of act that we are destined to see play award shows and presidential inaugurations and all other public fetes from now until the end of time. But when this album dropped in 1995, it was genuinely shocking that the drummer from Nirvana put out a record and it included so many immediate and catchy songs like “Good Grief” on it. Do you remember Sweet 75, the band that Krist Novoselic started after Nirvana ended? Of course not. And there was good reason to assume that nobody would remember the Foo Fighters beyond the mid-’90s, either. And yet.
Technically a Nirvana song — it was the B-side of “Heart Shaped Box” — though I’m counting it here because it was included on the live album Skin And Bones. It also feels more like a Foo Fighters song than a Nirvana song, in that it’s presented openly and without apology as a pop song. “Marigold” ultimately signifies exactly how marginal Dave Grohl was as a songwriter at the beginning of the Foo Fighters. During the band’s first tour, which took place before the debut came out, fans constantly requested this song because it was the only Grohl composition they were familiar with.
28. “I Should Have Known”
In the underrated and surprisingly candid 2011 band documentary Foo Fighters: Back And Forth, Grohl speaks with still-apparent resentment about how during the first few years of the band, everything he did was filtered by the media through the lens of Kurt Cobain and his suicide. This ranged from the first album’s cover (an otherwise harmless photo of a vintage toy gun) to the lyrics, which Grohl (somewhat perversely) took pains to explain meant absolutely nothing. Almost two decades later, Grohl’s view on leveraging Cobain to promote his band evolved somewhat — in the documentary, it is implied (though not explicitly confirmed) that one of the big ballads from Wasting Light, “I Should Have Known,” was inspired by Grohl’s late, great former bandmate. This is underlined by the inclusion of Krist Novoselic on bass, the only time two-thirds of Nirvana have ever reunited on a Foo Fighters record. It’s also possible that Grohl was just looking for an excuse to learn more about Gary Johnson.
By the time Wasting Light was released, the Foo Fighters had long since stepped out of Nirvana’s shadow, which no doubt made Grohl less touchy about evoking his old band. In the early days of Grohl’s new band, it seemed as though he was consciously following in Cobain’s footsteps — their first tour was an opening slot for Mike Watt of the Minutemen. In a 1995 Rolling Stone interview, Grohl talked about limiting the Foo Fighters’ media exposure. (“We don’t want to spend too much time whoring ourselves around.”) But what made the Foo Fighters ultimately successful was Grohl remaking them as Nirvana’s antithesis — their brand is consistently turning out songs like “Rope” that work extremely well on rock radio and on stage in arenas. If you look at it up close, “Rope” makes no sense whatsoever. But it’s not designed for close examination. Like so many popular Foo Fighters songs, “Rope” is all about making a statement in the chorus — “Give me some rope, I’m coming loose” — that makes emotional sense, particularly when set to football highlights or a movie montage of guys being dudes.
26. “Skin And Bones”
Spoiler alert: There are no songs on this list released after Wasting Light. The three Foo Fighters albums since then, including the new one, are stuffed with awkward experiments that gamely (but unsuccessfully) attempt to expand their sonic terrain. Tempos lurch along with pointlessly complicated time signatures, gestures toward vaguely funky grooves fall flat, and Grohl does his hopped-up “Lemmy with the disposition of Paul Stanley” holler to no avail. This is a band with precious few deep cuts or interesting stylistic diversions — the most popular Foo Fighters songs are almost always the best Foo Fighters songs. Having said that, I am sort of fascinated by Grohl’s detour into thinking-bro’s folk-rock in the mid-aughts, when he picked up an acoustic guitar, expanded his band to include the keyboardist from The Wallflowers, and flirted with becoming the Gen-X Tom Petty. The folkiest tracks on albums like In Your Honor and Skin And Bones sound more like Bon Jovi’s country era than Wildflowers, though the title track from Skin And Bones is a keeper from this period.
25. “Have It All”
The most honest part of Back And Forth is how open all the other guys in the band are about how lucky they feel to be in Dave Grohl’s orbit. Grohl has a habit of hiring musicians whose previous bands — The Germs, Sunny Day Real Estate, No Use For A Name — either imploded or never made it past the “low level” grinding stage. This could be contextualized as part of Grohl’s good-guy image (he’s keeping middle-aged punks employed!) or, perhaps, taken as evidence that he likes to surround himself with people who will feel indebted to him. Either way, it has unquestionably shaped the Foo Fighters. The period when Grohl seemed less in control of the band was also their least stable — after The Colour And The Shape in 1997, drummer William Goldsmith and guitarist Pat Smear exited, and then Smear’s replacement Franz Stahl (from Grohl’s pre-Nirvana band, Scream) was fired within a few years of being hired. The band almost broke up for good during the making of 2002’s One By One, which coincided with Grohl’s instantly iconic dalliance as the drummer for Queens Of The Stone Age. You can hear the QOTSA influence on songs like “Have It All,” which has a very Songs For The Deaf-style battering-ram guitar lick. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous to think that Grohl would stop being the frontman of a successful rock band in order to be the drummer of a less successful rock band. But that apparently was a legitimate fear inside the Foo Fighters camp at the time. After One By One, Grohl more or less asserted himself as the benevolent dictator of the Foo Fighters, and they’ve been more or less steady ever since.
Since I’m already psychoanalyzing One By One era Dave Grohl to a possibly inappropriate degree, I might as well add that this song to me feels like a comment on Grohl’s own image as rock’s ultimate nice guy, and how that obscures the more calculating and ambitious guy underneath. Foo Fighters lyrics, again, are often meaningless by design, so I’m likely reading too much into this. But there is something intriguing about Grohl writing a song that at least hints at inner conflict: “Good and bad / I swear I’ve had them both, they’re overrated.”
23. “These Days”
The problem I have with writing about the Foo Fighters is that while I appreciate what they do and find Dave Grohl generally to be a very appealing personality, any words I actually type come out sounding more negative than I probably intend: For instance: This is a band that eventually learned to play ball without equivocation, no matter Grohl’s early comments about being averse to “whoring” himself. In a 2007 Spin profile, the Foo Fighters rationalize providing exclusives to Wal-Mart to coincide with a new album release. “Anything that has to do with promoting the music through a chain that will sell albums we kind of feel okay about,” Grohl says. And that mentality filters down to their songs, which sometimes sound like they were made with direct input from radio program directors in Cincinnati and Tulsa. Like the part in “These Days,” when Grohl barges into the minor-key bridge with, “Easy for you TO SAY!” You won’t find a more Foo Fighters-esque musical flourish than that. So … yeah, this all sounds critical, but in this case I’ll also add that “These Days” is a good corporate rock song.
22. “Gimme Stitches”
How about some straightforward, unambiguous Foo Fighters praise? One of their best albums is 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose, recorded when the band was reduced to a trio composed of Grohl, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer Taylor Hawkins. Hawkins later said that he lobbied to keep them as a three-piece, and I kind of agree with him — There Is Nothing Left To Lose actually sounds like it has some space in the music. It also has an uncommonly deep bench of non-hits for a Foo Fighters album, including this very likable mid-tempo rocker about how Dave Grohl is really into sutures.
There’s Nothing Left To Lose is also one of the mellower Foo Fighters albums, a result of listening “to too much mellow ’70s gold, Fleetwood Mac-type stuff while recording,” Grohl explained to Spin in 1999. But unlike their mid-aughts “acoustic” period, the gentleness of songs like “Aurora” don’t feel like a departure as much as a necessary tempering of the band’s increasingly hectoring style.
20. “Hey, Johnny Park!”
My second favorite Foo Fighters album is their second album, The Colour And The Shape, just as the first album is my No. 1 fave and their third and fourth albums, There Is Nothing Left To Lose and One By One, are my third and fourth faves. (This makes listening to the Foo Fighters discography in order easy in terms of ranking, and also very difficult once you get to the fifth album and beyond.) The Colour And The Shape is the one most likely to be cited by younger punk and emo bands as an influence, given that it’s the Foo Fighters record that most resembles Sunny Day Real Estate and Jimmy Eat World, particularly “Hey, Johnny Park,” which has a very eccentric title relative to the monosyllabic monikers that will be affixed to subsequent Foo Fighters radio jams.
19. “Wind Up”
The thing people always mention about The Colour And The Shape is that Grohl played all the drum parts, effectively erasing the band’s actual drummer, William Goldsmith. To his credit, Grohl lets Goldsmith (as well as the similarly disgruntled Franz Stahl) say their piece in Back And Forth, which in Goldsmith’s case is basically that Grohl re-recorded his parts behind his back and made him feel awful about his own playing. Most music documentaries white-wash any negativity in their history, so I genuinely respect Grohl for allowing Goldsmith to glower resentfully in the movie’s opening third. Of course, I suspect that Grohl also knows what is obvious to everyone who has heard The Colour And The Shape: Dave Grohl’s drums parts are sick on this record. Just listen to “Wind Up.” With all due respect to William Goldsmith, I am glad that Dave Grohl sabotaged his bandmate’s fragile confidence so I can feel this song pummel the hell out of me.
Another song perfectly suited for highlight reels on football pre-game shows, in which a key line in the chorus — “I’M LEARNIN’ TO WALK AGAIN!!” — works as an emotionally direct if intellectually vague sentiment that can work in any context requiring an inspirational rallying of the human spirit. “I’M LEARNIN’ TO WALK AGAIN!!” can apply to an athlete returning to the field after an injury (literal interpretation) or some other setback, like a sex scandal or a costly divorce (figurative interpretation).
The Foo Fighters’ strategic shift from the low-key indie rock of the debut to a slicker and more commercial hard rock sound in the late ’90s coincided with the rise of American Pie rock, an extremely shiny brand of dude-centric guitar music that soundtracked the extremely shiny and dude-centric slob-comedy series. I mistakenly believed that “Breakout” was in either the first or second American Pie film, but it was actually featured in the 2000 Farrelly Brothers comedy Me, Myself and Irene, which actually makes it seem even more dated. (For the record, the Foo Fighters have a song, “Times Like These,” on the soundtrack to the third American Pie movie, American Wedding.)
16. “Big Me”
Grohl refused to make a video for the first Foo Fighters single, “This Is A Call,” but he relented for the second single, “I’ll Stick Around.” By the fourth single, “Big Me,” he decided to make a funny video, which would become a band trademark. I’ve often argued that Nirvana is a funnier band than it gets credit for — for instance, people in 2021 no longer realize that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a joke about an underarm deodorant that was advertised incessantly on MTV. The video for “Big Me” similarly spoofs a very ’90s ad campaign for Mentos candy, but even if you don’t get the reference, the Foos came off as very charming in both the video and the song, a simple and brisk homage to the mid-’60s power-pop Beatles.
15. “Oh, George”
The recent New York Times profile of the Foo Fighters describes Dave Grohl as an “everyman” who stands apart from the deity-like rock stars of the past. Of course, Grohl hangs out with many of those deities, including Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. But it is true that he carries himself like journeyman, which carries over to the professional if unsexy image of his band. It makes sense then that the Beatle Grohl most identified with wasn’t Paul but George — he could have picked Ringo but Grohl clearly isn’t completely egoless. This song from the first Foo Fighters album is a musical tribute to Harrison, with a melody that recalls a grunged-up “Something” and a slide guitar solo that evokes George’s impeccable tone.
14. “All My Life”
If you’ve seen Grohl’s captivating 2014 HBO series Sonic Highways, you know that he has a thing for buildings where songs are recorded. The year before that series, he directed the film Sound City, about the famed L.A. recording studio. And he’s often made the location of the particular studio he’s using part of the narrative of his albums — Wasting Light was the “garage” record (though Dave’s garage is almost certainly nicer than your house and practically any professional recording studio) and There Is Nothing Left To Lose and One By One are both “basement” records (I haven’t seen those specific basements but I’m guessing I’d want to move my family inside of them). In Back And Forth, Grohl is especially proud that One By One‘s signature hit, “All My Life,” was recorded in a basement after he opted to not release a version made in a fancy million-dollar studio. For the listener, this undoubtedly means bupkis, as this enormous howler sounds like it was made in a basement built out of diamond-studded gold bricks.
13. “Monkey Wrench”
The first single from The Colour And The Shape created an entirely new template for the Foo Fighters moving forward. All of their big radio hits from here on out somehow touch on “Monkey Wrench” — that jackhammer riff, the carefully placed lyric that stands out amid a lot of nonsense (“What have we done with innocence?”) and that bridge where Grohl starts shouting and then really shouting and then just screaming incomprehensible grunts (the “one last thing before I quit” section). While the first album is strongly indebted to Nirvana, “Monkey Wrench” sounds like a full-fledged Foo Fighters song. Grohl found his blueprint and he was prepared to work it over. And over and over.
12. “Alone + Easy Target”
To be clear: I really like Grohl’s “sounds like Nirvana” era. During an era when so many alt-lite bands were trying to rip off Nirvana, Grohl did it the best, especially with this song. Even Kurt Cobain loved it when Grohl played him a demo version back in 1991, shortly after the release of Nevermind. “I’d told him I was recording and he said, ‘Oh, I wanna hear it, bring it by…,'” Grohl told Mojo in 2009. “He was sitting in the bath-tub with a Walkman on, listening to the song, and when the tape ended he took the headphones off and kissed me and said, ‘Oh, finally, now I don’t have to be the only songwriter in the band!’ I said, No, no, no, I think we’re doing just fine with your songs.”
11. “Stacked Actors”
As we’ve established, Foo Fighters songs are not celebrated for Elvis Costello levels of wordplay. Which is why it’s worth celebrating “Stacked Actors,” possibly the meanest song in the Foo Fighters catalogue. Grohl has long denied that it is about Courtney Love but it seems pretty obviously to be about Courtney Love. “Stacked dead actors / stacked to the rafters / line up you bastards all I want is the truth . . . They all dye blonde. . .” Added Taylor Hawkins in 2018: “Oh, there’s a sentence or two probably dedicated to her. Dave would never fully admit it to you, but I know.”
10. “The Pretender”
This is the last Foo Fighters song to enter the Billboard Top 40, peaking at No. 37. It seems incredible in retrospect that any Foo Fighters song would actually compete on the pop chart, though it speaks to how closely this band was aligned with the wants and needs of radio in the ’90s and aughts. (And also how mainstream rock stuck around in that realm longer than you might think.) Along with being a big hit, “The Pretender” might very well be the most mid-aughts mid-aughts rock song of all time. Nothing about the mix is subtle; it cuts through any room like a chainsaw through a cream pie. The chorus is classic Foos-ian hectoring — as I prepared to write this list, I had “What if I say I’m not like the others?!” echoing in my mind like a car alarm.
9. “Next Year”
I honestly dig big dumb radio rock like “The Pretender,” but I also wish Grohl had pursued more songs that are the complete opposite of “The Pretender,” like this wistful mid-tempo pop song from There’s Nothing Left To Lose. At some point, Grohl became so attuned to writing songs that would put the Foo Fighters in heavy rotation on every modern rock station in the country that he downplayed his more sensitive, Beatlesque side. Like “Big Me,” “Next Year” suggests that Grohl could’ve cultivated a Teenage Fanclub counterpoint in Foo Fighters to the more bombastic songs. Then again, in that scenario he might have ended up selling as many albums as Teenage Fanclub.
Another path that Grohl chose not to pursue further. Kurt Cobain unsurprisingly loved this demo as well, and you could almost imagine it on the follow-up to In Utero that Nirvana never got to make. Ultimately, a song as drone-y and, well, exhausted as this doesn’t really fit with the world-conquering vibe of subsequent Foo Fighters records. An incredible vibe nonetheless.
7. “Learn To Fly”
This once was the funniest Foo Fighters video, and now it’s the most problematic. Gay stereotypes, body shaming, Tenacious D — I’m sad to report that the “Learn To Fly” clip has not stood the test of time. (On the plus side, Taylor Hawkins remains a beautiful woman.) Nevertheless, this is one of the most purely enjoyable Foo Fighters songs, and a pretty good almost-repurposing of a Tom Petty song title.
6. “This Is A Call”
Grohl’s invitation to join Petty’s band, The Heartbreakers, shortly after the end of Nirvana in 1994 is another vital part of Foo Fighters mythology. Though unlike the trumped-up tale about the band’s supposed near-implosion after Grohl joined Queens Of The Stone Age, this actually seems pretty plausible. At the start of the Foo Fighters, Grohl really was known only as an incredible rock drummer. And Petty, along with Neil Young, was the most credible boomer-era rocker among Gen-Xers in the ’90s. Grohl’s lone appearance with Petty on Saturday Night Live remains one of that show’s great musical moments. Having him sit in with The Heartbreakers, even for one album, would have been incredible. But Grohl, to his credit, seemed to know what he had with that initial collection of songs, which kicks off with “This Is A Call,” one of the great side 1, track 1’s on a debut ever.
5. “Best Of You”
The one Foo Fighters song that can be semi-credibly considered a standard, though I might be overrating the importance of Prince performing it once at the Super Bowl. But if you want a big-sounding song about how something is the best, this is the best song about how something is the best. If it’s not the best, it’s certainly the most song about the best, in that it says “the best” (the best the best the best) more than any other song I can think of.
4. “I’ll Stick Around”
More than any other song on the first Foo Fighters record, this was the one most presumed to be about Kurt Cobain and definitely the track that sounds the most like Nirvana. The fact that “I’ll Stick Around” is among a small handful of tunes from that album written after Cobain died only added to that perception. Grohl ultimately denied this, claiming to Rolling Stone that “it would fucking break my heart to think that people are under that impression.” But regardless of whether “I’ll Stick Around” is literally about Cobain matters less than how this song evokes the anger and darkness of Cobain’s best songs. Grohl’s own insecurity and desire to prove himself at this juncture no doubt gives this song a lot of its power. Many of the most popular Foo Fighters songs have a He-Man quality, just brute displays of strength from an institution of unquestioned supremacy. But “I’ll Stick Around” derives from a time when Grohl really was kind of an underdog, and that scrappiness is what makes this song so appealing to me even after all this time.
3. “My Hero”
The best song from the “sports highlight reel” subgenre of Foo Fighters tunes. Dave Grohl somehow wrote this song for Varsity Blues a full 20 months before Varsity Blues was released.
2. “Times Like These”
Being a mainstream rock band requires being really obvious in a way that also satisfies the public’s craving for basic anthems without making them feel embarrassed about it. This song is the Foo Fighters’ greatest achievement in that regard. It’s the kind of song you turn to after being fired from a job or getting dumped by your romantic partner, and you’re devastated and in need of consolation and not presently equipped to deal with poetry or metaphor. You just want someone to lay on a chunky guitar riff like it’s an arm around your shoulder, and you want that person to say, “It’s times like these you learn to live again / It’s times like these you give and give again / It’s times like these you learn to love again / It’s times like these time and time again.” The next morning you might find this to be a little “too on the nose,” as music critics like to say on the internet. At the very least, you’ll wonder if he really had to say “times like these” so many times. But this won’t matter, because the Foo Fighters were there when you needed them.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, we finally arrive at “Everlong.” If you make a list of Foo Fighters songs and don’t put “Everlong” at No. 1, you are trying too hard to be interesting. You are also the kind of person who believes he is a charming gadfly but in reality is a boor that people instinctively avoid at parties. It’s just the truth: The gap between “Everlong” and every other Foo Fighters song is wider than it is for any other major rock band with their best song vs. the rest of their catalogue. It’s not merely the best Foo Fighters song — it’s the best Foo Fighters song by a mile. I’ve seen people argue that “Everlong” is better than any Nirvana song, and while I think that’s untrue I would put “Everlong” among the Top 10 Nirvana songs if Dave had somehow dated Veruca Salt’s Louise Post five years earlier and broken up with her and felt inspired to write this song and convinced Kurt to put it on In Utero. This is the one Foo Fighters song that Bob Dylan loves — he was especially partial to the line “You’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when,” which really is killer — and it’s probably the one Foo Fighters song that Martin Scorsese has ever heard, which explains how it ended up in The Wolf Of Wall Street. The greatness of “Everlong” is just undeniable. The melody is fantastic, Grohl sings the hell out of it, the guitars consciously evoke Sonic Youth, and it’s the rare Foo Fighters song that sounds powerful without the band trying too hard. If only everything could ever be this real forever.