This week, Guns N’ Roses’ 1987 debut Appetite For Destruction turns 35. Incredibly, recognizing this is not purely a nostalgic exercise. Appetite is one of the most popular albums of the 1980s, and it’s also one of the most popular albums of today.
This is partly due to the recent blockbuster Thor: Love And Thunder, whose GNR-heavy soundtrack has once again pushed “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to the upper reaches of the charts. But those songs, as well as other GNR classics, were wracking up millions (and in some cases billions) of streams well before the MCU. Initially associated with the L.A. glam rock scene of the late ’80s, Guns N’ Roses have transcended this ephemeral pigeonhole to achieve a level of superstardom that is rarely reserved for taboo-smashing, profanity-spitting, and riot-causing rock ‘n’ roll bands. In terms of his stature and enduring prominence in pop culture, GNR singer Axl Rose is closer to Michael Jackson or Prince than he is to Vince Neil or Bret Michaels.
Not bad for a band that has only put out four albums of original material, along with an EP, a covers record, and a double-live LP. How did they make such a big impact? Join me as I explore the career and catalog of this often brilliant and always tumultuous band.
Do you know where you are? You’re reading a list of my 40 favorite GNR songs! You’re gonna diiiiiiiiiiii—ve into some really good tunes!
40. “Madagascar” (2008)
This is a story, before anything else, of redemption. It might in fact be the greatest comeback in rock ‘n’ roll history. A tale of a band that imploded in spectacular fashion, remained a smoking carcass in all but name only for many years, and then re-emerged as a shockingly good live outfit that grossed nearly $600 million on a three-and-a-half-year reunion tour in the late 2010s.
The return of Guns N’ Roses, once an implausible dream for heshers everywhere, is almost taken for granted now. But let’s not take it for granted. Let’s instead go to the absolute lowest point in their trajectory in order to understand just how far they’ve come.
After I saw Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis earlier this month — a surprisingly good film, give Austin Butler an Oscar! — I thought about how what happened to Elvis could have easily happened to Axl. For a while there it seemed like it was happening to Axl. One low point was a Rolling Stone cover story from 2000 titled “Axl Rose: The Lost Years” which portrayed him as a misanthropic recluse with a limited inner circle that included a psychic from Sedona, Arizona known among associates as “Yoda.” Another low point was a New York Times article from 2005 that cast doubt on whether the long-gestating album, Chinese Democracy, would ever be released. At that point the LP had been endlessly delayed and re-recorded and delayed again and remixed and delayed and re-written and so on for more than a decade. It took so damn long that one of Axl’s many recording engineers, Billy Howerdel, formed a new band during some downtime with one-time Guns drummer Josh Freese. The group, A Perfect Circle, then started recording their debut, Mer De Noms, which came out in 2000 and sold 1.7 million copies, all while Axl pored through hundreds of CDs containing thousands of song fragments he would never end up developing.
All of this is bad, but I pinpoint the low point for Axl and the GNR brand as August 29, 2002, the date of the MTV Video Music Awards. If you haven’t seen GNR’s show-ending performance, I can’t in good faith recommend that you watch it now. (I am not one to foist spoiled meat on unwitting diners.)
Let me describe it for you: Jimmy Fallon (who looks like he’s 12) introduces them. He is extremely excited. Probably too excited. This is not the Ritz in 1988. Slash, Duff, Izzy, and Steven are not walking through that door. When we finally see the band, it’s deeply … strange. Imagine you’ve been promised Led Zeppelin and it’s Robert Plant and three guys who look like the cast of The Fifth Element (and also Tommy Stinson). The cognitive dissonance is off the charts. And then you start to notice that even Axl … is not quite Axl. His face is waxy and pulled tight across his feline skull; he looks like a mannequin who had Axl Rose’s face painted over its own face.
When he asks us if we know where we are as the atomic riff for “Welcome To The Jungle” informs us that we’re all about to die, it’s clear from the jump that Axl’s voice is shot. A few minutes later, you hear Axl’s lungs scream for mercy as the man himself tries in vain to scream the lyrics. When he tries to do the Axl dance, that snaky shimmy that he once used to seduce a generation of teenagers in the 1980s, he looks sluggish and winded. Axl’s once lithe bod now appears stocky underneath a baggy jersey and husky leather pants. And are those … cornrows? WTF? It’s enough to send a GNR fan to his kn-kn-kn-kn-kn-knees, knees.
I am not the first person to observe that the 2002 VMAs performances of two Appetite For Destruction classics, “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Paradise City,” are not up to snuff. However, I will be among the first to point out that the song between those classics, “Madagascar,” actually sounds pretty good. Axl’s voice is tough and piercing, Dizzy Reed’s synths are epic, and the Martin Luther King sample has not yet been included. I respect it!
39. “Sorry” (2008)
I’m going to underline a point that was implied in the previous paragraph: I love Chinese Democracy. I love that it’s probably the most expensive album ever made. (Allegedly at least $13 million, though that figure was reported in 2005 and the album came out three years later.) I love that Moby at one point was slated to produce it. (He even praised Axl’s use of loops! Eleven years before the record was released!) I love the story about how GNR’s infinitely (stupidly?) patient record label, Geffen, sent Axl a stack of CDs highlighting other potential producers, and Axl responded by running over those CDs with his car. (I’m hoping it was his silver Ferrari.) I love that Axl tried to keep Buckethead, one of his many guitar players, from leaving the project by building him his own chicken coop in the studio, because Buckethead said he wanted a chicken coop in the studio for some reason. (Buckethead surely wanted to see just how preposterous the making of Chinese Democracy could be, and the answer was: “extremely preposterous.”) I love to imagine the possibility that someone was filming all of this and we’ll eventually get a Get Back-style documentary about the making of Chinese Democracy. (I demand that this theoretical movie have a running time of at least 72 hours.)
I also love Chinese Democracy because I think … it’s actually a very good album. Seriously! There are lot of legitimate bangers on Chinese Democracy, as we’ll discuss as this list unfolds. For now, let’s praise this doom-y slice of Floydian space rock with many mind-splitting guitar solos. Oh, the many mind-splitting guitar solos of Chinese Democracy! (What if I told you that Axl was trying to make a hard-rock Steely Dan record with Chinese Democracy? You would think I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.)
In the lyrics, Axl seems to be railing against Slash for exposing him as a megalomaniacal weirdo in his 2007 memoir, Slash: The Autobiography: “Nobody owes you / Not one god damn thing / You know where to put your / Just shut up and sing.” Though it should be noted that Axl Rose was the first person to expose Axl Rose as a megalomaniacal weirdo
38. “Move To The City” (1988)
The first step in appreciating Chinese Democracy is thinking of it not as a Guns N’ Roses record, but as an Axl Rose solo joint, because that’s precisely what it is. Though Chinese Democracy isn’t wholly unique in GNR’s discography as a reboot. Pretty much every GNR album is a reboot, with former members replaced with new ones as Axl aspires to reach even higher levels of grandiosity. Certainly that was also the case for the Use Your Illusion records, in which the guttersnipes of the late ’80s were refashioned as an almost comically bombastic Jim Steinman fever dream brought to larger-than-life reality.
But back to the guttersnipe era: In this song from GN’R Lies, the band’s debt to mid-’70s Aerosmith is fully accounted for. Slash’s favorite band, Aerosmith set the template for the syringe-drunk blues-metal swagger followed by tunes like “Move To The City” with 1976’s immortal Rocks, the missing link between Exile On Main St. and Appetite For Destruction in the charismatic dirtbag rock canon. Though it’s also worth noting how this song also harks back to the relatively innocent teenage rebellions of Chuck Berry, albeit with a junkie’s switchblade edge: “You stole your mama’s car / And your daddy’s plastic credit card / You’re sixteen and you can’t get a job / You’re not goin’ very far.”
37. “You Ain’t The First” (1991)
“Move To The City” was co-written by GNR’s original and now prodigal rhythm guitarist, Izzy Stradlin, who is also the sole writer of this song. For a certain kind of fan, GNR died the moment Izzy walked out the door during the early stages of the Use Your Illusion tour in 1991. He’s an easy guy to romanticize — on “You Ain’t The First,” he’s the embodiment of Guns’ Beggars Banquet side, which is among the aspects of GNR that have aged the best. It’s also impossible to imagine Appetite For Destruction without his instigating song ideas and the relentless, syncopated strum of his guitar. On the other hand, his solo work is mostly undistinguished — as Axl’s songs grew more and more stupidly complicated, Izzy’s tunes become more and more stupidly simple, like 1999’s “Here Comes The Rain,” in which Izzy repeats those four words and only those four words about 175 times. But what can’t be denied is that Izzy is just straight-up cool. Axl is capable of many things, but he could never rhyme “farewell” with “your jivin’s been hell.”
36. “Breakdown” (1991)
While I love Chinese Democracy, I fucking love the Use Your Illusion albums. But even people who fucking love the Use Your Illusion albums tend to (incorrectly) describe them as bloated. This is probably due to the total minutes spread across both albums — 152 and some change — but the songs themselves are fairly lean and straightforward. (I would also argue that hits-to-duds ratio is very much in GNR’s favor, but I’ll let that case unfold gradually as we move through the list.) While the making of both records dragged on for 20 months, that was mostly because Axl spent months overdubbing synths while the rest of the band (save Izzy) was mainlining vodka and cocaine in days-long binges. When they actually hunkered down to work, they were efficient — amazingly so, in fact. According to both Slash and Duff’s books — Duff published his memoir, It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, in 2012 — they laid down basic tracks for 36 songs in 36 days. This tune was one of the more difficult to nail, given all the tempo changes that gave new drummer Matt Sorum fits. But they still made it through in time to resume their binging after work.
35. “Garden Of Eden” (1991)
Here’s a punk-rock song from Use Your Illusion I that sounds like it was knocked out in five minutes, with Axl screeching a mile-a-minute about race wars, exploitive sex, phony politicians, and the power of rock ‘n’ roll. How does he define rock ‘n’ roll? This lyric fits the bill: “I read it on a wall, it went straight to my head / It said, ‘Dance to the tension of a world on edge.'”
34. “There Was A Time” (2008)
It’s tempting to equate the Use Your Illusion records with the Beatles’ “White Album,” only nothing on either Use Your Illusion volume sounds as deliberately tossed-off as “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road.” (Not even “My World,” which his Axl doin’ it in the road with himself.) Axl Rose is simply incapable of not trying hard. But at least there are tracks like “Garden Of Eden” that are “only” glorious noise and not stabs at creating all-time epics.
With Chinese Democracy, however, the goal was to make every utterance the greatest utterance to ever appear on a stadium rock LP. Here we have what’s ostensibly a deep cut, a relatively minor way station on the way to more momentous songs, and it sounds like “Bitter Sweet Symphony” as produced by Roy Thomas Baker and pumped up with the best guitar solos Geffen’s money could buy, like The Edge channeling Eddie Van Halen while jumping out of a plane with Dimebag Darrell.
33. “Better” (2008)
A criticism of Chinese Democracy is that Axl appeared to be influenced by trends in ’90s alt-rock that would have been relevant had the album come out 10 years earlier, but already sounded dated in 2008. In a sense, this is true, as the album often sounds like an attempt to meld Achtung Baby with The Downward Spiral inside the framework of a preposterously rich and famous hard rock band. But that matters less now that we’re 14 years removed from the release; the anachronisms of Chinese Democracy are now part of what’s interesting about it.
There’s also Axl’s keen pop sense, always his secret weapon, which did not abandon him no matter how complex this album gets. Even at his most insane, Axl can rant melodically and in a very catchy fashion. This song is the most obvious example; it’s a sticky Christina Aguilera bubblegum pop tune as sung by a damaged and paranoid 46-year-old rock genius.
32. “Dust N Bones” (1991)
Another “Izzy being cool as hell” track. Such was his vaunted status in the band right before he left that he was granted the second track on both Use Your Illusion records. And in both songs, he appears to write about the same subject — his fraught friendship with Axl, under the guise of complaining about a bad romantic relationship. In “Dust N Bones,” Izzy casts himself as the troubled siren who beguiles and frustrates her hapless suitor. “She loved him yesterday / Yesterday’s over, I said, ‘Okay, that’s alright’ / Time moves on, that’s the way / We live in hope to see the next day, but that’s alright.” All Axl can do is look on helplessly in the harmony vocal lane.
31. “You’re Crazy” (GN’R Lies version) (1988)
I prefer the slower, more choogly acoustic take to the gob of spit on Appetite. This version also reminds me of the “Axl and Izzy” origin story that Izzy tells in the 2021 ’80s hard rock oral history Nothin’ But A Good Time, from back when they were both juvenile delinquents in Lafayette, Indiana: “The first thing I remember about Axl, this is before I knew him — is the first day of class, eighth or ninth grade, I’m sitting in the class and I hear this noise going on in front, and I see these fucking books ﬂying past, and I hear this yelling, and there’s this scuﬄe and then I see him, Axl, and this teacher bouncing off a door jamb. And then he was gone, down the hall, with a whole bunch of teachers running after him. That was the first thing. I’ll never forget that.”
Axl was, in other words, fuckin’ crazy, right from the beginning.
30. “Don’t Damn Me” (1991)
If I ever end up in a conversation with a middle-aged man who knows I’m a rock critic, the question I’m often asked is something like: “Will there ever be another rock star like Axl Rose?” And I always say, “Of course not,” because our culture now seems diametrically opposed to emboldening a mentally unstable redneck motherfucker from Middle America who lived to deliberately provoke outrage. Even at the height of his popularity when he had the most to lose, Axl did not give a fuck, and not giving a fuck was the bread and butter of rock and hip-hop stars for about 40 years. Now, of course, it’s not, because in the modern world there’s never a shortage of people to remind you of the virtues of giving a fuck. (Odd Future is the last significant pop “outrage” act, and all of the artists associated with that collective have since backed off from the hot-button stuff.)
All of this is probably a good thing, though if I were to mount a devil’s advocate argument, I would quote liberally from this song, which is Axl’s own devil’s advocate argument: “Be it a song or a casual conversation / To hold my tongue speaks of quiet reservations / Your words once heard they can place you in a faction / My words may disturb but at least there’s a reaction.”
29. “Catcher In The Rye” (2008)
When I first heard this song, I assumed that Axl was going meta by referencing a J.D. Salinger book on an album that capped a 14-year period in which he was often described as an eccentric, Salinger-esque recluse. Which would have been kind of brilliant! But the reality is even weirder: Axl actually blames Salinger for inspiring Mark David Chapman to kill John Lennon. He confirmed it himself in a later interview, calling the book “utter garbage” and adding that “I agree wholeheartedly that it should be discontinued as required reading in schools.” As a mega-famous rock star who has been surrounded by bodyguards for the past 35 years, this is clearly a “write what you know” situation, and given that he set those words to such epic music — not even Brian May, who contributed a guitar solo that was left unused, could keep up with Axl’s epic-osity — makes this the most Chinese Democracy track on Chinese Democracy.
28. “My Michelle” (1987)
The first song on this list from Appetite For Destruction, and it’s apparently based on a true story (“case you haven’t heard”), according to band associate Michelle Young. (“My dad does distribute porno films and my mom did die,” she told Spin in 1999.) But what I care about most is how prominent the bass is. As Duff McKagan writes in his 2011 book It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, the album’s producer Mike Clink put Duff’s bass in the middle of the music and gave it a lot of space, providing a big, warm and supple bottom end to the record. You hear it during this track’s atmospheric open, and then during the chunky verses and breakneck chorus. This bass supremacy is an underrated factor in Appetite‘s “funk” power, which is among the attributes that have made the album so timeless.
(Interesting tangent: Mike Clink was hired by Metallica to produce …And Justice For All based on his work with Guns N’ Roses. He was subsequently fired and replaced at the last minute by Flemming Rasmussen. Is it possible that Clink got the axe because he turned up the bass too much on an album that is now notorious for having no bottom end? I have no evidence to support this theory but I’ve decided to buy into it anyway.)
27. “Locomotive (Complicity)” (1991)
One of the selling points for Clink heading into Appetite was his engineering work on UFO’s classic 1979 live album Strangers In The Night, and how he spotlighted the two-guitar team of Michael Schenker and Paul Raymond. Clink worked similar magic with Slash and Izzy on Appetite, though when he was retained for the Use Your Illusion albums Izzy often bailed on recording sessions. So while this prog-blues behemoth was worked out by Slash and Izzy when they briefly lived together in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills, Slash played Izzy’s rhythm parts on the record, locking into one of the all-time GNR grooves. Because this is the Use Your Illusion era, there is also the requisite “Layla”-like piano coda, which balloons “Locomotive” to almost nine minutes.
26. “Pretty Tied Up (The Perils Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Decadence)” (1991)
Izzy wrote this song and then bailed on GNR before he could witness firsthand the actual perils of rock ‘n’ roll decadence on the never-ending Use Your Illusion tour. The sheer amount of wasteful spending on this globe-trotting campaign is historic and will (hopefully) never be replicated. “We had limos on-call 24 hours, burgers at the Trump Tower that cost $35,” Matt Sorum said later. “The first night we played Giants Stadium, there was one pinball machine and a few bottle of booze backstage. Axl came in and said, ‘This isn’t the Rolling Stones!’ So the next night there’s a full casino, tons of lobster, and champagne following everywhere.” In his book, Slash claims he never went to these parties. Nor did the rest of the band on most nights. Part of the reason the tour dragged on for so long — 194 shows in 27 countries over the course of 30 months — was that they had to pay for all that lobster and champagne they didn’t eat, night after night, all over the world.
DOES AXL WANT SOME REGGAE???
25. “Bad Obsession” (1991)
In the opening lines of this song, Axl calls his mother the worst possible thing you can call your mother. I can’t endorse this, even if (based on Axl’s accounts) Axl’s mother really was a bad person. I really can’t endorse anything about “Bad Obsession,” as it belongs in a musical category that Guns N’ Roses has come to define — cautionary songs about drugs that make doing drugs sound awesome. When Lou Reed wrote about addiction, he instructed John Cale to play torturous violin squeals that sonically evoked the feeling of skin wilting off the bone. When Axl wrote about addiction, he asked for some cowbell and tons of bluesy harmonica. This song makes being strung out sound like Road House.
24. “Used To Love Her” (1988)
More jokey misogyny from our subjects, though I long ago decided to take Axl at his word that this song is about a dog, because it somehow makes “Used To Love Her” even sicker. This is as Stones-y as GNR ever got, and that includes both the parts I love (more delectable Steven Adler choogle!) and the parts I can’t defend (pretty much everything else). But by the standards of GN’R Lies’ side two — which contains some of their greatest as well as some of their most problematic music — “Used To Love Her” now sounds almost sweet, a childish prank pulled by an urchin living under the street.
23. “Live And Let Die” (1991 MTV Video Music Awards version) (1991)
If I were talking about the “Live And Let Die” that appeared on Use Your Illusion I, I would be overrating this song. It’s possible I’m still overrating it by choosing the version that was broadcast on the 1991 VMAs. (Which was actually performed one week prior at Wembley Stadium in London rather than live, which I did not know until this very moment.) But I can’t separate my feelings about this rendition (which I still think smokes any version of “Live And Let Die” I’ve ever heard, including the ones by Macca) from how exciting it was to see GNR play anything from the Use Your Illusion albums just under two weeks from those records finally being unleashed in the world. I had waited three years for this happen, which at that time was 21.4 percent of my entire life. I was so excited that I never stopped to ask the obvious question: Should a 13-year-old in 1991 be this psyched about a hard-rock cover of a Wings tune? It didn’t matter. When GNR had a job to do, they did it well, and they gave this song hell.
22. “14 Years” (1991)
The “Live And Let Die” live clip introduced a lot of the tropes of Use Your Illusion-era GNR to millions of kids: Axl’s flannel (which was prescient at the dawn of the grunge era), Axl’s kilt, the hugeness of the band’s new touring lineup, the hugeness of Matt Sorum’s head, and (most crucially) the absence of Izzy Stradlin. Wembley was actually Izzy’s final show with GNR before he officially quit in November 1991, but you don’t really see him much in the video. On the Use Your Illusion albums, however, some of Izzy’s most affecting songs seemed to foreshadow his exit, including this one, the second of his “veiled comments about my relationship with Axl” songs, and the most essential text for armchair analyzing the Axl/Izzy dynamic.
By then they had been frenemies since 1977, exactly 14 years before the Use Your Illusion albums. There’s also the line about how “these last four years of madness sure put me straight,” which seems to reference their shared time in the spotlight since Appetite. As for Axl, he appears to concur with the chorus as he sings it with Izzy: “But it’s been 14 years of silence / It’s been 14 years of pain / It’s been 14 years that are gone forever and I’ll never have again.”
21. “Get In The Ring” (1991)
Has any rock band been more important historically to the VMAs than GNR? In the late ’80s and early ’90s, they were a chaos agent at the world’s most chaotic awards show. I’ve already written plenty about the Axl vs. Kurt Cobain feud at the 1992 VMAs, so let’s instead do a quick shoutout to the time when Axl and Izzy joined Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to perform “Free Fallin'” at the 1989 VMAs, perhaps the last great instance of indisputable white-guy coolness in late 20th century mainstream pop culture.
The aftermath of this performance is even more famous, of course — as Izzy walked off stage, Vince Neil decked him for allegedly getting rough with his wife at an L.A. club, which indirectly led to the creation of this song.
To explain why I put “Get In The Ring” at No. 21 I need to revisit how my feelings about “Get In The Ring” have changed over the past several decades:
1991 (age 14): “I have never heard of the people that Axl says he wants to beat up in this song but I nevertheless agree that they are punks and Axl should definitely kick their bitchy little asses.”
2001 (age 24): “This song is horrible and ridiculous and I hate it.”
2011 (age 34): “This song is horrible and ridiculous and I love it.”
And that’s where I am today. What I appreciate most is that “Get In The Ring” exists as a song and not as a tweet or blog post. Because there’s no way Axl would have spent millions of dollars to call out Mick Wall on wax if he could have just vented on social media. But then we wouldn’t have this invaluable time capsule of rock star petulance preserved on one of the best-selling rock albums ever.
20. “Right Next Door To Hell” (1991)
Most of the songs on the Use Your Illusion albums are either about the cause of Axl’s perpetual indignation (extreme childhood trauma) or the effect of that indignation (his desire to beat people up). This song dwells on the latter, though unlike the fantasies of “Get In The Ring” — he never actually got to fight Spin founder Bob Guccione, Jr. — “Right Next Door To Hell” is about a real-life incident involving Axl, a meddlesome neighbor, and wine bottle, which actually warranted an in-depth report from Kurt Loder and MTV News.
19. “Dead Horse” (1991)
There needs to be a Frost/Nixon-style movie about the journalist/subject dynamic between Axl and Loder during this period. There is only one other pop star of my lifetime whose interviews were nearly as essential as his music — Kanye West in his prime — and many of the interviews with Axl were conducted by Kurt Loder. Axl in his backyard, Axl in the back of a limo, Axl on the phone after getting out of jail for whacking his neighbor with a wine bottle — this was riveting and cinematic television. Though the content of these interviews was usually the same, as summed up by the opening lines of this folkie Use Your Illusion I deep cut: “Sick of this life / Not that you’d care / I’m not the only one / With whom these feelings I share.”
18. “Street Of Dreams” (2008)
Time to pay some respect to the guy who has played the most GNR shows after Axl, GNR’s piano man himself, Dizzy Reed. In his book, Slash makes plain his ambivalence about the introduction of keyboards into the band’s sound; many original hard-core GNR-heads no doubt agree that they should have stayed a guitars-bass-drums outfit. But Axl’s love for Elton John, Queen and Billy Joel made Dizzy’s ascendence inevitable. On Chinese Democracy, Dizzy suddenly (and weirdly) became the sole link to the “old” GNR, with his fluttery piano licks evoking their trad-rock past as Axl worked feverishly to make the best alt-rock album of 1994 at the end of the aughts. “Street Of Dreams” is the best song to come out of GNR 3.0, in part because it sounds the most like the 2.0 GNR that Dizzy helped transform during the Use Your Illusion days.
17. “Think About You” (1987)
I apologize for getting this deep into my list and only talking about the Axl dance in reference to that 2002 VMAs performance. One of the finest stage moves in rock frontman history demands a more respectful tribute. The writer John Jeremiah Johnson once called Axl “the only indispensable white male rock dancer of his generation,” and while that’s qualified praise (I personally put the Axl dance up there with the Moonwalk) it nevertheless places Axl in his proper context as a man of genuine rhythm and grace.
Looking back on the Axl dance all these years later, there’s something very Davy Jones about it. For all of his foul-mouthed bad-assery, there’s also a teen idol side of Axl in his tender leather-coated Appetite guise that’s actually kind of … cute? This comes across in the big GNR ballads of the era, but it’s also present in this track, the most bubblegummy song on Appetite, the one where Axl pledges that “deep inside I love you best.” I love how the acoustic guitar softens Axl voice when he coos these sweet nothings, like a late ’60s Monkees radio hit.
16. “Nightrain” (1987)
GNR is forever associated with Mr. Brownstone, but at least two of the core members, Slash and Duff, were huge boozers. (Axl used to introduce Duff on stage as “The King Of Beers.”) This is the big drinking song on Appetite, in which Axl ingests so much liquid courage that he proudly declares himself “one bad mutha” and a “mean machine” who smokes his cigarette with style. But while the rest of us revert to uncool mortals the next morning, Axl always woke up with the same impeccably awesome rattlesnake suitcase under his arm.
15. “Yesterdays” (1991)
By the time this song was released as a single in November of 1992, grunge had swept in and made Nirvana and Pearl Jam the two biggest young rock bands on MTV. And you can feel GNR acknowledging this in the video for “Yesterdays” — the band’s jeans and T-shirts outfits are restrained, the black-and-white cinematography is classy, and Axl’s ponytail is low-key. It’s as stripped down as the video for “November Rain” is … whatever the opposite of stripped down is. (Curiously absent is Axl’s “Live And Let Die” flannel — this should have been his opportunity to accuse Kurt and Eddie of being bandwagon jumpers.) The idea of “Yesterdays” seems to be that this is a “mature” GNR consciously bidding farewell to their excessive, glammy past, which was only about a year old at the time. In reality, things only got more crazy after this.
14. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (Live at The Ritz version) (1988)
This video became an MTV staple when the music channel was starving for GNR content in the wake of Appetite, so it was already burned into the minds of millions of kids years before the recorded version finally appeared on Use Your Illusion II. And it’s still the version that feels definitive for GNR. It also apparently made an impression on Bob Dylan, according to a story that Axl told on stage in Taiwan back in 2009. “Bob asked me, ‘When you gonna record ‘Heaven’s Door’? And I said, ‘I don’t know, but we really love that song.’ And he said, ‘I don’t give a fuck. I just want the money.’ True story!” Given that Use Your Illusion II sold more copies than any Bob Dylan LP by a factor of five or six, we can assume that Bob cleaned up.
13. “It’s So Easy” (1987)
I’m technically including the original Appetite For Destruction take, but I want to discuss the version from the 1988 concert at The Ritz. In a 2019 Rolling Stone article with the curious headline “How Duff McKagan Got Woke,” the bass player attempts to rationalize “It’s So Easy” as “a piss-take,” a joke about a fantasy rock star scenario written when our “audience was, like, three people.” But, honestly, most of us heard it after GNR became “It’s So Easy,” and part of the attraction (if you were a pathetic little pre-teen glued to MTV) was seeing how far these guys were willing to push the “asshole” envelope and get away with it. This aspect of pop stardom is now completely out of fashion, though I’m not convinced it won’t eventually swing back, because being obnoxious for the sake of being obnoxious is one of the key privileges reserved for the young.
As someone who was a pathetic little pre-teen glued to MTV at the time I feel qualified to make this declaration: This is the coolest GNR has ever looked, and therefore the coolest that pretty much any rock band has ever looked. The song itself is peak “dangerous” GNR, which was equally terrifying and exhilarating to encounter as a kid who was too young to fully comprehend the implications of a tune like “It’s So Easy” at the time. I don’t think you can really separate what’s “right” and “wrong” about this song; its power derives from the band’s unapologetic moral despicableness, which (again) is not a concept that feels comfortable in 2022 but nonetheless if you were young in the late ’80s and encountering GNR simultaneously with N.W.A. and Nine Inch Nails and Fatal Attraction and National Lampoon, the appeal was ingrained into you at an impressionable age.
12. “Double Talkin’ Jive” (1991)
My favorite Izzy track from the Use Your Illusion era, and the best example of his “what if J.J. Cale wrote songs for Hanoi Rocks?” persona at the time. According to Slash’s book, they literally found a head and an arm in a garbage can in the alley behind the recording studio when they were working on “Double Talkin’ Jive.” And it was definitely true that Izzy had no more patience at this juncture. So this song doubles as true crime journalism.
11. “Estranged” (1991)
Plenty of people have talked about about how absurdly excessive the video for this song is. And it is absurdly excessive — name another music video where a rock star jumps off an actual ocean liner and into an actual ocean in order to swim with fake dolphins? It undoubtedly marks the end of the Use Your Illusion era, and probably signals the beginning of the dysfunctional Chinese Democracy period. But what’s even more incredible than the length (nearly 10 minutes) or the budget (reportedly $4 million) of the “Estranged” video is that it dropped in December of 1993 — that’s 26 months after the release of the Use Your Illusion albums, and one month after Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged episode debuted on MTV. Which means GNR’s UYI album cycle encapsulates almost the entirety of Kurt Cobain’s post-Nevermind life and career. And just as the Nirvana MTV Unplugged is now remembered as Cobain’s farewell to his artistic life, “Estranged” represents Axl offing this version of GNR.
(Postscript: Slash complains in his book that he spent a lot of time arranging and writing solos for “Estranged,” but didn’t push for songwriting credit so as not to rankle Axl, the sole credited songwriter. This is B.S. Slash’s guitar melodies are the best part of “Estranged.” Pay him his money, Axl.)
10. “Don’t Cry” (1991)
This one gets overlooked in the great Use Your Illusion trilogy of batshit music videos, but I think it’s secretly the best one. By “best” I don’t necessarily mean “most coherent,” but I’ve realized over the years that “Don’t Cry” is Axl’s version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, only instead of venturing into outer space he takes us on a journey deep into Axl Rose’s psyche. In both films, the protagonist sees different versions of himself in a white room. And at the end of both 2001 and “Don’t Cry,” the hero is sacrificed and re-incarnated as a baby. (It’s unclear whether the Star Child in 2001 grows up to front a wildly successful rock band. But he should be 20 or 21 by now, so we’ll find out soon.)
“Don’t Cry” is to “November Rain” what “Billie Jean” was to “Thriller” — “November Rain” is a grander spectacle, but “Don’t Cry” is more disturbing as an exploration of the psychodrama underpinning the iconography of the artist. No major rock star since John Lennon was more transparent about his experiences with psychiatry — we see Axl literally shaking on his shrink’s couch after a series of images in which he threatens suicide and wrestles violently with his real-life girlfriend, Stephanie Seymour, who later accused Axl of actual domestic abuse. The appearance of Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon adds another retrospective layer to “Don’t Cry” — he’s the doomed rock star who was made into a star by this video about a doomed rock star.
It’s … a lot to take in. For all of the talk about Kurt Cobain — another guy mired in a troubled romantic relationship in the early ’90s who also had a problematic preoccupation with guns — I don’t think even he purged his trauma on a grand stage to the degree that Axl did. If the videos for Appetite were designed to make GNR look like the baddest rock band on the planet, the videos for Use Your Illusion seemed geared first and foremost toward creating a massive catharsis that might ultimately heal their singer.
9. “Civil War” (1991)
Sometimes I see people clown Axl for slotting a protest song as the opening track for Use Your Illusion II. I guess there’s an idea that a guy who puts “Back Off Bitch” on a record has no right in the same context to philosophize about geopolitical matters like a mulleted Sun Tzu. Then again, there are also people for whom “Civil War” is one of GNR’s only good songs. (Robert Christgau put a scissors emoji next to “Civil War” in his very brief Use Your Illusion II review, a confusing but rare compliment for a band he otherwise despised.) For me, this really is, along with Metallica’s “One,” the best anti-war song of the Reagan-Bush years, and it underscores how GNR’s (and Metallica’s) audience were made up of the very working-class kids who “fight the wars [that] go on with brainwashed pride.” Those people needed to hear a song like this when it debuted at Farm Aid in 1990 before Operation Desert Storm, and even later when it was released several months after the first Iraq war ended.
8. “Paradise City” (1987)
The best pop chorus in the GNR canon: “Take me down to the paradise city / where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.” The fantasy works because it’s so humble. If you’ve ever driven through Indiana, you know that “green grass” truly is an exotic surface in that part of the country. Slash wasn’t a fan of the synth part overdubbed over the opening fanfare, but the most egregious addition to “Paradise City” is the referee whistle that commences the “let’s tear shit up!” finale. Like GNR themselves, that whistle is too obnoxious to function on radio, and yet it somehow works like gangbusters anyway.
7. “You Could Be Mine” (1991)
Along with “November Rain,” this song was considered for Appetite and eventually held over for the Use Your Illusion albums. Unlike “November Rain,” it sounds more like an Appetite song than a Use Your Illusion track. There are no pianos, no synths, and no long codas. And “with your bitch-slap rappin’ and your cocaine tongue” is very Appetite-style imagery. But I’m glad “You Could Be Mine” came out when it did. There will never be a pop culture phenomenon that means more to me than the combination of GNR’s Use Your Illusion albums and Terminator 2: Judgement Day did in the summer of 1991. If you were a dumb kid with a bad haircut, this was the apotheosis of culture and maybe even your entire life. I would argue that this music video is a more accurate snapshot of what it was like to be young that year than any documentary about how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” changed the world. Maybe that song has meant more over time. But in that time, “You Could Be Mine” was the world.
6. “Patience” (1988)
The “Wild Horses” of the ’80s. Also my personal favorite GNR video, because it’s about how getting what you want (the attention of beautiful women) is never as satisfying as not losing what you already have (a bitchin’ snake collection). The part where Axl watches himself in the “Welcome To The Jungle” video with a “what the hell happened to my life?” expression on his face is his finest music-video acting. But the main event here is the final 90 or so seconds, which I have declared on many drunken nights the best music of GNR’s career. Axl wants patience from the world, his band, and above all himself. And when you hear him sing on this song he convinces you to give it to him. He must have sung it brilliantly, because few men on this planet have been afforded as much patience as Axl.
5, “Rocket Queen” (1987)
At the risk of sounding like a broken record when it comes to referencing the ’88 Ritz performance, I must point out the No. 1 coolest moment of the concert, which occurs during this song. Axl decides to take off during the second verse, but the band keeps playing. Slash at one point gives a slight shrug of his sweaty, naked shoulders, like he’s thinking about bailing himself. But the guys’ playing is so lethal and in the pocket that it doesn’t matter. Still, the possibility that this amazing show is about to go off the rails looms in the air.
Finally, after a few minutes, Axl re-emerges with a lit cigarette. Axl then takes Slash’s unlit cig from his mouth and lights it with his own. It’s so gentle, and so tough, and the song never stops chugging forward. As a viewer, you feel the intimacy of their bond and, for a second, it’s as if you’ve been let in on a secret and the bond has been shared with you.
That’s a fucking rock ‘n’ roll band, kids.
4. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (1987)
I feel like I haven’t praised Slash’s guitar playing enough so I’ll just say: This is his most beautiful riff. It sounds like something Bach would’ve written if he was raised on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s. And it’s one of his best solos, though there are more all-time great Slash guitar solos than songs left on this list so I’ll hold off on praising that aspect of the man’s artistry. What sets Slash apart as a hard rock guitarist, I think, is that he never seems preoccupied with the concepts speed or “heaviness,” at least as it pertains to overwhelming sonic properties. His riffs are often slow and melodic, but they feel heavy, for both the listener and Slash himself, which explains why he always holds his axe at an angle. A lot of weight comes out of those strings on a song like this.
3. “Mr. Brownstone” (1987)
I played this song 100,000 times between the ages of 11 and 18 and it’s a miracle I’ve never been tempted to try heroin, because I want to live inside the world of “Mr. Brownstone.” If drugs make your heart move at the pace of Steven Adler’s inexplicably funky backbeat, they can’t be all bad, can they?
2. “November Rain” (1991)
Donald Trump’s favorite music video of all time, which is to say that “November Rain” is the rare cultural artifact that can transcend the divide between angels and devils. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, but I know I don’t have to see it ever again because so many images are forever burned into my brain: Duff producing Axl’s wedding ring on his pinkie; Axl and Stephanie Frenching like crazy; Slash playing the song’s first guitar solo (the solo of his life!) as a camera crane or maybe the Apocalypse Now helicopters zoom past his head; Rikki Rachtman; the notorious cake jumper.
But the video is so grand that it somewhat overshadows the song, which really is the high point of Axl’s melodicism and Slash’s slow-burn guitar-solo mastery. The best compliment I can pay “November Rain” is that Axl had the nonsensical ambition to write a “Stairway To Heaven” for a new generation and he actually pulled it off.
1. “Welcome To The Jungle” (1987)
The sound of pure hunger. A distillation of fear and desire. A syringe loaded with adrenaline and dread plunged right into your heart. As a million punk documentaries (and the recent Hulu TV show Pistol) have told us repeatedly for 45 years, there was nothing like hearing the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The U.K.” in 1977. I wasn’t there so I have to take their word for it but … I did hear “Welcome To The Jungle” in 1988, and it was like a Molotov cocktail was thrust down your throat, so I’ll just go ahead and call it my “Anarchy In The U.K.”
The fact that you can’t enter a sports arena on Earth without hearing Axl’s demon squeal has not dulled the power of this song, though I concede that I was terrified by “Welcome To The Jungle” when I was 11 and I never really got over it. I’m scarred by this song; GNR exposed me to things when I was young — an adult world of exploitation and degradation — that I try to shield my own children from. Maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe they’ll eventually end up stepping off of a bus in Los Angeles as innocents, with a piece of straw in their mouths and rouge on their cheeks. Maybe Axl was warning us but the packaging was just too damn seductive.
Your mileage my vary; maybe “Welcome To The Jungle” for you is merely a fun song to hear in a Thor movie. As for me, I relate to the guy in the straitjacket who is being forced to watch footage of wars, police brutality, and sexed-up banality. Social media didn’t exist in the late ’80s but it did in the “Welcome To The Jungle” video. “You can have anything you want but you better not take it from me” summed up America then, and it sums up America today. It’s gonna bring you down, if it hasn’t already, sooner or later. But GNR, I suspect, will keep on wracking up spins as the house band for our nation’s final encore. That’s why they were able to come back. Because they never really left.