In 2008, Guns N’ Roses finally put fans out of their misery and dropped their sixth studio effort, Chinese Democracy. That was only one year short of the seemingly eternal wait since its predecessor “The Spaghetti Incident?” Recently, Sunset Strip’s finest added more music to their slim 21st century catalog with Hard Skool, an EP of outtakes and live tracks which also serves as the first official release since founding members Slash and Duff McKagan reunited with Axl Rose in 2016.
To celebrate, we take a look back at the band’s best songs to have cracked the Billboard charts.
The reflective “Yesterdays” undoubtedly brought some much-needed respite from the pomp and grandeur of the Use Your Illusion era. It was the only track on the second volume to clock in under four minutes, for one thing. And its vintage blues-rock sound was the most straight-forward thing across both. Even the video, a simple warehouse performance filmed in black and white, abandoned the sense of the epic. Reaching No. 72 on the Hot 100, this short but bittersweet farewell to the past (“Yesterday’s got nothin’ for me/Old pictures that I’ll always see/Time just fades the pages in my book of memories”) remains one of the band’s most underrated ballads.
2008’s Chinese Democracy was never going to justify its torturously long conception. But with the title track, “There Was A Time” and, most notably, “Better,” it nevertheless spawned several songs worthy of joining the Guns N’ Roses canon. Rose’s brilliantly brutal delivery here proved he could still out-snarl both his peers and the countless frontmen who followed — including Trent Reznor, whose Nine Inch Nails, in turn, seemingly inspired this brazen mix of industrial rock riffs and squelchy electronics. The aptly named “Better,” which peaked at No. 18 on the Mainstream Rock chart, is the true keeper from the band’s post-imperial phase.
8. “You Could Be Mine”
Guns N’ Roses whetted the appetite for their Use Your Illusion opus with a juggernaut of a rocker given the seal of approval by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, the Austrian Oak cordially invited Rose, Slash and co. to his humble abode for dinner with the intention of securing the future No. 28 hit for his eagerly-awaited return as The Terminator. It’s not hard to see why Arnie was so enamored. With its revved-up riffs and propulsive drums, “You Could Be Mine” – which did indeed appear in Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s end credits – sounds tailor made for racing through the Los Angeles River on a Harley Davidson Fat Boy.
“Nightrain” was by far the smallest of the four Hot 100 hits (No. 93) taken from blockbuster debut Appetite for Destruction. But as one of two tunes that helped land the band a deal with Geffen Records the celebratory anthem played an integral part in the early GNR story. It also further established the group’s hell-raising mythology, with the title referring to Night Train Express, a low-cost but highly potent brand of fortified wine that the rockers relied upon before making enough money to graduate to more decadent substances. Few songs have distilled the essence of the down and dirty Sunset Strip life more effectively.
6. “Don’t Cry”
Omitted from Appetite for Destruction, “Don’t Cry” then appeared in two slightly different forms on the Use Your Illusion albums, with the 1991 version that reached No. 10 considered to be the definitive. Embracing his power ballad sensibilities for the first (but certainly not the last) time, Rose has never sounded more forlorn on a track inspired, rather awkwardly, by his obsession with co-writer Izzy Stradlin’s one-time beau Monique Lewis. A soulful guest vocal appearance from Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon and a winding guitar solo from Slash only adds to the sense of melodrama that GNR would perfect just two singles down the line.
5. “November Rain”
Inarguably Guns N’ Roses’ most divisive offering, “November Rain” is the pinnacle of Rose’s songwriting to some and the moment he disappeared up his own derriere to others. The frontman reportedly spent nearly an entire decade honing his nine-minute masterpiece (it was originally twice as long!), an unapologetically overblown blend of dramatic piano chords, swirling strings and grandiose guitar solos designed to be performed on a New Mexico clifftop. Heavily indebted to Elton John’s similarly epic “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the Use Your Illusion I cut remains the band’s second-biggest U.S. hit and, until Taylor Swift’s extended “All Too Well,” was the lengthiest top 10 single ever.
4. “Paradise City”
While its jangly intro could quite easily have been lifted from a fey British indie band, the rest of “Paradise City” is pure American rock n’ roll. Cementing their status as the biggest group of 1988, the third straight top 10 hit from Appetite for Destruction was penned while its inebriated members were traveling home from a San Francisco gig in a rental van. And you can sense the camaraderie on a raucous ode to the bright lights of Los Angeles, which despite the (thankful) vetoing of his lyrical offerings (“Where the girls are fat and they’ve got big titties”) is apparently Slash’s all-time GNR favorite.
Essentially a stopgap collection of faux-live recordings and stripped-back outtakes between their two blockbuster LPs, 1989’s GN’R Lies is an even less essential listen than covers album “The Spaghetti Incident?”. However, it did spawn a bona fide classic in the shape of this No. 4 hit, yet another love song inspired by Stradlin’s seemingly eventful personal life. Wisely avoiding the fist-clenching key changes that turn some hard rock bands into sappy balladeers, “Patience” is instead a surprisingly restrained affair which pairs Rose’s tender melodies (and the odd whistle) with a simple three-pronged acoustic guitar backing.
2. “Welcome to the Jungle”
Guns N’ Roses’ early label as The Most Dangerous Band in the World undoubtedly derived from this No. 7 hit, a magnificently raucous statement of intent which ensured that Appetite for Destruction opened with one almighty bang. Rose has perhaps never sounded more ferocious, more menacing or more confrontational as he plays the scare-mongering tour guide – the track was apparently inspired by the deranged real-life welcoming (“You’re in the jungle baby/You’re gonna die!”) he received from a random New Yorker. Slash’s aggressive riffs and Steven Adler’s swaggering drums further highlighted how this was a group you definitely didn’t want to mess with.
1. “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
The Guns N’ Roses song that even your mom likes, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” remarkably saw rock’s enfant terribles knock pop’s golden boy George Michael off the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100. Conceived during an impromptu jam at the group’s Sunset Strip base toward the end of Appetite For Destruction’s recording, the radio-friendly smash sounded like it had always been part of America’s rock songbook, perhaps because Rose specifically looked toward the more romantic elements of Lynyrd Skynyrd for inspiration. But his signature yelps and Slash’s squalling guitar riff, easily his most iconic, kept things quintessentially Guns N’ Roses. A rare example of a band’s commercial peak matching its creative.