A sign of a great American rock band is the willingness to unironically sing their own theme song. The Monkees did it, so did Minor Threat. The Ramones might as well have done it. Nirvana repeats their name in the chorus of “Paper Cuts” and Sonic Youth says “Sonic tooth!” in “Confusion Is Next.” I’ll make an exception for the Doors, but otherwise this rule stands. If you can’t see your favorite rock band singing their own theme song, I’m so sorry to tell you that you’ve made a poor choice.
This is why the Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of the elite American bands. They have a song called “Nevermind” where the chorus is just “We’re the Red Hot Chili Peppers!” So it’s settled.
1. BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIK (1991)
The closest any band ever got to the sprawling communal genius of the Beatles’ White Album? Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever. But Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the runner-up. Even without knowing the backstory of the band holed up in a haunted mansion with guru/producer Rick Rubin, you can feel the vibe. “Apache Rose Peacock” might be about a transvestite, “Naked In The Rain” might be about bestiality, “The Righteous And The Wicked” might be about environmental activism but it still contains the lyric “Yes, I think we’ll fuck.” In college I heard this album on mushrooms and swore that the falsetto vocals on “Funky Monks” were actual angels. Yes, they were.
2. STADIUM ARCADIUM (2006)
A 28-track double CD that all sounds the same on the first five listens. It is overstuffed with formulaic songs heavy on the modern RHCP sound and light on inspiration. I remember hearing “Dani California” following a few years after the album Californication and deciding that this band was officially out of ideas. Maybe so, but Flea, Chad Smith, and John Frusciante hit an absolute peak here in terms of chemistry. The band is a funky sports car and they’re driving it all over town until it runs out of gas. You can actually hear that happening midway through disc two, but this is still a great ride.
3. THE UPLIFT MOFO PARTY PLAN (1987)
“Fight Like A Brave” sounds like a Physical Graffiti riff. Except instead of Robert Plant’s high pitch warbling, we’ve got Anthony Keidis rapping with a megaphone. A word about Anthony’s rapping – it’s good. He fully commits to his beat poetry by way of old school rap style, and you’d think it would fall into heavy cringe territory. It doesn’t, because he flows with the music and exudes sincerity without affectation. “Funky Crime” is a reactionary song rejecting racial lines in music. “Behind The Sun” is the pop track that could have broke big, “Skinny Sweaty Man” is like a late 70s Frank Zappa throwaway. I’d love to hear this material on a live album as an even better representation of this era.
4. ONE HOT MINUTE (1995)
This one has been disowned by the band with Dave Navarro taking over guitar. If you’re looking for flaws, you’ll find them. “Tearjearker” is a Kurt Cobain tribute that doesn’t wholly ring true. Nor does “Coffee Shop” – somehow I don’t picture Anthony Keidis as a guy who takes his dates to coffeehouses. As with almost every RHCP album, it runs on too long but I can mostly dig it. “Deep Kick” is a frenetic ride through the band’s history capped with a coda that quotes the Butthole Surfers. “One Big Mob” connects an Uplift Mofo throwback riff with a slowed down Funkadelic jam section. This is definitely the darkest Chili Peppers album, haunted by death and drug addiction.
5. BY THE WAY (2002)
In terms of songwriting and lyrical insight, this might be their best work. I don’t generally go to the Chili Peppers for those things, so this more mature version of the band has never really connected with me. But I can appreciate the subtle turns of these tunes, the marriage between artistry and professionalism. The chorus of “Tear” has a Brian Wilson influence, which is good; “On Mercury” has a ska influence, which is terrible; “Venice Queen” sounds like a One Hot Minute outtake. Mostly a Frusciante/Keidis collaboration, this album is noticeably Flea-less. Much as I love Frusciante and his influence, the overall sound of this one makes me a little sick – the prescription is more Flea.
6. THE GETAWAY (2016)
I’ve noticed that it takes two albums for each incarnation of the Chili Peppers to find its funky footing. So on this the second one with guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, they’ve got a new producer Danger Mouse to fuck with the formula. It works. I like how each song sounds distinct. That was the problem in the Rubin-produced era, the samey runs of songs that overfilled the albums. I blame Rick Rubin. Also, his beard. It bugs me. I have no patience for gurus. The Getaway is evidence that the Peppers should have cut ties with him years ago, digging out of their comfort zone. The second half in particular is flawless – “Feasting On The Flowers” the second best Hillel Slovak tribute song after “My Lovely Man,” the drumless ethereal pop song “Encore,” the descending riffing chorus of “Detroit.” This album will age well.
7. UNBRIDLED FUNK AND ROLL 4 YOUR SOUL! EP (1989)
I’m counting this as an official album because (1) it was my introduction to the band when I stole my friend Kevin’s CD, (2) it has the best song from the otherwise spotty Mother’s Milk, (3) it has the legitimately funny old outtake “Millionaires Against Hunger,” a spot-on satire of 80s superstar charity songs, and (4) it has Frusciante’s live take on Hendrix’s “Castles Made Of Sand.” How good is that performance? It’s so good that it bumps this EP up this high even though the only other song is a heinous remix by Daddy-O. No offense to hip hop pioneer Daddy-O, who was immortalized in a Public Enemy lyric. The era of “remixes” on CD-singles was just terrible. Bands like Oasis and the Rolling Stones charging people money for ten minute “house mixes” of their songs. But this “Castles” take feels like a breakthrough – fragile, heartfelt, beautiful. This is when Frusciante begins to lead them away from a party band and on to the psychedelic funk rock fusion of BSSM.
8. FREAKY STYLEY (1985)
I can’t imagine what a thrill it was for this band to have scored George Clinton as a producer. It’s like Vito Corleone mentoring a group of young ruffians in the life of crime. It sounds like an amazing party, or rather it sounds like being next door to amazing party. The listener is not really allowed the intimacy as on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. So we’ll give that to Rick Rubin, my distaste for his guru-ness notwithstanding. The best track is the cover of Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me To Stay,” which translates to the studio more than some of the chanting party funk. I like this album, especially the theme song “Nevermind” and the also-sort-of-a-theme-song “Brothers Cup.” But it feels like whatever magic powder was getting passed around the studio did not translate to the tape.
9. RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS (1984)
This debut feels even more like a late era Funkadelic album than Freaky Styley. It borrows heavily from the P-Funk aesthetic, with chanted vocals and cosmic sensibilities, all filtered through the Los Angeles streets of the mid-80s. The boys shop their demo while police helicopters crash their parties. “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes” is the funkiest animal rights anthem ever. And there’s a Hank Williams cover.
10. I’M WITH YOU (2011)
On this first album with guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, the boys are just finding their footing, keeping the brand going. There are some great songs on here – “Brendan’s Death Song,” “Look Around,” and “Police Station.” I wonder if this might be ranked too low. The more I listen to this one, the more I like it. It’s just that aside from those high points, there are other times where the songwriting feels transparent, you can sense the process rather just appreciate the result.
11. MOTHER’S MILK (1989)
No album has aged worse than this one. It has that crunchy sheen built for boomboxes in skate parks. I hate “Higher Ground.” It just sounds readymade for a teen clothing store in a mall. I can’t imagine any universe where I would derive enjoyment from voluntarily listening to that song. And it’s the second song on here. “Nobody Weird Like Me” hints at the sound they’d develop on BSSM, but overall everything is too fast, too aggressively funky. Except it’s not really funky, more of like the worst idea of what a Chili Peppers hater would imagine the band sounds like.
12. CALIFORNICATION (1999)
Not only do I hate this album, but listening to it makes me hate the Chili Peppers. Chalk it up to personal preference and a distaste for the production. I know there are good songs on here and many fans rank it near the top. But every time I try to listen to this thing, I find myself skipping tracks and then just turning it off. Even the best groove (“I Like Dirt”) is ruined by an arrangement too busy for its own good. Like Uplift Mofo, this material is better served by live performances but unlike that album I can’t appreciate the studio counterparts. There’s a demo version of this material floating around that sounds much better to me.