Guns N’ Roses – their 20 greatest songs, ranked!

·8 min read
<span>Photograph: Icon and Image/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Icon and Image/Getty Images

20 Shadow of Your Love (1987)

Recorded in 1986 and released a year later, this speed metal gem was released as the B-side of the 12in version of It’s So Easy/Mr Brownstone before being lost to antiquity for 31 years. When it resurfaced in 2018, it was still every bit the raspy-voiced hellraiser of yore. The incomprehensible rants, barked hook and ear-splitting solo all make this a slice of classic GnR.

19 So Fine (1992)

The Use Your Illusion duology was the sound of GnR trying to shed their anarchic hair metal origins and do as much experimenting as they could. So Fine was their David Bowie moment, featuring tender pianos and the bluesy croon of Duff McKagan. Thanks largely to it being buried between 13 other songs on UYI II, it’s an underrated heartstring-plucker.

18 Madagascar (2008)

Chinese Democracy could have been one of the best albums of all time and it still wouldn’t have lived up to the years of hype and delays that preceded it. It ultimately divided opinion, with reviews split between calling it eclectic or simply unfocused. However, no one can deny that Madagascar is a symphonic masterstroke from hard rock’s ageing gunslingers. Over six minutes, it unfolds from trombone-powered pageantry to pertinent and orchestral metal, casting a Martin Luther King Jr speech against strings and a squealing shred.

Duff McKagan and Axl Rose at the BottleRock Napa Valley music festival in September 2021.
Duff McKagan and Axl Rose at the BottleRock Napa Valley music festival in September 2021. Photograph: London Entertainment/Rex/Shutterstock

17 Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (1990)

This ballad should be the blueprint for any band out to do a great cover. Performed live for a few years before being recorded for the Days of Thunder soundtrack (it later appeared on Use Your Illusion II), GnR’s version has all the beauty of Bob Dylan’s original, although the crashing guitars, the scratchy singing and the crystal-clear production of Mike Clink – who staffed the dials for every album bar Chinese Democracy – makes it quintessentially them.

16 Right Next Door to Hell (1991)

This guaranteed that Use Your Illusion I would start off with an adrenaline jolt. On an album that would flirt with everything from folk to prog, Rose and co wisely got everybody on board with a burst of old-school aggro. Also, that call-and-answer chorus is among the band’s best.

15 Chinese Democracy (2008)

Chinese Democracy wasn’t afraid to get weird from the off. The title track opens the album with a minute of distant, pounding drums and dissonant guitars before breaking into an unabashedly industrial riff. But then Rose’s drawn-out bark hits, and the clock’s been wound back 20 years. GnR may have gone weird, but there was no denying that they were still a force of nature.

14 Double Talkin’ Jive (1991)

Double Talkin’ Jive is essentially a dance anthem pushed through the GnR filter. If that swaggering drumbeat at the outset doesn’t get you moving, you’re either dead or deaf. Izzy Stradlin’s lead vocal is a chilling industrial hum, but you still have the slicing guitar licks and restless energy needed for a bona fide hard rock stomper.

13 It’s So Easy (1987)

“It’s so easy, easy / When everybody’s trying to please me.” That hook makes it unforgettable, but there’s more to It’s So Easy than its chorus. One of the tautest songs on one of rock’s tautest albums, Appetite for Destruction, it’s all rallying bass, clamouring percussion and a surprisingly smooth vocal turn from Rose.

Axl Rose and Slash performing at Rock in Rio in 1991.
Axl Rose and Slash performing at Rock in Rio in 1991. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

12 Patience (1988)

On Appetite for Destruction, GnR were hard-drinking heartbreakers specialising in naught but sordid rock music. Not even 18 months later, they released GnR Lies, where Patience exposed their tender side. Acoustic guitars? Whistling? Whispered singing?! It may not be bad-boy behaviour, but it sure is good, adding a new wrinkle to the band’s repertoire that would grow through the titanic Use Your Illusion albums.

11 Estranged (1991)

Use Your Illusion II is defined by excess, and Estranged is its most excessive moment. The behemoth unpicks the psyche of Rose during his marriage to Erin Everly, while the video cost $4m. Over nine minutes, you get introspective songwriting, a magnificent solo and immeasurable dynamic range. As the last single of UYI II, it was the ideal swan song to GnR’s most indulgent era.

10 Civil War (1990)

Over the course of eight minutes, Civil War is a cavalcade of climactic melodies followed by even more climactic melodies. Marching drums underpin country acoustic guitars, before distorted riffs and screeching vocals slice through the mix. The lyrics are timelessly poetic as well, arguing that all war is civil war as humanity hurts humanity. “What’s so civil about war, anyway?” remains an enjoyably cod-philosophical pearl of wisdom.

Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, Dizzy Reed, Matt Sorum, Slash and Izzy Stradlin circa 1990.
Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, Dizzy Reed, Matt Sorum, Slash and Izzy Stradlin circa 1990. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

9 My Michelle (1987)

My Michelle is a song built on false pretences. Named after a girl and opening with a dulcet clean guitar, it plants all the clues you’d need to assume a soppy ballad lies ahead – until the drums smack barely 30 seconds in. Then it plummets into a surprisingly doomy riff, superseded by a scurrying chorus.

8 Mr Brownstone (1987)

Slash and Izzy Stradlin teamed up to write the best Appetite for Destruction song not to be released as a single, using a character called Mr Brownstone to lament their heroin addictions. Lyrics like “he won’t leave me alone” suddenly become a lot more powerful in that context. Despite being penned by two guitarists, it is drummer Steven Adler who owns this track, slamming his way through.

7 Paradise City (1987)

Despite being arguably the most popular GnR song, Paradise City lives and dies on the strength of its chorus – and what a chorus. “Take me down to the paradise city, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty” is so ingrained in pop culture that children know it before they know about the band that wrote it. The hard rock breakdowns obviously hit hard as well – even if they jar just slightly when cast against the folk-like melody that made this piece immortal.

6 Don’t Cry (1991)

Rose claims that this was the first GnR song ever written. He and Stradlin penned it together in early 1985, with the lyrics revolving around a girl that both of them had been in a relationship with, but it wouldn’t be heard until 1991. Two different versions appear on Use Your Illusion I and II, although it’s the “original” with more optimistic lyrics that would ensnare fans.

5 You Could Be Mine (1991)

The closest to Appetite for Destruction’s seediness that Use Your Illusion II reaches, You Could Be Mine was a mainstream juggernaut after its inclusion in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Blasted out by a teenage John Connor on his motorcycle, it’s the perfect soundtrack to adolescent rebellion: thrashing instrumentation, vicious singing and an aggressive hook define this masterpiece of hard rock.

4 Nightrain (1987)

We have an obnoxious heckler to thank for this Appetite for Destruction anthem. “I’m on the Night Train!” a passerby screamed at GnR as the band were walking down the street drinking a bottle of the branded cheap wine. Who knew it would become the backbone of a call-and-answer chorus sang by entire stadiums for decades to come?

Guns N’ Roses backstage at Fender’s Ballroom,Long Beach, California in 1986. From left, Izzy Stradlin, Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, Steven Adler and Slash.
Guns N’ Roses backstage at Fender’s Ballroom,
Long Beach, California in 1986. From left, Izzy Stradlin, Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, Steven Adler and Slash.
Photograph: Marc S Canter/Getty Images

3 Sweet Child o’ Mine (1987)

Everything about Sweet Child o’ Mine is genre-defining. That guitar lick is iconic. Rose’s lyrics are world-famous. And the video ruled MTV for decades. The frontman’s then-girlfriend, Erin Everly, inspired this loved-up megahit, while the riff was originally a warmup exercise that Slash devised. Once he played it in front of his bandmates, it was the first step towards the 80s’ biggest rock’n’roll banger.

2 November Rain (1991)

The word “epic” is overused, but November Rain deserves the adjective. Ducking and diving from piano balladry to fist-pumping riffing, it’s an emotional odyssey that easily stands as GnR’s most tear-jerking moment. It’s the band’s strongest non-Appetite for Destruction output, backed up by a video that’s joyously wild. See Slash leaving a church, dejected, only to bust out an eye-watering solo in the desert for the apex of brilliant silliness.

1 Welcome to the Jungle (1987)

Despite being just the second single from a debut album, this signalled from the get-go that this was a band destined for stadium-level superstardom. It took GnR three hours to write Welcome to the Jungle, but they created everything you could ever want in a floor-filling heavy metal anthem: Axl’s snarling swagger gives confidence via osmosis; the drumming is endearingly, head-bangingly simple; and the guitars dart from impressive technicality to the most primal of chords. If there’s a rock checklist, this signature song ticks every box.

• This article was updated on Thursday 30 June with a correction: Izzy Stradlin takes the lead vocal on Double Talkin’ Jive, not Axl Rose.

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