For more than three decades, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have twisted rock, funk, punk and soul into new, surprising, usually fun and sometimes sad jams.
Singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea have kept the band together and have stayed relevant far longer than most of their peers or their idols. We took a deep dive into the hits and some album tracks to come up with this list of their 40 greatest songs.
We included every era, not to be fair, but because every lineup had at least a few classics. The early lineup of Anthony, Flea, guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons is some people’s favorite. Anthony, Flea, drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusicante created their most successful albums and songs. But credit is also due to former guitarists Jack Sherman, Dave Navarro and Josh Klinghoffer, and ex-drummer Cliff Martinez.
With Frusciante back in the band, we can’t wait to hear their new music. For now, though, take a look through our countdown of their 40 best songs (and yes, the list surely could have been much longer).
One of the first songs the band wrote for ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik,’ it was a perfect blend of their classic punk/funk style with their new melodic sense. Kiedis declares his love for non-human earthlings: “I never met an animal that I didn't like/You can come to me I won't bite/Don't you know dog is man's best friend/There is some love that you can't fight.”
As Anthony Kiedis wrote in his memoirs (‘Scar Tissue’), he wrote the lyrics about a woman who left guitarist Hillel Slovak for someone with more money.
A sweet acoustic tune about Anthony Kiedis, Flea and John Frusciante’s surfing trip when the latter rejoined the band; drummer Chad Smith couldn’t make the trip, which is probably why there are no drums on the song (Smith does appear in the music video). One of the most endearing things about the Chili Peppers is that, through the decades, they still seem to genuinely love each other and they’re not shy about singing about it.
‘One Hot Minute,’ the band’s sole album with former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, was a difficult alliance of talents. “Coffee Shop” was one instance where it really worked: Navarro’s thunderous psychedelic guitar perfectly fits in here.
The Chili Peppers paid tribute to George Clinton on the title track of their second album, which he produced for the band. They repeated the chant, “Funk ‘em, just to see the look on their face,” a quote attributed to Clinton himself.
It wouldn’t be the last time the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang about their hometown. And while the production sounds a bit dated, it features former guitarist Jack Sherman’s finest moment in his brief tenure with the band (after Kiedis yelps, “Better be burnin’, Sherman!”).
Another gem from the Chilis’ second album; again, you can smell George Clinton’s funk on this jam.
33.“Breaking The Girl” - ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ (1991) In the ‘80s, the Chili Peppers made their rep off of their hyperactive jumpy funk jams. But by ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik,” they were embracing Jimi Hendrix, and on this song, Led Zeppelin. This song sounds like one of the acoustic moments on Zeppelin’s third or fourth albums. It was one of the songs that signaled that the Chilis could grow up, just a bit.
A single off of ‘Stadium Arcadium’ that, sadly, seemed to get lost. In retrospect, it almost comes off as a last goodbye from John Frusciante; in the song he contributes some of his loveliest support vocals, not to mention one of his sweetest solos. And in the video (it’s on YouTube), you see the band hanging out together on a beach, clearly loving each other’s company. Here’s hoping that they’re bonding like that now that Frusciante is back in the band.
Another example of Anthony Kiedis and John Frusciante’s perfect harmonizing. The song has rarely been performed live because Frusciante played so many different guitar parts, it would have been impossible to reproduce in concert. But it’s one of the band’s best studio creations.
The highlight of ‘I’m With You,’ the band’s first album with guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. It’s a sendoff to Brenden Mullen, a club owner who gave the band one of their first shots, a gig opening for Bad Brains. He died on the first day of rehearsals for ‘I’m With You,’ and the band channeled their sorrow into this jam.
New guitarist Josh Klinghoffer was first brought into the band by his predecessor John Frusciante; he was a touring guitarist/keyboardist on the ‘Stadium Arcadium’ tour before ultimately replacing his friend. Here is one of the many instances in his two albums with the Chili Peppers that he proves himself to be a worthy heir, even if it didn’t last. His guitar playing and backing vocals are delicate and lovely.
Most of the band’s tributes to founding guitarist Hillel Slovak were posthumous, but this joyous one minute and seventeen-second romp celebrated him while he still walked the earth. According to the band, he was, in fact, skinny, sweaty and occasionally donned a green suit.
A great cover of the Sly & The Family Stone cover. Some of producer George Clinton’s P-Funk pals helped out, including saxophone legend Maceo Parker and the great Fred Wesley on trombone. It was their best cover until they tackled “Higher Ground” a few years later.
The opening track off of their debut album, Flea’s bassline is one of his funkiest (although there are too many funky Flea basslines to count). And Anthony Kiedis’ half-rapped/half-yelped vocals about riding saber-toothed horses and paisley dragons were both bizarre, unique and lovable.
Sometimes, originality is overrated. “Dani California” was criticized by some for sounding a bit too much like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (and both songs were produced by Rick Rubin!). But Petty’s “American Girl” sounded so much like the Byrds that when Roger McGuinn first heard it, he wondered if it was a song he didn’t remember recording. So, sure, “Dani” bears a bit of similarity to “Mary Jane,” but it’s still a great song!
24.“Parallel Universe” - ‘Californiation’ (1999) Flea’s bass playing was classic disco filtered through Joy Division (who was a big influence on the band’s next album). Even though this song wasn’t a huge hit, they almost always play it live, and for good reason.
Another song where Flea seems to be getting his disco influences out. Indeed, the video -- shot in Brooklyn -- has a huge ‘Saturday Night Fever’ influence that it wears on its sleeve (well, not Kiedis: he’s naked for the entire video, save for a hat, sneakers and a codpiece).
In which the Red Hot Chili Peppers celebrate rock and roll’s early days by name dropping Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley.
Anthony Kiedis had a brief relationship with Sinead O’Connor, which inspired this bittersweet, acoustic ballad. It’s been a lament for the dumped ever since.
This ballad is the highlight of Dave Navarro’s time with the Chili Peppers, and it’s one of the band’s best slow jams. BTW, Navarro should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but if there’s any justice, he’ll get in with Jane’s Addiction in the next few years.
19. “Dark Necessities” - ‘The Getaway’ (2016) The best song from Josh Klinghoffer’s era with the band, they co-wrote this one with their producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, the first time they worked with someone other than Rick Rubin since 1989. Kiedis said in a video on the band’s YouTube pages that the song is about “the beauty of our dark sides and how much creativity and growth and light actually comes out of those difficult struggles that we have on the inside of our heads that no one else can see.”
Anthony Kiedis noted in his autobiography, ‘Scar Tissue,’ that this was one of the more difficult Chili Peppers songs to write, but it was worth the struggle. Here, they take a hard look at their home, particularly Hollywood, both the mainstream film industry and porn. They also shout out both ‘Star Wars’ (“Alderaan's not far away”) and ‘Star Trek’ (“Space may be the final frontier”) as well as Nirvana (who once opened for the Chili Peppers) and David Bowie (“Cobain, can you hear the spheres singing songs off ‘Station to Station?’"). It’s been one of the songs that the band has performed most since its release in 1999, and for good reason.
This song was never a single, but it should have been; it’s a midtempo jam with a lighters-up chorus and again, features Kiedis and Frusciante’s voices harmonizing perfectly. The string section (arranged by David Campbell, father of Beck) is a perfect example of how to add strings to a song without overdoing it.
It’s hard to remember these days, since the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been mostly beloved arena headliners for about three decades, but in the ‘90s, they were seen as total freaks. This song was an anthem for their people.
A song inspired by Kiedis’ struggles with drugs, the singer wrote it after going through a stint in rehab. Bradley Nowell of Sublime -- another frontman who had the same struggle with more tragic results -- quoted the line “No one can tell you you've got to be afraid,” in “All You Need.”
One of the band’s most sadly beautiful songs, it clearly resonated with Kiedis, as he named his autobiography after it. In the song, he looks at people who are down on their luck, as he had been many times before, and tries to find beauty at the bottom (“With the birds I’ll share this lonely view”).
The band’s best cover is this Stevie Wonder jam (from the 1973 ‘Innervisions’ album). The Chili Peppers became their first radio hit, reaching number 11 on Billboard’s Alternative chart, and 26 on the Mainstream Rock chart, setting the band up perfectly for their next album, 1991’s ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik.’ Fun fact: Flea wore the same stuffed animal pants from the “Higher Ground” video and in the video for rapper Young MC’s “Bust A Move.” Not-so-fun fact: the pants were stolen a few years later.
The highlight of ‘Stadium Arcadium,’ it’s a rare case of a great song that’s made even greater by a video. The song is about hopefuls who come to L.A. to seek stardom. In the video, a number of hopefuls are interviewed about their experiences coming to L.A. and then play along to the song… before being surprised when they’re joined by the actual Chili Peppers. It’s one of the most pure expressions of joy that you’ll see in a music video.
In which the Chili Peppers give props to fellow L.A. freaks in X, Fishbone and Thelonious Monster (and sample each band), as well as giving a shoutout to Mike Watt and his band fIREHOSE (they later dedicated their ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ album to Watt). They weren’t just friends with these bands, they were inspired by them; if you’re unfamiliar, check them out and find out why they mean so much to Anthony and Flea (you’ll thank us, and the Chili Peppers, for this).
A song where Kiedis struggles with his past addictions. The song was allegedly dedicated to Hillel Slovak, and Kiedis sounds haunted by his friend’s memory, as he tries to avoid his fate.
Another song haunted by the memory of Slovak; here, his replacement, John Frusciante, takes lead vocals and sings of the danger of drug addiction (something he would fall into in subsequent years). The song demonstrated that Frusciante would be more than just a “replacement”; it was clear that he’d be a major force in the band. “Knock Me Down” was also a turning point, as it showed a more mature side to their songwriting.
8. “Around The World” - ‘Californication’ (1999) The leadoff song on ‘Californication,’ the band’s reunion with John Frusicante, announced that the band’s chemistry was as powerful as ever. Flea drops one of his best bass lines, Frusciante’s guitar playing and harmony vocals were pristine and Kiedis’ lyrics and his scatting improvisations were classic Chili Peppers funk.
One of the band’s early experiments with melody and psychedelic sounds, they wanted “Behind The Sun” to be a single, but their label, EMI, refused, believing that the song was too melodic; the band’s fans wouldn’t go for it. After the Chili Peppers left EMI for Warner Brothers, they struck gold with ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik,’ EMI released a complilation of the band’s earlier songs: 1992’s ‘What Hits?’ cashed in on the band’s exploding popularity. And the first single from the collection? You guessed it: “Behind The Sun.” The song hit #7 on Billboard’s Modern Rock charts, making it their only radio hit with Hillel Slovak.
“Behind The Sun” was an example of the band’s instincts being right. Here, Kiedis’ instincts were way off. Believe it not, Kiedis didn’t want to show the rest of the band his lyrics to “Under The Bridge,” as he didn’t feel it was appropriate for a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. Thankfully, producer Rick Rubin convinced him otherwise, and of course, the rest is history. The Hendrixian ballad sees Kiedis dealing with his past drug abuse and trying to transcend it. It’s more than just the band’s biggest hit (it peaked at #2 on the pop charts): “I don’t ever wanna feel, like I did that day” is a mantra for people who don’t want to repeat past mistakes.
5.“The Power Of Equality”/”If You Have To Ask” - ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ (1991) Yeah, they are two separate songs. But so are Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman),” and we’re not listening to one of those without the other, either. “The Power Of Equality” and “If You Have To Ask” makes the perfect opening to the Chili Peppers’ greatest album. Kiedis puts his politics upfront on “Power”: “Right or wrong, my song is strong/You don't like it, get along/Say what I want, do what I can/Death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan.” He proudly notes that his politics are mirrored by the music that he listens to “I got tapes/I got CDs/I got my Public Enemy.” “If You Have To Ask” shows the band’s flip side, as Kiedis vamps over the “funky-a-- Flea bass.”
4.“By The Way” - ‘By The Way’ (2002) The title track and opening song on their 2002 album, “By The Way” showed that the success of the ‘Californication’ album wasn’t a fluke. The song combined the band’s mellow and explosive sides, not to mention Kiedis’ quirky lyrics: what did he mean by “Steak knife! Card shark! Con job! Boot cut?” It didn’t matter: it sounded great. And “Dani the girl” makes an appearance here: she’d later star in her own song a few years later, “Dani California.”
Another ode to friends and community. The original lineup of the Red Hot Chili Peppers reunited for ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’: guitarist Hillel Slovak rejoined the band on the prior album, and Jack Irons returned on this album. That clearly gave Anthony and Flea a new burst of energy and inspired the singer’s lyrics, which sing the praises of his bandmates, as well as his friend Bob (they’re “Like two sweet peas in an even sweeter pod!”)
2.“Can’t Stop” - ‘By The Way’ (2002) The funkiest jam on ‘By The Way,” it has Flea’s second-best bassline ever. That would be enough to rate it as a classic, but everything on this song clicks: Chad Smith’s drums are totally in the pocket, John Frusciante’s angular funk makes it impossible to stand still while listening to this jam, and his harmony vocals are soaring. And of course, Anthony’s lyrics and delivery tie it all together: “choose not a life of imitation” is another Kiedis-ish mantra (indeed, lots of fans have gotten that line tattooed).
Flea’s greatest bassline anchors the funkiest song ever written about the benefits of generosity. The song’s simplicity is a bit deceptive: the lyrics aren’t just vamping. In his memoirs, Anthony Kiedis tells a story about visiting his then-girlfriend, German new wave icon Nina Hagen. When Kiedis was looking through her closet he saw a jacket he liked. Hagen told him to keep it, saying, "If you have a closet full of clothes and you try to keep them all, your life will get very small. But if you have a full closet and someone sees something they like, if you give it to them, the world is a better place.” This was, apparently, a new way for him to look at the world. Elsewhere in the song, he raps about the ability to improve yourself through knowledge, noting that it’s never too late to learn more: “I'm a low brow but I rock a little know how… Get smart get down with the pow wow/Never been a better time! Than right now!” As if the song wasn’t perfect enough, they shout out Bob Marley, while John Frusciante quotes the guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.”