Note: This post, which was originally published in September 2021, has been updated to include the band’s 2022 release ‘Unlimited Love’
It doesn’t feel as if history has been all that kind to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and while they’re reportedly working on a new album, it remains to be seen if anyone is reportedly waiting to hear it. I mean, I am, but I might be in the minority there. But such is life for a band once they close in on nearly four decades together. At a certain point, an act faces a fork in the road. One path consists of playing the hits and keeping things going, while the other path is made up of new material and the pitfalls that come with dropping something new when it’s quite possible no one is all that interested anymore. It’s tough but it’s true. Just ask U2.
For the Chili Peppers, their career can best be described as falling into three stages. There was the first stage, the one with the socks on cocks and punk-infused funk-rock and then there was the second stage, where they seemingly put it all together and became a bonafide rock ‘n roll force. Finally, there was the third stage, the one we’re currently in and the one where the remnants of glory achieved during the previous stage have long since started to fade. The band is still a draw but not nearly the draw they were and chances are, people are more likely to line up to hear something from that second stage than anything from the third stage, with a few exceptions of course. The band’s most recent albums, 2011’s I’m With You and 2016’s The Getaway aren’t perfect but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a handful of good songs on them.
The apex of that second stage was the one/two punch of Californication and By the Way, but we would never have gotten to that point had Blood Sugar Sex Magik not happened. Released on September 24, 1991, the album was a continuation of the maturation in their sound demonstrated throughout 1989’s Mother’s Milk and for what felt like the first time, laid out a path to the future for a band that felt like they would burn out long before the turn of the century. Rock bands rarely age well. Rock bands that perform with socks on their dicks definitely don’t but with their fifth album, the band showed that there was much more to them than trash funk, tattoos, and nudity. They had songs too and good ones at that. With the help of producer Rick Rubin, the band broke through with songs like “Give It Away,” “Suck My Kiss” and “Under the Bridge.” There was still an edge to the band, but it was a different kind of edge than they had before. The punk rock tendencies had been replaced by stadium-ready rock and for the most part, there was no going back.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik is clearly the band’s most important album, but is it the best album? As for songs, you can find a playlist of my forty or so favorites here.
12. Red Hot Chili Peppers (1984)
So you do one of these rankings and that first album is always a tricky one to place. Typically they end up fairly high on the list because of what they’ve come to mean and the nuggets of potential it showed. The Chili Peppers’ self-titled debut album showed a few glimpses of the band’s potential but not a whole lot. Instead, the album is a manic burst of reckless, sun-soaked energy and as a result, there isn’t much there in terms of a cohesive vision. In their defense, the band’s drummer (Jack Irons) and guitarist (Hillel Slovak) dipped out before the album was done, which probably didn’t help things. But either way, the album is a collection of songs, not an album, and of the songs involved, only something like “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes” is worth bringing up all these years later.
11. I’m With You (2011)
I’m With You came out almost six years after the album that proceeded it, the double album Stadium Arcadium and with it came a band that was again looking to rediscover itself in the wake of John Frusciante’s departure. Frusciante had left in 2009 to work on his solo material and was replaced by guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who had been the band’s touring guitarist. For the most part, there wasn’t much of a difference between the guitarists sound-wise but what was truly missing was Frusciante’s songwriting that had helped further develop the band’s sound since he rejoined after his first departure in 1998. I’m With You isn’t a bad album, but it also feels like a band playing it safe and one would never associate the Chili Peppers with playing it safe. Again, this is a band that would frequently perform wearing only socks and not on their feet.
10. Freaky Styley (1985)
The band’s second album featured them leaning heavily into their funk influences and fandom and what better way to do that than bring in one of your heroes to produce it, which is what they did by enlisting George Clinton to steer the recording of the album. As a result, the album is slightly more fluid and cohesive than their debut, coming almost close to having a sonic narrative throughline. The love of funk certainly helped and the album features a handful of songs that would become classics in the band’s catalog, most notably “Jungle Man” and “Catholic School Girls Rule,” as well as their cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me To Stay.” The band also brought Slovak to play guitar, a move that most likely helped the band again find their way.
9. The Getaway (2016)
Rick Rubin and the band had worked together on every Chili Peppers’ album since Blood Sugar Sex Magik but nothing isn’t meant to last forever and change can be good, especially for an act three decades plus into their career. On The Getaway, Danger Mouse was brought in to produce and the result is an album that sounds markedly different than any of the Rubin albums. Although it’s still a Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album, so it’s not as if it sounds drastically different. The band had always felt like creatures of the night but on The Getaway, the band was the soundtrack to more of a chill, introspective night; one with some candles lit and a few bottles of wine. The vibe is different, for better or worse.
8. One Hot Minute (1995)
Amidst the band’s touring to support Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Frusciante bailed out for the first time. Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction was their first choice to replace Frusciante but was struggling with drug addiction. It would take a year or two for him to get to a place where he felt like he could join up, which he did officially in 1993. On paper, it looked like a win. There had always been similarities between Jane’s and the Chili Peppers and adding Navarro would allow the band to continue along the path they had forged with Blood Sugar Sex Magik. And at first, it looked and sounded that way but by the time they got to One Hot Minute, the melodic tendencies of Frusciante had been replaced by the big, heavy rock riffs that Navarro was partial to. One Hot Minute is a darker, heavier album than other Chili Peppers’ albums, almost sounding like the product of a different band, which I suppose they kind of were for a few years there.
7. The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987)
Okay now. By their third album, the band had started to find its footing. Slovak, the band’s original guitarist was fully back on board, as was their original drummer Jack Irons. With two albums and non-stop touring under their belts, the band put together their best and most polished effort to date. It’s was also their first album to break into the Billboard 200, driven by songs like “Fight Like a Brave,” “Me and My Friends” and “Behind the Sun.” Producer Michael Beinhorn had encouraged them to explore musical styles beyond funk and punk, leading them to dip their toes into metal, hard rock, and reggae waters. Uplift is a solid “our boys are growing up album” and if Slovak hadn’t died of an overdose while touring after the album’s release and Irons hadn’t left as a result, it’s interesting to think about what the band’s career would have then looked like.
6. Stadium Arcadium (2006)
Ugh, double albums. Acts think they’re such great ideas but rarely are they. More often than not, they come across as bloated and not really needed. You could cut down Stadium Arcadium from 29 songs to 14 and have a much stronger album, one that would certainly be ranked higher on this particular list. Even still, Stadium Arcadium is a certified monster of an album and was a showcase for Frusciante, who at that time was clearly operating at the peak of his powers. The album sold over seven million units and went on to win five Grammys including one for Best Rock Album. If the release of Blood Sugar Sex Magik was the band’s first inflection point, the release of Stadium Arcadium was the second.
5. Unlimited Love (2022)
Leading up to the release of Unlimited Love, there was some optimism with hopes largely pinned on the return of Frusciante. But there was also skepticism because aging is a son of a bitch, even for a band with as much youthful energy as the Peppers. Well, the first single, “Black Summer” wasn’t exactly great at quelling fears and reassuring skeptics. The song wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great, and was Anthony singing like a pirate? But alas, the rest of the album came out, and guess what, kids? It was really fucking good. Like, really good. There were rock songs, funk songs, rock/funk songs as well as more mature songs that couldn’t be nailed down when it came to a genre. Predictably, the return of Frusciante elevated the quality of the songs and brought a renewed spirit to the band (again.) The band spent the summer filling stadiums and then surprised everyone with the news that they’d be releasing their second album of the year, Return of the Dream Canteen, which was recorded during the Unlimited Love sessions. Now, I’m not sure the band survives another Frusciante departure but for now, let’s just enjoy this Chili Pepper third (or fourth or fifth) act.
4. Mother’s Milk (1989)
The band’s two rocks, Anthony Kiedis and Flea were in rough shape following the death of Slovak, with Kiedis, who had also developed a serious drug addiction, entering rehab. Along with trying to keep their lives together, the two friends also had to find a way to keep their band together in light of losing two members. Luckily they struck gold with the young Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith who brought with him a distinctive thundering swinging style. Anchored by “Knock Me Down” and their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” Mother’s Milk was the band throwing it all out there and finally breaking through. After three uneven albums, on Mother’s Milk, they started to put it all together- the funk, the punk, and the rock.
3. Californication (1999)
As they had ten years earlier, the band was attempting to crawl themselves out of a hole of darkness and despair. The Navarro experiment had failed, Kiedis had relapsed and they were struggling to again seek out a path forward. The first step towards getting things back on track happened when Flea reached out to Frusciante who himself had developed a serious drug addiction since leaving the band. Flea invited him back, a move that Frusciante said was instrumental in him getting his life back together. With Frusciante again in the band, the Chili Peppers produced one of their most successful albums commercially. And while a lot of attention was paid to the return of Frusciante, Kiedis’ vocal style had changed. There was less rapping and more singing, a move that allowed the band to go in more directions, inherently making them a more interesting band as they wrapped up their second decade together.
2. Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
If not for Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the Red Hot Chili Peppers would have faded from view and existence a long time ago. The album didn’t just save them, it re-defined them, something that was needed after a decade of shenanigans, drug abuse, and tragedy. They didn’t run from their past though, as it factored in heavily to Kiedis’ lyrics, especially in “Under the Bridge.” Even the wild side of the band was still around despite their perceived maturity, but songs like “Suck My Kiss” and “Give It Away” hit differently than they would have if they had shown up earlier in the band’s career. The album is almost a perfect example of what can happen if you give an exciting young band time to grow and have them team up with the right producer who can shepherd them along and help develop their sound without betraying everything they had done up until that point.
1. By the Way (2002)
Frusciante was just starting to get his act together when he had rejoined the band prior to the recording of Californication and by the time it was time to record By the Way, he was back in prime fighting shape. Yet with Frusciante’s growing role in the band a plus musically, it was a potential hand grenade culture-wise as Flea felt threatened by his elevated status in the band. Thankfully, any issues were resolved. On By the Way, the band moved away from the funk/rock of the past, something that Flea still held onto dearly. Led by Frusciante, the band explored more melody-driven sounds, whether it was lyrically, vocally, or musically. They experimented with different instrumentation, bringing in strings and keyboards, layering sounds to create a lushness that had never been heard on a Chili Peppers’ album before. If everything up to that point for the band had been various forms of chaos, By the Way was a relaxing Sunday afternoon in late summer spent sitting back and staring at the ocean. It was a calm that was much needed for the band and was needed for them to even consider moving forward and definitely needed if they were going to tackle something like Stadium Arcadium.
Which definitely shouldn’t have been a double album, by the way.