Plus One

The 11 best Guns N’ Roses songs

Why have a top ten when you can have one more? This week, we're tackling the biggest rock juggernaut of them all: Guns N' Roses

Guns N’ Roses have always been a complicated beast. From the moment they crawled in off the Sunset Strip, halfway between New York Dolls and Mötley Crüe and twice as inebriated as both, they seemed dangerously different. Their marriage of punk spirit and metal intensity was unlike any other guitar band and they were instantly poised for world domination.

But GN’R being GN’R, nothing quite went how you’d think. Still, if Guns N’ Roses have proved anything, it’s their perseverance. Repeatedly written off, the band has survived, even managing to regroup, with founding members Slash and Duff McKagan now back alongside long-standing keyboardist Dizzy Reed and rock n’ roll’s most confounding enigma: Axl Rose.

With their UK tour on the horizon, we’ve turned our attention to the best songs of the band’s career. We’ve discounted cover songs, but an honourable mention must still go to ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ off The Spaghetti Incident, which features a perfect vocal performance from Duff McKagan.

11. ‘Patience’

(GN’R Lies, 1988)

There are conflicting stories about the creation of this standout from the between-albums EP GN’R Lies. But whether it was written by a lovestruck Axl or Izzy, it still marks a tenderness that was totally at odds with the band’s image up to that point. If you played guitar in the 90s, you were legally obliged to learn how to play ‘Patience’.

10. ‘Paradise City’

(Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

One of those songs that’s just born to be played live: those big ringing chords, the snare hits that sound like the drum skins are in mortal danger, that whistle that signals the charge. ‘Paradise City’ was a gateway for a lot of fans, drawn in by its stadium rock vibes but hooked by the more menacing tracks that lay in wait. Really, this and ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ are the least representative tracks off Appetite, but smart choices to seduce the mildly curious.

9. ‘Yesterdays’

(Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

The common consensus is that Use Your Illusion I is the stronger of the two parts, but the high points on the second are nauseatingly high. Take that opening three-song salvo that culminates with ‘Yesterday’. Izzy’s fingerprints are all over this Stonesy piano-driven rocker, while Axl’s lyrics about forgetting the past and moving ever forward (“Yesterday’s got nothing for me”) is the most Axl sentiment ever.

8. ‘Welcome To The Jungle’

(Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

If ‘Paradise City’ is a touch misleading, ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ is pure GN’R malevolence. Imagine it’s 1987. You’re a teenage rock fan, accustomed to the slick, shiny likes of Poison and Bon Jovi. Then this record comes out and this is the first thing on it. Now imagine you’re the parent of that teenage rock fan. For a time, there was nobody more dangerous than Guns N’Roses and ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ was their battle cry, an introductory video for a holiday in hell with a sneering, yelping heroin addict leading the activities. Even now, ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ sounds so menacing it could cut you.

7. ‘You Could Be Mine’

(Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

And then there’s ‘You Could Be Mine’ rattling in off the freeway just as ‘Estranged’ fades out. Forever associated with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, it’s as unstoppable as Arnie and no less muscular. The T-800 himself negotiated the deal for the song to appear in the film and features in the video, targetting Guns N’Roses before deciding they’re not worth the ammo. Lyrically, it’s a pretty vindictive kiss off to a lover, reinforcing the notion that the best way to get a GN’R song written about you is to break one of their hearts.

6. ‘Estranged’

(Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

Neither of the Use Your Illusion records are lacking for ambition but ‘Estranged’ marks the point where it grew to galactic proportions. It’s Axl Rose’s Titanic and Avatar all in one song. But is it any good? Good? It’s magnificent. Nine minutes and forty-two seconds of orchestral magic that highlights just how good the band were at heart. That this epic (and it can’t really be called anything else) came from the same band that made ‘Rocket Queen’ is baffling. Matt Sorum’s drumming and Slash’s operatic guitar parts move the song effortlessly forward. Many mock Axl’s outsized ambition, but you can’t deny his talent.

5. ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’

(Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

Some songs grow beyond their creators. It goes without saying that most of the people packing wedding dancefloors to this or ‘Living On A Prayer’ aren’t GN’R or Bon Jovi fans, but it’s impossible to deny the facets that make these songs so popular. ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ is an enormous pop song with one of the greatest intro riffs in history, like it was created in a laboratory by air guitar scientists. Sneer at its success and omnipresence all you like, it’s still a monster.

4. ‘Don’t Cry’

(Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

With the Use Your Illusion albums, GN’R leant hard into melodramatic ballads, drawing inspiration from both Queen and Elton John. ‘Don’t Cry’ was written when Axl fell for an ex-girlfriend of Izzy’s. When she realised it would never work out, she ended things, leaving a broken-hearted Axl sobbing outside The Roxy, leading to the consoling words that would become the song’s title. The version on Use Your Illusion I is the original and best, featuring haunting backing vocals from Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon and a masterclass in searingly melodic guitar work from Slash.

3. ‘14 Years’

(Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

More than a few people were crushed when Izzy Stradlin left GN’R. The guitarist was the band’s understated rock ‘n’ roll heart and the quiet hand behind some of their best songs. He gets a rare lead vocal on the boogie woogie brilliance of ’14 Years’, another shining example of his Stones fixation. Some eagle-eyed fans pointed out that this song came out after Izzy and Axl had been friends for 14 years, which leads to some interesting interpretations of the lyrics.

2. ‘November Rain’

(Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

If ‘Estranged’ is the apex of the band’s grand ambition, ‘November Rain’ is more than ready to give it a run for its money. Axl imagined the videos for the two songs as part of a trilogy with ‘Don’t Cry’, although the narrative thread is pretty hard to follow. But what a video! Roughly based on Del James’ short story Without You, it tells the story of a rock star whose wife (played by Rose’s then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour) kills herself as a result of his infidelity. It reaches its peak of rock video excess when Slash stalks out of the church (transported to the middle of the New Mexico desert just for the video) to play a guitar solo as a helicopter whips around him. All this scale can dwarf what is unquestionably a perfect power ballad. Its “Elton John on steroids” orchestration and earnest romanticism have earned it a sizeable chapter in power ballad history.

1. ‘Civil War’

(Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

It was clear right from the off that GN’R were swinging for the fences on Use Your Illusion II. Opening with Strother Martin’s cautionary monologue from Cool Hand Luke, ‘Civil War’ gets progressively bigger and bolder by the minute. It’s not the most subtle anti-war song but nothing about Use Your Illusion II was designed to be subtle. Axl’s final kiss off: “What’s so civil about war anyway?” maybe isn’t as clever as it seemed to an impressionable teenager but it’s the kind of sentiment that suits such an enormous song. Twenty-one years later, that step up in volume after the first verse is still as exhilarating as hard rock gets. It’s also notable as the last song drummer Steve Adler recorded with the band before being replaced with Matt Sorum. For a band that always seemed at war with itself, it’s only fitting that their best song should be called ‘Civil War’.

Guns N’ Roses play BST Hyde Park this summer. Get tickets here