When Guns N’ Roses dropped their landmark debut, Appetite For Destruction, in 1987, the world didn’t know what had hit it. A previously unheard combination of stadium and garage rock, infused with the desperation and danger of punk rock, Appetite For Destruction created a seismic shift in the LA music scene from which it emerged.
Appetite For Destruction catapulted Guns N’ Roses to mainstream stardom, where the band members’ musical abilities, egos and seemingly endless vices thrived. GN’R’s short-lived classic lineup delivered one last great batch of songs across the dual Use Your Illusion records, released in 1991, before blowing apart in spectacular fashion.
The band’s peak period of activity, from 1987 to 1993, left the world with a collection of songs that continue to dominate classic rock playlists. With the reunited Guns N’ Roses headed to Australia in November 2022, we’ve taken a closer look at the band’s golden era, highlighting 10 essential tracks.
Guns N’ Roses: 10 Essential Tracks
1. Welcome To The Jungle, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
You’d be hard-pressed to find an album opener that surpasses the impact and quality of Appetite For Destruction‘s lead track, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’. It explodes from the speakers with a combination of dirt, swagger, melody and danger. Everything about this song is iconic, from Axl Rose’s venomous lead vocals to Slash’s riffs and Duff McKagan’s bass playing, which rumbles with tenacious punk spirit.
2. Patience, G N’ R Lies (1988)
For a band with such a firm reputation for being wild, GN’R are shockingly adept at exploring tender romanticism. ‘Patience’ is a brilliant example of the latter. On the surface, it’s a glam rock ballad, all tuneful whistles, sorrowful vocals and gentle acoustic guitars. But this isn’t a love conquers all-style celebration, nor is it a typical song of heartbreak. Rather, ‘Patience’ finds genuine beauty in the struggle of complex love.
3. Paradise City, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
This track is undeniable, from the infectious intro that begs to be sung by a stadium full of people, to Slash’s melodic riffing and Steven Adler’s simple and effective drumming. ‘Paradise City’ is a primary example of GN’R’s arena rock mastery – by the time it reaches its stupefying climax, you can visualise the pyrotechnics setting off in football stadiums worldwide.
4. November Rain, Use Your Illusion II (1991)
To a certain type of GN’R fan, this is the point where Rose got a little too into himself, but for pretty much the rest of the world, ‘November Rain’ is Rose’s crowning achievement as a songwriter. The fact that a nine-minute, piano-driven ballad could be the biggest hit for one of the world’s most celebrated hard rock acts is proof of GN’R’s cross-genre capabilities.
It took Rose a reported nine years to finish this song. And despite its length, every note, movement and lyric in ‘November Rain’ feels essential.
5. You Could Be Mine, Use Your Illusion I (1991)
Although it appears on Use Your Illusion II, ‘You Could Be Mine’ was the single that initiated GN’R’s Use Your Illusion era. Dropped in tandem with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, ‘You Could Be Mine’ swaggers to life with a killer groove, sleazy riff and a vocal from Rose that oozes bitterness.
Co-written by Rose and guitarist Izzy Stradlin, ‘You Could Be Mine’ is an unapologetically venomous farewell to Stradlin’s ex, Angela Nicoletti. The guitars sound like a motorcycle revving up before riding away into the sunset with a middle finger held high, adding to the overall cinematic vibe.
6. Nightrain, Appetite For Destruction (1987)
When Rose, McKagan and Slash got back together for the Not In This Lifetime tour in 2016, they closed their first show together in 23 years with this absolute riot of a hard-rocker. ‘Nightrain’ is a love song dedicated to cheap booze and the shenanigans that accompany its ingestion.
It starts with a memorable guitar intro before letting loose in a way that showcases the reckless spirit of the band’s early years. This is the sound of young, broke men in the midst of making questionable life choices, filtered through the unique chemistry of friendship and amplified by the otherworldly nature of their talents.
7. Civil War, Use Your Illusion II (1991)
If ‘Patience’ hadn’t already earned Rose the title of “best whistler in rock”, then the chilling whistles that introduce this sprawling progressive rocker confirmed it. ‘Civil War’ was intended as a protest song of sorts and originally appeared on the charity compilation, Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal.
Next to ‘November Rain’, ‘Civil War’ is Guns N’ Roses’ best widescreen rock song. Anchored by piano, it features moody Slash solos, spoken word passages, walking bass lines, lead breaks, modal changes and, yes, tuneful whistling. It remains coherent thanks to the chorus, which features a superbly constructed and malleable hook.
8. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Use Your Illusion II (1991)
Guns N’ Roses are one of the greatest cover bands alive. They habitually play songs by both heroes and contemporaries ranging from AC/DC and Rose Tattoo to Skid Row, Misfits, Elvis and Wings. They even put out a decent covers album (1993’s “The Spaghetti Incident?”). GN’R’s cover of ‘Live And Let Die’ by Wings came close to bagging a spot in this list, but we couldn’t go past the band’s legendary take on Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’.
Gunners took a brilliant song by one of the best songwriters to ever walk the earth and through sheer weight of talent, they made it their own. There are at least two generations of people out there that probably think this song is a GN’R original. That has to mean something.
9. Don’t Cry, Use Your Illusion I (1991)
‘Don’t Cry’ is a masterclass in emotional expression. Everything about it sounds heartbroken, from the way Stradlin and Slash’s guitars exert despair with every phrase, to the appropriately restrained rhythm section to Rose’s anguished delivery, which grows more desperate with each movement. If you ever need a good cry, turn this up loud. One of the last great moments from an all-time great lineup.
10. Sweet Child O’ Mine, Appetite For Destruction (1987)
We don’t need to sell you on this – it’s the biggest song by one of the biggest rock bands to ever exist. It’s in the one billion streams club; it’s powered by one of the most famous guitar intros ever recorded; it just soundtracked the new Thor trailer. It is the best stadium rock ballad ever and GN’R’s most essential contribution to the popular music.