Busting out of the grimy streets of Los Angeles, hard rock band Guns N’ Roses proved themselves to be one of the 1980’s defining musical acts. With a voice that seemed to originate from an underworld much like the gritty L.A. neighborhood they resided in, Axl Rose’s haunting pipes were rounded out by electric guitar wizard Slash’s circus riffs and catchy melodies (and for a time, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin’s grooves as well).
It seemed that each album they released was unmercifully poised to strike gold. They scored monster hits from their debut record Appetite for Destruction all the way through to their pivotal twin release of Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. While their commercial hits drive hard and feel almost fantastical in nature, the ‘80s and ‘90s chart-toppers that keep fans coming back for more even decades after their peak are intensely vulnerable and, at times, even unnerving due to their raw honesty.
With a best-selling record history that puts them on par with rock royalty like The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses remains one of rock’s most notorious and inspiring success stories. Without further adieu, let’s get into Guns N’ Roses’ biggest hits and best songs.
10. Civil War
An anthemic protest song covering everything from JFK’s assassination to the civil rights marches of the 1960s, ‘Civil War’ is one of Guns N’ Roses’ most socially conscious releases to date. Its many layers make it a dynamic track full of emotion. Axl’s vocals are uncharacteristically pensive, and his whistling at the beginning of the song to the early American war tune of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ only adds to the drama. Pop culture is weaved through the story as well when it opens up with a line from the famous cowboy movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
9. You Could Be Mine
When the band released their popular 1991 album Use Your Illusion II (released in conjunction with Use Your Illusion I), two of their tracks made it into the hit action film, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Along with ‘Civil War,’ ‘You Could Be Mine’ was also included in the James Cameron-directed flick. Though it plays at the end of the movie during the credits, it quickly became a fan-favorite. The single broke into the top 30 on the Billboard Hot 100, went all the way to number three in the UK, and managed to become a top 5 hit in several European countries as well.
8. Live And Let Die
A huge hit in 1973, ‘Live and Let Die’ was originally released by Paul McCartney’s band Wings after he wrote the track in about 10 minutes for the James Bond film by the same name. A creative play on the phrase “live and let live,” its commanding essence made it the perfect theme song for the eighth installment, and it remains one of the series’ most popular theme song additions. Guns N’ Roses amped up the sound and included the symphony-rock tune on their Use Your Illusion I album. While both versions begin the same way with breathy vocals and a yearning piano, McCartney made brilliant use of a domineering orchestra while Axl naturally chose Slash to take over instrumental work on his trusty electric six-string.
7. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Arguably the rock group’s most cherished cover, ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ is a spirited take on the Bob Dylan folk classic. Included on their hit album Use Your Illusion II, the opening notes picked on Slash’s guitar pay tribute to the Dylan original and Axl’s powerfully melancholic vocal performance is particularly moving. A moving tune centered around a dying sheriff looking back on his life, the unique way they reimagined one of the ‘70’s most beloved folk anthems made this a big time Guns N’ Roses classic among the group’s dedicated fan base.
6. Don’t Cry
Appearing on both albums of the group’s ‘91 double release, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, alternate versions of the power ballad can be found on both records. ‘Don’t Cry’ was written before Guns N’ Roses ever even got together. It dates back to the ‘80s, when Axl wrote it while trying to get over a girl both he and his friend liked at the same time. Blind Melon’s late lead singer Shannon Hoon appears on this track providing vocals. He and Axl were buds and Hoon sang backup on several Guns N’ Roses recordings.
A rare acoustic gem from the rock band, much like KISS’s ‘Beth’ from the ‘70s, Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Patience’ made it okay for rockers to show their softer side sometimes. Featuring haunting whistled melodies, vulnerable lyrics about sticking it out in a troubled relationship, and beautiful instrumental guitar work, the song’s all-acoustic sound was a pioneering setup for late ‘80s power ballads. It was the lone single released on their second album, G ‘N’ R Lies, and it made quite the splash. It reached the top 10 on UK charts and climbed all the way to #4 in America.
4. November Rain
One of the band’s most affecting releases, ‘November Rain’ is more like an epic than a single, though it was released as one and dominated charts. Axl worked on the lengthy tune for most of the ‘80s before bringing it to the band to record in ‘91. The original version was more than 20 minutes long, but production managed to cut it down to just under nine minutes for radio. While many were skeptical, Axl knew it had hit potential, and his gut instinct was right. After debuting, it climbed all the way to number three in the US and four in the UK. Its chart success made it the longest hit ever in the top 10. And because of Slash’s multiple, extensive solos, it’s also the top 10 single that contains the longest guitar solo.
3. Paradise City
A huge commercial hit for Guns N’ Roses, ‘Paradise City’ was a collaborative effort by the band. Slash’s original lyric preferences were much more sexualized, but Axl had business in mind so the guitarist was overruled by the band in favor of the lead vocalist’s more radio friendly lines. While the verses deal heavily with their experience living in Los Angeles and dealing with “street life” for the first time, the chorus is an ode to where Axl grew up, the vast, rolling green pastures of the Midwest.
2. Welcome To The Jungle
An eventual smashing success for the group, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ was a slow-climb. When it was first released in 1987, it tanked in America. But the next year, when they released their biggest hit ever (can you guess which one that is?), the chart love for that single translated to ‘Welcome to the Jungle.’ They re-released it and it shot up the charts. This tune finds the group once again covering the dark side of L.A., but this time quite unapologetically. The guys were well-versed in the city’s dark side. While trying to make it as a band in the ‘80s, they roomed in a place called “Hell House” by the locals because it was the spot to be if you wanted to party without limits.
1. Sweet Child O’ Mine
One of the most iconic rock songs ever recorded, Guns N’ Roses punched their ticket to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with their single release of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’ The carnival-like opening electric guitar riff by Slash started it all for this song. He made up the melody while sound checking one day and Axl loved it so much he began working on lyrics to it. The lead singer pulled out a poem from his archives and worked it into the verses. And it’s long been speculated his girlfriend at the time, Erin Everly (the daughter of Don of the famous Everly Brothers duo) served as inspiration as well. An uplifting tune with an infectious melody, the number 1 hit scored them a slew of awards and due to Slash’s one-of-a-kind guitar work, it’s his most covered track people love to put their stamp on. When the tune debuted in ‘88, the boys were on tour with rock veterans Aerosmith. Due to the song’s unrivaled success, by the end of their run of shows, Guns N’ Roses had become more popular than the tour’s Steven Tyler-led headlining act.