In the hard rock world, few bands ever reached as great a height in as short a time as Guns N' Roses. The band's 1987 debut album Appetite for Destruction has sold over 30 million copies and is the best-selling debut album ever in any genre. Unfortunately, the band's initial success came at a price, as turmoil among various members caused all but Axl Rose to leave for over a decade. But the story has a happy ending as, in 2016, three of the original five members reunited for the “Not in This Lifetime” tour, with drummer Steven Adler joining for a few songs in select cities. Despite limited output from their peak creative period, so many Guns N' Roses songs have entered the cultural lexicon via classic rock radio that choosing ten is a tough job. These songs represent a mix of Platinum radio hits with fan favorite live staples.
“Coma” wasn't one of the singles released from Use Your Illusion I, it's over ten minute run time making it a less radio friendly single than other album cuts. The song was rarely played during the “Use Your Illusion” tour and went mostly forgotten by fans until the 2016 reunion tour, where it became a regular part of the setlist and got a second look from casual fans.
The final single released from Use Your Illusion II in 1993, “Civil War” was that album's only track to crack the Top Ten, climbing to #3 on the Mainstream Rock charts. The song came out of a riff that Slash would do during soundchecks, and was eventually fleshed out with the help of Rose and bassist Duff McKagan. The song's iconic “What we have here is... failure to communicate” intro is sampled from the classic Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke.
While never getting the worldwide airplay of the album's hit singles, “It's So Easy” has the distinction of being America's introduction to Guns N' Roses. The very first single released from Appetite for Destruction, the song barely cracked the Top 100 in the UK and made no dent in the American market at all, only finding rock radio spins after “Welcome to the Jungle” became a hit. The song also served as a re-introduction to the band on their 2016 reunion tour, being the opening song played at every show.
“Nightrain” was released as the last single from Appetite for Destruction, when the EP Lies only produced one hit. It was written as an homage to Night Train Express wine, a particularly inexpensive brand that the band lived on before becoming successful. What started as a drunken chorus eventually evolved into a song that has been consistently ranked among the greatest rock drinking songs of all time and has been mentioned by guitarist Slash as one of his favorite songs to play live.
If you asked a casual fan to name one Guns N' Roses song, there's a decent chance that “Paradise City” would be the answer. Despite its massive popularity on rock radio and in sports stadiums for decades, it was actually the fourth single released from Appetite for Destruction. Climbing to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, it ended up being the second best selling single from the album and a perennial encore song for the band's live sets.
“Nightrain” might have been a celebratory song about drinking but “Mr. Brownstone” told a darker tale of addiction. Written initially by guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, the song references a slang term for heroin and talks frankly about how the drug affected the band, from the chorus of “a little didn't do it so a little go more and more” to the verse “show usually starts around seven. We go on stage around 9” referencing their well-known penchant for taking the stage late. Despite all members of the band having kicked the habit, “Mr. Brownstone” remains a core piece of the Gun N' Roses setlist.
After the electric rock bombast of Appetite for Destruction, the EP GN'R Lies was a bit of a change of pace for fans of the band. While the first four songs on the album were a re-release of a pre-Appetite live album, the four songs recorded specifically for the album were all done with acoustic guitars. Despite this tender turn from the metal titans, GN'R Lies went 5x Platinum, mostly on the strength of its only single, the ballad “Patience.” Written solely by guitarist Izzy Stradlin, “Patience” has remained both a radio and a live favorite of fans.
“It's So Easy” may have been the song that introduced Guns N' Roses to the world but it was their second single, “Welcome to the Jungle” that launched them into worldwide fame. The lyrics, written by Axl Rose, were inspired by his moving to Los Angeles from his home in Indiana. He has claimed that the iconic spoken line “You know where you are? You're in the jungle, baby. You're gonna die!” was said to him by a homeless man when he stepped off the bus. Slash's opening riff has become one of the most recognizable musical interludes of the '80s.
The Use Your Illusion albums produced several songs that were moderate radio hits, but only one that is held up among fans as equal to their iconic Appetite for Destruction singles. An unlikely single at over eight minutes long, the song benefits greatly from what many fans and critics have hailed as Slash's greatest guitar solo in the band's entire catalog. It also featured a surprise turn on piano from Axl Rose, and the grand piano rising to the stage during the band's reunion tour was an instant signal to fans that the song's time had come.
For a band that is so synonymous with the hard rock scene, it's ironic that the band's two highest charting singles were both ballads. Guns N' Roses' only #1 hit, “Sweet Child O' Mine” was initially based on a practice exercise Slash used to warm up. Stradlin and Rose loved it and wanted to write a song around it, much to Slash's reported chagrin. While it is obviously one of the most anticipated songs at any Guns N' Roses concert, Slash has gone on record as saying it remains one of his least favorite of the band's songs.