The Red Hot Chili Peppers Albums Ranked
The Red Hot Chili Peppers used to be my favorite band. After being exposed to them by my parents at a young age, the famed funk/rock/alternative band became the object of my musical obsession in my middle school and early high school years. Even though that obsession has lapsed, RHCP has remained in my heart, thanks to the numerous great tunes they’ve put out in the 38 years since 1984 (they were formed just one year before) and across 12 albums. Omitted from this list, among various live releases and other compilations, is I’M WITH YOU SESSIONS (2013), a collection of unreleased tracks from I’M WITH YOU. Anyways, I had studied pretty closely the band’s history, full of lineup changes and drug-fueled drama and high jinks. I’ll address those lineup changes in my ranking of the band’s records, as they were often linked in large part to the stylistic changes that defines the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ long and acclaimed career.
#12 — THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS (1984)
Favorite track: “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes”
I suppose this is the time to say that I don’t think the Red Hot Chili Peppers have ever made a bad album. But their debut self-titled record, released in those early years when RHCP still used the proper noun definite article, definitely doesn’t satisfy like the rest of their discography. The band’s rawness is appealing in its own way, but one has to wonder how THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS would have turned out if founding guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons had not decided that the fledgling group was actually their side project. But the two constants in RHCP, singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea, are here, alongside Jack Sherman on guitar (his only record with the band) and Cliff Martinez on drums. “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes” is the clear standout from this album, a Western-tinged, dark, and kind of broody funk rock song among many more raucous, macho predecessors to rap rock and a new style of alternative music. THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS actually still feels fresh and interesting today, to say nothing about its dance-inducing qualities, but the songwriting hooks and production the band was capable of producing were still in their infancy.
#11 — THE GETAWAY (2016)
Favorite track: “Sick Love”
THE GETAWAY, coincidentally the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ eleventh album, was released at the ebb of my appreciation for the group. I was still tired out from my immersion into their albums from years earlier, and revisiting the record today, I don’t think my initial lukewarm reaction was really off-base. Second John Frusciante replacement Josh Klinghoffer does admirably on THE GETAWAY, but the band apparently gelled together better on the guitarist’s first album with them, I’M WITH YOU. “Sick Love” is actually a really groovy song, but many of the tracks on this record just sink into a funk-ish rock sound malaise. THE GETAWAY, as noted, is not a bad album, but it’s nearly the least vital release from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
#10 — FREAKY STYLEY (1985)
Favorite track: “If You Want Me to Stay”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ sophomore release was certainly an improvement over its predecessor, thanks to producer George Clinton and the return of Slovak to the group (although Irons was still to re-join). FREAKY STYLEY fulfilled even more effectively the fusion of funk and rock that THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS presented. While much of its lyrical content is either nonsensical, adolescent, macho, or problematic, or a combination of all of them, the out-and-out experimentation and wildness of the record is so energetic and fun that it’s hard to deny its appeal. The cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay” is the highlight, but don’t let that indicate that there’s nothing good or original on the album. FREAKY STYLEY only ranks so low because of the true heights RHCP would reach, but it’s wonderful counterprogramming to the popular rock music of the 1980s with its weird take on funk fun.
#9 — UNLIMITED LOVE (2022)
Favorite track: “The Great Apes”
Coming after the biggest gap between Peppers albums (which are on average getting longer and longer), the just-shy-of-six-years-in-the-making UNLIMITED LOVE is also the second return of Frusciante. That’s right, the band’s latest record and the impetus of this piece begins the third period that the guitarist has worked with the band. But of course, he’s welcome, as he was integral to all of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ best music. But part of me can’t help but feel bad for Klinghoffer, who did admirably. But there’s no denying UNLIMITED LOVE is an improvement over THE GETAWAY, which it followed. Rick Rubin also returned as producer, after RHCP also interrupted that fruitful decades-long collaboration for THE GETAWAY and production from Danger Mouse. But for all the milestones and context swirling around UNLIMITED LOVE, it’s neither a triumphant return to the Peppers’ most famous and best quartet (including drummer Chad Smith, who has now essentially been with the band since near to the relative beginning) nor a disappointing letdown. Frusciante’s presence is definitely heard, but UNLIMITED LOVE is tinged with a bit of the blandness to be found on THE GETAWAY. In fact, at first listen, I thought it may have to end up in last place on this list. Repeat listens, however, reveal a greater texture to its apparent mildness, a sinewy reflection to the chill groove that can be found on most of the tracks. UNLIMITED LOVE isn’t the triumphant release from the band that Frusciante just joined (or re-joined) like the previous two that marked such an occasion, but it’s an alright Chili Peppers record.
#8 — I’M WITH YOU (2011)
Favorite track: “Brendan’s Death Song”
If THE GETAWAY was the ebb of my Red Hot Chili Peppers love, I’M WITH YOU was released at its high tide. Or whatever other ocean metaphor I can make. It wasn’t my first “conscious” new RHCP record, but it was released in high school and at a time when I was cultivating a new music taste. I loved it then, but I wondered if I would return to its poppier tone and find it underwhelming. And while I’M WITH YOU is clearly not one of the band’s best, it is a welcome addition to the RHCP canon. There are some just tremendous tracks on Klinghoffer’s first with the group, including the emotional ballad “Brendan’s Death Song,” one of the Peppers’ best. Sure, the mainstream inclinations are glaring compared to those early years, as I found listening to everything in this band’s discography quite close together. But the smoothing down of youthful exuberance doesn’t always have to rankle, and in the case of I’M WITH YOU, the older Chili Peppers found ways to reinterpret the softer side they introduced in the previous decades and stay relatively fun.
#7 — THE UPLIFT MOFO PARTY PLAN (1987)
Favorite track: “Behind the Sun”
As mentioned, listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ discography can present some whiplash. Sure, the gradual change is one thing, but going from “Brendan’s Death Song” to “Behind the Sun,” or even to THE UPLIFT MOFO PARTY PLAN’s more notorious track “Special Secret Song Inside” (AKA “Party on Your Pussy”), is a bit disorienting. It’s also almost hard to compare, as their rough and funky third album represents, in a way, the end of the band’s first era. Strangely enough, it took three albums for the band’s founding members to finally gather together for a recording, and it would be for the first and last time. Slovak would die of an overdose shortly after the release of THE UPLIFT MOFO PARTY PLAN and Irons would leave RHCP in response, opening the door for Frusciante and Smith. The hard partying vibes can be heard on THE UPLIFT MOFO PARTY PLAN, but by this time the group was developing a “softer” sound with at least one track, a practice that would continue and culminate with the big “Under the Bridge” hit for BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIC. In this case, that’s “Behind the Sun,” a spacey psychedelic track that features Kiedis (apparently against his will, to some extent) crooning rather than rap-singing. It’s a counterpoint to a song like “Skinny Sweaty Man” (which I love) that demonstrates THE UPLIFT MOFO PARTY PLAN’s exhibition of songwriting maturation, if ever so slightly; it’s hard to say that the album is “mature,” unless you consider it in terms of its explicit lyrics.
#6 — MOTHER’S MILK (1989)
Favorite track: “Taste the Pain”
MOTHER’S MILK was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ breakout album ahead of the huge success of BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIK and the first to bring together the “core” quartet of Kiedis, Flea, Frusciante, and Smith. The distorted guitar playing from Frusciante, who was essentially a child prodigy, developed RHCP’s sound into a rockier one. But of course the funk is loud, with Flea’s bass rumbling right into your ear. “Taste the Pain” is the best example of the magic dynamic between all the members of the band, including Smith’s driving beats, but it’s true that it’s kind of hard to pick a favorite track from MOTHER’S MILK. The mainstream appreciation for the Chili Peppers’ insanity can be traced to this album and its embrace of soaring pop choruses, Kiedis’ improved singing skills, and some concessions to a calmer energy on songs like “Knock Me Down” and “Pretty Little Ditty.” MOTHER’S MILK is a very solid album, and while its highs never reach the heights of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ best, it maintains a mostly “no-filler” quality across its run time.
#5 — BY THE WAY (2002)
Favorite track: “Midnight”
I once saw BY THE WAY described as “the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ PET SOUNDS .” While their first millennial record is not nearly as good as the Beach Boys’ best, I can appreciate the sentiment, as BY THE WAY is a symphonic movement of layered studio sounds and chiller vibes. As primarily directed by Frusciante, the album was a coherence of the “softer” tracks of previous albums. It’s not that BY THE WAY is a bummer or entirely downtempo, but the raucous funk of a decade earlier isn’t really present. Of course, there’s fun to be found in album hit “Can’t Stop,” but otherwise, BY THE WAY’s appeal is its full-throated approach from a band that had been conceding to a pop instinct for some time. It’s the album that almost led Flea to quit the band, as he felt his bass playing was sidelined. It’s an understandable grievance, as the trademark bass is reduced, he is indeed one of the greatest bass players of all time, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have often succeeded on his skill and technical music theory knowhow. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that Frusciante, and whatever support the rest of the band contributed, crafted a unique experience for the Chili Peppers with BY THE WAY, a soaring, crooning album with immaculate production.
#4 — ONE HOT MINUTE (1995)
Favorite track: “One Hot Minute”
ONE HOT MINUTE is the black sheep Red Hot Chili Peppers album. There are albums that are lesser known or less well-regarded critically, but the follow up to BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIK was, in a word, confusing to many after the huge success of that album. Frusciante had left the band during the BSSM tour, prompting Kiedis and Flea to find a replacement for a guitarist once again (something they would have to do a couple more times still). They settled on Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction fame, a pairing that made sense on the surface level of “fellow ’90s alt rocker.” But Navarro wasn’t necessarily the right fit for the funk instincts of the Chili Peppers, which accounts for the fact that ONE HOT MINUTE was the band’s least funky album yet. Instead, it drives down into a hard rock or nearly metal groove. The fun bounciness of the band comes through at times, but on the whole, ONE HOT MINUTE represents a dark aura, with warped (fitting, considering the opening track “Warped”) guitar sounds, menacing drum beats, and pounding bass. Frankly, I was surprised that in returning to the album, I found there was more to like. There’s a darkness to the record that I believe was the cause for the confusion that encircled it. But pierce the expectations or reputation of ONE HOT MINUTE and you might find an impressive off-kilter experience from an already off-kilter band, as I did.
#3 — STADIUM ARCADIUM (2006)
Favorite track: “Make You Feel Better”
STADIUM ARCADIUM was my first “new” Red Hot Chili Peppers album. I remember my mom getting the double album CD set and listening to some combination of its 28 tracks over and over in the car. So in that regard, it’s impossible for me to divorce my sentiments from the ambitious project, especially since a number of its tracks (led by “Make You Feel Better”), followed me into more angsty years. STADIUM ARCADIUM was the follow up to BY THE WAY, and as a probably due course correct, the Chili Peppers re-entered funkiness, rocking out in that vein while also diving into some of that pop cheese. It’s nearly impossible to say that an album with 28 tracks is “all killer no filler,” and that isn’t really the case with STADIUM ARCADIUM, but it comes close. The guys were obviously firing on new and unprecedented cylinders, with the craft that Frusciante brought to bear with BY THE WAY fusing more effectively with the sensibilities of, say, Flea. STADIUM ARCADIUM just offers so much to enjoy, and considering its scale and sheer number of catchy choruses, it stands out as one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ best.
#2 — CALIFORNICATION (1999)
Favorite track: “Scar Tissue”
Ah, 1999. A great year for film and music. And CALIFORNICATION was a key part of that pop culture landscape, the (first) return of Frusciante to the band and the catapulting of probably like a half dozen hits to the airwaves and rejuvenating the Red Hot Chili Peppers after the letdown of ONE HOT MINUTE. CALIFORNICATION was undoubtedly the band’s poppiest album yet, and in a way, RHCP has been operating in its mode ever since. But the fusion of funk, rock, pop, and a particular alternative slant that the group had itself defined in the earlier part of the ’90s set the template with grace and fun. For example, Frusciante’s wailing guitar on “Scar Tissue” is just so beautiful, and his backing vocals provide a great counterpoint to Kiedis’ admittedly “unconventional” voice (although he had never technically sounded better than here). The title track is of course iconic, “Around the World” is a solid hit, and “Otherside” is, well, otherworldly. But CALIFORNICATION’s power lies in how strong its lesser known tracks are, which aren’t always outshined by the huge hits. If there’s anything missing on the record, it comes down to what kind of Red Hot Chili Peppers fan you are, because with it, the band developed a whole new audience while perhaps ostracizing an old one with its smoothed out pop sensibilities. But the way I see it, CALIFORNICATION is a bold experiment, not an exercise in mainstream selling out, that maintained the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ core appeal and displayed a refined hand (or hands).
#1 — BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIK (1991)
Favorite track: “Give It Away”
But really, I have to give the crown for “best Red Hot Chili Peppers album” to BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIK, not just their best and not just one of the best albums of the 1990s, but also one of the best albums of all time. The direction the new group of Kiedis, Flea, Frusciante, and Smith had taken things with MOTHER’S MILK reached an unparalleled evolution with the band’s fifth record, which stands as their most popular alongside CALIFORNICATION to this day. I’ve mentioned “all killer no filler” a couple of times in this piece already, and while other RHCP albums come close to that designation, BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIK embodies it in spades. From “The Power of Equality” to “They’re Red Hot,” the album’s 17 tracks never let up in their funky, rocking, weird, dance-inspiring, and even emotionally moving qualities. Like CALIFORNICATION, BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIK yielded a number of hits, but it’s such a tremendous record because of its lesser known songs that stand toe-to-toe with the big ones. Nevertheless, “Give It Away” is my cited favorite because it’s just too catchy and fun, but a handful of other songs, like “Suck My Kiss,” “Under the Bridge,” “Breaking the Girl,” “I Could Have Lied,” or the title track could vie for that distinction. Ultimately, the coherent vision of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was never as clear or as good on BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIK, a near-perfect album filled with the righteous adolescence of the band’s funk-rock fusion.