The band began as a post-hardcore group, supporting bands like The Misfits, Reagan Youth and the Dead Kennedys but, following the release of their first EP Cooky Puss, became most famous for their rap stylings. After meeting a young DJ known as Rick Rubin, the band were soon signed to his record label, Def Jam. Before the release of their debut studio album, Licensed to Ill (1986), the band supported Madonna and Public Image Ltd, John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols project. The album was a huge success, becoming the first rap album – ever – to reach number one on the Billboard 200 chart, becoming the best-selling rap album of the decade.
In 1989 the band released Paul’s Boutique, having left Def Jam to join Capitol Records. This album was more developed and mature than its predecessor and, despite not selling so well, remains critically acclaimed to this day. Their next album Check Your Head (1992) saw the band playing their own instruments, though it only peaked at number ten in the US. Thankfully, the next album Ill Communication (1994) saw them return to the top of the charts
Hello Nasty (1998) was an eclectic album which topped charts across the world, winning the Grammy for Best Alternative Album. After the September 11th attacks, the band became increasingly political, eventually releasing In A World Gone Mad (2003) in protest of the war in Iraq.
To the 5 Boroughs was released in 2004, generating minor controversy thanks to (incorrect) allegations that its CD installed spyware onto fan’s computers. This was followed by The Mix-Up in 2007 which, despite winning the band another Grammy award, was their lowest charting album to date.
Hot Sauce Committee Part Two was released in 2011 after it’s unreleased first part was delayed and then canceled due to Yauch being diagnosed with cancer. Sadly he would die a year later, aged 47, with the surviving members agreeing to end the band out of respect for their bandmate.
Although their star was starting to wane in the group’s later years, the Beastie Boys were a genuinely groundbreaking band, bringing rap to the masses in a way never done before. The Beastie Boys songs on this list are part of an impressive discography with innumerable highlights
# 10 – Brass Monkey
Opening up our top 10 Beastie Boys songs list is the song “Brass Monkey.” The song was a highlight of Licensed to Ill, and a funky ode to the alcoholic drink of the same name. The classic cocktail is made up of rum, vodka and orange juice, and it is thought the band were inspired by the pre-mixed Heublein variety, which saw a spike in popularity following the release of this track.
The song features a sample of the primary instrumental hook from Wild Sugar’s “Bring It Here,” a jittery, brass-infused sound. The sample is paired with what, to modern ears, sounds like a rather uninspired 80’s drum beat, but, like the mixture of the titular cocktail, this works surprisingly well with the rather low-key beat allowing the brilliantly unpredictable, somehow unhinged, sample to take center stage.
The lyrics of the song, particularly those of the chorus, are rather simplistic, making use of an obvious and predictable rhyming pattern. Again, this actually works in the song’s favor, and it’s easy to imagine New York bars in the late 80’s being full of drunken revelers getting lost in the addictive hook.
The Beastie Boys song “Brass Monkey,” is a lesson on how an interesting sample can turn an average song into something spectacular, elevating it into something genuinely unique and interesting. Just like the cocktail of the same name, this track is intoxicating and will leave you thirsty for more.
# 9 – Paul Revere
This oddity of a track comes from Licensed to Ill and, despite its name, has nothing to do with the American Revolutionary of the same name. In fact, Paul Revere is the name of Adrock’s horse in the bizarre fictional origin story presented in the track. The song’s lyrics suggest that the Beastie Boys met in the desert, with Adrock pursued by a sheriff for some unknown (though not hard to imagine) transgression against his daughter. After meeting MCA, the two men ride to a bar where they come across Mike D, who they learn is planning to rob the place. The three join together to commit this crime and then escape with beer and girls.
The lyrics are a humorous and surreal affair, which reward multiple listens. Despite the silly narrative, the song is notable for its extraordinary instrumental. The Roland TR-808 drum machine had existed for a few years before the song’s recording, but the band stumbled across something revolutionary when Adam Yauch suggested playing the 808 track backward. This resulted in the messed up and compelling backmask-like drum beat which makes up almost the entirety of the song’s instrumental, something which still sounds fresh and interesting over 20 years later.
Despite its throwaway lyrics, “Paul Revere,” deserves to be remembered as a track which – pre digital-sampling – contains a genuinely cutting-edge instrumental.
# 8 – Sure Shot
Continuing with our top 10 Beastie Boys songs list, we turn to the great track “Sure Shot.” The third single released from Ill Communication, “Sure Shot,” is a prime example of the band’s trademark form of duetting. The three Beastie Boys had rather similar voices, though each was distinct enough to stand on its own. This allowed them to take turns spitting bars in a way which worked to great effect. The chorus on “Sure Shot,” sees the band alternate vocals within a single repeated line. This technique works really well, sounding like an echo bouncing around, underlining the lyric’s message of unstoppable progress.
The instrumental of the song is typically unusual, opening with the sound of a whimpering dog – for some reason – which is thought to be sampled from a pizza shop commercial. The song’s central musical hook is a swirling jazz flute chord sampled from jazz musician Jeremy Steig’s song Howlin’ for Judy. This sample has aged nicely, and you can easily imagine someone like Kanye West doing something similar in 2017. Despite innumerable repetitions through the track, the sample never gets old and works really well with this Beastie Boys song’s themes.
The final verse, where the vocals are given a distorted echoing effect, is perhaps a bit much, making the lyrics hard to decipher, though, being at the song’s crescendo, the band just about get away with it. “Sure Shot,” is an essential Beastie Boys cut, providing yet another example of their slick production.
# 7 – Make Some Noise
In some ways Make Some Noise, the third single from Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011), is the spiritual successor to (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!). Released 25 years after the latter, the music video for this track is a sequel to Fight for Your Right featuring innumerable celebrity cameos, including Elijah Wood, Amy Poehler and Steve Buscemi.
Of course, whilst the 1986 classic is mainly made up of rock elements – including some filthy guitar riffs – this is one of those contemporary Beastie Boys songs which focuses more on recreating a classical 80’s hip-hop sound. The instrumental features some toe-tapping cowbells, with a wet and funky electronic riff snaking throughout the track’s duration.
The song also features some lyrical references to its predecessor, with the chorus asserting that, rather than fight for our right to party, we have to party for our right to fight. This throwback is a great way to reference the band’s best-known song, perhaps as a way of thanking their hardcore fans for sticking with them for so long. The vocoder voice which speaks the title hook during the chorus is another wonderful way of forging the 80’s sound the band were aiming to recreate.
Make Some Noise was the band’s highest-charting track since Ch-Check It Out, seven years before, meaning the band achieved success in four different decades. An impressive achievement accomplished by a great song.
# 6 – Sabotage
Another Beastie Boys song which leans more towards rock than hip hop, Sabotage comes from Ill Communication and has a traditional rock instrumental, which features the band playing guitar (Adrock), bass (MCA) and drums (Mike D). The track begins like a regular rock song, with crunchy, distorted guitars, and it’s not until the vocals begin that it becomes obvious that it’s so much more.
The turntable scratches and digital effects help mark this song as a rapcore classic, accompanied by chugging, swirling guitars and an incessant drum beat. At around the halfway mark, the song fades out, and that wonderfully fuzzy bass is allowed to take center stage, though it’s not long until the frantic and aggressive vocals make their return. The lyrics are free of the band’s usual mix of funny rhymes, but this slightly more serious take is well suited to the song’s brutal instrumental.
The track is undoubtedly one of the band’s best-known songs, having been featured in everything from The Simpsons to How I Met Your Mother, and even making an appearance in the 2009 Star Trek film. There’s a lot of goodwill towards the song, perhaps because of its memorable Spike Jonze directed music video, which was an affectionate parody of 1970’s crime dramas.
Sabotage is an exciting riot of a track which will really get your blood pumping. An essential part of the Beastie Boys canon.
# 5 – Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win (feat. Santigold)
Anyone born in the mid-80’s will be able to tell you just how cool the Beastie Boys were, but how could the band ingratiate themselves to the millennial audience? After all, by the release of Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, the youngest member of the band was in his mid-40’s. The group’s solution? To team up with one of indie’s coolest new wave, reggae-fusion artists, Santigold.
In many ways, the song is more of a Santigold track than it is a Beastie Boys song, featuring her reggae beats and recognizable world-music inspired samples (which here take the form of some almost traffic-like horn effects). Of course, the Beasties make sure to put their own stamp on the track, delivering their trademark rapping style with the addition of some dreamy and psychedelic effects.
In an age where artists like Kanye West, M.I.A. and Santigold have stretched and skewed rap to its very limits, this blend of old and new is a rather refreshing way of looking, not just at how far the medium has come, but also at its roots; celebrating the path forged by groups like the Beastie Boys.
This was the last single the band released before the untimely death of Adam Yauch, but thankfully the delightfully odd track allowed the band to go out on a memorable high.
# 4 – No Sleep Till Brooklyn
The sixth single from the band’s debut album No Sleep Till Brooklyn carries on the hard rock influence found on many of the album’s tracks. The song is a pastiche of the wild activities which glam rock and heavy metal acts would get up to on tour, with lyrics which gently mock the over the top boasts of stereotypical rock musicians.
The Beastie Boys song’s title is presumably a reference to Motörhead’s No Sleep ’til Hammersmith album, relocating the record to the Beastie Boy’s precious New York. Another rock reference can be found within the track itself, which features an incredible guitar riff which sounds remarkably like AC/DC’s TNT. The guitar on the track, courtesy of Slayer’s Kerry King, is really something to behold, and even the biggest rap-rock naysayer would have to admit it’s extraordinarily good.
The original song featured some lyrics about women which are quite shocking to a contemporary “woke” listener. It seemed the band were ahead of their time here, as, in later performances, they took to replacing these problematic lines with fun and silly rhymes.
With tracks like this, Brass Monkey and Fight for Your Right, it’s easy to see why the band managed to build such a large fan base early in their career. No Sleep Till Brooklyn is a thunderous singalong track, featuring jagged guitars which fizz with unbridled energy. This is one of those Beastie Boys songs which is just utterly impossible to ignore.
# 3 – (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)
What a lot of people don’t realize about this utterly classic mid-80’s track is that it’s intended as a pastiche. Fight For Your Right was written as an ironic take on frat-like party anthems, something which was lost on the vast majority of listeners, not least the type of people the song is subtly mocking, who adopted it as a kind of theme tune, that iconic “kick it” intro announcing the beginning of innumerable all-night ragers.
Of course, the reason the song became so immensely popular is because it’s an absolute banger. From start to finish the track is an impassioned fist-pumping call to arms, bursting with thick, chunky guitar riffs and a simple, addictive rhyming structure which makes it a treat to join in with. This says nothing, of course, of that genius hook in the chorus, which is virtually impossible to resist joining in with.
The song seems to have always been particularly popular in the UK, where it has been featured on countless “best songs of all time” lists. Perhaps this is because British drinking culture is even more extreme than that of US fraternities.
Despite its original intention being completely lost (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) is one of those Beastie Boys songs which just doesn’t seem to age. It’s easy to imagine that this thumper of a track will remain relevant until the end of the world, when the very last party is finally over.
# 2 – Intergalactic
This vocoder-fueled track displays the Beastie’s fascinating talent for choosing obscure samples and making them into something completely new. Intergalactic, from Hello Nasty features samples from 80’s films The Toxic Avenger and From Beyond, the latter a classical piece and the former a sci-fi sound effect. That the band were able to produce such a great song from such diverse elements perfectly illustrates their ridiculous, often underrated, musical talent. They even get meta and sample their own track The New Style in the song’s final third.
The vocoder on the chorus is a great way to create the space-age vibe the song aims for, practically forcing listeners to bust out their best version of “the robot”. This atmosphere is further heightened by the classical sample which plays during the song’s verses, a version of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor, which has an oddly creepy, somehow otherworldly sound.
The song was a great success for the band, reaching number 28 in the US and number 5 in the UK (the band’s highest charting song over there). It even won a Grammy, for Best Rap Performance. It’s easy to see why the song did so well; it’s got an unusual and exciting instrumental, sharply spat vocals and a chorus which never seems to get old. Some Beastie Boys songs haven’t aged as well as others, but Intergalactic still manages to sound extremely current.
# 1 – Ch-Check It Out
This track from the band’s sixth album, To the 5 Boroughs, is a brilliant alternative hip hop track and undoubtedly the band’s biggest musical achievement. The song’s central musical hook is a sample from Peggy Lee’s version of (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay which, despite coming from a sensitive soul song, sounds every inch like a slamming 80’s or 90’s hip hop effect.
The bars on this song are tightly performed and, arguably, showcase the band at their very best. Released in 2004, two decades after the band formed, it’s no surprise that Ch-Check It Out sees the band at their prime. The lyrics of the song are as clever and humorous as you’d expect, beginning with an address to TV addicts, stating the band’s intent to snap them out of this fugue state with their sick rhymes.
The rest of the lyrics are, as usual, made up of the band’s over the top brags and boasts about how great they are. This is, of course, commonplace in rap, but the Beastie Boys manage to get away with it, not just because they have the skills to back up their claims, but also because they always do so with a wink and in a tongue in cheek way.
Ch-Check It Out is a masterclass in alternative hip hop, featuring an inspired instrumental and some sharp vocals. There are lots of Beastie Boys songs which could have topped this list but this mid-naughties rap classic is most worthy of first place.
Over their decade-spanning career, the Beastie Boys created a plethora of memorable and ingenious tracks. Their early mix of rock and hip hop was like nothing the world had ever heard before, and their sound only got slicker with time. Though the band finished under tragic circumstances, all the Beastie Boys songs on this list are must-listen and are bound to make your day brighter.
Updated March 1 2021
Top 10 Beastie Boys Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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