Our Top 10 John Frusciante songs list looks at the work of a man who may be best known as the not-so-secret weapon of California funk-rock outfit, Red Hot Chili Peppers. But since his initial brief, albeit productive, tenure with the band from 1988-1992, he has maintained a fruitful solo career which has spanned nearly three decades. During this time, Frusciante has produced a dozen solo albums, 7 EPs, and several collaborative projects in addition to his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Though he has established himself as one of the premier guitarists of the modern age, his solo material has tackled a wide breadth of genres including psychedelic, lo-fi, electronica, synth-pop, new wave, and jungle music, among others. Since conquering addiction and rejoining the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1998, Frusciante has been highly prolific, releasing a slew of musically adventurous projects that may leave inquiring listeners unsure of where to begin. Our hope with this list is to provide such listeners with an entry point by which to explore the guitarist’s vast output with respect to the various artistic permutations he has undergone over the years.
# 10 – A Doubt – The Will to Death (2004)
Following the high-budget, meticulously produced Shadows Collide With People, Frusciante made a conscious decision to ramp up his recorded output with little regard to professional production value. He – along with then-frequent collaborator and future-Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer – set about recording roughly half a dozen projects that year, the first of which was The Will to Death.
The album pivoted from the sound of its predecessor in that it featured minimal overdubs on the basic tracks and contained essentially no backing vocals. Album opener, “A Doubt,” is indicative of much of the album’s approach, featuring circular, almost meandering melodies and quiet-loud dynamics throughout the arrangement. The tune is endowed with a sense of loss that seems to fluctuate between sections. The proceedings are capped off with an extended noise rock solo beneath the song’s outro which, with its heavy 6/8 waltz, is reminiscent of that of the Red Hot Chili Peppers “Breaking the Girl.”
# 9 – I’m Around – Inside of Emptiness (2004)
Much of Inside of Emptiness sees Frusciante shifting from one extreme to another, from soothing ballads to genuine metal cuts, many of which feature The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-López. “I’m Around” is an example of the former, and sees the guitarist in full ballad mode. The song drifts atop Klinghoffer’s understated drumming as Frusciante deftly weaves in and out of a delicate falsetto that brings to mind Elton John’s technique on the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album.
“I’m Around” wraps up amidst overdubbed harmonies of Beatles-esque “ahhh” backing vocals and layered instrumentation before ending abruptly on an E minor chord. This, in contrast to the song’s overall optimistic atmosphere, creates a sense of unease, eschewing any potential resolution and perpetuating the notion that perhaps all is not as well as it seems.
# 8 – Curtains – Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994)
While the material released in the 2010s during Frusciante’s second estrangement from the Red Hot Chili Peppers is widely considered to be his most challenging, the 90s output released during his first break from the band would certainly be a contender for such a title. The album was recorded under the influence of drugs on a four-track recorder at Frusciante’s home, and features instrumentation including acoustic and electric guitars, piano, mandolin, banjo, bass, and clarinet, all credited to Frusciante. The album is incredibly avant-garde in its approach, and lo-fi in presentation.
The lack of structure of the recordings themselves, along with Frusciante’s highly experimental – and occasionally grating – vocal approach create a deeply unsettling atmosphere, which was almost certainly the intention.
Within the depths of despair from which the guitarist released his inner demons – and mingled with spirits and ghosts the way you or I might chat with an old acquaintance at the market – lies some disarmingly beautiful songwriting. That track in question here, a piano-based ballad, sees the guitarist attempting to process the external world through his own internal struggles. The sorrowful melodies and chord movements – given a little more production value – would not have sounded out of place on a Chili Peppers album, which comes as little surprise given that much of the material throughout Niandra Lades was written during the sessions for the band’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik album.
The track hints at a sound the guitarist would flesh out on later solo works, as well Red Hot Chili Peppers projects like By the Way. Frusciante has since stated that he has no regrets about his years spent addicted to drugs, as it informed the person and artist he would eventually become. Still, one can’t help but wonder how a clear-headed John Frusciante pursuing a solo career in the 90s would have changed the course of modern rock history.
# 7 – The Mirror – The Will to Death (2004)
Each track on The Will to Death functions primarily around the guitar, with one exception: “The Mirror.” The track finds Frusciante behind the piano, conjuring a stark melody which – like most on the album – seems to weave in and out of itself. The accompanying instrumentation doesn’t follow its lead so much as wrap itself around it, with the discerning thump of Klinghoffer’s floor tom acting as a faint heartbeat by which the track pushes itself along.
Stepping in tandem as a single, precarious, minor-key trudge through a swirl of synthesized white noise, “The Mirror” fittingly, is a reflection of Frusciante’s worldview. The lyrics touch on the recurring concept of aligning oneself with the internal spirit and attempting to undo the corruption brought upon the self by the outside world. Frusciante’s difficulty in dealing with society as it has been established by outside forces has been well documented, and “The Mirror” is one of many expressions of the ongoing conflict between internal and external forces in a world where both are required to function in some harmony or another in order for one to thrive.
# 6 – Mistakes – PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone (2012)
To say that people were disappointed when Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a second time in 2009 is a bit of an understatement. His domineering presence throughout the band’s 2002 and 2006 releases – By the Way and Stadium Aracium, respectively – had established him as one of the most significant musicians of our time, and many fans felt a legitimate sense of betrayal upon his departure. Detracting from any remaining goodwill was the chosen direction in which the guitarist would proceed with his music.
Frusciante’s first release following his second split from the Chili Peppers was 2012’s Letur Lefr EP, which was soon followed by the full length LP, PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone. While fans were initially eager to hear the first of his post-Peppers material, the heavily electronic, polyrhythm-ridden nature of the records, underscored by minimal, understated guitar work throughout, left many listeners frustrated and confused.
While this material is undoubtedly tougher to crack than much of Frusciante’s previous solo work – and certainly more so than his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers – there is, in fact, gold in them thar hills if one is willing to do the digging. A solid point of reference is immensely helpful in navigating the unpredictable rhythms, and this listener would recommend exploring the work of one of Frusciante’s early heroes, Frank Zappa, in developing a taste for occasionally volatile rhythmic shifts. Fans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the guitarist’s more rock-oriented solo work may be able to find something to grab onto with “Mistakes.”
The tune hits the ground running with a bouncy, cartoonishly 80s synth-pop beat that darkens and mutates before reaching a dramatic climax that threatens to crush the listener beneath the emotional weight of Frusicante’s ragged, animalistic vocals. Those under the impression that Frusciante had lost his rock edge need look no further for clarity than the final movement of “Mistakes.”
# 5 – Unreachable – The Empyrean (2009)
The Empyrean is the last Frusciante album that – at the time of writing – most would consider a rock record. It would also be Frusciante’s final collaboration – again, at the time of writing – with then-future, now-former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. Experimental and psychedelic in nature, the abstract nature of the album is contrasted by Frusciante’s emphasis on his prominent melodic gifts.
There is a push and pull dynamic, not only to the album itself, but to each of the album’s songs as well. “Unreachable” is an early-album cut centered around an electric keyboard progression, which undergoes various quiet-loud dynamic permutations before seemingly resigning itself rhythmically around the three-minute mark. There’s a certain despondency in the interaction of the minimal instrumentation during this section, which carries on for nearly a minute before the conversational interjection of wirey, heavily processed guitar licks that sound the way one might conceive of The Dark Side of the Moon album artwork sounding if it had the capacity to speak.
Over the course of a couple of minutes, the sonic character manifested through the guitar appears to coax the rest of the arrangement out of its dejected state, seemingly dragging it to its feet to begin a steady ascent to the song’s climax. As the drums begin to drive harder, the song ascends to another realm entirely as Frusciante unleashes a wildly psychedelic guitar solo whose intensity could peel the paint right off the walls. For many artists, this would have been a shoo-in for the closing track of an album. For The Empyrean, it’s track 3.
# 4 – A Song To Sing When I’m Lonely – Shadows Collide With People (2004)
John Frusciante has always been an artist with little interest in appeasing the masses. His more experimental tendencies notwithstanding, the songwriter’s admiration for artists like The Cure, The B-52s, The Beach Boys, and R.E.M. is never too far from the surface of his work. As it happens, in 2004, the forces that be compelled Frusciante to produce a pop-rock masterclass in the form of what is widely considered his most accessible record: Shadows Collide With People.
With its arpeggiated synths and acoustic center, “A Song To Sing When I’m Lonely” is a three minute piece of pristine pop with a folk slant. His more agreeable musical tendencies notwithstanding, the existential depth is ever-present here. The guitarist contemplates the congruence of ego and self, lamenting the ordeal of being “out of place in [his] own time.” Such disparities constitute the oscillation of Shadows, as each accessible component is met with an element which is challenging in equal measure.
The accessible production throughout the tracklist is offset by highly experimental, instrumental, electronic noise-pieces such as “-00Ghost27” and “Failure33Object” which indicate the enduring pervasiveness of the more avant-garde tendencies which characterize projects such as Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt, Smile from the Streets You Hold, and PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone.
# 3 – Look On – Inside of Emptiness (2004)
Inside of Emptiness is the Frusciante record with perhaps the most pronounced industrial influence. Gritty chords and squalling leads accompany loose narratives of death, love, and everything in between. In this instance, the guitarist is in full narrative mode, spinning tales of skipping lives, getting picked up by the cops in downtown LA, and becoming a second entity altogether.
Perhaps most significant, however, is the song’s guitar solo. Following the second verse, the masterclass of melodic expression drives forward for over a full minute, and doesn’t let up even as the third verse takes off. The grit of the tone, along with rhythmic idiosyncrasies and improvisational execution makes it one of the finest solos the guitarist has ever laid down on record. “Look On” is essential Frusciante.
# 2 – Central – The Empyrean (2009)
At over seven minutes in length, “Central” is only the third-longest running track on The Empyrean, and acts as a centerpiece of sorts for the album, despite its appearance near the end of the track-sequence. Lush with electric keys, swirling guitars, and seriously powerful vocals from the man himself, “Central”embodies the essence of Frusciante’s final solo record during his second run as a Chili Pepper. Roughly speaking, the album’s concept is that of ascending to the highest possible self through a series of winding paths, personal declines and redemptions, as well as allegorical deaths and rebirths.
This is represented through the music itself, as mellow sections mutate into robust tidal waves of sound and back again. The album’s artwork – a collage featuring Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer, who played drums and various other instruments on the record – is also representative of this concept. Lush orchestration and a monster guitar solo – whose tone and discerning note selection bring to mind David Gilmour – close out what is arguably the climactic moment of what is Frusciante’s most progressive rock-oriented album.
# 1 – Carvel – Shadows Collide With People (2004)
Most talk of Shadows Collide With People centers on the accessible nature of the record. But one must consider the subjective nature of such a term, and how it applies to an artist like Frusciante who, in many ways, defies categorization. “Carvel” is the album’s opening track, and before the track even truly begins, listeners are thrust into a feedback-laden electronic soundscape which foreshadows comparable, albeit more expansive, moments in the same vein that arrive later on the record.
A single count from Chad Smith’s hi-hat pedal is all the listener gets before being blasted with a wall of sound, as the song’s base instrumentation launches into a heavy groove that ceases to subside for much of the track’s runtime. Guitar heroics are swapped out for powerful vocals through which the desperation of the narrative voice becomes increasingly palpable as the track progresses. The tune never paints itself into a corner lyrically, leaving itself – for the most part – open to interpretation.
Aside from its impeccable structure and melodic brilliance, a truly significant characteristic of Shadows Collide With People is its highlighting of Frusciante’s immense abilities as a vocalist. Gliding from gentle falsettos to earth-rattling screams and back again, Frusciante has always been, far-and-away, the most capable vocalist in his primary band, despite the general understanding that there is simply no one else who could do the job aside from Anthony Kiedis. Functionally, Shadows serves as an excellent general representation of John’s solo work, extracting bits of different approaches he has implemented throughout his career and amalgamating them into a sleek, generous helping of experimental, pop-infused alt rock.
John Frusciante is unique in the trajectory of his career for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he gets to wear two very distinct hats, as it were. Through his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he gets to inhabit a role similar to that of Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi in which he – along with bandmate Flea – is responsible for the melodic and harmonic composition of the band’s music. By the same token – through his solo work – he is able to implement an almost Bowie-like approach in his exploration of disparate musical worlds, painting with vivid, experimental colors while retaining the freedom to touch down in pop territory at will. While primarily recognized as a band member in the present-day, it is almost certain that history will lend a credence to Frusciante’s intrepid solo excursions that will only expand his legend in the decades going forward.
Photo: Flickr photographer Chad Carson, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Top 10 John Frusciante Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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