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Red Hot Chili Peppers

  The Red Hot Chili Peppers (EMI America, 1984)
   Freaky Styley (EMI America, 1985)
   The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (EMI America, 1987)
    Mother's Milk (EMI, 1989)
     Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Warner Bros., 1991)
    What Hits!? (EMI, 1992)
  Out in L.A. (EMI, 1994)
    One Hot Minute (Warner Bros., 1995)
    Californication (Warner Bros., 1999)
    By the Way (Warner Bros., 2002)
     Greatest Hits (Warner Bros., 2003)
    Live in Hyde Park (Warner Bros., 2004)
     Stadium Arcadium (Warner Bros., 2006)

The Red Hot Chili Peppers made a puree out of funk, punk, hip-hop, and metal long before that approach became fashionable, but it wasn't until the L.A. band dialed down the high jinks (and the experimental flair) in favor of a more song-oriented approach that they took their distinct sound into arenas. For years, the Chili Peppers' funk-monkey shtick camouflaged serious musical deficiencies—namely, the first two albums contain not a single memorable song despite the production assistance of Gang of Four's Andy Gill (The Red Hot Chili Peppers) and George Clinton (Freaky Styley). The California quartet brings a modicum of structure to The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, but their humor—as their famous "party on your pussy" chorus demonstrates—wouldn't merit an audience in a high-school locker room.

The death of guitarist Hillel Slovak, due to a drug overdose, prompted a retooling on Mother's Milk, which yielded their first hit—a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" that jumps on the back of Flea's mind-melting bass and never lets go. The era is summed up on What Hits!? and Out in L.A., which gather early-Eighties demos that are essentially an homage to Flea's bass playing and little else.

Things get better when the band recruits guitar wunderkind John Frusciante as Slovak's replacement. With Blood Sugar Sex Magik, producer Rick Rubin focuses on the quartet's songwriting and sets the elastic bass lines, syncopated drumming, and Frusciante's scratchy, punk-Hendrix guitars in uncluttered arrangements that bring the melodies closer to the surface. Singer Anthony Kiedis even became something of a crooner on the breakthrough ballad "Under the Bridge," an unlikely development that turned the band into Lollapalooza-era stars.

One Hot Minute, made with guitarist Dave Navarro, marks the mainstreaming of the Peppers, with the ratio of throwaways to keepers leveling off. An unexpected lightness surfaces on "Aeroplane," and a social consciousness permeates "Shallow Be Thy Game" and "Pea." (The band has since disavowed the album.) An outright pop sensibility, unimaginable a decade before, pervades Californication. The return of prodigal guitarist John Frusciante gives the band a second strong instrumental voice to complement Flea's, while Kiedis focuses on increasingly vibrant vocal melodies. Almost all vestiges of the band's old persona have been expunged in favor of textured sing-alongs. It adds up to the quartet's most consistent recording.

Something is missing, though, which becomes apparent on By the Way. Even though the disc boasts a bevy of multihued pop tunes, it forgets to rock. Flea's hyper bass lines take a holiday, but Frusciante's myriad guitar voicings nearly compensate: choppy funk accents ("By the Way"), trickle-to-a-monsoon dynamics ("Don't Forget Me"), flamenco flourishes ("Cabron"). Kiedis digs deeper emotionally, but ballads have never been his forte—and By the Way is full of them.

The Peppers wrote nearly 40 songs in the next couple of years, and at one point considered releasing them across three distinct albums. Instead, they picked their favorite 28 for the two-CD, Rubin-producd Stadium Arcadium and then apparently divided them at random into "Jupiter" and "Mars" discs. Although there's plenty more filler than keepers here, the quartet certainly sounded energized throughout, and tracks like "Tell Me Baby," "Snow (Hey Oh)" and the ultra catchy "Dani California" were right in their funk/rock/punk/pop wheelhouse.

The first proper Peppers concert album is Live in Hyde Park, put to tape in London over three June nights in 2004. The set list was clearly geared toward newer fans, as Californication and By the Way material dominated, and the only vintage songs were from Blood Sugar Sex Magik. And if you ever needed to hear the Peppers covering Donna Summer and Seventies one-hit wonders Looking Glass, this is the album for you.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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