Rage Against the Machine announcing a reunion tour was easily one of the best surprises in the rock world in recent years.
Of course, those tour plans had to be pushed back, and sadly, partially canceled due to an injury sustained by Zack de le Rocha. However, that doesn’t mean still can’t celebrate the incredible catalog of this dynamic band, and what better time than now to do so?
Here is Rage Against the Machine’s top 20 songs ranked.
Rage recorded a studio version of “Kick Out The Jams” for their 2000 covers album ‘Renegades,’ but this visceral live version captures both the energy of this iconic song and how Rage has always been the spiritual sons of the MC5.
So, what exactly does Rage covering Devo sound like? In the case of this selection from ‘Renegades,’ it’s unexpectedly haunting in the best way possible. Simply put, the band’s cover of “Beautiful World” is...well...beautiful.
“Forget about the movement/Anger is a gift.” And so is this epic closing track to Rage’s classic debut album.
Writing a song about how the FBI targeted iconic figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and then using the actual words from FBI memos as lyrics is a such a next-level act that it’s amazing it came on Rage’s debut.
One of the most popular covers in Rage’s catalog is their take on Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 acoustic folk track “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Tom Morello would become a temporary member of Springsteen’s E Street Band on the road filling in for Steven Van Zandt while he was filming Netflix’s ‘Lilyhammer.’ Morello would also appear on Springsteen’s 2014 album, ‘High Hopes,’ which included a new version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Talk about a cool full circle moment.
This 5:37 gem ripping apart the Euro-centric version of American History has some pretty incredible lyrics, but the best line has to be “Motherf*ck Uncle Sam” for both its simplicity and how it conjures up Public Enemy’s takedown of Elvis Presley and John Wayne on “Fight The Power.”
There have been a number of criticisms about conservative AM radio shows over the years, but “Vietnow” clearly wins the award for “Most Blistering Verbal Attack,” especially with lyrics like, “Fear is your only god on the radio.”
Easily one of Rage’s most unique songs, its lamb/lion dynamic between its verses and chorus makes it a standout not just on ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’ but in the band’s entire catalog. The band may be known for its hybrid of rap and metal, but they certainly had no qualms about shaking things up.
Just a really catchy tune about socioeconomic inequality!
If U2’s The Edge played metal, he’d be Tom Morello. Morello’s innovative and experimental guitar work has been written about countless times over the years, and it’s because of tracks like “Calm Like A Bomb.”
The opening track of ‘Evil Empire,’ “People of the Sun” proved that as far as political commentary goes, RATM wasn’t letting up on the gas pedal four years after their self-titled debut. In fact, if there was a way to push that pedal through the floor, Rage did it here on this track inspired by the Zapatista revolution in Mexico.
“Enough/I call the bluff/F*ck Manifest Destiny/Landlords and power whores/On my people they took turns/Dispute the suits I ignite/And then watch 'em burn.” Rage really did have a way with starting an album off with a statement, and “Bombtrack” is especially powerful since it’s from their debut.
Want to know the sign of a great cover? When it eclipses the original. All due respect to Afrika Bambaataa, but “Renegades of Funk” is Rage’s song the same way that “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” is Joan Jett’s song.
Remember that thing about Rage knowing how to really kick off an album? “Testify” is easily their best opening track, and it features the second-best bridge on ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’: “Who controls the past now controls the future/Who controls the present now controls the past/Who controls the past now controls the future/Who controls the present now?” (BTW: You’ll learn more about the best bridge five songs from now.)
Between the opening riff and the guest vocal from Maynard James Keenan, it’s understandable why “Know Your Enemy” is one of RATM’s most memorable songs. However, “Know Your Enemy” is not just “another ‘Bombtrack’”; it’s a mission statement of the whole Rage ethos and literally points out the things they aim to overthrow (“Compromise! Conformity! Assimilation! Submission! Ignorance! Hypocrisy! Brutality! The elite! All of which are American dreams!”)
If you thought a song about the atrocities of war and the colonization of the United States couldn’t have an incredible riff hook, “Sleep Now In the Fire” proved you to be incredibly wrong. The song’s impact is only expanded when coupled with its classic music video. Directed by Michael Moore, the video shows Rage performing in front of the New York Stock Exchange and “Occupying Wall St.” before that was even a thing.
In today’s media landscape, you could easily see the respective political sides using lyrics like, “Believin' all the lies that they're tellin' ya/Buyin' all the products that they're sellin' ya/They say jump and ya say how high/Ya brain-dead/Ya gotta f*ckin' bullet in ya head” against one another. If only Rage in 1992 knew what would come of the media in 2020. Also, it bears mentioning that Tim Commerford’s entire bass track takes “Bullet In the Head” to a whole new level.
“Guerrilla Radio,” ironically, is Rage’s most commercially successful song and is the only Rage song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 topping out at #69. (I know, nice.) Low hanging fruit jokes aside, “Guerrilla Radio” was released during the rap-rock/nu-metal boom and really just proved how all of those bands were just weak sauce compared to Rage. Plus, as far as bridges go, it doesn’t get more iconic than, “It has to start somewhere/It has to start sometime/What better place than here/What better time than now?”
This entire entry could be just, “F*ck you, I won't do what you tell me” listed 16 times just like the actual lyrics of “Killing In the Name” and most Rage fans would get it. (In all honesty, this was legitimately considered for about two minutes, but then imagining that conversation with my editor would have only resulted in me saying, “F*ck...I’ll do what you tell me.”) As far as statement songs go, you’re not going to find too many bolder, and that boldness is only amplified when you take into consideration this was the first single Rage ever released. If only this song’s themes didn’t resonate so much nearly 30 years later.
Picking the best Rage Against the Machine song is a difficult task, because there are so many incredible contenders for that title. However, there are two important reasons why “Bulls On Parade” wins out: It proved that four years after their incredible self-titled debut, the band wasn’t some fluke, and it really drove home the mind-blowing insanity of those magical nine words. You know them, you love them and they appeared on the back cover of all of Rage’s albums: “All sounds made by guitar, bass, drums and vocals.” Tom Morello’s ridiculous solo perhaps made you challenge them, but what you were hearing in all their defiant glory were those four basic band building blocks, albeit they sounded anything but “basic” back in 1996 and that sentiment still rings true to this day.