Over the weekend, a key album that came out in 1991 celebrated the 20th anniversary of its release date: Guns N’ Roses’ double-disc, piano-laden Use Your Illusion was released on September 17, 1991, giving late-’80s arena rock what was probably its last gasp of commercial supremacy/artistic overreach and setting up the very long, ultimately unsatisfying wait for Chinese Democracy. It’s by no means a perfect album—it’s overstuffed with songs that originally appeared on soundtracks and compilations, not to mention a few experiments that just should have stayed in the vault—but it’s still extremely satisfying in more than a few spots thanks to the musicianship on board, and you can hear elements of its outsized ambition and reliance on arena-rock tropes even in present-day albums like Born This Way.
Of course, as an editor with multiple digital-music programs that allow for playlisting, my impulse when listening to the albums now is to nip and tuck at will, or at least slim the dual tracklistings to only those crucial songs that can fit onto a 90-minute cassette. There is a single-disc version of Use Your Illusion out there, but it, to put it plainly, is no good at all—two of its 12 tracks are covers (save those for the deluxe reissue of The Spaghetti Incident?!, please), another two are versions of “Don’t Cry,” and it doesn’t even have Axl Rose’s blanket indictment of anyone in his way/progenitor to every annoying song about drinking “haterade” that’s graced a band’s later-career cutout-bin offerings “Get In The Ring.” Below, my (sequenced!) attempt to slim down the album to a single disc’s worth of music.
Here’s the playlist on Spotify. Justifications below.
1. “Right Next Door To Hell”
This frenzied kiss-off to an awful neighbor works as an opening salvo on the actual record, too. Much better than “Live And Let Die,” which inexplicably opens the official single-disc version.
2. “Back Off Bitch”
As someone whose interest in music extended to actually trying to play it as a kid, I would make frequent trips to a store near my Long Island hometown that sold things like violin strings and piano-etude books. It also had a sizable CD and cassette collection in the back, and among its cassette offerings was a wide assortment of bootlegs—board tapes, crowd recordings, and leaked demos of Guns N’ Roses’ material in particular. The period between GN’R Lies‘ release and the eventual issue of UYI seemed like an eternity to my impatient teenaged self, and so my friends and I would gorge on these cassettes, which had construction-paper inlays and which, all told, had about eight versions of this song scattered throughout their tracklistings.
3. “Dust N’ Bones”
WHERE’S IZZY—oh, he’s right here, singing lead! OK then.
4. “Locomotive (Complicity)”
The one time on the album where you actually get to hear its title sung by Axl, and the doubling of his voice here sounds pretty unnerving on headphones. Also, on an album that had a surfeit of codas, this was probably the best, a chugging beat pushed along by otherworldly moans.
5. “Perfect Crime”
UYI had a couple of super-fast barnburners; this one edges out the similarly speedy (and eventual single-with-lyric-assistance-video) “Garden Of Eden” because of the way its screechy intro segues well into “Locomotive” conceptually, as well as Axl’s “you wanna fuck with me?” back and forth with the “blind man following [him] in chains.”
6. “So Fine”
Duff’s Johnny Thunders tribute is one of the album’s dark-horse tracks. It could also make a fine way to wind up the record’s first side (oh, album nostalgia!), with the way it sort of moseys to its conclusion.
7. “Bad Apples”
This kiss-off to someone who went a bit too hard on the rock and roll lifestyle has some back-of-the-bar ivory-tickling that I find pretty irresistible. (“Dead Horse” could work here as well.)
8. “You Ain’t The First”
An unplugged GN’R Lies throwback that segues well from the cacophony of “Apples.”
9. “November Rain”
I went back and forth on putting all three songs that had videos in the Del James trilogy—”Don’t Cry,” this, and “Estranged”—on here. “Don’t Cry” didn’t make the cut because there were better downtempo songs to include. But “November Rain,” which was apocryphal in a similar way to my friends and me when we were hitting rewind on the aforementioned bootlegs during the late ’80s, demands inclusion for both its sprawl (including Slash’s triumphant guitar solo here) and the fact that it represented the culmination of a very specific artistic ambition—Axl had apparently been writing it since 1983. Of course, that doesn’t seem like as long a time in the context of Chinese Democracy‘s lengthy incubation, but.
10. “Pretty Tied Up (The Perils Of Rock N’ Roll Decadence)”
It has perhaps the best bassline on the UYI albums, a bit of paranoia regarding the big bad record industry (c’mon, like that wouldn’t define a huge swath of music discussion during the ’90s?), and enough bondage references to make a pre-graphical-internet 16-year-old wonder just what the hell was being discussed. (It’s probably the UYI track I listen to the most these days.)
11. “Get In The Ring”
A much better closer for the disc than either the overwrought Bloodrock homage “Coma” (which closes out I) or the glitchy Chinese Democracy progenitor “My World” (the finale to II), this ode to being alone channels the paranoia exhibited into the previous two songs into an exhausted rumination on isolation. Not only do the collapsing drums at the end put a nice bow on the whole thing, the video gives listeners a chance to wrap up their spin through the album with soothing thoughts of dolphins.