The 10 Greatest Rage Against The Machine Songs
by Ben Stephanus
November 3rd marks the 25th anniversary of Rage Against The Machine’s self titled debut and in celebration I’ve compiled the definitive top ten list of the Rap Metal pioneers very best songs. Some might say that music is subjective but I had an entire bedroom wall dedicated to Morello and company that would take issue with that if it could talk in real life so fuck that noise.
10. People Of The Sun
The mission statement for Rage’s sophomore effort kicks things off with a condensed history lesson on Spanish Imperialism. Although it’s common knowledge that White people weren’t exactly nice (still aren’t?) concerning colonization, it never hurts to brush up on some pointers. Zach never one to pull any punches, masterfully sends up Eurocentric attitudes by specifically detailing the vicious exploitation of the Mexican people. This will be a recurring theme throughout Evil Empire. Also, brownie points for Tom Morello who performs this entire song by scraping an Allen wrench against his strings.
9. The Wind Below
De La Rocha drops some syncopated bars with dexterity over a menacing groove on this Evil Empire deep cut. One of the fun things about a RATM record is you know there’s a crazy build up coming, you just can’t be certain as to how they’re gonna get there. This outro is a standout moment in a catalog full of similar hi lights. When the time is right the band tugs on it’s own leash bringing it down to a whisper while Zach meditates on how corporate culture seeks to distract us from the in humane practices governments take to uphold crony capitalism. And before your ears can go deaf to the screams in the south, they come through like a freight train, the rhythm section bashing away while Tom is basically just beating the shit out of his open strings. An urgent reminder of the price we pay for escapism.
8. Born Of A Broken Man
When I was a wee lad, I attended Woodstock ’99 which deserves an entirely different opinion piece. Anyhow, Rage Against The Machine took the stage after the embarrassing temper tantrum that was Limp Bizkit. Rage was there to remind everyone that there were more important things to be angry about besides nookies and cookies. I was up close for the first few songs which were staggering, but decided I needed a break from the ruckus and began to walk away with my then very tolerant girlfriend. With my back turned some soft guitar chords began to play which sounded faintly like that Jesus Jones song. “This must be a new tune,” I noted to myself, “doesn’t sound like much really.” Out of nowhere a riff drops, I dramatically turn back in awe to face the stage and my head was cut off. At the tender age of 18 I was then ruined for all future concert moments. Ironically it was the hyper corporate setting that caused basically an entire town of 250,000 people to riot and burn everything down the next night. A mini revolution.
7. Year Of The Boomerang
The album closer for Evil Empire shakes off the metal leanings of the first record with some lo gain riffage and a climax that launches into a quicker tempo with an odd time signature. Morello shows off some expert level feedback manipulation in spots and this tune shows that you can sing the same verse twice and still have an effective song (See also, Mr Brightside).
6. Snake Charmer
Another deep cut from the second record shows RATM taking a left turn into punkier territory. “Your friendship is a fog, that disappears when the wind redirects,” is the perfect lyrical blow to the ‘greed is good’ mentality that drove much of the previous decades zeitgeist. Zach once mentioned in an interview that he was growing tired of the Sabbath style sound and wanted to steer the band in a more Sonic Youth ish direction. This is the best version of that.
5. Fistful Of Steel
Let’s talk about riffs. Let’s talk about this riff. Militant in posture, indignant in emotion and addictive to the ears. If you don’t find the urge to humiliate yourself with some air guitar when this plays you are straight up dead inside. You can hear the seeds of Tom’s signature record scratch mimicking on the solo. Also, to answer your question; yes, Zach is steppin’ into the jam AND he’s slammin’ like Shaquille.
4. Down Rodeo
“Now I’m rollin’ down Rodeo with a shotgun. These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one.”
3. Bulls On Parade
The momentum of this thing never stops. The bands best single begins and ends with the best octave riff since Immigrant song. Sandwiched within is a jigsaw of funk, punk, and metal that features Tom Morello’s finest guitar wizardry when he makes his instrument sound like a scratch DJ. You’d think the novelty wares off but nah, it doesn’t. Zach lashes out against the idea that we should praise the rich while they trample and crush our quality of life. Millions of records are sold and the ’90s are perfect.
When I was 12 years old I saw this video on MTV. Remember MTV? Yea, me neither. My entire world was turned upside down with this funk metal magnum opus. The music, the politics, his voice, the grooves. I could barely contain myself as I anticipated my next pay check from my paper boy job so I could walk down to the mall, buy the cassette and play this record into the ground. “Justice. Has. NOT. Been. Done.” Oh shit, really?! I had no idea! “Anger is a gift.” Huh. Interesting. I’ve been hearing the opposite on that one.
The breakdown on Freedom is essentially Rage Against The Machine distilled to it’s essential ingredients. Have you ever listened to a conservative state their case? If you’re lucky enough to find an intelligent one, just sit and listen. Libertarianism is an idea that makes sense as long as you don’t think about it TOO hard. But the gist of it is personal liberty and the word that makes the most occurrences is Freedom. Yea, right. Zach delivers this phrase on the record like he’s been dying to scream it in everyone’s face for most of his life, and he would be doomed to do it out of obligation on a semi nightly basis for the rest of it. “I got a little tired of screaming my opinions at the top of my lungs every night”, he stated in a post break up interview. Be careful what you ask for I suppose, but it did give him the keys to the city.
And again, the riff. The bass and guitar climb up a blues scale note for note. Can you even copyright that as an idea? The drums drill in your head the almost child like persistent rhythm pattern. It’s constant, nagging and primitive. The kind of thing a band might joke around with during a rehearsal before laughing it off and getting into the serious work. But it’s not funny. It’s exhilarating. Exhausting. The singer paints the picture as to everything wrong with modern western society and the cheap politics that rule us. Freedom is minimal, perfect and artistically Rage Against The Machine’s finest moment. It would be their greatest song, accept there’s…
1. Killing In The Name
RATM fans fall into two camps; People who listen and understand the message and folks who don’t care and just like getting riled up. Paul Ryan has been on record by stating they’re his favorite band and I’m sure you can guess which group he falls into.
I’ve been in work environments where people might be debating current events while Rage is playing in the background. I’ve even witnessed someone choose to play this specific song and then go on a tirade about how Black Lives Matter is stupid. Killing In The Name stares directly into the face of racist cops and threatens them with revolution, but the “Fuck You I Won’t Do What You Tell Me” part is all that matters to some people. Does it matter? Not really. It’s frustrating that listeners might not get the specifics but the message resonates universally no matter your politics. Who hasn’t wanted to tell an authority figure to fuck off? Rage Against The Machine embodies this not just in the lyrical sense but on an emotional level. Music is about communicating a feeling and these guys strike the perfect chord. We can all come together, put aside our differences and have a little fun while the band is playing I guess. Just be sure you’re on the right side of history when the revolution comes.
Honorable Mention: definitely not ‘Settle For Nothing.’