Ask any Red Hot Chili Peppers fan which album is the band's best and, invariably, you’ll get Blood Sugar Sex Magik or Californication or maybe By the Way. Some might even say the latest, The Getaway, reigns supreme, if only to hype themselves up for the band's latest tour, which stops in Miami this Saturday. But although those records can be called good, maybe even great, they pale in comparison to Stadium Arcadium, the Chili Peppers’ 2006 seminal, colossal double album.
The Chili Peppers will never be confused with high art. They're not prolific messenger-artists echoing the voice of a disenfranchised generation — not like Dylan and his Everyman anthems or Lou Reed’s streetwise, drug-addled parables set to music. This is the Red Hot Chili Peppers: a fun, funky rock band with kick-ass grooves supporting lyrics about California and sex, in that order. Their sound is straight from George Clinton’s Loopzilla funkadelic, while their lyrics are a mishmash of boisterous, L.A.-sun-drenched prosaic poetry and forced gibberish rhymes. If you're looking for music that'll change the world, look somewhere else.
But the Peppers have deftly navigated the ever-changing landscape of popular music, staying true to their sound and aesthetic while never turning into a sad parody of themselves. That’s more remarkable than Anthony Kiedis' tongue-twisters or Flea's primal bass licks. And none of their albums better displays that talent than Stadium Arcadium.
This album, the band's ninth studio recording, condenses all of the RHCP eras into one dynamic, bloated box of musical goodness. Led by the kinetic, virtuosic slap-bassist Flea and buoyed by then-guitarist John Frusciante’s Rembrandt-like genius, the Chili Peppers have been blasting their style of funk-rock at our faces for the better part of three decades, even as that style has remained fluid to the times. And none of their records captures the band’s very essence quite like Stadium Arcadium.
Sure, it's missing the Chili Peppers’ younger, dirty bass-driven edge. But what it lacks in the typical grimy drug-fueled RHCP “sound” it makes up for, and then some, with a cool blend of contemplative tracks, funkadelics, and sheer ambition. A double album takes balls to pull off. Producing one and coming through with a piece of work that shines is musical Everest.
According to Chili Peppers legend, the band had enough material to throw together a massive triple album if they had wanted to; the original idea was to produce a Quadrophenia-esque concept album. They ended up scratching that plan but still had enough songs — 28 to be exact — to put out a massive piece of work that ebbs and flows but never wanes — just like the Peppers themselves. Other albums pair the requisite radio-friendly hit with a bunch of largely forgettable fillers. But Stadium Arcadium gives the listener the best of all RHCP worlds. The band goes full-on radio-friendly and then shifts gears to pay respects to the funk-rock sounds that put them on the map. Stadium Arcadium has everything the RHCP fan needs.
In 2006, Red Hot Chili Peppers were fully evolved yet still holding onto their younger, crazier selves. They were the same raunchy clown princes performing live while wearing nothing but tube socks on their cocks, and somehow also the older, wiser artists at work in producer Rick Rubin’s sterilized studio confines. You can hear the goofy ghosts of RHCP's past in "Hump de Bump," which, at first, sounds like a wedding band’s rendition of "Wooly Bully" but quickly morphs into RHCP’s signature funky gobbledygook. There’s the new RHCP sound in "Wet Sand," which begins with a quiet guitar and Kiedis’ languid vocals, builds up and sways with Flea and Chad Smith kicking in as it crescendos into their brand of scatterbrained melodies, winds down with a harpsichord reminiscent of a Fleetwood Mac song, and closes out with another crackling Frusciante-Flea dance-off solo. "Warlocks" is another throwback track dominated by Flea’s peppy funk-bass slaps and Kiedis’ rap-tap vocals. But then the band takes listeners back to the future with the breezy, guitar-laden, and catchy-as-hell "Tell Me Baby."
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As in all of the band's best records, Frusciante’s abilities lie front and center and everywhere in between on Stadium Arcadium. This was the guitarist's last album with the band, and he gave it everything he had. Frusciante has been melting faces with his guitar playing since he debuted on the band’s 1989 album, Mother’s Milk. But on Stadium Arcadium, we get a newly clean and sober Frusciante, one who is determined to layer each track with his blustery and raucous styles, letting listeners witness the firepower of his fully armed and operational awesomeness. The album is a belfry of melodic grooves and hard-rock riffs born straight from Frusciante’s return to not only the Chili Peppers after taking a hiatus to battle the demons of drugs and success, but also to total sobriety itself.
It's also a clear-headed return to his potential as an artist. From the opening track, "Dani California," Frusciante’s genius is palpable. He’s on another plane entirely, while the rest of his bandmates try (and sometimes succeed) to stay with him. Frusciante listened to Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers while Stadium Arcadium was being composed and recorded, and as a result, every track on the record is imbued with quixotic guitar riffs that seem to go in their own direction while the rest of the band goes in another. From his thunderous solo closing out "Dani California" to the light, rhythmic dancing of his fingers kicking off "Snow (Hey Oh)" to his mastery of effect pedals and ghostly backing vocals on "If," Frusciante's musical stylings contain multitudes. This is a legendary guitarist finally tapping into his full potential, and it’s what makes Stadium Arcadium the band’s greatest work.
When the Red Hot Chili Peppers take the American Airlines Arena stage this Saturday, they'll be promoting The Getaway. But we hope to catch a glimpse of their 2006 selves. What you hear in The Getaway is merely an echo of the better parts of that peak year, and every album that came before it was just a prologue to the apex of their success as artists and performers. Stadium Arcadium is the quintessential RHCP album, the kind of album that has kept the band's lifelong fans energized and still has the potential to convert new ones. And it's the one you'll likely hear most fans playing on their way to the arena this weekend.