In 1991, vocalist Zack de la Rocha, bassist and backing vocalist Tim Commerford, guitarist Tom Morello, and drummer Brad Wilk joined forces to form Rage Against the Machine. A year later, they released their self-titled debut. It was one of the most incendiary and innovative albums of the day, packed with huge riffs, fluid raps, and righteous anger. Almost 30 years later, they’re still sticking it to the man as hard as ever. These are the 10 best Rage Against the Machine songs of all time.
10. Calm Like A Bomb
Kicking off our count down of the 10 best Rage Against the Machine songs of all time is Calm like a Bomb. Timmy Commerford gets things moving with a funky bass solo before Tom Morello ups the ante with some incendiary guitar slides. Zak De La Rocha delivers an astounding performance, grunting and rasping through the first half before bringing the whole thing to a hushed close.
The intro of Revolver is a thing of beauty, a huge, ambient whirlwind that takes the band into uncharted waters. From then on, it’s back to classic Rage, with minimalist segways giving way to explosive climaxes. With undertones of prog metal running throughout, it’s one of their biggest, loudest, and most brilliantly angry songs to date.
8. Killing In The Name
The problem with Killing in the Name (and the only thing stopping it from featuring higher on our list) is overexposure. That’s not the band’s fault (unless you count making a song so epic, it’s become part of the cultural fabric of society a fault). It’s ours. We made it the go-to song for every movie scene involving any degree of rebellion or teen angst. We even chose it as the song to break Simon Cowell’s grip on the UK Christmas charts back in the early 2000s. Its ubiquity has come close to breaking it. Considering the power of its stripped-back riffs, menacing percussion, and simple, devastating payoff, that’s a shame. If you can leave aside the baggage, it’s still an astonishing song, and certainly Rage’s most significant (if not finest) contribution to rock.
7. Down Rodeo
Morello kicks off Down Rodeo with a riff that Louder Sound describes as almost Smashing Pumpkins like in style. After that, Timmy C’s bass takes control, taking us on one of the most challenging journeys Rage has ever invited us to ride. The lyrics are savage (“I’m rolling down rodeo with a shotgun, these people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one”), as is their delivery. It’s as pleasant as a kick in the teeth, and proof that anyone who says Rage are a one-hit-wonder should take their opinions and stick them where the moon don’t shine.
Testify sees De La Rocha abandoning any aspiration to be a rapper and embracing the sound of a fire and brimstone preacher instead. Factor in Timmy C’s volcanic bass, Morello’s playful licks, and Brad Wilk’s thundering beat, and the whole thing becomes one of Rage’s most iconic and chaotic songs ever. The chaos might be controlled, but knowing it could spill over at any point is what makes every performance from Rage, even the weaker ones, so exciting.
5. Bullet In The Head
Taken from their self-titled debut, Bullet In The Head ranks as one of the most potent songs Rage has ever delivered. The way De La Rocha savagely rips into the lyrics is mindblowing. The lyrics themselves, which were written as TV reporters happily dismissed the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis during the first Gulf War as they celebrated America’s triumphs, are damning, with the band concluding that the apathetic masses who passively eat up whatever information they’re fed might as well be the ones who’ve taken a bullet to the head. And then there’s Tom Morello’s spidery riff, which in itself would be enough to earn the song a place among Rage’s best works.
4. Wake Up
According to Songfacts, Wake Up is about the operations of the FBI’s “counterintelligence” program, which was designed to encourage anyone with a taste for civil rights, a dislike for institutionalized injustice, and the ability to draw an audience to keep their mouths shut. Released on the band’s self-titled debut album, it passed pretty much unnoticed before the makers of “The Matrix” decided to use it to close out the movie. Even if they hadn’t, it’s still a superb song, with an astonishingly deft vocal from De La Rocha and a grove that just won’t quit.
3. Bulls On Parade
As Crossing Broad says, when Bulls on Parade was first released, the rock song was all over the radio, the video was all over MTV, and anyone with any taste had already worn their first CD copy down to the bone. Released four years after Killing in the Name, it put paid to the idea of Rage being one-trick ponies for good. De La Rocha’s vocals are clean as a whistle, later inspiring both Dizzee Rascal and Denzel Curry to record their own interpretations. The star of the show is Tom Morello though, who somehow manages to make his guitar sound like a scratched record.
The final song from the band’s self-titled debut album was one of the angriest, most innovative tracks to have been released for years. It slayed in 1992 and it slayed for years as the final song of Rage’s live shows. They eventually decided to swap it for the more well-known Killing in the Name. Legendary though that song is, it doesn’t compare to this hard-hitting six-minute wonder.
1. Know Your Enemy
Ultimately, everyone has their own opinion about which song ranks as Rage Against the Machine’s finest. In fairness, there’s not a lot to choose from between Bulls on Parade, Freedom, and Know Your Enemy. They’re all iconic, and all worthy of contention for the top spot. But Know Your Enemy has the edge. It was the foundation for their activism, their most infectious and insurrectionary song, and the perfect channel for De La Rocha’s fluent rhymes. Calls to arms don’t get much more irresistible than this.