RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS Californication (Warner Bros.)

Normally I would offer a Red Hot Chili Peppers album the kind of welcome reserved for a fleet of plague ships or a rabid dog: aside from "Under The Bridge" their turgid rap-rock-metal has always brought me out in a rash. But having heard "Californication" at friends' houses and in our office (I love my job!) I was amazed to discover that it contains at least half a dozen excellent songs. Somehow the band have tapped into an addictive still of melody, and failed to kick its contents insensible with their guitar and drum assault, which leaves the likes of "Parallel Universe", the title track and "Emmit Remmus" with thumping good tunes, intriguing lyrics and bounding dynamic shifts. The melancholy, blank-eyed acoustic signout of "Road Trippin'" is equally unexpected and welcome. Of course, they compensate by padding the album with an acreage of the usual Red Hot Chili Pepper dross, but there's easily enough great music here to warrant purchase, even for a cynical unbeliever such as myself.

However, what sounded as scary as a bomber squadron passing overhead even through little plastic PC speakers at work fails to retain its towering power on this (so says the cover sticker) "limited-edition 180-gram vinyl 2-disc set". Warners have conjured up and impressively presented package, spreading the album out over four short, heavy sides bedecked with the same Burbank-style labels the company used in the 1970s, but this version of "Californication" really is a trial to listen to. Distorted, lifeless and compressed, you keep turning the volume up in the vain hope that proceedings might improve, which, at neighbour-friendly levels at least, just doesn't happen. And given that this sonic disaster retails for nearly three times the price of the CD, I think I have some grounds for disappointment.

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS By The Way (Warner Bros.)

The last Red Hot Chili Peppers album, "Californication", was the first that I actually managed to enjoy. It was half-decent in the sense that half of it was a fantastic tumble of melody and power, whilst the other half scuffed around their traditional funk-metal-rap territory. It seems to have established itself as the ideal first Chili Peppers purchase, as the constant stream of extracted singles and regular appearances in Megastore sales pushed it far outside the band's still-extensive natural constituency. Obviously a hotly anticipated item, "By The Way" tops it in just about every conceivable manner: gone is all that lame posturing, its place taken by vats of Beach Boys harmony and scampering "Rubber Soul"-style experimentation. And it's not an album dominated by loud, crunching riffs either: it's almost as if, after eight albums and with some members tipping at or toppling over 40, they've discovered that it's not always necessary to shout to be heard. More than anything, "By The Way" sounds like a "Hotel California" for the 21st century, a psychological roadmap of contemporary Los Angeles culture.

Which is a lot to claim for any album. How does "By The Way" justify such extravagant praise? Firstly, for such a long album (it tips the clock at around 68 minutes, making it a double on vinyl, and a far more ingratiatingly-pressed vinyl issue than the distressed-sounding and comically expensive "Californication") it's amazingly consistent. There are a few less than great tunes that pop up about halfway through - "Midnight" has a swooning string arrangement and strange siren sounds to recommend it, but is still one of the weaker songs in this context, whilst "Throw Away Your Television" allows a little too much of the old Chili Peppers to seep through - but generally, how many singles do you think they'll dare mine from this one? It practically sounds like a ready-made greatest hits package.

Those slight disappointments mentioned above excepted, "By The Way" is a blast. It's the sound of Beefheart disciples attempting to play Californian soft rock and in their glorious failure creating something intricately other. The title track is celestial pop metal burst apart by shards of seemingly random imagery, but next "Universally Speaking" drips with melody and mischievousness whilst finding the band locked into the secret history of power pop that runs from The Beatles to Big Star to Blondie and beyond. The haunted junkie's promise of "This Is The Place" might have something to do with the picture of the band looking like a ragged tangle of funeral mourners on the back cover, complete with chilling lines like "On the day my best friend died I could not get my copper clean", but it's immediately counteracted by "Dosed", a chiming love song to a better kind of addiction. "Don't Forget Me" is stuttering and dark, filled with bizarre images such as "I'm a dancehall, dirty breakbeat…I'm a meth lab, first rehab". Second single "The Zephyr Song" is another impenetrable, elegant love song of a kind, another reminder of how clean and uncluttered Rick Rubin's production has rendered these tunes. "Can't Stop" is about as funk-metal as the album gets, but it's forgiven for being so fantastic: all elastic basslines, nagging melody and sage truths, for example "This life is more than just a read thru". The moment when the backing drops away at the end, leaving Anthony Kiedis' bonkers barking unprotected up front, is spine-tingling. It's followed by the gorgeous, yearning, McCartneyesque balladry of "I Could Die For You", overflowing with inventive harmonies (and a strange cockney pronunciation of the first word of the title). "Cabron" is all inventive flamenco flurry, whilst "Tear" balances its sleepy, downbeat verses with huge choruses full of celestial Wilson brothers harmonies and a curious pixie trumpet solo. "Warm Tape" finds the album at its most rampantly creative: ambient synth vistas gliding over a "Tomorrow Never Knows" drum pattern for the verses, twangling Morricone spaghetti western soundtracks on the choruses. And what's great about the Chili Peppers here is that they make all this experimentation sound absolutely natural and unforced, in no way the obvious product of clever-clever tinkering. Closer "Venice Queen" is another staggeringly ambitious creation, its pattering percussion and questing jangle broken open mid-song by sheets of acoustic guitar and references to Them's "Gloria", rising higher and higher on a divine melody and those battered but ethereal harmonies.

My first listen to "By The Way" was at work, and even through scratty plastic PC speakers as brilliant tune followed brilliant tune it was obvious that the Chili Peppers had finally created something truly special, that deserved to be heard and enjoyed by anyone professing a liking for modern rock music. As a yardstick in casual, creative excellence it could hardly be bettered; as a mark of how inventive mainstream music can become before it embraces the rather more leftfield dabblings of The Flaming Lips and Wilco, for example the ubiquity it will surely attain over the next few years couldn't be more deserved.

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS The Zephyr Song (Warner Bros.)

Another Asda 1p wonder, this single provides further heartening evidence of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' current triumphant ascendancy. Even six months after I first heard it, "The Zephyr Songs"'s nonsensical lyrics still delight rather than frustrate - it must take effort, craft and skill to put such beautiful, meaningless words together - and fresh little touches such as that shuffly electro opening keep bubbling to the surface. And as one at least a dozen actual or potential hit singles on their magnificent "By The Way" long player, its blissfully mellow but slightly spooked vibe suggests that a vast number of people who would never contemplate letting a Red Hot Chili Peppers album into their lives will be doing so over the next few years.

A few lesser b-sides pad out this release, but at least they're 'proper songs', with words and tunes and everything, although definitely diminished in stature compared to anything on "By The Way", not lazy remixes or space-wasting instrumentals. "Someone" offers some charming, lilting guitar work and harmonies all over the shop like The Beach Boys going skateboarding, nudging it slightly ahead of "Body Of Water" for pop thrills. But at the price it would surely be churlish to complain.