Welcome to a special edition of Connor’s KISS Korner. Yes, I know I said the last one was the final one but like KISS themselves, I don’t know when to say goodbye. Ever since Chuck Klosterman wrote that huge article for Grantland, ranking his favorite KISS albums, my friends have asked me to do something similar. Well, I might not have Mr. Klosterman’s popularity, I’ll give you the rundown of my personal favorite KISS albums with half the words and half of the convoluted pop culture analogies!
Side note: I did not rank the Alive! albums or the ’78 solo albums. Alive and Alive II would both definitely be in the Top 10 if not the Top 5 if I did. Hell, Alive III might even come close to breaking the top 10. Alive IV: KISS Symphony is an interesting curios but is just the same shit in a fancy package. For the solo albums, Ace’s is the best, Gene’s is the most interesting, Paul’s is the most disappointing but still has a few killer tracks, and Peter’s is best used a Frisbee! Now onto the countdown
AVOID AT ALL COSTS (#20 through #16)
20. Carnival of Souls (1997)
Top Track: “Jungle”
I’m all for albums where bands experiment with a different sound. Hell, you’ll see me defend KISS weird, vaguely prog rock concept album Music From “The Elder” in a little bit but Carnival of Souls is KISS experimenting, not for the sake of their music, but to try and fit in with the rock music scene of 1996. It’s a joyless, soulless dirge and inarguably my least favorite of their albums. If you want to hear KISS sound like a third rate Collective Soul, this is the album for you. Carnival of Souls was really only recorded as a plan B in case KISS’ reunion fell through. While I think the reunion might have had negative long-term effects, I’m grateful for it because it meant KISS not continuing in this direction.
19. Monster (2012)
Top Track: “Hell or Hallelujah”
I was actually marginally excited for this album. Its predecessor Sonic Boom was surprisingly OK-ish and the lead-off single “Hell or Hallelujah” was one of the best KISS songs I’d heard it in the past twenty years. OK, that’s not super high praise considering the albums they’ve released since the ’90s but the song combined a lot of the aspects I loved about classic KISS and a lot of the aspects I loved about their ’80s hair metal tracks. Unfortunately, the rest of the album showed a band that should really start thinking about hanging up the grease paint and platforms.
18. Psycho Circus (1998)
Top Track: “Psycho Circus”
Anticipation was higher for Psycho Circus than for any KISS album in the 20 previous years. Unfortunately, there was way more sizzle than steak and the billing as “the original lineup of KISS’ first album since 1979” was deceptive at best and an out and out lie at worst. The four original members only appeared together on two tracks, the not bad Ace song “Into The Void” and the entirely bad “You Wanted The Best”. Ace & Peter found themselves exiled from most of the other tracks. Which would have been fine (KISS has produced a few decent to good albums with non-original lineups) if Paul & Gene came up with some great tracks but they did not. This one sucks and the worst part about it was it sold a lot of copies. So this was probably a lot of folks’ last KISS album.
17. Hot in the Shade (1989)
Top Track: “Hide Your Heart”
Next we go to the hair band error. KISS never really found its own identity in their unmasked years. Were they Motley Crue-esque sleaze merchants? Bon Jovi type rockers with big singalong songs that rev up a crowd? In the ’70s, KISS stayed ahead of the pack but with albums like Hot in the Shade, it seems like they were straining themselves just to keep pace with the Poisons and Cinderellas of the land. The album features a godawful Def Leppard ripoff (“Read My Body”), a power ballad co-written by Michael Bolton (“Forever”, which was their biggest hit since the ’70s and their second biggest single ever but really did nothing long-term for them), and a bunch of forgettable hair metal. Its best song (“Hide Your Heart”) was done way better by Ace Frehley on the Spaceman’s solo album Trouble Walkin’.
16. Crazy Nights (1987)
Top Track: “Crazy, Crazy Nights”
1987’s Crazy Nights saw KISS go all in on trying to replicate the success of some of its competitors. They hired super-producer Ron Nevison to helm the ship. The result is one of the most punchless, watered down KISS albums of all time. It’s wimp city. On songs like “Turn On The Night”, KISS sounds like Journey. JOURNEY! Metal fans were aghast. Some of the songs like ’80s Heart which makes sense since Nevison produced them too. I like some tracks here especially the title track, which vaguely rips off the Raspberries but this album as a whole is like corn flakes without the milk.
For Army Members Only (#15 through #11)
15. Sonic Boom (2009)
Top Track: “Say Yeah”
Sonic Boom shocked the hell out of me by being not entirely terrible. It reminds me a lot of KISS ’80s albums, 1 or 2 strong singles sung by Paul (“Say Yeah” and “Modern Day Delilah”), some forgettable album tracks, and a couple of shitty Gene songs. It’s one of the KISS albums I listen to the least but when I do, I don’t get get the overwhelming urge to jab KISS q-tips deep into my ears midway through the first track.
14. Asylum (1985)
Top Track: “Who Wants to Be Lonely?”
Asylum is the first album featuring the band’s fourth lead guitarist Bruce Kulick. Kulick was known for his solid, workmanlike playing and indistinct personality. Incidentally, I would describe this album as workmanlike and indistinct hair metal. It’s only really notable by the howlingly awful videos for its singles “Tears Are Falling” and “Who Wants To Be Lonely?” and the horribly awful fashions the band sported in them. Those singles are pretty great actually but I don’t think I could name more than two other songs off the album without looking it up if you offered me $10.
13. Music From “The Elder” (1981)
Top Track: “The Oath”
“The Elder” is arguably the most controversial album in KISS history and is deemed by a lot of casual fans and non fans (as well as Gene Simmons) as the band’s “worst”. Alternately, a lot of hardcore fans go over the top in praising it as one of KISS’ finest works. I’m in the middle. I don’t think the album entirely works as a KISS album or as a 1981 prog rock album but there are definitely moments on the album that are genuinely riveting and its far from KISS worst record.
12. Animalize (1984)
Top Track: “Heaven’s On Fire”
Animalize, depending on my mood, is either a slightly better version of the album that followed it (Asylum) or a worse version of the album that preceded it (Lick It Up). The album’s biggest single “Heaven’s On Fire” is the definitive non-make up era song and the opening track “I’ve Had Enough (Into The Fire)” is bitchin’ but like Asylum, there’s not really much beyond those two tracks. Rest of the album’s not terrible but nothing I find myself going out of my way to listen to either.
11. Revenge (1992)
Top Track: “Unholy”
We’ll come to my pick of most underrated KISS album at #5 but #11 is my choice as the album that “saved”/”reinvigorated” KISS but I see it as another example of the band awkwardly trying to keep up with the times, although they did it much more successfully here than they did on Crazy Nights or Hot in the Shade. A lot of people’s perspective on this are skewed by the album’s three singles which are great and really may have been KISS’ best songs in ten years but like all but one of the non-make up albums, the album tracks are forgettable best and laughable at worst. Great singles does not necessarily make a great album. This is decent but doesn’t deserve to be ranked amongst the best. “Unholy” and “Domino” do stand out as the only good KISS songs sung by Gene released since 1983 though, for what it’s worth.
The Second Tier (#10 through 6)
1o. Creatures of the Night (1982)
Top Tracks: “Creatures of The Night” and “Killer”
This is another one that in my opinion is mildly overrated but I would put it above the decent category, in the “pretty good” box. And this album really did save KISS although most people didn’t notice until its followup a year later. After the power pop of Dynasty and Unmasked and the…whatever that Music From “The Elder” was, KISS needed a kickass rock album and Creatures of the Night does kick ass for the most part. In fact, it was probably harder than anything the band had recorded to that point. This album does have a few forgettables but this is the first album on the list that I’d say has more good tracks than bad ones.
9. Dynasty (1979)
Top Tracks: “Magic Touch” and “Hard Times”
The beginning of the end for KISS. Another album that’s kind of divisive since it features the disco sell out “I Was Made For Loving You” and shamelessly embraces a poppier style on the whole. Yeah, it doesn’t rock as much as some of the albums that preceded but I think it features some of both Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley’s strongest and most mature songwriting. And they needed it because Gene Simmons and Peter Criss are basically non-entities. For all of the complaints about KISS watering down their sound, the songs here are good. That’s all it boils down to for me. It might not rock as hard as Love Gun but that doesn’t mean its without merit.
8. Rock and Roll Over (1976)
Top Track: “I Want You” and “Calling Dr. Love”
Our first classic KISS album. All of which, unsurprisingly, made the top ten. I think this album was the beginning of the beginning of the end for the band. After the only experimental KISS studio album that was unquestionably a success, Destroyer, the band went back to basics and I think, in the long term, it hurt as much as it helped. This is probably the most forgettable of the classic KISS albums with only the charmingly goofy “Calling Dr. Love” being a concert staple to this day. That being said, it does have a lot of strong points. “I Want You” might be the second best opening track for a KISS album and its definitely Peter Criss’ biggest album for the band with him singing the Top 20 hit “Hard Luck Woman” and contributing the rollicking “Baby Driver”, which means a lot to the dozens and dozens of Peter Criss superfans out there.
7. Dressed to Kill (1975)
Top Tracks: “C’mon and Love Me” and “Rock Bottom”
It was barely produced by the band’s boss, Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart and its kind of evident that the band was burned out (this was their third album in a little over a year) but that loose, informal feeling is also one of the album’s biggest strengths. It definitely has a devil may care, shambling attitude and you can tell the band is having fun and about to hit a stride here. This was a band that was about to become huge, whether they knew it or not. On this album, they certainly pretended they knew they’d be huge superstars in the near future!
6. Lick It Up (1983)
Top Track: “Lick It Up” and “A Million To One”
By far, the best non-make up album. The band was invigorated by the presence of Ace’s replacement, the certified wackadoodle known as Vinnie Vincent. Plus Paul & Gene contributed some of their most inspired performances in years. Yeah, a lot of aspects of this album are goofy as hell but it’s KISS dammit and this album is a lot of fun. And fun was something that had been lacking in the previous half decade. The title track is basically saying “Hey! We’re KISS and it’s the ’80s. Let’s party!” When they took off the makeup and costumes, it felt like a huge weight was lifted off of Gene and Paul’s shoulders. It’s too bad they didn’t know where to go after but the moment/album itself might be KISS’ biggest of the ’80s.
Fave Five (#5 through #1)
5. Unmasked (1980)
Top Track: “Is That You?”, “What Makes The World Go ‘Round”, and “Shandi”
OK, I might be the ONLY KISS fan who’d put this in Top 5. A lot of people (KISS themselves included) consider this one of the band’s weaker albums, certainly of the make up era. Well, I’m here to tell you why they’re wrong. Or at least, why I like it. Yeah, this is a bubble gum album but KISS fully embraces the pop here instead of sticking their toe in it. It’s everything I like about KISS; big hooks, so simple that they’re almost (if not outright) dumb subjects, and an unabashed sense of fun. Yeah, it sounds more like Cheap Trick than KISS at times but there’s nothing wrong with sounding like Cheap Trick!
4. Hotter Than Hell (1974)
Top Tracks: “Parasite”, “Strange Ways”, and “Goin’ Blind”
Another controversial choice. Hotter Than Hell, the band’s second album, is considered by some to be the worst album featuring the original lineup. A lot of people hate the dirgey, sludgy sounding production but I LOVE it and think it gives the album a unique sound. This is arguably KISS’ darkest, least fun album, at least until the ’90s. It kicks major ass and is probably KISS’ HEAVIEST album until the ’90s as well. Despite being an influence on countless metal bands, I would hardly consider KISS to be a metal band but songs like “Parasite” come damn close. This is KISS at its leanest and meanest. Yeah it sounds terrible but that’s also what makes it so awesome.
3. KISS (1974)
Top Tracks: “Deuce”, “Strutter”, and “Black Diamond”
KISS’ first album isn’t its best but it’s arguably its most important. Some bands take a few albums to find their footing but in its debut, KISS let the world know what it was all about. It’s got a few clunkers (hello, “Love Theme from KISS” and “Kissin’ Time”…actually almost every KISS that includes the band’s name throughout its history is bound to suck!) but six of the ten tracks are concert staples to this day. And for a band where 99% of its appeal is its live show, that’s the highest of high praise.
2. Love Gun (1977)
Top Tracks: “I Stole Your Love”, “Love Gun”, Shock Me”
Love Gun was really the peak of KISS in a lot of ways. The last album featuring all four original members of KISS, it’s the band at the height of their popularity and the height of their confidence. Paul Stanley as the swaggering rock star, Ace Frehley as the whacked out Spaceman, Gene Simmons as the psychotic demon, and Peter Criss as the tough but sensitive Catman. Everyone brings their A-game and at that point, they’ve graduated from sophomoric lyrics to better written sophomoric lyrics. More than any song than “Rock & Roll All Night”, I think the title track of this album defines what KISS is all about.
1. Destroyer (1976)
Top Tracks: “Detroit Rock City”, “God of Thunder”, and “Do You Love Me?”
After a list with some unconventional choices, I have to go with a conventional #1. As much as I want to go outside the box and not pick the album that even non KISS fans know as the best KISS album, I really can’t choose against this. It’s the only KISS album that I can enjoy every time from start to finish. From Gene Simmons putting on his best newsman voice at the intro of “Detroit Rock City” to the outro “Rock and Roll Party”, it’s enjoyable from top to bottom. I even enjoy the cheesy, smarmy ode to groupies, “Great Expectations” because hey, how many other tracks see The Harlem Boys Choir backing up the Hottest Band in the Land? Super producer Bob Ezrin brought out the best in the band and showed that they were more than a good time party band while also showcasing why they were best good time party band in the land.
Well, that’s it for real, this time, guys. The final KISS Korner. Until like the actual KISS, I can find a way to wring a few more bucks from my dwindling audience! Keep calm and rock on, KISS fans!