It’s been more than 40 years since Kiss released their debut album, and about 38 since music fans began debating whether the makeup-smeared New York City-bred foursome are rock & roll deities or merely false prophets in platform heels. The induction this year of the band — whose original lineup consisted of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss (a.k.a. the Starchild, the Demon, the Spaceman and the Catman) — into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seemed to bring about a ceasefire between the Kiss Army and the band’s detractors, though only momentarily. And so the critical battle rages on, even as the fact remains that beneath the mounds of makeup and masses of merchandising lies a glitter-strewn heap of very, very good music. You want the best? You get the best. Here are the Top 10 albums (solo efforts not included) from the group many believe was, is and forever will be the Hottest Band in the World.
When fans pick the best Kiss album of the non-makeup years they usually point to either the first, 1983's Lick It Up, or the last, 1992's Revenge. But while the former boasts a stellar title track and not much else, and the latter finds the band trying just a little too hard to be well, hard, Hot in the Shade stands tall as a surprisingly solid slab of late-Eighties hard rock. The fact that it's also one of Kiss' more overlooked efforts is ironic, especially in light of the fact that it spawned their biggest non-makeup-era hit in the Paul Stanley/Michael Bolton collaboration, "Forever." And while at 15 songs the track list is unnecessarily long, the highs still hold up: The slide-guitar-assisted opener "Rise to It" (which was paired with a video that saw Stanley and Simmons reapplying the iconic makeup), the driving "Silver Spoon," the Eric Carr-sung "Little Caesar" and first single "Hide Your Heart," a song so nice it was recorded thrice — by Kiss, Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler and, interestingly, Ace Frehley.
This album was released just two years after Alive!, by which time Kiss, despite heavy touring, had managed to squeeze out another trio of studio efforts. As a result, Alive II, again a double-disc set, basically reproduces the blockbuster formula of its predecessor, but with an entirely new batch of songs (making it perhaps the last time, if we pretend that the album represents one discrete show, that the band didn’t play “Rock and Roll All Nite”). Furthermore, in ignoring anything recorded pre-Alive!, Kiss also demonstrated just how much good stuff — “Detroit Rock City,” “King of the Night Time World,” “Shock Me,” “Love Gun,” “Shout It Out Loud” — they had cut in a ridiculously short span of time. And while Alive II‘s fourth side which consists of a few studio-recorded originals and a cover, feels completely unnecessary, it does hold one deep-cut nugget in the Frehley-penned “Rocket Ride,” which speeds along on a ratty, heavily-phased guitar riff and is topped with a characteristically woozy Ace vocal.
After the studio indulgences of Destroyer, Kiss opted to pull back on their sound, enlisting Eddie Kramer, who had produced not only Alive! but also the band's '73 demo, and recording in an old theater just north of New York City in order to capture a more "live" feel. The result was the leaner and harder-edged Rock and Roll Over. The 10-song collection is highlighted by Simmons' "Calling Dr. Love" and Stanley's "Makin' Love," the latter boasting a snaky riff that bears a passing resemblance to Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic." But the album's greatest success found them revisiting a tactic used on Destroyer, employing Peter Criss to sing lead on "Hard Luck Woman," a jangly, "Maggie May"-esque acoustic ballad Stanley initially planned to offer to Rod Stewart. The outcome, as with the previous album's "Beth," was a Top 20 hit single for Kiss.
Following the disco-fied Dynasty, the soft-rocking Unmasked and the concept-album misfire Music from "The Elder", 1982's Creatures of the Night was viewed by many as a return to form for Kiss. What it really signaled, however, was the birth of an entirely new Kiss, one now encased in an Eighties-appropriate metallic sheen. Eric Carr, several years into his tenure with the band, emerged as a more forceful and commanding drummer than Peter Criss, and Frehley, though still pictured on the album's cover, was by this point out for good, here replaced by a shreddier group of guitarists led by Vinnie Vincent. The result is a sound and an approach that's more pile-driving than party-hearty, and an album that, at its best — the chugging title track, the "We Will Rock You"-style gang vocal-laden "I Love It Loud," the elephant-stomping Simmons-penned closer, "War Machine" — can stand up to almost any hard rock or mainstream metal effort released that year.
If not as strong songwriting-wise as Hotter Than Hell, Dressed to Kill is certainly a more focused and sonically stronger album. Not to mention more upbeat — tracks like "Love Her All I Can," "Room Service" "Anything for My Baby" and the definitive closer, "Rock and Roll All Nite," are pure power-pop euphoria. Overall, it's an album that sounds made for the stage, which, in essence, it was — while Kiss were still struggling on the charts, they were fast becoming a hot ticket on the touring circuit. Which also explains the multiple odes to road spoils in songs like Simmons' "Ladies in Waiting" and Stanley's "Room Service," in which the Starchild gets his rocks off in hotel rooms, on airplanes and even in his hometown, with a "sweet sixteen, lookin' hot and mean." Until, that is, he "see[s] her dad, gettin' mad."
The production (not to mention the album art) leaves much to be desired, and the record itself basically tanked upon release, but Hotter Than Hell boasts more than its fair share of Klassic Kiss Kuts. The title track and "Got to Choose" are first-rate riff-rockers, with a glammy grooviness that's only enhanced by the fact that both sound as if the band is playing at half-speed. Frehley-penned cuts "Parasite" and "Strange Ways," meanwhile, show Kiss toughening up their sound from their just nine-months-old debut — so much so that the two tunes were later covered by Anthrax and Megadeth, respectively. And then there's Simmons' "Goin' Blind," a song so ominous and oozy that not one but two grunge-era acts — the Melvins and Dinosaur Jr. — took stabs at it in the early Nineties.
The final studio effort of Kiss' glory years, after which they took a swan dive into a mucky pit filled with solo albums, disco balls, band-member switcheroos, concept records and all other manner of musical hijinks. And yet, not only are many of the songs top notch (opener "I Stole Your Love," the title track) but Love Gun also ranks as a true group effort. For the first time, all four members contribute lead vocals (Ace Frehley's "Shock Me" is a particular highlight — just ask the boys in Buckcherry, who basically rerecorded it as "Lit Up"), and they also lend one another a hand instrumentally, with Stanley playing a little lead guitar and bass and Simmons pitching in with some six-string rhythm work. Producer Eddie Kramer even jumps in on the action, adding some rollicking one-chord piano to Simmons' lascivious "Christine Sixteen." Recalled Kramer, "[Gene] actually coached me on how to play like a Neanderthal person."
Alive! established Kiss as the Hottest (Live) Band in the World, and they chose to follow it by doing a virtual 180, offering up their most indulgent studio creation to that point. With Alice Cooper/Lou Reed producer Bob Ezrin in tow for Destroyer, the arrangements became more intricate and the sounds more diverse, with the band and producer introducing strings ("Beth"), car crash noises ("Detroit Rock City") and even the Brooklyn Boys Chorus ("Great Expectations") into the mix. Add in the Simmons calling card (though Stanley-penned) "God of Thunder," the soon-to-be live staple "Shout It Out Loud" and the positively explosive "King of the Night Time World," and you have an album that shows Kiss at the top of their game, even as cracks were beginning to appear — session ace Dick Wagner was brought in to track some guitar parts (on "Sweet Pain" and "Beth") after Ace Frehley failed to show up to the studio.
The exciting cover shot alone was enough to put asses in arena seats, even though it's about as "live" as some of the sounds on this concert document. But Kiss were always masters of illusion, and with this 1975 double album they brought all the bomb-exploding, light-strobing, fire-breathing, blood-vomiting, greasepaint-streaked madness of the Kiss live experience direct to every teenager's bedroom, up through their oversized headphone cans and straight into the collective bloodstream. The track list is a veritable cherry-picking of the best tunes from the band's first three albums, with amped-up tempos and jacked-up crowd noises correcting the unjustly limp studio performances that saddled some of the originals, in particular the Hotter Than Hell material. And the version here of "Rock and Roll All Nite," hotrodded with a now-iconic Ace guitar solo, has since surpassed the studio take to stand as the definitive arrangement of the song.
Kiss' debut crackles with an energy and exuberance that even the much-lauded Alive! doesn't match. And song-wise, there ain't a stinker in the bunch (and, yes, that includes the reissue, with the super sugary cover of the Bobby Rydell hit, "Kissin' Time" tacked on). Leadoff cut "Strutter," a Stanley/Simmons glam-pop nugget that kinda sounds exactly like its title, remains perhaps Kiss' finest recorded moment, though track two, "Nothin' to Lose," runs a close second, with a buoyant, bass-led melody line, euphoric Beatles-y falsetto harmonies and the Demon, Starchild and Catman all trading off vox about trying to get in the back door. It's the true "Love Theme from Kiss."