PART C: THE ALBUMS
A couple years ago, I ranked my 20 favorite Kiss songs of all-time, and now it’s high time I rank their albums. For the purposes of this countdown, I am ranking all Kiss studio albums (including the four solo albums from 1978), live albums and compilations that featured new material. Technically, 1978’s Double Platinum included new recordings like “Strutter ‘78”, but I discount it because the new recordings were just remakes of their older songs. And I should point out with the exception of #31, I don’t totally dislike any of the albums on this list—other than #31, they all have something to offer, even if it’s only one or two good tracks.
Cue Casey Kasem: “On with the countdown…”
31) Carnival of Souls (1997) In the words of the Wayans Bros.' “Men on Film”: “HATED it!” Of everything Kiss has ever released, Carnival of Souls is far and away the one album I had the most negative reaction to, and is the only one I have ever truly wanted my money back for. I heard the taster track “Jungle” on the radio in advance, and was hardly impressed with it, but I gave my favorite band of all-time the benefit of the doubt and later bought COS anyway. Alarm bells should’ve gone off in my head when the gnarly dude at Streetside Records proclaimed to me, “Oh, dude, they sound like Soundgarden now!” COS was basically Gene Simmons’ brainchild, and Paul Stanley was actually opposed to doing this type of album to begin with, later admitting in retrospect, “It was a labored attempt at something that I think was a big misstep,” giving it “Two stars.” I wouldn’t even give Souls a two-bit moon rock! You’d think Simmons and Stanley would’ve learned from the folly that was Music From The Elder 13 years before that trying to impress the critics is always an exercise in futility, and as with Elder, they had no business making this record. Kiss is a good-time Rock ‘N’ Roll band, not some dark, depressing, aimless moody group of disenfranchised slackers bedecked in flannel shirts and tuques. If this was the permanent direction this band was headed in during the mid-‘90s, then the reunion with Peter Criss and Ace Frehley didn’t come a minute too soon. Worst…Kiss…album…ever!
My grade: F-minus. Hell, I give this pile of iguana excrement a G!
30) Smashes Thrashes And Hits (1988) With a lame title like that, this thing was doomed from the start. I have never understood how if Kiss (or any other band, for that matter) is so proud of their previous musical output, then why do they feel the need to re-record/re-mix/re-dub some of their songs on a greatest hits package. I hated the way they butchered up “Love Gun” on here (the original track is a killer, so why screw with it?), not to mention the way they stabbed Peter Criss in the back by having the late Eric Carr lay down his own vocal on PC’s signature song, “Beth”. I don’t fault young master Carr here at all—he was desperate to get a lead vocal on a Kiss record, and even he had misgivings about doing “Beth”—but Gene and Paul totally crossed the line on this one and this is when I finally took notice of how petty these two can sometimes be. Of the two new tracks on Smashes, “Let’s Put The X In Sex” was pretty weak, although it got a lot of spins on MTV, but I did kinda like “(You Make Me) Rock Hard”. Unless you just have to have everything Kiss ever made, STAH is expendable.
My grade: D-minus, both for the content and the title.
29) You Wanted The Best, You've Got The Best!! (1996) I hesitated on whether to include this one or not, because it’s kind of a rip-off in a way, released as a stop-gap to capitalize on the momentum brought on by the 1996 Reunion Tour, since Kiss had no new material to put out. Comprised of actual cuts from and unreleased tracks that were recorded for Alive! and Alive II, YWTBYGTB holds my interest if only for the tracks that failed to make the cut on the first two live albums, namely “Let Me Know”, “Two Timer”, “Take Me” and “Room Service”, even though it’s pretty obvious the vocals were re-dubbed on those songs and the crowd noise was excessively amped-up. There’s also a ten-minute band interview with Jay Leno that almost sounded sincere at the time, but given all the rancor that’s occurred in Kiss the camp since then, it sounds like a load of spin-doctor hooey today.
My grade: D-minus
28) Peter Criss (1978) It’s no big secret that George Peter John Criscoula was never totally into the style of music that Kiss played. You might say the Catman sold out musically by joining the band (in exchange for fame and fortune), as he was more into soul and R&B and Sinatra and such. Pete also saw himself as more a crooner instead of a Rock singer on his solo album, which lagged way behind all three of his bandmates in terms of records sales and wasn’t well-received by Kiss fans in general. I think the biggest reason for this is pretty simple—it didn’t rock out enough! The material on it wasn’t all that wretched, but Peter kept trying to duplicate the phenomenal yet fluky success of “Beth” with way too many ballads. What few upbeat songs he did on here came across sounding like a poor man’s Eddie Money record, with the best tracks being “Hooked On Rock ‘N’ Roll” and a remake of Bobby Lewis “Tossin’ And Turnin”. Criss staunchly defends his Kiss solo album to this day, but I only found it mildly entertaining, at best. I get the impression that once he got that album out, he thought he’d morph into Rod Stewart and have a great solo career. Didn’t quite work that way...
My grade: D-minus.
27) Killers (1982) The early ‘80s were a confusing time for Kiss and their fans. Criss was replaced by Carr, then Ace Frehley left, but didn’t really leave right away, as he still appeared in videos and on album covers, and any number of lead guitarists made ghost appearances in his place on early ‘80s Kiss releases. Following the Elder debacle, Gene and Paul wisely decided that Kiss needed to return to what they do best—straight-ahead hard Rock—even though the group was in a state of flux at the time. Instead of a full-fledged new album, they took baby steps and recorded four new songs with Bob Kulick (Bruce’s bro) on lead guitar (even though Frehley appears on the cover again) as part of another best-of record, which initially was only available in Europe. My CD copy even has the German Kiss logo on it with the “SS” altered so as not to remind folks of the Holocaust. While the new tunes (“I’m A Legend Tonight”, “Down On Your Knees”, “Nowhere To Run” and “Partners In Crime”)—all sung by Stanley—were hardly earth-shattering, they were certainly a step in the right direction. Of the four, only “Partners” truly fell flat with me here. The best-of portion of the album was fairly predictable and not terribly concise.
My grade: D for the overall album, C-minus for the new songs.
26) Dynasty (1979) Dynasty was a victim of high-expectations, coming two years after the last full-length Kiss longplayer (when was the last time you heard or used that term?), Love Gun. Though not outwardly-apparent to fans, the band was coming apart at the seams by then, to the point where Peter Criss had to be replaced by future David Letterman band drummer Anton Fig for the sessions. Ace Frehley, whose confidence and stature were greatly bolstered by the unexpected success of his solo record, also felt like he was on a leash during this time, and was no doubt frustrated that he couldn’t flex his muscles more. Even though some of the material on Dynasty was quite good, this album just didn’t feel like a group effort to me. In a similar dynamic to the Beatles’ White Album, it was more like each band member acted as a session player for the others. Ace turned in a nice cover of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man” and his closing track, “Save Your Love” was probably the edgiest tune here, while Paul’s “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” and “Sure Know Something” have both aged remarkably well in the last 30 years. Simmons was strangely subdued on Dynasty and didn’t even sing on Side 1 (back when albums had sides, remember kids?) and only contributed two fairly average songs overall (“Charisma” and “X-Ray Eyes”). They also threw the Cat a bone by doing Peter’s “Dirty Livin’”, which might well be the lamest song Criss ever recorded on a Kiss album. It also didn’t help that they brought in Vini Poncia to produce. Vincenzo did a nice job working with Ringo Starr, et al, and managed to somehow salvage Peter’s solo album, but his Pop music leanings didn’t serve Kiss all that well. Even the cover photo seemed unimaginative, considering the killer album jackets that preceded it, namely Destroyer, Love Gun and Rock And Roll Over, et al.
My grade: D-plus.
25) Gene Simmons (1978) Our favorite Demon will never get it through his thick skull that bigger isn’t necessarily better, and he proved that on his solo record, which was easily the most unfocused of the four. Gene decided to show off his star power by bringing in as many guest musicians as he could—Bob Seger, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Janis Ian (?!?), Skunk Baxter from the Doobie Bros., Donna Summer (?!?), Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, among others, and of course Cher (?!?), whom he was dating at the time. Hell, for all we know, Simmons might’ve brought in the Kingston Trio, Liberace and Dr. Johnny Fever’s fictitious Hallelujah Tabernacle Choir, if he had the chance! The result was a strange, inconsistent mish-mash of an album that left most Kiss fans scratching their heads, especially over the closing track where Gene warbles Jiminy Cricket’s “When You Wish Upon A Star”. My initial reaction was something like, “This was the same guy who wrote ‘I’m 93, you’re 16’ and ‘Get up, and get your grandma outta here!’?!?” To be fair, Simmons actually wrote some pretty decent songs here, like “Man of 1,000 Faces”, “See You Tonite” and “Radioactive”, and he even showed us an impressive vocal range we’d not heard from him before. However, as with Peter’s album, the big stumbling block was that Gene didn’t rock out enough and I think if he’d just added a bit more edge to those three songs and the rest of the record, it would’ve been better received. Instead he waited until the next-to-last track, “See You In Your Dreams” (with Nielsen on lead guitar) to finally put the hammer down, and even that was a remake of a two-year-old Kiss song, the original of which I much prefer over Gene's version.
My grade: D-plus.
24) Unmasked (1980) Considered by many to be the wimpiest Kiss album of all-time, I hold Unmasked in slightly higher regard than that. The songs herein aren’t bad at all, in reality—it was just the execution of them that was lacking. Even though he appears on the album jacket, Peter Criss was all but out of the band by this time, replaced again by Anton Fig in the studio. And once again, Vini Poncia produced, and given his Pop tendencies that I mentioned earlier, he rendered Kiss to be very watered-down on Unmasked, to the point where they sounded more like Toto or an edgy Pablo Cruise. Paul’s ballad “Shandi” wound up being the Starchild’s “Beth”, so to speak, yielding a huge fluke hit (overseas, anyway), and “What Makes The World Go ‘Round” had single written all over it too. Ace Frehley contributed three decent (if not spectacular) tracks, “Two Sides Of The Coin”, “Talk To Me” and the goofy “Torpedo Girl”, but they paled in comparison to the material on his solo album. And like on Dynasty, Simmons was fairly subdued again, sounding almost Billy Joel-like on “She’s So European”, but I rather liked “Naked City” and his closing track “You’re All That I Want”. All in all, Unmasked was a really good album. It just wasn’t a really good Kiss album…
My grade: C-minus.
23) Psycho Circus (1998) As was the case with Dynasty, this was hardly a group effort at all, contrary to what we were led to believe at the time. This was an original-foursome Kiss album in name only, and what could’ve been one of the greatest comeback albums of all-time wound up being a disappointing and (at times) half-baked effort from what used to be the Hottest Band In The World. Apart from Frehley’s “Into The Void”, Paul Stanley’s tunes were the only ones worthy of mention, especially the title track, “Raise Your Glasses” and “I Pledge Allegiance To The State Of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” In a half-hearted attempt to create a “group” feel, the song “You Wanted The Best” featured all four band members trading vocal lines, but it came off seeming hollow and contrived. Gene Simmons’ cuts on Psycho Circus were the most disappointing of all, with a couple of them seeming like they weren’t totally fleshed-out, especially the closing track, “Journey of 1,000 Years” that intoned “Can you feel it coming?” and sounded like it was building up to something climactic, only to peter out in midstream. Overall, Circus was truly a case of what might have been…
My grade: C-minus
22) Music From The Elder (1981) Late 1981 was certainly a different world from the days of “Parasite”, “Black Diamond” and “C’Mon And Love Me”, as Kiss set about to win music critics over with a concept album whose concept even the band themselves didn’t fully understand—shades of Pete Townshend’s ever-elusive Lifehouse project with The Who. Originally conceived by Simmons and further proliferated by producer Bob Ezrin, The Elder was ostensibly going to be the soundtrack to a Lord Of The Rings/Harry Potter-ish movie that was never made. Newly-initiated drummer Eric Carr (rest his soul) must’ve wondered what on earth he’d gotten himself into what with this weird album in the works and Ace Frehley quickly fading to the background in Kiss. Space Ace was so disenchanted with the project that he pretty much phoned his parts in, and only contributed one song to the album, the so-so “Dark Light”. Even Carr was excused for one track, “I”, in favor of a session drummer because he struggled with the time signature on it, yet Eric was able to play it perfectly fine live on ABC’s “Fridays” show some months later. They did the same thing with Peter Criss on Dynasty—he was deemed unfit to play on the record, yet he could tour and play the same songs live with no problem—I’ve never understood all that. Anyway, in spite of Paul Stanley singing about a “child in a sun dress” and other fantasy-world frou-frou, I have a soft spot in my heart for Elder because Kiss was showing signs of breaking out of their wimpy malaise with harder-hitting tracks like “The Oath”, “Escape From The Island” and “I”, and at the end of the latter song, Gene even proclaims “I wanna Rock and Roll all night…”—a good omen for the future. Music From The Elder nearly killed this band and was probably its worst failure, but it was a brilliant failure, all the same. And naturally, the critics liked it. Of course they would…
My grade: C-minus
21) Kiss Symphony-Alive IV (2003) Kiss took an odd little side trip (both musically and geographically) in early ’03 when they headed to the Land of Foster’s, and rounded up the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for a night of high-brow Kiss music. Alive IV marked the recorded debut of Tommy Thayer in place of the Space Ace, and the ever-so-brief return and (as it turned out) the final appearance of Peter Criss as a member of Kiss. The first segment of the show was just the band itself rocking out, followed by an “unplugged” set, of sorts, augmented by the Melbourne Symphony Ensemble, during which Criss crooned “Beth” with real string accompaniment instead of the usual studio backing track. Paul Stanley performed “Sure Know Something” and “Shandi”, the latter of which was a huge hit in Oz back in 1980, and Gene even dug up “Goin’ Blind” for the brief middle set. Then they finished off the show with the full-blown Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (all wearing Kiss make-up) and while I usually prefer my Kiss music straight, it was a nifty little diversion to hear horns and strings and such backing up tunes like “Detroit Rock City” and “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”. The DVD is even more fun because you can watch these Classically-trained musicians having fun playing Rock ‘N’ Roll, all the while sporting Kiss make-up. I was personally rather smitten by the Concertmaster violinist chick just to Peter Criss’ right who actually managed to look cute in Gene’s make-up! As is the case with Halloween, though, Symphony was great fun for one night, but I’m glad Kiss didn’t try to do like the Moody Blues and tote an entire philharmonic around on tour with them.
My grade: C
Twenty more Kiss LPs still to come—keep your feet on the ground and keep reachin' for cigars...