On with the countdown...
20) Hot In The Shade (1989) I really liked this album when it first came out, but it hasn’t aged very well over the last 20 years as I’ve noted the throw-away quality of some tracks, particularly Gene’s offerings. This coincides with the continuation of Simmons’ late ‘80s “Gone Hollywood” period, when he was off acting in movies and TV shows (to varying degrees of success), managing/producing other bands (Giuffria, EZO, Keel, et al) and schmoozing with all type of celebrity vermin, with his participation in the band he co-founded being more of a hobby to the Demon rather than a serious pursuit. Thus, Paul Stanley was carrying the band on his back, and he was understandably pissed at Gene, and finally let him know it not long after the Hot In The Shade tour ended in 1990. Accordingly, the Demon gave us several forgettable tracks like “Prisoner Of Love”, “Boomerang”, "Love's A Slap In The Face", “Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell” and “The Street Giveth And The Street Taketh Away”, with only “Betrayed” and maybe “Cadillac Dreams” being truly worth writing home about. Stanley’s tunes were the strongest, as usual, especially “Rise To It”, “Read My Body” and “Silver Spoon”, along with the album’s two big hits, “Forever” (co-written by that Michael Bolton scalawag) and “Hide Your Heart”. The latter tune, co- written by Stanley, Desmond Child and Holly Knight, was a cautionary tale about the emerging street gang culture, featuring Dino, who was “king of the streets”. Funny, I always thought Dino was Fred Flintstone’s pet, but I digress. Anyway, 1989 was a banner year for “Hide Your Heart”, as no less than three versions of the song came out that summer/fall—one by Kiss, one by Southern Rockers Molly Hatchet (on the last really good album they ever made), and another by some dude named Ace Frehley. Of the three, the Kiss version was probably the best. HITS was also noteworthy for being drummer Eric Carr’s unexpected swan song. Thankfully, before he left us, he was finally able to sing one of his own compositions on a Kiss record, “Little Caesar”, which was re-worked from a tune originally called “Ain’t That Peculiar” and re-titled as Eric’s nickname. Would love to have heard this little dude sing some more—he sounded great doing Gene’s “Young And Wasted” and singing Peter Criss’ part from “Black Diamond” in concert, as well. This was also the longest Kiss studio album, to date—15 tracks and nearly an hour’s worth of music—but as I often declare, bigger ain’t necessarily better.
My grade: C
19) MTV Unplugged (1996) I’m on record as hating the whole “Unplugged” phenomenon on MTV. I thought it was gimmicky then, and I still feel that way. To me, acoustic guitar is the equivalent of black-and-white TV, whereas electric guitar equals color TV to me. True, there are some classic moments in Rock when acoustic guitar never sounded sweeter—the intro to George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” and the Moody Blues’ “Question”, just to name three—but in general, as John Hiatt once sang, “…I wanna hear a Telecaster through a Vibrolux turned up to ten.” All that being said, I actually did rather enjoy the Kiss installment of MTV Unplugged for two reasons: 1) it was kinda fun to hear how some of the old classics evolved from their acoustic beginnings, and most importantly, 2) it led to the Kiss reunion that put a screeching halt to the nightmarish grunge detour Kiss took on Carnival Of Souls. The highlights for me on Unplugged weren’t so much the big hits like “Rock And Roll All Nite” as were the more obscure classics they dusted off and played like “Comin’ Home” from Hotter Than Hell and "Plaster Caster" from Love Gun and even more recent stuff like “Domino” from Revenge. I do have issues with them changing the line “She’s got me by the balls” from the latter to “She’s got to have it all” just to protect the virgin ears of any precocious MTV viewers who might have tuned in. Then again, MTV are the same people who banned Van Halen’s “Pretty Woman” video because it featured a guy in drag, yet it was perfectly okey-dokey to air Boy George/ Culture Club videos ad nauseam, but I digress. Anyway, it was also refreshing to finally hear Peter Criss sing “Beth” with live musical accompaniment instead of a taped backing track, and the combined forces of Criss/Frehley/Stanley/Simmons with Eric Singer and Bruce Kulick performing “Nothin’ To Lose” and “Rock And Roll All Nite” made for a nice finale. Not unlike Kiss Symphony, Unplugged isn't something I’d want to listen to all the time, but it’s fun to give it an occasional spin.
My grade: C
18) Alive II (1977) Since Alive! was such a monumental live recording, when I learned that Kiss was making a sequel late in the summer of ’77, I couldn’t wait for Alive II to come out, to the point where it was the first Kiss album I bought the day it hit store shelves. Make that the nanosecond it hit those shelves. I anxiously camped out after school in front of the old No Records store in Raytown on a cold and grey November afternoon (in the ghetto?) until the hippie chick clerk arrived with their shipment of new records. Not sure why I was that antsy about getting it—I’d already listened to Alive II in its entirety a few days before when I stayed up late (on a school night) to hear it on the “Midnight Album Hour” on the old KY-102, back in the days when spinning albums from start-to-finish on Album Rock stations was routine instead of heresy like it is today. Oh well, by this time, I was well within the clutches of KissMania and I just HAD to have Alive II ASAP. And it sure hit the spot—for a while anyway. I loved it as much as Alive! at first, but as time wore on, I began to realize it wasn’t nearly as good as its predecessor. When I listened to it more objectively over time, I noticed how Alive II didn’t really “take you there” the same way the first live record did (regardless of how much it was touched-up). The crowd noise was way over-amped and sounded really fake in places, too—Kiss audiences are loud, yes, but not shrieky like BeatleMania crowds. And the musicianship is pretty mediocre throughout, as well. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I personally think Kiss should’ve used the audio from the April 2, 1977 Tokyo Budokan concert that’s featured on the Kissology DVDs instead—the band was much tighter and the sound was far superior than the L.A. Forum shows from which Alive II was culled. However, Alive II did have a major saving grace—Side 4—comprised of five all-new studio cuts, all of which were quite good, especially Paul Stanley’s “All-American Man”, Gene Simmons’ “Larger Than Life” and Ace Frehley’s “Rocket Ride”, and their remake of the Dave Clark 5’s “Any Way You Want It” was a hoot. In some more revisionist hindsight, I still opine that Kiss might’ve been better served to add another live side to Alive II with tracks that didn’t make the original cut (like “Take Me” and “Do You Love Me”) and even re-visit a few songs from Alive! (like “Strutter” or “Firehouse”), then record another four or five new songs to combine with the five from Side 4 and put out a full-fledged Kiss studio album that would have nicely filled the interim between Alive II and the solo albums in ’78.
My grade: C overall, with a straight B for Side 4
17) Alive III (1993) In spite of the passing of drummer Eric Carr in 1991, Kiss rebounded nicely with their strongest album in years in 1992 with Revenge, and the ensuing tour in support of it with Eric Singer on the skins was shaping up to be a great one until it was truncated about halfway through by poor ticket sales. Alive III decently documents where the band was at during this time, as their set list included a nice mix of old (“Deuce”, “Detroit Rock City”), newer (“Creatures Of The Night”, “I Still Love You”, “Lick It Up”) and newest (“I Just Wanna”, “Domino”, “Unholy”). It was also fun to hear 1992 Kiss doing 1974’s “Watchin’ You” and sounding great on it. In fact, if you can find a copy of the bootleg Unchained & Unmasked with the entire Jersey Meadowlands concert from September of ’92, although the sound’s a bit muddy in places, it’s well worth a listen for other old classics like “Parasite”, “I Want You” and “Hotter Than Hell”. Getting back to Alive III, on this tour, Kiss (for some strange reason) chose to perform the Rock ‘N’ Roll national anthem, “Rock And Roll All Nite” in the middle of the show rather than in its customary closer spot, but in its place, they played a brief rendition of the real national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, instead. Not the greatest live album in the world, but not a bad one, and an upgrade over the second one.
My grade: C+
16) Dressed To Kill (1975) Dressed To Kill was a bit of a rush-job, since the only way Kiss could make any money during this period was by playing the concerts which they were now headlining, so they ducked into the studio briefly to whip this one out between gigs in the winter of ’75. Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart produced this one himself, which may partly explain why DTK had far better sound than the first two Kiss albums. Of the original three LPs, it probably had the weakest material, overall, as the band had exhausted their stash of good songs on the first two albums and didn’t have proper time to come up with new stuff before heading into the studio. There were still a few gems, though, namely “Room Service”, “C’Mon And Love Me” (which was a minor radio hit), “She” and “Love Her All I Can”, the latter two of which Gene and Paul resurrected from their pre-Kiss Wicked Lester days. One of Kiss’ more underrated cuts and a big favorite of mine, the original “Love Her All I Can” sounded almost Jethro Tull-like with a flute solo (perish the thought of Ian Anderson in Kiss makeup!), while the Kiss version is stronger and punchier. Dressed also included “Rock Bottom”, featuring Ace’s 12-string acoustic intro, which is one of the prettier pieces of music you’ll hear on a Kiss record—too bad the rest of the song doesn’t really go anywhere. And of course, DTK contains the original studio version of Rock’s national anthem, “Rock And Roll All Nite”. A landmark song, and a defining moment in Kisstory, to be sure, but to be honest, I much prefer its infinitely superior live version on Alive!. Overall, Dressed To Kill most certainly would’ve been better if they’d had more time to put it together, but under the circumstances, they did the best they could.
My grade: C+
15) Animalize (1984) Animalize was certainly one of Kiss’ most successful LPs during the non-make-up years, but I disagree with the popular view amongst Kiss fans who regard it as one of the best things they put out in the ‘80s. I’ve always thought that album was overrated because it’s only half-good—Paul Stanley’s half, that is. Gene Simmons basically phoned in his half while he was off in La-La Land terrorizing Tom Selleck and knifing Kirstie Alley in the back while playing the bad guy in the film Runaway. In fact, Animalize could almost pass for a Paul Stanley solo album sprinkled with a few guest appearances by Simmons, as the Starchild pretty much ran the whole show himself by producing the album and even playing bass on some tracks in Gene’s place (as did Jean Beauvoir, the black dude with the mohawk from the band King’s X). Nonetheless, PS had some killer cuts on this record, namely the sizzling “I’ve Had Enough (Into The Fire)”, “Under The Gun” and “Get All You Can Take”, along with the two MTV hits, “Heaven’s On Fire” and the Bon Jovi-ish “Thrills In The Night”. Gene’s tracks, on the other hand, were all pretty much forgettable, especially “Lonely Is The Hunter”, “Murder In High Heels” and “While The City Sleeps”. Only “Burn Bitch Burn” was halfway decent, (saved only by its strong riff) with silly lyrics that sure didn’t cut the cheese—lame lines like “the heels are stacked against you” and “I’m gonna put my log in your fireplace”, etc. The Demon’s ship had clearly run aground by this time—it was clear that his competing agendas were a major detriment to Kiss—and since he was so distracted, this would’ve been a golden opportunity to let “Little Caesar” (Eric Carr) sing on a track or two, but noooooooo! Animalize was also late guitarist Mark St. John’s proverbial “cup of coffee” with the band, and even though he was sidelined later by his bout with Reiter’s Syndrome, he may not have lasted long with Kiss anyway. He clashed musically with Stanley and Simmons almost from the get-go, and was even supplanted by his eventual permanent replacement, Bruce Kulick, on two of the tracks here. Lame cover jacket too (both front and back), but thankfully, Paul Stanley came through and saved this album from being a total reversal of the momentum created by Creatures Of The Night and Lick It Up.
My grade: C+
14) Sonic Boom (2009) Following the band’s longest stretch between studio albums ever (11 years), I was quite skeptical that Kiss could still bring it in 2009, but damned if they didn’t on Sonic Boom. The jury’s still out as to the overall impact of Sonic Boom on the Kiss catalogue, but I was pleasantly surprised at how rejuvenated the band sounds and quite pleased with the quality of songwriting here, which was a major upgrade over 1998’s Psycho Circus. I also like how Simmons and Stanley are collaborating on some songs again, and how this album sounds a lot more like a cohesive group effort, the likes of which we haven’t heard from Kiss since 1992’s Revenge. The best tracks include “Never Enough”, “Hot And Cold”, “Stand” and “All For The Glory”, the latter of which features drummer Eric Singer on lead vocals. Democracy reigns on Sonic Boom, as even guitarist Tommy Thayer gets to sing lead on “When Lightning Strikes”. All that’s really lacking are really good opening and closing tracks, as “Modern Day Delilah” and “Say Yeah” are rather mediocre, respectively, in those roles. But, what’s in between is pretty good stuff—let’s hope we don’t have to wait 11 more years for the next one…
My grade: B-minus
13) Crazy Nights (1987) In spite of the title, a lot of Kiss fans weren’t crazy about Crazy Nights and even I didn’t much care for it—at first. But as time wore on, this record really grew on me, and there’s some pretty good stuff here, if you can get past the somewhat watered-down ’80s sheen applied to it by producer Ron Nevison. In fact, I rather liked the slickness and bigness of Crazy Nights, which sounded similar to Nevison’s previous high-profile projects, like Jefferson Starship's early '80s output, Ozzy Osbourne’s The Ultimate Sin in ‘86 and the self-titled major comeback album by Heart in ‘85. Oddly enough, some of Paul Stanley’s tunes fell flat this time, like “Crazy Crazy Nights”, “Bang Bang You” and “When Your Walls Come Down”, but he made up for those with some outstanding vocals on “I’ll Fight Hell To Hold You”, “Turn On The Night”, “Reason To Live” and “My Way” (no, not the Sinatra/Elvis song). Da boy musta been wearing tight pants in the studio, because I’d never heard him sing that high before—or since! Gene Simmons contributed a couple of underrated tracks as well, “Hell Or High Water”, “Good Girl Gone Bad” and the musical romp, “No, No, No”, the latter of which finally gave Bruce Kulick a chance to show off a little on lead guitar. Unfortunately, as good as the album was, the accompanying tour was quite possibly the worst in Kisstory, with the band playing short 75-minute sets as if they were double-parked outside the arena every night. Still, I like Crazy Nights, and every time I hear this album, it takes me back to the late ‘80s when I was 23 and working in radio and life was good—“for a limited time” (as the Rush song goes)…
My grade: B-minus
12) Hotter Than Hell (1974) It’s just a cryin’ shame that the first two Kiss albums sounded so amateurish because the hacks producing them (Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise) wouldn’t know good sound if it bit them in the ass. Like the first album, HTH had great songs on it, but I would like this album so much better if it didn’t sound like it was recorded in a mop bucket! Some people even go as far to say that HTH was the world’s first Grunge album, but I think they’re reaching a little. True, it did have a heavier sound than the first record, but that had more to do with the way Kerner and Wise slowed the pitch down on some songs (like the title track and “Parasite”) to the point where they just plod along instead of sounding bright and snappy like they do on Alive!. And I’d really like to know whose bright idea it was to chop “Let Me Go, Rock ‘N’ Roll” in half! The original demo for the song (found on the Kiss box set) contains the sloppy, yet spirited extended jam (which is the best part of the song, IMHO) just as they play it live in concert, but the Hotter Than Hell version got castrated into a two-minute single instead before the jam even starts—Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! A couple of songs on Hotter never really have registered with me—namely “Got To Choose” and “Goin’ Blind”—but Ace’s “Parasite” is one of my all-time Kiss faves, as is the title track, and I also really liked the under-the-radar stuff like “Comin’ Home”, “All The Way” and “Watchin’ You”. Good album that might have been a classic if it only had been recorded properly. It coulda been a contender...
My grade: B-minus for the material, D+ for the sound quality
11) Love Gun (1977) This one kinda snuck up on me—I wasn’t even aware it was due out when I saw it on display at the mall during the Major League Baseball All-Star Break in ’77. Love Gun basically was extra innings from where Rock And Roll Over left off in late ’76, and almost sounds in places like it might’ve been recorded during the same sessions. Sticking with the baseball motif, Paul Stanley—easily the finest lead-off hitter in the Kiss line-up—opened Side 1 with a solid line drive triple into the gap with “I Stole Your Love” and Side 2 with a grand slam on the title track. Meanwhile, first baseman Gene Simmons batted clean-up and drove in a few runs with a couple underrated classics of his own, namely “Got Love For Sale” (which even features the line “'cross your home plate”) and “Plaster Caster”, and he even scored a bloop-hit Top 40 single with “Christine Sixteen”. Designated hitter Ace Frehley nailed his third home run as a member of Kiss—“Parasite” and “Cold Gin” being the first two—by singing lead for the first time on “Shock Me”, while Catman shortstop Peter Criss tripped over his own tail rounding first base and got picked off on the rather lame “Hooligan”. “I got a ’35 Chevy on a ’55 frame…”—what the hell does that mean? Definitely not a vehicle I’d care to ride in! For those of you scoring at home, the rest of Love Gun included an infield single (“Almost Human”), one error (“Tomorrow And Tonight”) and only one strikeout (“Then She Kissed Me”) en route to the Kiss victory. Little did we know then that this would be the last time the original foursome were cooperating in the dugout/recording studio. Too bad Kiss never covered “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”, huh?
My grade: B