They were not the first rock’n’roll band with a strong visual identity: The Beatles had their mop-tops and dandyish suits. They were not the trailblazers in rock theatre: Bowie and Alice Cooper went before them. But if there is one band that has understood and exploited the power of image in rock’n’roll, and the importance of putting on a show, it’s Kiss.
With painted faces, outlandish costumes and seven-inch stack-heeled boots, Kiss arrived in the 70s like superheroes straight out of a comic. They had superhero names: rhythm guitarist/lead vocalist Paul Stanley was The Starchild; bassist Gene Simmons, The Demon; lead guitarist Ace Frehley, The Space Ace; drummer Peter Criss, The Catman. What they presented in concert was the greatest show on Earth, with explosions, blood, fire-breathing, a rocket-launching guitar… At a Kiss concert, it was possible to believe a man could fly.
And at the heart of it was a great all-American rock band. While derided by serious music fans (and, of course, critics) as nothing more than a circus act, Kiss didn’t sell 100 million records by fluke. In the band’s vast catalogue are some of the greatest and most influential rock albums of all time.
In the 42 years since the release of the first Kiss album, there have been 19 more studio albums, numerous live albums and compilations, and – most ambitious of all – four solo albums from the original band members, released on the same date: September 18, 1978.
Much of the classic Kiss material dates from the 70s, but in the following decade – without Frehley and Criss, and more importantly, without the make-up – Kiss rode the glam-metal wave they had done so much to inspire.
When Stanley and Simmons founded Kiss in New York City in early 1973, their primary influences were British, from The Beatles and the Stones through to Led Zeppelin, The Who and Slade. In turn, Kiss influenced a generation of rock musicians, especially in America. Their music was an inspiration for such diverse acts as Mötley Crüe, Anthrax, Pantera and Stone Temple Pilots.
In 1990, Nirvana covered the Kiss song Do You Love Me? and both Kiss and Nirvana were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame at a the same ceremony in New York in 2014, where the Kiss story began so many years ago.
29. Peter Criss (1978)
It wasn’t the worst solo album ever made by a drummer – that was Keith Moon’s risible Two Sides Of The Moon. But this was undoubtedly the worst of the Kiss solo albums.
A fan of pop and soul music, Criss turned MOR crooner on lightweight toe-tapping tunes such as Don’t You Let Me Down and That’s The Kind Of Sugar Papa Likes. Tellingly, the best song on the album is a ballad, I Can’t Stop The Rain, written by long-time band associate Sean Delaney, and perfectly suited to Peter’s raspy voice.
To the horror of Kiss fans, this was music that their parents would like. As Paul Stanley said: “Peter’s album was ghastly.”
28. Carnival Of Souls: The Final Sessions (1997)
In the 90s, after Nirvana changed pretty much everything as far as rock music was concerned, a few stars of the hair metal era tried their hand at The Grunge Album. Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard had a go. And so did Kiss with Carnival Of Souls, on which they ditched the party anthems for a heavy, downbeat style similar to Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. It was a strange turnaround for a band that had been cited as a major influence by so many grunge stars, including Kurt Cobain, the Melvins and Stone Temple Pilots. Moreover, the notion of Kiss as an alternative rock band was ludicrous. But in the end, a potential disaster was averted. In 1996, the release of Carnival Of Souls was shelved when the original line-up of Kiss reunited, in make-up. This album eventually snuck out a year later as a kind of ‘official bootleg’ deal.
27. Kiss Symphony: Alive IV (2003)
Alive! and Alive II were era-defining classics. Alive III was great, too. But with Kiss Symphony: Alive IV, they were milking that thing dry. The USP – as sold in the album title – was that Kiss were performing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when the album was recorded at the city’s Telstra Dome stadium on February 28, 2003. The result, however, was a mess. There was no real cohesion between band and orchestra. And while a version of Paul’s wonderfully camp pop number Shandi was great, Gene’s croaking on the pervy ballad Goin’ Blind was an embarrassment. It was not their best night.
26. Monster (2012)
The title was classic Kiss; the album, less so. The band had sounded revitalized on Sonic Boom, but three years later, on Monster, they lost that spark. Ahead of the album’s release, Paul Stanley had hyped it in typically overblown fashion: “A sensory overload,” he said. “Powerful, heavy, melodic and epic.” But really, there wasn’t much to shout about. There were flashes of brilliance in Paul’s daft rock’n’roll sermon Hell Or Hallelujah and Gene’s monolithic Back To The Stone Age. The remainder was as flat as a week-old bitter shandy.
25. Psycho Circus (1998)
In 1996, the prayers of Kiss fans were answered. The band’s original line-up reunited, put the slap back on, and toured to huge success. Two years later came Psycho Circus, the first Kiss album since ’79 to feature Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. But all was not as it seemed. Criss played on only one track, Frehley on two. Paul Stanley later admitted: “There was no real band.”
Psycho Circus went Top 10 in the US. It had some good songs: Frehley’s Into The Void, Simmons’ We Are One. But so much of it sounded hollow and contrived – You Wanted The Best was just an advertising jingle. For the original Kiss, this was a miserable swansong.
24. Animalize (1984)
The success of Lick It Up continued with the follow-up. Animalize was certified platinum in the US, the band’s biggest seller since Dynasty. It was also the only Kiss album to feature lead guitarist Mark St. John, who joined as replacement for Vinnie Vincent but was forced to withdraw from the band during the Animalize tour after contracting Reiter’s Syndrome, a form of arthritis. The best songs on the album were Paul Stanley’s – the exultant Heaven’s On Fire and the moody Thrills In The Night. Gene’s were phoned in, although he did contribute a memorable double entendre in Burn Bitch Burn: ‘Wanna put my log in your fireplace.’ Sadly for Mark St. John, this was his one brief moment of fame. He died in 2007, aged 51.
23. Hot In The Shade (1989)
Some 14 years after Kiss had their biggest hit single in America with Beth, they returned to the US Top 10 with another ballad, Forever – the standout track from Hot In The Shade. For the only time in their career, Kiss used additional writers on every track on this album. Paul Stanley wrote Forever with Michael Bolton, and Hide Your Heart with Desmond Child and Holly Knight. An AOR classic, Hide Your Heart was also recorded in 1989 by Ace Frehley.
But among the 15 tracks were some clunkers, including two tracks written by Simmons with future Kiss guitarist Tommy Thayer. The band’s lengthiest studio album proved that size isn’t everything – even for Kiss.
22. Asylum (1986)
At the height of glam metal, Kiss were in competition with bands on which they’d had a huge influence, such as Mötley Crüe and Poison. The classic make-up was gone, but Paul Stanley especially was still plastering on the lipstick and eyeliner. And under his control, Asylum was as flashy and trashy as anything that was coming out of the Sunset Strip scene – as illustrated by the album’s priapic and preposterous final track, Uh! All Night. The highlight was another of Paul’s songs, Tears Are Falling, an AOR anthem powered by a heavy, chugging riff. Gene was still coasting on half-baked numbers such as Trial By Fire and Secretly Cruel. This album also marked the debut of lead guitarist Bruce Kulick, whose brother Bob had auditioned for Kiss back in 1973, and had played an uncredited role, filling in for Ace Frehley, on Alive II and other Kiss albums. Bruce Kulick would stay with Kiss for ten years.
21. Kiss Unplugged (1996)
On August 9, 1995 came the moment that every Kiss fan had dreamed of: when Ace Frehley and Peter Criss joined Paul and Gene onstage for the first time since 1979. It was the climax to the band’s acoustic performance for MTV Unplugged – the only time that Frehley and Criss played alongside Eric Singer and Bruce Kulick, and most significant of all, the only time that the four original members of Kiss performed together without make-up. From this came the impetus for a full-scale reunion with Ace and Peter. Which was great for the Kiss Army, if not for Singer and Kulick. And on a purely musical level, Kiss Unplugged was a triumph. The band’s songs worked brilliantly in the acoustic format – from lesser-known album tracks such as Comin’ Home and Gene’s solo piece See You Tonite to the standards God Of Thunder and Beth.
20. Alive III (1993)
Nothing could match Alive! and Alive II for pure rock’n’roll excitement and cultural impact. But this third instalment of the franchise-within-a-franchise proved that Kiss were still a great live act, even without the make-up that had been so much a part of the magic. Recorded in 1992 on the Revenge tour, Alive III featured most of the band’s greatest songs from the years after Alive II in 1978 – I Was Made For Lovin’ You, Creatures Of The Night, Lick It Up, God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll To You II – with one notable omission in Crazy, Crazy Nights. And of course there were few 70s classics, including Detroit Rock City and Rock And Roll All Nite, that could never be dropped from the band’s set.
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19. Crazy Nights (1987)
For much of the 80s, Paul Stanley carried Kiss, while Gene Simmons was busy acting in movies and producing and managing other artists. The success of Crazy Nights owed everything to Stanley.
In contrast to the guitar-heavy style of 1984’s Animalize (the only Kiss album to feature guitarist Mark St. John) and 1986’s Asylum (on which St. John’s replacement Bruce Kulick made his debut), Crazy Nights had a lighter sound, with keyboards high in the mix.
Stanley delivered three strong singles: power ballad Reason To Live, the euphoric Turn On The Night, and Crazy Crazy Nights, a Top 5 hit in the UK, and an 80s hair-metal classic.
18. Music From ‘The Elder’ (1981)
The band disowned it. The critics panned it. Most Kiss fans hated it. And few bought it. For all that, Music From ‘The Elder’ is cherished among a small minority of diehard Kiss fanatics who consider it the band’s lost classic. This grandiose concept album was, by his own admission, Gene Simmons’ folly – based on a fantasy tale he’d written, and conceived as the soundtrack to a Hollywood movie. As Simmons told Classic Rock: “We were convinced that we were making our Tommy, our Sgt. Pepper.” The movie was never made, and the album bombed. But in terms of artistry and ambition, there has never been a Kiss album to equal it, before or since. Produced by Bob Ezrin – who had worked on the classic Kiss album Destroyer, and more recently on Pink Floyd’s The Wall – Music From ‘The Elder’ was as close as this band ever got to art rock. It has great songs, including A World Without Heroes, Mr. Blackwell and Dark Light, all of which were co-written with rock legend Lou Reed. And while Simmons now describes this album as the product of “temporary insanity”, there was, in that madness, something approaching genius.
17. Gene Simmons (1978)
Where Stanley and Frehley took the route-one approach to their solo albums, Simmons went completely off-piste. He enlisted an all-star cast of backing musicians, including Joe Perry, Bob Seger, Donna Summer and his then girlfriend Cher. Others on his wish list were unavailable: Lennon and McCartney, and the world’s most famous dog, Lassie.
Simmons later said his album was “disjointed”, but it includes some of the best songs he’s ever written: Radioactive, Man Of 1,000 Faces, the Beatles homage See You Tonite. And on a version of When You Wish Upon A Star from Disney’s Pinocchio, Simmons cried as he sang it.
16. Unmasked (1980)
Unmasked is a fantastic pop-rock album, although Paul Stanley has a different assessment: “We lost our balls,” he said. The producer on Dynasty and Unmasked was Vini Poncia, who had worked with Ringo Starr and Wonder Woman actress Lynda Carter, and also on Peter Criss’ solo album.
In hindsight, Stanley felt that Poncia “sanitised” Kiss. But there are great songs on Unmasked: Stanley’s power-pop doozy Tomorrow, Simmons’s Naked City, even Frehley’s barmy Torpedo Girl.
The album featured Criss on the cover, but was recorded with drummer Anton Fig. By the time Unmasked was released in May 1980, Criss was out of the band.
15. Dynasty (1979)
Timing is everything. In 1979, rock fans launched the protest campaign ‘Disco Sucks!’ At a baseball game in Chicago, a crate filled with offending records, mostly by the Bee Gees, was blown up on the pitch. And in the same year, Kiss put out a disco song. I Was Made For Loving You was a brilliant synthesis of disco and hard rock, and a US Top 20 hit. Parent album Dynasty reached the Top 10. But this one song alienated many Kiss fans, and precipitated the band’s decline in America.
For all that, Dynasty is a good album, with genius pop-rock songs, alongside Frehley’s grittily autobiographical Hard Times.
14. Paul Stanley (1978)
Of the four solo albums, Paul Stanley’s sounded the most like Kiss. Essentially, it was an extension of his role as the band’s primary songwriter and lead vocalist – with, in his words, “my personality magnified”.
Tonight You Belong To Me is a sensational song with an intense emotional charge – rated by Stanley as one of his best. Similarly, It’s Alright is pure kick-ass Kiss. But on two tracks, he pushed the envelope. Take Me Away (Together As One) is the deepest song he’s written, and Hold Me, Touch Me (Think Of Me When We’re Apart) is the height of camp. Ultimately, it’s the best Kiss album Kiss never made.
13. Revenge (1992)
Kiss’ most underappreciated record. The band’s 16th studio album was dedicated to the memory Eric Carr, the drummer who had served Kiss for 10 years before succumbing to cancer on November 24, 1991, the day that Freddie Mercury also died.
But with former Black Sabbath drummer Eric Singer in place of Carr, and producer Bob Ezrin back for a third time, Revenge was a shrewd repositioning of Kiss at a time when grunge was king.
A heavier sound was established with Simmons’s sinister opening track Unholy. And another Top 5 UK hit came with God Gave Rock ’N’ Roll To You II, an update of an old Argent song, supersized in classic Kiss style.
12. Sonic Boom (2009)
It had been 11 years since Kiss had made a new studio record, and Paul Stanley was determined that they should come back with a bang. “Sonic Boom is the perfect title for this album,” he said. “It’s earth-shaking and deafening!”
Guitarist Tommy Thayer made his debut on Sonic Boom. He even sang lead on one track, as did Eric Singer. But it was Stanley who hit the home runs with the Zeppelin-influenced Modern Day Delilah and the triumphant Say Yeah. And Simmons was back to his best on the sneering Russian Roulette.
11. Lick It Up (1983)
It was the big reveal: the make‑up was finally off. And as Sounds joked: “What ugly bastards they turned out to be.”
The reinvention of Kiss was Stanley’s idea, and it worked. Beginning in 1983, the new-look Kiss achieved a remarkable comeback. Having already used the perfect title for this album – Unmasked – they named it Lick It Up after a song that was classically Kiss. The tone was fast, flashy heavy metal, typified by Simmons’s Young And Wasted. Less impressive was Stanley’s rapping on All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose.
Guitarist Vinnie Vincent would be fired after the Lick It Up tour, but the album sold well – proof Kiss could survive on their music alone.
10. Hotter Than Hell (1974)
The second Kiss album was, like the first one, a flop. Hotter Than Hell peaked at No.100 in the US. Even so, it’s one of their most influential records.
Producers Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, who cut the band’s debut, gave this album the rawness and hard edge of garage rock. The heaviest song, Parasite, was later recorded by Anthrax, and Gene Simmons’ twisted ballad Goin’ Blind (‘I’m 93, you’re 16’) was covered by grunge oddballs The Melvins.
Best of all were two songs by Paul Stanley: Got To Choose, one of the band’s loosest and coolest numbers, and the thumping title track, which was inspired by Free’s All Right Now.
9. Love Gun (1977)
The band’s sixth studio album was the first to feature all four members singing lead vocals. It was also the last Kiss album to feature the full original line-up on every track.
Ace Frehley would be absent for most of the studio tracks on Alive II, and Peter Criss would appear on just one song on Dynasty. But on Love Gun, they still sounded tight.
The album’s title track is the ultimate expression of Paul Stanley’s oversexed persona, and an all-time classic Kiss song. On Shock Me, Frehley sings lead for the first time, sounding effortlessly cool – or maybe just pissed. And on Hooligan, Criss delivers the brilliant payoff: ‘I’m a hooligan/Won’t go to school again…’
8. Rock And Roll Over (1976)
Eight months after Destroyer, Kiss returned with the symbolically titled Rock And Roll Over. Destroyer had been considered a sell-out. “The fans hated it,” Simmons said.
The band responded by ditching all the fancy stuff to recreate what Stanley called the “primitive quality” of Alive! To this end, Rock And Roll Over was recorded at the disused Star Theatre in Nanuet, New York, with Eddie Kramer, the producer of Alive! The theatre’s ambience was perfectly suited to crunchy, no-frills rock songs such as I Want You and Calling Dr Love.
Stanley wrote Hard Luck Woman with Rod Stewart in mind. With Peter Criss singing it like Rod, it was another huge hit.
7. Dressed To Kill (1975)
The band’s third album is their purest rock’n’roll record, with a stripped-down sound and a spontaneous feel typified by its most famous song, Rock And Roll All Nite. Neil Bogart, the head of Casablanca Records, took a hands-on approach with Dressed To Kill, co-producing the album with the group. It sounded much cleaner and punchier than the preceding album, Hotter Than Hell. As Ace Frehley said: “There’s a lot of energy in this record.”
It’s also full of great songs: Room Service, Rock Bottom, C’mon And Love Me, and, of course, Rock And Roll All Nite. And the album’s cover is a classic too, with the guys posing in suits borrowed from manager Bill Aucoin.
6. Ace Frehley (1978)
There was a joke about the Kiss solo albums that became received wisdom: they shipped platinum and returned double platinum. Gene Simmons put the record straight, telling Classic Rock: “They all sold at least a million apiece.”
The surprise – and a kick in the balls for Simmons and Paul Stanley – was that Ace Frehley’s album was the most successful. The wayward guitarist scored a Top 20 hit with a breezy version of the Russ Ballard song New York Groove. What Ace delivered was a smoking, balls-out, hard-rock record with flashes of his goofball humour. And without Gene and Paul around, he could sing on Ozone: ‘I’m the kind of guy who likes feelin’ high…’
5. Creatures Of The Night (1982)
On the simplest level, Creatures Of The Night is the heaviest Kiss album. More complex is the story of its creation.
By 1982, Ace Frehley had quit. His appearance on this album’s cover was purely to reassure fans as the band’s popularity waned. Behind the scenes, several guitarists auditioned. Amazingly, Eddie Van Halen was briefly in the frame. In the end, the job went to Vinnie Vincent, who co-wrote and recorded three tracks.
Somehow, Kiss pulled it off. Although the album wasn’t a hit, it restored their credibility via thunderous songs – I Love It Loud, War Machine and the title track – with a drum sound bigger than John Bonham’s.
4. Kiss (1974)
When the first Kiss album was released on February 18, 1974, the band’s make-up design was not yet perfected – but the music was fully formed. From the start, Kiss wrote anthems. Seven songs from the album would become Kiss standards: Strutter, Cold Gin, Firehouse, Deuce, Nothin’ To Lose, 100,000 Years and Black Diamond. Boozehound Ace Frehley wrote Cold Gin but lacked the bottle to sing it. Instead, the staunchly teetotal Simmons did.
Kiss was not a hit at the time – US chart peak: No.87 – but it stands alongside Aerosmith, Montrose and Van Halen as one of the classic debut albums that built American hard rock in the 1970s.
3. Alive II (1977)
Kiss made their big breakthrough with Alive! Two years later came the sequel, and it was another blockbuster. Recorded on the Love Gun tour, Alive II reached No.7 on the US chart, two places higher than Alive! It was also a better representation of the Kiss live experience. The band sounded more powerful on tracks such as I Stole Your Love, Shout It Out Loud and Makin’ Love. The audiences were more hysterical. And the original vinyl-issue gatefold cover opened to reveal the full OTT splendour of Kiss on stage.
Also included were five new studio tracks. The best of them, Frehley’s Rocket Ride, is as woozy as the man himself.
2. Alive! (1975)
The title screamed for attention, and it came. This double-live album turned Kiss into superstars.
Their first two studio records had bombed. The third reached the US Top 40 but had no hit single. A live album was a no-brainer for a band that had built its reputation on stage, but a double album was costly, a high‑stakes gamble. It paid off when Alive! hit the Top 10.
The album was a tour de force and a coming of age for Kiss as an arena-rock behemoth – as illustrated by the band’s definitive, crowd-pleasing anthem Rock And Roll All Nite, which became, at last, their first hit single. Alive! marked the birth of a legend.
1. Destroyer (1976)
With their fourth album, Kiss reached for the stars and created their masterpiece. Their first three studio records were simplistic rock’n’roll, banged out fast. For Destroyer, they hired Bob Ezrin, producer of Alice Cooper and Lou Reed. As a result, Kiss sounded bigger, better and smarter.
Detroit Rock City is a juggernaut. God Of Thunder is an epic befitting its title – written by Stanley but sung by Simmons on Ezrin’s orders, it became the bassist’s signature song. And Ezrin transformed a soppy love song by Peter Criss into the orchestrated hit ballad Beth. “It’s an ambitious album,” Stanley said, “and it stands the test of time.”