My Top 5’s: Iron Maiden Albums

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Over their lifespan and lineup changes, Iron Maiden has released 16 studio albums along with plenty of compilations and live records.  Seeing as how I absolutely adore this band (check out this little ditty), I figured I’d be remiss if I didn’t rank the creme de la creme of their discography.  This is a new segment I’ll be doing every so often, that is, ranking a top 5 of varying subject matter (aptly titled “My Top 5’s”).  So without any further fluff or stalling, here we go!

 

Honorable Mention: Iron Maiden (1980)

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Overview: I couldn’t, in good conscience, include a Top 5 list of Iron Maiden albums without including the one that started it all.  Though it falls just a bit short when compared to its immediate successors, Iron Maiden’s eponymous debut offered us a glimpse into what would ultimately make the band such a force in the coming years.  Though it’s a bit raw (even Eddie, the mascot on the front of the album, has improved in look over the years), it checks a lot of the boxes: prog-metal undertones, winding compositions, evil and sinister lyrics and themes.  This album may not be Maiden’s finest hour, but it certainly packs enough of a punch to be revisited even almost 40 years on.

Strengths: Iron Maiden is almost Punk Rock in how unpolished it is, but it uses this to its advantage.  Maiden took what groups like Judas Priest and Motorhead were doing at the time and injected the energy and aggression of punk bands.  Granted, the album is far too complex to even be considered a punk effort, but the attitude of the genre seeps through a bit.  Songs like “Phantom of the Opera” and the title track show off the nefarious Maiden sound we would all come to love.  It is about as evil sounding as it gets for 1980, and it’s probably why this album is revered to this day.

Weaknesses: It goes without saying that most debut albums, save for Van Halen or Appetite for Destruction, are not an entirely accurate depiction of what the band has to offer.  Bands are allowed to grow into their own, and Iron Maiden was no different.  For one, singer Paul Di’anno, while an adequate vocalist in his own right, didn’t have the power or range his replacement Bruce Dickinson possessed.  As a result, some of the songs may not have the same grandiosity the later Maiden tracks would have.  The production quality is also a bit lacking when comparing this record to some of its younger brothers.  Iron Maiden is still a great introduction to the band, but if you are looking for some of the group’s more quintessential and anthemic works, perhaps you should try an album a few more years down the road.

Fun Fact: This album (and, by extension, the band) actually got discovered by a man named Neal Kay, owner of a heavy metal sound house/rock club called The Bandwagon in London.  The Bandwagon garnered notoriety by hosting “hardboard” guitar battles, in which contestants would go on stage and, using cardboard cutouts of guitars, have air guitar battles with each other.  One night, Dave Murray and Steve Harris walked up to Kay, handed him a demo tape and asked him to take a listen.  Kay was blown away by what he heard (understandably so), and the demo began to receive heavy rotation at the club.  The demo would later morph into Maiden’s debut and the rest, as they say, is heavy metal history…

 

5. Number of the Beast (1982)

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Overview: The first of the Bruce Dickinson-era albums, Number of the Beast takes everything Iron Maiden had done on their first two records and magnifies it, particularly in the vocal department.  Dickinson was galaxies ahead of former singer Paul Di’anno in every sense of what it meant to be a frontman: better range, more articulate, more charismatic, better stage presence.  It was because of these traits that Maiden evolved from a New Wave of British Heavy Metal group into a full fledged arena ready outfit, capable of putting on elaborate stage shows to match their elaborate pieces.  The songs on this album reflect that, as they possess much more depth of field, musically speaking, and feel more anthemic.

Strengths: This record contains some of Iron Maiden’s most classic tunes: “Number of the Beast,” “Run to the Hills,” “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and my personal favorite, “22 Acacia Avenue.”  These songs, musically weren’t much different from songs off of the previous 2 albums, but the way they were presented and produced showed serious growth from the band.  Dickinson’s air-raid siren vocals, coupled with a more polished sound made these tracks feel like arena bangers, and as with most Maiden records, Number of the Beast still sounds great today.

Weaknesses: With this being the first Dickinson album, Number of the Beast still sounds like the band getting used to one another in certain areas.  Where later albums have a theme and feel to them, Beast meanders at times and can be a hard album to get fully invested in from side to side.  Plus, although it may be a personal bias, songs like the title track and “Run to the Hills” have been so beaten into the ground, being that they are two of Maiden’s most recognizable hits, that it makes it kinda hard to “get up” for these songs every time you hear them.  This is still a phenomenal album, especially for the first turn as a Dickinson-fronted effort, but someone had to occupy this spot.

Fun Fact: Bruce Dickinson was still technically/contractually the lead singer of the NWOBHM group Samson when the album was released, so when it came time to write for Beast, Dickinson had to take on a “moral contributor” role.  This meant he was heavily involved with the writing process, but was never officially credited with any of the songs on the record.  Pretty sneaky, sis…

 

4. Killers (1981)

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Overview: Paul Di’anno’s swan song, Killers, was a marked improvement from the band’s debut album while still simultaneously having a similar feel and atmosphere.  Songs were trimmed of excess “fat” and the production quality spiked considerably.  You can really hear the band behind Di’anno take leaps and bounds in terms of musical growth, and even the cover art has that classic Maiden feel to it.

Strengths: The entire front side of this album is a party from start to finish.  It features two fantastic instrumentals in “The Ides of March” and “Genghis Khan,” the latter of which is some of Maiden’s finest work.  “Another Life” is the album’s high water mark and shows just how far the band came from record 1 to record 2.  While they would grow even more over the next couple of albums, this bad boy is an underrated masterpiece and houses many of the band’s more forgotten yet classic material.

Weaknesses: The front side of this album bangs, this we all know.  However, the back of Killers really drags after the title track kicks off side 2.  The songs aren’t bad, they just don’t pack as much of a wallop as side 1.  This may sound a bit nit-picky, and it is because I love this album (and own it on vinyl), but when you get into what separates a very good Maiden record from a great one, it’s the little things that add up.

Fun Fact: This is the only Iron Maiden album to feature two instrumental tracks, both of which appear on the front side of the record.

 

3. Piece of Mind (1983)

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Overview: Piece of Mind is the first Maiden record to feature the classic lineup we all know and love, with drummer Nicko McBrain replacing Clive Burr.  Accordingly, this album is the one where Iron Maiden really sounds like they hit their stride.  Every track on Piece of Mind has purpose and you can tell that although Maiden turned into a machine on this record, they still had fun making it.  Make no mistake about it, for the next few albums after Number of the Beast, the boys were firing on all cylinders, and Piece of Mind represents the birth of this musical renaissance.

Strengths: This record houses the concert staple “The Trooper,” among other classics and when it comes down to it, Piece of Mind is just damn fun to listen to.  “Die With Your Boots On” can be considered a spiritual relative to “The Trooper” and is equally as action packed, but the absolute gem of this LP is “Still Life,” a wonderful metal track that is equal parts fist pumping and creepy and is one of my favorite Maiden tunes of all time.  The closer, “To Tame a Land,” is a great way to end the album and sets up the precedent of having an epic opus close out a Maiden record much like the next two albums to follow Piece of Mind.

Weaknesses: The first three songs to kick off the album don’t really do it for me, so for a while there I thought that with the exception of “The Trooper,” which appears on just about every Iron Maiden compilation album, I wasn’t a huge fan of the LP.  That obviously isn’t the case, but it goes to show how if a record doesn’t start with a bang, be it fair or unfair, it can turn certain fans off with less than adequate attention spans (14 year old me was not about to sit through an entire album end to end).

Fun Fact: Riding high off the success of Number of the Beast, Iron Maiden faced a new challenge: social conservatives!  I kid, mostly, but suffice it to say that some of the more religious fans of music were none to pleased with a band talking about numbers of beasts and depicting Satan controlling people on an album cover.  The boys were taken to task by pretty much everyone who misinterpreted the album and the popular theory was that Maiden had back masked satanic messages into their last album.  So what did our esteemed band members do to remedy this?  Why, put a back masked message on the album, of course!  At the beginning of the song “Still Life,” drummer Nicko McBrain can be heard burping and then delivering the satirical line “What ho said the t’ing with the three ‘bonce’, do not meddle with things you don’t understand…” when played backwards.  You can listen to it (and the fantastic song following) here.

 

2. Somewhere In Time (1986)

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Overview: Consider this a late addition to the squad, as I really didn’t give Somewhere In Time a fair shake until recently, but dear God is this album good!  As far as arena ready Maiden records go, this one is up there with the best.  The album catches some flack for using synthesized guitars layered in to give the songs some bounce (much like a certain other 1986 offering from a revered metal group, wink wink, nudge nudge), but I think it really adds to the tracks.  The layering is subtle, but it gives the songs on the album more weight and depth, which in my opinion is always welcomed.

Strengths: Where to begin?  The opening track, “Caught Somewhere in Time,” is about as fantastic an opener as there is on a Maiden record.  From there the album doesn’t slow down until the closer in “Alexander The Great,” another of the aforementioned epic finishers to a Maiden LP.  The entire record has such an anthemic quality to it, you can almost feel Dickinson and the guys flying all over the arena.  Somewhere In Time is about as close to perfection, along with the number 1 album on this list, as Iron Maiden was or is ever going to get.

Weaknesses: Not much, if we are being perfectly honest, is weak about this album.  On the whole, the songs are a bit long winded, with an average run time of 6:40 per song (I did the math by hand, thanks for my service).  Most of the tracks use every bit of their allotted time to their advantage, but pieces like “Wasted Years” and the first couple minutes of “Alexander The Great” aren’t as magnificent as some of their more hyperactive brethren. Other than that, this is a pretty flawless effort.

Fun Fact: Depending on how keen your eye is and how deep your fandom for the band runs, the front and back covers of Somewhere In Time house no less than 30-some-odd references to any and all things Iron Maiden.  Some examples: the street on the front side where Eddie is vanquishing his faceless foe is called “Acacia,” named after the classic Maiden song “22 Acacia Avenue,” a clock on the back side reads 23:58, which references the track “2 Minutes to Midnight” from the previous record, and a personal favorite of mine is on the marquee beneath the clock that says “LATEST RESULTS: WEST HAM 7 – ARSENAL 3,” a nod to bassist Steve Harris’ support of English Football (Soccer) club West Ham United.

1. Powerslave (1984)

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Overview: Iron Maiden’s finest hour.  Powerslave is what happens when a band is in their creative and artistic prime, when every member is locked in and ready to give their all.  There are 0 fluff pieces on this record and the album as a whole is just exciting and punchy from start to finish.  The energy this album exudes cannot be overstated and it is not only the best Maiden record of all time, it may very well be one of the best METAL records of all time.

Strengths: Along with “Caught Somewhere in Time,” “Aces High” is one of the greatest opening tracks to ever grace a Maiden record.  It offers a “tip of the iceberg” look into what Powerslave holds in its grooves: dizzying vocals, dazzling twin guitar harmonies, and lyrics about badass subject material (in this instance, dog fighting in war planes).  The rest of the album really takes off (no pun intended) after that, with songs like “2 Minutes to Midnight,” the title track, “Flash of The Blade,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Back in The Village.”  Even the instrumental “Losfer Words” is a seminal Maiden piece and shows off their musicianship as a whole.  Hell, even the album art is classic and iconic.  So much so, that I bought the album only knowing 3 of the 8 songs on it, but believing it was going to bang because of the cover.

Weaknesses: Much like its immediate successor, Powerslave can be a bit long winded.  The songs are, for the most part, a bit more concise than the ones found on Somewhere In Time, but the average really gets bogged down by the epic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  “Mariner” clocks in at almost 14 minutes and can drag in parts.  Luckily, it is housed at the end of the record and is entirely skip-worthy if you’re not feeling particularly bold that day.  “The Duelists” is also one of the weaker points of the album but even then, it can still go punch-for-punch with most of the other songs on Powerslave.

Fun Fact: At 13:45, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was easily Iron Maiden’s longest song for almost 3 decades, until “Empire of The Clouds,” off of 2015’s The Book of Souls, took its  place on the somewhat dubious throne.  Its runtime?  An ass numbing 18:01!  Pack some snacks and a pee bottle if you’re planning on taking on that beast!

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My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked By Me): Number 2

Today’s entry sees 5 lads from Sheffield, England who made it big…

Our Top 10 Favorite Bands list brings us all the way to Number 2.  If you’ve missed any of the previous entries be sure to check out the links to the posts at the bottom of the page.  Today’s entry sees 5 lads from Sheffield, England who made it big…

 

 

2. Def Leppard

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It’s hard to make even a surface sweep through the annals of Hard Rock history without seeing an image of these 5 young men.  The last couple of groups I’ve posted about (The Cars notwithstanding) have had an undisputed Hard Rock/Heavy Metal image and sound.  Def Leppard, on the other hand, has very muddled and oft-argued roots in the Metal community.  Having been birthed in the golden age of the NWOBHM (that’s New Wave of British Heavy Metal, for the uninitiated), Leppard’s first two albums, On Through The Night and High ‘n Dry, were decidedly heavy.  Songs like “Wasted,” “No, No, No,” and “Me and My Wine” all exhibit the mammoth riffs and high pitched vocals associated with the movement at hand and cemented the band as a staple in the genre.

But that all started to change when in 1983, with the help of producer Robert “Mutt” Lange (the then-future, now-former Mr. Shania Twain, to you), Def Leppard released Pyromania.  Stuffed full of radio friendly hooks and arena-ready choruses, the album went platinum by the end of the calendar year.

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Although the record still contained heavy bangers like “Stagefright” and “Die Hard The Hunter,” it also housed cavity-sweet pop-rockers like “Photograph” and “Foolin’.”  This seemingly innocuous blend of heavy and melodic sounds represented a shift in the Leppard fandom; some fans were incensed that their once-beloved metal band had turned into the dreaded “sellouts” metal fans are always railing against.

Things wouldn’t get better for Def Leppard’s more militant fan base, as 1987 saw the release of Hysteria.  Similarly to the previous album, Hysteria had a solid blend of saccharine pop songs and heavy rockers, but because the only songs to get airplay were tracks like “Love Bites” and “Animal,” the album attracted fans of a less heavy variety, only further angering the purists.

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This, ironically enough, is what catapults this group to such a high spot on my list.  Def Leppard is such a versatile band in the regard that they can go from heavy to melodic on the same album and nothing sounds out of place.  Unlike Thin Lizzy, whose versatility I mentioned as a detriment, Leppard’s ability to be sonically diverse doesn’t come from a place of trying too many genres on for size, but rather from sticking to one genre and playing it from each end of the spectrum.

 

Best Album – Hysteria (1987)

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Ahh, the magnum opus.  I wrote extensively about this album in a previous post, so if you’re looking for an in-depth review you can click the link.  Long story short, not only is this my favorite Def Leppard album, it’s one of my favorites of all time.  From top to bottom, Hysteria brings the heat.  Want a sappy 80’s love song?  Check out tracks like “Love Bites” and “Hysteria.”  Need a jolt of hard rock?  Why not try “Run Riot” or “Gods of War.”  Hysteria offered a wide net for all fans of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal and although the album gets slammed by some of the heavier fans of the metal community, it is still, in my humble opinion, Def Leppard’s finest hour.

 

Worst Album – X (2002)

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I really could’ve picked any album released after Lep’s sensational 1992 effort Adrenalize, but I decided to go with X, as it represented the final nail in the coffin of what I consider “classic Def Leppard.”  While many consider Def Leppard post-High ‘n Dry to be irredeemable, it was really the trifecta of Slang, Euphoria, and the aforementioned X, that truly murder the identity of what Def Leppard meant to me.  The songs are anemic, packing little to no punch while simultaneously feeling stripped down.  The band started to introduce acoustic tracks and all of the cuts off of this trio of schlock sound dated in the worst, most 90’s dad rock way possible.  God, now I understand the pain of those early Leppard fans who were so mad at Hysteria; this sucks!  Sellouts!

 

Strongest Member – Joe Elliott (Lead Vocals)

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The flaxen-maned front man of Def Leppard was more than just your average, pretty boy lead singer.  No, Joe Elliott was the driving force behind literally every single one of Def Leppard’s biggest hits.  Being the singer, Elliott obviously provided the voice to these chart toppers, but he was also the principle writer of them as well.  Elliott was even the man who suggested the name of the band (though he originally opted to spell it “Deaf Leopard” before cooler heads ultimately prevailed).  This, coupled with the fact that Elliott is a multi-instrument talent (drums, guitar, and keyboard), made him a runaway for “Strongest Member.”  And for those wondering, guitarist Phil Collen came in second.

 

Weakest Member – Vivian Campbell (Guitars)

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It pains me deeply to put a shred master such as Vivian Campbell in such a dubious position, but when considering contributions to the band, Viv is certainly lacking.  He has one good album under his belt, Adrenalize, and even then that album was partially written while previous guitarist “Steamin'” Steve Clark was still alive.  There is no doubting Campbell is a 6-stringed wizard, but when it comes to his time in the band, the results speak for themselves.  Be it a “wrong place, wrong time” situation or not, there is no denying Vivian Campbell was/is a member of the group during their decline.  I debated putting original guitarist and founding member Pete Willis here, but his time spent with the band was during two of their best albums, On Through The Night and High ‘n Dry, and he was a principle writer on both.  That made Campbell the odd man out, so he ends up here as a result.

My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked By Me): Number 3

Today’s band didn’t invent heavy metal, but by all accounts they are the first true heavy metal band…

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Our Top 10 Favorite Bands list brings us all the way to Number 3.  If you’ve missed any of the previous entries be sure to check out the links to the posts at the bottom of the page.  Today’s band didn’t invent heavy metal, but by all accounts they are the first true heavy metal band…

 

 

3. Judas Priest

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Experts on the genre often argue about who invented heavy metal.  Some say Led Zeppelin, with their brash guitar riffs, thundering drums, and swaggering high pitched front man developed the blue print for glam heavy metal bands like Van Halen to follow for years to come.  Others agree it was Black Sabbath, who appealed to the darker, more sinister side of the musical spectrum that inspired the likes of Metallica and Megadeth.  While there is some discussion about who started heavy metal, there is almost no argument that Judas Priest perfected it.

Everything about Priest is metal to the core.  From the sound to the look to the attitude; it was as if you took everything metal about both Sabbath and Zeppelin and cranked it up ten fold.  If you think I’m joking, try this: go to YouTube and look up the opening track off of their 1982 masterpiece, Screaming For Vengeance.  The song is called “Electric Eye” and has an intro track titled “The Hellion.”  The way that those first notes hit you passes what I like to call the “alien test.”  If an alien were to drop down on this planet and ask what heavy metal sounds like, I’d play them those two tracks.

Here is “The Hellion/Electric Eye” for your listening pleasure…

Anyway, where was I?  Right!  Judas Priest personified the sound AND look of heavy metal that many bands copied for decades to come.  The affinity for leather and studs (which ironically stems from singer Rob Halford’s then-closeted homosexuality) inspired entire generations to adopt the look.  In the hyper masculine culture that is heavy metal, no one batted an eyelash when Halford strutted on stage in what amounted to the aftermath of a shopping spree at an S&M shop.  This, coupled with the fact that many metal purists became outraged at the “Hair Metal” movement of the 1980’s, i.e. dudes dressing up like chicks, while Priest routinely dressed in San Fran Pride Parade attire is actually mildly hysterical.  Believe me, as a huge metal fan, the humorous irony has not been lost on me.

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Priest’s sound can be attributed to two distinct factors.  For one, the twin lead guitar stylings of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing were, at the time, insanely innovative.  Whatever the two guitarists were doing in the mid to late 70’s, no one sounded quite as metallic as they did.  The second factor stems from Rob Halford’s shrieking vocals.  As far as heavy metal front men, Rob Halford was and still is peerless.  Only a handful of vocalists could do what he did and still continues to do on a nightly basis.  Tipton, Downing, and Halford were partly responsible for so many heavy metal bands and fans (myself included) becoming enamored with the genre, that a 1,000 word essay on a free-to-run website only scratches the surface of my gratitude towards them.

 

Best Album(s) – Defenders of The Faith/Turbo (1984/1986)

By 1984, Judas Priest had 8 albums and a live LP to their name, so they could have just stopped there and would probably still have been rock and roll legends.  Luckily for my purposes, they didn’t.  Defenders of The Faith is a straightforward metal affair that houses some of Priest’s fastest material; almost like a proto-thrash record.  Songs like “Jawbreaker” and “Freewheel Burning” represent the speed and aggression seen on earlier records like Stained Class, but with an even heavier metallic finish.  The record is considered a fan favorite and is seen as the band’s finest hour.

By contrast, Priest released Turbo just two years later to (and this is putting it mildly) mixed reviews.  The use of synthesizers and a more melodic sound alienated Priest purists, as they saw the record as a sign of JP “selling out.”  I, however, could not be happier with the album.  Turbo sees Judas Priest at its most fun stage of the 80’s.  The musical landscape in 1986 was dominated by pop-metal, so Turbo was just Priest altering its sound accordingly.  Tracks like “Locked In,” “Turbo Lover,” and “Reckless” were anthemic and musically dynamic while still keeping with the aggressive undertones Priest had developed over the years.  Music is supposed to be, at the end of the day, enjoyable, and Turbo represented an ultimately lighter side of the band I couldn’t help but fall in love with.

Both of these albums are phenomenal and posses most of my favorite Judas Priest songs. They are the ultimate Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde in terms of contrasting styles within a band, but I find myself jiving equally with both.  All in all, it doesn’t get much better than mid 80’s Judas Priest.

 

Worst Album – Jugulator (1997)

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Woof!  After Judas Priest released the critically acclaimed Painkiller in 1990, it seemed as though the boys were going to transition into the 90’s better than most of their metal brethren.  Then came the shocking news that metal legend Rob Halford was leaving and the band went on hiatus.  After finding a replacement for Halford in Tim “Ripper” Owens, Priest released Jugulator in 1997.  The album feels like Korn and Limp Bizkit snuck into the Judas Priest recording studio late one night and ever so slightly screwed with the master recordings of the songs for the upcoming record.  It’s equal parts nu-metal and groove metal and it just isn’t very good.  Oh, and that album cover really is that pixilated.  That isn’t an upload error, it actually looks like that.  I like to think some thirteen year old came up with the album title and then made the accompanying cover art on “MS Album Cover Creator 95,” but I digress.

 

Strongest Member- Rob Halford (Lead Vocals)

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We will start with the obvious: the voice.  Rob Halford’s signature screech is quite possibly the most recognizable voice in all of heavy metal.  His range is fantastic and powerful and every word of every song leaves his mouth with purpose, swagger, and conviction.  In addition to being the voice of Judas Priest, he is also 1/3 of the writing trio on almost every single Priest song from the beginning of the band’s inception.  That alone should be enough to net him top honors on this list, but I would be remiss if I didn’t address the fact that Halford is also the creator of the metal uniform.  Leather is so synonymous with hard rock and heavy metal of the 70’s and 80’s, and all of those bands have one man to thank.  Rob Halford IS Judas Priest, and he should be celebrated accordingly.

 

Weakest Member – Pretty Much Any Drummer

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Halford, Tipton, and Downing wrote pretty much every song you or anyone else has ever heard by Judas Priest, and Ian Hill is a jazz-trained bass player and competent backing vocalist who is also responsible for Rob Halford joining the band.  That leaves the revolving door of drummers, Spinal Tap style, in the wake.  With the drumming on Painkiller aside, Judas Priest was never known as a band for their outstanding drumming.  It was always a solid backbone that never got in the way of the virtuoso stylings of Downing and Tipton or overshadowed Halford’s soaring vocals.  No, it was the journeyman type effort of all parties involved that lead to whomever the fifth member of Judas Priest was at the time plugging away at the sticks.  If I had to split hairs and pick a single member it would be Dave Holland (above), as he is the most well known and appears on all my favorite Priest albums being nothing more than a glorified studio musician.  Also, he was arrested in 2004 for attempted rape of an underaged high school boy with a learning disability.  Although he maintained his innocence up until his death less than a month ago, those kinds of things never truly go away.

My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 4

Today’s band hails from Boston and is often considered the greatest New Wave group of all time…

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Our Top 10 Favorite Bands list brings us all the way to Number 4.  If you’ve missed any of the previous entries be sure to check out the links to the posts at the bottom of the page.  Today’s band hails from Boston and is often considered the greatest New Wave group of all time…

 

4. The Cars

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In the aftermath of the explosion that was Punk Rock in the mid to late 70’s, a new genre started to take shape.  It saw the upbeat energy of punk bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols meet the more intricate nuances of arena/synth outfits such as Styx and REO Speedwagon to create New Wave.  Much like many of the other bands on this list, The Cars could be placed within a certain genre, in this case New Wave, but were always so much more than what met the eye.

By definition, The Cars had the punky style and synth dominant hooks it took to be considered New Wave.  However, the subject material even on some of their more “experimental” albums like Panorama never ventured into weird enough waters like The Talking Heads, for instance.  No, The Cars had the best of both worlds: cerebral enough for synth snobs to salivate, but accessible enough for the rock community at large to welcome them with open arms.  They straddled the line of “indie misfits” and “arena ready hit-makers” with glorious aplomb.

That’s not to say some of their material wasn’t eclectic.  Hell, even a vast majority of tracks off of the aforementioned Panorama, a personal favorite of mine, were really off putting and at times very skippable.  These guys were, after all, a New Wave band so it made sense that some of their tunes had to be a bit, uh, experimental.

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The main reason I hold this group in such high regard is because of their attention to detail.  Every song had to be painstakingly crafted at an almost cellular level.  The songwriting duo of Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr could probably be considered one of the most underrated pairings in rock history.  Not only that, but their music translated very well into a live format, which is no small feat for a band whose songs had so many moving parts.  The layered synths, the subtle mixing of guitars, the vocal harmonies, it all seemed like studio magic.  Yet if you YouTube any of their live performances (which I recommend you do so) they sound so clean.  It was all of these factors coupled with the dichotomous singing relationship of Orr’s haunting vocals and Ocasek’s hiccup-y delivery that made The Cars such a dynamic (and fun) band.

 

Best Album(s) – Candy-O/Panorama (1979/1980)

While they don’t posses the radio-friendly grab bag of hits that albums like The Cars or Heartbeat City hold, Candy-O and Panorama more than make up for it with their punky attitude and infectious grooves.  These albums ooze swagger and are infinitely more angsty than their immediate predecessor, The Cars, but still have a significant amount of pop sheen to them.  These records toe that line so well of still being accessible enough for pop fans to find them catchy while more hard rock fans will appreciate the edge they bring.  Songs like “Dangerous Type” off of Candy-O and “Running to You” on Panorama have a lethal blend of both syncopated, distorted guitar riffs with cool synth licks and great harmonies.  Neither one is a perfect album, but together they represent, in my opinion, the apex of early 80’s synth rock.

 

Worst Album – Door to Door (1987)

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Just three years prior to the release of Door to Door, The Cars had reached the height of popularity with their seminal 1984 synth classic, Heartbeat City.  The album was polished beyond all belief and had 6 hit singles.  It’s a personal favorite of mine and to this day I still enjoy listening to it end to end.  Apparently, members of The Cars didn’t feel the same way, because 1987’s Door to Door was a complete departure from the glossy production that rocketed them to superstardom just a few years earlier.  Door to Door isn’t a bad record by any means, but after the first 5 albums the band had created, this one feels like a huge let down.  If anything it probably showed the public at large that the group of five from Boston was on life support, creatively.  In 1988, the group disbanded and Benjamin Orr died in 2000 after a brief battle with cancer, meaning Door to Door was the last hurrah of the original Cars lineup.

 

Strongest Member(s) – Benjamin Orr (Bass, Vocals)/Ric Ocasek (Rhythm Guitar/Vocals)

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They were the perfect duo to front a band.  One was a blonde haired pretty boy and the other was… well whatever the hell Ric Ocasek is.  It went way beyond their looks, too.  Ocasek and Orr had the Yin/Yang thing down to an art form.  Orr crooned with an icy cool delivery, almost haunting you with his vocal styles, while Ocasek sounded very jumpy and almost robotic.  But my god, did it work!  Not only did they split duties as lead singers, but the writing process in The Cars was all but cornered by the pair.  Every single album reeks of Ocasek and Orr songwriting credits and there are rumors that Ocasek dictated what the lead guitarists’ solos sounded like down to the very note.  You can call it a bit overbearing but that nearly psychotic attention to detail is what made these two so great and yet so under-appreciated as musicians.

 

Weakest Member – David Robinson (Drums)

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This one feels a bit unfair, as Robinson was a perfectly fine drummer in his own right, but it is hard to put anyone else in the band in this dubious position.  Ocasek and Orr co-fronted the band, Greg Hawkes was the keyboard player (which in a synth-rock/new wave band is kind of important), and Elliot Easton was somewhat of an underground (read: very underground) guitar hero.  To top it off, the drums on Heartbeat City are almost completely electronic and dubbed over, a fact that made Robinson rather irate and caused him to almost quit the band after hearing the finished product.  Mr. Robinson is not without his contributions, as he did come up with the name “The Cars” and was responsible for some of the band’s most iconic album art, including the cover of their eponymous debut (below).

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My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 5

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In the countdown of My Top 10 Favorite Bands (as ranked by me), we have made it to number 5.  If you have missed any of the last bands ranked, be sure to check out the previous posts.  Today’s band hails from Ireland and is known (however tragically so) for only one album.  Allow me to enlighten you…

 

5. Thin Lizzy

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Often times on this blog, I like to throw around the word “underrated.”  Never has this been a more apropos judgement of a band than with Thin Lizzy.  Formed in 1969 by bassist/lead singer Phil Lynott and drummer Brian Downey, Thin Lizzy never got the respect they deserved, at least on an international level.  The members are considered heroes in their hometown of Dublin, but beyond the confines of the green cliffs of Ireland, Lizzy is the oft forgotten girl in glasses to many other rock cheerleaders (if you catch my analogous drift).

I’m not kidding either.  Ask anyone who consider themselves a fan of the genre to name one song by Thin Lizzy that didn’t come off of their 1976, lightning-in-a-bottle offering Jailbreak, which featured classics such as “The Boys Are Back in Town,” “Emerald,” and the title track.  I doubt the person you asked will be able to accomplish the feat.  To only ever listen to Jailbreak is to do yourself and the legacy of the band a huge disservice.  For starters, I wouldn’t even consider “Boys are Back” as one of their top 20 tunes of all time.  But I digress, the band is more than just a one-hit wonder.

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The group had a smattering of “classic” Lizzy tracks as far back as their 1973 breakthrough Vagabonds of the Western World, but in my humble opinion the band didn’t achieve their signature sound of poetic/crooning hard rock until 1975’s Fighting.  It was there that Lizzy started to hone the iconic twin lead guitar playing, anchored heavily by Scott Gorham.  After 1976, Thin Lizzy released classic album after classic album, including a live LP, Live and Dangerous, that by all accounts should be considered a Top 5 live record.

My main theory as to why Thin Lizzy is considered underrated and often overlooked in the eyes of hard rock and heavy metal fans can probably be chalked up to just how ambitious they were as musicians.  Take any album after Fighting into account: every record had straightforward hard rock bangers, Irish folk songs, and acoustic ballads littered about.  Even swing appeared on some, in the case of “Dancing in the Moonlight.”  If Thin Lizzy had stuck to what they were good at, hard rock songs with dual lead guitars backing up Lynott’s charismatic vocals, they could’ve been out of this world.  But perhaps, it was this approach that made Lizzy so unique in the first place.  Who’s to say…

 

Best Album – None

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Look, I get it.  Thin Lizzy is one of my favorite bands, but I don’t have a favorite album of theirs?  Yeah pretty much!  For the exact reasons I stated in the last paragraph, Lizzy bounced around genres so often on every album that it was nearly impossible to get into a groove on any of their records.  One minute you’d be listening to Ireland’s answer to Aerosmith or Ted Nugent, and the next you’d have to sit through 8 minutes of an Irish folk song or listen to Thin Lizzy try their hands at a country ballad.  It was all very off-putting for someone who really appreciated Lizzy’s hard rock sensibilities.  That being said, Bad Reputation, Black Rose: A Rock Legend, and Chinatown have some absolutely classic Lizzy bangers and are worth checking out.

 

Worst Album – Thin Lizzy (1971)

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Seeing as how this is Thin Lizzy’s debut LP, it gets a pass for being wildly disjointed and boring.  It’s pretty much your standard, early 70’s blues rock affair and sounds nothing like the Thin Lizzy we all know and love.  If you were to listen to “Ray Gun” off of this album then immediately cut to “Cold Sweat” from Thunder and Lightning, you’d swear you were hearing to two different bands.  It’s fair: bands evolve!  Thin Lizzy is no exception to this rule, but along with most of the other records from the pre-Jailbreak days, I’d steer clear of this puppy.

 

Strongest Member – Phil Lynott (Lead Singer/Bassist)

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Phil Lynott WAS Thin Lizzy.  I talked so much about the twin lead guitars in this ranker, but I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t give proper kudos to old Phil here.  Not only was he a great frontman and more than adequate bass player, he was a phenomenal songwriter.  Every single one of my favorite Lizzy tunes has Lynott being the principle writer.  His melodic sensibilities and crooning delivery made every song have both a bad boy edge and certain softness to it.  Lynott passed away due to drug use in 1986, thus ending the band’s run in its classic incarnation and proving in the process that he was indeed the driving force behind Thin Lizzy’s brilliance.

 

Weakest Member – Eric Bell (guitar)

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I have nothing against Eric Bell.  He’s a fine guitarist and had some pretty good work on some of Thin Lizzy’s earlier songs, particularly “The Rocker,” a personal favorite of mine.  Therein lies the problem, however, as Bell was only a member of Thin Lizzy during their early years, and thus is associated with the band before they became a hard rock machine.  Things started to turn around for Lizzy, musically speaking, when they brought in guys like Gorham and Brian Robertson to do twin lead guitars.  It is by that logic alone that I must “award” Mr. Bell this spot.

4 Sides of the Same Coin: KISS Solo Albums Ranked

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KISS.  Four letters, one kickass band.  If you were alive (no pun intended) in the mid to late 70’s, you know exactly who these 4 gentlemen are.  KISS were a cultural phenomenon back in the 1970’s and for a few brief years it seemed as if they were destined to ride the fame coaster for as long as the theme park was open.  A series of ill-fated career moves, however, derailed the thrill ride for the New York quartet and eventually sent 2 of the key members packing their bags by the turn of the decade.  Chief among those now head-scratching decisions were the TV movie “KISS Meets The Phantom of The Park,” the disco romp “I Was Made For Loving You,” and the toothless Peter Criss penned ballad “Beth.”

It is often argued, though, that the beginning of the end for our favorite men-in-makeup was a decision that seemed almost laughably foolproof at the time.  Let’s set the stage.  The year is 1978 and KISS is soaring to heights even bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who hadn’t achieved.  A 1977 Gallup Poll ranked KISS the number 1 band in America and few could argue.  The boys had just come off selling 4 consecutive platinum records and had just released Alive II, the live album follow-up to Alive, which started the platinum streak only a few years earlier.  Things couldn’t have been going any better, or at least that’s how it seemed to the millions of adoring fans on the outside looking in.  Unbeknownst to almost everyone removed from the inner circle of the band, cracks were starting to form both creatively and personally.

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What is common knowledge today was once a closely guarded secret in 1978: KISS was imploding from the inside thanks in large part to the factions forming within.  On one side, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, two cold blooded and calculated hit makers worried about fame, fortune, and females.  Their allegiances were only to making popular songs and bedding as many women as they could get their leather clad hands on.  On the other side, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley, a duo with the propensity to dabble in alcohol and cocaine, respectively, but whose creative chops were often stifled by Lords Stanley and Simmons.  And thus, the die had been cast; Criss and Frehley felt they were being tied down, musically speaking, while Simmons and Stanley believed as if they themselves were the creative forces behind the magic of KISS.

Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons were nothing if not shrewd and intelligent businessmen and they knew if they let Ace and Peter walk at the height of KISS’ popularity, their pocketbooks would take the brunt of the blow.  So, what’s the first thing anyone thinks to do in a failing relationship?  Hire an escort, erm, I mean compromise!

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By the beginning of ’78, the 4 members of KISS each entered the studio separately to record their own “KISS” album.  The 4 records were all uniquely individual and contained (for the most part) a few hidden classics that hardcore KISS fans hold near and dear to their hearts.  Each album represented the 4 musicians’ idea of what a KISS album should sound like.  The records are certainly not created equal and today I’ll be diving into the meat of these LP’s to deliver my rankings from worst to first.  These are rather subjective rankings but I have listened to all four albums end to end and from most of the articles I’ve come across in preparation for writing this ranker, my opinions seem to be pretty congruent to theirs give or take a few observations.  So without any more exposition…

 

4. Peter Criss (The “Weak” One)

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Remember when Rod Stewart went through that cheesy 70’s, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” phase?  Congratulations, that’s Peter Criss almost entirely.  Seriously, the album reeks of equal parts 70’s schlock and old-time rock n roll tunes that sound like Bob Seger cast-offs.  I guess there really isn’t anything wrong with that but still, this is the drummer for KISS we are talking about here, not some second rate lounge singer/disco chump.  I read the reviews for this one before listening to it and I was still shocked at how wimpy it sounded.  Just imagine the ire of a denim-clad high school stoner when he opens the shrink wrap on Christmas morning expecting a kickass American hard rock staple only to find this.

Highlights:

Not many, if we are being frank.  “That’s The Kind of Sugar Papa Likes,” moronic title notwithstanding, is a passable rockabilly tune but beyond that there isn’t much to get excited about.  I turned the album off about 3 tracks in and just looked up which songs got the most praise.  I know, not exactly journalistic integrity but I’m writing this on a WordPress blog, so I wasn’t about to sit through Peter Criss for free.

Lowlights: 

The entire album, as noted in the above paragraphs, has this whole “70’s R&B/Rod Stewart moonlighting as a lounge singer” feel to it.  I read somewhere that Criss was a few years older than the rest of his KISS brethren and his tastes were more 50’s doo-wop than hard rock.  If that is indeed the case, this album shows it from start to finish.  If you’re into that sort of thing, then this record isn’t necessarily bad, but from a KISS fan’s perspective it certainly doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations set by the previous albums the band released.  Whether that is a fair or unfair remains to be seen, but going into listening to this album with expectations set to “hard rock banger,” I was greatly disappointed.

 

3. Gene Simmons (The “Meh” One)

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I listened to this album in its entirety on the ride home from work the other day and initially I was pleasantly surprised.  A good portion of the time I found myself bopping along to the tunes on Gene Simmons, which consisted of what sounded like Simmons fronting an ELO cover-band and Beatles B-team love child.  But then as soon as I exited the car, I had forgotten pretty much every song I had heard.  This is one of the most mediocre albums I’ve ever listened to.  The entire record is filled with overdone pop-rock jaunts with way too many cooks in the kitchen.  On any song you can find strings, a piano, and perhaps even a B-list Hollywood celebrity (seriously, Katie Sagal from Married With Children does backing vocals for a track on this LP).  It’s a passable album and I made it all the way through without having to shut it off (a feat I can’t claim with the lowest album on this list) but it isn’t what I was expecting from The God of Thunder himself.

Highlights:

The album, as a whole, is a very average 70’s rock affair, and that isn’t a bad thing, per say.  “Radioactive” is a great opening track, copycat chorus aside (no kidding, this song sounds a near lawsuit level of similar to “Plaster Caster” from KISS’ Love Gun and if it wasn’t for the fact that Gene was one of the writers on that song, I think a court case could be made).  “Tunnel of Love” and “See You In Your Dreams” are both deliciously 70’s rock in all the right ways as well.  There may not be any super memorable tracks off this LP but it gets the job done as a “listenable” effort from Mr. Simmons.

Lowlights:

And therein lies the problem: the album is “listenable” but not very memorable.  I honestly had to revisit the record while writing just to pick out my highlights and lowlights, and I had just recently heard the album a short time before.  “Living in Sin” has about as laughable an intro as you can imagine, with Simmons giving a breathy soliloquy containing gems like “I know you write my sexy letters” in a low growl.  The song isn’t great enough to make up for such a transgression.  And I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room… “When You Wish Upon A Star” appears on this thing.  Yeah, the Disney song!  It sounds just as awkward coming from Mr. Conquerer of 1,000 Women as you’d imagine and the album ends with that dud resonating throughout your eardrums.  All in all, Gene Simmons is a messy effort that holds up decently but don’t go diving through bargain bins expecting a gem.

 

2. Paul Stanley (The “Safe” One)

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Let me just start off by saying this is a really good album.  I’ll stop just short of great, but Paul Stanley is a fun power-pop effort that Stanley swaggers about on from track to track.  You can tell he really had fun being the man in charge as every song is about no-strings-attached sex and cheap thrills, exactly what you’d expect from the androgynous ladies man.  The Star Child explores his writing prowess and although there are no standouts save for “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me” and “Tonight You Belong To Me,” the album is fun and engaging.  The only reason I refer to it as “safe” is that it sounds almost too much like a KISS album, both to its benefit and detriment.

Highlights:

Stanley’s love for power-pop and hooky songwriting takes center stage on quite a number of tracks on this LP, but specifically “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me.”  This song is energetic and anthemic from start to finish and it just sounds like it was a blast to write and record.  “Tonight You Belong To Me” is another wonderful frolic through power-pop town, complete with acoustic guitars gracing the intro before blasting into a full blown rocker, a la “Black Diamond.”  Fun is a word that gets thrown around often when describing Paul Stanley and it is justified, as this record offers plenty of entertaining moments throughout.

Lowlights:

The album has an almost “routine” feel to it in certain parts, thanks to the preceding KISS records Stanley was a huge part of making.  Paul Stanley’s solo effort has KISS elements to it, which isn’t always a bad thing, but more often than not the album feels like it’s been done before.  I love KISS and I love Paul Stanley, but his solo album drags in certain parts and sometimes feels too “KISS-y” for its own good.  Don’t let that discourage you from giving this record a listen, but don’t expect to be floored from the needle drop all the way to the grooves on the B-side.

 

 

1. Ace Frehley (The “Holy *%@#” One)

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Thank GOD for the Space Ace!  Where the other 3 albums felt too much or too little like KISS, this mad scientist of a songwriter found the happy valley between the two extremes.  Almost every track on this record is unique and entertaining without straying too far from the KISS secret formula: loud, ballsy guitar riffs? Check!  Entertaining albeit nonsensical lyrics? Check plus!  Detached yet endearing delivery from a coked up, surprisingly swaggering front man?  Big check there!  Ace Frehley brings the heat on his solo album and it was here that he solidified himself as my favorite (and many other’s favorite) member of KISS.

Highlights:

Ace starts things off with a bang, as “Rip It Out” is both sneakily heavy and surprisingly anthemic.  Other stalwarts like “Speeding Back To My Baby” and “Snowblind” have us questioning why Ace wasn’t given more creative control in the early days of KISS.  One of the true beauties of this effort is also one of the most simple tracks on the LP, Frehley’s romping rendition of “New York Groove,” a cover tune originally written by glam outfit Hello.  It captures Ace at his finest, an aloof yet dangerously potent rocker, and actually almost makes me want to visit a city I despise.  Frehley rips through each of these tracks like a man with something to prove, and we the listeners are all the beneficiaries.  Listen to this album however you can, because it can easily be considered one of the greatest KISS records ever produced, regardless of whether the rest of the band was behind Space Ace or not.

Lowlights:

One word: “Ozone.”  It just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the tracks on the album and is missing the requisite energy and hunger of songs like “Rip It Out,” where you can feel Ace oozing confidence and unbridled stamina (possibly with cocaine involved too).  This really is the lone black mark on an otherwise magnificent hard rock banger from Ace Frehley.  This is without a doubt the clear winner of the 4 solo albums and as I stated in the previous paragraph, is my favorite KISS record along with Love Gun.  

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My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 6

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Our Top 10 Favorite Bands list has brought us to number 6.  If you missed any of the previous bands, be sure to check out the links to the rankings at the bottom of the page.  Today’s band didn’t invent the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but they damn sure perfected it…

 

6. Iron Maiden

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Here’s a fun exercise: close your eyes and think of the words “heavy metal.”  Now open them.  Chances are you thought of Metallica, maybe Priest or Sabbath, but certainly Iron Maiden.  There are a handful of bands that have now become synonymous with the term “heavy metal” and Maiden is definitely one of them.

When the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was being formed by young and hungry bands in England in the late 70’s, many of them fizzled out after the trend started to die down only a few short years later.  There were two key bands with markedly different sounds that would end up surviving the trend’s chopping block.  One of those was Def Leppard (more on them in a later entry) and the other was Maiden.

Maiden’s sound can best be summed up by Anthrax guitar player Scott Ian as “[Judas] Priest but eviler.”  Their first two albums with original singer Paul Di’anno are as sinister sounding as it gets with a touch of prog rock; it was as if Yes started wearing leather jackets and practicing Satanism.  After Di’anno was booted, the band went from evil prog rock outfit to arena ready giants with former Samson frontman Bruce Dickinson at the helm.  Maiden had a string of albums with Dickinson that rocketed the band to superstardom and are considered classics by any metal fan.

What separates Maiden from the rest of it’s metal brethren is their eagerness to be creative and different without alienating their core fanbase.  You never hear Maiden fans complaining about the group selling out like you do from, say, Metallica or Def Leppard fans.  Iron Maiden have been around for almost 40 years and their fans are still as loyal as ever, and part of that is owed to how genuine the band has remained.  You would be hard pressed to find a metal fan who isn’t a huge Maiden fan, and for how expansive the genre of Heavy Metal is, that says a lot about these 5 lads from London

Best Album – Powerslave (1984)

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In all honesty, this was a nearly three way tie between Maiden’s 1984 masterpiece, 1981’s Killers, and Number of the Beast.  It is Powerslave, however, that delivers on every single track from dropping the needle on “Aces High” to the record rut after “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  There are very few albums that, in their entirety, capture a group at the height of their creative genius, but Powerslave gives listeners a chance to hear Iron Maiden firing on all cylinders.  Dickinson had already been with the quintet for two albums, and the band’s “classic” lineup was in place for years prior.  What you get as a finished product is, in my opinion , one of the greatest side-to-side metal albums in music history.  Every song has purpose and there is absolutely zero filler here.  If you consider yourself a fan of metal and haven’t checked this one out, do it!

Worst Album – The X Factor (1995)

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What happens when one of the most iconic singers in rock history leaves the band that made him famous?  Well you get this album, of course.  The songs on The X Factor aren’t particularly terrible, but they sound too much like someone trying to be Iron Maiden.  When comparing this one to the classics of the 80’s, it shrivels in their presence.  It seems like an unfair comparison, but someone had to occupy this spot and it goes to this 1995 disappointment.  Give it a listen if you feel I’m being unfair, but I’ll stand by this verdict until proven otherwise.

Strongest Member – Steve Harris (Bass/Vocals)

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The captain of the S.S. Maiden, Steve Harris is one of the most revered members of the heavy metal family.  You will routinely see him popping up on lists of best bass players of all time but what really distinguishes him from other purveyors of 4-stringed bad-assery is his deft songwriting ability.  A quick check of any Iron Maiden LP will net you plenty of S. Harris writing credits as well as some producing to boot.  Harris was also one of the founding members of Maiden and is the only member to appear on EVERY album (and boy have there been a lot)!  Through longevity alone, Stevie boy easily claims this spot as his own.

Weakest Member – Blaze Bayley (Vocals)

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I don’t really have too much to say about old Blaze here, other than that he was the weakest member on Maiden’s weakest album.  That alone lands him on this not-so-coveted platform and it wasn’t a particularly hard choice either.  Bayley is a fine vocalist but he’s to Maiden what Gary Cherone is to Van Halen: a talented singer who just wasn’t right for the job.