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.

 

 

My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 7

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Our Top 10 Favorite Bands countdown has brought us to Number 7.  If you’ve missed any of the previous bands on this list, be sure to check out those posts.  Today’s band took the first wave of British Punk and turned it completely on its head…

 

7. The Clash

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The year was 1976.  Political unrest in both England and The States was at an all time high, disco was king, and heavy metal godfathers like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Kiss were selling out fewer and fewer arenas by the day.  Around the same time, an anti-movement was taking place in the U.K. and, to a lesser extent, New York City.  Punk was the result of a disenfranchised youth getting fed up with conservative politics and “dinosaur rock.”  Bands like The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Buzzcocks took pride in deconstructing rock and synthesizing it down to its basic form: three chords and indiscernible lyrics set to a hyper active beat.  It was completely different from anything being released at the time, and the young freaks with the bleached hair and clothes pins shoved through their orifices ate it up.

The Clash released their self titled debut album in 1977 and while it sounded very loud and abrasive like most punk records of the day, the musicianship and writing was in a completely different stratosphere than the other outfits around at the time.  Things only got more progressive after the next series of albums.  The Clash dabbled in almost every conceivable genre of music during the height of their popularity, so to pigeonhole them as a “punk rock” band was to do a great disservice to the English foursome.  They were basically punk’s answer to The Beatles.

That may be where my lone criticism with The Clash lies.  While their musical versatility really separated the band from their punk peers, it was what made large amounts of their albums skippable.  Between rockabilly, ska, ballroom, blues, and others, The Clash tried their hands in everything and it made for multiple disjointed records.  However, when The Clash were on, they really earned their moniker of “The Only Band That Matters.”

Best Album – London Calling (1979)

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In the time of vinyl, releasing a 19 song LP was unheard of, but that’s exactly what London Calling is.  From the iconic album art to the eclectic spectrum of tunes, London Calling felt like an instant classic pretty much from the needle drop.  The album had radio hits in “Train in Vain” and the title track, but the real gems from this record are the deep cuts.  Songs like “Death or Glory,” “Spanish Bombs,” “Guns of Brixton,” and “Revolution Rock” have all become staples in every Clash fan’s rotation and they all represent different sides of the band.  Above I mentioned how The Clash would often times mix too many genres into one overblown cocktail of music, and while that is sometimes the case on this album, it works way more often than it doesn’t.  London Calling has become a sort of punk rock Bible, which is a tad ironic seeing as how very few songs on the record could be classified as straight up punk.  This is the album that transformed The Clash from punks to true professionals.

Weakest Album – Cut The Crap (1985)

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By 1985, the wheels started to fall off the well oiled machine that was The Clash.  Guitarist, co-lead singer and principle songwriter Mick Jones was fired, and his shoes proved to be too large to fill.  Cut The Crap was a disjointed effort that saw The Clash slowly start to unravel before our very eyes.  What was once a cohesive unit of brothers was now a shell of its former self and the album sold accordingly, that is to say it didn’t sell much at all.  Cut The Crap was The Clash’s last album as a unit, marking an end to one of the most influential groups of the 20th century in popular music.

Strongest Member – Mick Jones (Guitar/Vocals)

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He sang, he played guitar, he wrote, and he even cofounded the band.  Mick Jones was inarguably the driving force behind many of The Clash’s best work.  Every band has a principle songwriter and Jones was just that.  Much like Cliff Burton of Metallica, it became quite apparent just how much Jones meant to The Clash after he was fired from the band (see Cut The Crap above).  Check the liner notes of any Clash album from 1977 to 1982 and you will see Mick Jones’ name present on almost every tune.  The man was a creative genius even after The Clash, touring with The Gorillaz and forming Big Audio Dynamite.  It takes a lot of talent to be the leader of a band routinely referred to as one of the most influential in rock history, and Jones is proof of that.

Weakest Member – Paul Simonon (Bass/Vocals)

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Saying someone is the weakest member of The Clash is a lot like saying they’re the ugliest  of all the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models, so bare with me.  Paul Simonon didn’t have the chops that drummer Topper Headon had, nor was he the creative tour de force like Jones or Joe Strummer, so he takes this spot only by virtue of being stuck with three insanely talented musical visionaries.  That’s not to say Simonon didn’t have his moments.  He wrote a couple of fan favorites, including “Guns of Brixton” which he also sang on, and he was the cover boy for the now iconic London Calling album art.  Paul Simonon may be the weakest member of “The Only Band That Matters,” but that in and of itself is still something to be immensely proud of.

My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 8

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In the countdown of My Top 10 Favorite Bands (as ranked by me), we have made it to number 8.  If you have missed any of the last bands ranked, be sure to check out the previous posts.  Today’s band sees us make a return to the thrash genre, with a group whose DNA is forever shared with the number 9 band on this list…

 

8. Megadeth

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Megadeth lead singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine, whether he likes it or not, will always be linked to Metallica, so it’s only fitting that he and his crew come in one spot ahead of the thrash quartet Mustaine was once a part of.  Similarly to Metallica, however, my love for Megadeth comes from a very specific time slot of their existence, particularly from 1985 to 1992.

One of the biggest detriments against Megadeth comes in the form of the revolving door of musicians Mustaine chose to surround himself and bassist David Ellefson with.  It was kind of hard to get a handle on the persona of the band with so many lineup changes, and I always preferred the original lineup of Mustaine, Ellefson, Gar Samuelson on drums, and Chris Poland on the opposite lead guitar (pictured above).

While they lacked continuity in the lineup department, they had it in terms of song structure and composition, mostly because Ellefson and Mustaine were the principle writers.  The albums showed growth between releases but never strayed too far from the formula, something I really appreciated.

I hate to keep comparing Megadeth to Metallica, so allow me to once more compare Megadeth to Metallica.  What separates one from the other is how much more fun Megadeth is to listen to.  Much like when David Lee Roth formed a “spite band” after being ousted from Van Halen, Mustaine did the same.  That is to say both Roth and Mustaine surrounded themselves with infinitely better musicians than their previous outfits boasted (Eddie Van Halen and Cliff Burton notwithstanding).  The musicianship in Megadeth, even on the early albums, incorporated time signatures and modes far beyond the realm of Metallica’s limited spectrum, even in their prime.  These are the things that separate the number 9’s from the number 8’s.

Best Album – Rust in Peace (1990)

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It was a near dead heat between this and 1986’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying, as both albums offer the absolute finest Megadeth has to offer.  Every song on this album is perfectly crafted from start to finish, as Rust in Peace is a master class in thrash metal songwriting.  The changing modes and time signatures make sure that every listen to this record feels like the first time.  Hell, I still get excited every time I hear the opening riff to “Hangar 18.”  If Master of Puppets is the Old Testament of thrash, consider Rust in Peace its New Testament counterpart.

Worst Album – Risk (1999)

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Risk. As in “if they thought putting all of these songs on an album was a good idea, that certainly was a risk!” HEY-O!  I’ll be here all week.  But seriously, folks, the 90’s were a weird time for a lot of bands who saw their heyday in the previous decades.  Mustaine and Megadeth were actually one of the few outfits whose popularity not only stayed afloat in the 90’s, it thrived.  The end of the decade, however, gave us Risk, an album that was a bit errr progressive and different.  Fans and critics weren’t really in the mood for different though, as Mustaine’s choice of softer melodies didn’t mesh well with the public.  Looking back, Risk has aged slightly better than originally thought, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to classic Megadeth.

Strongest Member – Dave Mustaine (Lead Singer/Guitar)

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Was there ever any doubt?  The strawberry haired mad scientist known as Dave Mustaine was and is the driving force in one of the most popular thrash bands in the history of the genre.  You could talk about his keen ear for music or his wizardry on the frets of his guitar, but what puts Mustaine head and shoulders above his peers and bandmates is his aggressive, almost violent desire to be better than his former band, Metallica.  Even when Megadeth was at the height of popularity, Mustaine found himself depressed at the fact that he could never catch Metallica.  This militant need for perfection is what makes Mustaine one of the most underrated musicians of his era; a true genius at his craft.

Weakest Member – Dave Mustaine (Lead Singer/Guitar)

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Whoa, plot twist alert!  For everything amazing Mustaine did for Megadeth, it was his ego and paranoia (read: drug use) that at times almost caused the thrash outfit to unravel.  Whether it be his constant firing of members not named David or his creative choices after the early 90’s, Mustaine represented a sort of Hindu Shiva for the band: one hand creates while the other destroys.  Megadeth is clearly one of my favorite bands and Mustaine is a huge reason for this, but part of me feels that if he had just checked himself at times, Megadeth could have been even better than they already were.

 

My Top 10 Favorite Bands (Ranked by Me): Number 9

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Yesterday saw the introduction of the Top 10 Favorite Bands list and if you haven’t read that post yet, I won’t spoil who number 10 is (go check it out instead).  Today we unveil number 9, who comes in so high based on only its first trio of albums!  Shocked?  Read on to find out why number 9 should have hung it up after lucky number 3…

 

9. Metallica

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Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler (I swear to god, that’s his name) once said in an interview that Metallica “were the best thing to happen to the 80’s.”  While I don’t agree wholeheartedly with that statement, its hard to argue with his logic.  From his perspective, the 1980’s were filled with bands that made metal a glossy and accessible commodity to “posers.”  Men wore make up and liberally applied hairspray all while playing “softer” versions of the same hard rock once championed by guys like Geezer.  When Metallica came along, it became cool to be an outcast again.  It wasn’t about having a hot lead singer and writing songs girls could identify with.  Metal was violent and angsty once again, and Metallica were to blame.

Putting Metallica on this list puts me in a bit of an uncomfortable spot.  When it comes to their catalogue, they’re batting sub .300 in my book, as I find most of their material after 1986’s metal masterclass Master of Puppets to be contrived and hallow efforts when compared to their earlier works.  That is, however, as much an indictment on their later albums as it is a testament to just how freaking insane Metallica’s first 3 releases were.

The first two Metallica songs I heard were “Whiplash,” on a Tony Hawk video game’s soundtrack, and “Battery,” on a friend’s Walkman while riding down to The Keys.  I was floored by how heavy “Battery” was and how fast and furious “Whiplash” felt.  The next time I was in a Barnes and Noble, I picked up Master of Puppets on CD and instantly fell in love.  It was like nothing I had ever heard before and it really shaped my affections for metal as a genre (up until that point the heaviest album I owned was probably Back in Black by AC/DC).

Since then, I was extremely disappointed to learn that not everything Metallica released sounded like their first three albums, but I still hold that trifecta of Kill ’em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets in extremely high regard and feel that few bands could touch what was original Metallica.  As a matter of fact, I’d wager that if Metallica had quit making music after bassist Cliff Burton’s death in ’86, they would be Top 5 on this list, an accomplishment I’m sure they are kicking themselves over not achieving.

Best Album – Ride the Lightning (1984)

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Not much separates this album from it’s direct predecessor, Master of Puppets.  Honestly, this record only sits in this spot by the narrowest of margins, as it ultimately came down to quality over quantity (Puppets has more songs I love, but Lightning has songs I love more).  The first 3 songs on this album are all-timers when it comes to Metallica tracks.  Sonically, the album is light years ahead of their debut in both production and musical prowess.  Not only is this my favorite Metallica album, it may be one of my favorite albums ever.  The whole 8 song record is on YouTube, so I would recommend anyone reading this take a quick break and give it a listen.

Worst Album – St. Anger (2003)

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I almost put The Black Album here just to be petty, but I have more self restraint than that.  Seriously though, I have friends who will vehemently defend their love for this album (sorry, Matt).  I have a few issues with this one, however.  The lack of guitar solos, while at the time a conscious choice made so as not to date the album, has ironically given the record a really time specific, early 2000’s feel to it.  There is also the infamous snare drum, which sounds like drummer Lars Ulrich is beating on a taut piece of printer paper.  I’ve pretty much hated every album Metallica has released after …And Justice For All, but this one really represents Metallica’s low water mark.

Strongest Member – Cliff Burton (Bass)

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I said in the introduction paragraph that Metallica would be a Top 5 outfit had they quit after the death of Cliff Burton, so I figured I needed to double down here.  In all seriousness, Cliff was the driving force on all of Metallica’s early work.  He was far and away the most musically gifted in the band, as he taught the other members about harmonies and melodies as well as introduced more advanced song structures after Kill ‘Em All.  Cliff winning this award is a lot like giving an injured player an MVP after the team loses without him, as the quality in songs went into a slow and steady decline after the bassist met his untimely demise.  As the key songwriting cog in Metallica, no one else could even come close to holding this spot.  Rest in peace, Mr. Burton.

Weakest Member – Kirk Hammett (Guitar)

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Okay, calm down.  It certainly wasn’t going to be Cliff in this spot, and the twin headed songwriting monster that is Lars and James wasn’t taking this one home either.  That leaves our boy Kirk here as the black sheep of the crew.  Hammett took over for Megadeth guitarist Dave Mustaine after he was booted from Metallica for alcohol issues.  The gap in talent was apparent from the jump, as Hammett reportedly struggled with some of the solos Mustaine had written for Kill ‘Em All.  Hammett doesn’t really have a huge hand in any of the songwriting processes either.  His lack of virtuoso talent and dubious creative credentials make Hammett an obvious, albeit controversial choice, for this spot.

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

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If you’ve been following this blog at all, you probably could’ve guessed I am a pretty big fan of music.  Particularly, I’m a fan of rock music from the 70’s and 80’s.  You also probably guessed I love hearing myself talk.  But my love for music far outweighs my love for lengthy opening paragraphs, so I’ll keep it short.

Each day for the next 10 days I will be releasing a different band in a countdown of my favorite bands of all time.  Today will be number 10, tomorrow will be 9, etc.  Without any further delays, we start with a band that, by all accounts, flew through the 1980’s under the radar…

 

10.  Ratt

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In the annals of the hair metal genre, many bands ended up being copycats of each other.  One need only listen to Kix, Brittny Fox, and then anything off of Cinderella’s first album Night Songs in succession and they will see exactly what I mean.  The three are almost impossible to differentiate.  Ratt was a different animal altogether (no pun, I promise).

Mixing early 80’s L.A. sleaze with souped up blues riffs, Ratt created a formula few could recreate.  Sure, on the surface Ratt looked like just another Sunset Strip glam metal outfit, but their songs were sneakily crafty and their sound was unique.  In terms of longevity, only Motley Crue enjoyed a longer heyday in the 1980’s than Ratt did, as every single one of their records released that decade achieved at least platinum status.

I love Ratt because they fill a happy medium many bands of the Reagan era could not; they never took themselves too seriously (Whitesnake), nor were they ever too goofy (Poison).  This was a band that had swagger, but also knew how to have a little fun and for that, they crack the top 10 of this “prestigious” list.

Best Album – Invasion of Your Privacy (1985)

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Raise your hand if you had Ratt’s triple-platinum debut Out of the Cellar in this spot.  Congrats!  You’re wrong!  Anyone who can call themselves even a secondary fan of Ratt or hair metal in general would have to agree that it was Ratt’s sophomore effort that took everything Cellar did and amped it up 100 times.  Every song fits seamlessly together in an almost watered down rock opera sense, and the songs were as punchy and catchy as ever.  Guitarist Warren DeMartini’s “Joe Perry on steroids” riffing really comes alive on this record and I highly recommend it to anyone with a sweet tooth for 80’s pop-metal.

Worst Album – Detonator (1990)

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It’s no secret that from a hair band’s perspective, Ratt ruled the 1980’s.  By the end of the decade, however, the band started to show some chinks in the armor.  1988’s Reach for the Sky sold well and sounded Ratt-y enough, but trained ears could tell it was a slight departure from the signature sound the quintet had honed over their first three albums. By the time the 90’s rolled around, Ratt was a shell of its former self.  Guitarist Robbin Crosby was either strung out on heroin or dope-sick from withdrawals every night of their tours and his performances suffered accordingly.  The rest of the band found themselves drawing lines in the sand with lead singer Stephen Pearcy, whose ego had become so large he was bordering on Axl Rose levels of obsessive creative control (meaning he had all and his bandmates had none).  The result was Detonator, a bloated effort that quietly saw the demise of Ratt as a heavy hitter in the hard rock industry; a sad end to a wonderful rags-to-riches-to-excess story (somewhat of an 80’s motif).

Strongest Member – Warren DeMartini

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If you’re looking for slick hooks and catchy riffs, look no further than Ratt axe-man Warren DeMartini.  Hailed as the next decade’s answer to Joe Perry, DeMartini’s syncopated and groovy riffing melded perfectly with Pearcy’s gritty vocals and overtly sexualized lyrics.  Ratt’s lead guitarist embodied the cool confidence that the band carried with itself throughout the entirety of the 80’s.  Also, if we are splitting hairs here I probably could’ve put bassist Juan Croucier in this spot since he was the principle songwriter on almost all of the Ratt hits, but I’m a guitar player by trade so eat it, JC.

Weakest Member – Robin Crosby (Guitar)

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To every yin there must be a yang.  For every glorious DeMartini “quadratic, hitman precision-esque” solo there exists a Crosby “7th grader with an electric guitar that just discovered the pentatonic scale” lick.  Allow me to simplify things.  In the early days of Ratt (1986 and before), Crosby and DeMartini used to trade off on soloing duties song by song.  If you go back and listen to those early Ratt records, its rather easy to guess who’s who when it comes time for the ever anticipated guitar solo spot.  Technical abilities aside, this all came to a screeching halt on the later albums, where Crosby became so debilitated by drug use that his already limited skills were on a rapid decline and DeMartini took on a permanent lead role.  Crosby was booted from the band after 1990 and contracted AIDS from using a dirty heroin needle.  He died in 2002, marking a permanent end to the original lineup.  Although he wasn’t the most talented, Crosby was still an important cog in the Ratt machine and is missed dearly in the rock community.

 

 

 

Album of the Week: Don Henley’s “Building The Perfect Beast”

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Background:

In the aftermath of The Eagles’ break-up, each individual member was able to go their separate ways and try to cut it in the music industry as a solo act.  Joe Walsh was a seasoned vet, having albums with the James Gang and a solo career prior to joining the Eagles in 1976.  Glenn Frey and Don Felder were able to release singles such as “The Heat is On” and “Heavy Metal,” respectively.  None of the other Eagles, however, were able to hold a candle to their unofficial lead bird.

Don Henley was the unquestioned creative force behind a good chunk of the Eagles’ greatest hits.  A quick look at his post-Eagles career all but confirms this, as Henley was far and away the most successful out of all of his former bandmates.  Of all the songwriters to come out of the talent pool that was The Eagles, Henley was the hit-maker.

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Henley released his first solo effort in 1982 entitled I Can’t Stand Still.  The album was a success and went gold on the back of the top 5 hit single “Dirty Laundry,” which peaked at number 3 on the charts.  It was a great start to Henley’s second career, but had hints of his former band in the DNA of a lot of the tracks.  In the Fall of 1984, Don Henley released his follow up, Building The Perfect Beast.  This sophomore effort would be sure to lay any qualms about his creative prowess to rest.

 

Content:

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If I had to use one word to describe Beast, it would be “summer.”  The entire album is drenched in sunshine from top to bottom, and almost every track on here can transport you to different parts of summer.  A certain mix of melancholy and sweetness graces the album and brings you back to the long days and warm nights of youth.  It goes without saying, Building The Perfect Beast is summer incarnate.

A lot of this has to do with the way each song is structured.  The production quality has what I like to refer to as “80’s haze,” as songs such as “Sunset Grill” have very heavily layered synths, acting as kind of a rainforest canopy and trapping the sound.  It is hard to explain but listen to that song in particular and you will see what I mean.  It is a comparable phenomenon present in other 80’s songs like Berlin’s 1986 Top Gun soundtrack hit “Take My Breath Away.”  The hazy synths will almost make your speakers seem like they are dripping with dew.

With the humidity of 80’s haze present on some of the tracks, others take a more scaled down approach, production wise.  Some of the songs featured on Beast are very light and poppy boppers that feel like a day at the beach.  Others have very deep meanings and take a darker turn, while still keeping their sun-soaked vibe.  They still sound like summer, but perhaps in more of a “sunset drive down the beach, alone with your thoughts” type of feeling (what, don’t we all have those?).

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This dichotomy makes for a very engaging and dynamic album.  The jump in maturity, both in songwriting and production quality, gives Henley and Beast all they need to make the perfect summer driving album.  These songs have a nostalgic tinge to them, even if you’ve never heard them before.  Speaking of the songs, let’s get into the meat of the album, shall we?

 

Highlights:

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Of the 11 songs on Building The Perfect Beast, 7 are noteworthy (and we will discuss all 7 in detail).

The album kicks off with the classic “Boys of Summer.”  The vibe of the entire album is immediately cemented with this track: catchy hooks that hide meaningful lyrics.  The song feels hallow, in the best way possible.  Every time I listen to “Boys of Summer” I feel as though my summer is coming to a close and the pain of nostalgia slowly seeps in (I promise it’s a good feeling).  Anytime a song can evoke an emotion as deep as that, you have to give credit to its crafter.

Directly following “Boys of Summer” is the ode to the heartbroken, “You Can’t Make Love.”  Henley opines that you can create almost anything to give to the one you love, except love itself.  The song sounds as if Henley is retroactively warning himself against the sentiment, something anyone once in a relationship can attest to.  You often realize your mistakes after it is too late, and the song becomes relatable to anyone who has ever loved and lost.  As far as how the song is structured, a major key signature woven between desperate lyrics, makes this a textbook example of the album’s dichotomous relationship between words and music.

A few tracks down the dial is “Not Enough Love In The World.”  Very similar to “You Can’t Make Love,” “Not Enough Love In The World” is a bittersweet swan song to a now former lover, as Henley realizes he doesn’t have what it takes to keep his significant other happy and that they’ve drifted apart because of the throes of success and jealousy; he knows he still loves her but has to let her go.  Again, this entire message is layered over an almost cavity-inducing, bubblegum-pop composition and the juxtaposition of the two makes for a great midway point of the album.

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Side 2 of the vinyl is where the album goes from great to spectacular, and it all starts with “All She Wants To Do Is Dance.”  The song is a social commentary about America’s “reckless” foreign policy in the 70’s and 80’s, but you can hardly tell with the saccharine major key signature and aforementioned 80’s haze.  The track is a politically charged rant disguised as a dance tune, and brilliantly so.  I can’t help but bop along to “Dance” while simultaneously feeling the heat from Henley’s comments and while I don’t whole-heartedly agree with the message, I appreciate the process.

The single track on the album that exemplifies the vibe of “late summer days,” at least musically, is the grandiose “Sunset Grill.”  A six and a half minute epic, “Sunset Grill” has the haze in spades.  What separates this track from some of the others though, is that it may be the reverse of its other brothers found on the album.  “Sunset Grill” sounds like it is about something much more sinister, thanks to the brooding synthesizers, but really it is about exactly what you hear: a restaurant in Los Angeles where the owner knows everyone’s name.

Sandwiched in between what may be two of my favorite Don Henley songs is the almost entirely missable “Driving With Your Eyes Closed.”  I can’t make heads or tails of the message in this one, but it could possibly be about going through life purposefully ignorant of all the peril around you (something I can sheepishly relate to).  Regardless, the synths and crunching guitar in the background coupled with Henley’s near falsetto vocals makes this a fun break from the sun soaked vibes of the rest of the songs, if only for a brief, fleeting moment.

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Every song I have already mentioned holds a special meaning, but the song on here I absolutely adore the most is the final track on Building The Perfect Beast: “Land of the Living.”  If you can only listen to one song off of this album, make sure it is this one.  “Land of the Living” is beautifully bittersweet and evokes a cocktail of emotions in me every time I hear it.  Melancholy, nostalgia, longing, they’re all present in the 3 and a half minute run time.  The composition is a C major/A minor switch between chorus and verse, respectively, and it really meshes well with the lyrics: things happen in this world that we cannot control, but you keep me sane and I want to stay with you forever.  The feel of the song suggests he can’t, in fact, stay in the land of the living with her, and thus this song is his last coping mechanism before moving on.  The track fades out on the strength of its keyboard/bass riff and the album comes to a close; an almost too perfect to describe ending to a great album.

 

Low-Lights:

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As far as low-lights go, this album has a few; Beast is not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination.  “Man With A Mission” is a jarring selection to be placed after the first two tracks of the album, and its follow-up “You’re Not Drinking Enough” isn’t enough to get the taste out of our mouths.  They aren’t terrible songs, they just don’t mesh with the overarching theme of the album.

“A Month of Sundays” acts as sort of a long intro that bleeds into “Sunset Grill” but I usually skip over it.  The song is a bit too slow for my tastes, as it is a piano interlude and never really gets off the ground.

These songs are interspersed enough throughout the album so as to make it hard to just drop the needle, but if necessary I can gut through these songs to get to the good stuff.  Some of these songs are THAT worth it.

 

Aftermath/Legacy:

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Building the Perfect Beast was a huge success in the mid-80’s, going triple platinum and reaching top 15 status on the Billboard Charts.  Critics and fans alike lauded the album for its composition and quality of songwriting, as Don Henley finally emerged from the shadows of his former band mates.

Henley waited almost five years to release his next studio effort.  The End of The Innocence was released in 1989 and although it was a critical and commercial success, it didn’t have the same impact Beast did, musically speaking.  Innocence may have the better sales numbers (6 million), but in my opinion, Beast was the better album.

Any opportunity I get to listen to Building The Perfect Beast, I relish it.  It is one of the few albums I don’t take for granted (partly because the CD of it I have in my car doesn’t play anymore).  The album transports me, mentally and emotionally, to a simultaneously happy and longing state.  Popping that CD into the slot takes me away, and I keep coming back for more.  If you have the means, pick this album up and give it a listen.  And if you ever feel the need to experience summer in 42 minutes, Don Henley has your back.

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Next Album: Dirt by Alice In Chains