Kiss’ ‘80s Albums Ranked
By Andrew Daly
With Peter Criss being jettisoned in 1980 and Ace Frehley turning his back on what he saw as a directionless band in 1982, you could say that the ’80s seemed akin to hell on earth for the Hottest Band in the Land.
To be sure, Kiss had taken the world by storm in the mid-70s, unleashing a ridiculous amount of quality music in a short span. But the breakneck pace that Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss, and Ace Frehley maintained wasn’t sustainable. Couple that with infighting, excess, and the sort of machismo that could only be associated with young men who parade across stages for a living, and you had a band careening toward an inevitable “something has gotta give” scenario.
Well, something did give. Now rattled and barely breathing after self-inflicted wounds, back-to-back critical and commercial failures, and general bouts of internal destruction, Kiss’s foundation was crumbling beneath their feet. Making matters worse, they were down two men and had no replacements in sight.
By 1982, a nadir that no one could have foreseen shrouded itself over Kiss. Under those circumstances, many bands would have packed it in, but not Kiss. Indeed, it took Stanley and Simmons reaching their lowest point for them to do the unthinkable and remove their trademark makeup before scratching and clawing toward yet another meteoric rise.
While a few more bumps in the road lay ahead (oh, hello, Vinnie Vincent and Mark St. John), with the help of Eric Carr and Bruce Kulick, by the mid-80s, Kiss had found stability. And soon, they were platinum-selling chart-toppers once more, dominating FM radio and MTV alongside groups ten years their junior.
The ’80s was a wild ride for Kiss, no doubt. Be it lineup changes or commercial pitfalls that nearly killed them, by the end of the decade, Kiss had seen it all. But ultimately, what started as hell on earth, ended in an ascent to the heavens above by way of the sorts of anthemic jams only Kiss could create. To that end, what follows are Kiss’s ’80s albums, in all their varied glory, ranked.
# 10 – Smashes, Thrashes & Hits (1988)
While Smashes, Thrashes & Hits may only be a compilation album to some, if you look beyond the track listing of primarily old… hits, you’ll find a ton to enjoy. For starters, it gave Kiss’s much-loved ’80s lineup a chance to show their chops. Sure, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons had strutted their stuff when first recording these tunes, but hearing Bruce Kulick and Eric Carr have a chance to show the world what they could do.
Looking back, tracks like “Deuce,” “Love Gun,” and “Shout It Out Loud” made for a unique listening experience. And while Eric Carr taking lead vocals for Peter Criss’s signature song, “Beth,” was polarizing —if not cringy— to some, the truth is that the Fox was seldom given a chance to shine outside his fierce drumming. Plus, the album’s two singles, “Let’s Put the X in Sex” and “(You Make Me) Rock Hard,” are slices of ’80s rock heaven, with the latter featuring a hell of a solo and some generally slick licks by the low-key shredder, Bruce Kulick.
# 9 – Killers (1982)
Killers has always had something of a cult following among the Kiss Army. And the 40th anniversary of Creatures of the Night being released in late 2022 —featuring demos of the four new songs recorded for Killers— only added to that following. Of Killers’ twelve tracks, only four were new, with the bulk of the album drawing off Kiss’s ’70s heyday. It’s no surprise, given the back-to-back misfires Kiss had suffered in Unmasked and Music from ‘The Elder,’ Kiss roughed things up a bit and went into full rocker mode.
Still, those misteps had led founding member and lead guitarist ‘Space’ Ace Frehley to climb into his spaceship and take a Rocket Ride to the moon. Reeling and questioning their direction for the first time in their career, Stanley and Simmons called in old friend Bob Kulick, who laid to tape some of the finest fretwork heard amongst Kiss’s ranks in years. To this day, “Down on Your Knees” is a low-key pick for one of Kiss’s best songs, as is “Nowhere to Run,” which features what is probably Paul Stanley’s best-ever vocal performance. The other two new tracks, “Partners in Crime” and “I’m a Legend Tonight,” are unmitigated winners, too.
# 8 – Asylum (1985)
By 1985, Kiss had rebounded from its late ’70s and early ’80s follies. Now sporting a stable lineup, Paul Stanley, Gene Summons, Bruce Kulick, and Eric Carr draped themselves in pastel colors, smeared on the rouge and lipstick, and doused themselves in as much Aqua Net as humanly possible. Asylum was a glam fest for the ages containing some of Kiss’s most iconic cuts, such as “Tears Are Falling” and “Who Wants to Be Lonely.” But where Asylum really shines is through its deep cuts like “I’m Alive” and “Love’s a Deadly Weapon.”
And while Simmons has been accused of being unfocused during this era, it’s hard to deny that “Any Way You Slice It” is anything short of one of his best songs. Also of note, Asylum was Bruce Kulick’s first full record with Kiss, and he gave it his all, with some stellar performances via his trusty ESP Flip Flop Blue M-1 six-string. And in what would become the norm for Kiss as the ’80s progressed, they brought in outside songwriters. But not just any outside songwriter, Kiss brought in former Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir to lend a hand along with Desmond Child and a few others.
# 7 – Music from ‘The Elder’ (1981)
It’s no secret that Music from ‘The Elder’ is the most polarizing album of Kiss’s 50-year career. Considering Kiss’s massive success as a hard rock band, on the surface, Music from ‘The Elder is hard to understand. Going full-on Pink Floyd and pivoting toward a concept record about a young boy training under the Council of The Rose to fight unspecified evil was as convoluted as it gets. Still, Kiss went for it. The skinny is that Simmons planned to take the story and turn it into a “blockbuster movie,” with Music from ‘The Elder’ being the soundtrack to said movie. The problem —aside from the mountains of coke producer Bob Ezrin was doing— was the movie never happened, leaving Kiss with a confused fanbase, a canceled tour, and one pissed-off Spaceman.
And while “A World Without Heroes” —which was co-written by Lou Reed— is one of Kiss’s most tender moments, and songs like “The Oath” and “Mr. Blackwell” are uber-heavy and wholly underrated, Music from ‘The Elder’ flopped. What’s more, Ace Frehley —who never wanted to make the record in the first place— was gone. But hey… “Dark Light” and “I” are still classics, and over the years, one hell of a retrospective following has developed for what was once thought of as “a mistake.”
# 6 – Animalize (1984)
Dropped smack dab in the middle of the glam and hair metal era, Animalize found Kiss prancing and preening with the best of ’em. To be sure, cuts like “Burn Bitch Burn” haven’t aged well. But still, there’s a level of camp there that only Kiss’s tongue-wagging Demon of the bass could deliver. And, of course, there’s the matter of Mark St. John and the fact that while he was endlessly talented and could deploy a Tom Scholz Rockman with the best of ’em, he never should have been hired by Kiss, especially after the Vinnie Vincent debacle.
Oh, and then there’s the whole Animalize essentially being a Paul Stanley solo record because Gene Simmons was out doing movies, dating starlets, and generally ignoring Kiss. But despite all that, Animalize reads as a triumphant moment, and for the most part, it was. Hell, it went platinum and features essential tracks such as “Heavens on Fire,” “Get All You Can Take,” “Thrills in the Night,” “Under the Gun,” and “I’ve Had Enough (Into the Fire).” As with the following albums, outside writers like Jean Beauvoir lent a hand, along with the man who would stabilize the band’s lead guitar position, Bruce Kulick, who stepped in for St. John when reactive arthritis befelled him.
# 5 – Crazy Nights (1987)
Maybe super producer Ron Nevison was the wrong guy for Kiss. Perhaps outside voices like Desmond Child and Diane Warren were leaned on too heavily. And the lush keyboards, yeah, they were perhaps unnecessary. But make no mistake; Crazy Nights is a tour de force in glam metal ecstasy. With young bucks riding in on white horses around them, Kiss did their part to represent the old guard, kicking back with vigor across songs like the stirring “Turn on the Night,” the cheeky “Bang Bang You,” and the blissful title track, “Crazy Nights.”
Elsewhere, in the Guitar Iconicism Department, Bruce Kulick was strapping on his now infamous ESP M-1 ‘Banana’ guitar and preparing to summon the ghost of Hendrix during the opener of the blistering “No, No, No,” while also running rough shot over listeners through bouts of gunslingery on Crazy Nights final track, “Thief in the Night.” In short, while you might not think it, Crazy Nights is a period-correct example of all that was good about hair metal, shred guitar, and Sunset Strip excess. And the word is that the accompanying tour was one of Kiss’s best. Considering how lovingly the Crazy Nights tracks nestled up beside the Kiss Klassics, it’s hard to argue that.
# 4 – Lick it Up (1983)
There’s a long-running narrative that Vinnie Vincent “saved Kiss.” That’s debatable, but before we pass judgment, let’s review the facts. For starters, Vincent Cusano arrived in the Kiss’s time of need. That’s a fact. And he did impact Kiss heavily on Creatures of the Night, playing on half the album. That’s a fact, too. But he was also nearly fired during the subsequent tour and refused to sign a contract when brought back into the fold before Lick it Up. As for Lick it Up, Vincent does have eight co-writes out of the album’s ten tracks. Not too shabby. But he was also excused from the studio for being unable to control his virtuosity during the recording of “Exciter,” leading to Rick Derringer being deployed.
It’s also worth noting that Vincent reportedly needed to be reined in during each track for being unable to keep himself on the rails or within Kiss’s musical vision of “keep it simple, stupid.” So, did Vinnie save Kiss? Probably not. But he was a hell of a songwriter and a complete anti-hero enigma on guitar who refused to play nice with others, so his legend will always loom large. Still, Lick it Up remains a precursor to mid to late ’80s hair metal, and it was the beginning of Kiss’s commercial renaissance through tracks like “Lick it Up,” “All Hell’s Breaking Loose,” and “A Million to One,” and “Fits Like a Glove.” Saved Kiss? No, not really. Served one hell of a purpose? You betcha.
# 3 – Unmasked (1980)
Some would say that Kiss had no business making a power pop record. Of course, there’s an argument to make otherwise. Especially considering Unmasked isn’t that far off from Dressed to Kill. Regardless, in the wake of the pop-meets-disco record, Dynasty, what else did you expect Kiss to do? But what Kiss didn’t count on was the alienation factor, meaning many brave Rock Soldiers had abandoned them, leaving them with kiddies and teeny boppers to adore them. The problem? Only that kiddies and teeny boppers are as fickle as can be. Oops. But still, with Anton Fig on drums in place of Peter Criss —as was the case with Dynasty— there’s some interesting rhythmic flavoring featured on Unmasked.
What’s more, Ace Frehley was unstoppable, with across-the-board dominance coming by way of “Talk to Me,” “Two Sides of the Coin,” and the fusion-meets-funky “Torpedo Girl.” But don’t go thinking that Stanley and Simmons failed to pass the mustard. Quite the contrary. Songs like “Naked City,” “She’s So European,” “Tomorrow,” and “Easy as it Seems” are shining examples of sublime pop mastery. In short, if you think that Kiss was nothing more than meathead rock, or were incapable of crafting quality songs, think again. It’s direction was weird, but the songsmith featured Unmasked is utterly inspired, if not bold, considering past labels adhered to them.
# 2 – Hot in the Shade (1989)
Hot in the Shade is far too often relegated to the bottom rungs of Kiss’s proverbial ladder. But no more! After Crazy Nights, which was lovely, but still an exercise in exhibitionism via glam rock, Kiss wanted to dial home via back-to-basics approach. The result was a stripped-down —if not overly long at fifteen tracks— record mostly devoid of typical hair metal tropes. Sure, “Hide Your Heart” and “You Love Me to Hate You” are as pouty-mouthed as it gets. And “Cadillac Dreams” does sound a little dated, as does the gated reverb effect clipped onto Eric Carr’s drum sound. But no matter, the bulk of Hot in The Shade features some memorable cuts like the iconic “Forever” (thanks, Michael Bolton) and “Boomerang.”
Also of note, the “Rise to It” video saw Simmons and Stanley clad in greasepaint for the first time since 1983, and “Little Caesar” remains Eric Carr’s lone original cut on a Kiss record. Speaking of Carr, for one reason or another, he was replaced by Kevin Valentine for “Betrayed” and “You Love Me to Hate You.” And future lead guitarist Tommy Thayer provided some tasty pick work via his electroacoustic on “Betrayed” and “The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away.” Lastly, Ace Frehley was slated as the opener for the Hot in the Shade tour, but the issue of him also recording “Hide Your Heart” for his record Trouble Walkin’ came up, squashing the idea.
# 1 – Creatures of the Night (1982)
If Creatures of the Night is to be remembered for anything, it’s that Kiss delivered what may be their finest hour with their backs against the wall. The fallout stemming from the failure of Music of ‘The Elder’ had nearly killed Kiss. A planned North American had gone to hell, and not even the friendly confines of Europe, and Australia would have them. Making matters worse, Ace Frehley had quit the band. Now down two original members and facing extinction via a waning fanbase, Stanley and Simmons relented from their quest for critical approval and chose to get back to basics. While writing Creatures of the Night, young studs like Doug Aldrich, Vito Bratta, Slash, and Richie Sambora auditioned for Kiss, but none stuck.
And so, with no time to lose, they entered the studio, relying on Steve Farris, Robben Ford, and Vincent Cusano (Vinnie Vincent) to lay the guitars down. Thankfully, the anxious nature of the band’s situation bred outstanding results, with cuts such as “Saint and Sinner,” “Keep Me Comin’,” “Rock and Roll Hell,” and “Killer” checking in as heavy, if not sensational. And while Creatures of the Night and the two tours that followed were largely ignored then, it’s often considered Kiss’s best album in retrospect. Songs such as “Creatures of the Night,” “I Love It Loud,” “I Still Love You,” and “War Machine” are still fan favorites and are performed by Kiss to this day. And so, it’s no surprise when it comes to ’80s Kiss albums, the brass ring goes to Creatures of the Night.
Kiss’ ‘80s Albums Ranked article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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