Our list of Thin Lizzy’s Top 10 albums celebrates the career of one of the all-time great hard rock bands. Most rock fans will recognize top hits like “The Boys Are Back in Town,” “Bad Reputation,” and “Cold Sweat.” However, there’s a lot more to dive into among Thin Lizzy’s classic albums, including 1976’s breakthrough Jailbreak and 1978’s iconic Live and Dangerous.
So much of Lizzy’s work depended on the versatile songwriting and poetic lyrics of legendary frontman Phil Lynott. But they were also a great guitar band, showcasing the era-defining work of Eric Bell, Gary Moore, Scott Gorham, Brian Robertson, Snowy White, and John Sykes.
Formed in Dublin, Ireland in 1969, Thin Lizzy began as a power trio featuring Phil Lynott on bass and vocals, Eric Bell on guitar, and Brian Downey on drums. The group’s first three albums combined hard rock with elements of blues, psychedelia, and folk as they searched for a definitive sound. Van Morrison (with whom Bell had played briefly in the band Them) was a major influence, as were the heavier blues-rock sounds of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac.
Times were rough for Thin Lizzy in the beginning. Their self-titled debut album sold poorly, given inadequate support by Decca Records (whose glory years as home to the Rolling Stones had faded by 1971). A second release, Shades of a Blue Orphanage, did even worse, hindered by lackluster production and rushed songwriting amid constant touring.
A glint of success came in 1972 when Lizzy’s cover of the traditional Irish ballad “Whiskey in the Jar” became a surprise hit. Afraid of being tagged as a novelty act, Lizzy redoubled their efforts, making the harder-rocking album Vagabonds of the Western World in 1973.
Career pressures took a toll on Eric Bell, who quit suddenly in the middle of a tour (his temporary replacement, Gary Moore, would rejoin years later). The shakeup paved the way for two six-string upstarts, Scottish-born Brian Robertson and American expatriate Scott Gorham, to revamp the group. Brandishing iconic Gibson Les Pauls, the dueling lead guitarists flanked Phil Lynott on stage, turning Thin Lizzy into the rock powerhouse most fans remember.
After the mellow Night Life in 1974, the group’s debut on the more progressive Vertigo label, Thin Lizzy hit their stride with 1975’s Fighting. A year later, Jailbreak cracked the airwaves with its hit single “The Boys Are Back in Town” as the group toured with Aerosmith, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Rush, and Bob Seger. Lizzy followed suit with two more classic albums, Johnny the Fox in late 1976 and Bad Reputation in 1977.
The double LP Live and Dangerous in 1978 pushed Thin Lizzy to their commercial peak, although it also spelled the end for guitarist Brian Robertson, whose head-butting with Lynott had worsened over the years. The group forged on, first with a returning Gary Moore, then with former Pink Floyd sideman Snowy White, and finally with metal shredder John Sykes. Albums with these later lineups were a tad hit-and-miss (especially the keyboard-drenched Renegade in 1981). But Thin Lizzy remained a creative force until their metal-infused final album, Thunder and Lightning, in 1983.
Sadly, by this point, Phil Lynott’s hard-driving lifestyle, including addictions to heroin and alcohol, had caught up with him. Two solo albums and collaborations with Gary Moore, former members of the Sex Pistols, and the short-lived Grand Slam kept Lynott active in his final years. However, sepsis (a blood condition worsened by drugs and alcohol) led to death at age 36 on January 4, 1986. Thankfully, Phil Lynott’s legacy lives on in the classic work of Thin Lizzy. Let’s get started on a rundown of the group’s ten best albums.
# 10 – Thin Lizzy (1971)
There’s no better place to begin our survey than Thin Lizzy’s oddball debut album. A power trio at this point in their career, Lizzy’s early sound relies heavily on the lead guitar of Eric Bell, whose Hendrix-influenced style on a Fender Stratocaster differs from the dueling Gibson Les Pauls to arrive a few years later. Phil Lynott’s confident vocals and thick basslines are already in place, and Brian Downey’s creative drumming makes him an underrated force in seventies rock.
Songs vary from the psychedelic “The Friendly Ranger of Clontarf Castle” and folky “Honesty is No Excuse” to the Van Morrison-influenced “Diddy Levine.” Echoes of Hendrix are strongest on the Bell-penned “Ray-Gun” and the raving “Return of the Farmer’s Son.” Two simpler tracks, “Look What the Wind Blew In” and “Remembering,” point the way forward to the classic sound Thin Lizzy would later refine.
# 9 – Vagabonds of the Western World (1973)
Lizzy’s third album came between two mellower efforts, 1972’s Shades of a Blue Orphanage and 1974’s Night Life. Still a power trio at this point, Vagabonds sees Lizzy embracing a harder rock sound as a sign of things to come.
“Mama Nature Said” and “Slow Blues” showcase guitarist Eric Bell’s consummate blues chops, inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green. “The Hero and the Madman” reflects Phil Lynott’s fascination with the American Wild West (heard later in tunes like “Cowboy Song”). However, the album’s biggest highlight is “The Rocker,” a furious track in which we hear Phil Lynott’s rock god persona spring into life. Recent reissues of Vagabonds add Lizzy’s rendition of “Whiskey in the Jar,” a song that avowed Lizzy fans Metallica would later cover as well.
# 8 – Chinatown (1980)
This later-period album arrived after guitarist Brian Robertson and his temporary replacement, Gary Moore, had both left Thin Lizzy. Newcomer Snowy White joined mainstay Scott Gorham in the guitar division. The trademark harmonized guitar leads familiar to fans more than survived the transition.
Lizzy’s first album of the 1980s, Chinatown thrives on standout tracks like “Killer on the Loose,” “Sugar Blues,” and the bristling title track – whose lyrics echo the mood of the classic film, Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson. “Genocide (the Killing of the Buffalo)” is Lynott’s heartfelt lament for the historical suffering of Native Americans. Other tracks on the album maintain Lynott’s rock and pop instincts, despite the drugs and alcohol creeping into his personal life.
# 7 – Thunder and Lighting (1983)
Thin Lizzy’s twelfth studio album veers closer to heavy metal than any previous release. Newcomer John Sykes brings his shredding guitar style to the mix, edging Lizzy closer to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal popularized by Saxon, Judas Priest, and Sykes’s former group Tygers of Pan Tang.
“Cold Sweat” stands out instantly as the strongest song, but there’s lots to enjoy here – from the anthemic title track to “This is the One,” where Sykes and Scott Gorham trade lead guitar licks. Keyboardist Darren Wharton, adds lighter touches to the ballad “The Sun Goes Down” and the dramatic “Someday She’s Going to Hit Back.” Phil Lynott’s vocals and bass are unusually low in the mix as he makes his final stand on this raging swan song of an album.
# 6 – Black Rose: A Rock Legend (1979)
The brilliant guitarist Gary Moore joined Thin Lizzy for the second time in late 1978, replacing Brian Robertson as Scott Gorham’s new sparring partner. Black Rose begins with the usual Thin Lizzy fury, as “Do Anything You Want to” and “Toughest Street in Town” charge from the gate on the strength of tight hooks and those distinctive harmonized lead guitars.
The hook-driven “Waiting for an Alibi” has a more pop inflection, balancing Lizzy’s rock attitude and radio-friendly instincts. Some other tracks feel less than essential, including “My Sarah” a twee-sounding ballad that sticks out like a sore thumb. The album ends with the title suite of tunes inspired by Phil Lynott’s proud Irish heritage – an apt finale to one of Thin Lizzy’s more accomplished later albums.
# 5 – Fighting (1975)
Thin Lizzy’s peak period begins with this album, the second to feature the twin lead guitars of Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham. The album begins with a rousing cover of Bob Seger’s “Rosalie,” a perfect example of Lizzy’s hard-driving riffs bolstering accessible pop melodies. Produced by Phil Lynott with the help of unsung engineer Keith Harwood, Fighting comes over louder, prouder, and more confident than any of Lizzy’s previous albums.
Lynott’s songwriting steps up a notch on the heartfelt “For Those Who Love to Live,” tough rocking “Suicide,” and gently yearning “Wild One.” Comparisons with Van Morrison and the early Bruce Springsteen would soon be forthcoming, a sign of Lynott’s growing respect well beyond the hard rock scene. Robertson’s songwriting shines on the bluesy “Silver Dollar,” before Gorham steps in with “Freedom Song” (co-written with Lynott) and the piledriving closer “Ballad of a Hard Man.” Fighting is the first of several Thin Lizzy albums every fan of classic rock needs to hear.
# 4 – Bad Reputation (1977)
Thin Lizzy perfected their blend of hard rock riffs and pop melodies on Bad Reputation. “Soldier of Fortune” is a powerful opener before the title track lays down its aggressive riffs. “Dancing in the Moonlight,” with its mainstream groove and added saxophone, is Lizzy’s finest distillation of the sound of Van Morrison. “South Bound” is the perfect soundtrack to an open-top car on the freeway.
Guitarist Brian Robertson was no longer an official member of Thin Lizzy, due to ongoing clashes with Phil Lynott. However, he flies in for a few solos, including the blistering “Opium Trail” and “Killer on the Loose.” Scott Gorham’s ever-improving guitar work dominates the set, including double-tracked solos that make Robertson’s absence less obvious. The fourth in a winning streak of classic albums, Bad Reputation displays the incredible versatility Lizzy had mastered by this time.
# 3 – Johnny the Fox (1976)
If not for stiff competition from other albums, Johnny the Fox would easily stand as the group’s foremost masterpiece. A bristling toughness inhabits the album, a combination of Lizzy’s growing fame as an arena attraction and developing tensions within the ranks. Phil Lynott and Brian Robertson battled over the group’s musical direction, making this Robertson’s last album as a full member. Somehow, musically speaking, the tensions worked in Lizzy’s favour.
“Johnny” begins the album as one of Thin Lizzy’s finest street-fighting rockers. “Rocky” is another riff-fest about a dedicated rock-and-roller “dressed in black to make him thin” – who sounds a lot like Lynott himself. “Borderline,” co-written by Robertson, is a slow-burning ballad, followed by the infectious “Don’t Believe a Word.”
Johnny the Fox maintains the standard on its later tracks. “Fools Gold” is one of Lynott’s great anthems about his beloved Ireland. “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed” is a funkier track comparable to seventies R&B acts like War or Parliament. “Massacre” is another classic Lizzy banger, and “Sweet Marie” offers a lighter touch near the end. Only the closing track, “Boogie Woogie Dance,” feels like an afterthought on this otherwise stellar set.
# 2 – Live and Dangerous (1978)
Widely regarded as one of the best live albums of all time, Live and Dangerous captures the full sonic force of Thin Lizzy on stage during their peak period. Recorded in London, Philadelphia and Toronto, the tracks were edited by producer Tony Visconti into a supercharged romp through Lizzy’s finest songs. Studio overdubs polished up a few of the numbers – but who cares when the results are this powerful?
“Jailbreak,” “Emerald,” “Rosalie,” and “The Boys Are Back in Town” are all just as tight as their studio versions, with an added touch of adrenaline. Two songs from the lackluster Night Life album, “Still in Love with You” and “Sha La La,” become all-time classics in their live renditions. Two more earlier songs, “Suicide” and “The Rocker,” get a welcome update as well.
Sadly, Live and Dangerous was the end of the road for Lizzy’s definitive lineup. Guitarist Brian Robertson, already on the outs since the previous year’s Bad Reputation, was soon gone for good. The group survived another five years, but nothing they recorded subsequently had quite the same magic as this live tour-de-force.
# 1 – Jailbreak (1976)
Thin Lizzy’s sixth album is everything one could hope for in a definitive hard rock album. The riffs are solid, the hooks are memorable, and the production (by John Alcock) is clean and punchy. Phil Lynott’s songwriting is at its absolute peak, his gift for dramatic mini-narratives well represented on “Jailbreak,” “Romeo and the Lonely Girl,” “Cowboy Song,” and the thundering side-closers “Warrior” and “Emerald.”
Three albums into their tenure, guitarists Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham ply their harmonized leads and trade solos like two sides of one brain. The underrated Brian Downey uses his drums, not only to rock Lizzy’s world but to add unique textures – such as his emulation of a traditional Irish bodhrán on “Emerald.”
As usual, Lizzy includes one or two more pop-oriented numbers. “Running Back” has a keyboard-driven hook that caused some consternation when Robertson refused to play on the track. “Fight or Fall” has a jazzier feel, as the guitarists clean up their act to support Lynott’s soulful tribute to the R&B music he loved.
The album’s climax is of course “The Boys Are Back in Town,” one of the all-time great rock anthems. Distilling everything that made Lizzy great into one song – imaginative guitar lines, streetwise lyrics, a rousing chorus, and a thunderous groove – “The Boys Are Back in Town” proved once and for all that Thin Lizzy had the chops and the guts to become one of classic rock’s all-time great bands.