KISS is a divisive band on its own, but there might be even more tumult within the ranks of the KISS Army when it comes to which era/lineup/songs they like best. That said, choosing the best 20 songs from KISS’s 40-year career is a task on par with trying to convince the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to induct KISS for the past 15 years.
Every era of KISS has its moments…it just so happens that many of those moments occurred between 1974 and 1977. Don’t get me wrong, I think non-makeup era songs like “Seduction of the Innocent,” “Get All You Can Take” and even “Unholy” are really good, but when they square up against “Strutter,” “Deuce” and “Detroit Rock City,” they just don’t stand a chance.
This list comes from a KISS nerd who knows too much for his own good, and to be honest, if I made it next week it’d probably look different. One of the first things you might notice is the absence of the band’s best-known songs: No “Rock and Roll All Nite.” No “Beth.” No “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” What can I say? You wanted the best, and you got the best. Let the civil war begin.
KISS were at the height of their powers in 1977, so of course they had to release another live record (1975’s Alive! is what catapulted the band to stardom). This time, however, KISS included five new studio tracks, “Larger Than Life” being the first written for the session. Gene Simmons has said he was going for a booming Bonham drum sound, and goddamnit Peter Criss delivered. The lyrics are abysmal—something abut the size of the love gun from the guy who refused to get it plaster casted (see below)—but the song’s jagged main riff (played by the Demon himself) and those drums give it a slow and sleazy swagger, which KISS hadn’t done this well since “Two Timer” two years before.
Hotter Than Hell
Probably the darkest and creepiest song KISS recorded, from their dark and heavy second record Hotter Than Hell. “Goin’ Blind” tells the story of an affair between and 93-year-old man and an underage girl (she’s 16). Simmons wrote it with guitarist Steve Coronel in his and Paul Stanley’s pre-KISS band Wicked Lester originally under the working title “Little Lady.” It is perhaps the only KISS song to include minor chords, which might be what eventually compelled the Melvins and Dinosaur Jr. to cover it.
The live version smokes—accept no substitutes. A straight rock ‘n’ roller that makes the list on the strength of one of Stanley’s greatest lines: “She’s a dancer, a romancer / I’m a Capricorn and she’s a Cancer.”
Dressed To Kill
Another overlooked, nasty-riffed cut from the band’s early days, and probably the only song where Simmons doesn’t get the girl(s). It features some great harmonies from the band and a brilliantly laid-back solo from Ace Frehley.
Creatures of the Night
After the debacle of Music From “The Elder,” KISS finally went in the studio to record a back-to-basics rock album. Unfortunately, it was too-little, too-late as fans had already abandoned ship by the time Creatures of the Night was released on October 13, 1982. Still regarded as the band’s heaviest record (the drum sound they got is the stuff of legend), Creatures produced one of KISS’s heaviest songs in “War Machine.” Fun fact: The song was written by Canadian rocker-turned schmaltz king Bryan Adams, before Gene Simmons got his paws on it and turned it into a true war machine. KISS still occasionally performs it live today, but you can’t fuck with this armored, studio version.
KISS had already dabbled in disco on 1979’s Dynasty, and with Unmasked they were threatening to go even more limp and radio friendly. But Paul does power pop, and he does it well. He also plays bass on this cut (maybe Gene was too busy adding to his Polaroid collection?). It’s a classic love tale with a sugary sweet hook (the chorus will make you diabetic), and there’s a brilliantly sneaky little hand clap part in the final verse that’s better than most things on this planet.
By 1976 the members of KISS were up to their codpieces in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and this is the anthem to their newfound fame (Nirvana covered the song with great irony a couple years before Nevermind made them the biggest rock band on the planet). Sure Paul Stanley had all the groupies, money and fame he could handle…but in the end he just wanted to be loved goddamnit!
Music From “The Elder”
The most loved/hated album in the KISS catalog somehow produced one of the band’s heaviest metal songs. By 1981 KISS had run their course. Criss left the band the year before (replaced by the late, great Eric Carr). Frehley had one space boot out the door. And New Wave had shoved the band off their throne. KISS’s answer? Make a concept album based on a flimsy storyline for a film starring Christopher Makepeace that would never get made. Destroyer producer Bob Ezrin returned to the fold with a hail storm of coke and a hair-brained idea: Make The Wall with KISS. Even Lou Reed—who co-wrote three songs—couldn’t save this project. Music From “The Elder” has become a cult favorite among fans (myself included), although Ezrin, the members of KISS and everyone else associated with the album secretly wishes they could burn the 17 copies it sold. But even they can’t deny the power of this song’s galloping rhythm, double kick and epic falsetto.
Hotter Than Hell
A heavy, heavy riff for 1974 (and a heavy, heavy riff for 2014 for that matter). Another doozy from Frehley, who gave a song called “Parasite Eyes” to Simmons to sing due to his insecurities about his voice. “Parasite” has been covered by Anthrax, Sebastian Bach and, of course, the Smelly Tongues.
The song that has come to signify Gene Simmons’ demon persona (he is the “God of Thunder”) was actually written by Paul Stanley. Paul’s more upbeat demo version was more in line with his role as “the lover,” but producer Bob Ezrin quickly snatched it from him, slowed the tempo to an ominous plod, and gave it to Gene to spit blood and fire all over. The weird sound effects of children screaming actually came from Ezrin’s kids. And the rest, as they say, is KISStory.
Rock and Roll Over
A hooked-out, mid-tempo rocker from Stanley that hides among the KISS classics. It’s got a great southern rock riff that stands as one of the band’s best. It’s about picking up women, naturally, built around classic ’70s sexual innuendo. KISS fans love it.
Hotter Than Hell
Yet another song from Ace Frehley that was passed along to someone else to sing (in this case, Peter Criss). This deep cut also contains what many consider to be Frehley’s best solo, which was recorded spontaneously in one take. However, the seven-minute drum solo that appeared on the original recording is a different story. Apparently, nobody liked it except for the guy who played it. When the members suggested cutting it, Criss threatened to quit the band. According to Paul Stanley: “So at the end of the day when Peter left the studio, Gene and I stayed behind with [producers] Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise—we all knew the solo was terrible—and we cut it from the song without Peter knowing it.” Criss did quit…but not for another six years.
Though Gene Simmons never had his codpiece immortalized by the infamous Cynthia “Plaster Caster” Albritton—who’s casted the appendages of Jimi Hendrix, Jello Biafra and Ariel Pink, among others—he did immortalize her in this song in 1977. Loaded with all the innuendo one might expect from a song about a woman who molds dicks out of plaster.
It took five albums for Ace Frehley to finally take a turn singing lead. Legend has it that the Space Ace was so nervous about it that he recorded his vocals laying on his back in the vocal booth so the band and producer Eddie Kramer couldn’t watch. “Shock Me” also boasts another one of Frehley’s great solos, which is like a song within a song. The inspiration for “Shock Me” came from the night Frehley was electrocuted after touching an ungrounded metal railing during a show in Lakeland, Fla., on December 12, 1976. The concert was delayed 30 minutes before Frehley—who’d lost feeling in his left hand—continued the show. Rock ‘n’ fucking roll!
Hotter Than Hell
This song—like many KISS songs—is kicked up a notch in the live setting. In the case of “Got To Choose,” it’s all about the 1975 version recorded at Winterland in San Francisco (one of the most sought-after KISS bootlegs back in the day).
“Rock and Roll All Nite” may be KISS’s enduring anthem, but “Shout It Out Loud” is the better one. It was inspired by The Hollies’ “I Wanna Shout” (featured on their 1970 album Confessions of the Mind, and later covered by Gene and Paul’s band Wicked Lester). There’s a great Motown groove in Simmons’ bass line, and the song includes some sugary bubblegum lyrics that lead into the massive descending chorus. Kills “Rock and Roll All Nite.” How did this not become a huge hit? I’ll tell you why: Because radio wouldn’t touch KISS with a 10-foot pole. Because radio is dumb.
KISS’s one true epic, “Black Diamond” rules all the way through, from its delicate 12-string intro to its descending, apocalyptic finale. While it was written by Stanley, cat man Criss handles vocal duties here, telling the tale of life in the streets of New York from the standpoint of a prostitute. Frehley’s guitar solo adds a little drama to the proceedings, and you have yet another timeless classic. If you don’t like KISS, and want to keep your cred’ intact, then listen to The Replacements’ version.
An homage to the city that embraced KISS in their early days, “Detroit Rock City” also—in a darker twist—chronicles a fan who died in a car wreck the year before while on his way to a KISS show in Charlotte, N.C. Producer Bob Ezrin adds a flair for the dramatic with the opening narrative, sound effects and the song’s final explosive ending. A great rock ‘n’ roll song. Great rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. Great, dual rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo. Named after a great rock ‘n’ roll city.
Anyone who questions Gene Simmons’ musical ability should listen to this song. It’s all about the bass line, which walks up and down Paul Stanley’s ringing power chords (which were borrowed from a song called “Stanley the Parrot” that Simmons wrote with one of his pre-KISS bands Bullfrog Bheer). Following the single-word chorus is one of the greatest Neanderthal rock riffs to ever riff a rock song. A classic New York glam rocker, and another staple from the band’s early days that keeps on givin’. Incidentally, the demo version recorded with Eddie Kramer is the best you’ll hear.
Often cited as a favorite of Simmons, “Deuce” originally appeared on the band’s debut. But as the opener for their explosive Alive! record (and many shows for years to come) this song stomps like Gojira on a bender in New York City. “Deuce” is hugely important in KISStory, actually predating the band. Simmons wrote it in the winter of 1972 as he and Paul were transitioning from Wicked Lester into KISS. Simmons has stated that the main riff bastardized the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Bitch.” More than four decades later “Deuce” is still a beast, perhaps best known for the peculiar opening line, “Get up, and get your grandma out of here!” Just go with it.