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.
20. “Larger Than Life”
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.
19. “Goin’ Blind”
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.
18. “C’mon and Love Me”
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.”
17. “Two Timer”
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.
16. “War Machine”
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.
14. “Do You Love Me”
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!
13. “The Oath”
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.
11. “God of Thunder”
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.