You have to be among the haters not to acknowledge that KISS is responsible for all time great album covers. While the non-makeup years produced largely forgettable (Asylum) to downright bad (Animalize) covers, the make-up era is full of great examples of how a record’s cover can really enhance the experience of purchasing and listening to a record. I spent countless hours of my youth with my headphones on scouring every inch of every KISS album cover looking for that missing detail, reading every liner note, credit etc. Hoping that if I stared at it long enough I would see something that I hadn’t prior. This week I’m celebrating that time of my life by ranking the album covers from worst to best. For this list, I am only including the albums released from 1974’s KISS to 1982’s Creatures of the Night. I am not including the repackaging of the first three albums The Original’s as it use’s the first album’s cover for its cover and I am counting the solo albums as one as they were all painted by the same artist using the exact same scheme. So for KISSmas in July and after much scientific research below are the rankings.
14. Dynasty – After Love Gun KISS took the time to make the movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park and record solo albums while Casablanca released ALIVE II and the greatest hits package Double Platinum. Dynasty was the “We’re back!” record. After almost two years of no new music, they released the disco-tinged Dynasty. And much like the overall tone of the record, the cover left a lot to be desired. Just a raw and not particularly well shot close up of the bands faces which for some reason is actually a heavily cropped combination of several photo’s. One could argue the highlight of the cover was the gray border surrounding it. Gene looked fat. The spoils of success weren’t just having an effect on his waistline. I mean, you only see his face and he looks fat. Also, the green make-up on Peter’s face is noticeably off from the left eye to the right. Knowing what we know now one can’t help but wonder if this was a byproduct of his growing disinterest in staying in KISS.
13. Music From The Elder – I like this cover and I think it goes with the music. But let’s be real. Neither is very “KISS”. It definitely goes well with the record as it ties in the storyline that runs through the record and at 10 years old I was fascinated by everything about this record. When the record was done and presented to the exec’s at Casablanca, they were afraid to release it as it was. They insisted on a different song sequence. The concern being that if the first thing the listener heard was the horn piece “Fanfare” leading into the soft rock opener “Just A Boy” the listener may just wonder if they got the right record. They were right to fear a revolt. They wrong to think rearranging the songs would change that. Because of that there were covers that listed the songs in the order they were to be originally tracked while later pressings have them in the order they actually appear on the record. I suppose an argument could be made to move this up, but I think it fits right here.
12. ALIVE II – Released at their peak, you really have to peel off the plastic and open the double album before you see anything with grandeur. The actual cover is an unimaginative use of a KISS logo and a boring font spelling out ALIVE II. There are four individual pics along the bottom that lazily are the same four photo’s on the back. It screams “Hurry. We need to get this out for Christmas!” It probably doesn’t deserve to rank this high, but it gets a couple of points for the incredible inner gatefold shot.
11. Unmasked – The follow-up to Dynasty just seemed to appear in record stores with no notice. When I first saw the cover for Unmasked I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was a comic strip with kind of a nostalgic flair to it. Telling the story of a reporter desperately trying to get a picture of KISS sans makeup. The whole thing was unique but seemed to come out of left field. It’s a good cover. Just not better than the next 10.
10. Hotter Than Hell – If you like an album cover that will supply you with hours of fixating this one’s for you. The myth in the 70’s was this was KISS’ way of thanking their Japanese fans for taking to them so enthusiastically but in reality they hadn’t really established a fan base in Japan. Still, it’s the most unique cover KISS ever did. It features a black and white photo of the band with Japanese symbols and each band members name spelled out in Japanese characters. Interestingly Ace had gotten into one of his many car accidents prior to the photo shoot for the cover. His face had been cut up on one side so his face on the cover is actually half of his face with one side a reverse mirror image of the other. Also on the back Gene and Ace are wearing outfits that they never wore for anything else. I love the raw aesthetic. It really fits the sound of the record.
9. Double Platinum – To truly appreciate this cover you need to have the original vinyl release. You need to hold it in your hands. As simple as it is, it is pure brilliance. The embossed KISS logo’s on the chrome is awesome. Because of its simplicity many will think it’s ranked too high and the lazy attempts to replicate this on 8 track, cassette, and the initial CD release add to that belief. You really need to recall what it was like to pick this record up in the store and hold it in your hands to properly rank it. As a greatest hits record, musically it’s largely a waste. But they nailed the cover.
8. Creatures of the Night – The last cover of the make-up era. The only cover to have Eric Carr in his fox make up on it. And Ace appears despite not playing a note on the record and leaving the band before the tour. While it is a great cover I feel the goofy history of this record (Did Ace play on it, the re-release with a non-makeup photo featuring Bruce Kulick who also didn’t play on it) has made it more iconic than it really deserves. That said it rocks. Even the back cover with a dark blue night sky filled with lightning. The blue almost makes the record sound blue if that’s possible.
7. Dressed To Kill – KISS in suits. The black and white photo of the band on a city street. Surrounded by a box of embossed KISS logo’s. A lot of diehards worship this cover and would rank it higher. Even I struggled with the idea of moving it up because it is incredibly cool. It really makes you want to listen to it. A little back story. The ill fitting suits belonged to Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart. While it is a great cover it just doesn’t hold up against the next 6.
6. Solo Albums – By 1978 KISS was cresting and starting to fracture at the same time. Ace and Peter reportedly threatened to quit after the shooting of KISS Meets The Phantom of The Park. To appease them the idea for all members to do solo albums was made reality. To package them as a sort of set, the art for all covers was going to stick to the same basic design. They commissioned Eraldo Carugati to paint them and the result was very detailed representations of each member. Almost photographic. It is the first introduction of the color scheme of each member (Paul – Purple, Gene – Red, Ace – Blue, Peter – Green) that the band would borrow from going forward. The same font was used for all album credits. They each dedicated their albums to the other members of the band. Of course Peter had to include some dude named Michael Benvenga who I believe was in Chelsea, a band Peter was in before KISS. I think he passed away in the time before recording this record. Regardless it threw off the symmetry. I think Peter could’ve found a better way to honor a friend.
5. Destroyer – After the success of ALIVE! KISS finally had a budget and that extended to the art department. 10-year-old boys across America were simultaneously intrigued and scared shitless at the sight of KISS deftly balancing their platform boots atop a pile of rubble while a small town burns in the background. This was the second cover as Ken Kelly’s first cover had the burning city behind KISS much closer which didn’t sit well with execs at Casablanca. So the city was moved back. The color of the sky was switched to a more purple like color and for some reason that seemed less violent. Who cares. The cover was awesome.
4. Love Gun – Ken Kelly was brought back and he came up with another classic. This time it featured KISS in their sweet new costumes with busty black haired women in white face surrounding their feet. They were almost like soulless, faceless pin up models for teens to rub one out to. For my money, Robert Palmer borrowed upon this for his video’s in the 80’s where his band consisted of emotionless like-costumed females. While there are similarities between this and Destroyer the chicks with half their huge racks pouring out of their tops gives this one the edge.
3. Rock N Roll Over – Both simple and complex. The block cartoon artwork just works. The circular design makes it so anyway you hold it, you have no idea which is the top. Seen it done since. Not sure if it was done prior. There is a magic to this cover. The colors, the background imagery for each member. It all works. This album looks like it sounds. Awesome. Makes for a great t-shirt as well. The artist, Michael Doret, was brought back for the underwhelming and lazy attempt at an album cover for 2009’s Sonic Boom. But he got it right with this one.
2. ALIVE! – If you could sum up a KISS concert with one picture this would be it. Even though it is a staged photo, it oozes KISS live. The back cover showed what looked like an endless arena with 53 levels of seats all packed and waiting for KISS to take the stage. Inside is less inspiring as it’s basically an ad for the KISS studio albums along with super cheesy to downright stupid (Sorry Gene) hand written messages from each member that were often referred to as a “personal” message to KISS fans. Not sure how writing a note for 5 million people can ever be considered personal but I digress. Despite the shortcomings of the inner art, the cover is another example of the perfect marriage of cover art and the music contained. When I see this cover, I hear the way the music sounds. Not just the songs, the sound. This cover is a picture of what Rock N Roll is. This would eventually break KISS as a viable recording act and propel the rest of their career.
1. KISS – I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the diamond KISS logo. Maybe it’s Peter’s weird looking whiskers or Ace’s silver hair. It doesn’t really matter this cover just kicks ass. Low tech and low budget and beautiful. Its not just nostalgic. It still looks cooler than most covers. It was better times for the members of KISS. They worked together for the same thing. The resentments that would later destroy the band had yet to surface. The ego’s were more shared. The individual roles were embraced. And this album cover, while not exactly cutting edge, was perfect. It wasn’t light. It was black. Black and silver. It was metal before it was called metal. You didn’t hold this record in your hands and think you were getting a Partridge Family record. It was the first and remains the best.
Well that’s it. Disagree? Let me know how you’d rank them and I’ll explain why you’re wrong. 😉