Chuck Eddy: “The first year of punk they surpassed it, with more threatening bile and a better beat.” And though this Aussie band’s beats can sound too similar and repetitive over the course of an entire album, it usually is a supremely catchy beat, and guitarist Angus Young consistently comes up with powerful, imaginative riffs. But its Bon Scott’s squealing hysterics that really steal the show, and if you don’t take these guys too seriously (especially their sexist lyrics) they’ll show you a really good (and funny) time. That said, there’s a touch of danger to songs such as the lascivious “Can I Sit Next To You Girl” (my guess is that she’d be more likely to run like hell than let him!) and the leering blooze of “Little Lover” (actually about the diminutive Angus) while “She’s Got Balls” (about Bon's ex-wife) is exactly the kind of simple, seemingly "dumb" rocker that some critics have never forgiven the band for (their loss as lyricist Bon was a quite clever (albeit overly horny!) gutter poet). In truth, none of these songs are highlights, but all are worthwhile and the rest of the album is terrific, including the anthemic title track, which ends the album by promising to deliver some “high voltage rock n’ roll” and then does just that in fine style. Still, it’s the stellar first side that really stands out. In “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer,” Bon honestly pledges his allegiance to the rock n’ roll cause, hoping to avoid such tedium as schoolwork and real jobs in the process. “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)” shows that these lads are willing to pay the price, and with a beat that makes it impossible to stand still and the best use of bagpipes ever in a rock song (played by Bon himself!), along with a great Angus guitar solo, you know that these guys got the goods to get where they want. After the slow, bluesy “The Jack” (whose later live version is admittedly superior), the flat-out fantastic “Live Wire,” and the chanted “oi oi’s” of “T.N.T.” (still a sing along concert favorite), there can be no doubt. Note: The U.S. version of High Voltage is basically a "best of" their first two Australian albums, High Voltage (confused yet?) and T.N.T.. There was also an Australian version of Dirty Deeds; most of the songs from these three albums ended up on the U.S. releases of High Voltage, Dirty Deeds, and '74 Jailbreak.
Let There Be Rock (Atlantic ‘77) Rating: A
...and there was rock. Recorded over a mere two weeks, Let There Be Rock was all about getting down to business and delivering no bullshit, high energy rock n' roll. Strategically, AC/DC's loudest and most savage album smartly takes advantage of their strengths by lengthening songs and riding relentlessly similar but unstoppable grooves into the ground. “Go Down” is blisteringly loud rock n’ roll with enormous energy and an animalistic delivery, while the super-sized Bo Diddley riffs and beats of “Dog Eat Dog” should make the likes of George Thorogood blush in shame. Boosted by the gargantuan thump of their rhythm section and raw, primitive lead guitar from Angus, the band must’ve gotten a kick out of (or were more likely chagrined at) all the commotion caused by the Sex Pistols and Ramones. Fact is, AC/DC could’ve easily blown the Sex Pistols off the stage even on a bad night (perhaps they should’ve acted like a**holes and slagged the Queen), and they were every bit as bare-boned and edgy as the Ramones, only they also added a great singer and guitar solos to the equation. Hell, not since The Stooges had such a simple but exciting sound been heard, except that these guys used their over-imaginative libidos and gutter-worthy thoughts for good times. They really make you believe that “Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be,” albeit in a tongue in cheek kinda way that’s also evident when Bon squeals “I’ll show you how good a bad boy can be” (hey, if you take these guys seriously that’s your problem). The album’s two biggest fan favorites and undeniable classics are the title track and “Whole Lotta Rosie,” but the whole album sounds incredibly alive. The amazingly forceful Harry Vanda/George Young (Angus and Malcolm's older brother) production blares through my speakers as if the band was trading hot licks in my living room, as AC/DC overcomes their limitations once again with a “Bad Boy Boogie” album that the “Problem Child” in me simply can’t resist. Note: Vanda and Young had previously worked together in The Easybeats, who are best remembered for their "working for the weekend" classic "Friday On My Mind" (1966), which for my money is simply one of the greatest garage rockers of all-time.
Powerage (Atlantic ‘78) Rating: A
Many critics dismiss early AC/DC and run straight to Highway To Hell and Back In Black. I don’t know why, but I’d advise you not to make the same mistake, because Powerage is another fun party record that's filled with gloriously unhinged guitar licks from riffmeister Angus Young matched to a terrific batch of tunes. And though originality isn’t this bands stock in trade, their kickass beats (AC/DC are one of the greatest groove bands ever) and Bon Scott’s ragged screeches render such concepts as trivial. Besides, this is one of the few AC/DC albums devoid of obvious filler. I mean, even the lesser tracks here have their virtues, as “Gimme A Bullet” grooves like nobody’s business, while “Gone Shootin’” offers up a relaxed change of pace. Elsewhere, the escalating blooze beats of “Down Payment Blues” are matched to an everyman lyric that we can all relate to, though the band’s misogynist streak unfortunately rears up its ugly head on “Kicked In The Teeth,” one of the album's lesser tracks. Even so, that song still rocks, and the band’s lean, ferocious assault produces other undeniable hard rock winners such as “Rock N’ Roll Damnation” (which has the album's catchiest chorus), “Riff Raff” (Angus at his best), “Sin City” (Bon at his best), and “What's Next To The Moon” (like the aforementioned, even better “Down Payment Blues,” notable for its great toe tapping groove, as is the fed up “Up To My Neck In You” as well come to think of it). Sure, I suppose that none of these songs are major AC/DC classics, but Powerage is chock full of minor classics, even though it's less heavy than its pummeling predecessor, possibly due to a less lively production that yields a tinnier sound. But the songs are catchier and yes, better overall, especially since the band still supplies plenty of wattage. In short, no fan of this electrifying band should be without this killer album, which can power up any party. Note: Cliff Williams replaced Mark Evans on bass guitar duties on this album, giving the band not only a better bass player but another backup singer along with ace rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young (Angus' older brother and by most accounts the band's actual leader, certainly so after Bon died). P.S. I'd argue that Powerage is the most underrated and unjustly ignored album from the Bon years, being all but ignored by radio, and the band themselves have played little from it live over the years (really only "Sin City" and "Riff Raff"), nothing in recent times. In short, this album is for the diehards - most of whom love it.
If You Want Blood You’ve Got It (Atlantic ‘78) Rating: A-
This is a live album that lives in my cd player, as the boys give a pumped up crowd their money's worth. I’ve seen AC/DC live more than once, and they know what their fans want and they always deliver. Deliver loudly, I might add, with Angus’ famous schoolboy uniform and relentless head bobbing shenanigans always serving as the visual centerpiece (and let's not forget his duck walk or Curly Howard rolling around the floor imitation, either!). Culling ten tracks from their first four albums, (five from Let There Be Rock, fitting considering the full-speed-ahead attack of that groove heavy record), Bon spits and hollers his no good thoughts here as if his guts might explode, while the band rarely lets up even when stretching out a bit (“Bad Boy Boogie” and “Let There Be Rock” are both a bit bloated at 7:27 and 8:33, respectively). And though Angus’ fleet fingered guitar solos all sound the same and the band rides similar grooves throughout, the solos and grooves are all great - so what’s the problem? Some of these energetic and well-recorded versions even outstrip their studio counterparts (for example, “The Jack” and “Whole Lotta Rosie” are definitive), and if the album overlaps too much with Let There Be Rock (especially since “Problem Child” is also on Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap!), well, you really can’t have too much Bon-era AC/DC. True, most of the studio versions of these songs are superior, and the song selection could’ve been a bit better (any of "Jailbreak," "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)," "Rock 'n' Roll Singer," "Live Wire," "T.N.T.," "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," "Sin City," or "Down Payment Blues" would've been welcome), but this album shows off a great live band in great form. Bloody good album cover, too.
Highway To Hell (Atlantic ‘79) Rating: A+
This is the album where the boys really hit their stride, with Bon Scott’s perfectly placed yelps and screams leading the way. Yes, their lyrics are still sexist and one-dimensional, but if you lock into Angus Young’s knack for the killer riff, shake along with the expert rhythm section (Phil Rudd is one of my favorite drummers), and sing along to the super catchy choruses then this album is a hell of a lot of fun. Isn’t that what rock music is supposed to be? What dweeb said that rock music had to be literary or meaningful, anyway? Also, Highway To Hell lacks any of the weak spots that made previous AC/DC albums (slightly) less than heavenly, as this album rolls out one great song after another - there simply isn’t one weak cut. The album was also notable for being the first in a fortuitous relationship with producer John “Mutt” Lange (who came on board after failed initial sessions with Eddie Kramer), who cleaned up the band’s sound and made them more focused and professional than previously. Still, what really separates the album from its predecessors is its songs, many of which are flat-out phenomenal. For starters, there’s the famous title track that’s still a concert and radio favorite, while the band gets deliciously dark on “Walk All Over You” and the slithering sing along “Touch Too Much,” two prime performances. Elsewhere, “If You Want Blood You’ve Got It” has an unstoppable beat and one of Bon’s best vocal performances (which climaxes with a spine-tingling scream), while the pace slows perfectly for “Night Prowler,” an epic slasher tale on which Bon screams into the night as Angus’ bluesy guitar howls at the moon (this song would later cause the band much grief when it was revealed to be a favorite of serial killer Richard Ramirez). The end result is simply one of the all-time great hard rock albums, as Highway To Hell is an incredibly well rounded party platter that I just know I’ll never tire of.
Back In Black (Atlantic ‘80) Rating: A+
After the untimely death of Bon Scott (who drank himself to death), the future of AC/DC was very much in doubt. But in an unprecedented move, the band picked up Brian Johnson from Geordie and then proceeded to make arguably the best album of their career. These guys have always been riff monsters with great beats and choruses, and they take those elements to another level here, while Johnson gave the band a highly distinctive new screecher who if anything had an even cooler voice than Bon. And in a rare case of just desserts, the album deservedly launched the band into the commercial stratosphere; as of 2008, over 40 million copies have been sold worldwide. Anyway, Johnson fit right in with the band, who, in a fittingly tasteless toast to their fallen comrade, lovingly wrote “Have A Drink On Me,” which brought them criticism but which Bon almost certainly would’ve loved had he lived. Besides, since when did AC/DC ever try to please anyone but themselves and their fans? Their blues-based thunder, endearing bravado, and knowing humor come across more powerfully than ever on this landmark release. In addition, Mutt Lange’s production is phenomenal and every song on the album is distinguishable from the next, quite a feat for an AC/DC album. “Back In Black,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and “Hells Bells,” are all certified hard rock classics, but lesser known album tracks like “Shoot To Thrill” (actually this one also still gets regular radio airplay), “What Do You Do For Money Honey,” “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” “Have A Drink On Me,” and “Rock n’ Roll ‘Aint Noise Pollution” are also outrageously good (the latter two you sometimes hear on “classic rock radio” as well). Sure, "Shake A Leg" recycles the riff from "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" far too closely, and "Given The Dog A Bone" is cartoonishly unsubtle even for them, but these are minor quibbles about what is definitely a major hard rock album. Simply put, at this point in time AC/DC (not The Clash and certainly not The Rolling Stones) was the best band in the world.
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (Atlantic ‘81) Rating: A-
These songs were recorded with Bon Scott in 1976 but were only released in the U.S. after Bon Scott’s death and the tremendous success of Back In Black. This album is worth owning for the incredible title track alone, which has one of the band’s best riffs and is guaranteed to make me foolishly scream “raaaaaah” at the song’s end. And though songs such as “Problem Child” and “Rocker” should already be familiar from other albums, at least this is the first studio appearance of the fast and furious ‘50s-styled “Rocker,” which had previously appeared on If You Want Blood You’ve Got It. Besides, this album is not without other songs of considerable merit, such as “Love At First Feel,” which features one of the band’s most amusing and singable choruses, the hilariously juvenile and catchy “Big Balls,” and the laid back, bloozy “Ride On” (perhaps the closest they ever came to an actual ballad), on which it's easy to envision Bon riding off into the sunset, a far more romantic goodbye than the reality. There's some obvious filler in the form of the weak “There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin’,” and the overly long “Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round To Be A Millionaire)” is musically merely decent. However, I like its witty, jaded lyrics (obviously written by Bon pre-success), while the admittedly sleazy “Squealer” ends the album with a cool chanted chorus and some more hot guitar. All in all, despite some redundancy and a couple of lesser tracks, considering the nature of this kind of grab bag “cash in” venture, this was a surprisingly impressive album that officially closed the book on the Bon Scott era (until Bonfire, anyway).
For Those About To Rock (Atlantic ‘81) Rating: A-
The band's winning streak continues, albeit to a much lesser degree as perhaps they weren't as hungry this time out after the massive success of Back In Black (burnout from non-stop touring was also likely an issue). By now their blues-based boogie attack had slowed down considerably, as the band moved away from their more punk infused earlier direction into a more mid-tempo metal territory. And though it was an inevitable comedown from Back In Black, this was another strong album overall. There are a couple of clunkers that rely far too much on repetition and Johnson’s awesome phlegm-filled bark to carry the day, but by and large the album contains lots of catchy hard rock that offers nothing new (except for the explosive pyrotechnics of the title track, which became a much anticipated concert closer) but which is enjoyable nevertheless. Aside from the classic title track, “Put The Finger On You,” “Lets Get It Up,” and “C.O.D.” are also top notch, each being quite catchy and commercial, though there was no chance in hell of "C.O.D" (i.e. care of the devil) actually getting any airplay. There are plenty of cool verses and easily shoutable choruses elsewhere as well, even if some of these songs fail to really stand out from one another. Still, though older fans might be disappointed that new ideas seem harder to come by, and that AC/DC no longer blaze through every song, they can take solace in the fact that the band’s decibel-blowing guitar crunch is still up front and center. Alas, though glimpses of brain activity are occasionally in evidence, lyrically they’ve sunken completely into cliché, as aging men can sing about partying and getting laid for only so long before slipping completely into self-parody. Still, this should only slightly (if at all) limit the album’s appeal to the band’s fans, especially since Johnson’s voice is in vintage form throughout. Note: Unfortunately, Mutt Lange and the band fell out during these sessions; they supposedly were none too pleased that Def Leppard's High n' Dry sounded so much like them, and in turn he felt that AC/DC had gotten complacent, having arrived to the studio with only three songs and not listening to him anymore anyway.
Flick Of The Switch (Atlantic ’83) Rating: B+
This largely forgotten and underrated AC/DC album was pretty much a flop. And for no good reason, ‘cause aside from a few filler-ish tracks (par for the course from here on in) this was another consistently strong AC/DC collection, albeit one that lacked any truly classic songs. What it relies on instead is an overall intensity, whether it be generated by relentless riff rockers like the title track and “Landslide,” or by slower, crunchy sing alongs like "Rising Power" and “Nervous Shakedown.” The band’s patented grooves groove mightily throughout, and the noted but not minded absence of Mutt Lange (the boys self-produced, and as such the album's sound is fittingly stripped down) shows that the band needs only to plug in and do what they do best to generate some serious hard rock heat. I mean, the pumped up “House Is On Fire” can kick start any party, and I also dig the way the Led Zeppelin-like solo (i.e. “Heartbreaker") intros into “Guns For Hire,” and the way the guitars mesh just right with the big beats of “Bedlam In Belgium” (lyrically inspired by a near-riot involving the band in '77). These touches demonstrate that even when AC/DC are dumb as stumps lyrically (example: “guns for hire, shoot you with desire”) they’re almost always smart (if basic) musically. Besides, from 1980-1983 Brian Johnson had just about the coolest hard rock voice around, and Angus’ screaming guitar breaks in whenever things threaten to get stale. Note: After this album the band booted their excellent drummer, Phil Rudd (I think primarily due to alcoholism and burnout), whose basic, gutsy sound fit the band perfectly; he would be replaced by Simon Wright (1983-1989) and then Chris Slade (1989-1994) before rejoining the band for 1995's Ballbreaker.
'74 Jailbreak (Atlantic ’84) Rating: B+
Released in the United States ten years after the fact, this skimpy 5-song EP is primarily recommended to already existing fans, though it is consistently rocking and enjoyable, AC/DC doing what they do (even at that formative stage) and doing it well. "Jailbreak," still a concert favorite, is the album’s best-known and best song, with its stomping groove and catchy sing along chorus (it's primitive video was an MTV mainstay in '84). "You Ain’t Got a Hold on Me" is all about Bon, whose nasty, antagonistic vocal is one to behold, while "Show Business" has a bluesy stomp to its verses, another simple, singable (and considerably poppier if still rather rough) chorus, more good guitar, and tongue in cheek, autobiographical lyrics ridiculing their chosen vocation. Truth be told, these last two tracks are rather generic but are enjoyable anyway due to the band's charismatic performances. Better is "Soul Stripper," on which the band stretches out a bit (6:25). This song is led by its low-key bass groove and has another good harmonized chorus, not to mention some hot soloing from Angus. Last but certainly not least is their cover of Joe Williams’ "Baby Please Don’t Go," whose boogie groove was tailor made for the boys. Granted, this song has been done to death over the years, but surely this energized version is among the very best ones out there. So there you have it, some very worthwhile, easily enjoyable early songs from this Hall Of Fame band (how the hell did they get in given that questionable institution’s obvious anti-hard rock bias? Oh yeah, Back In Black sold like a zillion copies...). Perhaps one day this EP will be appended to one of their albums (High Voltage would seem a logical choice), but until then you’ll have to put up with the consumer-unfriendly EP format (which generally gives less than half an album - 24 minutes in this case - at more than half the price). Tough luck I guess. Note: Ironically, "Jailbreak" was the only song here not recorded in '74; it was recorded in '76 as the last track for the Australian version of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.
Fly On The Wall (Atlantic ’85) Rating: B-
Brian’s voice is starting to go, the production is weak, and the material is hit or miss. That said, “Fly On The Wall,” “Shake Your Foundations,” and especially “Sink The Pink” are three of the band’s best post-Back In Black songs, and I’m also partial to “Playing With Girls” and “Send For The Man.” But “First Blood,” “Hell or High Water,” and “Back In Business” are boring filler, while “Danger” and “Stand Up” might as well be the same song. Though the lyrics are getting more embarrassing each time out, these songs succeed or fail solely because of the quality of their riffs and choruses, and on those counts the percentages certainly could be better. Still, Fly On The Wall has enough high points to make it worth owning if you’re a hardcore AC/DC fan, though it's one of their weaker overall efforts. P.S. The public and band agreed; this was their lowest charting album of new material since Powerage, and the band has played nothing from it since the '85 tour.
Who Made Who (Atlantic ‘85) Rating: B
This soundtrack to the woeful Stephen King (a big AC/DC fan) movie Maximum Overdrive is the closest thing to an AC/DC “greatest hits” album (live albums excepted). Covering the Brian Johnson years (except for “Ride On”) but barely scratching the surface of that era, it nevertheless contains some of the band’s best songs, though it amounts to something of a rip-off at a mere nine tracks. On the plus side, it rescues “Sink The Pink” and a remixed “Shake Your Foundations” from obscurity, while the catchy, chugging title track is an excellent new addition to the band’s oeuvre. That said, there are two pretty good but hardly hits-worthy new instrumentals that interrupt the album’s momentum, and a true “greatest hits” package (or packages - one cd for Bon and one for Brian sounds about right) should eventually make this album obsolete. Note: As of 2008 this has yet to happen, presumably because such an album would cut into the sales of Back In Black.
Blow Up Your Video (Atlantic ’88) Rating: B-
The slump continues, as this album fails to provide even one Bon-afide classic. The minor hit “Heatseeker” chugs along nicely, with good riffs and a catchy chorus, and “That’s The Way I Wanna Rock n’ Roll” (the song for which this album is named) is an admirable attempt at an anthem, even if it fails to scale the previous heights of songs such as "For Those About To Rock." But I'm hard pressed to find other highlights; “Go Zone” has some hot guitar but a weak AC/DC-by-numbers chorus, and "Kissing Dynamite" has a pretty good chorus but has that all too increasingly common 20-25 seconds of middling, almost a tuning up, before a substandard riff appears. "Nick Of Time" is actually solidly enjoyable, and the simplistic yet singable "Ruff Stuff” and “Two’s Up” I suppose qualify as guilty pleasures, but the album's is plagued with excessive filler (“Meanstreak,” an ill-advised attempt at being funky, is the most obvious example), proving that AC/DC can be pretty dull when their riffs don’t stick to your ribs like a pound of pork chops. Which is too often the case here, as beyond the by now expected sophomoric lyrics (problem #2, as what was a band strength with Bon had become their biggest Achilles heel with Brian, who curiously enough hasn't gotten a songwriting credit since this album) the band fails to provide even the proper sonic punch; this album isn’t especially heavy, and it's almost as if the band wasn’t sure what they were going for this time out. Methinks that perhaps they could’ve used producer Mutt Lange as well (problem #3: a weak overall sound, even with Harry Vanda and George Young back behind the control board again), but Mutt or anyone else could’ve only done so much with some of these songs, especially since Johnson’s voice becomes more mangled with each outing. Ironically, this album was a semi-comeback for the band, hitting #12 in the U.S., their highest charter since 1981. That said, it was hard for longtime fans not to notice that in the mid-to-late '80s other bands like The Cult were doing a better AC/DC sound than AC/DC was.
The Razors Edge (Atlantic ‘90) Rating: B+
After some sub par efforts, AC/DC entered the '90s by hiring producer of the moment Bruce Fairbairn (Bon Jovi, Aerosmith) and getting in touch with their feminine side. Um, scratch that last part, ‘cause song titles such as “Mistress For Christmas,” “Got You By The Balls,” “Shot Of Love,” and “Lets Make It” reveal AC/DC to be as politically incorrect as ever. Unfortunately, their shtick just isn’t as funny anymore (though “Mistress For Christmas” is salvaged by being so obviously dumb and tongue in cheek), and poor Brian Johnson has virtually no voice left after years of being abused by the road, painfully garbling out infantile lyrics that are beside the point anyway. So why do I still root for these guys, and why do I still get off on most of this album? Simply put, the band still has the rock n’ roll spirit, and they smartly speed up the tempos and turn up the energy level. Even more importantly, Angus and co. break out some killer riffs that I didn’t think they still had in them, rocking the house on “Thunderstruck,” “The Razors Edge,” and “Are You Ready,” for starters. “Thunderstruck” (about Angus’ near death experience while on tour), with its exciting guitar intro and memorable almost-gothic chants, is simply the band’s best song in ages and is an instant classic, while the menacing title track simmers with a dark hued intensity arguably not seen since “Hells Bells.” This is the AC/DC sound that Accept was once obviously so smitten with, and “Are You Ready” is a nicely building sing along anthem (basically an improvement on “That’s The Way I Wanna Rock n’ Roll”) that also really hits the spot. Elsewhere, there’s some filler as per usual, but not too much, and there are plenty of good riffs and catchy choruses on strong album tracks such as “Fire Your Guns,” “Shot Of Love,” and “If You Dare.” Other songs such as “Rock Your Heart Out” and “Let’s Make It” are surprisingly poppy, as Fairbairn sleeks up the sound in an obvious bid for airplay. Mission accomplished, as the album was a huge seller (#2 U.S., #4 U.K.), helped in no small part by the success of the very commercial but very good (not least because its cynical lyrics actually betray some thought) single “Moneytalks,” the bands first smash hit in years (it's their biggest hit ever actually at #23, though 20 years later it’s “Thunderstruck” not this one that regularly makes the rounds in sports arenas and on classic rock radio). Of course, the song's glossy guitar hooks and radio ready chorus had some longtime fans crying “sellout,” but this strong comeback album (aided by a good performance from new drummer Chris Slade) was far more than I had hoped for at this point.
Live: 2 CD Collector's Edition (Atco ’92, Epic '03) Rating: A-
There are two versions of this album, a single 14-track cd and a double cd with 23 songs that's less widely available but much better. Given that, I'm reviewing the 2-cd edition, which though flawed provides a highly satisfactory look back at a legendary career. For one thing, with Fairbairn again at the controls, this sounds really good (especially Slade's drums) for a live album, never mind that some of it was likely touched up in the studio; I don't care that much about "authenticity" so long as it sounds good. Recorded during The Razor's Edge tour, this album is quite obviously a compilation of songs from different shows (note the audio breaks between songs), which might offend you purists out there, but again this doesn't bother me much. Besides, the career encompassing, well sequenced set list is hard to argue too strongly against; the band takes six songs from their last two albums (probably the best six), totally omits Flick Of The Switch and Fly On The Wall (a couple of songs would've been nice), and includes quite a few Bon-era songs ("Sin City," "Jailbreak," "The Jack," "Dirty Deeds," "High Voltage," "Whole Lotta Rosie," "Let There Be Rock," "Highway To Hell," and "T.N.T") along with "Who Made Who," "For Those About To Rock," and the usual mainstays from Back In Black ("Shoot To Thrill," "Back In Black," "Hells Bells," and "You Shook Me All Night Long"). On the downside, when listening to the early '80s songs you can really hear how Brian's voice has deteriorated, but these are such great songs that it hardly matters, and he's still a good frontman (besides Angus is the show in a live setting, anyway). Angus gets in a few great extended guitar sections ("Jailbreak," "High Voltage," "Let There Be Rock") where the crowd really gets into it, and listening to this album makes it abundantly clear just how rich the band's songbook is after so many years together. On the downside, there's an aseptic feel to some of the older songs, as Brian at times struggles with the Bon songs, a not uncommon occurrence in such situations (see also Dio with Ozzy songs, Hagar with Roth songs, etc). Generally speaking, the arrangements also don't veer much from the original songs, and there are precious few revelatory moments (such as how good "That's The Way I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll" sounds here) to raise this album into the realm of "classic" status, but it's still a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.
Ballbreaker (Elektra ’95) Rating: B
After a five-year layoff during which they only added the decent single “Big Gun” to The Last Action Hero soundtrack (dreadful movie, good soundtrack), AC/DC returned with more of the same on Ballbreaker, (you were expecting something different?), with longtime fan Rick Rubin sitting in the producer chair and Rudd back behind the drum stool (the band sacked Slade, who did a fine job but let’s face it no other AC/DC drummer has the lock stepped precision of Rudd). Awhile back Angus had explained the band’s simplistic strategy thusly: “most band’s try to progress and progress until they wind up progressing right up their own arses.” Hard to argue against that, but it is disappointing that the old geezers continue to deliberately dumb down, courting the younger set who sincerely believe that Gene Simmons’ tongue is so long because it got caught in a toaster when he was young. Then again, they do attempt some social commentary on “The Furor,” “Hail Ceasar,” and “Burnin’ Alive” (about Waco), so I’ll give them points for trying at least. However, sonically speaking Ballbreaker is a step back from the heartening heat of The Razor’s Edge, which frankly featured more energetic and better-recorded performances (Rubin’s perfectionist methods didn’t sit well with the band, who later viewed their association with him as a costly mistake). In short, given the quantity of better AC/DC albums out there I doubt that I’ll ever play this one much, despite some catchy (and horny) shouted choruses like the ones on “Hard As A Rock,” “Love Bomb,” and “Ballbreaker.” The band also delivers a tough mid-tempo blooze vibe on “Boogie Man” and “Whiskey On The Rocks,” “Hail Ceasar” has those catchy “hail hail” vocal chants, and “The Furor” features the album’s nastiest performance (that’s a good thing), with dark overtones a la “Hells Bells” and “The Razors Edge.” But several songs here don't really register and the band’s sexist lyrics are beyond caricature at this point (i.e. “Cover You In Oil”), though by and large the album still provides satisfaction simply on a sonic level.
Bonfire (Eastwest Records ’97) Rating: A-
AC/DC aren't the nostalgic types, and for years they resisted releasing a proper "hits" set or any archive material, but the old dogs had softened over the years and finally released Bonfire, a 5-cd box set in tribute to their first singer, the incomparable Bon Scott. Unlike most box sets, Bonfire is actually four distinctly separate albums thrown together under a single umbrella, including two live albums (one a 2-cd set), a cd of alternate takes and rarities, and a remastered Back In Black. Now, why the band included an album that everybody who buys this likely already has, and which doesn't even include Bon (though it was largely a tribute to him), is anybody's guess; my unofficial opinion is that the band's obsession with the sales of Back In Black (which is at least partially why I think they've never released a proper "hits" comp.) got the better of them (sales from this box set counts towards the overall Back In Black totals), but whatever their reason its inclusion amounts to a complete ripoff. The Volts set is interesting for diehards but also could've been much better. For one thing, the alternate versions of familiar songs (mostly from Highway To Hell) are generally far inferior to the known versions, and there's simply no excuse for including the well-known versions of “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)” and "Ride On" when they could've included many if not all of the songs previously only available on the Australian releases, including "Stick Around," "Love Song," "Cold Hearted Man," "You Ain't Got A Hold On Me," "R.I.P. (Rock in Peace)," "Crabsody In Blue," and "Overdose." Still, at least they did include rarities in the form of "Dirty Eyes," "Back Seat Confidential," and "School Days" (a Chuck Berry cover), and the live version of "Sin City" is even nastier than the original. Still, for my money the reason to splurge for this rather (unnecessarily) expensive box set are the two live sets. The first one, titled Live From The Atlantic Studios, was recorded in 1977 in front of a small but captive audience in New York City for a (much taped) FM radio simulcast set up to promote the Let There Be Rock album. Simply put, this album kicks ass, as you'd expect, and though I suppose that If You Want Blood You've Got It is slightly better due to superior sound quality, I'm glad that I own both, especially since this set includes a couple of songs ("Live Wire," "Dog Eat Dog") not included on that album, plus this version of "Problem Child" is fantastic. The other live album, Live In Paris, which takes up discs two and three, is actually the audio soundtrack to the Let There Be Rock video (not to be confused with the album of the same name). Recorded in late 1979 during the Highway to Hell tour, this is another kickass live souvenir that I'd rate as being even more essential for the diehards than Atlantic Studios since it includes live versions of Highway To Hell songs ("Shot Down In Flames," "Walk All Over You," "Highway To Hell," "Girls Got Rhythm") with Bon on vocals that you can't officially get anywhere else. Of course, these sets have long been available via unofficial channels, but this material is deserving of an official release (not everybody knows where to find or can afford bootlegs, after all). Needless to say, this box set is aimed exclusively at the hardcore AC/DC fan, and for those who qualify I'd say that it's well worth obtaining. That said, the unnecessary inclusion of Back In Black and the disappointing Volts disc makes Bonfire less than it could've been. Going a step further, if Live From Paris had been edited down a bit, Bonfire could've been a jam-packed, far more affordable 3-cd set that even non-diehards could dig into.
Stiff Upper Lip (Elektra ’00) Rating: B+
Five long years later and the boys are finally back again, this time with George Young producing along with Mike Fraser, who had co-produced Ballbreaker with Rubin. Leading off with the catchy title track, it’s immediately apparent that Brian’s voice is still shot, which isn't surprising since the last time he sounded really good was on Flick Of The Switch, Also, several songs here recall previous AC/DC attempts, and as usual the band relies too much on overly simplistic and repetitive choruses. Fortunately, lyrically this album isn’t quite as juvenile as recent efforts, and overall the band sounds relaxed and confident. Angus leads the band’s more mature style with bluesy, low slung riffs and some typically hot solo turns. For their part, the rhythm section brings forth the patented AC/DC stomp on memorable songs such as “House Of Jazz,” “Safe In New York City,” and “Satellite Blues,” while catchy tracks like “Hold Me Back” and “Can’t Stand Still” also show off a highly melodic pop metal machine in fine form. And though this isn’t one of the band’s heavier efforts, over the course of the album AC/DC’s forward drive becomes difficult to deny, whether on the slow burning "Can't Stop Rock 'N' Roll" (on which the band again restate their commitment to the rock 'n' roll cause), the cool doubled up riffs and slinky grooves of “All Screwed Up,” or the fiery finale, "Give It Up." Let’s face it, everybody knows what these guys bring to the table by now, the band themselves freely and proudly admitting that they make the same album over and over again. Of course, some of those albums are much better than others, and while this isn’t quite a top shelf AC/DC album since there are several lesser entries and no truly classic tracks, it is a very good one, and you can never have too many of those.
Black Ice (Columbia ’08) Rating: B+
This time the band took eight years between albums, and I can see why. The guys are getting up there in years, they have plenty of money in the bank (one would think), and unlike other bands (Motorhead, for example, who needlessly pump out fresh product annually) AC/DC knows that absence makes the heart grow fonder at this point in their career. And what do you know? Black Ice became their first #1 album on the Billboard charts since For Those About To Rock, so I guess their exclusivity deal with Wal-Mart worked for them. That said, I personally find such an arrangement, which totally excludes the "mom and pop" shops (what few of them that are left), very disappointing. I mean, aren't AC/DC supposed to be the antithesis The Eagles? This used to be a band of hungry underdogs, and it's hard to imagine them getting any more mainstream; the first single, "Rock n' Roll Train," is played before seemingly every commercial break during American football telecasts these days, which shows just how ingrained into the mainstream AC/DC has become. But I digress, because from a musical standpoint the band has never sold out; this is another quality AC/DC album and that's a fine first single containing their patented stomping grooves, a catchy harmonized chorus, and hot guitar soloing from Angus. "Skies On Fire" has a stellar chorus and "Anything Goes" is quite tuneful, and both feature a brighter sound than usual, but the band can still get gritty, as on the anti-war rocker "War Machine," which sees the band voicing more grown up concerns than usual. Then again, there's plenty of dumb but fun rockers, too, such as "Smash 'n' Grab" (with another big chorus), "Spoilin' For A Fight" (try to find two worse song titles back to back), "Wheels" (on which the Young's acknowledge Brian's love of car racing), and "Rocking All The Way." Though none are highlights, a few slower, bluesy efforts like "Decibel," "Stormy May Day" (on which Angus plays slide guitar for the first time on record), and the title track give the album a bit of variety, and the band even attempts a semi-ballad on "Rock 'n' Roll Dream." Under direction from producer Brendan O'Brien, who does a good job with the overall sound, this song features Brian attempt to soulfully sing rather than screech, and though he's still kinda screeching, at least he's trying to branch out a bit, right? On the downside, at 15 songs clocking in at around 56 minutes (by far the band's longest to date), I'd say that the band overextended themselves a bit here. After all, diversity isn't exactly a band strength, never was, and towards the end of the album I occasionally start to think to myself "didn't I hear this song already?" Then again, these are mostly good songs, and though it won't take the place of the best Bon Scott era albums or Back In Black, Black Ice is certainly another very worthwhile late-period addition to the band's discography.
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