Though the original '70s incarnation of the band reached heights almost no group since has even dreamed of equaling, KISS survived surprisingly well into the '80s through membership changes and stylistic uncertainty. By reputation the band's early-'80s work does not receive a lot of positive attention, but in general that neglected portion of the band's catalogue is actually more interesting than the generic pop metal to which KISS turned for its mid-'80s commercial comeback. Here's a chronological look at my take on the best songs from this legendary band's less-heralded but second most successful decade.
You know, KISS takes a lot of heat for releasing a great deal of musical fluff, particularly during its late-'70s and early-'80s chaotic period of shifting styles and personnel. Known for image and marketing far more than its music, this is a band whose reputation often unfairly minimizes its critical reception. Simply put, this is a fine guitar-oriented pop/rock song no matter what era in which it's heard, and the fact that KISS possesses in its catalogue as many solid, underrated compositions as it does should be enough to convince detractors that the band is a pretty damn good one underneath all the elaborate layers of disguise. Minus Peter Criss but still featuring Ace Frehley's aggressive guitar, this tune deftly ignores disco.
2. "Naked City"
As I revisit all 11 tracks from 1980's Unmasked, I'm struck with how utterly decent the album is, especially given the fractured state of the music industry and the band (Criss was gone and Frehley would leave by 1982, amidst already-rising objections to the group's musical direction). But for all the modifications KISS had made to its sound since its mid-'70s heyday, this album ultimately delivers very solid, catchy pop/rock with a heavier sound than it's given credit for. On "Naked City," Gene Simmons presents impassioned, relatively high-pitched vocals to go along with one of his best melodies of the band's career. This may not be life-altering stuff, but the KISS formula comes through loud and clear on this highly listenable track.
Paul Stanley has always been known as the most pop-oriented member of KISS, and although he's received his share of negative attention for that, his consistent musical sensibility is hard to argue with on a deep album track like this. By this time, Frehley's contributions to the band's sound had diminished significantly, but his powerful guitar sound continues to offer balance to a more accessible musical direction. Now certainly, for KISS fans who persisted in viewing the band as a true hard rock entity (if it had ever truly belonged in that category), this growing accessibility must have been frustrating and confusing. But for music fans looking for premium mainstream rock with ample guitars, it's really hard to go wrong with Unmasked.
4. "Dark Light"
It would perhaps cook Frehley's noodle to read this statement given his negative view of the music in question, but I find this track to be the most consistently enjoyable of 1981's misguided Music from the Elder concept album. Though maligned for too much reliance on orchestration and a cheesy approach that really just amounts to trying too hard to branch out, this record isn't quite as terrible as its reputation implies. But while "A World Without Heroes" wastes a decent melody through on-the-nose sentimentality, the light touch of Frehley and his distinct songwriting approach on this tune works remarkably well to construct a memorable stand-alone rock song. The guitarist's solo work is inventive and serves as a nifty last hurrah.
I may be in the minority here, but I generally find the admittedly heavier sound of 1982's Creatures of the Night to be dull instead of a welcome return to form for KISS. Despite an obvious influence from Vinnie Vincent, the unofficial replacement for Frehley, I think the group's sound suffers without the latter's signature style. Still, this thoroughly enjoyable, playful hard rock romp is the closest thing to heavy metal the band had produced to date, with its bombastic guitar thrust and heavy drums. It also benefits from a much-reduced seriousness in approach that rewarded fans who had stuck around through the band's string of experimental album releases. It's a fun track that stands apart from the record's heavier but bland tunes.
KISS had certainly produced ballads before, but this is probably the group's first genuine pop metal power ballad, a song ever-reliant on moody, arpeggiated guitars from Vincent and lighter-raising vocals from Stanley. The singer's attempts at metal bombast come off a bit hollow on the record's faster cuts, but here the marriage of slow tempos with romantic yearning clearly foreshadows KISS's later success in the hair metal movement of the mid to late-'80s. I stop short of declaring this one to be a full-tilt classic, but it does work well as an effective evolution of a band's sound into a new musical era. Still, Vincent's lead guitar work lacks Frehley's originality even if it certainly operates on a comfortable level of competence.
Despite (or perhaps on some level because of) the ridiculous posing of both this track's music video and its lyrical bravado, this tune qualifies as a uniquely '80s hard rock classic from the new lineup of KISS. For the release of 1983's Lick It Up, of course, the band - which now officially featured only two original members in Stanley and Simmons - had finally taken the drastic step of removing its trademark makeup. So Stanley's memorable rap-monologues (featuring such hilarious declarations as "Hey man, I am cool, I am the Breeze") come off appropriately tongue-in-cheek and add to the overall kitschy appeal of the new KISS sound. At this point the transition from '70s band to '80s band was authoritative, for better or worse.
Some groups that found their way into the pop metal mix never even functioned fully as heavy metal bands in the first place, occupying instead a separate ground blending hard rock, pop and glam rock style. But KISS has always demonstrated a sort of chameleonic genius that has allowed the band to maintain a nearly 40-year career of consistent output and success. Built on a monster guitar riff and dripping with the kind of sexual innuendo that would come to define hair metal in the years to come, this 1984 track from Animalize was opportunistic and savvy, just like the band itself.
I omit the familiar rock radio staple "Lick It Up" from this list mainly because it has received more than enough attention in the past, but I think it's appropriate to spotlight this 1985 track from Asylum because it's one of the few popular KISS songs of the era to not be cowritten by composers outside the band. It also happens to feature a Stanley melody and vocal performance that manages far better than the other post-makeup song mentioned here to sound distinctive from much generic hard rock of the period. Both "Lick It Up" and "Heaven's on Fire" are reputable if by-the-numbers '80s classics, but "Tears" boasts an equally memorable guitar riff and wrings a bit more emotional energy from Stanley than he often generated at this time.
10. "Reason to Live"
Although it should probably be disqualified simply for featuring a song cowritten by Diane Warren - if not for the more grievous offense of presenting a song titled (with absolutely zero irony) "Bang Bang You" - 1987's Crazy Nights was so popular that it deserves to be represented in some fashion on this list. There are some decent songs on this record, including the utterly listenable "I'll Fight Hell to Hold You," but I choose one of the most-heard '80s KISS songs of all because it's a really good power ballad and represents Stanley at his melodic best as clear leader of this version of the band. I've heard it a hundred times, but I genuinely enjoyed revisiting it, a fact that makes it a solid if unabashedly mainstream choice.