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Cover Story #10: The Ultimate Makeup Game - Pickled Priest Ranks the Kiss Album Covers

If you've spent any time reading Pickled Priest you're painfully aware of my childhood Kiss obsession by now. They were my world for a few years until they suddenly weren't anymore. I may have moved on to other things, but I will always hold a special place for them in my heart, so here's yet another Kiss-related post to gnaw on for about 15 minutes or so. This list ranks our favorite Kiss album covers from worst to best. I've included all the studio albums (sans their solo records), the three 'Alive' albums, and a couple random records deemed worthy of inclusion.

24 Animalize (1984)

The most inexplicable Kiss album cover ever belongs to this hide scratcher, which is basically a few animal print swatches from the seedy back corner of Joann Fabrics where the prostitutes, professional wrestlers, and divorcée cougars hang out. The decision to arrange these swatches side-by-side and call it a day boggles the mind. It's as if a creative vacuum had sucked all other viable ideas out of the air during production. Even Kiss's creative director at the time, Dennis Woloch, admits this is one of his worst cover concepts. The only consistently great thing about all Kiss albums is the band's logo, perhaps the most iconic of all-time, designed by Ace and refined by Paul. It's one of the most known brands in the world, right up there with Coca Cola, McDonald's and Apple. Although in Germany, they replaced the jagged double-S with regular letters (see below) because they were eerily similar to the logo for Hitler's secret guard service called the Schutzstaffel.

23 Hot in the Shade (1989)

Did nobody even think to put Gene's makeup on this sphinx (nicknamed "Leon") and call it a day? Instead, the winning idea was to take a dingy, sun-bleached photo and put a pair of cheap sunglasses on it? C'mon, man! The only thing keeping this out of last place is the postal stamp in the upper right hand corner where we witness something rarer than a unicorn in the world of Kiss...subtlety. It's the only album by Kiss where the logo is so tiny on a cover, which is appreciated.

22 MTV Unplugged (1999)

I've seen vomit on the sidewalk that had more artistic originality than this cover. If there's one thing I hate, it's when something looks slapped together. The ultimate insult to the fans who buy all this crap no matter how inessential. And I cannot think of many things less essential than an unmasked Unplugged Kiss record. Has any human being on earth willingly listened to this album even once in the 21st century? And speaking further to the non-essentiality of the record, the stage was crowded that day I tell you, cluttered with original and replacement band members, as the cover blurrily shows. If the intent of the show was to strip the band's sound down to its acoustic essence, why did they need four guitarists and two drummers to do it? All this onstage detritus contributes to an impossibly busy and unattractive cover. The photo is grainy, the colors bleed, and the ripped photo effect is about nuanced as an unplugged Kiss song.

21 Music from The Elder (1981)

I give this cover some credit for at least trying something new even if it was notoriously a commercial, creative, and artistic disaster across the board. The film remains unreleased to this day, no less. The record remains one of the great Kiss foibles, but some delusional die-hard fans will tell you they like it, a sure sign of its shittiness. I implore you, do not touch that door knocker! You do not want to know what's inside. But this is just one of many missteps in the 80's for the band, so get used to it. Believe it or not, there's a 52-minute YouTube interview about this cover with band art director Dennis Woloch* that goes into excruciating detail on the history of this cover. I watched the whole thing and learned very little other than the plot of The Elder was very Lord of the Rings-y in nature and that the hand shown belongs to Paul Stanley. At one point in the video the host hilariously clarifies that the door was not made of oak, but pine wood instead. Well that changes everything! The entire process of conceiving, recording, presenting, and marketing The Elder, says a clear-eyed Dennis Woloch, "Reminded me of Spinal Tap." And that, my friends, is that.

*Woloch also designed the Kiss Army logo.

20 Lick it Up (1983)

No band benefited more from being covered in makeup than Kiss. With makeup, they were best seen and heard. Without makeup, they were best not heard and not seen. I think we can all agree that the worst thing Kiss ever did was taking off their makeup. It stripped them of their superpowers and required their music to stand on its own, which it generally couldn't. Distraction has always been Kiss's secret weapon. I am convinced their albums in the 1970s still hold up thanks to memorable songs and their iconic appearance, one augmenting the other, but Kiss in the godforsaken 1980s was fucking rough in both respects. As far as Kiss was concerned, the 80s couldn't end soon enough and the very last thing they needed was to be viewed as just another B-grade hair metal band. Lick It Up didn't help to deflect that label, either. Shitty album, comically dumb title song, lame album cover. Not dangerous, not sexy, not menacing, not interesting, not creative, and clearly low budget. And Gene still sticking out his tongue here is so sad to me, like he's got nothing else to bring to the table. Even Dennis Woloch, the band's art director, felt pangs of melancholy for the unmasked Gene, who was still trying to seem evil long after his visual impact had been effectively neutered by his unmasking.

19 Revenge (1992)

After taking shrapnel from critics throughout the 80s, and rightfully so, this is what the Kiss jet probably looked like upon landing in the early-90s. As that new decade dawned, perhaps Kiss was intent on seeking Revenge against their critics, but the 1990s weren't much better for the band. The creativity tank remained empty and that was reflected in their album art, too. A slight improvement from some others because the concept could've worked had they put some thought into it like, say, the Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill cover. Instead we got this forgettable image. 93% of Kiss fans don't even remember they released this album.

18 Monster (2012)

The band's last studio album, for better not worse. It's also from the era where other players, through no fault of their own, wore the original makeup of Ace and Peter onstage and in photos, like they were understudies in a Broadway production or something. It didn't help that Sandra Bernhard (Ace) and Rosie O'Donnell (Peter) were selected to fill those roles in the early-1990s either. Bottom line: this cover is too much of everything. Too clean, too digital, too overworked, too posed, and too desperate. It looks like a photo you'd take in one of those dress-up shops at the mall with your friends. New Peter is posed like his mom wants just one last photo before he goes out trick-or-treating and Ace looks positively mortified to be seen in public looking this way.

17 Alive III (1993)

An insult to the Alive franchise, this cover took about 12-minutes for a freshman design class to whip up. This is the design equivalent of the Godfather Part III; it has none of the magic of the original nor the compelling storyline of its sequel. Just a disjointed, slapped-together mess with a sub-par script, in this case playlist. Nothing worth seeing here, people, just a cash grab in a low budget package.

16 Crazy Nights (1987)

Fact: The 1980s lasted for 27 years. At least it did for Kiss, or so it seems. Still sticking to the no-makeup approach, the tired "broken mirror" concept in play here couldn't be more dull and creatively bankrupt. The band seems nonplussed to be at the photo shoot and the images in no way reflect the so-called "crazy nights" promised by the album's title. They look like they're having a fucking blast, don't they? The patented Gene "demon" look comes off as dumb sans makeup, too. The cover was made to be rotated, kind of like Rock and Roll Over, but far less effective, hence the excessive logo and title repetition. I also believe they shouldn't have put an extra tiny picture of each member in one of the small glass shards. Why exactly? A broken mirror reportedly brings you seven years of bad luck, but Kiss was already in the middle of a protracted period of irrelevance at the time, so tempting fate even more was a bad, bad idea.

15 Sonic Boom (2009)

If this cover tells us one thing, it's that one day you're in and the next day you're out. Just like the fashion industry, you're only as good as your last design. Michael Doret, the same artist who gave us the original and enduring cover for Rock and Roll Over was called back over twenty years later to work on the band's doomed 2009 comeback project, the infinitely forgettable Sonic Boom. The visual is simply abysmal, a color blast landing somewhere between a candy wrapper and an advertisement for a stereo store's Memorial Day weekend blowout. And to make matters worse it looks like it was misprinted. The fact this is what was really intended makes it even worse.

14 Psycho Circus (1998)

The first reunion tour with all original members and no new music was amazing (1996). The second reunion tour with all original members (Ace/Peter now tiring somewhat) and a new album in tow, Psycho Circus, was far less of a thrill (1998). The cover was equally underwhelming. In 1998, am I still supposed to be excited by 3-D artwork? I had 3-D baseball cards in the early 70s—the novelty had long since worn off when they trotted out this cover. And why have a scary clown in the center of the frame when you have "Demon" Gene Simmons in the band? Why is he off to the side in a small ornate frame and not the center of attention? I get the evil clown thing, but come on. Play to your strengths.

13 Asylum (1985)

Album art in the 80s was pretty fucking terrible in general. If you were a band on the way out at the time, with budget trimmed commensurate with public interest, this is what you were left with. Developed by Kiss's ad agency no less (Howard Marks Advertising, how neat). This comes off as some kind of low-rent Andy Warhol ripoff that would've worked much better with makeup on, of course. At least they tried something a little bit artistic this time, so the lowest level of credit available is given, but the fact that alone somehow manages to elevate this unimaginative cover over many others on this list doesn't say much for the band's quality control. I find it very odd that a band that so carefully curated their image generally didn't have much involvement in their own album covers, don't you? I don't get it.

12 Unmasked (1980)

False advertising in the end, because Kiss didn't officially take off their makeup until 1983 for the Lick It Up album, but this album shows them seriously considering the idea even if, in the end, the joke was on us. Under their masks, they were still their chosen characters—psych! The comic book idea called upon recent history, when the band did have their own comic book (with their own blood famously mixed into the printing ink) so this cover shouldn't come as much of a surprise to die-hard fans. That said, the story told is of a band getting frustrated with paparazzi desperately trying to get a shot of the band without their makeup on. I imagine it was a major pain in the ass to live that way. It's a pretty cool concept, reasonably executed, and I particularly like the strip's final frame, a rare moment of self-deprecation from the band. The boys weren't known for their humor, but this was a clever way to ease into the idea of our favorite fantasy band's evolution into just another another cheesy 80's rock band.

11 Double Platinum (1979)

I put this on the list because it's from the golden era of Greatest Hits albums, before they released a new hits collection every other year to shamelessly bilk fans of their hard-earned money. Double Platinum capped a run of unparalleled commercial success for the band with an impeccably assembled set of the band's greatest music to date. And I stress "music" there, because the band had some great fucking songs even if some people don't want to admit it. I also appreciate that the band isn't featured on the cover, just a reference to the massive sales numbers they had generated over the last five years. This was stressed by a silver cover double-embossed to stress double-platinum status, with a blood-red banner in case you didn't get the point. It was fun to run your fingers over the beveled edges, too. It wasn't amazingly innovative, but it had the intended effect. Here's a message to our critics...Double Platinum, baby, suck it!

10 Alive II (1977)

I'm a little biased here, as this was the first double-album I ever purchased with my own money. My mom sold that copy at a garage sale years later when I had moved to CDs and very few thought vinyl would have much of a life left, let alone a second life decades later. I'm happy to report I repurchased a copy a couple weeks ago complete with all the original inserts, including a set of Kiss tattoos that aren't easy to find. I'm going to guess they wouldn't work still, like I would ruin a perfect set for such a temporary thrill anyway. In truth, the best thing this album has going for it is its boldness. Huge font (before they were known as fonts), vibrant colors, band photos. Its design approach is a lack of any real design, which is either lazy or clever, I'm not sure. I guess the band was such a known commodity at this point it didn't matter. The photos are what stand out to me now. Paul gazing into a crystal ball or something, Ace in interstellar reverie, Peter absolutely stoned out of his mind. All in character, to say the least. But what really makes it for me is Gene's sloppy, sweaty, bloody photo, his hair matted to his head like he's come in from a rainstorm after a bloody pub brawl. He's worked hard for his money on this night and it shows. It's a menacing, disturbing image. Like a serial killer photographed immediately after a fresh kill. Personally, I would've boxed all four images on the cover like the posters they were and then run the text through the middle. But when I was a kid, none of that mattered. I was holding the new Kiss album in my grubby little hands!

09 Dynasty (1979)

Kiss hired a major fashion photographer, Francesco Scavullo, to do this album cover and this is all he could come up with—four faces, double stacked. What a genius. A major creative letdown for a guy with such a high price tag thanks to his ubiquitous Cosmopolitan covers, but still not an offensive image overall. Just safe. At the very least, I guess, it was the perfect mom's guide to painting your kids' faces as Kiss characters come Halloween. Most everybody looks reasonably normal here, with the exception of Gene, who looks like he's passing a kidney stone at this very moment. Actually, this was shot during a short period where he had braces on his top teeth and didn't like to show them in photos (true), so instead we got this goofy alternate look which is bizarre for all the wrong reasons. We didn't know it at the time, but one year later the original lineup was gone* and the makeup came off effectively ending the band's glory years. In retrospect, the cover gains a sentimental boost, but it just could've been so much more, too.

*Peter only played on one song due to a hand injury, and Ace didn't play on it at all, so the photo is a bit of a lie, in theory.

08 Creatures of the Night (1982)

The highest ranking cover not with the four original members, which is a major accomplishment, because I am a Kiss purist at heart. I dropped off the map when they put out their solo albums and rarely looked back. I had no issue with new drummer Eric Carr per se, although I never loved his makeup choice, which was modeled after a fox. Through no fault of his own, this image seems a bit off without the familiar Cat completing the picture. Still, the blue tinted cover with the illuminated eyes is a really arresting image, perfectly capturing just what the album's title promises. The light purple lettering completes a unique color palette for a Kiss album and makes you want to buy the record based on the cover alone, giving the new incarnation of the band a fighting chance for survival. The universal sign of a successful cover concept. It was said to be inspired by a children's book, I Can Read About Creatures of the Night by David Cutts and Jean Chandler (from 1979) and one look below is all it takes to confirm that suspicion. Creativity moves in mysterious ways.

07 Love Gun (1977)

Foreshadowing! From the same artist who painted the iconic Destroyer album cover (we all know it's still to come), comes the unfortunately-titled Love Gun. Kiss art director Dennis Woloch adamantly resisted going back to Ken Kelly just a year after the fantasy artist made his career with Destroyer, instead preferring to go in a more innovative direction. But Kiss manager Bill Aucoin, not one to fuck with a winning formula, pushed back and ultimately won his argument to tap into that same Destroyer magic a second time. This time, Woloch instructed Kelly to bring the band back down to earth somewhat, this time presenting Kiss as ladykillers, surrounded by swooning, sexy, women in white face paint lying at their feet ravaged or waiting to be ravaged by a band whose average audience age was about 13 1/2 at the time. We did say "somewhat" down to earth, didn't we? That said, this is a pretty fantabulous album cover by all accounts, even though the third head from the left appears to be floating independently of an actual body. Call it artistic license. If the goal of an album cover is to make you want what's inside, then that was certainly accomplished with this titillating visual. Sex and rock and roll are what it's all about, especially for their target demographic. I was proof of concept. When I found this under the family Christmas tree back in 1977, I just about had a stimulation overload.

06 Hotter Than Hell (1974)

Kiss was a worldwide phenomenon, which is what makes this album unlike any other cover in the band's catalog. It's based in Japanese culture, with band, title, and member names all translated into Japanese, albeit with transliteration errors out the wazoo, the same issue found in just about every set of Japanese characters ever applied by an American tattoo artist. Resist, people, resist! Trivia: the single character in the circle at the bottom of the frame means "power" in Japanese, which we'll allow. I also love the colorful Manga-esque accents throughout the cover, which makes the record look like one of those pirated albums sold illegally on the streets of Tokyo by a guy in a long trench coat. Perhaps my favorite quirk on the cover is the thumb top-right, where a phantom hand appears to be covertly handing you the record (although never hold a vinyl record from the corner unless you want a pronounced crease in your cover). The innovative design was directed by John Van Hamersveld with photography by Norman Seeff, a duo whose resume includes The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St., The Steve Miller Band's The Joker, John Cougar's American Fool, and the gorgeous Grateful Dead "Best of," Skeletons in the Closet. Also, to be fair, one of the most mocked album covers ever, Orleans' Waking and Dreaming (see below). You can't nail them all.

05 Rock and Roll Over (1976)

Credit artist Michael Doret for this refreshingly out-of-the-box approach to Destroyer's all-important follow-up album just eight months later in 1976. It doesn't look it to the untrained eye, but this cover was a major bitch to print, needing a rare six-color offset printer to pull off its vibrant color palette. And getting all the colors to line up, one at a time, wasn't easy (per Kiss art director Dennis Woloch). No computers available, just old-fashioned highly-skilled pressmen making it all happen for three shifts a day, a dying art. I like that the cover can be rotated at the viewer's whim, always with at least some of the images and all of the graphics available from every angle. The bright colors make the whole busy image pop, too. I'm a major fan of the unlikely use of blue throughout the cover, not a color normally associated with the band (although it did appear to great effect on Creatures of the Night six years later, as noted in that entry). This cover also added a new component to the band's marketing. Parts of it were turned into stickers, patches, hats, t-shirts, and, of course, tattoos, along with anything else you can slap an image on for that matter. The band member symbols, in particular, have been used in band merchandising ever since. This is a cover I didn't appreciate as much at the time, but it now stands out as one of the most original Kiss covers ever.

04 Dressed to Kill (1975)

I love this cover and think it's vastly underrated in the Kiss album cover art gallery. There's something very cool about the band casually existing amidst corporate America in full makeup. They walk among us! And "The Demon" does so in white clogs, no less! The whole affair has a touch of class, not a term normally used to describe the band before or since. The black border emphasizes the grey Kiss "frame" (the logo in a pleasing black outline) that surrounds the striking black and white image taken on a New York street corner. Points taken off for blackening the background of the shot in places, but it's still visually appealing. I would've left the NYC backdrop alone to stress the band's "invasion" of conventional society, however. A veritable "dream team" was assembled to create this cover. Designer Peter Corriston managed the project, just as he did for huge albums like Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, and several iconic Stones covers (including Some Girls and Tattoo You). On top of that, the photo was from one of rock's most celebrated rock shutterbugs of all time, the one and only Bob Gruen (Ramones debut, Patti Smith's Horses, Zep's Houses of the Holy and tons more). So it's not surprising we got something completely unlike anything else in the band's visual history.

Go home and get your shinebox!

03 Kiss (1974)

The top three Kiss album covers are interchangeable depending on which part of the band's story you want to tell (origin, breakthrough, worldwide domination). The debut album is iconic because it presents us with a shocking image nobody could've seen coming just 19 years after the so-called birth of rock and roll itself. How far had we come, or how low had we sunk, in such a short time?! Part of the appeal of a debut album is that nobody really knows what's going to happen next—fame and fortune or flop and obscurity. As you look at this cover you see a band totally going for it, without reservations, and I appreciate their hubris. They wanted to be unlike anything else before and with that attitude comes a major risk. I do wish I was a fly on the wall when this initially hit record stores. How did people react? What did they make of it? Did some think it was some kind of a joke?* I also wonder if the cover contributed to its lack of commercial success. Just as radio initially shied away from the band, I imagine many people weren't quite ready to take this large of a leap either. And you can see why. Visually, you can't deny its draw, like a horror movie still, even decades later. I feel that same weird energy right now as I stare at it again. There's an audacious, raw quality to the photograph, depicting a young, hungry, unapologetic rock band attempting to be something no other band had been before. You can argue the merits of their music or marketing all you want, but this is nothing short of the Kiss equivalent of Meet the Beatles—released only a decade earlier—with four faces set starkly against a simple black background staring right at you. The only difference is that going face-to-face with this band was more than a little unsettling. Interestingly, the band still wasn't adept at putting on their own makeup at this point, so someone was hired to do it for them. Hence, it doesn't quite reflect the classic appearance of the band as we've come to know it. By comparison, it seems very primitive and in some ways, even more effective than the perfect version we're no used to seeing. Here, Peter's "Cat" seems ludicrously complicated to execute and Gene's "Demon" is much chunkier than it would eventually become. On the other hand, Paul and Ace locked into character right from the get-go. The resulting image positively jumps off the cover, oozing mystery and intrigue. The designer was Robert Lockart, who had done covers for Steely Dan (Can't Buy a Thrill) and The Bob Seger System (Ramblin' Gamblin' Man) in the past, among many others, but the now classic photo was taken by Joel Brodsky, a guy responsible for his share of legendary album photography over the years, including several of the Doors early records, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, The Stooges debut, the MC5's debut, and even Booker T and the MGs Beatles tribute, McLemore Avenue. Impressive credentials, to say the least. In the end, this is a cover you cannot look away from. If you saw it in 1974, it would've stopped you in your tracks. Even now, it has that same effect.

*Actually, the photographer did think they were a novelty act and brought clown noses and straw hats to the photo shoot, which were quickly dispensed with when Paul told him they were a "serious act."

02 Alive! (1975)

Alive! was the first project assigned to longtime Kiss art director Dennis Woloch, who was around for every minute of the band's ascendency from 1975 until 1987. He would admit there were some duds during that period, but there were also some of thee most indelible covers in rock history as well. Here's one of them. It's well established in Kiss lore (which varies wildly depending on the storyteller) that Woloch himself suggested the name of the band's breakout album, originally slated to be titled Live!, after he observed how the band came alive when they hit the stage. Which is the reason a live album was concocted in the first place—to highlight the band's stage energy, which was much more incendiary than their first three studio albums might've let on (not commercially successful initially either). Word of mouth is a powerful thing, but what could be accomplished now with a single heavily promoted YouTube video, wasn't as easy back in the 70s. The solution was to advertise the greatest show on earth via a live album. And fittingly, that album had to adequately depict the visual sensation of seeing the band as well, which was arguably more important than the music itself. Woloch did just that, letting a single image do the talking, even taking his suggested title and tucking it in the upper right corner so it wouldn't infringe on photographer Fin Costello's iconic, albeit highly posed, image of what the band looked like onstage (in theory).* It worked brilliantly and the album broke the band wide open. Everyone suddenly wanted to get in on the action and a worldwide obsession followed. One of the most successful album covers of all-time based on that fact alone.

*Contrast this approach with his graphics-intensive Alive II cover and wonder quietly what the fuck happened to his design aesthetic.

01 Destroyer (1976)

In the end, the floor littered with clown-white greasepaint, empty cans of Aquanet, and sweaty black spandex, the ultimate Kiss cover is Destroyer. It wasn't an easy decision, especially because the choice is between pure fantasy and altered reality. The band has always been part make-believe (Gene's solo album even included a song titled "Mr. Make Believe") and part real rock band (60/40, I'd say, some might argue it's closer to 90/10). Like it or not, that's the business model. I know whenever Kiss entered a room in full regalia, all available attention immediately turned their way, the physical manifestation of their characters just as fascinating as someone else's exaggerated interpretation of their fantastical origin stories. They were larger than life. They were superheroes. They were comic book characters. They were, and still are, a brand. And they ruled the world in the 1970s much like Taylor Swift does now. Think Taylor has a lot magazines and products with her face plastered on them? You have no idea. Call me when they release a Taylor Swift casket. Bottom line (and that's mainly what mattered), Kiss was everywhere back then and my bedroom, and life for that matter, was 100% Kiss dominated. Everything that Kiss was and will continue to be for eternity is all contained in this brilliant Ken Kelly oil painting, an artist we just introduced you to in the Love Gun discussion a few entries prior. Kelly crafted this amazing cover to fit the band's highly-curated image. So curated, in fact, the album's future title was delegated to the band's advertising agency and Kiss's resident art director, Dennis Woloch, sat on the project in order to ensure the boys were properly represented as the hottest band in the world. Which they were, of course. Hence, we find them emerging triumphantly from a city in flames, presumably at the hands of a Demon, a Starman, a Spaceman, and, uh, a Cat. Speaking of the Catman, Peter Criss was the main beneficiary of Kelly's depiction, rendering him twice his normal wimpy size in the process. He wishes he looked like this. Then again, if I was going to commission a fantasy version of myself, I wouldn't settle for my own sad reality. I'd hire someone to make me look like the person I fantasized I was. The person I would be if I was a comic book hero. Wouldn't that be fucking unreal?


Hate to kiss and run, but I've got another post cooking.


The Priest


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