RIP Malcolm Young. Originally posted 2015.
In earlier columns for Pencil Storm, I have courted the anger of readers by saying that soccer is boring and that “SEC bias” is a myth. I’m a bit of a contrarian sometimes. Always have been. Today, though, I will begin with a thesis that is sure to shock or offend no one. Here goes: AC/DC rocks. There, I said it and I don’t care who hears it!
Colin Gawel asked if I would be interested in reviewing the new album, Rock or Bust, and ranking it within the AC/DC catalog. Is it better than their previous album, Black Ice, which came out in 2008? Is Malcolm Young’s absence noticeable? These and other questions must be answered, and if you don’t trust my opinion on these matters, who would you trust? (Hint: Go ahead and trust me on anything related to AC/DC.)
I can review the album quicker than Angus can drop his pants, actually: It rocks hard from beginning to end. What do you expect? It’s AC/DC.
But I can elaborate, if you wish.
This album is exactly what I expected it to be because it is exactly what their recent albums have been: one or two good songs and a bunch of filler songs to get it up to album length. Even the filler songs SOUND great, though. By that I mean that the band always sounds like AC/DC. No matter what they’re playing, the AC/DC ensemble has that spare-but-somehow-full-at-the-same-time sound they are known for. It’s amazing. If you have ever played in a band, you have no doubt tried at times to sound like AC/DC, and even though what they do doesn’t sound like it should be hard, you can’t do it, no matter how much you may have studied the supposedly simple formula they use.
The good songs, predictably enough, are the two singles, “Play Ball” and “Rock or Bust.” After that, Rock or Bust just sounds like a band that isn’t trying very hard, but they still give you that hint of their former greatness even when they’re not trying. At this point, AC/DC is like a late-career Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the 1980s, he was still a damn good player even though he wasn’t putting much effort into the game, and every now and then, he looked as great as ever. Late Kareem only played like his former self when he really needed to, though: in the playoffs or in the last few minutes of a close game.
Likewise, AC/DC only sounds like a great rock and roll band these days when they really need to: on the songs they intend to release as singles or play live. I can’t think of a band that is more perfectly defined by their radio hits and stadium rockers than AC/DC has been over the last twenty five years.
In that time, they have released six studio albums, and all of them are more or less totally forgettable other than the singles and the title songs. Blow Up Your Video (1988) had “Heatseeker” and “That’s the Way I Wanna Rock and Roll.” After that, what was on that album? Anyone remember? Probably not. Same goes for all of the albums since then.
I’ll come back to that idea in a minute, but first, let me answer some crucial questions about Rock or Bust.
Q1: Is Malcolm’s absence noticeable?
A1: No, not really, and if I don’t notice it, I doubt anybody would. It could be that nephew Stevie Young is the only guy on earth who can pull off the Malcolm effect this well, or it could be that, with Angus and the rest there to guide the recordings, a lot of people could have stepped in. I don’t know, but really, if anyone tells you they can hear that it’s not Malcolm on rhythm guitar, they are full of it. If I can’t tell, nobody can tell.
Q2: How does it compare to Black Ice?
A2: It’s at least as good and probably a touch better, if only because they limited it to eleven songs rather than fifteen and because they kept the songs rather short. In fact, they seem to have been trying very hard to do shorten songs on this album. Some of them come in at less than three minutes, which is uncharacteristic for AC/DC. Just when songs on previous albums would settle in for a long solo followed by twelve repetitions of the chorus, the songs on this album tend to come to an end. Leave ‘em wanting more, I suppose.
Q3: Can Brian still sing?
A3: Indeed, he can. He sounds better on this album than he did on Black Ice. Brian’s worst vocals were on Razor’s Edge. Since then, medical miracles and good key choices have had him sounding better. (The band tuned down a half step on the last tour to give his voice a break. Look for them to do that again this time around.)
A4: Should I buy it?
Q4: Of course. It’s AC/DC. Why the hell haven’t you bought it already?
Now, let’s do this. Colin wanted me to rank the new album against the others in the AC/DC catalog. I can do that, but I can do better than that. I’ll rank every album and give the best, worst, and most underrated/undervalued songs on it. (I will rank the albums from the currently-available international catalog, by the way, not the original Australian albums.)
AC/DC albums in order from best to worst:
1: Back in Black (1980). What else did you think would be at the top? This may well be the best album by any band, ever. It’s certainly in a group of four or five albums to consider for that title. Great songs. Brilliant production. What can I say that hasn’t been said already. A masterpiece. Best song: also “Back in Black,” but really, six or seven songs on that album are right up there with it. Most underrated: “Shake a Leg.” Listen to Angus’s solo on that one. It’s his best solo work ever, hands down. Worst song: There isn’t one, but I suppose if I had to pick, I’d say “Given the Dog a Bone,” but remember, it’s a great song, just not as great as the rest of this album, and Angus actually redeems it with what might be his second best solo ever. Listen to it. It gives me chills every time I hear it.
2. Let There Be Rock (1977). Classic from the Bon Scott era. Perfect. Wouldn’t change a thing. Best song: “Whole Lotta Rosie,” but again, there are several others just as good. Most underrated: “Go Down.” Bands who want to rock should study the middle breakdown in that one. Obsessively. Worst song: Again, there isn’t one, but if I have to pick one, I’ll go with “Dog Eat Dog,” but I love that song.
3. Powerage (1978). This one gets the award for most underrated album. Great songs. This is probably the most atypical AC/DC album because they aren’t trying to do big stadium rockers on this one. Most of these songs sound like they should be played in a pub for a crowd of about 100. Maybe that’s why so few songs from this great album ever wind up on AC/DC setlists these days. Best song: That’s a toughie, but I’ll go with “Riff Raff,” an up-tempo thrasher that sounds like the rock and roll equivalent of an Indy car going full throttle into a corner and barely hanging on. Most underrated: I simply can’t pick one. “Gone Shooting” has a great mid-tempo groove that is almost funky, which is a rarity for AC/DC. And “Kicked in the Teeth Again” has what is perhaps Bon Scott’s most memorable vocal performance. Worst song: “Down Payment Blues,” which is just kind of boring.
4. High Voltage (1976). This album is a bit uneven, but its high moments are high enough to put it in the top five. Best song: “Live Wire,” a former set opener that I wish the band would resurrect. Most underrated: “Rock and Roll Singer.” Why has this excellent song never been in the band’s live act? Why is it never on the radio? Worst song: That’s easy, “Little Lover.” Not good. Also boring and plodding.
5. ’74 Jailbreak (1984, but collected from material recorded in ’74 and ’75). I know this is technically just a five-song EP, but those five songs are good enough to put this one into the top five. Best song: “Jailbreak.” Why it was left off of the original American release of High Voltage, I don’t know. (Well, actually, I do know, but that’s a subject for another day.) When it did finally get released internationally, it became a staple of their live show and deservedly so. Most underrated: The amazing, and I mean amazing cover of “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” That’s rock and roll in a nutshell right there. Worst: “You Ain’t Got a Hold on Me.” I know exactly why this one was left off of the American High Voltage. It sounds like AC/DC was trying to get into the disco craze, and I actually will admit liking disco, but not when it’s done by AC/DC.
6. Highway to Hell (1979). As good as it is, it’s an overrated album. This record broke the band into the American market, but that’s just because it took a few years for radio to take notice of them. If this album had been as good as Let There Be Rock or Powerage, the band would have broken through in the States even bigger than they did in 1979. Best song: “Shot Down in Flames” in a photo finish ahead of the title track. This one is Malcolm being Malcolm at his best. It doesn’t even have an Angus solo, not really, unless you count some pick scrapes and a few squawks he makes over the main riff before the final choruses. But that’s what makes this song so great. It doesn’t need Angus pumping notes at you to keep it chugging along. That Malcolm riff is enough. Most underrated: Easy, that’s got to be “Beating Around the Bush.” This song sounds like a junkyard dog fighting to get free from its chain. But Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams keep it under control. Worst song: “Get it Hot.” This one is the precursor to a lot of the boring album filler that is found on later albums.
7. Flick of the Switch (1983). The best Brian-era album after the miraculous Back in Black. Raw rock and roll. It’s the Powerage of the post-Bon albums. Very underrated album. Best song: “This House is On Fire.” Most underrated: “Bedlam in Belgium.” Worst: “Brain Shake.”
8. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1981, but collected from material recorded in ’75 and ’76). This one is what was left over after the best songs from the band’s first two Australian albums were culled into the current version of High Voltage, and it sounds like a bunch of second-rate leftovers, too. Best song: Not the title song, but the mournful “Ride On,” the closest AC/DC has ever come to a ballad. Most underrated: “There’s Gonna Be Some Rocking.” Nothing fancy about this bar-band rocker, but it’s impossible not to sing along with. Worst: A couple to choose from here, but I’ll go with “Ain’t No Fun Waiting Round to Be a Millionaire.” This snoozer sits on one chord for several minutes while spinning its wheels lyrically and having no discernible melody. It would be a candidate for the title of worst-ever AC/DC song if it weren’t for some of the truly horrible stuff the band did in the 1980s and 90s.
9. For Those About to Rock (1982). This one starts the bad pattern of the band recording a couple of good songs plus a bunch of filler. It still rocks hard in spots, though, as all of their albums do. Best song: “For Those About to Rock.” Best production value they’ve ever had on stage. Fire! Most underrated: I’ll call it a tie between “Snowballed” and “Inject the Venom.” Good tunes. Not great, but good. Worst: “Night of the Long Knives.” Oh my. Horrible.
10. Razor’s Edge (1990). Known as a comeback album, but it’s only a little better than the ones preceding it. And Brian’s voice is just terrible on it. Best song: Hard to vote against “Thunderstruck” here. Most underrated: Definitely “Shot of Love.” If it weren’t for “Thunderstruck,” this would be the best song on the album. Worst: “Mistress for Christmas.” How did this ever get out of the studio and onto a record? So embarrassing. I nominate this one for worst song in the entire catalog.
11. Rock or Bust (2014). So this one doesn’t make my top ten, but it’s far from the worst thing they have done. Best song: “Play Ball,” the first single off the album. Most underrated: “Emission Control,” which has some nice Angus riffage, but maybe I’m just drawn to it because it’s the last song on the album, which means the filler boredom is over. Worst: Hard to say because there are a number of equally boring ones, but let’s pick “Rock the Blues Away” as a good representative here. With lyrics like “Headed to a local bar, listening the radio” and a stock mid-tempo riff that sounds like most everything else on the album, it just has that we-don’t-give-a-damn-anymore vibe.
12. Black Ice (2008). Reviewers said they were getting back to their roots on this one. I dunno. It just sounds like late-era AC/DC to me. Best song: “Rock and Roll Train.” But this song is the “best” in that it’s just them doing what they do and doing it well, though you can tell they’re on auto-pilot, really. It just sounds like some stock AC/DC riffology, and they probably wrote it in ten minutes. But it’s good. No doubt about it. Most underrated: “Spoiling for a Fight.” Excellent song. It’s really better than “Rock and Roll Train,” but I had to call it most underrated instead of best because “Rock and Roll Train” was highly rated while no one remembers this one. Worst: Lots to choose from here, but the laziness of the writing and the plodding tempo of “Rocking All the Way” give it the nod.
13. Ballbreaker (1995). At this point on the list, we’re getting down to the stuff that seem to have been recorded just there to keep the “rock and roll train” going and give the band another reason to tour the world. Best song: “Hard as a Rock,” the first single. Most underrated: Probably the title song. Worst: “Love Bomb.”
14. Stiff Upper Lip (2000). Snore. Best song: “Stiff Upper Lip,” the first single. Great main riff. Right up there with the best stuff they have ever done. Dumb words, though, even by AC/DC standards. Most underrated: “Satellite Blues” isn’t too bad. Neither is “Give It Up.” I’ll call it a tie. Worst: So many to choose from, but “Can’t Stop Rock and Roll” is even worse than the rest. There’s a pattern here. When the band needs something to fill an album these days, they just go “blah blah blah rock and roll blah blah blah” and sing that over one of their stock riffs.
15. Blow Up Your Video (1988). Wow, do I really have to write about this one? OK, best song is “Heatseeker,” the first single. Most underrated: “Nick of Time.” Not horrible. Worst: “Go Zone.” Just embarrassing.
16. Fly on the Wall (1985). This is the first album they produced themselves, and what they proved here is that they need the services of a producer. Best song: “Playing with Girls.” A good up-tempo rocker that tries to do the same thing they did in “Riff Raff” and “Beating Around the Bush,” but doesn’t measure up. Most underrated: Also “Playing with Girls.” It’s really just about the only thing to recommend on this album, though “Shake Your Foundations” and “Sink the Pink” aren’t absolutely awful. Worst: “Danger.” Yep. Not good.
OK, that’s it. Reviewed and ranked. Let the debating begin.
Disagree? Post to comments or send your list by clicking here. Make it good and we may post it.
-Scott Plez, Professor Emeritus AC/DC U.
(editor's note: While we're discussing all things AC/DC, Pencilstorm's own Ricki C. once had lunch with Bon & the Boys back in the day when he was a rock writer in the 70's. Read all about it here: My Lunch With AC/DC.)