Sure, at this point, KISS are less a band than an automated merchandise factory, with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley essentially counting down the days until old age forces them to hire younger actors to slap on the facepaint and portray them in a never-ending Vegas musical revue. And, even in his own son’s opinion, Simmons is to rock ‘n’ roll what Donald Trump is to U.S. politics—except that Gene’s become even too big of an asshole for Fox News. But there’s a case to be made that, for all their relentless branding and ingrained arrogance, KISS are kinda underappreciated.
They were always too craven in their careerism to acquire any of the dirtbag cool of early ‘70s glam peers like the New York Dolls, too pop-oriented to stand alongside more artful proto-metal giants like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, too enamored with spectacle to attain the working-class cred of Thin Lizzy or AC/DC, too liberal with the shameless horn-dog metaphors to accrue the camp cachet of Queen. (Sorry kids, “Rocket Ride” is actually not about space travel.) And aside from the occasional spin of “Rock and Roll All Nite,” you’d still be hard-pressed to find them in regular rotation on any classic-rock radio station. However, when you strip away the make-up, upchucked blood, and one-piece open-chested unitards, the six studio albums KISS released in their 1974-77 golden period showcase a band with a preternatural gift for wrapping sticky melodies around sturdy riffs——a power-pop band with a steely command over both halves of the equation.
While their many live albums and greatest-hits sets tend to prioritize the songs that go best with pyro, those early KISS records are loaded with more modestly scaled tunes that betray the group’s affinity for ’60s garage nuggets (see: “Love Her All I Can,” a blatant rewrite of The Nazz’s “Open Your Eyes”), harmony-rich sing-alongs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Big Star or Raspberries album (“Comin’ Home”), acoustic-powered Rod Stewart-style serenades (“Hard Luck Woman”—the plaintive Peter Criss antidote to the more popular and opulent “Beth”), and a lean, punkish propulsion (“Plaster Caster”—well, as close to punk as you can get when you’re a rock star singing about getting a souvenir of your dick made by the world’s most famous groupie). Heck, debut-album deep cuts like “Let Me Know” could almost pass for Three Dog Night. And while “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” has come to epitomize KISS’ disco phase, it’s better represented by the ultra-smooth, mirror-ball-twirling slow jams “Sure Know Something” and “Shandi” (which features the sort of gilded, glistening jangle that’s become indie-ubiqutious in a post-Mac DeMarco world). The band’s core philosophy may have never evolved beyond rockin’ and rollin’ all night, but this playlist highlights the KISS songs you can still respect in the morning.