AC/DC are, perhaps, the face of hard rock; packing mean riffs, explosive choruses and questionable lyrical content that would send even the sleaziest rocker into a hot flush. Their wilful blend of simple, classic, hard rock and old-fashioned blues have culminated in no less than 17 studio albums. And though none of them are weak – or lacking the fundamentals that make this band great – some just rock harder than others. From Bon Scott to Brian Johnson; the great Malcolm Young to nephew Stevie, the band has faced some challenges. Their albums have endured drink, disease, and death itself.
To celebrate the release of Power Up, the band’s latest record, we’re looking back over fifty decades to put them in order.
Blow Up Your Video, 1988 – Not a surprise for most, I’m sure. Ask any follower of hard rock to name as many AC/DC albums as they can, and if they miss one, it’s probably Blow Up Your Video – I’m sure the band themselves want to distance themself from this 1988 ‘disaster’ – though it was their best-selling since For Those…, so that’s a tad far. It has some good moments for sure, and underrated gems (‘Two’s Up’, for instance, and ‘Heatseeker’) but after what was becoming a string of underwhelming albums in the eyes of the public, Blow Up Your Video was the nail in AC/DC’s coffin for many diehard fans. Listening back though to this album, I encountered some titles that rang very few – if any – bells to me at all. Which is surprising given how much I worship this band. I’m not saying there’s any correlation between this being the last of AC/DC’s efforts to feature Johnson co-writing tunes and the band’s Phoenix-esque ascension two years later, but it makes you think. Update: I wasn’t even sure if I had a copy of this one in my CD collection. Apparently, I do; but I can’t bring the case to memory.
High Voltage, 1976 – This will probably be the most polarizing entry on the list. ‘High Voltage at second to last?!’ I hear you cry – Yes, AC/DC’s first (international) LP is, tragically, so low; but only for one real reason. The highs are very high here (‘It’s A Long Way…’, ‘The Jack’, ‘T.N.T.’ and ‘High Voltage’ itself proving absolute anthems), but they’re just too few and far between. No song on here is inherently bad – I struggle to name an AC/DC song that is, really – but many are prove pretty forgettable for such a sonic colossus, and they don’t match the calibre of what was to come. ‘Live Wire’ has the stench of a not-yet-fully-grown hard rock outfit, and ‘Little Lover’ is a slog compared to the rest of the record. But, despite the album’s flaws, for a debut, it’s impressive.
Fly on the Wall, 1985 – For the record, I really like Fly on the Wall. I like all of AC/DC’s albums, but this one is slated more than is really fair. True, the band’s decision to produce their own records resulted in a messy, hungover sound, but the tracks themselves are formidable. Most of them, anyway. The title track packs a real ferocious punch; but is – I concede – let down by a mess of background noise. Nevertheless, Johnson manages to stand out through most of it; securing one of his best performances on tape. ‘Sink the Pink’ and ‘Shake Your Foundations’ are peak ’80s AC/DC in terms of titles, and more than deliver in their minutes of runtime. ‘Hell or High Water’ features a neat opening riff, and ‘Send For the Man’ firmly puts AC/DC on the map of shady speakeasies, but tracks like ‘First Blood’, ‘Danger’ and ‘Stand Up’ mar the album in a swamp of predictable moaners. Listening back to the album, ‘Back in Business’ just sounds painfully ironic.
Let There Be Rock, 1977 – Am I a rock ‘n roll heathen for putting 1977’s pumping sermon this far down in the list? Maybe, but for good reason. Whilst the title track shall go down in the annals of rock history as one of the best pieces of scripture ever devised to mankind, Let There Be Rock does suffer in its weaker tracks. ‘Go Down’ is a decent opener, but ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and ‘Overdose’ fail to make a lasting impact on me. ‘Bad Boy Boogie’ gives in to the same flaw, but the album’s closing two tracks, at least, are nothing short of phenomenal. Bon Scott provokes all on the blasphemous ‘Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be’, and his retelling of a larger-than-life encounter in ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ elicits a smile and a duckwalk in anyone.
Flick of the Switch, 1983 – Flick of the Switch opens with two almighty riffs in ‘Rising Power’ and ‘This House Is On Fire’, but both suffer the same fate of a mediocre chorus. Still, the band’s follow-up to 1981’s For Those About To Rock… does lay claim to some real gems. ‘Bedlam in Belgium’, for one, tells the story of a band’s post-curfew gig gone wrong; promising blood and mayhem. ‘Nervous Shakedown’ packs one of the band’s dirtiest riffs; echoing their 2014 record, and ‘Guns For Hire’ is classic AC/DC. Flick of the Switch, however, signalled the only real ‘downfall’ of the band, and after the two titans before it, it’s a sure step down.
Black Ice, 2008 – Another surefire kick in the teeth for fans. 2008’s Black Ice frequently comes up in Facebook comment threads as a testament to AC/DC’s enduring quality. And while it’s true that it kicks ass, for a fifteen-track record, it’s got some weaker tunes. Which makes sense; even after an eight year absence, fifteen fully-fledged rockers are impressive; and none of them scream out in inferiority over the rest. But when you write that many tracks, it’s tough to make each and every one on the same level as ‘Rock ‘n Roll Train’. ‘Big Jack’ is a suitably raunchy rocker, ‘War Machine’ is as badass as AC/DC gets, and ‘Spoilin’ For A Fight’ stands out in ear infection. But Black Ice pads out a double LP with its fair share of filler. ‘Decibel’, ‘Stormy May Day’ and ‘She Likes Rock ‘n Roll’ spring to mind.
Ballbreaker, 1995 – An entry that really should be higher; but the quality of other albums is just even better. The title track itself is an adrenaline rush of pure lust; standing out against even the best of AC/DC’s discography. And Ballbreaker’s opener is just as Bacchanalian in nature; with ‘Hard As a Rock’ proving hilarious and headbang-inducing in equal measure. ‘Burnin’ Alive’ is a particularly epic Western of Aussie proportions, and the lyric, ‘Rockin’ on the Richter scale’ elevates ‘Hail Caesar’ to gold status. But besides a handful of others, the band’s 1995 release holds its own examples of an Achilles heel, with ‘Cover You In Oil’ and ‘Whiskey On the Rock’ proving particularly weak. Still, Ballbreaker has since gone two-times platinum in the U.S. And for good reason; five years without AC/DC was enough to invoke the hankering lust in anyone.
Stiff Upper Lip, 2000 – 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip has fat to trim, sure, but it proves easily digestible all the same. ‘Give It Up’ and ‘All Screwed Up’ may feel tacked on to the record’s second side, but still feature some of Angus’ best soloing hence. The title track itself is a schoolboy’s wet dream of rock and innuendo; with Johnson firing on all cylinders. ‘Satellite Blues’ and ‘Can’t Stand Still’ are real B-side quality; promising the perfect cold fusion of rhythm & blues with AC/DC’s trademark rock. ‘Meltdown’ is another strong rocker, though ‘Safe In New York City’ is probably the most generic the band ever got – though poignant given the song’s title and year of release.
Rock or Bust, 2014 – For a while, this one was higher up on the list, and would have been if its contenders weren’t so damn good. 2014’s Rock or Bust certainly has something about it that screams AC/DC, but not quite as we know it. Maybe it’s the ‘modern sound’. But it doesn’t prove any less relentless, or full of double entendres bordering on the threatening. The title track essentially takes the riff of ‘Nervous Breakdown’ from Flick of the Switch and kickstarts it into full gear, giving it a whole new lease of life. The record is almost flawless; with tracks like ‘Dogs of War’ taking me by surprise in how epic they sound, or ‘Emission Control’ packing dirty blues straight out of the band’s late ’70s days. The boys proved they still hadn’t lost it in the 2010s.
For Those About to Rock (We Salute You), 1981 – The first time I heard the title track of AC/DC’s 1991 follow-up to Back in Black, I was blown away. Literally. I mean, using Napoleonic cannons in a rock track? That’s just genius. For Those About To Rock… sat master of noise ‘Mutt’ Lange back in the producer’s chair, and the result was an album that nearly rivalled Back in Black. That’s no mean feat. Hell, it was the band’s only number one in the U.S. until Black Ice barrelled through. The record is home to ‘C.O.D.’, one of my favourites of the band, as well as ‘I Put The Finger On You’ and memorable ‘Let’s Get It Up’. That must have been one of the band’s first compositions I heard, and I love it to this day. Fling some other filler into the mix with ‘Snowballed’ and ‘Evil Walks’, and you’ve got a pretty good feast for the ears. Few bands could write Back in Black. Fewer still could follow it up with something just as rockingly good (in just a year).
Power Up, 2020 – There’s always the worry when ranking a band’s albums that you’ll put their most recent higher than you would normally; new music giving the thing a kind of bias. But I’ve listened to AC/DC’s latest offering, Power Up, to death, and I still love most tracks on it. The record has some filler in ‘Systems Down’ and ‘Code Red’ – Both Stiff Upper Lip rejects for a reason – but the album’s hits are quintessential AC/DC. ‘Shot In The Dark’ is a real stomper, with ‘Realize’ and ‘Rejection’ packing some of Johnson’s best vocals. ‘Wild Reputation’ is what we’d come to expect from the band, and ‘Kick You When You’re Down’ delivers a crushing riff. But it’s the album’s most atypical title that takes the wind right of you. ‘Through the Mists of Time’, no doubt a tribute of sorts to Malcolm Young (Power Up is the band’s first without the long-time rhythm guitarist, who passed away in 2017), is softer than AC/DC have really gone before. It still rocks, but maintains a melancholic beat throughout that’s just chilling. Power Up is a testament to the eternal might of AC/DC. They’ll never blinker out.
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, 1976 – I have a habit of claiming Bon Scott was far worse than his successor in terms of sexual imagery and raunchy screams; and that’s not necessarily true. Listen to 1990’s The Razor’s Edge for instance, and you’ll get enough of Brian Johnson’s growls to last a lifetime. But progenitor Scott certainly did a good job when it came to regale us of scantily-clad schoolgirls indulging every carnal desire. Nowhere is this more prevalent than 1976’s aptly-titled Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. ‘Love At First Feel’, the lawfully-questionable closer, ‘Squealer’, even Bon’s schoolboy ballad, ‘Big Balls’; there’s plenty of adolescent humour in the album, and as always, Scott nails it brilliantly. ‘Problem Child’ is another standout track, as is ‘Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round To Be a Millionaire)’ and the only slowie the band have ever really done: ‘Ride On’. For Bon Scott-era Acca Dacca, Dirty Deeds… is among the finest examples. Just listen to the mud-dwelling growls of the title track. Thrilling.
Powerage, 1978 – Some of the best pre-Brian material the band have ever put together. The highs of Powerage surge beyond the stratosphere. The lows come pretty damn close. The big triple of ‘Rock ‘n Roll Damnation’, ‘Sin City’ and ‘Gone Shootin’’ would already make pretty much any album a stone cold classic, but throw in the delicious cynicism in Bon’s ‘Down Payment Blues’ and legendary riffing of ‘Riff Raff’, and you have a real contender for first place. Powerage suffers from a couple of generic rockers, but even they’re filled with Scott’s iconic vitriol toward whoever’s pissed him off that day. Even the album’s name is unquestionable, with revved-up, bluesy numbers and air-plucking solos. Powerage never really got the full attention it deserved; but thankfully is praised in many fans’ ‘top 5’s, as it should.
Highway to Hell, 1979 – Bon Scott may have sealed his fate in the album’s title, but I can’t think of any better send off in the history of music; let alone rock ‘n roll. Those opening three bars from Angus signalled the toppling of ‘70s rock as we know it; ushering in a new decade of hard rock and hip-thrusting devilry. Highway to Hell is an album jam-packed with notable headbangers and odes to nocturnal pleasure; with ‘Girls Got Rhythm’ and the all-too-Bon ‘Shot Down In Flames’ standing the test of time. ‘Touch Too Much’ is another lowdown cruiser, promising anthem after anthem, following on from the monumental riff of ‘Walk All Over You’. ‘If You Want Blood (You Got It)’ is one of the best tracks the band have ever done; with slurred background vocals, Machiavellian threats and Angus in full force. The controversy behind the album’s closer, ‘Night Prowler’, is particularly haunting – but ironically only fuels the track’s nightmarish chorus. It’s one of the finest rock records ever put together, and it’s tough to believe the band could ever do better.
Back in Black, 1980 – If this list was purely based on comeback albums alone, Back in Black would win first place by miles (seconded only by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘White Album’). I mean, it really is a near-flawless album; and the best way to ring in a new decade of assured rock ‘n roll. The titular track is an explosive statement regardless, but the toll of a death knell in Back in Black’s opener lets us know from the get-go how serious the boys are. Bon Scott may be gone, but like Hell were they gonna throw in the towel. ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ – one of my favourite AC/DC tracks ever – makes an appearance, as does the bombastic ‘Shoot To Thrill’, one of the band’s finest works put to record. It’s clear the aptly-named Johnson isn’t going to let up on the lascivious lyrics, either, with ‘Givin’ the Dog a Bone’ promising one of the band’s most provocative songs from across their career. And ‘Rock ‘n Roll Ain’t Nose Pollution’? What a worthy send off. There are a couple of weaker pieces in the nigh-predatory ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You’ and ‘Shake A Leg’, but even the greats are allowed their downtime. Back in Black remains the second best-selling album of all time, and honestly, I don’t think anyone would protest otherwise.
The Razor’s Edge, 1990 – It’s always handy to pick something that isn’t a band’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the top spot. But also, I just love The Razor’s Edge. And though it might feel like it’s full of filler to many, it’s genuinely single-material filler. The cover is bright, brash; something from a glam band’s debut, but eases off on the big hair and spandex for dirtier riffs and dirtier indulgences. Besides the certified juggernaut of ‘Thunderstruck’, it boasts lightning-speed kickers in ‘Fire Your Guns’ and ‘Shot of Love’, paced perfectly with apocalyptic dirge of the title track. There’s sinful delights and more in the all-too-real ‘Moneytalks’, promising ‘Are You Ready’ and dominatingly powerful ‘Got You By The Balls’. There’s even AC/DC’s only ‘Christmas’ song in there, featuring the lyric, ‘Want you to ride down my reindeer honey, and ring the bells!’ which, even for this band, is bordering on the unacceptable. It’s hard rock perfection, and in my opinion, the absolute zenith of the band. If I listen to an AC/DC album from start-to-finish, I seek out The Razor’s Edge first. It toes the line of everything masterfully.