15. Stiff Upper Lip (2000)
For Those About to Listen: This would be the last AC/DC album produced by George Young, Angus and Malcolm’s brother. It’s a noticeably more organic and fluid set of songs compared to 1995’s Ballbreaker, which was co-produced by Rick Rubin and Mike Fraser, the latter of whom returned to engineer Stiff Upper Lip. As previously mentioned, Rubin’s golden touch didn’t translate to success for AC/DC following 1993’s “Big Gun” single, perhaps because of the producer’s “hands-off” style. George Young took a more organized, “streamlined” approach with Stiff Upper Lip, as Johnson stated in an interview with Guitar World the time.
“George always had a game plan,” Johnson said. “I hate it when you’re hanging around waiting for the next decision. George always had it all worked out.”
The five years between Ballbreaker and Stiff Upper Lip was also the longest gap between albums up until that point. The band may have been due for a breather after never really slowing down in the 27 years prior. The album’s title track hit No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock Chart, and the LP peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200, signaling that fans were also ready for more AC/DC. Like Back in Black, The Razors Edge and now Power Up, Stiff Upper Lip arrived at the beginning of a decade and was the first “new” AC/DC album for many young fans. It’s significant for that reason alone, even if its content isn’t as instantly recognizable as the band’s signature albums.
Best in Black: The song “Stiff Upper Lip” hit No. 1 and for good reason. The striking title phrase was thought up by Angus while he was stuck in traffic and trying to think of something definitively symbolic of rock ‘n’ roll. Though he said he was actually thinking of Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley, Angus proudly displayed his own “Stiff Upper Lip” on the cover of Highway to Hell in 1979, so he’s as much apart of that legend as anyone. This song was also a TouchTunes jukebox go-to circa 2000-2008 when other AC/DC songs had been inevitably overplayed and exhausted. Knock it back.
Done Dirt Cheap: On subject matter alone, “Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a premise that’s been mined over and over again by AC/DC. The “long live rock” anthems are an integral part of the band’s ethos, but after the umpteenth variation, they tend to get filed away among the deepest of deep cuts unless they stand out, which this song doesn’t. It’s as middling as most of Stiff Upper Lip and stands as one AC/DC’s safest and least essential songs. — Jon Hadusek
Pick up Stiff Upper Lip here.
14. Fly on the Wall (1985)
For Those About to Listen: Whatever AC/DC had lost in sheer inspiration by this point, the band was still able to make up for in energy and enthusiasm. More upbeat than the darker tones of the previous four albums, with Fly on the Wall, AC/DC sound like they’re having the most fun they’ve had since Bon Scott’s heyday. With brighter, more porous production that allows you to imagine the band is just a few feet away, Fly on the Wall sounds less like the work of a band trying to fill an arena with sound and more like a band that rolled up to the local pub on a rowdy Friday night.
Tunes like “Shake Your Foundations”, “First Blood”, and “Sink the Pink” benefit from the kinds of spirited performances we’d expect from musicians who spent the whole week working 9 to 5. In other words, Fly on the Wall sees AC/DC playing with the exuberance of people who need music as much as the audience does. The sexually provocative songtitles are meant to push buttons as usual, but look a little closer at the lyrics and you don’t quite get the same nasty edge as some of the other records. And, of all of Brian Johnson’s intentionally/unintentionally comedic lines, surely “The cops could not appreciate my natural charm” has to rank up there pretty high.
Best in Black: As mood-setters go, opening tracks don’t come any more galvanizing than “Fly on the Wall”, an anthemic, uptempo rocker that announces that the hour has arrived to shrug off one’s concerns and let off some steam. Lots of rockers have said the words, “Are you ready to have a good time.” After this song, the question is moot because it’s clear the good time has already started.
Done Dirt Cheap: If the band manages to get away with lifting from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” without falling flat on its face, copping Aerosmith’s bloozy boogie on the very next song, “Playing with Girls,” proves to be a bridge too far. Other than the blues giants they looked up to in their formative years, AC/DC have rarely had to resort to trying to sound like someone else. They do so here, a harbinger that the band may have been questioning its identity. — Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
Pick up Fly on the Wall here.
13. Rock or Bust (2014)
For Those About to Listen: Die hard fans of AC/DC have long since accepted that, whenever they drop the needle on a new album, they pretty much know exactly what they are going to get. The rock press feels much the same considering all the news surrounding the release of Rock or Bust and its subsequent tour had to do with lineup changes (Malcolm Young out, Stevie Young in … Brian Johnson out, Axl Rose in) or drummer Phil Rudd’s legal troubles. They’re not wrong either. Rock or Bust is the equivalent of a Word template, with every pealing guitar solo, song about rock ‘n’ roll and lascivious intent, and steady bassline set perfectly in place.
By the same token, AC/DC knows not to mess with a winning formula, and with that knowledge well in hand, Rock or Bust delivers. The 11 songs on this short, punchy album stay the course while also quietly accepting the advanced age of its members. Brian Johnson continues to dial his screech into a warm, comfortable growl and Angus’ solos are more about quick flares of power than virtuosic explosions. AC/DC landed on Rock or Bust not only as a badass sentiment but also as a statement of purpose. This is the life they have chosen and they are going to stick it out until their bodies or brains tell them otherwise.
Best in Black: 60-year-old men should probably not be writing salacious songs about a stripper. The band did it anyway with “Sweet Candy”. The saving grace is that the tune is the strongest moment on Rock or Bust, from its Hendrix-inspired opening moments to a rolling rhythm that is, truth be told, sexy as hell. This also boasts Angus’ most inspired guitar solo — a feisty run that sends the song’s closing moments soaring.
Done Dirt Cheap: 60-year-old men should also probably not write songs that sound like an attempt to score some ad placement from the Armed Forces. Yet, there sits “Dogs of War”, a pandering flare to the troops of the world, with eye rolling lyrics (“Dodgin’ the bullets/ Shootin’ the missiles/ Soldiers of fortune/ Such a pretty name”) that, in the wrong ears, could stir up a hell of lot of trouble in basic training or in combat zones. — Robert Ham
Pick up Rock or Bust here.
12. Black Ice (2008)
For Those About to Listen: In retrospect, AC/DC’s 15th studio outing might be remembered more for its bizarre distribution strategy than any of its songs. The band refused to release the album digitally which seemed brave in 2008, but twelve years later sounds almost quaint. Even the platinum gods of stadium rock could not stymie the march of Silicon Valley’s disruption – we listened to it on Spotify for this review, naturally. More curiously: the record was available in the United States exclusively at Walmart. Not exactly the first place you’d look for music to take you on the highway to hell.
But taken out of its odd commercial contexts, Black Ice is a return to form for the band. Recorded live to tape with minimal overdubs and almost no studio effects, its songs feel rawer and scrappier than any since The Razors Edge almost 20 years earlier. While the band lost themselves in white blues drudgery for most of Ballbreaker and Stiff Upper Lip, for the first 20 minutes, at least, the Young brothers are operating in pure hard rock mode. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Train” and “Big Jack” strut and stomp with earned swagger, while the blues diversions — “Stormy May Day” and “Decibel” — add flavor without distracting. Unfortunately, Black Ice is a bit long in the tooth. There’s no reason for it to be 55 minutes long, and by the end it loses the head of steam that its early songs build up.
Best in Black: Cliff Williams’ throbbing base line on “War Machine” propels one of AC/DC’s grooviest and most sinister tunes. The gravel-throated call-and-response gang shouts in its chorus provide genuine menace and melodrama. Some of the song’s staying power might be its length: it’s the longest song on an overstuffed record at barely over three minutes. Just short enough to leave you wanting more.
Done Dirt Cheap: Pugilistic and pugnacious, “Spoiling for a Fight” sounds like it’s a throwback to Bon Scott’s more tenacious songwriting. Unfortunately for AC/DC, those days are gone and this track is pretty wimpy. Once again, the song packs too many chorus repeats, and the chorus itself isn’t very interesting. The strongest songwriting choice here is cutting the song off suddenly a little after the three-minute mark, but Black Ice is so long they could just as easily have left it off. — Joseph Schafer
Pick up Black Ice here.
11. High Voltage (Australia release) (1975)
For Those About to Listen: All the pieces of the AC/DC puzzle were in place from the start of the band’s now legendary career: a love of blues-based rock cranked up to jet engine volume; tightly wound guitar interplay between brothers Angus and Malcolm; bawdy lyrics full of sin, flesh, booze, and rock; machine-like rhythms. But by early 1975, when the group set about recording their first LP, High Voltage, they hadn’t quite connected these various elements into the perfect shape.
This is quite literally the case when it came to recording these eight tracks. Malcolm and Angus would trade off on playing lead or rhythm parts. They didn’t have a consistent drummer yet. And the elder Young brother, George (he of the garage rock outfit the Easybeats) kept sticking his nose in, playing bass and guitar, and joining in the group vocals.
In their nascent form, AC/DC still had a lot to offer. Grinding, nasty tunes like “Little Lover” and “She’s Got Balls” (apparently an ode to Bon Scott’s ex-wife) and fist-pumpers like “You Ain’t Got A Hold On Me” and “Stick Around” offered a glimpse of what was yet to come with this rough and ready band.
Best in Black: While a bit of an outlier from the rest of the band’s greatest songs, what with the almost acid rock spell it casts, there’s still plenty of muscle and grit (and a snotty vocal turn by Scott) in “You Ain’t Got a Hold on Me” to see it as a precursor to future classics like “Who Made Who” and the title track to For Those About to Rock.
Done Dirt Cheap: If there’s one AC/DC song Angus Young would like to erase from his memory, it surely has to be the treacly “Love Song”. Was this pompous power ballad with its obnoxious tambourine line and Scott affecting a bewildering croon meant ironically? Or was this a pitiable attempt to draw in more female fans? Neither possibility seems especially appealing. The master tapes for this should be burned and the ashes buried deep within the soft earth. — Robert Ham
Pick up High Voltage (Australian release) here.