Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we follow the legendary AC/DC’s career, from their 1975 debut, High Voltage, to their most recent effort, 2020’s Power Up.
The legacy of AC/DC is one of perseverance. Across their five-decade career, the Australian hard rockers have seen both sides of tragedy and glory, from their rugged ascent playing beer bars to becoming a global stadium rock institution.
When charismatic frontman and lyricist Bon Scott passed away in 1980, many wondered if it was the end of AC/DC. Scott’s vivid personality was as much the face of the band as forever-a-schoolboy guitarist Angus Young. After releasing multiple soon-to-be classic albums with the singer, including the 1979’s iconic Highway to Hell, what would become of AC/DC?
In a blaze of triumph, the band returned with Back in Black just months later, arguably the greatest comeback album in rock history. Now singing was Brian Johnson, who proved just as charming and braggadocious as Scott, but with a gravelly vocal style distinctly his own. Stacked top to bottom with timeless hits like the riff-centric title track and “You Shook Me All Night Long”, it signaled the beginning of a new era of AC/DC and a prolific string of albums that continues to this day.
While it’s fair to say the band’s post-1980 output doesn’t always live up to alarmingly high quality of Back in Black, AC/DC still managed to remain relevant and release consistent hard rock throughout the decade and into the ’90s. Along the way, the band notched MTV hits like 1986’s “Who Made Who”, the inescapable combo of “Thunderstruck” and “Moneytalks” from 1990’s The Razors Edge, and the Rick Rubin-produced one-off “Big Gun”, which hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Rock Chart in 1993. These songs introduced AC/DC to a whole new generation of kids eager to consume any and all forms of heavy music.
However, tragedy would again strike when Angus’ brother and the band’s imitable rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young died in 2017 after leaving the band in 2014 due to a battle with dementia. As of 2016, the members of AC/DC had gone their separate ways, with Johnson stepping aside due to serious hearing loss. However, in another act of revival, the band reconvened with classic members Angus, Johnson, drummer Phil Rudd, and bassist Cliff Williams, along with Stevie Young (who had stepped in for Malcolm) to record a new album, 2020’s Power Up. Their best album in 30 years, it’s a record that — like The Razors Edge — could be a new generation’s introduction to AC/DC.
With the band’s legendary discography on the mind, Heavy Consequence undertook the task of revisiting and ranking each and every one of AC/DC’s 17 studio albums, from the classics to the lesser known works. All of these albums mean something to anyone who’s eagerly browsed the AC/DC section at a record store.
As a note, in an effort to stay true to AC/DC’s own canon, we chose to include the Australian versions of High Voltage and T.N.T. — which adhere to the band’s artistic vision — rather than the arguably more visible international release of High Voltage (which contained many tracks from T.N.T.) We also omitted compilations like 1986’s Who Made Who, live albums such as If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It, and EPs (i.e. Jailbreak ’74). Formalities aside, let’s dig in.
— Jon Hadusek
Senior Staff Writer
17. Ballbreaker (1995)
For Those About to Listen (Analysis): There truly are no bad AC/DC albums. Because they’ve stuck to their lane and their chosen sound with remarkable consistency, their entire discography falls into various shades of good to great. But by the time of Ballbreaker, some exhaustion was starting to set in. The years between albums were starting to grow longer, and the group was leaning harder on the hits of the previous two decades when they played live. Yet, with the success of The Razors Edge and cheerleader and uber-fan Rick Rubin in their corner, there was some urgency to keep going even if the material they brought to the studio felt a little off.
Finding the missteps isn’t difficult. AC/DC has never been an overtly political band, so their attempts at social commentary with “The Furor” and “Hail Caesar” were ill-fitting. An attempt to recreate the slow burn of “The Jack” or “Ride On” resulted in the plodding “Boogie Man”. And though their lyrical metaphors for sex and women have never been terribly witty, they feel even more strained on “Love Bomb” and the discomforting “Cover You In Oil.” Rubin and co-producer Mike Fraser made the band sound better than ever, but the songwriting hampered their efforts.
Best in Black (Best Song): While the rest of Ballbreaker concerns getting laid or making some awkward jabs at conservative politicians, “Whiskey on the Rocks” returns AC/DC to a familiar location: their local watering hole. A celebration of booze in all its flavors and the good times that usually go hand-in-hand with a night of drinking, fused easily to a road trip ready rhythm.
Done Dirt Cheap (Worst Song): A song with the propulsion and spirit of “Love Bomb” deserves far better than what the Young brothers cooked up for Brian Johnson to sing. A dick-swinging ode to both heavy artillery and easy women that feels flaccid and awkward. You try singing “Where the size doesn’t matter/ Come long, short, or batter” with a straight face. — Robert Ham
Pick up Ballbreaker here.
16. Blow Up Your Video (1988)
For Those About to Listen: Alas, the late ’80s were not kind to AC/DC, and the primitive steam hammer rock sound that carpet-bombed the charts eight years earlier sounded quaint in 1988. Blow Up Your Video’s stiff retread of the band’s old tropes sounds arthritic next to the sexual nihilism of Guns N’ Roses or the militaristic rage of Metallica.
In another in a series of back to basics moves, AC/DC reinstated producers Harry Vanda and George Young (older brother of guitarists Malcolm and Angus) who had helmed the band’s earliest albums. The duo had their work cut out for them: drummer Simon Wright was on his way out, and alcoholism had a firm grip on Malcolm, who played a primary songwriting role in every AC/DC record until that point. Unsurprisingly, then, Blow Up Your Video struggles to find its footing. “Heatseeker” and “That’s The Way I Wanna Rock and Roll” pack a little punch, but beyond that it’s mostly forgettable – AC/DC rarely play any of these songs live.
Things picked up for the band after 1988. Malcolm kicked the habit during the subsequent tour, and AC/DC returned to form two years later with The Razors Edge, leaving Blow Up Your Video a transitional — and ultimately inconsequential — piece of the band’s history.
Best in Black: It’s a cliché at this point that AC/DC put their best song in the pole position on their albums and Blow Up Your Video is no different. “Heatseeker,” their first strike, delivers a straightforward but satisfying dose of what the band does well: a heavy main riff, satisfyingly screeching Brian Johnson vocals, and a nice pentatonic solo from Angus. As good as it is, like the rest of the record, it’s basically inessential.
Done Dirt Cheap: From a band as lascivious as Johnson-era AC/DC, one might expect a little slap and tickle fun from a song called “Ruff Stuff”. Sadly, it’s as vanilla as they come. More-or-less a retread of “You Shook Me All Night Long”, this middling semi-ballad feel like it’s about 50 percent chorus and, like many AC/DC songs, the chorus is mostly the title of the song itself. Swipe left on this one. — Joseph Schafer
Pick up Blow Up Your Video here.
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.
10. Flick of the Switch (1983)
For Those About to Listen: Still riding high from the astounding success of Back in Black (and its less astounding but still formidable follow-up For Those About to Rock), AC/DC decamped to the Bahamas to record Flick of the Switch in April 1983 — without producer Mutt Lange. Apparently, the band had grown tired of Lange’s state-of-the-art bombast, and wanted to get back to basics, so they produced it themselves. From its stripped-down audio aesthetic to its pencil sketch cover, Flick of the Switch is raw as sashimi.
The move seemed absurd at the time: Lange and AC/DC’s collaboration helped lay the groundwork for the hair metal renaissance, which by then had already produced Mötley Crüe and Quiet Riot, and was about to unleash commercial juggernauts like Ratt and Poison (Lange himself had just cashed in with Def Leppard’s Pyromania). Flick of the Switch sold poorly in that zeitgeist, and the band basically never revisited it live.
In retrospect, however, the return to roots approach makes sense. AC/DC had pop sensibilities but were never a glam band, and the hairspray tide was about to get a taste of whiplash from Metallica later that year. Flick of the Switch isn’t exactly punk, but it does have a vitality that For Those About to Rock didn’t, and songs like “Guns for Hire” and “Rising Power” are worth revisiting. That said, it doesn’t bring many new ideas to the table — Angus Young later admitted the record was thrown together quickly, and drummer Phil Rudd was struggling with addiction at the time. It wound up being Rudd’s last album with the band until 1995.
Best in Black: No surprises here. Album opener “Rising Power” has more staying power than almost anything else on the docket. It’s AC/DC coloring in the lines rather than redrawing the map, but innovation isn’t the band’s specialty, and at least it’s a little harder than most of the band’s other songs. At this point in time bands like Krokus and Accept were taking their style into heavier, harder territories, and “Rising Power” is a tantalizing glimpse into an alternate history where the band decided t double down on the nastier side of their sound.
Done Dirt Cheap: The story behind “Bedlam in Belgium” at least is pretty cool: a riot nearly broke out in Antwerp when AC/DC’s set ran over the city’s strict 11pm noise ordinance. It’s the kind of hard rock shenanigan that makes for a great anecdote in a memoir, but not necessarily a great song. Johnson tells the tale well, but unfortunately the song drags on for nearly four minutes but runs out of ideas after about two. — Joseph Schafer
Pick up Flick of the Switch here.
09. Power Up (2020)
For Those About to Listen: AC/DC have gotten a lot of mileage out of what they themselves have always insisted was the same formula, even joking that they’ve made the same record over and over. What they never let on was that, somewhere along the way, the songwriting acumen outweighed the band’s fanatical commitment to repetition. Lo and behold, AC/DC’s 2020 comeback Power Up crackles with a freshness we haven’t heard from the band in ages. With the return of recently departed members Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams, Power Up restores four-fifths of the classic lineup that made Back in Black. In fact, the album somewhat resurrects that entire lineup, thanks to songwriting contributions from late rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, who has long been heralded as the author of many of the band’s most iconic riffs. Rudd’s drums and Williams’ bass may not swing as much as they once did, but the overall sense of rejuvenation is undeniable.
Power Up also provides a master class in how to incorporate melody without sacrificing heaviness — a balance that’s eluded the band on most of its output since the year 2000. For almost the entire record, the guitar riffs and lead vocals play off each other, melding into supremely infectious hooks that, believe it or not, rival the anthemic quality that made the band’s classic material so irresistible. It’s unreasonable to expect the unbridled energy of the ‘70s records, or the metallic muscle of the early-’80s stuff, but Power Up shows that this bunch of seniors can still bring a hell of a lot of vitality to the table. The band would probably laugh at you if you put “wisdom” and AC/DC in the same breath, but there’s almost 50 years’ worth of accumulated seasoning stored in these new riffs, inviting and straightforward as they might be.
Best in Black: As the leadoff single, “Shot in the Dark” serves its purpose to a tee by luring listeners to the whole album via a chorus hook that’s easily as catchy as anything in the back catalog. Predictably, “Shot in the Dark” doesn’t introduce anything the band hasn’t already done before, but it re-packages AC/DC’s hallmark traits into something as fresh, upbeat and warm as it is nostalgic — nothing less than a Herculean feat from a band that acted like it said everything it had to say four decades ago.
Done Dirt Cheap: As much as AC/DC have learned to draw on melody as an asset, “Through the Mists of Time” overshoots the mark, landing closer to the lite-brew metal the band avoided so well in the ‘80s. The song’s main guitar hook sounds like Angus Young taking a half-hearted stab at a Mark Knopfler impression, while the air-puffed background vocals and poppy guitar progression in the chorus make it sound like the band got bitten by the same blood-thinning agent as contemporaries like Alice Cooper and Ozzy during their most blatant attempts at commercialism. Don’t be surprised if the song ends up in a beer commercial at some point. — Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
Pick up Power Up here.
08. The Razors Edge (1990)
For Those About to Listen: After a string of albums that failed to live up to the promise of Back in Black and For Those About to Rock, AC/DC reaffirmed their cultural relevance with 1990’s The Razors Edge. If not a classic album, it was at least a worthy vehicle for two of the band’s most recognizable songs, “Thunderstruck” and “Moneytalks”. They would become smash MTV and radio hits, each showcasing a different side of the band and no doubt exposing AC/DC to a new world of young music consumers.
“Thunderstruck” was the rock song, with its iconic tapping riff and stadium stomper intro, while “Moneytalks” was the pop song, with a sense of melody not far removed from the radio-friendly glam metal prevalent at the time. Both were the hits that AC/DC had failed to notch in the ’80s (“Who Made Who” notwithstanding).
The band was riding momentum following 1988’s Blow Up Your Video, a commercial improvement over Flick of the Switch and Fly on the Wall; however, all of those albums lacked a memorable hit, a recurring albatross for AC/DC. That should put the band’s talent into perspective. It’s hard to write a single hit, let alone multiple hits. To say the only bad AC/DC albums are the ones without a bonafide chart topper is like saying they only have a bad game when they don’t hit a home run. Unfair expectations, really, but The Razors Edge far exceeded them.
Best in Black: “Thunderstruck” has grown even more ubiquitous over the years, a testament to its simplicity and functionality as the most arena-ready song ever recorded. You’d be hard pressed to find a sporting event where this song isn’t played, to the point where you may have been overexposed and heard it too many times and are therefore numb to the immensity of Angus Young’s tapping riff (this ex-sports writer must search deep to recall the first time he heard The Riff and got chills). Although anyone who has had to work a job with an FM radio playing the classic rock station can attest to being fed up with hearing the shrill tones of “Thunderstruck” at one time or another, the song’s popularity shouldn’t count against it.
Done Dirt Cheap: Aside from its two singles, the rest of The Razors Edge passes in a familiar blur of recycled ideas and passable hard rock, keeping this album from climbing any further on our countdown. The cringeworthy lyrics of “Let’s Make It”, however, are less forgivable. With couplets like “Hey sugar baby / So hot and tasty” and “Let’s make It / Come on and taste it”, the song clangs with the hollow thud of vapid machismo. Combined with some thinly veiled misogyny, it’s safe to say this one hasn’t aged well. — Jon Hadusek
Pick up The Razors Edge here.
07. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976)
For Those About to Listen: Recorded not even one month after their sophomore outing, T.N.T. had been released, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap showcases AC/DC at their hungriest. They’d yet to tour the U.S., owing to anxieties about vocalist Bon Scott’s thick Aussie accent, and had scrapped the recording of an EP — some of its songs would wind up on this and other AC/DC albums as fan favorites (not to mention one, “I’m a Rebel”, kick-started German metal legends Accept’s career).
After all those false starts, hostile negotiations and legendary club shows, the album title became something of a band mantra: this is AC/DC at their closest to UK punk. Against all odds, it’s their third best-selling record in the U.S., buoyed largely by its indelible title track.
All that unfulfilled ambition seems to have putrefied Scott’s persona. Always sly, raunchy and rambunctious, Scott amps his street tuff persona up so high on “Problem Child” and “Jailbreak” that he almost reaches out of the speaker to strangle someone. When he breaks from that trajectory, either for some juvenile fun (the nonstop innuendos of “Big Balls”) or a bit of brooding melancholy (fan favorite “Ride On”), it only serves to underscore how sinister he is on the next track. Sadly, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap didn’t see release in the United States until after he passed away.
Best in Black: It’s often the case that the best song on an AC/DC record is the first or the title track, but that doesn’t always hold true. That said, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” is powerful enough to carry the whole album on its back. Its main riff strikes with immediate force, but Scott’s vocal performance sells it. He nearly purrs over the breakdown while listing off the terrible things he’d do for bargain bin prices — “neckties, contracts” — then explodes vocally as he screams the final chorus.
Done Dirt Cheap: AC/DC are at their best when they try to be concise. So why on earth is “Aint No Fun (Waiting Around to be a Millionaire)” so damn long? At seven and a half minutes, you could listen to “Big Balls” twice and change in the same amount of time and have quadruple the fun. While anyone can gel with Scott’s sentiment, here there was no reason for expressing it to be such a slog. For some reason it’s the second song on the record. They should have gone with “I’m a Rebel.” — Joseph Schafer
Pick up Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap here.
06. Let There Be Rock (1977)
For Those About to Listen: Stocked with many future classics like “Bad Boy Boogie”, “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be”, “Problem Child”, “Whole Lotta Rosie” and, of course, the title track, Let There Be Rock signaled to the world that AC/DC had major-league potential. (1976’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap hadn’t yet seen release outside of Australia.) The band’s second internationally released album and fourth overall, Let There Be Rock is the sound of AC/DC hitting their stride in earnest. When you think of AC/DC, all the quintessential qualities that come to mind gelled for the first time with this record, which captures the band dialing-up the tempos, distortion and attack, performing with a newfound hunger that’s almost feral.
At the same time, the production — modest compared to every record the band made after — stays true to the scrappy underdog appeal of their earliest work. Without the huge guitar tones that would soon follow, Malcolm and Angus Young slash and burn their way through their parts like two stock car drivers racing neck-and-neck, putting in plain view why their styles are so difficult to imitate in spite of their simplicity. Not to mention that “Overdose”, with its uncharacteristically mournful intro, is one of the only times the band’s music struck a note of bona fide heartbreak.
Best in Black: With its roaring two-guitar attack, tension-release buildup and humor, the title track “Let There Be Rock” not only encapsulates AC/DC in a nutshell but also hints at the ferocious live act the band had grown into by this period. Its cleverly worded creation story was also the band’s tongue-in-cheek way of saying that nothing in life mattered more to AC/DC than rock ‘n’ roll.
Done Dirt Cheap: As popular as the song is, “Whole Lotta Rosie” is the victim of a front–to-back powerhouse tracklist. Perhaps, due to its status as a staple in the band’s live set, it’s almost impossible to hear “Whole Lotta Rosie” with fresh ears. Here, the band parlayed one of the most familiar and foundational blues licks into something both traditional and new for its time. We can think of “Whole Lotta Rosie” as AC/DC accepting the baton from blues greats like John Lee Hooker and blasting-off into the arena-rock era. There’s nothing really “worst” about it, except for the band reducing it to schtick at their shows. — Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
Pick up Let There Be Rock here.
05. For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) (1981)
For Those About to Listen: The follow-up to one of the biggest-selling albums in music history, it’s no surprise that the relatively more modest seller For Those About to Rock doesn’t contain as many songs that you’ve heard to death. From a listener’s perspective, the band’s return to earth from the upper stratosphere of commercial success ended up securing this album’s place as a gift that keeps on giving to this day. That’s because, besides the title track, For Those About to Rock comes stuffed with deep-cut thrills galore. The third album helmed by producer Mutt Lange and the second to feature Brian Johnson on vocals, For Those About to Rock solidified the band’s shift from swinging blues rock to the regimented, lead-footed proto-metal sound that began with Back in Black.
Though Lange once again applied the direct, ultra-dry production style he employed the last time around, the grooves on tunes like “Let’s Get It Up”, “Snowballed” and “Breaking the Rules” sway almost as much as they pummel — which adds some contrast against the darker-than-usual hues in the Young brothers’ choice of guitar chords. Less of a party record than Back in Black, For Those About to Rock is probably as close to deadly-serious as the band has ever gotten. The lyrics on songs like “Evil Walks” and “Inject the Venom” may be veiled by the usual double-entendre, but in 1981, Johnson’s one-of-a-kind screech was heavy in a way that did actually seem evil. And you could easily read “Inject the Venom”, for example, as a heroin reference. Arguably the band’s last canonical record, AC/DC have been playing catch-up to what they achieved on For Those About to Rock with everything they’ve put out since.
Best in Black: Among the most consistent complete listens in the entire catalog, it’s damn-near impossible to pick a lone standout track, but “C.O.D.” separates itself from the pack in the way it bridges the loose charm of the early work with Bon Scott and the juggernaut-sized sound of the Brian Johnson era. Something about the open-ringing jangle of the main guitar riff leaves a pocket for the listener to hear echoes of Scott’s winking style in Johnson’s phrasing.
Done Dirt Cheap: Again, it’s tough to pick a weak track here, but the downtempo, tentative “Spellbound” closes things out on something of an anti-climactic note. You can’t really fault the band, though, because after kicking like a mule for nine songs straight, it’s understandable that AC/DC couldn’t come up with a more decisive ending. That said, the song does little to detract from the body blows For Those About to Rock delivers by the time you get to the final round. — Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
Pick up For Those About to Rock here.
04. T.N.T. (Australia release) (1975)
For Those About to Listen: AC/DC’s second album, recorded mere months after the release of their debut, was where the group found their sound. Where the original Australian version of High Voltage had flickers of their future, they locked in on T.N.T. with a focus on bruising blues-adjacent guitar melodies from the brothers Young and Scott’s reedy grunt. All it took to get there was shaking off their adherence to the influences of early rock and R&B and finding the right volume and attack for the mighty sound that remained.
The formula on T.N.T. was far from perfect. The production is thin and the whole album is mixed in a way that hides some of Angus’ best solos. Bon Scott is given too loose of a leash, letting him riff and toss in silly, unnecessary asides a la David Lee Roth. But the album works far more often than it doesn’t thanks to stronger songwriting, a willingness to let songs like “The Jack” and the title track simmer instead of boil, and an openness for left field ideas like throwing a bagpipe solo in the midst of “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” AC/DC were still moldable but well on their way to solidifying into a hard and heavy monolith.
Note: Most of the songs on T.N.T. would appear on the 1976 international release of High Voltage, which we didn’t include on this list despite its massive success.
Best in Black: “It’s a Long Way to the Top” is the kind of song you’d expect to hear from a band of road dogs — a lament cum celebration of the touring life. AC/DC gives it all a vicious snap with each guitar shunt and the rumble of that unflagging train-like rhythms. And damn if Scott doesn’t make the pitfalls of being on tour sound strangely alluring.
Done Dirt Cheap: Even in 1975, the world wasn’t necessarily yearning for Chuck Berry covers, least of all a hopped up take on “School Days” by a bunch of bruisers from Down Under that likely only recorded it so they had an excuse to “hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll” in the chorus. A goofy and unnecessary recording that was rightfully left off the international release of High Voltage, which combined the best of AC/DC’s first two Australian albums. — Robert Ham
Pick up T.N.T. here.
03. Powerage (1978)
For Those About to Listen: A transitional album between the blues-based rock of the band’s early era and its looming commercial breakthrough, Powerage still stands as a strong and underrated LP. It was the beginning of Angus Young’s use of the now legendary Schaffer-Vega unit on a studio album. This box was secret ingredient to Angus’ thick live tone — as captured on If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It (also released in 1978) — and sounds no less powerful in the studio. It was Angus’ brother George Young who suggested the Angus implement the Schaffer-Vega after inquiring how AC/DC achieved such a powerful “live” guitar sound and suggesting they use the same gear for parts of Powerage.
Songs like “Riff Raff”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation”, and “Sin City” are classics of the Bon Scott era, the former two making the cut for the If You Want Blood tracklist. Also of note are Scott’s world-weary lyrics, often lost beneath the bravado of the band’s music. When removed from Angus’ riffs, they read like Rimbaudian admissions of someone lost to hedonism — sometimes arrogant, yet reflective and self-aware. This poeticism was perhaps best illustrated when Red House Painters’ singer Mark Kozelek released What’s Next to the Moon, a set of folk covers of Bon Scott-era AC/DC songs. Applying Scott’s lyrics to Nick Drake-style acoustic instrumentation, Kozelek covered three Powerage songs on the LP, revealing the sincerity of Scott’s words in the process.
Best in Black: “Riff Raff” is exemplary of AC/DC in 1978. They were a band firing on all cylinders, whether live or in the studio, and proved it with two versions of the track (the live iteration coming on If You Want Blood). This is technically masterful heavy blues rock, taking the craft to new extremes of proficiency. Yet, it remains utterly raw — arguably more so than anything AC/DC made before or after — indicating the Youngs might have had an ear to the ground during the burgeoning punk rock explosion of the time.
Done Dirt Cheap: Songs about guns are another recycled lyrical motif that tend to tie AC/DC — for better or worse — to a lot of blues band stereotypes, and in this case “Gone Shootin'” misfires. We certainly don’t need any more gun songs in 2020, but it was popular fare in 1978 (Powerage has two, including “Gimme a Bullet”). “Gone Shootin'” is pretty by-the-numbers compared to the rest of Powerage. Musically, it’s nothing offensive, though none such filler would appear on the two albums that followed. — Jon Hadusek
02. Back in Black (1980)
For Those About to Listen: Here is the measuring stick by which all other hard rock albums are judged. Back in Black stands apart from the rest of AC/DC’s discography in its consistency and emotional valence. Every song could be a massive hit single and many were, making it the blueprint that Appetite for Destruction, “The Black Album”, Nevermind and others followed consciously or unconsciously.
It’s also a little sentimental: recorded not long after lead singer Bon Scott’s premature death from alcohol poisoning, two of the songs — the title track and “Hell’s Bells” — refer to his mortality, and its black cover memorializes his passing.
Most notably, AC/DC rebounded by tapping Geordie frontman Brian Johnson to fill Scott’s shoes. Johnson may lack Scott’s wit and lovably rakish affectation but he more than makes up for it with an unmistakable squeal and affable persona. Notably he dialed down AC/DC’s fixation on criminal behavior and replaced it with sexuality. If Scott’s innuendos were graffiti on a bathroom wall, Johnson’s lyrics slide into your DMs and think they’re flirting.
The result is maybe rock’s most populist album. One year earlier AC/DC were a punk band, a blues band, and a metal band all at once. On Back in Black producer Mutt Lange sanded down their edges and replaced them with hooks. Impossibly catchy but still hard, these songs invited every person on earth to the party while still hitting hard enough for the leather jacket club to headbang along — which makes it a singular triumph.
Best in Black: Ominous, moody, gorgeous — three words that don’t normally describe any AC/DC song, but perfectly encapsulate “Hells Bells”. Anchored by one of Angus Young’s most restrained and melodic guitar figures, the song doesn’t really “kick in” until it’s nearly complete, making it a masterclass in atmosphere that spent most of their career trying to vacuum-seal their sound. To Johnson’s credit, when he squeals, “White lighting’s flashing across the sky / You’re only young, but you’re gonna die,” he evokes nearly gothic imagery. Legendarily, the song was so popular that while AC/DC were touring elsewhere they sent the titular bell on the road to generate extra revenue.
Done Dirt Cheap: It’s pretty hard to pick a worst song on a record as consistent as Back in Black. Any other band in 1980 would have killed for even one of the weaker tracks on the album, and even some of its slightly more bloated entries (“Shoot to Thrill”) remain fan-favorite AC/DC tunes. The exception is “Shake a Leg,” which, while energetic and perfectly placed between two slower numbers, doesn’t really stand apart by itself. — Joseph Schafer
Pick up Back in Black here.
01. Highway to Hell (1979)
For Those About to Listen: Everything had been building to this moment, this album. AC/DC had their collective foot on the gas pedal since the release of their debut LP four years prior, cranking out albums, touring relentlessly, and getting better with every step — a tropical depression originating from Australia that had now reached hurricane levels of strength and power. By the time they made landfall in early 1979 at London’s Roundhouse Studios to record Highway to Hell, their sixth full-length, the quintet were set to level the countryside.
Helping take control of this live wire band was producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. Working with AC/DC for the first time, he honed their attack and gave them the gentle (and not-so-gentle) pushes they needed to find new, unused gears. Vocalist Bon Scott lost his cheeky snarl but gained a mighty roar. Brothers Angus and Malcolm Young allowed for even more empty space between their sabre-like riffs. And when it came to the rhythm section, Lange and mixing engineer Tony Platt aimed it at the listener’s guts and groin rather than their hips and knees.
The cumulative effect was massive. The group felt emboldened to write big, brash tunes that stuck to their usual themes of sex, partying, and rocking and Lange made them lean, vicious, and loud enough to fill a stadium. Highway to Hell also marks the end of an era. Eight months after it was released, Scott would die from alcohol poisoning. But with this one fireball of an album, the 33-year-old vocalist and the band behind him set ablaze multiple generations of musicians, all seeking the smoldering depths that they plundered on this hard rock classic.
Best in Black: Great as the opening title track is, that only sets the table for Highway’s real statement of purpose: “Girls Got Rhythm”. Musically and lyrically, it’s the right combination of filthy and sweet. Scott proclaims his devotion to the one girl who can really satisfy him and the band settled into a cruising altitude groove with Angus Young adding a small burst of sparks with his tightly composed solo.
Done Dirt Cheap: Calling “Beating Around the Bush” the worst song on this stem-to-stern classic feels a tad awkward (Angus, for the record, thinks “Love Hungry Man” is Highway’s nadir). But if there are points to be deducted, they should be taken from this song due to their carbon copy approximation of the opening riff from Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”, and Scott’s kiss off to his unfaithful lady via an incredibly awkward double entendre. — Robert Ham
Pick up Highway to Hell here.
Watch our 40th anniversary virtual celebration for AC/DC’s Back in Black: