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In the single greatest book ever written about rock music, 1991′s Rock And The Pop Narcotic, Joe Carducci described AC/DC thusly: “They kind of took the lumpen stomp of Slade and sort of added the blues croak of early Savoy Brown (Chris Youlden) and came up with a raw, narrowly focused, grittily compacted hard rock sound somewhere in the vicinity of the intersection of blues and metal at boogie … They became so popular by 1980, that today, if you cut open young execs, young housewives, rappers, house mixers, salsa fans, hip hopsters you’ll likely as not find that about fourteen rings back there’s a layer of molten rock sediment spewed by this Australian eruption.”

That sums up both AC/DC’s sound and their significance remarkably well. AC/DC emerged in the early ’70s, when hard rock was at its commercial peak, but rather than head in the jamming, crowd-pleasing direction of, say, Grand Funk Railroad, they stripped their music to engine and chassis and went racing down Australia’s back roads like the musical equivalent of the bikers from Mad Max. And by keeping their heads down and preserving their core sound with zero capitulation to trends, they managed to build a solid career, particularly live, and eventually become legends.

Brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, Scottish immigrants to Australia, formed AC/DC in November 1973. In September 1974, they replaced original vocalist Dave Evans with Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott. By 1975, they had a fixed rhythm section: Mark Evans on bass and Phil Rudd on drums. And almost from that moment on, their sound was as Carducci describes it above. The Young brothers’ guitars had an unprecedented snarl: Angus’ leads had real sting, while Malcolm’s rhythm chords sounded like someone tearing sheet metal apart with robot claws. And everyone’s role was clearly defined — their music was the antithesis of the improvisatory, jamming rock of the 1970s. Malcolm and Mark Evans (later replaced by Cliff Williams) anchored the songs; Phil Rudd’s name proved ironic, as he didn’t ever seem to play a fill. Angus and Bon were the twin frontmen, the guitarist bouncing across the stage as though his instrument were shorting him out, the singer preening and strutting, flirting with the women in the audience, then sneering lyrics that carried a genuinely shocking hostility and menace.

For six straight studio albums and one breathtaking live disc, AC/DC cranked it up and assaulted the audience with a ferociously potent blend of blues swagger and a sonic aggression that prefigured punk, with Scott’s magnetic personality up front. But then he died, choking to death on vomit after a night of binge drinking, and everything changed.

Brian Johnson, who took over on vocals beginning with 1980′s Back In Black, has led the group to its greatest commercial heights. Their second album with him, 1981′s For Those About To Rock We Salute You, was their first to hit #1 on the Billboard charts, an achievement they wouldn’t repeat until 2008′s Black Ice. But in the process, the band has slowly and incrementally become a substantially different beast. Songs have gotten slower, lyrics cruder; some albums have been great, but others have been uninspired and even dull.

I’m not one of those AC/DC fans who believe that every Bon Scott-era album is superior to every Brian Johnson-era album, so this countdown won’t divide so easily. But I am one who believes the Australian versions of the early albums are superior to the US versions, so those are the ones you’ll find discussed here. (They’re easy enough to get hold of — you’re on the internet right now, just open a new browser tab and have at it.) The one thing you learn by going through AC/DC’s catalog album by album is that they’re definitely not all the same. Sure, they’re similar in broad-stroke ways; that’s called having a style. But within the boundaries they’ve set up for themselves, there’s surprising range, and some real peaks (and valleys).

Start the Countdown here.

Comments (42)
  1. Ok, let me get this straight: there is NO way that a properly working brain (with ears) ever believes that the mediocre Black Ice is a better album than the almighty High Voltage (whether it is the US or the Australian version) and that Flick of the Switch is worth anything higher than the 15th slot in this ranking. NO FUCKING way!

  2. Whoa, let’s not drag Grand Funk through the mud for this. That band’s awesome.

    Personally I’d put Highway on top, but that’s probably for sentimental reasons as much as anything. Good list.

  3. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I LOVE Grand Funk, but they were a much looser, happier band than AC/DC.

  4. Nice band to tackle…being a boy growing up smack dab in 80′s (don’t envy me ;-/) my heart belongs to Back in Black mainly because there’s simply not one throwaway track. I remember hearing Shoot to Thrill fpor the first time as a kid, and just listening in amazement. I also think Who Made Who is a little lower than it should be but understand, its not outstanding yet it greatly affected me as a rock radio listener at the time. And you’re right….you can’t separate Bon from Brian. They both made such a great impact on the band.

  5. Putting ‘Highway to Hell’ that low on the list is just ridiculous. You might personally take offense to Mutt Lange’s influence, but there’s no way it’s not in a two-way tie for #1 with ‘Back in Black’.

    ‘Powerage’? Gimme a break. Objectivity went right out the window with that placement.

    • BOOM!!! You said it perfectly. Highway to Hell being down at #8 is ridonkulous. I grew up in this era and along with Back In Black this is THE album long haired pimple faced losers listened to. Powerage was cool but Highway to Hell was the dope shit.

      • “…once you become a serious fan, it’ll grow and grow in your estimation…”

        I guess our fandom just isn’t serious enough. :\

  6. I just can’t get over the ridiculousness of their lyrics. “But they’re supposed to be ridiculous! That’s part of the fun,” you say. Well, there’s good ridiculous and bad ridiculous, and AC/DC’s lyrics are the latter. They literally sound like they were written by a 13-year-old boy. I’d rather hear them sing in Simlish.

    And oh god, those album covers.

    • I was an AC/DC fan as a kid….but as time wore on I found it harder and harder to justify them in any way possible. The lyrics are truly horrific. And not in a cute way (as you mention above). They really are terrible on so many levels.

      That being said when I’m in the right mood (and by “right mood” I mean “shitfaced drunk”) some of their early stuff still rocks my ass. But even then I’m more apt to grab early Metallica. My little bro summed this band up for me once and everytime I hear them mentioned I think of his quote….

      “AC/DC is music for stupid fuckers”………his quote….not mine. Save your hate.



    Damn, bro.

  8. Really glad to see Powerage make #1, such a great and underrated album.

  9. Love the intro to the article. Great stuff… Some of the rankings though… Highway to Hell at 8? C’mon. And For Those About to Rock certainly doesn’t have the depth of their great albums. But 18? Only one good song? Give COD another listen. That’s a rockin’ tune. (You’re really going to dismiss an AC/DC song because of the sound of the background vocals?) I like Evil Walks too. And, oh yeah, it has the song that’s closed their shows for 30+ years. Like you said, it’s not just the cannons (Ha, good line). All subjective, I guess…. Anyway, thanks for the article. Fun read about a great band.

  10. What’s with the live albums?

    • First AC/DC album I bought when I was kid was AC/DC Live, because it had the most hits on it. I didn’t have much money and buying a CD was a really big deal. I played it rarely. They really weren’t at their best.

      AC/DC refusing to put their music on Itunes or to put out a Greatest Hits is a boneheaded move.

  11. I grew up in Saskatoon (Canadian city where no big groups ever toured, I mean no one). ACDC came to town during the Razors Edge tour and sold-out imediately. People talked about it for years. They are like the Beatles in Saskatchewan. Great read.

  12. There can be no beginning or end, no better or worse with AC/DC. AC/DC just is.

  13. I’m disappointed this list didn’t just say, “JK!!! They’re ALL the worst!” but that’s probably just me being a hater.

  14. (1) the song “What’s Next to the Moon” is awesome- definitely should have got a mention on “Powerage”!

    (2) “Night of Long Knives” riff (one of them) seems to show up in “Dr. Feelgood”

    (3) “Problem Child” live version from some BBC thing is just so awesome I can’t believe it.

  15. Funny, a couple of weeks ago, I’ve realized how much AC/DC is missing from my record collection, so I bought their whole discography in one big shopping spree. It’s what I’be been listening to the last couple of days and more than once I thought about a possible Worst to Best List here on Stereogum. I have no idea how to rank them. They have their style and never changed it much. Some albums have slightly higher highlights but there certainly is no embarassing failure in their whole career. My Top Three would probably be “Let there be Rock”, “Powerage” and “Highway to Hell”, after that the differences are starting to blur. I understand your low ranking of “For those about to rock”, although I like that album – it is beyond me how one can not see the genius of “Spellbound”: It has to be one of their best cuts of the eighties. Speaking of the eighties, I do like their maligned eighties records “Flick of the Switch”, “Fly on the wall” and “Blow up your video” and think they’re underrated. “Dirty Deeds done dirt cheap” doesn’t do too much for me right now, but that might change with repeated listens. What bothers me are your comments on certain songs: How one can call “Nick of time” mediocre and interchangeable is a mystery to me, as is calling “Danger” a “ballad”. And “Big Jack” for sure doesn’t suck.

  16. Ah, the good old days. Taking me back to freshman year of high school, when “the best bands ever are Led Zeppelin and AC/DC!” Led Zeppelin is still up there, but AC/DC….. That doesn’t mean I don’t love me some AC/DC once in a while still.

    Powerage has some great tracks, don’t get me wrong. “Gone Shootin’” is one of their best, I think. But no way is it their best. It’s been said multiple times in the comments here, but come on. Highway to Hell has to be higher.

    “Touch Too Much,” “Night Prowler,” “Girls Got Rhythm,” “Walk All Over You” are all pretty awesome. Also the bass in “Love Hungry Man” is sick.

  17. “Over a slow, throbbing groove, Scott tells a story that doesn’t blur the line between seduction and rape; it stomps all over it in boots stained with something you can’t and probably don’t want to identify. ” A lot of their songs are pretty creepy like that, if not straight-up sexist, which is why I don’t like to listen to them very much at all. That, and my mom’s ex used to listen to them almost constantly, and he was a giant prick. So there’s that association in my mind. I do like some of their songs, though. Mostly the ‘we’re in a band’ ones. “Down Payment Blues” is pretty underrated, too.

  18. Hating AC/DC is so last century. It’s 2014! Ya’ll dudes are at least fifteen years behind the times.

  19. Let There Be Rock should be number one. I wouldn’t argue Powerage at two, but Let There Be Rock’s lesser songs are as good as Powerage’s lesser songs and there is very little in rock as good as Whole Lotta Rosie and the title track, Let There Be Rock. The rhythm guitar tracks on those songs are the basis for Shellac’s entire damn career.

    • Seriously, that rhythm guitar, blasting out one chord over and over, during the first solo on Let There Be Rock, is one of the most fantastic pieces of minimalism in music. All you need is an A pounding your skull into the concrete, over and over and over.

  20. My sons – 6 and 2 – very, very much love dancing to Let There Be Rock with me. They go off. In fact, my six-year-old was so upset when he realised I’d given it four stars in Windows Media Player that he changed it to five. But to be honest … it’s almost the only AC/DC song I love.

  21. ac/dc isn’t the greatest band, certainly have a lot of dumb lyrics and never very their sound much. i llke them a lot and have unfortunately never seen them in concert. for those that hate ac/dc, the solo to “ride on” is better than anything in your collection.

  22. Great countdown! I always go back and forth between Powerage and Highway to Hell as my favorite AC/DC records, but if I abosolutely had to pick one it’d be Powerage. “What’s next to the Moon”, “Sin City”, “Riff Raff” and “Down Payment Blues” are some of my favs.

    For me it’s not possible to jumble all the albums together in one list between the two era’s of the band. I have to seperate them between Bon and Brian.

  23. Several years ago I was out with some friends and we ended up at a shitty pool hall. We got drunk on pitchers of cheap beer and the bar was blasting old AC/DC all night. Just every fucking hit imaginable. They have at least 25-30 songs you know. And for whatever reason it just hit the sweetest spot between nostalgia and being wasted playing pool. The next few days I downloaded everything I could get. It’s all been sitting in my iTunes ever since and hasn’t gotten a single play. Still, there’s going to be some night down the road hanging out with friends where the mood is right and I’m going to blast that shit and although I’ll probably get a few eye rolls at first, AC/DC will win you over.

  24. AC/DC just rocks! I don’t think they will ever go out of style.

  25. Stereogum and an AC/DC ranking. What’s next? An evaluation of a Blue Cheer album?

  26. Man. Some of you people probably hate orgasms, falling in love, volcanoes, thunderstorms and the full moon too.

  27. I’m officially closing the comments to this article. You will NEVER see a live band this good. That’s not a matter of opinion, that’s a scientific fact. Thank you and goodnight.

  28. Chiming in late but like almost every other commentator, HTH is the best album and obviously set up the overplayed success of BIB. And yes, every Bon album is better than the Johnson led albums. Especially since he probably wrote most of BIB anyway. Respect for putting “If You Want Blood…” at 3 though.

  29. I was a massive fan of AC/DC in my youth and I love all the Bon Scott era albums. Powerage is probably the one I go back to most often these days, it’s an amazing album, and if Riff Raff doesn’t make you want to bang your head then you must be dead. Great to see that album top of the list. I thought Back In Black was great but felt their albums just got weaker and weaker as they went on and I stopped buying them after Fly On The Wall. Bon Scott wrote some cracking lyrics (Ride On, Down Payment Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer etc) but Brian’s lyrics are just awful at times. Flick of Switch above Highway to Hell? I definitely have problem with that, but hey, it’s all about opinions, and the list has made me want to go and dig out some of their albums again. I might even invest in a copy of Black Ice. Thanks for the article,

  30. This is a terrible comparison, Do you really think that TNT or Flick of the switch are better albums than “Highway to Hell? I think you are the only person in the world who thinks that way

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