Worst to First: Ranking Aerosmith’s Studio Albums

No band has had a greater impact on my musical taste than Aerosmith. The first time I ever remember actively listening to music and enjoying it was when my dad got into Aerosmith and made me a mixed CD full of his favorite songs from them and other Soft Rock acts like Bryan Adams Don Henley. Seemingly every song they had was great; the entire family had a different favorite. We’d all sing along to them Dad’s big red truck, and I realized for the first time how satisfying music can be. Simply put, my entire adult life of listening to and writing about music can all be traced back to that first moment with my new favorite band.

All these years later, I’ve heard each of the 15 studio albums Aerosmith has ever released from their self-titled debut in 1973 to 2012’s Music From Another Dimension. I know them inside and out, backward and forward. Though some are certainly better than others, each of these albums contains great songs, Hard Rockin Blues-based riffing, and Steven Tyler’s signature yowl. And so for the first time, after much deliberation, I present my rankings for the Aerosmith discography from No. 15 to No. 1.

15. Done with Mirrors

Released: Nov. 9, 1985
Producer: Ted Templeman
Label: Geffen
In 1985 immediately after Joe Perry and Brad Whitford returned to the fold after leaving at the end of the ’70s, Aerosmith had a marathon recording session with Van Halen producer Ted Templeman who attempted to capture the band’s raw energy by recording the band during rehearsals when they weren’t aware the mics were on. This comes through well on Done With Mirrors‘ repurposed Joe Perry track “Let the Music Do the Talking,” which featured a screaming introductory lick from Perry himself signaling his triumphant return. Unfortunately, due to the LP’s rushed recording time and the band’s lack of good material on short notice, the album was destined to be a dud. It flopped commercially, barely cracking the Top 40 on the Billboard charts, and seemed to signal the end for one of the ’70’s greatest Rock bands. Thankfully Rick Rubin and Run-DMC stepped in to launch Aerosmith back to superstardom in ’86 with the crossover revamp of “Walk This Way” after which the band went on to record several more great albums. But for the most part, Done With Mirrors was an absolute snoozer.

14. Rock in a Hard Place

Released: Aug. 1, 1982
Producers: Jack Douglas, Steven Tyler, Tony Bongiovi
Label: Columbia
Many, including Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer, don’t even consider Rock in a Hard Place to be a true Aerosmith album, as it was the only one the band ever recorded without founding guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford who had left the band out of frustration in ’79 and ’81 respectively. Even so, Joey Kramer wrote in his 2009 autobiography, “The record doesn’t suck.” And while that’s true to some degree, there’s no denying how terrible “Joanie’s Butterfly” is, ensuring that Rock in a Hard Place earns the dubious distinction of containing the worst Aerosmith song ever. This is balanced out, however, by one of their greatest works, the horn-centered title track that echoes the Bluesy roots of one of the band’s greatest influences, The Rolling Stones. “Lightning Strikes” is also a great tune that fits nicely into the upper echelon of the band’s catalog. The rest is filler at best; you can almost hear them treading water as they wait for Perry and Whitford to return.

13. Night in the Ruts

Released: Nov. 1, 1979
Producers: Aerosmith, Gary Lyons
Label: Columbia
After disappointing fans and themselves with Draw the Line, Aerosmith was at a creative and collaborative roadblock. Tensions were flaring and eventually came to a head during the recording of Night in the Ruts; Joe Perry walked out before the album was finished and only appears on five of the LP’s nine tracks. Although Steven Tyler and Joe Perry seem to have a soft spot for the album, other than Done With Mirrors, Night in the Ruts was easily Aerosmith’s most forgettable LP as it lacked any truly great music. Two of the album’s best tracks were covers [“Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and “Reefer Head Woman”], and the only other one worth mentioning is Steven Tyler’s strangely eerie lullaby for his daughter “Mia.” “The tolling bell notes at the end of the song and the end of the album sounded more like the death knell of Aerosmith for people who knew what was going on,” Tyler told Stephen Davis in 1997. Thankfully, it wasn’t to be, but things were only going to get worse for the band before they got better.

12. Nine Lives

Released: March 18, 1997
Producers: Kevin Shirley and Aerosmith
Label: Columbia
Back on their original label after their greatest run of popularity from Permanent Vacation through Get a Grip, Aerosmith were looking for something different. Nine Lives is probably their most diverse record featuring Beatlesque trippiness (“The Farm”), over-the-top balladry (“Fallen Angels”), Indian-based grooves (“Taste of India”), and straight-ahead Rockers (“Nine Lives”). The album was a No. 1 hit, and the album’s greatest hit, “Pink,” won the band a Grammy for Best Rock Performance. Despite the critical and commercial success, though, Nine Lives remains one of Aerosmith’s weaker efforts as they attempted to be Jacks of all trades, and ended up masters of none. Yet even though nothing here will blow you away, the album also lacks any of the major pitfalls that plagued the previous entries on this list.

11. Just Push Play

Released: March 5, 2001
Producers: Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Mark Hudson, Marti Frederiksen
Label: Columbia
Of all of Aerosmith’s albums, I consider Just Push Play to be the greatest outlier even more so than Rock in a Hard Place. Though the latter lacked Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, it retained the production work of Jack Douglas and the overall Blues-based sound that Aerosmith had perfected in the ’70s. But Just Push Play almost sounds like a different band altogether, featuring strange almost Hip-Hop based beats and more Pop-oriented songs like the title track and “Jaded,” which went on to be a Top 10 smash. The album was Aerosmith’s first since Done with Mirrors to fail to reach No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart (though it did peak at No. 2) and has received a lot of hate from fans and band members alike (Joe Perry has even cited it as his least favorite). Though it’s true the album does contain its fair share of sleepers (“Outta Your Head,” “Light Inside”), it also has some nice highlights like the Joe Perry led “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and the sentimental “Fly Away From Here.” It’s far from Aerosmith’s best, but I must confess to always retaining a soft spot for Just Push Play because it finds the band attempting to excel outside its comfort zone.

10. Get a Grip

Released: April 20, 1993
Producer: Bruce Fairbarin
Label: Geffen
Capitalizing on MTV exposure and post-Reagan America’s love for excess (and its lust for Alicia Silverstone), Aerosmith was on top of the world when they released Get a Grip in April of 1993. Selling over 20 million copies worldwide and scoring two Grammys and four Top 40 singles, Get a Grip is easily Aerosmith’s most commercially successful album ever. Creatively, though, it lacks the showstoppers that buoyed Permanent Vacation and Pump. There’s not a bad song on the album (though “Flesh” toes the line), but there’s also nothing here that can top the hyper-caffeinated title track. For Aerosmith standards, that’s par for the course at best.

9. Draw the Line

Released: Dec. 1, 1977
Producers: Jack Douglas, Aerosmith
Label: Columbia
Though Draw the Line was a creative disappointment following the classics that were Toys in the Attic and Rocks, there’s still a lot to love about it that tends to get overlooked. Certainly “Get it Up” and “Sight for Sore Eyes” are skippable at best, but the title track and “I Wanna Know Why” find Aerosmith at their best. The imagery-laden “Kings and Queens” and the hopping Blues cover of “Milk Cow Blues” are also excellent deep cuts that stand tall in the band’s catalog. Aerosmith was beginning a downward slide rife with creative discord and inconsistent songwriting, but they still had half an album of greatness to deliver before falling off the deep end for a decade.

8. Music From Another Dimension!

Released: Nov. 6, 2012
Producers: Jack Douglas, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Marti Frederiksen
Label: Columbia
This is probably my most controversial Aerosmith opinion, but I love Music From Another Dimension. My favorite thing about it is that it perfectly encapsulates Aerosmith’s entire career and boils it down to 15 songs. It’s got everything from old-school Jack Douglas-helmed Aerosmith production, to syrupy ballads, to straight ahead Rockers, to Joe Perry originals, to head-scratchers, to face-palmers. It isn’t perfect but it’s one hell of a ride that provides some of Aerosmith’s greatest work to date right next to regrettable decisions like Carrie Underwood duets, lots of cliches, and whatever “Beautiful” is.

7. Permanent Vacation

Released: Aug. 31, 1987
Producer: Bruce Fairbairn
Label: Geffen
The year 1987 was unquestionably the best year of the decade for music and a particularly great one for the Geffen label. Not only did they produce the decade’s biggest debut LP with Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, they also capitalized on Aerosmith’s big comeback after their highly successful collaboration with Run-DMC the prior year. Great songs pervade Permanent Vacation from “Rag Doll” to “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” to “Angel” (all of which were significant commercial successes for the band). And after 10 years of relative obscurity, hearing that opening riff of “Heart’s Done Time” heralding the true comeback of one of Rock’s greatest bands couldn’t have been more satisfying.

6. Honkin on Bobo

Released: March 30, 2004
Producers: Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Jack Douglas and Marti Frederiksen
Label: Columbia
As long as they’re done right, I’m a big believer in cover albums, but you’ve got to pick the right songs to cover and put your own spin on your selections, particularly if they were hits. Aerosmith was wise in picking mostly obscure Blues songs for their 2004 cover album Honkin on Bobo, which was a breath of fresh air for fans disappointed by the direction of 2001’s Just Push Play. Blues classics like “Road Runner” and old standbys like “Back Back Train” were reworked and perfected in Aerosmith’s image, and even more well-known choices like Aretha Franklin’s “Never Loved a Man” get a fresh dose of Aerosmith’s classic infectious energy resulting in Aerosmith’s most cohesive record since 1976’s Rocks.

5. Pump

Released: Sept. 12, 1989
Producer: Bruce Fairbairn
Label: Geffen
Permanent Vacation set the stage for Aerosmith’s ’80s comeback featuring great songs mixed with passable ones. Pump shrunk down the tracklist and eliminated the duds, which resulted in a supercharged LP that stands comfortably alongside the band’s ’70s classics. The back-to-back boogie of “Young Lust” and “F.I.N.E.” hit just as hard (or harder) as the infamous Rocks double whammy of “Back in the Saddle” and “Last Child,” and hits like “Love in an Elevator” and “The Other Side” merge spectacularly with some of the greatest Aerosmith songs ever recorded like “What it Takes” and particularly, the bass-heavy environmentally minded Rocker “Hoodoo/Voodoo Medicine Man” which finds Tom Hamilton delivering the greatest moment of his career.

4. Get Your Wings

Released: March 1, 1974
Producers: 
Ray Colcord, Jack Douglas, Bob Ezrin
Label: Columbia
Streamlining the below-the-belt boogie that Aerosmith had already perfected on their first album, each of the eight tracks on Get Your Wings absolutely kick ass. The ballads “Seasons of Wither” and “Spaced” aren’t quite on the level of “Dream on,” but the bluesy “Woman of the World,” the drum-led “S.O.S. (Too Bad),” the graveyard stomp of “Same Old Song and Dance,” and the rhythmic perfection of “Train Kept A-Rollin” all expand on the burgeoning Aerosmith formula. But as great as all of these tracks are nothing could touch the apocalyptic “Lord of the Thighs” which features one of the most hypnotic opening riffs in Rock n’ Roll history. It’s Aerosmith’s greatest song bar none and it ensures that Get Your Wings remains one of the all-time greats.

3. Aerosmith

Released: Jan. 5, 1973
Producer: Adrian Barber
Label: Columbia
Many consider Get Your Wings to improve upon the foundation set by Aerosmith’s self-titled debut, and I think that might have something to do with the hate Steven Tyler got for trying to sound like a drugged out Louis Armstrong, a strange anomaly in Aerosmith history (he claims that he was just so nervous, he wanted to try to sound like an old Blues singer to help him cope). Certainly, you can almost hear the nervous energy that pervades early tracks like “Make it” and “Dream on,” but that only makes it all the more satisfying when they hit it out of the park as they do with the Stones-esque “One Way Street,” the heavily Blues-oriented Rocker “Mama Kin” and the killer Rufus Thomas cover “Walkin the Dog.” Steven Tyler wrote most of the album himself, but he collaborated for the first time with Joe Perry on “Movin Out,” resulting in the best song on the album and beginning one of the most prolific songwriting duos of the ’70s.

2. Rocks

Released: May 3, 1976
Producers: Aerosmith and Jack Douglas
Label: Columbia
Rocks tops many critics’ lists of Aerosmith albums (and often appears alongside the greatest albums of all time), and it’s not hard to hear why. If I was measuring Rocks by the first two thirds only, it would be one of the absolute greatest albums ever made. “Back in the Saddle” toes the line between hilarious and badass, “Last Child’s” countrified jamming is infectious, the rhythmic apocalypse of “Rats in the Cellar” is among the greatest Aerosmith songs ever made, yet it’s even topped two songs later with the bipolar romp that is “Sick as a Dog.” And don’t forget about the chilly, Joe Perry-helmed stomp of “Combination” or the heavily influential “Nobody’s Fault” which inspired James Hetfield to pick up a guitar. Unfortunately, the album can’t quite keep it together for the ending with the disappointing “Lick and a Promise,” which was the worst Aerosmith song ever up to that point, while “Get the Lead Out” and “Home Tonight,” while good, create an overall package that can’t quite live up to the band’s previous work. Rocks is still one of the greatest albums ever, but it comes in just shy of perfection.

1. Toys in the Attic

Released: April 8, 1975
Producer: Jack Douglas
Label: Columbia
Toys in the Attic was the absolute pinnacle of Aerosmith, both creatively and commercially, in the ’70s. To this day, it’s still the album that sold the most in America (surpassing 8 million copies) and it also provided Aerosmith with many of its most enduring hits including the Tom Hamilton-penned “Sweet Emotion” and, of course, the iconic riffing of “Walk This Way.” These songs, along with the title track, largely defined how ’70s Hard Rock sounded and remain influential even today today. Even better were the album’s deep cuts like the eerie, socially-minded “Uncle Salty,” the mind-bending (and hilarious) ode to oral sex (“Adam’s Apple”), an even funnier old-school Blues cover complete with a swinging horn section (“Big Ten Inch Record), and two of the greatest Aerosmith songs ever: the blood-stained ivory-led “No More No More” and possibly Aerosmith’s greatest ballad ever, the string-laden “You See Me Crying.” Toys in the Attic is Aerosmith at its most explorative, breaking new ground for the band as they experimented with new genres and production techniques while expanding their own unique sound. This entire list is one hell of a resume for a band that has persisted long beyond its late ’70s expiration date, and Toys in the Attic remains the greatest beacon in Aerosmith’s decade-spanning discography: one of the most perfect albums ever from one of the greatest Rock n’ Roll bands of all time.

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