The story of The Kinks is one of contradiction. Praised by critics and fellow musicians alike, the British rock group headed by Ray Davies and his brother Dave had significant hits in their formative decade (the 1960s). However, they were never able to land in the same commercial space as their peers like, say, The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But The Kinks were no less forward-thinking or great in their prime. The “Muswell Hillbillies” formed in 1963 and disbanded 34 years later, in 1997, apparently due to some acrimony between the Davies brothers. In spite of recent rumors that the two have reconciled and may put out more music as The Kinks, they seem to have been more content with solo releases in the years since. But together, and with a widely rotating group of bassists and a couple of drummers (Ray played rhythm guitar, Dave lead, and Mick Avory played drums on most of band’s records), The Kinks put out 24 albums from 1964 to 1993, a 29-year span. The prolific group changed a lot over the years, and probably aged better than those aforementioned peers during those darn ’80s. So here, with this piece, I’ll chart the arc of The Kinks and their contribution to music. Omitted from this ranking are, as usual, assorted live and compilation albums and EPs, as well as the US-only records (which mixed and matched tracks from across the UK releases), of a kind that were common at the beginning of the British Invasion: KINKS-SIZE (1965) and KINKDOM (1965). And although they weren’t ranked, the EPs KINKSIZE SESSION (1964) and KWYET KINKS (1965) and the compilation of non-album singles (in addition to big hits), THE KINK KRONIKLES (1972), and the essentially unauthorized release of “collateral” tracks, THE GREAT LOST KINKS ALBUM (1973), were listened to to get a fuller appreciation of all of the band’s music. But now, on to the 24 “canonical” Kinks albums.
#24 — UK JIVE (1989)
Favorite track: “How Do I Get Close”
As usual when I write about storied bands and artists like The Kinks, I have to start at or near the end. In this case, though, I have to mention that I don’t think The Kinks ever made an album that was less than good. And UK JIVE, The Kinks’ penultimate record, is no exception. For some reason the only album from the band that is not present on Spotify, UK JIVE is part of a thread in their last few releases that focused on a real, relatively heavy rock sound. The guitar-oriented hooks of UK JIVE never really, well, fully jive, though. “How Do I Get Close” has some of the wistfulness of The Kinks’ best work fused with the aggression to be found in their late work, but some of the other tracks fall relatively flat by sticking too close to a pointed repudiation of nostalgia; this is best illustrated by opening track “Aggression.” It’s kind of ironic, but fitting for Ray. When everyone was looking forward and focusing on American sounds in the ’60s, Ray went back to British roots. And when, near the end of their career, The Kinks could be expected to echo their past successes, they stuck to their new guns. UK JIVE is a fun listen, and slightly interesting as one of the last Kinks albums, but not a deep experience by the standard set by the band.
#23 — KINDA KINKS (1965)
Favorite track: “Dancing in the Street”
But now I can go back to the near-beginning. KINDA KINKS was the band’s second album, squarely in their British Invasion period. At this point, the Davies and Co. were echoing the American blues/soul/R&B influence, as illustrated by their cover of “Dancing in the Street,” which also happens to be the record’s best track. And as one of those early-to-mid-’60s British rock records, KINDA KINKS is truly fun. But it flits by, and very quickly, The Kinks would improve their talents immensely, shifting from a competent rock act to a visionary and compelling one.
#22 — KINKS (1964)
Favorite track: “You Really Got Me”
Apparently, KINDA KINKS was rushed against the wishes of Ray and the band. So that might explain why their debut, KINKS, is superior. But it’s also possible to hear on the album the sound and instinct that probably got The Kinks banned from performing in America. That’s right. From 1965 to 1969, The Kinks could not perform in the United States, apparently due to their rowdy live performances. And on big success “You Really Got Me,” you can hear how it could be turned into a riotous affair. Crunchy guitars drive the song along in a way unique to The Kinks’ early style. Even though “You Really Got Me” is clearly the standout track from KINKS and is kind of in a league of its own, the rest of the album is still fun, even if its preponderance of covers belie the original songwriting to come from Ray.
#21 — PHOBIA (1993)
Favorite track: “The Informer”
The Kinks’ first and last albums sit next to each other on this list. And it’s almost weird to compare them; their time as a British Invasion participator resulted in music that sounds so different from their hard rock leanings later in life. But nevertheless, PHOBIA is better, if only marginally. It’s one of The Kinks’ longest records, at 76 minutes long, which may be fitting, and it came after the longest gap between albums for the band (four years). It’s an “epic” sendoff, though of course I don’t know that it was intended to be their last release. But that scale leads to some tired moments, and actually not in the downbeat songs. In fact, one such track, “The Informer,” is PHOBIA’s best. Otherwise, as I described with UK JIVE, some of the more aggressive songs play a little too long and repetitive; a good example is “Hatred (A Duet).” But not all of those tracks are discordant; “Somebody Stole My Car” is rollicking and raw and good. PHOBIA is just an album of mixed feelings, I guess. There seems to be some resentment, frustration, and/or exhaustion from the ways of the music business and how it treated The Kinks, a common theme in a number of their records. It makes for a kind of tiring album, but PHOBIA is not some kind of downer. It’s just not…cohesive.
#20 — LOW BUDGET (1979)
Favorite track: “Moving Pictures”
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, The Kinks experienced a slight career resurgence on the strength of a few successful hits. LOW BUDGET was part of this era, closing out the back half of a decade that saw the band move away from their concept-album-dominated early ’70s. Indeed, it started the hard rock instincts that would carry through to PHOBIA, for the most part. “Attitude” and “Pressure,” for example, really pound. By contrast, album closer “Moving Pictures,” although it has a driving groove, is more wistful and softer. Listening to LOW BUDGET, it’s understandable why it was a big success for the band, especially in America. While hard rock had been around for a few years, The Kinks seemed to tap into a sound that would really emerge in the next few years. LOW BUDGET is just a solid rock record, one with not-too-low lows and not-too-high highs…in spite of a hit like “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman).”
#19 — THINK VISUAL (1986)
Favorite track: “When You Were a Child”
THINK VISUAL is an interesting album. Of course, many would like to say “interesting” is a bad descriptor, but I mean, THINK VISUAL interests me. To explain: it’s because it is part of that straight-ahead rock that The Kinks practiced throughout the last decade-and-a-half of their existence. But THINK VISUAL also embraced some synth and keyboard sounds that of course defined much of the music of the ’80s. But unlike their peers from the ’60s and ‘70s, The Kinks essentially escaped the decade unscathed, a feat you may not even be able to attribute to David Bowie. Even though much of their ’80s work was “worse” than the stuff preceding it, The Kinks never sunk into unwelcome cheese or annoying production techniques. A great example on THINK VISUAL is “When You Were a Child,” a Dave-penned track (which he also provided lead vocals on) that echoes the pop-rock ballads of the day. But it’s actually fucking good. The song soars and grooves and beats on the little part of my brain that wants to dance and sing along, and indeed, “When You Were a Child” is one of The Kinks’ best songs. The rest of the album carries the aggression I’ve described a couple of times, but put to better use; “Rock ’n’ Roll Cities,” for example, could be a more annoying track. Instead, it’s great fun. That’s what makes THINK VISUAL interesting; it could have been part of a fallow period for the band, considering some of its traits on paper.
#18 — GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT (1981)
Favorite track: “Better Things”
GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT is probably underrated, even by me, although it was one of the later successes for The Kinks. It’s a crucial album to understand the different eras for the band; this one considered the effects of a post-new wave world and rocked out accordingly. The title track grates a bit, but in a good way; it gets me fired up. By contrast, the sentimental “Better Things” is a sweet, but not saccharine, ode to Ray’s soon-to-be-divorced wife. Like THINK VISUAL, GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT kind of trades off sounds and influences, but it all adds up to a good listen.
#17 — THE KINKS PRESENT A SOAP OPERA (1975)
Favorite track: “You Make It All Worthwhile”
The Kinks’ penultimate concept album does in fact have a great concept: THE KINKS PRESENT A SOAP OPERA follows a musician named Starmaker who swaps places with a normal guy named Norman to experience how the ordinary people live. Ultimately, he becomes another “face in the crowd,” and the journey to that point is an eccentric, glimmering piece of theatrical rock that takes cues from the glam rock that The Kinks foretold a few years earlier. “You Make It All Worthwhile” is a standout track from SOAP OPERA because it makes clear the narrative (it does sound like it’s out of a stage musical) and delivers an amazing, soaring chorus. Ray’s voice just sounds great on it, and indeed the whole album. While critics seemed to tire of The Kinks’ “theatrical period,” I still appreciate the camp and scattered emotions on those albums, of which SOAP OPERA is one. They seem to contain the human experience.
#16 — THE KINKS PRESENT SCHOOLBOYS IN DISGRACE (1975)
Favorite track: “Schooldays”
The other album released under “The Kinks Present” moniker, also released in 1975, was the band’s last of the concept records. THE KINKS PRESENT SCHOOLBOYS IN DISGRACE also served as the prequel story to PRESERVATION ACT 1 and ACT 2’s villain Mr. Flash. But even if you don’t capture the full narrative, SCHOOLBOYS IN DISGRACE’s thesis is clear: it considers the nostalgia of the ’50s music Ray grew up with, but warps it into the dark energy that swirls around childhood “tragedies” (AKA embarrassment). Its cover may be off-putting, but the album to be found inside delivers wistfulness and angst, especially in its opening track, “Schooldays.” SCHOOLBOYS IN DISGRACE runs neck and neck, fittingly, with SOAP OPERA, but where the latter embraces modern theatricality, the former channels classic rock ‘n roll sounds.
#15 — MISFITS (1978)
Favorite track: “Black Messiah”
MISFITS is in a bit of limbo zone among The Kinks’ other albums. It followed the concept albums of the early ’70s (although SLEEPWALKER broke that thread before it), but it also didn’t totally move away from that brand of theatricality. The Kinks weren’t quite working within the hard rock sound they would dive into with LOW BUDGET, the follow up to MISFITS. For example, “Black Messiah” is a reggae-influenced track that, it should be mentioned, is lyrically quite problematic. It basically embodies “both-sides-ism” in regards to racism, but I also think part of my confusion with the track is I don’t know how much to chalk this up to Ray’s own viewpoint. Of course, he often wrote songs from the point of view of a character (something a lot of songwriters do, which is sometimes lost on people), but in any event, “Black Messiah” is musically rousing and indicative of MISFITS’ place in between two eras.
#14 — PRESERVATION ACT 1 (1973)
Favorite track: “Sitting in the Midday Sun”
PRESERVATION ACT 1 may have been a turning point in regards to critical reception to The Kinks. A few concept albums in, Ray turned his narrative attention to, well, the concept of “preservation.” The whole “Preservation” saga considers social forces that look to keep things the same, move things backward, or look ahead to a brighter future. On ACT 1, that story isn’t quite as clear, or if you like, didactic. Instead, this album serves as a collection of enjoyable rock tracks in The Kinks’ style, indeed communicating a thesis, even if the particulars of the back story aren’t central (to me at least). “Sitting in the Midday Sun” is kind of an outlier in the dystopian world PRESERVATION ACT 1 paints, which is why it succeeds so well; it doesn’t hurt that it’s a pleasant song regardless.
#13 — PRESERVATION ACT 2 (1974)
Favorite track: “Artificial Man”
PRESERVATION ACT 2 went stronger with its narrative after the relative brevity of ACT 1, as it also turned to the double album format to chart its epic scope. Ray went deep with his rock opera persona Mr. Flash, and filler “Announcement” tracks make clearer what exactly is happening in his world. But what matters most to me is the actual music, and while ACT 2 is lengthier almost to a fault than ACT 1, it also contains the greater number of great tracks. One such example is “Artificial Man,” which sounds like something out of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986). If the ambitious scale of PRESERVATION ACT 2’s narrative does anything more for me, it’s that it provided a framework for Ray to get totally eclectic and represent a wide array of styles and emotions. Ultimately, the album is a bit chaotic, but its best moments serve as a reminder of how underrated PRESERVATION ACT 2 is.
#12 — STATE OF CONFUSION (1983)
Favorite track: “State of Confusion”
STATE OF CONFUSION is proof that ’60s and ’70s rock bands didn’t have to go bad in the ’80s. I guess I’ve already demonstrated that was true for The Kinks a few times, but hey, STATE OF CONFUSION is better than those aforementioned albums. It’s hard to exactly pinpoint why, as it is akin to the likes of LOW BUDGET and GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT. But at the end of the day, the pop hooks and catchy tunes are stronger on STATE OF CONFUSION, as exemplified by its title track. It’s still a hard rock album from The Kinks, but with a bit more consideration for the wistfulness that typifies my favorite work from the band.
#11 — WORD OF MOUTH (1984)
Favorite track: “Summer’s Gone”
STATE OF CONFUSION’s follow up, WORD OF MOUTH, continued to fuse the ’80s sensibilities of The Kinks with a more ethereal sound that I’ve always loved from the band. Case in point: “Summer’s Gone,” which rocks out (see: its guitar solo), but swoons with Ray’s great warble in his delivery of the title words in the chorus. Dave’s writing contributions, “Living on a Thin Line” and “Guilty,” are also WORD OF MOUTH’s best tracks. The whole thing, though, rocks and relaxes in equal measure, serving as the definitive listening experience of The Kinks’ late period.
#10 — PERCY (1971)
Favorite track: “The Way Love Used to Be”
I have a feeling I like PERCY more than most. Serving as a canonical Kinks album as well as the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, PERCY contains a number of instrumentals among lyrical tracks. The implementation of strings on a number of those songs, especially “The Way Love Used to Be,” is just beautiful, and they define my appreciation for PERCY. It’s kind of a weird album to single out within the top ten for The Kinks, but something about it puts me at ease. The band released rockier albums and more cohesive, cinematic albums, ironic considering PERCY served as a soundtrack to a movie, but this record is simply one of my Kinks favorites.
#9 — THE KINK KONTROVERSY (1965)
Favorite track: “Where Have All the Good Times Gone”
By shifting to almost entirely Ray-penned tracks, THE KINK KONTROVERSY, the band’s third album, was a marked progression in the artistic evolution of The Kinks. “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” is an awesome track, now seen as a signature Kinks song, and its recognition of changing times foreshadows much of Ray’s fascination. Besides that hit, though, THE KINK KONTROVERSY is by far the best of the British Invasion-style albums The Kinks made. It still existed in the mold set by beat music and black-influenced rock ‘n roll, but its jangling embellishments and looming drums set THE KINK KONTROVERSY apart from The Kinks’ own work, as well as their British peers, at this point.
#8 — EVERYBODY’S IN SHOW-BIZ (1972)
Favorite track: “Celluloid Heroes”
EVERYBODY’S IN SHOW-BIZ went total glam/camp/theatrical rock, and set the template for the next few years of The Kinks’ work. In fact, it was a double album, with its second disc showcasing the big sound the band brought to Carnegie Hall. However, this evaluation only concerns the first disc, which contains the new material on EVERYBODY’S IN SHOW-BIZ. That disc concludes with one of my favorite Kinks songs, “Celluloid Heroes,” which was in fact stuck in my head when I sat down to begin writing this piece. It’s an epic ode to and meditation on the very nature of stardom. And it’s a moving piece of music besides, encompassing the sounds and lyrical themes from all of the songs before it on EVERYBODY’S IN SHOW-BIZ. As Ray was wont to do at this time, he reflected on the trials and tribulations of being a rock star. Which, like, boohoo, of course, but really, he brings a sardonic viewpoint to the whole affair, and it’s couched by the fact that, yeah, The Kinks weren’t like The Beatles or anything. And ultimately, the music on EVERYBODY’S IN SHOW-BIZ is all really good, swinging and sparkling with a sheen that may obscure the sadness and frustration swirling beneath.
#7 — SLEEPWALKER (1977)
Favorite track: “Brother”
If EVERYBODY’S IN SHOW-BIZ began The Kinks’ theatrical period, SLEEPWALKER ended it. But then, it was the first in a long time to eschew a “concept,” while maintaining some of the camp that defined the band’s ’70s work. And returning to SLEEPWALKER now, some time after I had first listened to it, I realized it was a much better album than I had given it credit for. In fact, it’s one of The Kinks’ best. Each of the record’s nine tracks are consistent and great, encompassing a strong vibe that, while not literally united by a central narrative, makes for a cohesive yet varied listening experience. “Brother” is a really sad song, but it sits among others like “Juke Box Music,” which rocks out. SLEEPWALKER is a somewhat unlikely candidate to represent what made The Kinks so good, illustrating the band’s ability to hit hard with guitar-oriented rock and retreat and slither into your ears and heart with ethereal instrumentals.
#6 — ARTHUR (OR THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE)
Favorite track: “Nothing to Say”
If I had to guess, I would say ARTHUR (OR THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE) or THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY are the favorites for best Kinks album. Clearly, I don’t fully agree, but man, ARTHUR is quite great. Along with VILLAGE GREEN, ARTHUR is famous for its development of the concept of the concept album as it follows the everyday life of Arthur Morgan, a carpet-layer based on Ray’s brother-in-law. It is part of The Kinks’ “British nostalgia” era, which embraced Victorian imagery and narratives in addition to music hall jangle. I would say ARTHUR is a bit harder and rockier than VILLAGE GREEN, and while that makes it livelier in a sense, it doesn’t quite hit emotionally in the same way. I’m not fully moved by ARTHUR the way I am by the following Kinks albums on this list, but that’s not to say I’m not moved at all. ARTHUR is still a great rock album and a record that has more to say than at first meets the ear. I’m not even saying you need to pay attention to the lyrics; repeat listenings to ARTHUR reveal the sonic landscape Ray ambitiously created.
#5 — THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY (1968)
Favorite track: “The Village Green Preservation Society”
I compared ARTHUR to THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY above for three reasons. One, they appear right next to each other on this list. Two, they appeared right next to each other in real life; ARTHUR was the follow up to VILLAGE GREEN. And three, they together coalesce the instincts on the couple of albums before them to really drive home the British nostalgia felt by Ray. So VILLAGE GREEN concerns the changing shape of his nation, for good and bad, as illustrated by the titular spaces that defined pastoral beauty. And the music, not just the conceptual lyrics, communicate that. VILLAGE GREEN beautifully merges The Kinks’ style of rock music with traditional British sounds. The Kinks always zagged where others zigged, appearing to lag behind when, in retrospect, they were paving the way. VILLAGE GREEN is perhaps the most obvious example of that tendency, and it paid off to great artistic effect, even if it took a bit of time to be fully recognized.
#4 — FACE TO FACE (1966)
Favorite track: “Sunny Afternoon”
You know, in spite of its cover, The Kinks didn’t really embrace some kind of psychedelic sound on FACE TO FACE. Sure, it was the bridge album between the beat music, British Invasion style of the band’s first three albums, but they really just loosened up to get more wistful and relaxed than they did to get trippy. “Sunny Afternoon,” one of the band’s best and most famous songs, is a great example. It also carried some of the music hall influence that would come to a head in the next few years, while much of the rest of FACE TO FACE also features some low-scale theatricality and jangle that would evolve into the camp of the ’70s. In spite of its relative evolution for The Kinks, FACE TO FACE also just stands as one of their best because of the pop hooks on display on the record. Nearly every song commands a sing along (from me at least), and they all coalesce into a “baroque” sound that relaxes as much as it excites. FACE TO FACE is just a phenomenal album.
#3 — LOLA VERSUS POWERMAN AND THE MONEYGOROUND, PART ONE (1970)
Favorite track: “Lola”
Unlike PRESERVATION ACT 1, there was no “Part Two” to LOLA VERSUS POWERMAN AND THE MONEYGOROUND, PART ONE. But what we did get with LOLA was (another) concept album that wittily dealt with the double-dealing music industry with a verve and rock sound that makes its frustration not only palatable, but outright fun. “Lola” is of course the typical example, and for good reason: it’s one of The Kinks’ best. But the whole of the record is an operatic success, more so than the so-called rock operettas to come later in the next few years. LOLA is all killer no filler across its 13 tracks, a characteristic shared by the next two records on this list.
#2 — SOMETHING ELSE BY THE KINKS (1967)
Favorite track: “Waterloo Sunset”
FACE TO FACE was noted as the transition album that marked The Kinks as the next great rock band, but they immediately followed that up with the beauty of SOMETHING ELSE BY THE KINKS. Its British whimsy is tempered with a darkness, illustrated best by “Death of a Clown” (a Dave favorite), and an ultimate sadness, perfected by album closer “Waterloo Sunset.” The Kinks’ “British-y” albums were always able to avoid saccharine nostalgia not only with knowing lyrics, but also an edge that, perhaps unlike their more successful peers, required a bit more digging to appreciate. SOMETHING ELSE carries that edge beneath both its upbeat and downtempo songs, and by doing so, it stands as one of the most remarkable and enjoyable rock records of the 1960s.
#1 — MUSWELL HILLBILLIES (1971)
Favorite track: “Alcohol”
If I were to place MUSWELL HILLBILLIES in a Kinks “era,” as I’ve done frequently throughout this list, it stands at the end of that “British-y” period I’ve described. A play on words of the Davies’ childhood London neighborhood, Muswell Hill, The Kinks’ best album, perhaps more than any other from this era, embodies the spirit of the British music hall. As an example, my favorite track on MUSWELL HILLBILLIES, “Alcohol,” is a fun, rolling, enveloping vaudevillian song. But you can feel the seediness beneath it, and not just because of its lyrics; it’s in Ray’s voice as he belts out “oh demon alcohol” and the horns blare along with him. The seediness is found on “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues,” on “Skin and Bone,” on “Uncle Son.” It runs throughout MUSWELL HILLBILLIES. SOMETHING ELSE’s edge was more sadness and angst; MUSWELL HILLBILLIES’ is degradation. Of course, the power of The Kinks was to always make Ray’s ideas (and they were often Ray’s ideas, at least conceptually and lyrically) into fun rock music. MUSWELL HILLBILLIES is not some depressing treatise. It’s fun and it’s sprightly music on top of its depth, and it’s a work of, I would say, near-genius. If that’s hyperbole, it’s only because MUSWELL HILLBILLIES, and much of The Kinks’ work, impresses upon you the weight of music and its ability, even without words, to communicate human experiences.