The Best Albums of 2014, #13

band0113. AC/DC, Rock or Bust (Columbia)

As beloved as AC/DC is, as massive as the band is – with another new generation coming of age discovering their music, it seems no stadium is big enough to withstand the insane demand – one fact people tend to gloss over is that for the past three decades AC/DC has been horribly inconsistent when it comes to new music. When your back catalogue from 1975 to 1981 is as sterling as theirs is, loaded to the gills with classic after classic, it’s easy to forgive any misstep. But aside from 1983’s fiery Flick of the Switch and 1984’s woefully underrated Fly on the Wall, these guys have been seriously misfiring for a ridiculously long time now. Blow Up Your Video was a wreck, The Razor’s Edge had one classic song and was ultimately wrecked by production that didn’t suit the band, Ballbreaker was lacklustre, and Stiff Upper Lip was a mild improvement at best. Had it been pared down to a shorter length, 2008’s Black Ice might have succeeded, but at 55 minutes and 15 songs, it was too bloated for its own good. Six years later, Rock or Bust arrived with a lot of doubt surrounding the band. Any true AC/DC fan will tell you Malcolm Young is the key member of the band, not Angus, and when news broke that poor Malc was suffering from dementia and was forced to retire, it was hard to imagine the band without the little guy anchoring the songs on stage right with his muscular, bluesy rhythm riffs. If that wasn’t disconcerting enough, drummer Phil Rudd, he of that classic, gliding groove, has been involved in criminal allegations so sensational it’s hard to imagine him having any kind of future in the band anymore. Yet somehow Angus pulled enough material written with his brother for one more album. Nephew Stevie Young was brought back in to fill in for his ailing uncle, and Rudd managed to keep it together to deliver his signature beats, and somehow, miraculously, Rock or Bust turns out to be a modest triumph of a record. At less than 35 minutes, it’s the shortest AC/DC album in the discography, but instead of feeling like it’s a result of a dearth of new material, it makes the music feel fresh, immediate, and vibrant. Stevie’s no slouch – I could have said as much, he did a phenomenal job filling in for Malcolm when I saw the band in 1988 – and he and Angus show great chemistry on robust tracks like “Miss Adventure”, “Hard Times”, “Play Ball”, and the title track. What’s surprising about this record, though, is just how lithe it is at times. “Rock the Blues Away” is a joy, “Miss Adventure” is playful and raunchy, and “Baptism by Fire” recalls the band’s rock ‘n’ roll roots with great energy. All the while Bran Johnson steps in with his best vocal work in eons, choosing to sing more than snarl for once, which helps accentuate the record’s sunny vibe even more. Before I heard a single track off this album I had zero expectations. I’d been used to disappointment from this band’s new music since I was 15. After countless plays already, I’m elated to say this is the best AC/DC album in 30 years. If this is their last album, then they went out on a great little high.