After forming in 1970, Kansas went on to become one of the most successful classic rock bands of the decade. Their blend of prog rock and pop saw them storm the charts with multi-platinum selling alums like Leftoverture and Point of Know Return, not to mention smash hit singles like Carry on Wayward Son and Dust in the Wind. Although their fortunes took a dive in the 1980s and 1990s, they made a massive return to form in the 2010s with the critically acclaimed The Absence of Presence and The Prelude Implicit. Here, we take a look back at their highs and lows as we rank all 16 Kansas albums.
16. Drastic Measures
Vinyl Confessions may have been a mainstream success, but that didn’t stop critics from giving it a lashing. In an attempt to win them over, new lead singer John Elefante was given a leading role for its follow-up, with the result that Drastic Measures consists almost entirely of Elefante’s compositions. The Christian content that had dominated their most recent albums is given a backseat, and the overall sound is very much in line with what bands like Loverboy and Foreigner were doing at the time. Founding member Kerry Livgreen hated the new direction, while Christian listeners and the band’s long-time fans were left baffled by it. It bombed commercially, charting lower than any record since their debut.
15. Freaks of Nature
Whatever Kansas were aiming for on Freaks of Nature, they didn’t pull it off, something that Rich Williams, the band’s guitarist since 1974, later admitted to Vice. ” It was a very well-formed and brilliant sounding record, but it was lacking anything memorable. As hard as we tried, we couldn’t recreate what we were trying to recreate,” he explained, adding, “The music was good but there was nothing special about the songs, melodically. Lyrically, it’s hard for me to put into concise words. We were with a smaller label, and there wasn’t a big push around it. We were irrelevant to the music scene—at that time, classic rock hadn’t been a part of a comeback. We knew it probably wouldn’t be heard or well-received except for a few dedicated fans. It was a helpless feeling going through it. We wanted to be creative, we wanted to record, but the times had changed.” Released in May 1995, it became the only Kansas record not to appear on a single Billboard chart.
14. Vinyl Confessions
After both Kerry Livgreen and Dave Hope caught the religion bug, things took a major turn for the band. Unhappy with the new Christian bent to Livgreen’s lyrics, lead singer Steve Walsh quit, forcing the band to start auditioning new candidates. They eventually settled on John Elefante. The first album to feature the new lineup was 1982’s Vinyl Confessions, an album that brought the band a new fanbase among the religious, but alienated many of their old listeners. Sonically, it moved the band further away from their prog-rock roots and closer to the music being produced by the likes of Foreigner and Journey. Lyrically, it was like being hit over the head with a Bible. Listeners, understandably enough, took exception to Elefante asking “How many times do I have to tell you?” and being told they were nothing but “dust in the wind,” and the album became the band’s first record not to go gold.
13. Always Never the Same
In 1998, the band released their thirteenth studio album, Always Never the Same, a collection of songs consisting largely of reworkings of old material performed alongside the London Symphony Orchestra, along with a couple of originals. The production is a little overblown, but the sweeping orchestral arrangements complement the material well, with the result that the covers sound revitalized, if not necessarily fresh. If you weren’t already a Kansas fan, this might note the album to convert you to the cause, but there’s enough to chew on to keep hardcore fans happy.
On the face of it, 1979’s Monolith was a moderate success for the band, hitting number 10 in the Billboard 200. But it failed to produce a big hit, with its lead single People of the South Wind stalling at number 23. The reviews, meanwhile, were cutting, with critics lamenting the lack of variety and spice and accusing the band of letting their success make them complacent. The musicianship is as solid as ever, but the overblown arrangements and ponderous song content are too distracting for the musical virtuosity on display to count.
11. In the Spirit of Things
In October 1988, Kansa released their eleventh studio album, In the Spirit of Things, a loose concept album about a flood that hit the Kansas city of Neosho Falls in 1951. Musically, they sound tighter and more adept than they’d been in a long while (something that can be credited to both the tight ship producer Bob Ezrin ran during the recording process and the exemplary performance delivered by guitarist Steve Morse), and the album is one of the most focused in their arsenal. That’s not to say that it’s one of their best, however; no matter how tight the sound, it can’t compensate for the humorless, somber tone, nor the absence of a song with even the slightest whiff of hit material. Neither can it do much to stop the album from sounding anything other than a complete product of its time.
After a brief hiatus, Kansas returned in 1986 with a new lineup and a new sound. Prog rock was out, and hard rock and pop were in. There’s almost nothing to connect the album to the Kansas sound of old, something that left fans unsure and critics nonplussed. There’s a scattering of gems, including the sweet Taking in the View with its children’s chorus and gentle melodies, the instrumental Musicatto (one of the very few links to the band’s proggy past), and the hook-filled hard rock of Tomb 19, but it’s by no means an unmitigated success. The pompous production was dated in 1986 and sounds positively prehistoric today, while some of the songs are cringingly embarrassing. Despite its problems, it still managed to be a chart success, peaking at number 35 on the Billboard 200.
9. Audio – Visions
The first album released after Kerry Livgren’s conversion to Christianity was Audio-Visions. On later albums, the preachy nature of his new material would prove alienating, but here, it’s subtle enough to work, particularly on the top 40 single Hold On, which was written as an evangelistic plea to his wife. Unfortunately, nothing else on the album comes close to matching their earlier efforts, with Rolling Stone scathingly describing it as “the musically overwrought and lyrically fatuous product of a collective hubris gone haywire.” It was the start of the band’s commercial decline, becoming the last of seven albums to go gold or platinum and the last to be made with their classic line up.
In 1974, Kansas released their self-titled debut. Some critics took issue with the overblown arrangments and hugely ambitious conceit, claiming that for all the instrumental virtuosity on display, the music means little and goes nowhere. But while it does occasionally come across as the product of a band trying too hard to show their capabilities, it’s still an astonishing debut. Listening to the likes of Journey From Mariabronn, it’s impossible to deny the mastery the band have over their craft.
7. Song For America
Consisting of four long, hugely intricate numbers and two shorter tunes, Song For America is probably not the right album for causal listeners hoping for the same kind of radio-friendly rockers that populate some of Kansas’ later albums. But if you want to hear Kansas at their most bombastic and intense, you’ll find little to complain about with their epic sophomore album. The title track, which seaoftranquility.org describes as “one of prog-rock’s sonic gems,” is particularly magnificent.
6. The Prelude Implicit
After a sixteen-year absence, Kansas returned in 2016 with their 15th studio album, The Prelude Implicit. Lead vocalist and keyboardist Steve Walsh had gone, while new members included lead vocalist and keyboardist Ronnie Platt, keyboardist David Manion, and guitarist Zak Rizvi. While Walsh is missed, the rest of the band rally around to produce a technically astute album that manages to strike just the right balance between familiarity and innovation. The trademark intricate interplay of strings, driving rhythm and golden harmonies is all present and correct, while the nuanced balance between hard rock, AOR and prog rock is perfectly judged. The epic The Voyage of Eight Eighteen could easily compete with their best work, and even though the rest of the album falls just a little short of their heyday glories, it’s still a remarkably fine effort.
Masque, Kansas’ third studio album, didn’t do much in the charts the first time around, stalling at number 70 on the Billboard 200 on its release in September 1975. Following the massive success of Point Of Know Return and Leftoverture, fans were inspired to revisit the band’s earlier releases, with the result that it eventually certified gold – which, considering the strength of the album, was only right and proper. A dark, brooding affair characterized by water-tight melodies and densely arranged instrumentals, it’s a complex, but rewarding, listen.
Leftoverture, Kansas’ fourth studio outing, was the album that put them on the map. Released in October 1976, it took them to number 5 on the Billboard 200 and eventually certified 5 times platinum. While much of the credit for its commercial success lies with the international smash hit, Carry On My Wayward Son, there’s barely a misfire across the entire album, with The Wall, Miracles Out Of Nowhere, Cheyenne Anthem, and Magnum Opus all standing out as rock classics.
3. Point Of Know Return
In the 2000 movie High Fidelity, Jack Black’s character criticizes one of John Cusack’s character’s choices for the greatest “Song 1 Side 1” as “too obvious, like ‘Point of Know Return'”. And without doubt, there is something obvious about the album’s brazen attempt to court the mainstream with its pop-orientated prog-rock. But there’s something to be said for being obvious, especially when it results in such classic moments as Dust in the Wind. The production might be a little dated, but the strength of the instrumental interplays and the jaw-dropping musicianship are undeniable. Released in 1977, it became one of the band’s best-selling albums in the US, reaching number 4 on the Billboard 200 and eventually certifying quadruple platinum.
2. Somewhere to Elsewhere
In 2000, Kansas’ original 1970’s lineup reunited for the first time in 20 years for the band’s fourteenth studio outing, Somewhere to Elsewhere. A well-balanced album that pairs the sensibilities of their early material with 21st-century production, it straddles the divide between the old and the new perfectly, giving their old fans exactly what they’d want from Kansas without coming across like a retread. It loses steam a little midway through, but considering the quality of the material found in the first half of the album, it’s hard to complain. Standout tracks include the richly layered The Coming Dawn (Thanatopsis), the wonderfully intricate Icarus II, and the epic Myriad.
1. The Absence of Presence
Kansas’ 16th and latest studio album dropped in July 2020. Anyone concerned about the band’s ability to maintain the startling return to form witnessed on its predecessor, The Prelude Implicit, needn’t have been. Described by Louder Sound as a far better reconstitution of the classic Kansas sound than many had dared to hope, The Absence of Presence is an imaginative, daring, and immensely satisfying slice of pomp rock that showcase’s everything there is to love about Kansas. There are a few little missteps, but the strength of the performances and the quality of songs like Jets Overhead and The Song The River Sang show that, once again, Kansas are very much a band to be reckoned with.