Since 1971, ZZ Top have released 15 studio albums and 44 singles. They’ve won countless awards, earned a place in pop culture, and made sunglasses and beards look the coolest things in the world. Until the tragic death of Dusty Hill earlier this year, they were the longest-running band with an unchanged lineup in history. Fortunately for fans, vocalist-guitarist Billy Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard will be continuing the band with longtime guitar tech Elwood Francis stepping into Dusty’s huge shoes on bass. Here, we take a look back at their career as we rank all 15 ZZ Top albums.
In 1999, ZZ Top decided to release an album to celebrate 30 years in the industry. The result was XXX, an album that, as Ultimate Classic Rock notes, finds them struggling to either move on or build on the success of Eliminator, an album they’d released 15 years before, but still hadn’t managed to top. It’s not a complete travesty, but it’s no triumph either.
1990’s Recycler has a peppering of gems – Decision or Collision being one of them – but not enough to save what’s essentially a mediocre album. It somehow managed to spawn five hit singles (Doubleback, Concrete and Steel, Burger Man, Give It Up, and My Head’s in Mississippi) but it’s still a long way short of their best work.
In 1994, ZZ Top decided to return to their roots. Suffice to say, they didn’t succeed. It opens well, but then shudders to a stall. The production isn’t great, but the real problem with Antenna is that ZZ Top seem to be fresh out of ideas. There’s not enough creativity, not enough vitality, and the overall feeling is that they’re simply marking time.
Rhythmeen isn’t exactly a bad album, but it’s a long way short of being a great one. The sound is on point but the songs aren’t. ZZ Top can never be boring, it’s simply not in their DNA, but here, they come perilously close to it. After over a decade of waiting, their much-anticipated return to the blues simply didn’t live up to expectations.
11. La Futura
2012’s La Futura is a safe record. The band don’t leave their comfort zone once, but as it turns out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Tracks like Heartache in Blue and It’s Too Easy have the menace and groove we want from ZZ Top, and delivering what the people want is something that no band should be criticized for, even if not necessarily going to set the world on fire.
After Eliminator showed the band what polishing up their sound and modernizing their act could do for their success, they took things one step further on 1985’s Afterburner. Their signature guitar-bass-drums sound got pushed to the back, and the studio wizardry got pushed upfront. It didn’t work quite as well as it did on Eliminator, but there’s enough here to keep everyone happy, from the No. 1 smash hit Sleeping Bag to the old-school lechery of Woke Up.
As Classic Rock History notes, Tejas was an album that divided opinion. To the haters, it was a throwback, an irrelevant album from an increasingly irrelevant band. But for all the grenades thrown its way, it’s not a bad album by any stretch of the imagination. It might not be a great record, but the likes of Arrested for Driving While Blind, El Diablo, and She’s a Heartbreaker keep it firmly in the ranks of a good one.
Mescalero is a hard-rocking, hard-driving piece of blues that delivered exactly what the fans wanted: ZZ Top back in business as the lewdest, lustiest men in rock. Released in September 2008, it peaked at number 57 on the Billboard 200.
7. ZZ Top’s First Album
ZZ Top picked a straightforward title for their debut, and, by and large, that same no-frills attitude is reflected in the album content. A straight-up piece of Southern-fried attitude, it doesn’t have quite as much sauce as we’d want from the boys, but the likes of Brown Sugar and Just Got Back From Baby’s certainly whetted our appetites for their next dish.
A half studio/ half live album that spawned the band’s first Top 40 single, Tush, Fandango fizzes with energy, jumping from one great song to the next. Standout tracks include Backdoor Medley and Heard It on the X. A more judicious approach to editing wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it’s still a great effort.
5. Rio Grande Mud
Rio Grande Mud, the band’s second album, is a confident, assured offering that sizzles with enough danger and enough sleaziness to earn it a place at No. 5 on our list. Released in 1972, it didn’t do much in the charts, peaking at a relatively disappointing No. 104 on the Billboard 200, but it paved the way for everything that came next.
4. El Loco
ZZ Top’s 7th studio album found the band teetering between the old sound that had made their name and the new sound that would make them one of the biggest bands of the decade. It’s a compelling combination, with tracks like Pearl Necklace and Tube Snake Boogie standing out in particular. Released on July 20, 1981, it peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200.
After their fifth album, ZZ Top took a two-year break. The rest obviously did them good, as their comeback album, Degüello, was sensational, combining the group’s new fascination with punk and increasing obsession with technology to spectacular effect. Cheap Sunglasses and I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide stand out for particular praise, but the whole thing is a triumph. Released in November 1979, it took the band to No. 24 on the Billboard 200.
Eliminator is where it all changed for ZZ Top. After hinting at a change in direction on El Loco, here, they embrace it fully. Packed with synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines, it was an album that couldn’t have been made in any other decade than the 80s. But for once, that’s not a problem. They treat the technology as a friend, not a master, resulting in an album that’s still quintessentially ZZ Top. According to Wikipedia, it’s their most commercially successful album of all time, selling over 10 million copies and certifying Diamond.
1. Tres Hombres
“We could tell that we had something special. The record became quite the turning point for us,” Billy Gibson once said about Tres Hombres. Released in July 1973, its glorious mix of Southern rock and gutsy blues earned the band their commercial breakthrough. The album crashed into the Top 10 and bought onboard millions of fans. From that point on, ZZ Top never looked back.