It hasn’t quite turned into a Behind the Music-style formula yet, but — as our pal David pointed out to me, when he was in the throes of his They Might Be Giants Idiot’s Guide — these pieces all tend to follow a pattern. Loosely speaking, there’s usually an evolution to be charted, be it in sound or in substance, and it’s pretty easy to follow. That’s what these guides are for, really; to break down the collected works of artists whose catalogs might be too daunting and/or obscure for the novice to approach with confidence. To take each album and say “That’s the acoustic one,” or “That’s the Grammy winner that sort of sucked,” or “Here’s the lost gem.”

Which makes this week’s Idiot’s Guide sort of problematic, because that little ol’ band from Texas never really evolved at all. The band has certainly tinkered with its sound, sure, but to paraphrase guitarist Billy Gibbons, the story of ZZ Top is the story of three guys, three decades, and three chords. It’s rock & roll at its most basic.

And frequently its absolute best. In the beginning, Messrs. Gibbons, Hill, and Beard shoved their fists into the primordial sludge of rock music; they have never bothered to wash it off. They’ve made their mistakes — some woeful ones, as we’ll see — but their music, taken together, stands as a testament to the idea that rock & roll doesn’t need to change, it doesn’t need to grow, and it doesn’t particularly need a message either. It just needs to make you feel something, and maybe move your ass a little in the process.

All of which makes ZZ Top essentially critic-proof. In fact, the band more or less proves that what guys like me do is unnecessary, or worse. I mean, really — you can gussy up rock any way you want, call it “post-rock” or “math-rock” or “New Wave” or whatever, but (and I realize I’m sounding an awful lot like Billy Joel here) at its heart, this is music that just isn’t meant to be analyzed. It doesn’t benefit from deconstruction, and neither does the listener. To that end, most of these album reviews are probably going to be atypically brief; we’ll begin with a few basic Laws of ZZ Top, and you can safely assume that each of them applies to the bulk of all these releases, unless I specifically say otherwise.

The Laws of ZZ Top:

1. This shit rocks and boogies all at once.
2. Some songs use crude humor and/or double entendres.
3. Billy Gibbons is one badass mofo.
4. Turn it up and stop your yakking already.

ZZ Top’s First Album (1970)
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ZZ Top - ZZ Top's First Album

I’ll say it up front: A lot of people think Tres Hombres is the band’s best release, and I’m not inclined to disagree, but ZZ Top’s First Album is my personal favorite. From the opening notes of “(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree” (download), the ZZ template was set, and this is ten tracks of thick ‘n juicy boogie rock that need to be a part of your musical life.

It all sounds pretty basic (if also extremely goddamn righteous) today, but consider how this album must have sounded in 1970. Without straying terribly far from their influences, the band succeeded in thoroughly nastifying electric blues. There isn’t a damn thing wrong with the entire record, so one song’s as good as any other, so what the hell — give “Certified Blues” (download) a spin.

Rio Grande Mud (1972)
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ZZ Top - Rio Grande Mud

The trio’s second release for London took two years to make — an eternity in the early ’70s — without sounding like it needed to, which is probably why Robert Christgau pissed all over Rio Grande Mud when it was released. But “Just Got Paid” (download) struts (even if the intro’s similarity to “Oh Well” is somewhat, er, haunting) and “Mushmouth Shoutin’” (download) does too. What the hell has Christgau ever done, anyway? (Easy. It was a joke.)

Tres Hombres (1973)
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ZZ Top - Tres Hombres

This was the big one — at least until “Eliminator” came along — and a lot of people consider it ZZ Top’s best, not least because of the John Lee Hooker-poached “La Grange.” The songs are more consistent than on either of the first two albums, and the production is smoother; personally, I miss the grit from First and Mud, but that being said, no one will ever mistake this for a Celine Dion record. Typically uptempo stuff aside, Tres Hombres features two of the band’s best slow burners: “Hot, Blue and Righteous” (download) and “Have You Heard” (download).

Fandango! (1975)
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ZZ Top - Fandango!

Tour for long enough without taking a break, and it takes a toll on your creativity — and that’s when stopgap albums like Fandango! start coming out. It’s been noted that this could have been the band’s best — it includes, after all, “Tush,” “Mexican Blackbird” (download), and “Heard it on the X” (download) — but the inclusion of half an album’s worth of solid-yet-unspectacular live material prevents it from sealing the deal.

Tejas (1976)
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ZZ Top - Tejas

A year after releasing the half-great, half-okay Fandango, the band followed it up with its worst release of the ’70s. Tejas isn’t awful, just mostly forgettable; “Arrested for Driving While Blind” (download) and “Enjoy and Get It On” (download) are two of the limited highlights.

The band needed a break, and took one here; during the downtime, the band managed to get the rights to its first five albums back from London, then license them to Warner Bros., the label that would shortly help make ZZ Top early MTV icons. But first, Gibbons, Hill, and Beard had a couple years of vacation to take.

Degüello (1979)
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ZZ Top - Deguello

And the time off did them some good: Degüello is ten prime cuts of (newly bearded) ZZ Top. They’d begun to wipe the mud off their sound; this album is slicker than Tres Hombres, though certainly not as polished as what was to come. And the songs are rock-solid — the album boasts “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” “A Fool for Your Stockings,” and “Cheap Sunglasses,” but those are just three of its best-known tracks. “Dust My Broom” (download) and “Hi Fi Mama” (download) taste good with barbecue sauce, too.

El Loco (1981)
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ZZ Top - El Loco

The stylistic precursor to Eliminator, El Loco hasn’t aged as well as Degüello, but it’s got its share of moments; “Tube Snake Boogie” and “Pearl Necklace” are ZZ Top classics. The band was buffing up its sound and leaning more heavily on the double entendres, which would shortly prove to be two very wise business decisions. Think of this as a pre-Eliminator, forget about the horrible cover artwork, and crank up “Ten Foot Pole” (download) and “Don’t Tease Me” (download).

Eliminator (1983)
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ZZ Top - Eliminator

If “Pearl Necklace” was the crossroads where new wave met the blues, then Eliminator is the expressway through which — with MTV’s eager assistance — ZZ Top brought its new sound into the world and onto the charts. In terms of crossover success, the record probably seems a little bigger today than it actually was; though it sold millions of copies, the big pop hits boil down to three songs: “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and — of course — “Legs.” Sequencers and raunchy guitars (and raunchier lyrics). Who’da thunk it? Purists weren’t thrilled, but nobody else cared, and Eliminator remains an ’80s rock classic. It’s hard now to separate this album from what followed, but aside from “Thug,” everything here holds up pretty well. Here’s “I Got the Six” (download) and “If I Could Only Flag Her Down” (download).

Afterburner (1985)
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ZZ Top - Afterburner

Here begins the era of ZZ Top albums bearing unfortunately accurate titles. After fusing new wave and boogie rock, the band had three choices:

1. Go someplace new
2. Go back to the old sound
3. Rinse Eliminator and repeat

#1 wasn’t gonna happen — synths and drum machines aside, ZZ Top was always, and remains, a retro band — and #2 wouldn’t have been good for the bottom line. So Afterburner is Eliminator redux.

This isn’t a thoroughly bad thing. It’s easy to be cynical about the album, but the best songs — “Sleeping Bag,” “Velcro Fly,” and “Rough Boy” (or at least its guitar solo) — stand up next to the band’s best material. “Stages” (download) is pleasantly anthemic, in an ’80s-soundtrack sort of way, “Woke Up With Wood” (download) is thoroughly, stupidly awesome, and even if all this stuff sounds overly tinny and somewhat-to-extremely dated, shit, it was 1985.

Recycler (1990)
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ZZ Top - Recycler

And thus continues the era of ZZ Top albums with unfortunately accurate titles. Recycler is similar to Tejas — it isn’t awful, but listening to it, you’re hard-pressed to explain or understand why this took five years to make. The synths have been dialed back, but the band’s sound remained disappointingly machine-driven. The drums are flat, the guitars are processed, and the songs aren’t especially memorable.

(In a further bit of sad irony, the booklet consisted of several pages of lyric-free artwork; the cassette’s J-card was so thick, there was barely room for the tape. Recycler, indeed.)

“My Head’s in Mississippi” (download) came closest to showing a flicker of the band’s old spark, and “Penthouse Eyes” (download) has half a hook, but this is inessential stuff.

Antenna (1994)
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ZZ Top - Antenna

ZZ Top’s declining commercial fortunes didn’t keep RCA from scooping up the band and giving it a multimillion-dollar contract; 1994’s Antenna was the first release under the deal, and if the folks in the boardroom weren’t nervous about their new investment before it came out, they certainly had to be later. The album peaked at #14 on the Billboard Top 200, but faded quickly, largely because the band’s sound remained largely tethered to the ’80s. “Pincushion” (download), for instance, is a sharp, smart update of the Eliminator sound — everything, in other words, that Recycler’s leadoff single should have been. In 1994, though, authenticity was worth its weight in gold for rock bands — especially older ones — and this album’s machine-driven beats and layers of effects might as well have been tar pits. “Fuzzbox Voodoo” (download) and “Girl in a T-Shirt” (download) have some bite, but on the whole, this wasn’t the return to form the band needed.

Rhythmeen (1996)
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ZZ Top - Rhythmeen

Too little, too late: Although Rhythmeen was the most unvarnished take on ZZ Top’s sound since El Loco, too much time had passed for the album to be much of a commercial force, and anyway, these songs are long on vibe, but short on hooks. Rather than an extension of the old sound, it too often sounds like an imitation; that being said, it still makes for a pleasantly dirty listen. For those looking for proof of life after Afterburner, this was it. Check out “She’s Just Killing Me” (download) and the lurching “Prettyhead” (download).

XXX (1999)
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ZZ Top - XXX

No, no, no. After Rhythmeen stiffed, it’s possible ZZ Top decided they might as well dump the old shellac back onto its sound; or — this being 1999 — the band might have been angling for a piece of the hip-hop/mecha-pop market. Either way, XXX is as misguided a 30-year celebration as you’re likely to find. The rhythms are propulsive, but, like the rest of the album’s sound, they’re compressed all to hell, and gimmicky titles like “Crucifixx-A-Flatt” and “Dreadmonboogaloo” don’t help. “36-22-36″ (download) is juvenile and horny — a good thing — and “Trippin’” (download) has some nicely scuzzy riffage, but otherwise, it’s fairly slim pickin’ here, and the tacked-on live tracks at the end of the record are entirely unnecessary.

Mescalero (2003)
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ZZ Top - Mescalero

The long-delayed Mescalero fell like a tree in a lonely forest when RCA finally dribbled it out, which is sort of a shame; yes, it’s way too long, and yes, it’s wildly uneven, but it also shows some exciting signs of life. Gibbons’ guitar, in particular, sounds like a beast unleashed for much of the album — fat, razor-edged, and way up in the mix — which helps to counterbalance his increasingly ragged vocals (Check out “Piece” [download]). Another welcome development is the periodic unshackling of Frank Beard’s drumming from the hated machines; a few tracks — like “Buck Nekkid” (download) — even swing a little. Predictably, the cover of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp” (download) is also a lot of fun.

There’s a good album somewhere in here, or at least an EP, but slogging through 16 tracks gets tedious, especially when so many of them are clunkers. Still, though, Mescalero points the way to a return to form or that little ol’ band from Texas.

When that return will come is anyone’s guess; in 2006, ZZ Top split with its longtime manager, Bill Ham, and departed RCA. Whether they even need a label at this stage in their — and the industry’s — lives is an open question; almost certainly, no one’s going to give them the kind of money they commanded in the early ’90s, and there might not even be enough promotional outlets — outside of Chevy commercials — for a major to justify signing a straight-up rock band like ZZ Top anyway. But that’s beside the point. The only things that matter are the guitars, the grooves, and the songs. The band’s got at least a few of all of ‘em left in the tank.

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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