While no one would ever argue that hair metal was a genre full of variety, the form did boast a handful of archetypes, the most well known of which is probably the glorious power ballad. While there are many examples to choose from, it's impossible to shower any of these tunes exclusively with either praise or negative criticism. But somehow this mixed bag syndrome does not prevent a substantial amount of pleasure from creeping into the experience of listening to them. Here's a look at 10 of the best, in no particular order, ranging from classics of the form to sleeper examples of high quality.
The most remarkable thing about this emblematic hair metal classic is how solid it actually is. In the five or so years that this quintessential glam pop metal band occupied a portion of the zeitgeist, audiences came to expect a fairly vapid, undistinguished party-time output. But this assessment of romance gone sour contains genuine emotion and showcases a very decent songwriting sense on the part of Poison frontman Bret Michaels. Therefore, its status as one of pop metal's finest moments is well-deserved and well-earned.
A few years back I heard Warrant frontman Jani Lane despair over the fact that the song his band is probably most remembered for (well, the stubbornly literal music video anyway) is the appalling, subtle-as-a-nuclear-assault abomination known as "Cherry Pie." But I hope it's some consolation to him that "Heaven," a thoroughly successful acoustic ballad that again plumbs genuine emotion in lieu of empty macho posturing, actually represents a fairly respectable legacy for the band. It may be a bit hard to distinguish this blond lead singer from his competitors, but there have been far worse efforts than this tune that have somehow received more acclaim.
Early on in the band's career, Cinderella distinguished itself by retaining a sinister, somewhat aggressive edge even as members fully adopted the increasingly popular glam look. Such darkness fuels this atmospheric gem from the band's 1986 debut Night Songs, and it makes for a wonderful marriage with the gravelly, creepy vocal style of frontman Tom Keifer. Of course, this East Coast band never truly fit in as a hair metal act anyway, quickly moving to more bluesy material for its sophomore release. Nonetheless, this great song remains a central '80s flashpoint for hair metal balladry.
As much as I write this with clenched teeth, this piano-driven power ballad from the L.A. bad boys' 1985 album Theatre of Pain was unmistakably a prototype for many of the songs that would follow from their big-hair brethren. This signature Motley Crue song's template calls for the revelation lyrically of a heretofore hidden sensitive side (gently supported by piano, keyboards or acoustic guitar) and just enough guitar-hero explosions to avoid scaring away that highly important adolescent male demographic. But the piano intro is a good one, and the melody is almost strong enough to make up for Vince Neil's typically thin vocal delivery.
I was tempted to spotlight this somewhat rougher-edged hair band's "18 & Life" in this space until I realized that would fly in the face of the established formula of the hair metal ballad. On one level or another, after all, doesn't it have to be about love sweet love? So with some reluctance I choose this song instead, which actually is not embarrassing in the least and spotlights nifty guitar playing from Dave "the Snake" Sabo. But I guess Sebastian Bach's theatrical vocals are the main attraction, even though the main thing I remember is the homeless dude from the video and his acid-washed hottie from his haunted past.
I remember getting drunk during my first, short-lived stab at college and howling this track's guitar solo while playing my trusty imaginary instrument, along with some newly made acquaintances. And of course, we somehow didn't fathom how totally uncool this made us. Nonetheless, Vito Bratta was a talented fretman, and his solo here remains an enchanting listen, even if Mike Tramp's vocals, garbled as they were by his Danish accent, tended to inspire laughter rather than the intended empathy. It was always treacherous territory when hair bands attempted to get serious, and that's certainly the case with this shallow world peace propaganda.
Tawny Kitaen aside (or astride, I may just as well say), I've always thought this song works so well because David Coverdale downplays his normal tendency to try and sound like Robert Plant. Oh, there's still plenty of posturing (as well as woman-as-hood-ornament imagery), but the primary strength of this song is that in its mildly vapid way, it's a compellingly universal examination of the rocky romantic road that confronts us all at one time or another. As one of the most spirited marriages of rock guitar and synth-heavy keyboards in the annals of hair metal, the tune will always be a worthy '80s classic.