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Top 10 Hair Metal/Pop Metal Songs of the '80s

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Contrary to popular belief, the prominent '80s genre labeled hair metal, pop metal or glam metal (depending on who is doing the classifying) contained far more than merely power ballads. Mid-tempo rock songs may have been plentiful during the decade, but the strain of music that blended pop so skillfully with at least some elements of heavy metal produced the most notable music of its kind. Here's a look - in no particular order - at some of the best all-around mid-tempo rock songs of hair metal and pop metal, if not necessarily the biggest hits.

1. Def Leppard - "Bringin' on the Heartbreak"

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This Sheffield, England quintet remains the can't-miss place to begin and end a conversation on pop metal, if for no other reason because songs from all four of its '80s releases could easily battle for a spot on this list. It's hard to go wrong with "Photograph" or "Hysteria," for example, even though the increasingly glossy Def Leppard sound could be easily detected upon progressive examination. And although in 1981 there existed no official name for this kind of anthemic hard rock, this band has always defined the past, present and future of pop metal.

2. Quiet Riot - "Bang Your Head (Metal Health)"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic/Legacy
Important perhaps more for its status as historical marker than its considerable musical quality, this pop metal classic with an enduring killer guitar riff burst forth as a prototype for the genre upon its 1983 release. Before Quiet Riot's distinctly American take on heavy metal, the loud, aggressive basic style exercised very little power within pop music, succeeding primarily as an album rock form known for male-dominated audiences. But once mainstream music fans got a taste of metallic but accessible music, the floodgates opened for the rest of the '80s to cultivate to perfection an even milder, softer version of metal.

3. Twisted Sister - "We're Not Gonna Take It"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic/WEA
Even before MTV began to embrace hard rock as a commercial force, songs like this 1984 anthem introduced ordinary radio listeners to the joys and other myriad emotions inspired by heavy metal. But let's face it, this is nothing more than a pop song with crunchy guitars, and a damn good one to boot. In the early years of pop metal, representative bands almost always stuck to guitar, bass and drums to differentiate themselves, if nothing else, from the keyboard-dominated new wave so popular at the time. That began to change a bit in the wake of this molten pop classic, but not before a key template was set.

4. Ratt - "Back for More"

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Just to avoid extreme predictability, I'll select this particular track from 1984's wildly popular Out of the Cellar instead of the deserving but typical choice, "Round and Round." Despite prominent and aggressive guitars, Ratt's music began to display ever glossier production that attracted mainstream audiences for perhaps the first time in greater numbers than longtime hard rock and heavy metal devotees. Stephen Pearcy forged one of hair metal's most distinctive vocal formulas and thereby managed to cement Ratt as one of the last accessible metal bands made up of a greater percentage of hard rock substance than pop fluff.

5. Scorpions - "Big City Nights"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Island Def Jam

These veteran German rockers learned more than a little from their late-'70s period of toil, and the result was the polished but rarely cynical Love at First Sting, an album full of pop hits that also rocked quite capably. This tune features Klaus Meine's mannered, accented vocals, but the melodies are so bright and the guitars so tight that it's undoubtedly a near-perfect mid-'80s specimen for the ages. Perhaps more than any other band of the era, the Scorpions managed to straddle the thin boundary between genuine hard rock and mainstream pop so hazardous to so many others. No compromise needed here.

6. KISS - "Heaven's on Fire"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Mercury

Some groups that found their way into the pop metal mix never even functioned fully as heavy metal bands in the first place, occupying instead a separate ground blending hard rock, pop and glam rock style. But KISS has always demonstrated a sort of chameleonic genius that has allowed the band to maintain a nearly 40-year career of consistent output and success. Built on a monster guitar riff and dripping with the kind of sexual innuendo that would come to define hair metal in the years to come, this 1984 track from the newly post-makeup lineup was opportunistic and savvy, just like the band itself.

7. Dokken - "Unchain the Night"

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No one employed chiming and muscular guitars more effectively than this underrated band, one of L.A.'s strongest hair metal outfits. Many of the group's songs, in fact, effectively carve out a solid niche for Dokken as one of pop metal's heaviest bands, but the melodic sense of the quartet always carried the day. Known somewhat for his tendency toward dramatic balladry, frontman Don Dokken also displayed great skill in presenting loud mid-tempo tracks and even faster, more aggressive efforts. "Unchain the Night" beautifully occupies the delicate space only '80s bands have shown the ability to master.

8. Cinderella - "Shake Me"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Island Def Jam
In 1986, the year that hair metal and pop metal first reached epic commercial proportions, pop/rock music across the board began to be dominated by the big hairstyles and glitzy fashion statements that accompanied the music. Cinderella is a great example of a band that took full advantage of hair metal's popularity without ever quite becoming major stars. The group's brilliant Night Songs presented a slightly dangerous, vaguely gothic but utterly marketable sound, particularly in the triumvirate of tunes that included this one, "Nobody's Fool" and "Somebody Save Me."

9. Bon Jovi - "You Give Love a Bad Name"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Island Def Jam
Though I still strongly contend that Bon Jovi has never been anywhere near being a heavy metal band, it's impossible to leave the group out of any discussion on the phenomenon of hair metal. Though even this tune - which so definitively launched the band's superstardom - draws heavily from arena rock, mainstream rock and even heartland rock impulses, it's easy to see why Jon Bon Jovi and Co. became major poster boys for the pop metal era. The music stressed accessibility and songcraft, but it also used its versatility to avoid relying too heavily on its frontman's hair and boyish good looks.

10. Poison - "Fallen Angel"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Capitol
Arguably the band that pushed the glam metal envelope too far without ample substance to back it up, Poison nonetheless rose as perhaps latter-day hair metal's most successful artists. Always overly maligned as evidence of the decline of musical civilization, the band was capable of churning out decent arena rock even if its connection to genuine heavy metal was ultimately non-existent. Poison took the glam metal image to its logical conclusion, but this 1988 track stands as one of the last pop metal songs to make effective sonic use of the form's riff-centered philosophy. It was all downhill from here.
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