For the purposes of this list of premium '80s hard rock songs, I consider the broad term of hard rock to apply to loud, guitar-heavy rock music generally played by long-haired male musicians at slow and medium tempos. I make that distinction to explain why I leave punk rock and hardcore out of the equation for this particular list. In addition, while any music that is genuine heavy metal falls into this category, some subgenres of metal like pop metal or hair metal may not constitute hard rock at all (consider Bon Jovi or Poison, for example). Here's a look at some top '80s hard rock classics, in no particular order.
Built on some fantastic riffing and a powerful twin-guitar attack, this somewhat futuristic-sounding offering from Tesla's 1986 debut release, Mechanical Resonance, still stands as the band's finest moment. The quintet never quite fit into the pop-metal strain in vogue at the time, projecting something intriguing and distinctive in its sound as well as in its place of origin, Sacramento instead of Los Angeles. This solid track likewise stood a breed apart from its rock radio peers of the time in the sense that it actually rocked hard. My only complaint would be Jeff Keith's somewhat thin voice, but an inaccurate association with hair metal couldn't spoil this band's prime spot at the top of the '80s hard rock heap.
This L.A. band transcended its hair metal visual image and propensity toward sappy romantic lyrics and power ballads for one reason and one reason only: the contributions of guitarist George Lynch. Without Lynch's powerful, imaginative riffing and speedy, exhilarating solos, Dokken would have never escaped the heap of moderately talented melodic metal bands of the mid-'80s. After all, Don Dokken's vocals never really exceeded competence, though his sense of melody was strong. No, it's all about Lynch, and on this track his gorgeous solo still shines as one of the most dazzling in all of '80s hard rock's considerable fretwork.
When trying to cull one song from probably the best hard rock album by the best hard rock band of the '80s, I could have picked any of a dozen tracks and not gone wrong. I choose this one, however, because it's the best approximation of the menace, threat and breakneck assault Guns N' Roses delivered in its blend of old-school hard rock, metal and punk. And it's not just Axl Rose's liberal use of profanity and confrontational lyrics that bring a consistent sense of danger; the entire band starts a collective sonic riot that sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did more than two decades ago when the L.A. quintet emerged.
In my mind, metal in the '80s never seemed more broodingly gothic, precise or intelligent than in the work of Metallica, one of the most important of America's thrash pioneers. The San Francisco-area quartet deliberately stayed quite removed from L.A.'s Sunset Strip scene, developing a speedy and brutal sonic assault informed by both punk and classical influences. This epic track from the band's 1986 classic album of the same name crystallized perfectly all of Metallica's originality and sonic intensity from prime ingredients like James Hetfield's distinctive growl and crunching riffs.
If Metallica represented the refined, intellectual side of speed metal, England's Motorhead went for the jugular with a biker-bar, broken-bottle-attack kind of ferocity. This 1980 title track to one of the band's and heavy metal's most signature albums simply pummels the listener with uncontrolled riffing, a merciless rhythmic assault and the throat-ripping vocal exploits of Lemmy. Hard rock literally can't get much harder than this, even when the music stops about halfway through for one of metal's all-time classic lines: "You know I'm going to lose and gambling's for fools, but that's the way I like it, baby, I don't wanna live forever."
Here's another curveball for you, a sleeper track from this other great British metal band's masterpiece, 1980's British Steel. There are plenty of more prominent Judas Priest tracks to settle on for this list, but I like this one because it proves beyond a doubt that some heavy metal was of high enough quality to generate deep album cuts that deserve to be revered as classics. Frontman Rob Halford's vocal performance here is typically powerful and impressively piercing, and the twin guitars of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton always work incredibly well on both riffing and solos.
Genuine hard rock received a real threat from the dominion of hair metal during the late '80s, but luckily bands like Guns N' Roses, Tesla and Queensryche maintained the form's punishing sonic integrity through each band's distinctive sound. This Seattle band worked effectively as an outsider, injecting elements of progressive metal into a cerebral concept album of melodic hard rock, 1988's Operation: Mindcrime. This track effectively spotlights the group's strengths: precise, often complex songwriting, dense dual guitars, and the powerful vocals of frontman Geoff Tate. A hard rock classic of any era.