Because the genre occupied such a significant space within the fabric of '80s music, arena rock artists tend to pop up quickly in a discussion of the era's pop music offerings. This kind of straightforward, mainstream rock music - even sometimes disdainfully referred to as middle-of-the-road (MOR) rock - has gone by other names, of course: stadium rock, album rock, even the painfully broad, generic moniker pop/rock. But the bottom line is that this was music blessed with maximum appeal across the record-buying, concert-going age demographic of 15 to 50. Here's a list of the genre's most essential artists.
There's certainly an argument to be had here about whether or not this Bay Area progressive rock band-turned arena rock/soft rock purveyors of the power ballad should own the top spot on this list. But there is little doubt that this group stands as the genre's most quintessential artist of the first half of the '80s, arena rock's peak period. Fusing the powerhouse guitar work of Neal Schon with Jonathan Cain's sensitive keyboard melodicism was magical enough, but with Steve Perry as pipes-working-overtime lead vocalist, the Journey formula struck gold in a myriad of ways music fans are still trying to understand today. This is bombastic, heartfelt power rock that both defined its era and holds up surprisingly well almost 30 years later.
Having already established itself as one of the leading bands of album-oriented rock (AOR) radio during the late '70s, Foreigner transformed itself from an outfit that erred on the side of rocking guitar anthems in its early days to one specializing in keyboard-driven, somewhat neutered pop ballads as the years wore on. This isn't necessarily a criticism, as "I Want to Know It Love Is" still epitomizes pop songcraft perfection despite its notable lack of guitar punch. Like Journey, Foreigner appealed to the universality of the power ballad instead of trying to merely maintain a modest fan base of dudes partial to rock guitars. The best arena rock bands learned quickly that attracting women to their shows was the key to true superstardom.
Another hard-working bar band that sunk its hooks into the masses of Middle America, REO Speedwagon likewise entered the '80s not quite satisfied with a successful but so far unremarkable career as just another hard rock band. So frontman Kevin Cronin and bandmates streamlined and refocused to downplay the improvisational blue-collar style of the past in favor of hooks and more hooks. "Keep on Loving You" remains one of arena rock's most perfect singles, successfully blending a world-class guitarist (in Gary Richrath) with Cronin's increasing propensity to croon love songs of great mainstream appeal. The salad days wouldn't go on forever, but while the good times lasted REO competed nobly for the title of America's most popular band.
Unlike many of its more experienced contemporaries, Canada's Loverboy simply didn't know any better than to try and pursue simultaneous success in the typically oppositional worlds of hard rock, pop and the emerging sound of new wave. Few other bands tried this impressive stunt, much less accomplished it, but for the first few years of the '80s Loverboy reigned supreme as the arena rock band consistently casting the widest net into the raging waters of the music business. A fierce guitar-keyboard attack played a major role in Loverboy's best tunes, but frontman Mike Reno and company also understood with uncanny precision that power ballads could not only be the key to a young girl's heart but also a season pass into her boyfriend's wallet.
Although it took a glossy metamorphosis of this band's harder-edged '70s sound to achieve '80s superstardom, Heart undoubtedly became one of arena rock's core artists of the era on the strength of an amped up pop sensibility. Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson surrendered some of the songwriting and guitar-centered aspects of the group they built from scratch, but songs like "Never" and "What About Love?" epitomized this popular style and lent it much of its shape. Ann Wilson was, is and perhaps will forever be one of pop/rock's most powerhouse vocalists and, along with her guitarist sister, helped make a significant dent in the male gender's general dominion over arena rock and its other forms of accessible hard rock derivatives.
6. Def Leppard
One of pop metal's most significant originators, England's throwback hard rock quartet Def Leppard did more to enhance the quality of arena rock than it ever did to promote hair metal. And that's why the massive success of this band and its glossy evolution during the '80s somehow falls short of crass commercialism. Classic tunes like "Photograph" and "Animal" had an uncanny ability to cast a long musical shadow, and that's at least as much thanks to solid songcraft as it's ever been to Mutt Lange's domineering if highly efficient production. And as far as power ballads go, find me a song that boasts a level of formulaic yet joyful perfection anywhere close to 1988's "Love Bites."
7. Pat Benatar
'80s hard rock and arena rock most certainly exhibited a rather typical male domination, but the decade also featured its fair share of heavy-hitting female rockers. Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde and Patty Smyth may not quite make the cut for this particular list, but that's only because Pat Benatar unleashed such an impressive stream of driving stadium rock specimens. "Treat Me Right," "Heartbreaker" and "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" practically invented the sound of arena rock: muscular riffs, sparkling melodies and kick-ass vocals. Most successful arena rock artists found a way to overlap into as many pop/rock genres as possible, for obvious commercial reasons. But Benatar never seemed to be faking it with her sensitive but tough persona.
8. .38 Special
Though .38 Special initially carried on the boogie/Southern rock tradition so memorably set during the '70s by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the rise of Don Barnes as the former's pop-friendly frontman transformed the group into something surprisingly satisfying. Stripped of much of its down-home regional charm, the band actually found itself solidly occupying a melodic guitar rock niche that desperately needed to be filled. Purists may complain that the very clean '80s sound of .38 Special amounted to a commercial capitulation, but I've always felt songs like "If I'd Been the One" and "Like No Other Night" play to not only Barnes' strengths as a vocalist but also the group's accessible but intense twin guitar attack.
9. Night Ranger
Starting off as one of arena's rock's most metallic hard rock combos on the strength of guitars from Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson, Night Ranger produced some of the strongest songwriting of the era as well. Adept at both mid-tempo rockers and power ballads, bassist Jack Blades and drummer Kelly Keagy tended to take the lead in terms of vocals and composing, and this combination proved to find much favor commercially if not critically. "When You Close Your Eyes" and "Goodbye" still work efficiently as powerhouse tunes, even if the band's reputation has never recovered from a widespread estimation of softness. The best arena rock artists demonstrate a refusal to trade in simple rock and roll for cooler trends. Night Ranger: Guilty as charged.
When it comes to bombast - one of the key aspects of arena rock's core essence - it doesn't get much more blatant than the aptly named Survivor. And while normally that would be an adjective followed by negative commentary, in this case the very nature of that excess is what makes this band so irresistible. Sly Stallone knew what he was doing in selecting Survivor to provide theme songs for his '80s Rocky sequels, but highly listenable tracks like "I Can't Hold Back" and "High on You" prove that this is a band capable of shining in other arenas besides the movie soundtrack. Lead singers Dave Bickler and then Jimi Jamison displayed the soaring, clear tenor that defined arena rock, and they always conveyed genuine fist-pumping passion.