Power ballads are in and of their nature sentimental sap-a-thons. They also happen to be one of the staples of metal and hard rock that kept its faint heartbeat alive at a time when the form had gone out of style with the mass public, if it had ever well and truly been “in.” These songs also served as gateways into metal for many a budding metalhead along with the more accessible songs that weren’t quite pop but had those sensibilities of melody and catchiness. This list is by no means definitive but it’s ours spanning a few decades and variants worth of feels. A number of contributors have added their favorites but please do share yours with us in the comments!
Dragonforce – “Starfire”
Dragonforce is excess personified. Sure, I love a heartfelt, introspective power ballad as much as anyone; but even more than that, I love power ballads that ooze cheese from every pore like Cheesasaurus Rex. What’s impressive about “Starfire” is its complete, almost childlike sincerity, even while it commits blatant cliches. The lyrics, for example, are almost impressively awful. Armed with a vast array of cheap platitudes and “warrior” cliches, they manage to say absolutely nothing; but listen to how earnestly Dragonforce feels for the poor warrior standing in the snow! They really nailed the presentation, complete with a sorrowful rush of running water, plaintive piano chords, an acoustic interlude, and ZP Theart singing in the most poignant tones he can muster before blasting off to a higher octave for his eulogy to lost souls. There’s nothing about this song that isn’t turned to 11, but it’s not cheesy in the way that Alestorm is tongue-in-cheek. Instead, Dragonforce buy into their own indulgence, and in doing so they manage to turn it into something genuine. “Burning starfire, shine in the sky…”
Skid Row – “I Remember You’’
“I Remember You’’ has been one of my favorite songs. Skid Row are one of those go to “fun’’ bands and this song in particular always makes me want to have a singalong. On one hand, it bears all the hallmarks of a power ballad from a hair band which makes it perfect for karaoke and a sing song with friends at parties. On the other, despite the lyrics being pretty corny, it still manages to tug at my heartstrings as it encapsulates longing for lost love. Sure, we move on, time goes by, and we find new things that makes us happy; but you’ll never forget the one that got away.
I firmly believe that glam metal is one of the best subgenres of any music, and Skid Row are a prime example of what makes it so irresistible to me. When it comes to power ballads, not even Celine Dion can top Bach and co. for emotional power. This should have been the theme song to Titanic, as Rose was remembering dead Jack as an elderly woman still pining for that nautical romance.
Faster Pussycat – “House of Pain”
The ‘90s power ballad is often the realm of some woe-begotten love debacle or lamentation about the road, perhaps even cracking a cold one with the boys, often with a heaping helping of schmaltz. Occasionally, though, ‘90s hard rock and metal acts would use the format to take things down a notch and actually get into their feelings, ya know, to show they, like, had them and stuff. While it didn’t happen often, bands not known for tackling weighty topics would pop up with a shimmering, jangly number about one of society’s quandaries.
Much in that mold is Faster Pussycat’s “House of Pain” which would be one of the first “power” ballads to address a serious topic (absentee fathers and childhood trauma) to hit the charts in a big way. The song resonated both within the hard rock community as well as in pop music even though it slides under the radar nowadays because of the fact that it may be the only widely recognized song from these stalwarts of hair metal sleaze. That the band broke up in 1993 leaves us with a fairly small sample size of overall material with which to judge their “legacy” but often times just one song can be inspirational, supportive, or otherwise connect with its audience.
“House of Pain” does this with its moving lyrical substance, not a line many would often use for the band’s lyricist, Taime Downe, but nevertheless on this particular track co-written by he and Greg Steele, we get very stark imagery of a child growing up waiting on a father to return who never does. Where the song draws a lot of its power is later when it echoes the sentiments of the earlier verses but mentions now being older yet still wondering where this person went. The implications are heavy giving the listener pause because it essentially says, “I’m still fucked up over this and have no answers”. That this type of childhood trauma is and has been the subject of serious study for years now says something of its clinical nature. That this particular band is the one that took it on, even if only from the standpoint of communicating something they themselves experienced, proves an even more bold move especially in the power ballad arena… no pun intended.
Scorpions – “Wind of Change”
It’s not prerequisite for a power ballad to be an utterly cheeseball pander to the apple of one’s eye-shadowed, black lined, and mascaraed peepers; and frankly, that corniness is a big reason why most suck. Hearing glammed-up dudes show their “tender side” for the sake of getting laid is pathetic, disingenuous, and simply put, weird. Every time I see or hear the words “power ballad,” it summons dreadful memories of the mid-90s where the TV waves were absolutely bombarded by those terrible compilation commercials where “every bad boy [had] a soft side.”
That being said, “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions is a comparatively refreshing breeze with subject matter that looks past the cuties in the front row to broader horizons like world peace, eventually becoming an anthem for the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany (though the track wouldn’t be released as a single until 1991).
The track was inspired by the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival, marking their (along with other huge Western acts like Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Metallica, and Skid Row) first performance in Moscow. Referencing Russian landmarks (the Moskva River and Gorky Park), it describes a tangible sense of change in the air, unity, and optimism.
It has all the sing-along-with-your-lighter-held-high-feel-goodness that should be present in a power ballad, but instead directs its affection toward unity. It’s not hard to get behind. But how exactly does one pair the hugeness of that kind of lyrical scope, musically? You’d imagine it’d have to be something that reaches beyond the lyrics and speaks as universally as the song itself strives to reach. An epic guitar solo? Nah, that’s too ego driven. What about an instrument that perhaps requires no instrument at all, removing any barrier, even language, to impede on musical communication? Yeah, whistling ought tp do it. It’s simple, beautiful, and addicting, making it an instantly identifiable track, and something that classic rock DJs still probably grin every time they fade it in.
Fun fact: If you don’t whistle those three opening notes at some point after watching the following video; you have no soul.
Meat Loaf – “For Crying Out Loud”
Jim Steinman was the mastermind behind anything good that Meat Loaf did. He was the architect and Meat Loaf just sang his songs. Steinman wrote for other voices like Bonnie Tyler (“Total Eclipse of The Heart” and “Holding Out For A Hero”), Barry Manilow, himself, and even wrote a musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber. The man is a seriously underappreciated songwriter.
Bat Out Of Hell was his first step into fame and is still one of the best-selling rock albums of all time. The album combines all the 50s-style rock and heartbreak of Born To Run with progressive rock and Wagnerian orchestrations all tied together with an operatic frontman at his prime. There are more famous hits off the album like “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad” and “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” but no track hits harder than the closer, “For Crying Out Loud”, a perfect example of everything the album has to offer. This track is like Elvis’s cover of “Unchained Melody” with an extra helping of Beethoven. It starts slowly with just piano that slowly builds to a formidable emotional peak. Steinman’s lyrics have never been more profound. There’s no humor, no indulgence, no cockiness, just natural emotion:
“I’m in the middle of nowhere
Near the end of the line
But there’s a border to somewhere waiting
And there’s a tankful of time
Oh give me just another moment to see the light of the day
And take me to another land where I don’t have to stay
And I’m gonna need somebody to make me feel like you do
And I will receive somebody with open arms, open eyes,
Open up the sky and let the planet that I love shine through”
The song could end there but then, a single cello introduces a string section, and the song repeats with new words and more instrumentation. It seems as though the entire world is swirling with the narrator as he conjures images of the universe and eternity waiting for this pair of lovers. Meat Loaf reaches the top of his range again as the chorus repeats now improvising bluesy ornaments on top of the spinning orchestral groove. Signature to Steinman, the song ends revealing a play on words. “For crying out loud” is a particular expression usually used to show one’s impatience with someone else. Up until this point, the narrator has basically been saying, “For God’s sake, you know I love you” or “Can’t you hear me? You know I love you”. But in this final section after the climax of the song, “crying out loud” becomes a reason why he loves her.
“For pulling me away when I’m starting to fall
For revving me up when I’m starting to stall
And all in all
For that I want you
For taking and for giving and for playing the game
For praying for my future in the days that remain
For that I hold you
Ah but most of all
For cryin’ out loud
For that I love you”
The song ends with one final epic moment that slow-fades into serenity and satisfaction. A masterpiece song to end a masterpiece album and perhaps one of the greatest expressions of love ever written.
–Joe The Bear
Iron Maiden – “Wasted Years”
Is there an opening to another song in metal that is more immediately recognizable than Adrian Smith’s pull-off laden riff launching this song off of Iron Maiden’s 1986 offering, Somewhere In Time? More importantly for our purposes here, is it a ballad? This isn’t the first song anyone will think of when they hear the term “power ballad” but let’s look at the elements that this song does have that permanently park it within acceptable distance of the style.
We can most immediately see the song lining up in this category from the emotive, quasi-operatic delivery of Bruce Dickinson with lyrics that are, at their core, a sentimental reminder to not take the years we’re given for granted. This conceit powers the song through Smith’s words (this is one of the rare Maiden songs written entirely by the guitarist) driving at the loneliness of the road all the while trying to convince the listener to “understand” not to “waste your time searching for those wasted years”. This, combined with the soaring delivery of the chorus by all members of the band, is also a critical element that bring us firmly in range of the category.
While it isn’t a puerile love song, it is a song that urges the protagonist and the audience to grasp what they can and let go of what they cannot in such a sincere manner making it, especially held up to the bulk of Maiden’s catalog, a power ballad. There isn’t a single acoustic guitar to be had but the ebb and flow of the song, the relative downbeat solemnity of the verses switching to soaring choruses, speaks to the form’s constant shift in mood between resignation and triumph that marks many of the entries. Everything in the song speaks to an earnestness and plaintiveness that make it as gut-wrenching and heartfelt as any other, more typical, “power ballad.”
Vektor – “Collapse”
What makes a good power ballad? If you read the entries on this post, you’ll find many answers: power of expression, depth of emotion, clarity of instruments. But, if you ask this writer, the most important aspect of a good power ballad is the contrast between it and the rest of the album/discography. Too many bands faded into obscurity just because they tried to, again and again, recapture the charm of that original hit while forgetting that the reason the original hit was so big was that it contained the elements of surprise and contrast.
That’s what makes Vektor’s “Collapse” one of the best power ballads of all time. Besides the brilliant instrumentation, vocals, and lyrics, “Collapse” also appears at the end of a scorchingly fast and heavy album, one of the great creations of modern thrash. The contrast between its passages and the abrasiveness wall of notes that is the rest of the album is its most powerful trait; it captures the listener wholly unawares and, thus, completely ready to embrace its message.
By the time the harsh vocals return nearer the end of the album, we’re already captivated in the ballad’s message of release, longing, and forlorn hope. There’s no shortage of depth of expression or a wide and honest range of emotions on “Collapse” but it’s the delivery, the expertly located position of it within Terminal Redux that elevates it to heights of excellence and draws from even the most jaded of hearts a tear shed for lost homes and lost causes.
Killer Dwarfs – “Doesn’t Matter”
“Let’s party and/or have sex” accounts for the vast majority of lyrical content in hair metal, the genre that birthed the power ballad. But the power ballads pulled in female fans and, let’s face it, this was a win for everyone. And thus the subject of many power ballads was more sensitive in nature (sexist assumption alert!), owing to the emotional sensibilities of the ladies. Generally, this meant pensive songs about breakups and unrequited love (Cinderella’s “Nobody’s Fool,” Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” and “I Won’t Forget You,” Skid Row’s “I Remember You” etc.). Sure, there was the occasional look at the difficulties of life on the road (Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home,” the song that solidified the power ballad formula, and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive”), but it was hard to see this subject as sincere, what with all the partying and casual sex referenced continually in every other song.
But there is another category of hair metal lyrics that is sometimes unappreciated. This is more difficult to define simply, but for lack of a better descriptor, this is the motivational song. As the bands became more successful they grew more introspective and yearned to bring bands to the golden heights they themselves had achieved (Van Halen’s “Dreams,” Poison’s “Cry Tough” and Ratt’s “Reach For The Sky”). In addition, the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger myth was a big part of the genre; throw it all away to move to the Sunset Strip. You gotta follow your dreams, whatever the cost. It was in this last category that Canadian hair rockers, Killer Dwarfs, truly excelled.
Witness the glory of two of their best songs: “Keep The Spirit Alive” and “Stand Tall.” The melodies are infectious, and the vocals just a little below Geddy Lee-register. Maybe they were too damn Canadian, but the Dwarfs never truly caught on, which is a shame, as they are among the best songwriters of the genre and definitely the best band that never blew up arenas.
“Doesn’t Matter” is one of two minor hits from the group. Along with “Dirty Weapons,” it still gets some airplay on satellite radio stations like Hair Nation. A mashup of power ballads and motivational songs, it contains the requisite sensitivity for a power ballad crossed with the motivational spirit of hair metal’s third topic. Flick your Bics and get ready to sing along. This song rules, and if it’s been overlooked in favor of “Still Loving You” or “Heaven”. Well, that’s the breaks. It doesn’t matter at all.