I’ll admit it, I’m an unashamed and unabashed fan of that most majestic of musical genres – the power ballad. This may not be a particularly cutting-edge passion of mine, but I urge you, nay I dare you, to listen to some of the tunes listed below and not feel at least a smidgen of the awesomeness contained therein.
For the uninitiated, Wikipedia defines a power ballad simply as “a ballad performed in a rock music style,” while elsewhere noting that “power ballads came into existence in the early 1970s, when rock stars attempted to convey profound messages to audiences.” These definitions are clearly only scratching the surface of the emotional power of these titanic songs. Urbandictionary.com is only slightly more helpful, stating that it is “a form of heavy metal music in which the listener is tempted to pump their fist into the air repeatedly synchronized with the emotional impact said song inflicts upon the listener.” (I also refer you to the 3rd definition on that page, which I’m too prudish to quote here.) While I find the heavy metal description inaccurate, this does at least get more to the way in which these totems of tunecraft can stir the emotions and move you to increasingly unfashionable dance moves.
For me, a power ballad is a song, most commonly from the 80s, that combines the standard elements of a rock song (electric guitars, drums, charismatic lead vocalist) with lyrics that tell a story that stirs the emotions, often accompanied by a soaring chorus, epic guitar solos and key changes that take your breath away, evoking images of gravity-defying mullets and fashion-defying shoulder pads. Other than that, it’s hard to pin it down further than to say that when know a power ballad when you hear one (which doesn’t make it highly contestable at all!). My own love of power ballads blossomed at university, dancing along to some Bon Jovi in the Union, brooding angstfully in my room in halls and, in an unforgettable moment, duetting to ‘(Everything I Do), I Do It For You‘ with Mr Steve Causley in a karaoke bar in Beijing. ‘Epic’ doesn’t even come close.
You can listen to my painstakingly-crafted Power Ballads playlist on Spotify here. (It’s not exhaustive, but nonetheless hits most of my personal favourite specimens of songsmithery.)
But enough of all this faff! Let’s get down to this ridiculously tricky and highly contentious business of my top 10 Power Ballads of all time. Happy to field outraged disagreements in the comments, but let’s keep this civil shall we?
10. Heaven Is A Place On Earth – Belinda Carlisle
Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, haven’t you? Belinda makes the list at number 10 with an upbeat, up-tempo hit from 1987 that, while it does risk falling prey to an over-realised eschatology and is utterly & irrationally despised by my wife, it is good enough to make the list.
Random fact: the song incorporates the aria “Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. (Yes, I did just lift that straight from Wikipedia.)
9. Never Gonna Give You Up – Rick Astley
The song with more unintended YouTube views than any other thanks to the phenomenom of Rickrolling, one-hit wonder Rick Astley’s catchy number is carried into the top 10 partly by its iconic 80s video and partly because of it’s irresistably catchy melody. The fact that Brian Griffin sings this awesome cover (no video sadly, can be found easily enough though) in an episode of Family Guy does it no harm either.
8. Livin’ On A Prayer – Bon Jovi
The fact that this anthem from Bon Jovi makes it’s appearance on my list only at number 8 is testimony to the sheer strength of this collection (in my opinion). In fact, it only just made it in at all ahead of another Bon Jovi classic ‘Always’, which it pains me to omit, but I have to limit myself to one song per artist. This tale of working-class couple Tommy and Gina has been the theme music to many a student night out and the key change at 3:23 is an exemplary model of how to propel a song into a rousing final rendition of the chorus.
7. I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) – Meatloaf
Meatloaf makes the list at number 7 with his sprawling epic (one of many), which beats Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time from the list largely for having a much better video. Spanning an eye-watering 12 minutes in it’s full unedited version, this is classic Meatloaf territory. The video, directed by Michael Bay, invokes the imagery of Beauty and the Beast and Phantom of the Opera, while Meatloaf helpfully outlines the various things he would, and wouldn’t, do for love.
Random fact: Lorraine Crosby, who sings the female vocals on the track, is from the north-east of England and was a club singer at the time. She appeared on the X-Factor in 2005, but didn’t make it past the second round.
6. (Everything I Do) I Do It For You – Bryan Adams
Some may dispute whether this is a power ballad, preferring to place it in the category of ‘love song’ or ‘schmaltzy pop’. However, such people would be wrong, not only because it is clearly a power ballad, but also because Wikipedia says so and who are we to argue? Few could argue that this song deserves a place in the list, however, given it’s runaway success and a video that features Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman (albeit via clips from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves). The song topped the UK charts for 16 weeks, setting a new record for the most consecutive weeks at #1 which has yet to be broken, and in 2005 topped a poll of the most popular songs chosen by couples for their first dance at their wedding. Most importantly of all, I can play it on the piano.
(Note: embedding is disabled for this video, so you’ll have to watch it on YouTube, but make sure you come back for the final countdown…)
5. Don’t Stop Believing – Journey
Yes, I now what you’re thinking: ‘You only like this song because of Glee’. And yes, it is true that I hadn’t heard the song before I heard it on Glee, however I see no reason why it shouldn’t be included here anyway, indeed I would argue that the exposure the song (and others by Journey) has got through being song by the kids of ‘New Directions’ has introduced Journey’s music to a new generation of fans.
The original version, released in 1981, only made it to the dizzy heights of 65 in the UK charts, and has thus only achieved greater cultural prominence in the past few years, largely, though not solely, due to it’s use in the pilot episode of Glee. While the Glee cover version reached number 2 in the charts, it also boosted download sales of the Journey original, which reached number 6 in the charts and was also added to the DJ’s playlists on Radio 1 and Radio 2 in January 2010.
Random fact: the Glee cover’s introduction is based on the vocal-led introduction to Petra Haden’s cover version, rather than Journey’s original, which is keyboard-based.
4. More Than A Feeling – Boston
Again, this may be a surprising appearance in the top 10 for this 1976 hit for Boston, indeed it’s a song I’ve only come across in the last year or so, partly thanks to its use in the Barclaycard advert where the guy goes from his house to work on a rollercoaster. Maybe I’ve been subconsciously influenced by the fact that this would be the most amazing way to commute EVER, but when you listen to the song, it does feel a bit like being on a rollercoaster, the way that it zooms through the chorus and guitar solos. Or is that just me? Plenty of angsty lyrics about long-lost love here, cementing its ‘power ballad’ status, and a cracking vocal performance that rockets this track into number 4 in my list.
Random fact: parts of the tune have been likened to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana, so much so that Kurt Cobain made the comparison himself in this video from the 1992 Reading Festival.
3. Total Eclipse of the Heart – Bonnie Tyler
We enter the top 3 with one of the most iconic of all power ballads – Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. Written by Jim Steinman, who also wrote our entry at number 7, I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That), the song was released in 1983 and remains the Welsh singer’s biggest hit. The video is as bizarre as the song is epic, set as a dream sequence in a boarding school, with various pupils doing school activities, including some ninjas (yes, NINJAS!!). Let’s face it, this song has to be in the top 10 – it’s a classic belter of a tune, suitable for any car journey or accompaniment to a group of guys washing up after a hearty meal on a stag weekend (or was that just me too?). I love this song and so should you, which leaves us with the question – what could have beaten it into the top 2 spots?
Random fact: possibly the best thing I’ve discovered while writing this post is that the video for the song features a young Gianfranco Zola. Not playing football, mind you, he has shining blue eyes. You couldn’t make this stuff up and in case you think I have, here’s the proof (see 5:15 in the video):
2. I Want To Know What Love Is – Foreigner
“I gotta take a little time, A little time to think things over…” Well, I’ve taken some time, thought it over and have decided that number 2 on my list of top 10 power ballads is this 1984 offering from Foreigner – their only number 1 hit in the UK charts. While the track takes a bit of time to get going, it’s well worth the wait when you get to the soaring chorus, especially when the backing vocals of the New Jersery Mass Choir kick in around 2:56. While the song lacks a kick-ass key change (although Mariah Carey’s version does), this is more than made up for by the eminently sing-a-longable (I like making up words) chorus, brilliant gospel choir backing and a vintage 80s video, complete with random slow-motion shots of construction workers.
1. Amazed (Captain Mix) – Lonestar
A surprise winner perhaps, but a clear winner in my mind. This 1999 hit from US country music group Lonestar is the most recent release in my top 10, serving to demonstrate that the 1980s doesn’t have a monopoly on awesome power ballads. Another distinction that this entry has is that it’s not the original song that has made the list, but a remix that is, in my view, even better. Named the ‘Captain Mix’, it features an additional keyboard intro and, most importantly, the best key change of any song on this list. It comes at 3:18 into the song and is enough to make the steeliest of souls raised a clenched power fist, belting out the chorus one more time. Amazed is not only a great power ballad, but a brilliant love song as well, as evidenced by the number of times I’ve sung it to serenade my wife, although it doesn’t always go down as well as I hope, especially when I do it when we’re out shopping… 😉
Another surprise is that the song only made it to number 21 in the UK charts, although it was a huge hit in the States, with the original version staying for 8 weeks at the top of the Billboard Country charts and the remixed pop-friendly version helping it reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in March 2000 – a rare feat for a country music song.
The music video is brilliantly cheesy, as frontman Cody Collins (What a name!) belts out ‘I’m so in love with you!!’ as the camera zooms around, but this only cements the songs status as a classic power ballad – although it has to be said the song hasn’t got the same cult following as some of the other tunes listed above and time will tell if it can achieve the same longevity.
Random point: Does anyone else think that lead singer Cody Collins looks eerily like Sean Astin playing Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings? Any takers?
Anyway, to finish off my list, here’s the video – both the original Lonestar music video and one with the Captain Mix audio:
So there we have it – over to you: think I’ve got it mostly right? Or am I way off? Enraged that your favourite track didn’t make the list? Pour forth your admiration/rage in the comments, or vote for your favourite in the poll (see sidebar on homepage).