The 40 Greatest Power Ballads Playlist
Wave your lighters in the air like you just don't care
What is a power ballad? In its purest, most drenched? Hyper-emotional? Agonising? In short: it’s a ballad with power. That’s the reason why, when assembling this list, we chose KISS’ massive Reason To Live above the less-than-massive Beth; Journey’s Open Arms instead of Don’t Stop Believin’; Bryan Adams’s Heaven in favour of (Everything I Do) I Do It For You. It’s also why Extreme’s More Than Words didn’t make the list at all.
You’d have thought compiling a list of the Top 40 power ballads of all time would’ve been easy. If only. By the end of a marathon judging session the assembled Classic Rock scribes were tearing their hair out. Thankfully, there was plenty to go around – we’d all had 1980s poodle perms especially for the occasion. The atmosphere got more heated than our curlers.
Eventually we boiled down the essential qualities of a power ballad into five key categories.
THE SURGE (also known as THE CRUNCH). Does the song ebb and flow gently, and then suddenly – when you least expect it – erupt with the gush of a tsunami?
THE SOAR. Does the song fly like an eagle, or does it ponce about like a penguin?
SINCERITY. Is the song gut-wrenching? Tear-drenched? Hyper-emotional? Agonising? In short: does it come from the (ideally shattered) heart?
FLUFFINESS. An essential counter-balance to the surge and the soar.
Finally, THE CHEESE. This relates to over-the-top lyrics sung in a pleading, often tormented, manner. It could apply to couplets such as ‘I’m gonna keep on lovin’ you/It’s the only thing I wanna do’, or to exaggerated statements about plummeting to the ground on broken wings, doing it for the glory of love, holding on and never saying goodbye, et cetera.
We diligently applied those criteria to come up with our 40 greatest power ballads. Which explains why there’s no Queen (too theatrical), Michael Bolton (too wimpy) or Celine Dion (too crap).
And no band has more than one entry. That’s because if certain Classic Rock factions had had their way, our list would’ve contained nothing but Toto and REO Speedwagon songs.
Let us know what you think of our selection. If you reckon we’ve made any glaring omissions, please tell us. In the meantime, grab hold of that lighter and hold it proudly aloft.
Hang on to your handkerchiefs. We're going in...
40. Badfinger - Without You (1970)
If you’re only familiar with Harry Nilsson’s version of this band’s song, prepare to be amazed. It’s sparse, haunting and rockier than you might imagine.
Choice lyric: ‘I can’t live/If living is without you’
39. Eric Carmen - All By Myself (1976)
Sweeping and orchestral, what this lacks in oomph it more than makes up for with Carmen’s mega-melancholic vocals. Based on a piece by Russian classical composer Serge Rachmaninoff. Not a lot of people know that.
Choice lyric: ‘I think of all the friends I’ve known/ But when I dial the telephone/Nobody’s home’
38. Bryan Adams - Heaven (1985)
Banish those thoughts of Kevin Costner in tights, being catapulted over a wall – this is the real deal. A classic rough-edged vocal performance from Adams, who sounds believably incredulous when he sings: ‘I’m findin’ it hard to believe we’re in Heaven’. The B-side to this was a tribute to Princess Diana (splutter).
Choice lyric: see above
37. Boston - Amanda (1986)
Sweet and majestic, with powerful guitar- driven choruses, this was a No.1 single in the US but didn’t even chart in the UK. Sometimes we Brits have no class. This track is technically flawless in the finest Boston tradition.
Choice lyric: ‘I don’t want to waste/My whole night through/To say... I’m in love with you’
36. Queensrÿche - Silent Lucidity (1990)
Proof positive that proggers can preen with the best of ’em. Magnificently melodic, Silent Lucidity escalates dramatically after a velvety opening. A stately art-rock ballad – although lyrics about ‘dream control’ and suchlike might be too sci-fi for some tastes.
Choice lyric: ‘I am smiling next to you, in silent lucidity’
35. Winger - Miles Away (1990)
This comes from the Winger album In The Heart Of The Young – which is a prime power ballad title by itself. The wistful Miles Away was adopted as the theme tune by relatives of servicemen involved in the Gulf War. Not that the soldiers over there noticed: they were far too busy keeping their heads down and blasting out Metallica songs at deaf (after the Metallica-on-11 assaults, anyway) Iraqis.
Choice lyric: ‘Sometimes, just for a moment/I reach out, hope you’re still there’
34. Alias - More Than Words Can Say (1990)
Two fewer words and this would have the same title as an Extreme song (the one which, as we said in our introduction, is a ballad without the power). It’s amazing what the addition of a ‘Can’ and a ‘Say’ can do..., assisted by yearning vocals and an arrangement puffier than the Pillsbury Dough boy.
Choice lyric: ‘I need you now/Before I lose my mind’
33. The Darkness - Love Is Only A Feeling (2003)
The Darkness turn the power ballad formula on its head – and Justin Hawkins’s Wordsworthian lyrics are only the half of it. Rather than beginning softly, this kicks off with pounding drums and an All The Young Dudes-style riff. There’s plenty of light and shade, but then the song fizzles out at the end with some soft bouzouki strumming. Typically perverse. Love Is Only A Feeling proves how well The Darkness assimilated their influences and then moulded them into a unique style.
Choice lyric: ‘The state of elation that this unison of hearts achieved/I had seen, I had touched, I had tasted and I truly believed'
32. Quarterflash - Harden My Heart (1982)
Unusually, Quarterflash’s gal vocalist, Rindy Ross, also played the saxophone. Harden My Heart is a finely judged mix of glossy rock and lush synth-pop, and Ms Ross handles the bittersweet lyrics in a husky, soulful style. One for the connoisseurs.
Choice lyric: ‘I’m gonna harden my heart/I’m gonna swallow my tears’
31. Cinderella - Don’t Know What You Got (Til It’s Gone) (1988)
Amazingly this is the only track in our Top 40 to contain a pair of brackets (in its title). Thumping keyboards, tortured vocals, and the biggest chorus in Christendom. What more do you wanna know? When Cinderella played this song live it would often segue into another massive slowie: Nobody’s Fool. It was almost too much for balladkind to bear.
Choice lyric: ‘I hear you calling far away/Tearing through my soul/I just can’t take another day’
30. Warrant - Heaven (1989)
**A halfway decent power ballad, as we’ve already mentioned, often earns big bucks for its composer. It’s surely no coincidence that this supremely slushy effort originally came from an album called Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich. Heaven reached No.2 in the US chart.
**Choice lyric: ‘I don’t need to be the king of the world/As long as I’m the hero of this little girl’
29. Thunder - Love Walked In (1990)
Power balladry with British bulldog spirit. Love Walked In (one of only a few tracks by a British act to make it onto this list) is less glossy and homogenised than many of the songs in this list. It has a huge, strutting chorus, but it is somewhat low on the libido count. Note the lyric: ‘I sleep so much better now I’m not alone.’ Yeah... why enjoy dirty sex when you can have a good snooze instead?
Choice lyric: see above
28. Europe - Carrie (1986)
When Cliff Richard went in search of Carrie he should’ve looked no further than Europe’s The Final Countdown album. Lurking alongside the parp-tatsic title track of that record, the Tempest-uous composition Carrie is pure corn. But America – home of the Jolly Green Giant, let us not forget – loved it, and Carrie reached No.3 in the chart over there.
Choice lyric: ‘Can’t you see it in my eyes/This might be our last goodbye’
27. Toto - I Won’t Hold You Back (1982)
This understated epic is described as ‘one of the all-time best break-up songs’ elsewhere on this page (just over there on the right, in fact). And we’re not going to argue with that. A common theme in a many male-oriented US power ballads is ‘I’m so emotional – love me’. But such pathetic pleading is lost on the subject of Toto’s I Won’t Hold You Back: the girl in question has fucked off, and she ain’t coming back.
Choice lyric: ‘Now you’re gone, I’m really not the same/I guess I held myself to blame’
26. Styx - Lady (1973)
**One of the first-ever power ballads (so now you know some of the people to blame). A track on Styx’s 1973 album Styx II – and later a US Top 10 hit single – Lady begins quietly with wafting keyboards and faint windchime jingles. Dennis DeYoung’s squeaky vocals are something of an acquired taste, but then the all-important ‘crunch’ arrives about halfway through – cue guitar pyrotechnics and a marching rhythm par excellence.
**Choice lyric: ‘You’re my lady of the morning/Love shines in your eyes’
25. Slaughter - Fly To The Angels (1990)
Slaughter were always much mightier than their second-division ‘hair-metal’ tag suggested. Therefore it’s a shame that this flamboyant but touching song first appeared on an album with the crass title of Stick It To Ya. Later, doubtless due to its mention of angels, heaven et cetera, the song took on greater poignancy as a tribute to the band’s guitarist Tim Kelly who died in a car crash in 1998.
Choice lyric: ‘Now when it rains it seems/The sun never shines’
24. Cheap Trick - The Flame (1988)
**A successful power ballad can be a curse as well as a big dollar earner. Record label Epic had doubts about Cheap Trick’s songwriting abilities, and brought in outside writers for 1988’s Lap Of Luxury. The album’s choice track was The Flame. Angst-ridden and appropriately slow- burning, it was composed by the previously unknown team of Bob Mitchell and Nick Graham. The pair made a damn good fist of it, but although The Flame was very successful (a No.1 single in the US) it became Cheap Trick’s albatross. But then there’s no pleasing some people.
**Choice lyric: ‘I’m going crazy, I’m losing sleep/I’m in too far, I’m in way too deep over you’
23. Cher - I Found Someone (1987)
Some might baulk at Cher’s inclusion. “Why not Pat Benatar or Bonnie Tyler instead?” you may ask. Bah! The former Mrs Sonny Bono wipes the floor with such lightweights. Just compare this to the version of the same song by Laura Branigan and you’ll hear just what we mean. Cher is at the height of her faux-metal-babe powers here; her resonant voice transforms this Michael Bolton composition from weak chicken soup into a rich beef stew. I Found Someone is as over-inflated as Cher’s... (Next! – Ed.)
Choice lyric: ‘I found someone/To take away the heartache’
22. Kiss - Reason To Live (1987)
It’s surprising Kiss don’t possess more songs like Reason To Live in their repertoire; Paul Stanley certainly has a prime power-ballad voice (the grunting God Of Thunder admittedly less so). Taken from the hyper- commercial Crazy Nights, this actually got higher in the chart in the UK than in the US (No.33 versus No.64). It hits the spot because it’s uplifting as well as heart-rending. It escalates and lacerates in equal proportions.
Choice lyric: ‘I sailed into dark and endless nights/ And made it alive’
21. Skid Row - I Remember You (1989)
Sebastian Bach turns his get the fuck out! image inside-out on this cheese-packed choon. The lyrics read like an intimate love letter: you can almost hear Seb’s tears cascading from his doe eyes and tumble, tippety-tap-splosh, onto the sodden, ink- stained pages of...
Choice Lyric: ‘I paint a picture of the days gone by/When love went blind and you would make me see’
20. Peter Cetera - Glory Of Love (1986)
No list of power ballads would be complete without mention of a knight in shining armour galloping to a maiden’s rescue. Enter Cetera (one-time vocalist/bassist with the brassy Chicago) on board a steed with a stomach full of sugar lumps... that’s both Pete and the horse. This super-syrupy song – theme to a martial arts movie – is as cloying as Hi-Karate aftershave.
Choice lyric: ‘We’ll live forever/Knowing together that we did it all/For the glory of love’
19. Bad English - When I See You Smile (1989)
Although largely forgotten now, in their day Bad English were arena rockers who crunched as much as they caressed. The band included singer John Waite (ex-Babys) and guitarist Neal Schon (Journey and Santana), and they are on choice form on this delirious anthem written – again – by Diane Warren.
Choice lyric: ‘What a touch of your hand can do/ It’s like nothing that I ever knew’
18. Mr Mister - Broken Wings (1985)
No list of power ballads would be complete without mention of broken wings, either. Unlike Ozzy (see Goodbye To Romance) Mr Mister went one better and made it into the title of a song. Drifting and mellifluous, Broken Wings also has a pulsing undercurrent that prevents it from becoming too wet and simpering.
Choice lyric: ‘You’re half of the flesh and blood/ That makes me whole’
17. Mötley Crüe - Home Sweet Home (1985)
Home Sweet Home was the first time we got to stroke the Crüe’s soft white underbelly. This is a typical tale (à la Kiss’s Beth) of a raddled rocker returning to his loved one after months on tour. When Vince Neil wails ‘I’m on my way/I’m on my way-hee-ay’ the majority of listeners wave their ‘Welcome Back’ flags; a sensible minority rush to bolt their doors.
Choice lyric: ‘Just take this song and you’ll never feel/Left all alone’
16. Foreigner - I_ Want To Know What Love Is_ (1984)
**The sheer omnipresence of this song when it first came out might have weakened its modern-day appeal somewhat. That said, I Want To Know What Love Is still swoops like a bird of prey. And vocalist Lou Gramm revels in his role as lord of the wrings; by the end of the song he’s forlorn, shattered, betrayed, abandoned, distraught. A hollow shell of a man. And he still hasn’t the foggiest idea what love is.
**Choice lyric: ‘In my life there’s been heartache and pain/I don’t know if I can face it again’
15. Asia - The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (1983)
Pomp, circumstance and mush all come together to wonderful effect in this soul- bearing slowie written by Asia vocalist/ bassist John Wetton. Self-pitying lyrically (see below) but then we all like a good wallow, don’t we?
Choice lyric: ‘I saw you standing hand in hand/ And now you come to me, the solitary man’
14. Velvet Revolver - Fall To Pieces (2004)
With this song Velvet Reveolver have come up with a true 21st-century power ballad. Weiland’s hoarse, scorching vocals, Slash’s ding-dong guitar and hugs all round from Duff make Fall To Pieces a suitably overwrought modern- day classic.
Choice Lyric: ‘I keep a journal of memories/ I’m feeling lonely, I can’t breathe’
13. Scorpions - Wind Of Change (1990)
**Whistling is an under-used technique in this sphere of music, and The Scorpions exploit its potential to the max here. The central theme to Wind Of Change may be political rather than smoochy, but that doesn’t make it any the less passionate.
**Choice lyric (for Russian readers): ‘Let your balalaika sing/What my guitar wants to say’
12. Nightranger - Sister Christian (1984)
**With consummate skill Night Ranger rein back their rock-out inclinations by just the right degree, so you stay just on the edge of the pavement as this power ballad pantechnicon rumbles by. (Motoring, indeed.) Sister Christian is a great blend of soft-as-Andrex moments and chest-clobberin’ bravado.
**Choice lyric: ‘You’re motoring/What’s your price for flight?’
11. Ozzy Osbourne - Goodbye To Romance (1980)
Like Whitesnake’s Is This Love, this one has more ham than a pie factory in Melton Mowbray. Goodbye To Romance is a top-notch crowd-swayer, and Ozzy plays the part of the grim weeper to great effect. His vocals as wistful as they are shambolic.
Choice Lyric: ‘I’ve been the king, I’ve been the clown/Now broken wings can’t hold me down’
10. Bon Jovi - Never Say Goodbye (1986)
Ah, the memories. Grown men in spandex and scarves, with ratty hair, crooning about lost loves and busted hearts. That might sound cringe-worthy now, but when Bon Jovi released Slippery When Wet in ’86 they could do no wrong. With Never Say Goodbye and its album sibling Without Love, BJ had the power ballad thing down to an art as fine as the jet-spray from a can of Cossack (or whatever it was they used to sculpt their barnets back in the days). Jon’s vocals teeter just on the right side of twee – he actually gets surprisingly intense on the mid-section passage – and Richie Sambora’s ringing guitar work prevents it from becoming too slushy. The triumphant refrain ‘Together – forever!’ guarantees a Top 10 position.
Choice lyric: ‘Holdin’ on – we got to try/ Holdin’ on to never say goodbye’
9. Def Leppard - Love Bites (1987)
Originally on Def Leppard’s all-conquering Hysteria album, this song emerged in the same year as Whitesnake’s Is This Love. Both songs were plainly tailored for the US market, where power ballads have the greatest resonance. The gambit paid off: Love Bites made it all the way to the top spot in the States when it was released as a single in summer 1988. Producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange coaxes a remarkably fine vocal performance out of Joe Elliott on Love Bites. The paranoia in the opening lines is palpable: ‘When you make love, do you look in the mirror? Who do you think of? Does he look like me?’ The call-and- response chorus is impeccable. And, ingeniously and unusually, the song ends on a low spot: when love bites, warns Elliott, ‘it will be hell’. Tell us about it. We’ve still got the teeth marks.
Choice lyric: see above
8. Reo Speedwagon - Can’t Fight This Feeling (1984)
**In truth we could have included any one of several contenders from REO Speedwagon. Like Keep On Loving You ad infinitum, Can’t Fight This Feeling presses all the right buttons on the power ballad beverage machine... and delivers a hot chocolate with six sugars and a Cadbury’s Flake on top. As sweet and sticky as you like. Singer Kevin Cronin sounds somewhat sappy but so what – we’re not talking extreme-metal deathcore here.
**Choice lyric: ‘My life has been such a whirlwind since I saw you/I’ve been running round in circles in my mind’
7. Whitesnake - Is This Love (1987)
Power balladry with added ham. This monster from Whitesnake’s 1987 album begins slowly and throbbingly, and David Coverdale’s vibrato (‘I should have known better/ Than to let you go al-o-O-O-O-o-ne’) is weirdly compulsive. Like the bulge in Dave’s underpants, this song just grows and grows. By the end he’s got an erection tall enough to ride one of the scariest rides at Alton Towers without a parent. That said, Is This Love is more sentimental than sleazy. And that tinkle-tinkle repeat phrase on the keyboard is genius.
Choice lyric: ‘I need you by my side/To tell me it’s alright/Cos I don’t think I can take any more’
6. Heart - Alone (1987)
This song was written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, who would go on to write Eternal Flame, The Bangles’ balladic blockbuster. For Heart, the songwriting duo made a key lyrical change from their original version of Alone. They altered the line in the chorus ‘I always fared well on my own’ to ‘Til now, I always got by on my own’ – massively more emotive. This giant of a song reached No.1 in the States and No.3 in the UK. Ann Wilson’s voice goes stratospheric as she relates the tale of a confirmed singleton who suddenly finds true love. But there’s a twist: ‘The secret is still my own’. (In other words, whoever-he-is is oblivious to her affections). Giving a double meaning to the title, Ann later asks: ‘How do I get you alone?’ What fantastic songwriting.
Choice lyric: ‘I never really cared until I met you/ And now it chills me to the bone’
5. Meat Loaf - Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad (1978)
Most of Meat Loaf’s output is too histrionic for consideration here. In this genre, misty-eyed restraint is just as important as brazen outpourings of emotion. But the Loaf rises to the occasion on Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad. His tremulous voice sounds 100 per cent genuine, and he delivers Jim Steinman’s flamboyant lyrics like someone who has a gun to his head. But again, there’s a neat twist: despite all his whimpering about wanting her and needing her, Meat says there’s no way he’s ever going to love her. Hence the song title.
Choice lyric: ‘You’ve been cold to me for so long/I’m cryin’ icicles instead of tears’
4. Guns N’ Roses - November Rain (1991)
Guns achieved a delicate balance with November Rain: it’s beautiful without being sappy, tormented without being wrist-slashing. Away from urging his enemies to get in the fucking ring, Axl Rose was adept at writing some melting romantic poetry. With the rest of GN’R for once in synch with his vision, and with one of those guitar solos from Slash, Axl’s song ebbs and flows, bobs and weaves, ducks and dives... It’s as sad and brittle as holding a dead bird in your hand. (And remember the accompanying video depicting Stephanie Seymour’s funeral? Blub!)
Choice lyric: ‘It’s hard to hold a candle/In the cold November rain’
3. Journey - Open Arms (1982)
**In the US, Journey were the undisputed sultans of the surge-athon (this song reached No.2 over there). But with typical British reserve we found it difficult to embrace a band that advocated plenty of lovin’, touchin’ ’n’ squeezin’ among their fans. Open Arms has a theme in common with the top two in our chart: its schmaltz is offset by blistering, bleeding-heart vocals (in this case by the incomparable Steve Perry).
**Choice lyric: ‘We sailed on together/We drifted apart/And here you are by my side’
2. Poison - Every Rose Has Its Thorn (1989)
Poison had previously shown few signs of having a soft centre (Talk Dirty To Me, anyone?) so when they released the fragile EveryRose Has Its Thorn it shocked the hell out of people. A suitably barbed composition, this is singer Bret Michaels’s finest hour. His semi-tearful display (and especially his pronunciation of ‘cowboy’ as ‘kee-arh-b-hoy’) elevates this sad, sad song into the fluffiest echelons of power ballad-dom. Even bad boys with big hair get the blues.
Choice lyric: ‘Instead of making love... we both made our separate ways’
1. Aerosmith - I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing (1998)
Aerosmith toyed with the power ballad formula as early as 1973 with the floaty Dream On. 25 years later, with the help of composer Diane Warren and exposure in the film Armageddon, I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing hit No1. in the US and No.4 in the UK. It’s a poignant epic characterised by one of Steven Tyler’s most impassioned performances. He takes an essentially wimpy song and transforms it into one of soul-searing grandeur via some feral vocal pyrotechnics (‘Forever, forever... and E-E-E-EVER!’). Ms Warren – more at home with the likes of Celine Dion and Whitney Houston – must’ve been awestruck by this interpretation of her song. In literary terms, the Boys From Boston transformed a chaste romantic novel into a steamy bodice-ripper.
Choice lyric: ‘Cos even when I dream of you/ The sweetest dream will never do’
Bonus: The whole lot, as a single playlist.