Worshipped by some, derided by many, power ballads split opinion wherever they are played. Here is my rundown of the greatest 10 to have ever high-kicked their way across the airwaves...
You either like Power Ballads or you don’t. I totally understand if you are in the negative camp; there’s a lot about them that is pretty awful. I think it’s the awfulness that is part of the appeal-the Power Ballad is a change from the norm; it is about that hour of the morning where we stop banging on about the latest band to crawl out of a Clapton toilet, and give into something that is unashamed in its desire to lift your voice in a way that is, and will never be, cool.
Broadly speaking, Power Ballads can be split into two categories- Fistpumpers or Tearjerkers. The Fistpumpers are big, they’ve got their balls out, they’re often-but by no means always- made by men who aren’t afraid to wear their heart on their spandex sleeve. They will have preposterous lyrics, be generally aspirational and ideally have ‘rock’ somewhere in the song title. They don’t hang about- the ideal Fistpumper gets to the chorus within 50 seconds. You should be able to recite the words to the chorus of the Fistpumper the first time you hear it. For the world at large the definitive Fistpumper would probably be ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ by Journey, but for purists it’s been overdone and tainted forever by its association with those Disney horrors. The Fistpumper should live up to its name, it should inspire your arms skywards, your fingers should go from fist to point and back again in the space of an emotive and very loud line about holding out for a hero, turning back time or having a crazy, crazy night.
Power Ballads are about that hour of the morning where we can stop banging on about the latest band to crawl out of a Clapton toilet, and give into something that is unashamed in its desire to lift your voice in a way that is, and will never be, cool.
The Tearjerker is all about emotion; it is driven by love and, more often than not, the loss of it. It will ideally open with tinkling keys, it will not generally arrive at the apex so quickly- It isn’t afraid to build a truly melancholy atmosphere before ripping your heart out with the chorus. The best Tearjerkers are by almost always by women. They should make you want to grab the person next to you, scream in their face that you want them to mend your broken wings, then kiss them on the lips in a way that is not geared towards a future sexual encounter. It is about shared emotion. The ultimate universal Tearjerker is probably ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ and though it is certainly a wonderful, powerful piece of music and a fine entrance to the world of the Tearjerker, there are many that are superior.
For people not so au fait with Power Ballads the list may seem to be missing many songs that you would traditionally associate with the term- no Foreigner, no Whitney, no ‘Purple Rain.’ But this is not a list of the best known Power Ballads, but a list of what I believe to be the best that can qualify under the term. It’s a list to lift souls and cry waterfalls to, to look at your partner, let them know that everything is okay, that you love them and that Meatloaf is a ridiculous man with a heart surely too big for this world.
10: KISS- God Gave Rock And Roll To You
This opens with the chorus, a sure-fire way for a Fistpumper to fire its way into the affections of any Power Ballad aficionado, and deals solely with the issue of rock and roll as Saviour, witness: “You don’t have money or a fancy car/And you’re tired of wishing on a falling star/You’ve gotta put your faith in a loud guitar.” It gets bonus points for being on the soundtrack of Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, though what really sets this apart from the likes of ‘Paradise City’, ‘Hearts On Fire’ et al is its use of the breakdown. Towards the end, sounding like a whisky-soaked Southern preacher, Paul Stanley wails: “I know life can sometimes get rough/And I know life sometimes can be a drag/ But people we have been given a gift and we been given a roll/And that roll’s name is Rock and Roll.” Amen.
9: Chris de Burgh- Borderline
A heady, powerful Tearjerker that weaves the irrevocably moving issue of a soldier facing the reality of going to war, and leaving his girlfriend behind, into a piano line that peaks and troughs. It takes nearly two minutes to get to the chorus but that’s fine- Chris is a master storyteller (see also: ‘Spanish Train’) who peppers his songs with moving social commentary: “But these are only boys/And I will never see the wisdom in a war.” Some of us are simply too wise, Chris.
8: Take That- Never Forget
The most controversial choice on the list- many will doubt it’s suitability for a Power Ballad rundown, but in answer to this I present the facts: It opens with a kids choir, it’s got a chorus with the biggest key change this side of Westlife, and concerns itself with keeping a sense of oneself in the face of life’s challenges. Case closed.
7: John Farnham-The Voice
A genuinely magical song, a calling to arms for all the silent souls across the land: “We’re not going to sit in silence/We’re not going to live in fear/ No-ooo-ooo- N-ooo-ooo.” One of the most uplifting songs on this list, and certainly the only one to make liberal use of bagpipes.
6: Meatloaf- I’d Lie For You (And That’s The Truth)
If ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Want Do That)’ is the Grandaddy of monstrous rock opera, then this is it’s favourite son, the one that got all the good genes and skipped the dodgy hairline. It’s a truly inspiring piece of work and- of course- it’s over 7 minutes long. Attention really should be given to the video, which is one of the most ridiculous things ever committed to celluloid featuring sacred masks, Generals in faux-Soviet ‘taches, gunfights, aeroplane chases, car chases, motorbike chases, horse chases and-the piece de resistance- a white water rapid chase.
5: T’Pau- China In Your Hand
We’re moving into the top 5 now, and with it one of the big boys drops. Somewhere between a Fistpumper and Tearjerker, but don’t let its lack of a definable identity put you off; it’s a stunning achievement. The use of a dodgy metaphor is to always be encouraged in the Power Ballad, and its arguable there is none so stirring as that of your dreams and china crushing in your sweaty palm.
It’s not strong enough for the top 10, but if you were to concoct a preliminary longlist it’s likely the saucy bona-fide Fistpumper ‘Sex Talk’ would find its way into the reckoning.
4: Bonnie Tyler- Holding Out For A Hero
Total Eclipse might be better known but it this driving number that is the most rousing. Propelled throughout by the pound of 80s synth and an ‘ooh ooh ooh ooh, ahh, ahhh’ refrain , it concerns Bonnie’s search for a “street-wise Hercules” to deliver her from her single-life travails. She’s clearly as saucy as she is romantic our Bonnie, as she spouts forth about “racing thunder and rising with the heat.” A Fistpumper for the ages.
3: Celine Dion- Think Twice
Truly a thing of wonder that for a long time was at the very top of this list. Has all the hallmarks of a truly great Tearjerker- a simple title, thematically concerned with losing love, plinky-plonky keys, a “no no no no” breakdown that those in the know look forward to more than anything, and possibly the most moving of couplets in a genre truly blessed with them- “Baby I know it ain’t easy when your soul cries out for a higher ground/’Cos when you’re halfway up, you’re always halfway down.”
2: Jennifer Rush- The Power Of Love
Quite simply, the greatest Tearjerker of all time. Jennifer is clearly a woman not afraid of expressing her emotions, and we are eternally glad she isn’t. In a fitting twist on the standard subject matter of the Tearjerker, “The Power Of Love” concerns itself with love’s zenith, about striving to push oneself into greater depths of love, and about this being unsettling-scary, even- but something you simply have to do. Inspirational. The chorus of “I am your lady/And you are my man” will surely rouse the spirits of all but the grizzliest soul.
1: Heart- Alone
A hero amongst champions, and a song that for years to come will surely shine as the definitive Power Ballad. The key change is incredible, it trumps Never Forget (which is some feat). Part of its enduring power lies in its combination of Fistpumper and Tearjerker. The verses are all Jerker, mournful but deliberate piano, and a decrying of our narrator’s love that has so far gone unrequited. But then, like a train bursting out of a burning tunnel in a Meatloaf video, the power chords kick and what you have instead is a Pumper that whilst essentially gloom-ridden carries with it the spirit of hope. What more could you possibly want?
Follow David on Twitter- @Gobshout
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