The biggest difference between the heavy metal of today and heavy metal during the glory days of the 1980s is that today it is rife with division. Mainstream versus underground. “Extreme” versus “traditional.” Rigid versus experimental. Cartoonishly vulgar versus socially conscious. Those who like screamed vocals versus those who don’t understand why bands don’t sing anymore. Thirty-five years ago, it was a lot simpler. Venom, Celtic Frost, and Bathory were metal. Metallica, Slayer, and Mercyful Fate were metal. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Ozzy Osbourne were metal. And Def Leppard, Ratt, and Mötley Crüe were metal.
If any geezer who witnessed the rise of heavy metal in the ’80s boasts about buying early classic underground albums and shrugs off the pop side of the genre, chances are he’s lying through his grizzled teeth. If you owned a Slayer tape in 1984, you probably had Ratt’s Out Of The Cellar as well. Back then, the excitement of what was happening in the underground and mainstream transcended silly self-imposed boundaries. The evolution of metal in the ’80s was unlike anything the genre has experienced since, and back then the fans drank it all in. As a teen, if you had six bucks burning a hole in your pocket, you could take a chance on something you saw on a record store shelf and the odds were good that what you were going to hear was extraordinary. One day you might go for the tape with the crudely illustrated pentagram and skulls; the next you’d try out something flashier and glam-oriented. And for a while in the ’80s, before saturation peaked and its popularity reached its apex, the pop side of metal matched the underground step for step.
Don’t call it “hair metal.” Don’t call it “glam metal.” Although the coifs were big back then — hell, James Hetfield’s bleached ‘do was sloppily teased — and the spandex, glitter, and women’s makeup were used to the hilt, putting image over music does the music a great disservice. As trite as a lot of those bands were — and many have seen The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years by now — there was a lot of musical smarts on display, and in several cases, innovation.
The “pop metal” presented here focuses exclusively on how bands in the ’80s were able to juxtapose the core characteristics of heavy metal with elements of pop music. In essence, a marriage between masculine sounds and feminine sounds, which in turn plays into the androgyny of bands’ images back then. Guitars and drums sounded muscular, singers were brash and flamboyant, but at the same time there was openness to melody. Consequently, the very best pop metal found that perfect balance between riffs and melody.
Although this piece focuses on pop metal’s peak decade, from the beginning of 1982 through 1991, its roots, of course, trace back to a decade prior. As if a response to the robust sounds of heavy metal innovators like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Uriah Heep, young bands in the ’70s started to incorporate a more upbeat, energetic feeling. Following in the footsteps of Alice Cooper, T. Rex, and David Bowie, bands like Montrose, Blue Öyster Cult, and KISS put their own decidedly American spin on harder-edged rock and heavy metal. AC/DC and Thin Lizzy brought their own brands of energy, force, and nuance to the sound. However, the real tipping point was when Van Halen released their seminal debut album in 1978. It suddenly made that style even flashier, more creative, and more energetic than ever before, which in turn transformed Los Angeles into that musical style’s ground zero. Specifically, the Sunset Strip of West Hollywood became the hub, as earnest young bands would compete among each other for the attention of club owners, and record label reps, and girls — and not necessarily in that order.
Compiling a definitive list of the very best tracks from the pop metal era was no easy task, and a lot of excellent music had to be left out. Classic tracks by Dio, W.A.S.P., Stryper, Y&T, Badlands, Trixter, Warrant, Slaughter, Dangerous Toys, Great White, Rough Cutt, and more missed the cut, but in the end what you’ll discover is a collection of 36 songs that best exemplified what pop metal was all about. In the end, this music was about loving life and having fun, and in 2017, especially, it’s important to remember to have fun — or at the very least smile once in a while.
36. Enuff Z’Nuff – “Fly High Michelle” (1989)
What a breath of fresh air Enuff Z’Nuff were in 1989. They might have been lumped in with the hair metal trend — and looking at their old videos, you can see why — but they actually had more in common with Big Star and Cheap Trick in how they smartly blended elements of the Beatles and psychedelic rock with flashy hard rock. Arriving at the peak of the sleaze rock wave of metal’s pop era, the Chicago band was a little too rosy-hued for what a lot of rock fans were after, however, “Fly High Michelle” remains a beautiful anomaly. The Chicago band’s Chilton-meets-Lennon audacity works so well on this track, showing the artful potential of pop metal that, sadly, too few artists attempted.
35. Poison – “Fallen Angel” (1988)
Poison were the nice boys of the Sunset Strip glam scene. Their music was more lightweight, more positive, and more romantic than the rest of their peers, but when it worked, like on 1988’s “Fallen Angel,” it was proof they were far more talented than many gave them credit for. A more compassionate response to the seamy “Welcome To The Jungle,” “Fallen Angel” is a sweet little character sketch by Bret Michaels (“Where’s the girl I knew a year ago?”) made all the more poignant by C.C. Deville’s effervescent guitar work. While “Talk Dirty To Me” and “Nothin’ But A Good Time” were full-on expertly executed party rock, this track showed a little heart.
34. Faster Pussycat – “Bathroom Wall” (1987)
Faster Pussycat’s 1987 debut album is one of the great joys of the sleaze rock wave, a record that evoked everything from Aerosmith, to the Stones, to Johnny Thunders. “Bathroom Wall” was the big single, and rightfully so, an ebullient New York Dolls homage that’s pure gutter punk from the start. What better premise for a sleaze rock anthem than a singer hooking up with a girl (or guy) thanks to some graffiti in a sketchy stall?
33. Europe – “The Final Countdown” (1986)
Featuring one of the silliest synth intros in rock history, “The Final Countdown” was further proof that silly can go a long, long way in heavy metal. Whether it was Joey Tempest rhyming “Venus” with “seen us” or the song’s bouncy gallop, it proved too irresistible on a global scale to the point where its worldwide ubiquity became truly surreal by the summer of 1986. 30 years later, it’s still embedded in the pop culture consciousness, whether ironic or sincere.
32. Black ‘N Blue – “Miss Mystery” (1985)
Portland band Black ‘N Blue is one of many American metal bands in the 1980s that missed that brass ring despite putting out quality music. After being included on 1982’s epochal Metal Massacre demo compilation alongside Metallica and Ratt, and putting out a very good 1984 debut produced by Gene Simmons, 1985’s Without Love took a somewhat softer approach with producer Bruce Fairbairn. While the album was a flop, it did yield a magical little tune called “Miss Mystery,” which deftly walks the line between power ballad and hard rocker. Co-written by Bryan Adams collaborator Jim Vallance, it strips away the usual braggadocio of the metal scene, revealing a little eloquence and soul underneath the spandex and Aqua Net.
31. Love/Hate – “Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?” (1990)
Love/Hate was a total anomaly in the LA glam scene in the late ’80s in that they were a little more musically adventurous than the usual sleaze rock crowd. Sure, their 1990 debut album Blackout In The Red Room dabbled in cock rock (who can forget the genuinely creepy “Rock Queen”) but it was redeemed by a bevy of creative moments, the best of which being the minor hit “Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?” Featuring cornball slap-bass (that ripped off then-fashionable Red Hot Chili Peppers) and a crazed rap delivery by singer Jizzy Pearl, the song works because of its bluntly honest lyrics and that big payoff in the chorus.
30. KISS – “Lick It Up” (1983)
The mid-’80s were a weird time for KISS as they tried desperately to redefine their image and music, and while their output from this period is largely ignored today, more than a few tracks have stood the test of time. Guitarist Vinnie Vincent was a huge reason 1983’s Lick It Up worked so well and the title track was a perfect example, built around the simplest riff imaginable, eventually echoing the chorus melody. The song is pure Paul Stanley smarm, and wonderfully so, as his blunt ode to oral gratification is made, erm, easy to swallow by the undeniable hook created by him and Vincent.
29. Lita Ford – “Kiss Me Deadly” (1988)
While Joan Jett wasted no time launching a successful solo career in the wake of the breakup of the Runaways, her former bandmate Lita Ford took longer to find her voice. Ford fell in with the Sunset Strip crowd in the early ’80s and her early material reflects that look and sound, albeit a little awkwardly. It took four years for a proper follow-up to 1984’s Dancin’ On The Edge to arrive (an album produced by her then-boyfriend Tony Iommi was scrapped), but thanks to new manager Sharon Osbourne and Blondie-producer Mike Chapman the sleek “Kiss Me Deadly” took off as soon as it was released in early 1988. It remains the definitive snapshot of Ford’s persona at the time — in your face, likeable, and bridging rock, metal, and pop with deft expertise.
28. Night Ranger – “When You Close Your Eyes” (1983)
Night Ranger’s 1983 album Midnight Madness will always be remembered for the masterful power ballad “Sister Christian,” but “When You Close Your Eyes” is the best distillation of the San Francisco band’s sound. Very much like Journey, they combined pop songwriting, overdriven metal guitar, and sleek synthesizers into a high-gloss sound. What set Night Ranger apart was their use of dual lead singers — bassist Jack Blades and drummer Kelly Keagy — and their interplay, backed by Brad Gillis’ nimble but restrained lead fills, altogether making this upbeat track an absolute charmer.
27. Extreme – “Get The Funk Out” (1990)
Metal bands had been tinkering with funk as the ’80s went on, and this memorable track from Extreme’s second album remains far and away the best moment. Not only does Nuno Bettencourt’s guitar work effortlessly alternate from ’80s shred and ’70s shred, but “Get The Funk Out” swings hard. It would be nothing without the rhythm section of Pat Badger and Paul Geary, as the duo makes damn sure that there are as many butts shaking as there are heads banging.
26. Cinderella – “Gyspy Road” (1988)
After their 1986 breakthrough debut Night Songs, which offered a very fun mix of party anthems and a tantalizing hint of gothic rock, 1988’s Long Cold Winter was a startling change in direction, as singer/songwriter Tom Kiefer started to explore his love for blues rock. More .33 Special than AC/DC, the opening riff of the shamelessly effervescent “Gypsy Road” bursts with Southern rock life and doesn’t feel at all contrived. At its best, pop metal was celebratory, and few songs from the era exuded as much pure joy as this track does.
25. Autograph – “Turn Up The Radio” (1984)
No question, Autograph owed their record deal to David Lee Roth, as drummer Keni Richards’ friendship with Roth led to their touring with Van Halen and subsequent signing with RCA. However, “Turn Up The Radio” became a smash in late 1984 thanks to its blend of party metal and rock ‘n’ roll hooks. Bolstered by a sensational, innovative solo by guitarist Steve Lynch and a bevy of shout-along lines (“Daytime, nighttime, things go better with rock!”) the single was emblematic of rock in 1984: celebratory, boisterous, and extremely catchy.
24. Winger – “Seventeen” (1988)
While it’s hard not to get over the sleaze factor of Winger’s breakthrough single from 1988, from a musical standpoint it’s a marvel. Four minutes of tightly performed glam metal, hard rock, funk, jazz fusion, and progressive rock, “Seventeen” moves, shifts, and jives away with nimble grace, channeling Funkadelic one moment and Van Halen the next. With Dixie Dregs drummer Rod Morgenstein and young guitar whiz Reb Beach, bassist and singer Kip Winger puts enough glam showmanship in his vocal performance to make it palatable for young rock listeners at the time. With a video that put Kip’s photogenic mug front and center, the kids bought into it — unbeknownst that they were dancing in the high school gym to some first-rate progressive metal.
23. Ozzy Osbourne – “Shot In The Dark” (1986)
The smartest thing Sharon Osbourne did in 1986 was to have her husband Ozzy liven up a very middling album with a cover of “Shot In The Dark,” originally recorded by his bassist Phil Soussan’s old band Wildlife. Bolstered by Jake E. Lee’s flashy guitar work and a very affecting vocal performance by Ozzy, it was the one moment on The Ultimate Sin that approached the greatness of Ozzy’s first two solo albums, a moment where Ozzy went pop and succeeded mightily.
22. Hanoi Rocks – “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” (1984)
Hanoi Rocks should have been huge. In fact, the Finnish band was on the brink of breaking big into the American market when drummer Razzle was killed in a drunk driving incident with Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil at the wheel in December 1984. Produced by Bob Ezrin, their fifth album Two Steps From The Move was a boisterous blast of New York Dolls-derived glam metal. “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” combined murky subject matter (substance abuse) with a gloriously upbeat groove, led by Michael Moore’s menacing growl. The band imploded shortly after Razzle’s death, sadly relegated to footnote status while an unrepentant Neil and company coasted to global fame.
21. Dokken – “In My Dreams” (1985)
Dokken’s singles discography in the ’80s rivals that of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, but while their sterling run of music that decade put them on the cusp of the big time, their commercial success was only moderate at best. What made Dokken so great was the brilliant, dysfunctional dynamic between singer Don Dokken and shredder extraordinaire George Lynch, and the best moments achieve an impeccable balance between vocal melody and virtuosic guitar work. 1985’s “In My Dreams” is the band’s high water mark, the best example of that sensitive/savage give-and-take. The vocal harmonies rival the best work by Scorpions, while Lynch’s solo, delivered at blinding speed, is simply astonishing, flashy yet ever mindful of serving the song.
20. David Lee Roth – “Yankee Rose” (1986)
After his well-publicized departure from Van Halen in 1985, David Lee Roth went all glitz on his debut solo full-length. With former Alcatrazz/Zappa whiz Steve Vai on guitar and the equally fleet-fingered Billy Sheehan on bass, “Yankee Rose” was an astounding opening salvo. As good as the track’s hook is (“Bright lights!/ City lights”), the call-and response between Roth and Vai’s guitar is a stroke of genius, one of the greatest guitar moments of the decade. While Van Halen played it relatively safe on the underrated 5150, Roth was showing an experimental side in 1986, discovering a sound that perfectly matched his “Diamond Dave” persona.
19. Def Leppard – “Animal” (1987)
Of all 12 tracks on Def Leppard’s 1987 masterpiece Hysteria, “Animal” is the most sublime. Everything about it is immaculate: those multiple-part harmonies, the drum sound, the layering of guitar harmonies and drones, the nimble guitar work on the bridges, and that swaggering solo break. Few knew their way around a vocal hook as well as Def Leppard and Mutt Lange did back then and Joe Elliott leads the way, putting some humanity into a track that would have otherwise felt sterile. While the single stalled in America — it’s important to remember that Hysteria was regarded as a flop before “Pour Some Sugar On Me” blew things sky-high in April 1988 – its craftsmanship was not lost on UK audiences, as “Animal” was the band’s long-overdue chart breakthrough in their home country.
18. Bon Jovi – “You Give Love A Bad Name” (1986)
After flirting with stardom on their first two albums, hard-working Jersey band Bon Jovi swung for the fences on album number three, collaborating with producer Bruce Fairbairn. While Fairbairn’s approach on Slippery When Wet was exactly the same high-gloss pop rock that he helped mold for Canadian bands Prism, Loverboy, and Honeymoon Suite, the combination of Bon Jovi’s monstrous hooks, Richie Sambora’s flashy guitar work, and Fairbairn’s sound was perfectly timed for the summer of 1986. Boasting an irresistible opening line (go ahead, sing it out) “You Give Love A Bad Name” succeeded where “Runaway” and “In And Out Of The Love” missed the mark. Aided by their poodle-haired looks and a camera-mugging video, Bon Jovi was seen to many as an overnight sensation. But for those in the know, it was a long time coming and certainly well-earned.
17. Quiet Riot – “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)” (1983)
Quiet Riot’s 1983 cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize” was the Los Angeles band’s breakthrough — as well as the moment that catapulted heavy metal into the American mainstream consciousness — but the title track from Metal Health cannot be overlooked. Compared to Def Leppard, the other big metal crossover success of 1983, this was so much heavier, led by a menacing opening riff perfectly equaled by the dominating presence of singer Kevin DuBrow. Featuring production by Spencer Proffer that didn’t soften the song’s edge one bit, the powerful “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)” was a new generation’s initiation into the exciting realm of heavy metal in the ’80s.
16. King’s X – “Over My Head” (1989)
Metal had not had a musical moment quite like “Over My Head,” before or since. Combining hard-driving riffs, progressive rock creativity, and a huge gospel influence, Houston trio King’s X struck gold on this standout track from the classic 1989 album Gretchen Goes To Nebraska. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll spiritual with wicked shredding as Doug Pinnick testifys to his listeners in a powerhouse vocal performance. Just abstract enough to leave its meaning open to interpretation, it’s a metal track that unifies listeners with its open-mindedness, positivity, and ideas.
15. Twisted Sister – “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (1984)
There aren’t many songs in the popular music canon where a drum beat is the hook. As soon as you hear that clunky yet funky drum fill and cowbell intro on “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” you know exactly what song it is. Historically, it’s important to remember Twisted Sister as a crucial bridge between the new wave of British heavy metal and the American heavy metal explosion, as their role as innovators is often overlooked. They knew a good rock ‘n’ roll tune as well, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is cut from the same cloth as Alice Cooper, the Dictators, and the New York Dolls from the previous decade. Led by a wonderfully sneering Dee Snider, these five dirtbags from Long Island barged their way into the teen zeitgeist with their unforgettable anthem and its energy is just as palpable now as it was in the spring of 1984.
14. Guns N’ Roses – “Welcome To The Jungle” (1987)
Although Appetite For Destruction was every bit as contrived as every other Sunset Strip album before, the big difference was that Guns N’ Roses were more convincing than anyone. “Welcome To The Jungle” remains a perfect evocation of 1980s Hollywood sleaze, tapping into the darkness that self-professed outlaws Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P. could only hint at. It is gritty, mean, and unflinching, but most importantly, it is phenomenally catchy. From Slash’s descent-into-hell intro, to that wicked, wicked serpentine groove that out-Aerosmiths Aerosmith, and Axl’s idiosyncratic but instantly memorable vocal delivery — it’s an insidious opening salvo on the most explosive rock/metal album of 1987.
13. Whitesnake – “Still Of The Night” (1987)
From 1978 through 1982, Whitesnake was a very good (albeit archaic-sounding) heavy blues act led by former Deep Purple singer David Coverdale and guitarists Micky Moody and Bernie Marsden. Things changed when Coverdale completely reworked the band’s sound, giving it a more contemporary hard rock sound thanks to the inclusion of flashy young guitarist John Sykes, formerly of Thin Lizzy and Tygers Of Pan Tang. The partnership hit paydirt in 1987 with Whitesnake’s self-titled seventh album, and while the updated rendition of Whitesnake’s 1982 single “Here I Go Again” was their biggest hit, it was “Still Of The Night” that made the big impression among the metal crowd. Featuring a slithering lead riff by Sykes and some brilliant use of stops and starts, it’s pure blues rock in the tradition of early Whitesnake and Led Zeppelin and Cream before that, with an inspired keyboard break that adds heightened drama to the song. Coverdale is in fine form, vamping lecherously as he loves to do, but it’s Sykes who carries it with his mix of flamboyance and grit. Sykes would be long gone by the album’s release, as Coverdale underwent another band/image makeover, sporting moussed and highlighted hair and an all-star backing band. While Coverdale would ride that wave of well-earned fame over the next few years, Whitesnake would never equal what he and Sykes pulled off.
12. Skid Row – “18 And Life” (1989)
While many forget just how great of a heavy metal band Skid Row could be, there’s no question their 1988 debut album featured some phenomenal pop metal moments. Much like Bon Jovi at the time, the New Jersey band played the Springsteen card on the blue-collar ballad “18 And Life,” but what put the song over the top were the vocal skills of a Canadian. Sebastian Bach was an up-and-comer in the Toronto metal scene throughout the ’80s, and with Skid Row he had finally found the perfect collaborators. With his startling vocal range, his ability to convey emotion, and his impeccable enunciation, Bach brought element of theatricality that so many similar bands lacked. His sensational performance on the melancholic and beautiful “18 And Life” is a gigantic reason why it is by far Skid Row’s most popular song.
11. Mötley Crüe – “Home Sweet Home” (1985)
While “Wild Side” and “Too Young To Fall In Love” are Mötley Crüe’s best moments, “Home Sweet Home” is their best moment when metal and pop found a perfect balance. This 1985 single was not the first power ballad of its kind, but it set the template for pop metal for the rest of the decade, from its overt sentimentality to its “heroic road warrior” music video (most were directed by Wayne Isham). The way it shifts from Tommy Lee’s tender piano intro to that crashing power chord is perfect while the glorious execution of heavy metal dynamics and Mick Mars’ towering solo adds just the right amount of darkness to keep such a saccharine song from getting too syrupy.
10. Kix – “Cold Blood” (1988)
Throughout the ’80s, Maryland band Kix showed an incredible work ethic, but their efforts never translated into album sales. Then, in 1988, they hit paydirt with their fourth album Blow My Fuse, which connected with a large audience thanks to some contagious, boisterous barroom rock ‘n’ roll. “Cold Blood” tapped into the Crüe/GNR sleaze sound with its slithering, bluesy guitar fills, but its melodic chorus strips away the menace and cranks up the fun. Kix’s success was fleeting but very deserved, and “Cold Blood” was one of the brightest moments of the pop metal era.
9. Judas Priest – “Turbo Lover” (1986)
Judas Priest’s 1986 album Turbo was a divisive record, opting for a more contemporary rock sound and embracing synthesizers, but in retrospect it’s one of the smartest albums of their storied career, rife with sly experimentation. A monstrous single for the band, “Turbo Lover” incorporates a motorik beat lifted straight out of Kraftwerk and brilliantly utilizes the Roland GR-700 guitar synthesizer, making what would otherwise have been a rather boring track with hackneyed lyrical metaphors (“Wrapped in horsepower/ Driving into fury”) into a spellbinding, atmospheric experience. For all the initial detractors, it has since become one of the most popular songs in Judas Priest’s discography.
8. Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (1987)
The greatest album of sleazy, badass rock ‘n’ roll since Exile On Main St., Appetite For Destruction also had plenty of soul and by far the best example of that is this oddly sweet little ballad buried deep on side two. What starts off as sounding cornball and overly sentimental winds up taking the listener on a journey from brightness to darkness, pop slowly giving way to gutter-level metal. There are so many memorable moments: Slash’s cornball intro, initially done as an exercise. Duff McKagan’s upper-register bass melody, a little derivative of Peter Hook from New Order. A beat too brisk to be a power ballad. Axl’s disarmingly sweet lyrics dedicated to Erin Everly, his girlfriend at the time. That key change from F-sharp major to E-flat minor. The single greatest hard rock guitar solo of the ’80s. A moment of doubt: “Where do we go now?” Some astonishing interplay between Axl and Slash. An ending that’s uncertain, and surprisingly downcast. A musical legacy defined in four seconds shy of six minutes.
7. Alice Cooper – “Poison” (1989)
After a pair of reputable comeback albums in the late ’80s that focused on the robust, heavy metal side of his oeuvre, Alice Cooper revisited the glam ‘n’ sleaze of Billion Dollar Babies on 1989’s Trash. Co-written with ace songwriter Desmond Child, “Poison” was Coop’s ’80s peak and a global smash thanks to a chorus that exuded menace and sensitivity, building intensity until it bursts into a climactic line underscored by rich backing vocals. If there’s one thing Child knew it was economy, and the simple language of “Poison” (“Your skin/ So wet/ Black lace /On sweat”) leaves an indelible impression to this day.
6. Aldo Nova – “Fantasy” (1982)
Pre-dating the breakthroughs of Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Night Ranger by a year, Canadian singer-songwriter Aldo Nova honed the ’80s pop metal template, which combined the swagger of Van Halen and Montrose with the keyboard-driven rock of Journey and Loverboy. A portrait of ’80s excess, it’s part cautionary tale, part celebration (“Feels all right/ Powder pleasure in your nose tonight”), boasting a sharp riff accentuated by a brilliant descending twin guitar harmony that mirrors that downward spiral. The man knew what he was doing, because the public listened: “Fantasy” cracked the US Top 30 and his self-titled debut album went double platinum.
5. Scorpions – “Rock You Like A Hurricane” (1984)
One of the great things about Scorpions is how singer Klaus Meine, through his middling grasp of the English language, could come up with the most brilliant, memorable nonsensical lines that a native English speaker could never come up with. 1984’s absurdly titled global smash “Rock You Like A Hurricane” is peak Klaus Meine, but also peak Scorps. They’d been tinkering with mainstream-friendly rock on several albums after spending of the ’70s breaking new ground in heavy metal, and “Hurricane” was the perfect marriage of heaviness and melody. Rudy Schenker’s rhythm riff is authoritative, Matthias Jabs’ lead fills are timeless, and Meine is all over the song, singing about hungry wolves and purring kitties that “scratch ma skin.” It makes absolutely no sense, but sounds phenomenal. Dieter Dierks’ digital production was groundbreaking at the time, and 33 years later sounds as badass as it ever did.
4. Ratt – “Round And Round” (1984)
Ratt were so on top of their game from 1983 to 1986 — yielding three albums that remain high watermarks of the Sunset Strip scene — that too many tracks to mention would qualify for this list. However, “Round And Round” is the easy top choice, a wicked song with nonsensical lyrics featuring a twin guitar attack that rivals Judas Priest. The riffs by Warren DeMartini and Robbin Crosby are razor sharp (their tandem solo is a thing of beauty), bassist Juan Croucier adds richness to the song with his distinct, funky bassline, and Stephen Pearcy sneers like the arrogant pretty-boy that he was. “Round And Round” is pure American swagger, arrogant and brash, and not only one of pop metal’s finest moments, but peak heavy metal circa 1984 as well.
3. Van Halen – “Jump” (1984)
Metal fans might grumble that “Panama” is the definitive Van Halen moment from the 1984 album, but the impact of “Jump” in late-’83 was colossal. The deviation was stunning: here was the ultimate American guitar rock band, with the ultimate American guitar god, doing a complete about-face and delivering a song that was 90% keyboards. And the end result was, and still is, glorious. Eddie Van Halen’s incessant riff on his Oberheim OB-Xa never leaves your head after you hear it for the first time, and David Lee Roth sounds his most charismatic since the band’s 1978 debut. Along with Alex Van Halen’s most restrained drumming to date and just enough guitar overdubs to keep the song grounded, “Jump” is a perfect encapsulation of rock ‘n’ roll energy and resounding proof to stodgy rock fans that keyboards can convey that energy just as well as an electric guitar can.
2. White Lion – “Wait” (1987)
When most people think of White Lion, they’ll likely remember singer Mike Tramp, whose boyish voice and good looks helped the New York City band break into the mainstream in 1988. However, the biggest reason White Lion broke through that year was the songwriting expertise of guitarist Vito Bratta. At his best, his knack for accentuating hooks with creative guitar work was unparalleled, and “Wait” from the 1987 album Pride is a masterpiece. Bratta allows Tramp to lead the way, making him the focal point from the very start, accompanying the verses with a playful, Van Halen-esque riff pattern. By the bridge, though, the power builds as acoustic and electric guitar interweave with Tramp singing plaintively, “So if you go away/ I know that I will follow/ ‘Cause there’s a place inside my heart that tells me/ ‘Hold out.’” After some menacing palm-mutes by Bratta, the song lets the light in again for the chorus — a glittering burst of vocal harmonies thats beauty is stunning. A lead guitarist whose taste and restraint is astonishing for the genre he was in, Bratta pulls off a dexterous, graceful, and emotive solo that flits around the rhythm track like a butterfly. It’s an absolute shame the Staten Island native stopped releasing music in 1992, but the mark he made with White Lion is indelible.
1. Def Leppard – “Photograph” (1983)
“Photograph” might be one of the earlier metal/pop crossover successes of the era, but it is still, bar none, the most perfect example of what this form of music was all about. The first single off Def Leppard’s epochal 1983 album Pyromania, it is an ingenious push-and-pull between muscular, riff-oriented heavy metal and pristine pop sensibility. It made some boys and girls want to be them, and it made some boys and girls want to do them. A rather simple little meditation on a photo of Marilyn Monroe, producer Mutt Lange shows his incredible talents, molding the track into something that could galvanize a stadium yet allow for incredible nuance on record. At first the song is all about swagger with Steve Clark’s biting opening riff underscoring Joe Elliot’s memorable entrance: “I’m out of luck/ Out of love/ Got a photograph/ Picture of.” On paper, those lyrics are awkward. But on record, it is instantly memorable, and the song steadily builds momentum as it charges towards the chorus. That’s where the brilliance of the songwriting and production kicks in, though. Just when you expect the chorus to explode after all that building tension, it does an about-face: all distortion in the guitars vanishes in favor of chiming melodies, and the title is sung tenderly by lushly arranged multi-part harmonies. “Photograph” set the standard for the next decade, and while a bevy of great music tried to live up to its example, as you’ve just read, nothing quite measured up to Def Leppard’s brightest moment.
Listen to our ’80s Pop Metal Ultimate Playlist in full below: