Top Ten Power Ballads
f you helmed a hard rock outfit from the years 1983 to 1991 inclusive, the rule for your first two singles was inviolate: you slay 'em with your rocker, then you woo 'em with your weeper. "Nobody's Fool" flowed seamlessly into "Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)". "18 and Life" set up "I Remember You" like Dino did Jerry. Heckfire, Extreme knew no one would give a shit about "Hole Hearted" in two months, but laws serve us: "More Than Words" had to wait. But what happened? Loverboy knows: Nirvana happened. Two albums with nary a power ballad? The band tried to make nice to their forebears with their all-ballad album Unplugged in New York, but the damage was done. Now we (read: I) get thrown the ballads like so much table scraps. But we make do. We make do.
10. Man Man, “Gold Teeth”
Lodged in the carnivalia of their 2004 debut The Man in the Blue Turban With a Face is this tinkling snowglobe. Coming on grave with dusky keys and bells, lead beardo Honus Honus croaks about what ELO would term an “evil woman,” one whose “hips are a warm sarcophagus.” The charmingly cocked imagery doesn’t end there. “And I want her to know,” goes the serpentine chorus, “that my heart ain’t carved of bone / And I want her to know / That my heart ain’t a bar of soap.” Brilliant. Unrestrained by formula, Man Man later dollops on the gang chants and clarinet, resulting in a witch-haunted ballad even more ambitious than, say, Styx’s “Grove of Eglantine.”
09. Paul McCartney, “Maybe I’m Amazed”
Ah, proof that you needn’t have ever rocked to produce a power ballad. No, no, that won’t do. Wes Anderson may not come calling for a soundtrack (although “Back Seat of My Car” would be decidedly choice), but if you’re warming up for an air guitar grudge match, you could do much worse than the languid profundity of Macca’s solo. Ironically, this is the rockingest track on his self-titled album. Please don’t tell.
08. KISS, “Beth”
Taken by itself, it’s a bit of a joke: drummer gets the mic, offers up the gushiest treacle in the history of this fascist kabuki rock combo. But in the context of KISS’ Wagnerian money shot Destroyer, it comes off, well, pretty restrained. Anyway, the best part of “Beth”—and this is a rarity—is the lyrics. How I ever missed that “Beth” was a love song about sitting in a garage practicing is my personal, lifetime riddle. Poor Peter Criss mewls, “Me and the boys are playin’ / And we just can’t find the sound,” and you die just a little inside.
07. Lift to Experience, “To Guard and to Guide You”
Josh Pearson’s back, and that’s the best news I’ve had in months. A chunk of to-be-released material has gotten raves from various corners, but as ever, there’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, possibly 2001’s most accomplished debut. For me, “To Guard and to Guide You” is the emotional centerpiece, the eye of the storm. If—forgive me—Kevin Shields composed cowboy symphonies to God, you’d have a Lift to Experience swirling dust devil. Can you write power ballads about the angel of God? Heckfire, what a question.
06. The Rapture, “Love Is All”
20,000 Rapture fans can’t be wrong, but I’m still tabbing this power ballad as the best thing on Echoes. My inestimable colleague (and fellow Austinite) Bryan Berge thinks otherwise, but there’s something about those fluoride-fresh guitar strokes, and Luke Jenner’s bravura vocal performance. This list needed cowbells and k-hole echo chambers badly.
05. Duraluxe, “Dura-lux”
Named for a brand of paint in a Vonnegut novel, Duraluxe’s finest moment is this, a castoff for Flying Tart Records’ 1997 sampler Starball Contribution. The song is elsewhere credited to Duraluxe’s quondam outfit Fluffy; none of this interests you, and I respect that. The song itself? A beguiling mix of shoegazer pierce and hazardously mic’ed 4/4 march. Slouching toward Bethlehem, the band pipes on about how “sometimes lightning isn’t real” in the cracked-choirboy style of similar stalwarts Flick and Luxury. Years ago, frustrated by my inability to translate the lyrics—submerged as they were in oceanic feedback and electric drawl—I e-mailed the band for a transcription. Politely, someone replied that he had no idea what I was talking about.
04. Ozzy Osbourne, “Time After Time”
“Mama, I’m Coming Home”? Are you serious? It’s not even the best ballad on the album. That would be “Time After Time,” an acoustic plucker that strips the forced menace all too common to Osbourne’s delivery, revealing a genuine hurt. The song also bears marked similarities, mostly in Zakk Wylde’s electric flourishes, to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” which I did factor in compiling this list.
03. 13th Floor Elevators, “Splash 1”
Possessing a lovely origin: Roky Erickson trips out with Clementine Hall, wife of lead singer Tommy. Looking at his friend, and struck by a sudden feeling of pre-existence, Roky writes the first couplet of a song, then places the remainder of the words in Clementine’s charge. Together they create a haunting ode to finding rest in another soul. “The fierceness of my feelings rocks me like a war,” intones a fragile Erickson over burbling guitar, “It's good to know we won't be strangers anymore.” Made more poignant by a combination of reverb and degraded recording quality, it’s an early zenith of Erickson’s checkered career.
02. Night Ranger, “Sister Christian”
And sometimes all that’s required is a purity of force, a concoction of sheen and confidence, something that is potent only because it rebuffs all meaning. “Sister Christian” is such a thing, a mindlessly paternal lyric welded to the best rock pneumatics of the 1980s. A perfect succession of stops, starts, and synths. I have no real idea how to translate the supernal emotional anti-core of “Sister Christian” into words; thankfully, one viewing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights renders my efforts moot.
01. Captain Beyond, “Sufficiently Breathless”
Briefly flourished on Southern rock stable Capricorn Records on the recommendation of Duane Allman, and when I say “briefly flourished,” I mean “released a self-titled prog-rock stunner that received no promotion.” The line-up roiled until came 1973’s follow-up, Sufficiently Breathless. Decidedly less accomplished, but noteworthy for the gorgeous title track, which takes wing on delicate acoustic picking, upon which future Deep Purple frontman Rod Evans sighs a psychedelic litany of street-level characters. Guitarist Larry Reinhardt uncorks an extended solo of such grace, one would never realize he was an ex-Iron Butterfly, and a multi-tracked coda finds Evans gently repeating “Nothing left to live for / Sufficiently breathless on the street where we live.” Absolutely enchanting.