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).
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 Bryan 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 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 Don't Know What You Got (Til It's Gone) 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’