Adult Oriented Rock is the smooth sound that came out of the USA and became the soundtrack to millions of lives all over the world – a sound defined by timeless anthems such as Boston’s More Than A Feeling, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger and Toto’s Africa, and by monumental power ballads, none bigger than Foreigner’s global smash I Want To Know What LoveIs. In this feature, Classic Rock celebrates the very best of AOR, from the golden age of the 70s and 80s.
Here we present The 50 Greatest AOR Albums Of All Time. Included are some of the biggest-selling records in the history of rock. We also dig deep, going beyond the hits and the household names to shine a light on the cult classics and lost heroes from this golden age. In AOR, as in life, there are winners and losers; for every fairy tale, a thousand hard-luck stories.
Some of the greatest AOR albums were made by artists who never made it big, among them Diving For Pearls, New England, Balance, Giant, White Sister, Valentine and Le Roux. And two now legendary albums were made by a singer who couldn’t get arrested when he was a rock artist, and failed an audition for Black Sabbath before reinventing himself as a soul star – the one and only Michael Bolton.
Equally, while AOR is a quintessentially American art form, a handful of Brits got in on the act, most notably Mick Jones, who founded Foreigner as an expat in New York City in 1977. One of the great AOR voices is Lancashire-born John Waite. And placed high in this Top 50 are albums by British acts FM, Strangeways (fronted by American singer Terry Brock) and Dare (featuring future Professor Brian Cox on keyboards!).
Likewise, while many of the leading American bands live on – including Journey, Boston and Toto – the rebirth of AOR in the new millennium has come from Europe. At its forefront are Scandinavian groups such as Eclipse and H.e.a,t., and the Italian-based record label Frontiers – named after a classic Journey album.
After the lean years of the late 90s, melodic rock rose again, and new albums of real quality are being made, showing that you can’t keep a good genre down for long. In the words that Steve Perry first sang back in 1981: ‘Don’t stop believin’, hold on to that feeling…’
Here, then, are the 50 Greatest AOR Albums Of All Time, each with a "Must have" song selection we've compiled into a Spotify playlist that appears at the end of the feature.
50. Alexa: Alexa
Such was the grip that Paul Sabu exerted over this unforgivably overlooked record that it was rumoured the whole thing was an elaborate ruse, and that Sabu had simply retuned his own voice and taken on a female persona.
Not so. The vocalist is Alexa Anastasia, and the combination of her throaty singing and Sabu’s chest-beating AOR heroics is irresistible.
Must hear: WanderlustView Deal
Before he achieved fame as the singer with Mr. Big, baby-faced Eric Martin was a cult hero with his own band and as a solo artist.
This self-titled album was his best from that period, his soulful voice lighting up quintessentially 80s tunes such as Pictures and a great version of Little Steven’s Lyin’ In A Bed Of Fire.
Must hear: PicturesView Deal
Formed in the early 90s by three members of Journey – Gregg Rolie, Ross Valory and Steve Smith – during an almost decade-long hiatus from that band, The Storm were a shortterm fix for the group’s fans.
Despite The Storm being victims of the same Interscope Records boardroom crevice that all but swallowed up Unruly Child and Crown Of Thorns, the Beau Hill-produced delights of this debut replicate the mothership in Mini-Me form.
Must hear: I’ve Got A Lot To Learn About LoveView Deal
47. Cher: Cher
Cher’s great voice, allied to the hit-making prowess of Michael Bolton, Desmond Child, Mark Mangold, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, and a label on one of the great winning streaks in music biz history, was simply too big to fail.
Reinvented as a strutting, barely clothed siren, belting out I Found Someone and We All Sleep Alone, Cher embraced this splendid reawakening as only a true star can.
Must hear: Main ManView Deal
It spoke volumes that CBS UK passed on this swoon-inducing debut from former American Tears, Touch, and Michael Bolton keyboard player Mark Mangold and the über-vocalist Al Fritsch, and its pomp-laden charms being shared instead via the independent label Music For Nations.
The soulful approach of Fritsch (who died in 2018) was perfectly complemented by Mangold’s instrumental vision, and the album’s contents are deliciously understated.
Must hear: Hard Way HomeView Deal
Frustrated by Foreigner’s infighting, their singer Gramm extended the golden run of the band’s 4 and Agent Provocateur with this dazzling first solo record, the impact of which was diluted by his almost immediate return to Journey to make Inside Information.
Let’s face it, Ready Or Not is almost indistinguishable from Foreigner, the elements of tasty hard rock in the title song and the hit Midnight Blue and a textbook ballad in If I Don’t Have You fully being present and deliciously correct.
Must hear: Midnight BlueView Deal
In 1983, American singer Pat Benatar achieved AOR perfection with the million selling Love Is A Battlefield. Two years later she repeated the trick with another song from hit-maker songwriter Holly Knight, the heroic self-empowerment anthem Invincible.
Elsewhere on Seven The Hard Way, Benatar’s most complete AOR album, she rocks hard in Sex Is A Weapon and breaks hearts with The Art Of Letting Go.
Must hear: InvincibleView Deal
After three albums as the singer in Rainbow, peaking with the classic hit single I Surrender, Joe Lynn Turner teamed up with Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker for his solo debut.
And with Al Greenwood (ex-Foreigner) co-writing and playing keyboards the result was high-class radio rock, Turner in full, wig-lifting cry on Young Hearts and Eyes Of Love.
Must hear: Young HeartsView Deal
Six of this album’s 10 songs were co-written by ‘outsider’ Bob Halligan Jr, and it was produced by Eddie Kramer and mixed by Ron Nevison. It’s no surprise, then, that Night Of The Crime is one of the best-sounding records of the 1980s.
Vocally, instrumentally and in terms of the songwriting, the album remains a masterpiece of keyboard-drenched melodic hard rock.
Must hear: Shot At My HeartView Deal
41 Asia - Asia
Equal parts AOR, prog, pomp and pop, Asia’s self-titled debut topped the US chart for nine weeks, selling 10 million copies worldwide. The band comprised members of ELP, Yes and King Crimson, among others, and the addition of former Buggles keyboard maestro Geoff Downes brought Asia a modern edge.
“We took our twelve-minute songs and removed the ten minutes of noodling,” explained their bassist/ singer John Wetton.
Must hear: Heat Of The MomentView Deal