Pop metal reigned on both the album and singles charts back in the mid-to-late 1980s and that success is still reflected two decades later when today’s hard rock stations offer up tribute hours to the era. And while many of those bands have faded into obscurity and/or become nostalgia acts, there are still some classic tunes that stand the test of time. These songs are not necessarily the bands’ biggest hits, but rather album tracks that feature the kind of great riffs and strong songwriting that get the blood pumping every time and cause closet headbangers to reach for the volume dial. In chronological order:
“High and Dry,” Def Leppard (High and Dry) - 1981
It was 1983’s multi-platinum Pyromania album that made the band international superstars, but some of their best and hardest hitting music is on their preceding album. The title track features some of late, great riffmaster Steve Clark’s best work and an urgency from vocalist Joe Elliott that waned in later years.
“Knock ‘em Dead Kid,” Motley Crue (Shout at the Devil )
Coming off the band’s classic second album that they never came close to topping, “Knock ‘em Dead Kid” epitomized an edgy L.A. hard rock sound that was widely imitated but rarely duplicated. This song is one of the many in-your-face anthems that pack Shout, the type of which the band could only come up with once or twice on each subsequent album. “Knock ‘em Dead Kid” is like a musical street fight. Even non-headbangers like Moby love this album.
“Lick it Up,” Kiss (Lick it Up) – 1983
Kiss lost the makeup and legendary guitarist Ace Frehley before this album, but launched a semi-annual series of raunchy rock classics with this ode to oral sex. Despite the lack of a notable guitar solo, the song has a contagious high energy level that seemed to open the door for a wide number of imitators throughout the rest of the decade.
“Wanted Man,” Ratt (Out of the Cellar) – 1984
The band’s breakthrough single “Round and Round” is the one that dominated the airwaves, but it was songs like “Wanted Man” that established “Ratt n’ Roll” as a true musical force. Lead guitarist Warren DeMartini’s stinging riffs and scintillating solos put Ratt a cut above the pack, and he remains one of the most underrated guitarists of the era.
“Living on a Prayer,” Bon Jovi (Slippery When Wet)
The band’s 1985 album, 7800 Degrees Fahrenheit, actually rocks harder and fans certainly took note when they opened for Ratt throughout 1985. Bon Jovi softened their sound a bit on Slippery When Wet, but “Living on a Prayer” is undoubtedly one of the most identifiable and enduring songs of the decade. The song has it all – a psychedelic keyboard line, bluesy guitar riffs, great harmonies between Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora and in a rarity for the era, lyrics which have a universal quality that transcend time.
“Look What the Cat Dragged In,” Poison (Look What the
Cat Dragged In) – 1986
Glam metal was all the rage by 1986 and Poison jumped on the bandwagon with their multi-platinum debut. Their hit songs were definitely on the poppier side, but tunes like the title track from Look What the Cat Dragged In showed that Poison could be more than just pretty boys. Guitarist C.C. DeVille became a caricature of himself as the years went by, but this song features the type of rock solid riffage that helped launch Poison to an arena rock level.
“Somebody Save Me,” Cinderella (Night Songs) - 1986
Philadelphia’s Cinderella joined the pop metal party when they were discovered by Bon Jovi and used a slot opening for Bon Jovi in 1987 to launch their own briefly successful career. “Somebody Save Me” is the hardest hitting song from their debut album, combining fist-pumping riffs with a truly bluesy wail from vocalist Tom Keifer.
“5150,” Van Halen (5150) – 1986
Van Halen hit the big time way before the pop metal explosion of the mid-‘80s, of course, but 1986’s 5150 album was the first of the “Van Hagar” era. Fans were on the edge of their metaphorical seats waiting for the release of this album, to see if the band could rock as hard without David Lee Roth. Songs like the title track proved that Eddie Van Halen not only hadn’t lost his edge, but was still at the top of his game. Eddie’s riffs on the song are simultaneously melodic and edgy, making this some of his best work. Sammy Hagar’s triumphant vocals are icing on the cake.
“Wasted Years,” Iron Maiden (Somewhere in Time) –
Iron Maiden aren’t a pop metal band, but the influence of pop metal’s success was felt across the metal spectrum as even heavier bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest found themselves experimenting with poppier flavors. Maiden perfected the formula with “Wasted Years,” which utilized melodic riffs and sing-along vocals yet still retained the band’s classic British metal sound.
“Modern Day Cowboy,” Tesla (Mechanical Resonance)
1986 was a banner year for pop metal – even as the year was winding down, one more band managed to make a splash when Tesla released their stunningly excellent debut album. MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball” show was THE place for breaking new hard rock acts. When the “Modern Day Cowboy” video hit the airwaves with its electrifying twin guitar attack and semi-political lyrics, fans rushed to record stores in droves. Tesla became known as a band liable to blow the headliner off the stage, as bands like Poison and Great White found out the hard way, and became one of the best bands of the era.
“Still of the Night,” Whitesnake (Whitesnake) – 1987
David Coverdale, former singer of Deep Purple, had put out the strong but little-noticed Slide It In album in 1984. He made sure his next album would get noticed by crafting “Still of the Night,” one of the most bombastic yet kickass songs of the decade. Coverdale didn’t try to hide his obvious influences – the song is clearly derivative of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and “Whole Lotta Love,” and even featured a working title of “Up Yours Robert.” But it didn’t matter – Guitarist John Sykes’ superb riffs and Coverdale’s over-the-top vocals launched Whitesnake to American stardom.
“Nightrain,” Guns n’ Roses (Appetite for Destruction)
Gn’R weren’t really a pop metal band, they were a straight up rock and roll force. But they came out of the Hollywood pop metal scene and influenced everything that came thereafter. “Welcome to the Jungle” is of course the breakthrough song that catapulted Gn’R to the top of the hard rock world, and “Sweet Child of Mine” is the #1 mega-hit that enabled the band to cross over to pop radio as well in 1988. But no song better embodies what Gn’R was all about than “Nightrain.” Always a crowd favorite at their stupendous live shows (when Axl wasn’t in a bad mood, that is), the incendiary riffs and lyrics that paid homage to getting wasted on cheap wine epitomized Gn’R’s bad-ass West Coast ethic.
“Kiss of Death,” Dokken (Back for the Attack) – 1988
Dokken never quite made it to the level of arena rock headliners, but were on the verge with Back for the Attack, one of the strongest guitar albums of the era. Dokken even headlined over Metallica on the “Monsters of Rock” tour in the summer of ’88, something they probably came to regret. But guitarist George Lynch’s skills were second to none and this album features so many great cuts that it’s hard to identify one as the best. But the album opener “Kiss of Death” has got it all – the stinging pinch harmonics, the monster power chords and a blazing solo that seems to defy gravity. Don Dokken’s lyrics about a character who contracts AIDS from casual sex made this song notable in an era of music devoted to debauchery.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Warrant (Cherry Pie) – 1990
Warrant made a vague attempt at shaking their pretty boy label by trying to toughen up their sound a bit on their second album, and they succeeded on this track. “Cherry Pie” got more airplay with its big hooks and sexy video, but “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a straight-up rocker with a bluesy edge and some mean riffs. The lyrics about characters who witness the disposal of dead bodies by a crooked sheriff definitely stood out at the time.
“Monkey Business,” Skid Row (Slave to
the Grind) – 1991
Another band discovered by Bon Jovi, Skid Row hit the big time with their debut album in 1989. But it was their second album that really put the hammer down, packed full of edgy songs with killer riffs and soaring vocals from Sebastian Bach. Songs like “Mudkicker,” “The Threat,” and the title track were as heavy as anything in pop metal at the time, but “Monkey Business” combined that heaviness with a catchy hook that still resonates as one of the best of the era.
The Gn’R/Skid Row tour in the summer of ’91 is arguably the pinnacle of the pop metal era – two of the best bands of the genre, at the height of their powers, right before “grunge” broke. The last night of the American tour, at the L.A. Forum, saw Gn’R deliver a three hour and 36-minute performance that stands as one of the greatest rock shows of all time. But Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam all released hugely influential albums in the fall of ’91 that saw hard rock evolving away from the excesses of pop metal and into what became known as alternative, or grunge. It was truly the end of an era.