The 8 Ball 03.23.13: The Top 8 Rock Ballads
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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Caveat: Let’s first set out to define the term “rock ballad,” because it often gets misinterpreted. Many people hear the world ballad and they immediately think of love songs or tear-jerkers. Love songs certainly count as ballads, but they are not the only songs that fit in the category. A traditional ballad was narrative in form; in other words, it was a story set to verse and music. The modern ballad is a song that either tells a story or takes on an emotional subject matter such as loss, love, depression, et cetera. Ballads are commonly accepted to have a slower tempo than non-ballads and are mellower. As for the “rock” aspect, I tried to take songs that were more pop- or R&B-oriented songs out. Country (which is rife with ballads) was also left out. There will be some blurry lines there as is usual, but I think that gets the gist across.
Finally, people may note that my list is lacking in the ’80s power ballads that many people go to first when thinking of this sort of category. That’s a personal preference thing; I do love a good, cheesy power ballad and I can’t help but nod along with my eyes shut and lip bit whenever I hear “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” or “I Want to Know What Love Is,” but I just feel that these are higher-quality in that they avoid going over the top and yet losing nothing of their power.
Metallica – “Nothing Else Matters”
Meat Loaf – “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”
Queensryche – “Silent Lucidity”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Under the Bridge”
First on our list this week is a classic from that very era I mentioned in my caveat, the 1980s. Again, I do love the power ballads of the era but even the best of those is put to shame by this little number, which kicks off the non-live material on Guns N’ Roses’ 1988 disc G N’ R Lies. The live material that precedes it on the album is all furious, breakneck music and the way that this one strips down to acoustic guitars–there isn’t even drum work in the studio version–makes it almost whiplash-inducing. The most common inspiration cited for this song is Axl Rose’s disintegrating relationship with his then-wife Erin Everly, though that has never been confirmed. The lyrics are emotional without being trite; they avoid the trap of spelling everything out and that gives it a timeless accessibility that it would otherwise lack. This is the song that made people pause and realize that when he wasn’t doing is hyena yowl (which is an entirely different strength), Axl could actually sing fairly well. The song remains a hallmark of the G N’ R catalogue and Axl’s live sets for a very good reason; it stands out as one of the band’s best works and the era’s best ballads.
Eric Clapton’s ode to his late son still gives me chills to this day. Clapton wrote the song in order to deal with the pain and grief that he felt after his four-year-old son Connor fell from the fifty-third floor window of an apartment in New York that belonged to a friend of Conor’s mother, model Lory Del Santo. That period was an exceedingly difficult time for Clapton; beyond just the loss of his son, which would be horrific for anyone, he had lost his manager and two of his roadies seven months earlier in the same helicopter accident that killed Stevie Ray Vaughan. Clapton went into isolation for a short while; once he came out he began writing the film score for the Jason Patric/Jennifer Jason Leigh drama Rush, which is about two undercover narcotics officers who fall prey to drug addiction. While composing the score he enlisted songwriter Will Jennings to create “Tears in Heaven.” There is no question as to what this song is about for anyone even remotely familiar with the story, but you don’t need to know the inspiration to be stricken by the power of the song. Clapton’s subdued, mournful tone and the melancholy lyrics speak to anyone who has lost someone important in their lives, making it a beautiful piece of music that pretty much anyone can relate to.
There are some who would debate this song’s inclusion as a rock ballad, as John Lennon wasn’t a hard rocker by any stretch. However, he was undeniably a rock singer and “Imagine” is easily the greatest song he ever wrote and performed. The song is often misconstrued as being a pro-communist or atheist message although I would disagree because there is a difference between denying the existence of God or capitalism and eliminating borders and dogmatic law so that there we don’t have disputes over territory or God. I actually debated putting this song on here because it doesn’t have a narrative and doesn’t speak to traditional aspects of a love song or similar themes. That being said, it is about hope and that is as strong an emotion as love or anything else. It is such a beautiful, evocative song about optimism and dreaming during a rather dark period in world history. Its influence on rock music is absolutely undeniable; even if you don’t agree with the message of the song (which is allowed, of course), you have to appreciate the beauty of it.
This is that kind of ballad that many people don’t necessarily see as such; the narrative. Folk music is where many of the modern masters of the ballad were to be found and Dylan is undoubtedly the best of those. Dylan was inspired in the 1970s to write this song, a retelling of the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who was wrongfully accused of a triple murder following a robbery of a bar and grill in Patterson, New Jersey in 1966. Dylan was among many who saw racism in the highly-charged situation and he painted a picture of Carter as a falsely accused man who fell victim to prejudice. Dylan possessed an incredible aptitude for telling stories through his music (see also: “Desolation Row” among many others) and this is his most striking work in that capacity. It was also quite effective; the song won popular support for Carter and while some accused it of taking excessive poetic license (and it does take some), it is an undeniably powerful song. Carter was eventually freed due to prosecutorial misconduct in the trial and the support he got from the public through Dylan’s musical tale can’t be discounted.
I was surprised when I made this list that this song only ranked at number four, but that’s a testament to the strength of the songs above it. “Behind Blue Eyes” is one of my favorite songs of all-time. It’s a moving piece by one of the best bands of their generation (no pun intended) and is deeply evocative of an alienated place that many teenagers and young adults find themselves in. The song was written for the band’s ill-fated sci-fi rock opera Lifehouse and ended up on the band’s Who’s Next, which is easily one of their finest albums. This is a song that sticks with you past that age, into adulthood so you can remember it fondly. It’s one of the best songs Pete Townshend ever put to paper and performed it comes off beautifully. In fact, it might have actually hit number three if it weren’t for the fact that Fred Durst ruined it and I can never QUITE get that version out of my head.
The Beatles were in large part the masters of the ballad in terms of groups, though many of them came during their pop era. “Let It Be” is their finest ballad from their rock era and was in fact the last single the band ever released before they broke up. (“The Long and Winding Road” was released as a single after their breakup.) The song is widely considered to be one of the greatest popular music songs of all time and certainly one of the greatest of the Beatles’ songs. The song won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for its inclusion in the documentary of the same name. It has so much in it; McCartney’s allusions to his mother, the melancholy but cathartic and serene quality it has, the relatively simple arrangement that is put to great power. It is a song that has endured, much like the rest of the Fab Four’s catalogue, but manages to stand a shade above the rest of the band’s great work which is an incredible achievement.
I don’t honestly know how you can have a top rock ballads list without this one. Led Zeppelin was one of the most influential bands in rock music and this is one of the most memorable ballads of all-time. “Stairway to Heaven” has been listed on many Best Songs of All-Time list and managed to become the most requested song on FM radio in the 1970’s despite never having been released as a single. I love songs that can tell a story and this Page/Plant collaboration reaches an epic, mythical level of story. The lyrics work on enough levels that they’ve been often misinterpreted to mean one thing or another. It’s a remarkably complex song that has several different sections to it and is a bitch to perform right—though that doesn’t stop everyone in the world from trying. No one has ever done it quite like Jimmy Page though and it’s difficult not to just listen in awe of his talent when he rips into the solo at the end. Fantastic stuff.
When I was putting this list together, there was one song that immediately came to mind before any others did. I actually set it aside to see if I could find anything else that could top it, because frankly it’s a little cliché. But being a clichéd choice doesn’t make it untrue. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s epic ballad is undoubtedly the top rock ballad of all-time in my book. The guitar work by Gary Rossington is nothing short of iconic and the Allen Collins’ and Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics have an ageless quality to them. Sometimes when rock bands try to show their softer side, they end up invoking an era of time very closely and that buries their work a bit because it will always be identified with that era. Lynyrd Skynyrd is without question tied to the Southern Rock of the 1970s, but this song is entirely appropriate heard in any era. In fact, it’s ageless enough that Blizzard used a cover of it in their space RTS Starcraft 2. The guitar solo is something to be marveled at and yeah, this just rocks on every level.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
We’re keeping on the Garfunkel and Oates kick, just because I want to. Seriously, they’re a fantastic comedy group. Check out their ode to club-going dirtbags in “This Party Just Took a Turn for the Douche” below!
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.