De ergste popmuziek die er bestaat

Zo denk ik er nooit aan en zo kom ik het liedje in korte tijd twee keer na elkaar tegen: Boys Of Summer van Don Henley uit 1984.

Eerst in een heel erg ingewikkeld stuk, in Het blad voor ingewikkelde muziek The Wire. Het artikel is van David Keenan en gaat over Hypnagogic Pop. Ja alweer een nieuwe muziekstroming al moet ik bekennen dat ik de term niet kende. Op Last.FM wel, en net als in het artikel kom je er namen tegen van James Ferraro (schijnt in korte tijd al zo'n veertig albums te hebben uitgebracht), Pocahaunted en Emeralds.

Ik heb er even een uurtje naar proberen te luisteren, maar kan er nog niet veel mee. Een zeurderige noise variant die aan New Age raakt en andere lelijke synthesizer muziek.

Dat klopt, want bij Keenan las ik dat new age de nieuwe punk is: ook makkelijk zelf te spelen. Of anders is new age op z'n minst vergelijkbaar met exotica, een ander woord voor wat in Nederland in de jaren negentig easy tune is gaan heten.

Wat de makers van hypnagogic pop met elkaar gemeen hebben is dat ze niet alleen in de jaren tachtig geboren zijn maar ook een zwak voor de hits uit die tijd hebben. Vooral voor de popcultuur die wij, gezegend met wat we een goede smaak noemen, als onbenullig ervaren. Enter: Boys Of Summer. Een belangwekkend nummer voor hypnagogic popmuzikanten. Ze denken het onbewust te hebben gehoord toen ze nauwelijks geboren waren, en het heeft hen of ze dat nu leuk vinden of niet, onbewust gevormd.

'Hypnagogic pop is pop music refracted through the memory of a memory', begint Keenan zijn betoog.

Even verderop:

'The magic of hypnagogic pop is its combination of innocence and experience, it's drive to restore the circumstances of early youthful epiphanies while reframing them as present realities, possible futures.'

Ik weet niet of ik hem kan volgen, maar ik doe mijn best. Wat ik wel zeker weet is dat ik een hekel heb aan vooral de sound van Boys Of Summer, maar het is niet eens het ergste nummer op een lijst die ik voor u van heb geplukt.

De twintig foutste hardrockballads denkbaar of knuffelrockfavorieten zo u wilt. Echt precies die nummers die ik altijd verafschuwd heb staan hier gerangschikt en het is geloof ik niet eens een cynische lijst.

Nee, en dat vind ik ergens ook wel weer leuk: Matthew Hamilton heeft zijn 20 favoriete Adult Oriented Rocksongs gerangschikt, en aan de beschrijvingen valt af te lezen dat hij dit echt prachtige nummers vindt.

Ik heb me erg met deze lijst geamuseerd. Er is namelijk beslist muziek uit die jaren zeventig en tachtig die ik ooit om verschillende redenen wanstaltig vond, of nietszeggend, terwijl ik daar thans dol op ben.

Fleetwood Mac bijvoorbeeld. Nee niet die overschatte bluesmuziek uit de tijd dat Peter Green er nog bij zit, maar gewoon hun populairste platen uit de jaren zeventig en tachtig, Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk en Tango In The Night. Of wat te denken van Carole King?

Een van mijn favoriete verzamel-cd's van de laatste jaren heet Laurel Canyon en is samengesteld door DJ Supermarkt. Er staat alleen 70's softrock op van Saturday In The Park van Chicago tot What A Fool Believes van de Doobie Brothers vind ik het allemaal prachtig.

Maar de liedjes hieronder? Nee, echt ik vind ze stuk voor stuk afschuwelijk behalve dan misschien Toto's Hold The Line waar tenminste nog een beetje tempo in zit.

De generatie hypnagogic popmuzikanten worden er vast blij van, maar ik kan mijn hele leven verder zonder John Waite's Missing You.

Althans, dat denk ik nu.

Geniet, huiver, dan wel erger u aan de hier overgenomen lijst en lees ook even die heerlijke beschrijvingen.

More Than a Feeling: The 20 Greatest AOR Tracks of All Time!
Matthew Hamilton, Rock's Backpages, July 2009

Author's Note: I have found that most discussions of AOR get easily sidetracked unless it's made clear which definition of the AOR acronym we're using. The original meaning – "Album Orientated Rock" – tends to make people think of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Whereas I'm going by the late '70s definition – "Adult-Orientated Rock", i.e. catchy, immediate, radio-friendly arena rock with heavy keyboards, restrained but melodic guitar, and passionate irony-free vocals of the kind made famous by Boston, Journey, REO and Foreigner. So here goes...

20: 'Is This Love?' – Whitesnake

The last classic song released during AOR's Golden Age of 1976-1987. Often mistakenly described as a "power ballad", it in fact has a mid-tempo, late-night groove to it, the song representing a departure for the band in terms of the glossy production and the sensitivity displayed by the singer David Coverdale. Previously known for lyrics such as "Are you woman enough/ To take a man like me" and "I'm gonna slide it in/ Right to the top", Coverdale portrays himself here as the guy "waiting by the phone" for his girlfriend to call. The video reassures us that the girl in question is unbelievably beautiful; and just in case this didn't compensate enough for his vulnerability, Coverdale cast his own girlfriend, a model, in the video too. But he needn't have worried. The scenes of this proud-haired man looking stylishly forlorn in his loft apartment deliver what every AOR fan is looking for: the concept that it is somehow heroic to indulge in self-pity and melancholia.

19: 'Only You Can Rock Me' – UFO

Recorded in a derelict postal depot in Los Angeles , this song has a rough and spontaneous feel – so it's remarkable that it hasn't been expelled from the list for this very reason. Surely an AOR track needs to have that sheen only months of overdubs and massive expenditure can create? Ordinarily, yes - but the producer of 'Only You Can Rock Me' was AOR svengali Ron Nevison and you have to marvel at the sheer scale of the sound he captures here. In many respects this is a straight-ahead hard rock track but the stirring, pop-orientated vocal and guitar harmonies of the chorus ("We can't wait from day to day /Cuz we've got something to say"...) and the majesty of Michael Schenker's solo send it soaring into AOR territory. Rarely has the combination of melody and bombast been so intoxicating.

18: 'Don't Want To Wait Anymore' – The Tubes

These former avant-garde performance artists from San Francisco had started veering toward mainstream rock in the late '70s and in 1981 they really went for it by signing up with AOR visionary David Foster, who along with Trevor Horn and Ron Nevison would shape the sound of an entire decade. As an homage to their surrender to corporate rock the band wore business suits for the album photography. Yet despite this and the over-the-top, satirical lyrics ("Lost/ Trapped in the freezing cold/ Barely alive/Have to make love to survive..."), 'Don't Want To Wait Anymore' is a ballad so immense it even includes a firework display toward the end. Yet no matter how many times the singer Fee Waybill tries to ham it up with the refrain "I've waited so long/Forgot what I'm waiting for," you just know you can't deliver AOR of this quality without loving it really.

17: 'Innocent Days' – Giant

Giant couldn't have released their debut album at a worse time. Although they were eventually swept aside by the alternative rock backlash in the early '90s, their problems in the late '80s were entirely due to the consequences of Bon Jovi's success rather than the arrival of Nirvana. For it was Jovi more than any other band who killed AOR by acting as the catalyst for the rise of "pop metal". By 1989 the market was saturated with rabble-rousing choruses and lumpen by-numbers power ballads. Enter Giant with their glorious single 'Innocent Days' which despite not being entirely free of Jovi-esque influences did mark a return to sophisticated production and soaring vocals. It also has one of the most euphoric choruses of the decade. Unfortunately no one cared.

16: 'Home By The Sea' – Genesis

Although 'In The Air Tonight' scores high AOR points for being a ballad with an absurdly disproportionate drum sound (and also for featuring on that most AOR of TV shows, Miami Vice), it does ultimately feel part of Phil Collins' pop career. 'Against All Odds' is another strong contender for the list but today that song sounds too Celine Dion to really make the final cut. No, it's Collins' work with Genesis between 1980 and 1986 which really deserves the applause, and not just because of his double drum solos in concert with Chester Thompson. Take his extraordinary rock vocal on 'Home By The Sea' from the band's self-titled album in 1983. Although the lyrics start out with trusty clichés such as "stealing thru the dark of night", it quickly becomes clear that the song is about ghosts in an old people's home; not very AOR at all, but Collins brings it back into line with a vocal display of pure fist-clenching righteousness.

15: 'The Boys Of Summer' – Don Henley

Nostalgia for the lost summers of youth is a must-have theme for any self-respecting AOR artist. Take Journey's 'Stone In Love', among other classics. And here Don Henley shakes off his country-rock past and steps up into the '80s AOR arena. Set against an atmospheric and innovative keyboard and drum machine dominated backdrop Henley delivered the most passionate and affecting vocal of his career.

14) 'I Need You Tonight' – ZZ Top

The long beards and comedy dance moves of these veteran Southern rockers was never likely to draw the AOR crowd. So this hidden gem from 1983's Eliminator rarely gets the credit it deserves. Opening with the lines "It's three o clock in the morning/ And the rain begin to fall..." and taken forward by a moody, hypnotic rhythm this is late night AOR at its finest. Yes, there is a blues element throughout but given the expensive widescreen production here this can be over-looked. And it's worth having for the Billy Gibbons solo alone, which like all classic AOR solos somehow manages to be restrained and transcendent at the same time.

13: 'Stone Cold' – Rainbow

When the American vocalist Joe Lyn Turner joined the British hard rock band Rainbow, veteran fans of the band's mystical hard rock era nicknamed him "The Poof". This was due to a certain fruitiness to his stage moves but also reflected a mounting resentment that Ritchie Blackmore had embraced AOR in such a big way in the early '80s. But Turner was quite the discovery and became one of the outstanding talents in the genre, even though he was rarely able to record material which did his voice justice. 'Stone Cold' was one of the exceptions. Although it never quite had the crowd-pleasing appeal of 'I Surrender', 'Stone Cold' was like a classic Foreigner ballad but with backbone – and despite one spell-breaking moment when he ad libs "You put me in the deep freeze!", Turner puts in a career-best performance to rival those of the true greats, such as Steve Perry and Lou Gramm.

12: 'Broken Wings' – Mr Mister

"Take these broken wings / And learn to fly again/ Learn to live so free / And when we hear the voices sing /The book of love will open up and let us in." It's just too spiritual to even discuss...

11: 'Dreams' – Van Halen

From the keyboard intro, 'Dreams' seems at first like an imitation of 'Jump'. But while 'Jump' was a one-riff pony 'Dreams' builds and build into one of the most soaringly optimistic anthems of the Reagan era, complete with a promo video showcasing the fighter jets of the US Navy. "Reach for the golden ring/ Reach for the sky/ Baby just spread your wings..." Who could resist this awesome show of can-do spirit? Well, in the UK with its tyranny of post-punk gloom and musical ineptitude 'Dreams' – like so many AOR classics – failed to make an impression. 'Dreams' entered the UK chart at Number 62 and disappeared from view. But in the US 'Dreams' continued to inspire beyond the 1980s. It became a crowd favourite at Van Halen concerts and gave John Kerry brief moment of glory when it was played after his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004.

10: 'Oceans' – Survivor

Of course the AOR anthem most famously associated with the triumph of the American spirit is 'Eye of the Tiger', theme tune to Rocky III. But today it's a song that been claimed by office parties and wedding discos. Unlike 'Don't Stop Believin'' by Journey, a sing-a-long jukebox favourite in bars across America , it hasn't grown in stature over the years. Survivor even performed a comedy version of 'Eye of The Tiger' in a Starbucks ad in 2005 and it seemed entirely appropriate for them to send it up. Whereas the true AOR fan will turn instead to the Jimi Jamison line-up of the mid-1980s and in particular the two Ron-Nevison-produced albums, Vital Signs and When Seconds Count. Of all the songs which capture the power and soul of Jamison's voice, 'Oceans' is perhaps the most dramatic example – and it's set against an epic and highly synthetic keyboard sound that some would argue is ridiculous and dated but to others is as thrillingly defiant of conventional good taste today as it was twenty years ago.

9: 'Hard Habit To Break' – Chicago

Which of the Big Four ballads by Chicago do you go for in a list like this? It's an agonizing choice. 'If You Leave Me Now', 'Hard To Say I'm Sorry' and 'You're the Inspiration' ... all deserve the highest accolades. But the ballad that's most true to the glorious spirit of AOR is surely 'Hard Habit to Break'. It has not only the combination of the voice of A-list balladeer Peter Cetera and the grandiosity of producer David Foster (who out-did himself on this track) but it also has a thunderously earnest lead vocal from Bill Champlain ("I'm addicted to you baby!") which really took it over the top.

8: 'These Dreams' – Heart

This song might be the sound of housewife radio now but in 1985 this was futuristic ambient music for metalheads. The lush, deep keyboard sounds, the ultra-expensive gloss to the production, the dreamy lyrics and a sweet, demure vocal from Nancy Wilson (which was such a welcome contrast to both her high-stepping guitar heroine antics on stage and the full-throttle vocals of her brassy sister, Ann) made this the ultimate comedown record after a furious night of air guitar.

7: 'Hold The Line' – Toto

According to Jeff Porcaro, the late drummer of Toto, "'Hold the Line' was a perfect example of what people will describe as your heavy metal chord guitar licks and your great triple A-notes on the piano...It was taking the Sly Stone groove and meshing it with a harder rock caveman approach." For all that was unique about this song it's use of the triple notes on the piano became one of the most influential aspects of the classic AOR sound; the nearest equivalent being the use of the skank in reggae. 'Jane' by Jefferson Starship... 'Fool's Game' by Michael Bolton"... 'Jackie Don't Go' by could go on all night listing of songs that used the percussive single-note on the piano or keyboard. And then in 1984 it suddenly went out of fashion as the genre went electronic – but 'Hold The Line' continues to be one of the most enduring AOR hits of the late '70s.

6: 'Missing You' – John Waite

Wretched heartbreak never sounded so chic. In 1984 John Waite cut a sophisticated figure on the scene: the short hair... the designer jacket... the understated, almost spoken-word delivery... the twist that though he says he "ain't missing you at all"...he actually is. Yet to the embattled AOR devotee at the time Waite wasn't some outsider wannabe from the pop or new wave scenes, like Pat Benatar or the Cars were. He was the real deal. And he went onto achieve further AOR greatness with 'If Anybody Had A Heart' from the Brat Pack movie About Last Night and with his huge hit with supergroup Bad English, the Diane Warren ballad 'When I See You Smile'.

5: 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart' – Yes

The sound of the greatest comeback in the history of popular music. In 1980 Yes' career seemed to be in a terminal state: Jon Anderson had left to record New Age records with Vangelis and in a misguided attempt at modernity they invited the Buggles to join the band. The resulting album Drama came and went without much fuss and Yes called it a day. However, the two members of the Buggles would go on to have a seismic effect on AOR: the keyboardist Geoff Downes joined Asia, one of the few bands who actually deserved the 'corporate rock' tag but who made a huge impact in commercial terms; and the singer Trevor Horn who achieved an artistic and populist triumph by producing Yes's extraordinary reanimation 90125, a marvel of studio trickery and innovation underpinned by the classic AOR song writing of another genius called Trevor: new guitarist Trevor Rabin. And it was Rabin who gave the band 'Owner of a Lonely Heart', which in three and a half minutes represents everything that was ground-breaking and memorable about AOR during this era.

4: 'Waiting For A Girl Like You' – Foreigner

Opening with a haunting, melancholic keyboard effect created by electronic pop pioneer Thomas Dolby (best known for his wacky hit 'She Blinded Me With Science') this song goes on to feature one of the great soulful AOR vocal performances by a true master of the genre: Lou Gramm. Everybody loves this song – even if they can't quite get over themselves enough to admit it.

3: 'Keep On Lovin' You' – REO Speedwagon

1981 was a high watermark for AOR. Escape by Journey, 4 by Foreigner and High Infidelity by REO Speedwagon; never before had America seen such block-busting melodic rock released all in one year. Amazing now to think that the deeply feeble Styx were once considered the equals of these bands but even they shifted millions of units in 1981. The song that made the most impact in the UK and which seemed to evoke the AOR boom across the Atlantic most powerfully was 'Keep On Lovin' You'. While the grandiosity and sheer euphoria of the melody and production couldn't be misunderstood, few people detected the bitter edge to the lyrics about staying loyal to a treacherous woman: "You played dead/ But you never bled/ Instead you lay still in the grass/ All coiled up and hissin'..." For this the song gets additional points, since it marries the two key themes of AOR: dogged perseverance against all the odds plus grovelling servitude to a partner who's just not that into you.

2: 'More Than A Feeling' – Boston

The mythology surrounding this record is almost as appealing as the song itself: the reclusive and obsessive whizzkid and multi-instrumentalist who spent five years holed up in a studio creating the perfect rock song for FM radio and when it was released it changed American rock music forever. All true of course, and despite the occasional claim that Aerosmith's 1973 single 'Dream On' was the first AOR hit, anyone with sense knows that Tom Scholz of Boston is the Godfather of AOR. 'More Than A Feeling' also makes a mockery of the notion that music loses its soul if its over-produced, that somehow the slap-dash and inexpensive records of the punk era are more authentic than the lavish, fussed over efforts of the stadium rock bands. 'More Than A Feeling' has it all: a gentle melodic vocal by the late Brad Delp which builds and builds until it soars up to the highest end of the scale, an all-time classic central riff and a twin guitar solo to round it off. And no AOR act has ever been able to top it. Except one...

1: 'Don't Stop Believin'' – Journey

Let's be honest. There's a strong case to be made for giving over the entire Top 20 to Journey. No one has come close to artistic and commercial achievements of the ultimate AOR dream team: Steve Perry on vocals, Neal Schon on guitar and Jonathan Cain on keyboards. And there's one Journey song that reflects the sublime talents of the trio in perfect balance more than any other: and that is 'Don't Stop Believin'', the timeless anthem that this year became the most downloaded song in history. The opening keyboard riff....the rapid, intricate lead guitar pattern coming in over the top...and then the voice of Steve Perry: "Just a small town girl/ Livin' in a lonely world,/ She took the midnight train/ Going anywhere..." Has there ever been a better introduction to a rock song? Not remotely – but the British music press were always unkind about the band, and especially about the insanely talented Perry. One critic even compared his voice to the sound of a baby seal being clubbed to death. But in America his genius was largely understood; in particular his ability to reach extraordinary high notes whilst maintaining the depth and soul in his voice. And it was this ability which brought such a transcendent power to this song about two homeless street kids not giving up hope – and which has made 'Don't Stop Believin'' such a universally inspiring rallying call to this day. A true masterpiece.

© Matthew Hamilton, 2009