50 Greatest Hair Metal Albums of All Time - Rolling Stone
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50 Greatest Hair Metal Albums of All Time

The best LPs from the age of Aqua Net


C.C. DeVille and Bret Michaels of Poison (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Catchy, concise and more committed to getting parties rolling or groping groupies than conquering Valhalla or thinking depressive thoughts, what first passed as metal on Eighties MTV didn’t have much in common with what gets called metal now — or even what had mostly been called metal in the Seventies. Visually flamboyant and prone to shout-along hooks in ways that made them saleable in a video-single format, bands like Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister and Ratt owed way more to British glam-rock or Aerosmith than to Black Sabbath. In any other era they might’ve just been labeled “hard rock,” but at some point somebody came up with the probably pejorative term “hair-metal,” and the name stuck. As did the music, at least through the rest of the decade — and most of it grew increasingly prettified and prefabricated, until it didn’t.

Swept under history’s rug and summarily dismissed as fake when thrash and grunge came along, hair-metal’s been out of the spotlight long enough by now to be forgiven for all but its sleaziest sins. More holds up musically than you might guess: Trimming this list to a mere 50 albums was so tough that in the long run Guns N’ Roses had to be disqualified for transcending the form and W.A.S.P. for sounding too legitimately heavy. Timewise, the perimeters were clearer: mid Eighties to early Nineties, pretty much. Call them superficial, but blasting these is still a headbanger’s ball. By Chuck Eddy

White Lion - Pride

White Lion, ‘Pride’ (1987)

Feather soft, partial to ballads and led by a poster hunk from a foreign land, White Lion was the Drake of the glam metal era. The A-side of their breakthrough, Pride, is gooey marshmallow metal, vocals multi-tracked into gushy pillows of harmony and reverb, synths that could make a killer new age record, bridges that lean heavy on the acoustic guitars — all broken up by nimble, tappy, whammy-crazed guitar solos by Vito Bratta. (Said no less authority than Zakk Wylde, "Vito Bratta is the only guitarist I've heard who sounds cool doing taps.") But the B-side — which included all three of the album's charting singles — occasionally pushes the envelope of what could safely be called "metal." "Tell Me" is basically over-over-overproduced Big Star; "Wait" is glimmering and shiny pop; and the finger-picked "When the Children Cry" is a voice-cracking antiwar weeper. "Imagine being a kid from Copenhagen, Denmark, sitting there in Staten Island and writing, 'No more presidents, and all the wars will end' at the time when Ronald Reagan is the president," remembered vocalist Mike Tramp to Guitar World. "But it was how I felt at the time." C.W.

Dokken - Under Lock and Key

Dokken, ‘Under Lock and Key’ (1985)

Although Dokken's 1987 Back for the Attack charted higher — thanks to a hit song in the third Freddy Krueger movie — Under Lock and Key remains their quintessential release. It's a streak of confused love songs including the tough-guy-gone-soft rocker "In My Dreams," the rejection manifesto "It's Not Love" and the literal "will I ever find love . . . on these lonely streets?" anthem "The Hunter." Helium-lunged frontman Don Dokken sounds haunting at every turn, while guitarist George Lynch commands some of the best hard-rock riffs of the Eighties. However, these tough guys were as fragile in real life as the characters Dokken wrote about in his songs: At the peak of their career, billed over Metallica on the Monsters of Rock tour, they broke up in 1989. K.G.

Love/Hate - Black Out In The Red Room

Love/Hate, ‘Black Out in the Red Room’ (1990)

Depicting themselves on their album cover as cubist psychedelic indigenous hippies camped out around a rattlesnake-engorged hookah, Love/Hate smoldered like an itchy if inevitable L.A. intersection between very early Guns N' Roses and very early Jane's Addiction — but with a rhythm section punking their constricted herky-jerk funk into slice-and-dice pieces like some mid-Eighties death-to-trad-rock Brits reared on Gang Of Four. Almost every song on their debut concerns getting wasted (and in fact, Wasted in America is what they named their also astounding 1992 follow-up); their world is one big bad-trip party that mama told you not to come to, and you feel sorry for the "gang-bang slave girl" and "little slutsy tipsy" and "rock queen 13 buxom blonde" who didn't stay away. But their sound twists itself like no other hair metal — all the way to the surf-thrash Beach Boys "Hell, Ca., Pop. 4" conclusion. C.E.

Warrant - Cherry Pie

Warrant, ‘Cherry Pie’ (1990)

Though the MTV-dominating, virgin-deflowering, baseball-batting, pom-pom-rhymed sweet-tooth title track inevitably had Warrant painted as frivolous, Cherry Pie is the album where the eternally underrated Midwesterner-led L.A. boys started getting serious. They'd get even more serious later, on their grunged-up next couple albums almost nobody heard, but the real meal ticket here is the small-town murder mystery "Uncle Tom's Cabin," less Harriet Beecher Stowe than their answer to Charlie Daniels' "The Legend of Wooley Swamp." Warrant invert Johnny Paycheck ("You're the Only Hell Your Mama Ever Raised"), cover Blackfoot ("Train Train") and simulate power-pop-era .38 Special ("Mr. Rainmaker") too, so Southern rock's definitely part of the equation — ménage à trois "Love In Stereo" has even got some boogie-woogie piano. Plus: No hair-metal singer ever sounded as heartbroken as Jani Lane does in "I Saw Red." C.E.

Cinderella - Night Songs

Cinderella, ‘Night Songs’ (1986)

The debut album from Cinderella is masterful in both its economy and mood-setting abilities. Tom Keifer's yowl had Brian Johnson's bite and Janis Joplin's yearning, while the muscular take on bluesy hard rock put forth by his bandmates helped the punchy "Somebody Save Me" and the pummeling title track stand out in an increasingly crowded landscape. As for the title, even the saucy "Shake Me" has an afterhours edge, although the embittered, runny-mascara-stained "Nobody's Fool" might be the best early example of how hair metal's indulgence of its latent goth tendencies could result in the sublime. M.J.

Def Leppard - Pyromania

Def Leppard, ‘Pyromania’ (1983)

Initially lumped in with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal as denim-clad teens even though they'd later insist they'd been weaned on Seventies glam rock, Def Lep were still young and sprightly enough to manage pop-metal's Stateside breakthrough with their third album, one of the year's biggest selling in any genre. They got even bigger on 1987's Hysteria, but here they're still more a working band than Mutt Lange's studio concoction. Both sides close with mythic mini-Zep power-prog, and "Stagefright" still sports that NWOBHM overdrive. However, three huge hits are what sold it: pretty power-popper "Photograph," stuttering bombast ballad "Foolin'" and AC/DC approximation "Rock of Ages," which of course kicks off with fake German words and a Neil Young quote. One suspects, though, that Mutt encouraged all the sunburst-harmony choruses — not to mention the incidental sound effects like wind, helicopters and strange industrial loops. C.E.

Twisted Sister - Stay Hungry

Twisted Sister, ‘Stay Hungry’ (1984)

Twisted Sister always looked less like mascara-ed, gender-bending hair farmers than they did some steroidal version of New York Dolls. But thanks to a mix of tunes that rocked harder than their contemporaries and genuinely ebullient pop-metal MTV anthems like "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock," they led the glam-metal pack in 1984 with Stay Hungry. It was all so confusing that Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center fingered the band in its list of the Filthy 15 songs at the time (for ostensibly inspiring teenage violence), leading frontman Dee Snider to testify before the U.S. Senate in protest of "Parental Advisory" stickers. "The video 'We're Not Gonna Take It' was simply meant to be a cartoon with human actors playing variations on the Road Runner–Wile E. Coyote theme," Snider said in 1985. "Each stunt was selected from my extensive personal collection of cartoons." K.G.

Quiet Riot - Metal Health

Quiet Riot, ‘Metal Health’ (1983)

Metal Health was perfect cocktail of Eighties metal benchmarks: a song about headbanging ("Metal Health"), a catchy anthem embracing "the noise" (a cover of original glam rockers Slade's "Cum on Feel the Noize") and an ode to driving recklessly ("Slick Black Cadillac). It's no surprise it was the first-ever heavy metal record to reach Number One. The band had existed from 1975 to 1980, issuing two records only in Japan, before breaking up when Ozzy Osbourne called guitarist Randy Rhoads up to the majors. After Rhoads' tragic death, singer Kevin DuBrow got the band back together to record a tribute to their fallen comrade, Metal Health's Elton John-on-steroids power ballad "Thunderbird" — and only then they realized they could make another go of it. They'd score another hit record with 1984's Condition Critical (thanks to another Slade cover, "Mama Weer All Crazee Now") but their quality control slipped as the decade wore on. "It says 'bang your head,' which I think is the new rebellious statement of the Eighties," DuBrow said of one of their big hits in 1983. "It's relating back indirectly to what the Beatles and Elvis Presley tried to say, which is, 'We're the band parents love to hate and kids love to love and it's time to have a party.'" K.G.

Warrant - Dirty, Rotten, Filthy, Stinking Rich

Warrant, ‘Dirty, Rotten, Filthy, Stinking Rich’ (1989)

Warrant's first taste of wall-to-wall radio fame came with the wistful ballad "Heaven," which reached Number Two on the Hot 100, its notoriety derived from the libidos of its members — particularly that of frontman Jani Lane, whose sweet singing voice was belied by his salty bon mots. Their first album is an effective primer in hard rock's striving spirit, which one could argue was made even more obvious by the hairspray and leather that covered it up. The title track speaks to rock-star dreams of "insulat[ing] my body in green" and "light[ing] my cigarettes with 100 dollar bills"; "32 Pennies," which opens the album, shimmies as Lane declares his lack of tangible assets; and "Big Talk" brings its big choruses back to life lessons Lane learned at his father's knee. M.J.

Extreme - Extreme II: Pornograffiti

Extreme, ‘Extreme II: Pornograffiti’ (1990)

Extreme's second album went double platinum largely because of "More Than Words," the delicate duet between vocalist Gary Cherone and guitarist Nuno Bettencourt that topped the Hot 100 and turned the band into MTV staples. But the "funked up fairytale" surrounding that megahit was a grooving, swaggering lost-innocence story full of unease about the planetary ("Pornograffiti," "When I'm President") and the personal ("Li'l Jack Horny," "It('s A Monster)"). "That was subversive of us, wasn't it?" Cherone said to Rolling Stone earlier this year. As probably the hair metal era's most successful concept album in both sales and execution, Pornograffiti is powered by Cherone's majestic voice and the fleet solos of future Rihanna sideman Bettencourt, with even the more paranoid moments being sweetened by world-swallowing hooks. The album's journey culminates with the sweepingly optimistic "Song for Love" and the breezy "Hole Hearted," which might be about being saved by higher powers or could be just a walk-into-the-sunset ending. M.J.

Whitesnake - Whitesnake

Whitesnake, ‘Whitesnake’ (1987)

By 1987, former Deep Purple vocalist David Coverdale had been churning out bloozy, sexed-up pub-rock with Whitesnake for a decade, and received little more than a collective shrug from America for his troubles. But with his band's seventh album he went full-on Bon Jovi, trading the denim and leather for frillier duds and more slickly rendered rockers and power ballads. Tellingly, the album's big hit, "Here I Go Again," was actually a redo from Whitesnake's 1982 effort, Saints & Sinners — only the original's bubbling organ and choppy riff were replaced by shiny synths, sweetly overdriven guitars and a video that featured Coverdale's then-girlfriend Tawny Kitaen dry-humping the hood of his Jaguar XJ. "As George Harrison would say, 'It became an evergreen,'" Coverdale told the Boston Herald about the song's success. "And thank God, because it helps the mortgage." R.B.

Tesla - The Great Radio Controversy

Tesla, ‘The Great Radio Controversy’ (1989)

An enigma marinated in a paradox, Sacramento's Tesla were not only somehow a respectable hair band (perhaps presaging the Black Crowes even), but also bizarrely conflicted about technology: Named for radio pioneer Nikola Tesla, they nonetheless bragged on album covers about not using "machines" in their music — which apparently meant synthesizers, not electric guitars, at least until they put out an acoustic album (metal's first ever?) in 1990. Their second album goes down easy with no bitter aftertaste, sort of like the band U.F.O. in the Seventies (but just like with U.F.O., good luck remembering the songs). Close inspection, however, reveals an intricate inability-of-escape number with slide guitars ("Heaven's Trail [No Way Out]"), a moral lesson on masculinity ("Be a Man"), some stressed-out power metal ("Flight to Nowhere"), a Top Ten pop power ballad ("Love Song") and plenty of epic sadness. C.E.

Cinderella - Long Cold Winter

Cinderella, ‘Long Cold Winter’ (1988)

A mere half-decade after their unbelievable commercial for Pat's Chili Dogs in Philly, Cinderella made this meticulously paced masterpiece. Not until 1990's more blatantly nutritious Heartbreak Station did the intelligentsia realize they were something more than mere poodle-dogs, but in retrospect Long Cold Winter ranks with any blues-rock of the Eighties. The back porch instrumental picking opening each side digs persuasively deep, but the band lets hooks — in four charting singles, for starters — evolve naturally out of the slide and pedal steel. Sneakily kicking off with "Bad Seamstress Blues"/"Falling Apart at the Seams," both world-weary Janis-style weepers and hopped-up Nazareth-style ravers unfurl seamlessly. Vocalist Tom Keifer clearly yearns to get back home, but his gypsy road won't take him there. So he grows his hair to the sky and dares you to poke fun of it and drives all night just to keep his rat in the race. C.E.

Motley Crue - Too Fast For Love

Motley Crue, ‘Too Fast for Love’ (1981)

Mötley Crüe's earliest days have become the stuff of legend — the roach infestations, the wild parties, the egg burritos (don't ask). The band's 1981 debut, initially released on their own Leathür Records then reissued by Elektra, shows how they used the influences offered by Los Angeles — whether musical or sensual — to galvanize a rock genre that would eventually become a major cultural force. The breakneck "Live Wire" succinctly illustrates Love's appeal; Vince Neil's voice is more about communicating his pent-up agitation than about hitting the right notes, while Mick Mars's scraping guitar riff and Tommy Lee's drum assault combine glam's swagger with punk's brisk get-'er-done spirit. The saucy grind of "Come On And Dance" and Mars' counterpoint squeals on "Piece of Your Action" presage Crüe's later world-beaters. M.J.

Kix - Blow My Fuse

Kix, ‘Blow My Fuse’ (1988)

Hagerstown, Maryland hicks obsessed with blowing things up and dirty metaphors thereof, Kix made six joyfully rocking and frequently hilarious pop-metal albums between 1981 and 1994. Thanks largely to the shivery suicide-prevention P.S.A. "Don't Close Your Eyes," an atypical-in-Kix-land power ballad that just missed Billboard's pop Top 10, this is easily the one the most people bought. It's also the one where AC/DC became their primary inspiration (before that, they'd fluctuated just as much between the Who, the Knack and Foreigner), and it's probably their most solid. "Red Lite, Green Lite, TNT" and "She Dropped Me the Bomb" do the explosion dance, as does the title track, where the fuse blown might well be a body part. "Red Lite, Green Lit, TNT" and "No Ring Around Rosie" (note the AC/DC references) are also both inspired by children's games, a bubblegum tradition since the Sixties. C.E.

Faster Pussycat - Faster Pussycat

Faster Pussycat, ‘Faster Pussycat’ (1987)

Faster Pussycat's debut actually beat Guns 'N Roses' debut to the racks by a couple of weeks and, though nobody remembers it now, at the time the future Rock & Roll Hall of Famers and the future footnotes were frequently reviewed together, their Aerosmith-indebted sleaze somehow simultaneously perceived as both just more L.A. hair-metal and a more authentically trashy alternative to the same. Both bands had played early gigs at (future MTV VJ, past Angry Samoan audition flunker) Riki Rachtman and (Pussycat wailer) Taime Downe's World Famous Cathouse, so in one of this album's best songs "the best Cathouse in town" might therefore not be a house of prostitution. Rachtman is credited with "scratching" on the ahead-of-its-time rock-rap "Babylon," which owes equally the New York Dolls and Beastie Boys. C.E.

Ratt - Out Of The Cellar

Ratt, ‘Out of the Cellar’ (1984)

Has any producer ever applied more echo to a rock singer's yelp than Beau Hill does to Stephen Pearcy's on Ratt's Out of the Cellar? At first it seemed as cloying as all that eye shadow and mascara, but even then there was no denying the power of "Round and Round," a tightly chugging ball of post-Nuggets street-punk snottiness for all times. Plus, Milton Berle was in the video, and he'd been dressing up in women's clothes forever! Van Halen and Aerosmith fans and Mötley Crüe pals who'd made it north to L.A. from San Diego, the erstwhile Mickey Ratt paid to play plenty just to get this far. And while it'd be easy to dismiss most of their first full-length as filler, "She Wants Money" and "I'm Insane" work up an enviable propulsion, and "Lack Of Communication" and "The Morning After" are no slouches where song structure and guitar tone are concerned. C.E.

Skid Row - Skid Row

Skid Row, ‘Skid Row’ (1989)

After slugging it out in Jersey clubs in the mid Eighties with another singer, Skid Row hired Bahamian howler Sebastian Bach and catapulted to instant success. Heavy MTV play of three Mötley Crüe-styled rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold anthems — "Youth Gone Wild," "18 and Life" and "I Remember You" — pushed their debut record to sell more than two million copies before the decade was through, even if the band didn't think that was their appeal at the time. "I don't want to have to live up some stupid label about being a 'bad boy' or being a leader of a brat pack," Bach said in 1989. "We just care about singing on key, but we don't care that much about it. Playing as best we can and making sure our hair looks nice on TV." K.G.

Motley Crue - Shout at the Devil

Mötley Crüe, ‘Shout at the Devil’ (1983)

Get past the shock value of the pentagram on the vinyl cover and the quote adapted from Nazi educators ("Those who have the youth have the future") in opener "In the Beginning," and Mötley Crüe's second full-length album is a mine of melodic, hard-rocking paydirt led by "Looks That Kill." "We're just like Journey, aren't we?" said the ever-quotable Nikki Sixx after the album's release. "We could write like a punk rock song on speed and still have it come out with a melody on it. Then it's still a song, it's still good. We don't think melody is just limited to slow Beatles songs or Journey songs or love songs. It doesn't have to be." Speaking of the Beatles, "Helter Skelter" arrives here done up in molten Mick Mars riffage and Vince Neil's piercing wails. R.F.

Bon Jovi - Slippery When Wet

Bon Jovi, ‘Slippery When Wet’ (1986)

Slippery When Wet saw Bon Jovi rise from moderately successful New Jersey hard rockers to one of the world's biggest acts, inside or outside of spandex. Loaded with storytelling ("Wanted Dead or Alive") and Richie Sambora's wall of guitars ("Raise Your Hands"), the album has moved more than 12 million copies to date. With key songwriting assists from Desmond Child (Aerosmith, KISS, Cher) on "You Give Love a Bad Name" and the Guide to Trickle-Down Economics for Stadiums of "Livin' on a Prayer," Slippery endures as a karaoke classic. "It's working class, and it's real," Bon Jovi has said of "Livin' on a Prayer," probably one of the only hair metal songs to mention union strikes. "That's what most of our fans can relate to, not the limos and groupies. That's where I still find my heart." R.F.

Poison - Look What The Cat Dragged In

Poison, ‘Look What the Cat Dragged in’ (1986)

Bret Michaels might claim his inspirations were Zeppelin and Skynyrd and his band had no connection to Seventies glitter, but Poison still came out of nowhere like the Bay City Rollers trying to be the New York Dolls — and that's what made them fun. Their 1988 follow-up Open Up And Say . . . Ahh!" probably wins in terms of consistency, brawn and brains, but their quickly recorded indie-label debut was the all-time epitome of kindergarten metal, from the "Be My Baby" drumbeats opening opener "Cry Tough" to the bubblegum Sex Pistols riffs in the great "Talk Dirty to Me." "I Won't Forget You" was a dreamy love letter to fans, "I Want Action" their answer to the Dolls' "Looking For a Kiss." And until they chickened out and ditched the pink guitars a few years on, no boy hair band looked girlier. C.E.

Def Leppard - Hysteria

Def Leppard, ‘Hysteria’ (1987)

With Hysteria, Def Leppard and producer Mutt Lange set out to create, in guitarist Phil Collen's words, "a hard-rock version of Thriller." Which meant leaning hard on the "pop" side of the pop-metal equation, and putting the focus on rhythm and vocals rather than guitars. The result? More than 20 million copies sold. Most impressively, the songs were surprisingly varied, from the Burundi-beat thump of glitter ode "Rocket," to the nursery-rhyme electro-rap of "Pour Some Sugar on Me," to the cyborg country ballad "Love Bites." Recalled Collen to Guitar World, "When Hysteria came out a lot of people went, 'This isn't rock. It's wussy.' But it had the absolute effect it was supposed to have had. Because the point was to not just play to the rock audience but rather to play to everybody. And we achieved that." R.B.

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