Over time, rock and roll lost touch with its “Love Me Tender” and “Peggy Sue” beginnings and became kind of a closet Quiet Storm listener sometime around the time Ozzy Osbourne entered the collective consciousness. Except even hair metal was dominated by lighter-wavers. Basically, no one can resist ballads, no matter how hard they try, and here are ten acts few would’ve predicted made their best work when succumbing to the call of the slow jam.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Maybe this one’s obvious. Few people admit to loving Anthony Kiedis’ raps, but even the most stalwart Chili Peppers hater can’t resist “Under the Bridge,” which ties with Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” as the prettiest Hendrixian guitar of the ’90s. The band themselves noted this, and went on to replace “Suck My Kiss” with Grammy-friendly melodies like “Scar Tissue” and “Otherside.” What’s surprising is how these songs ended up being the best music they ever made. Sure these got bland well before they dropped the anvil of Stadium Arcadium on a long-bored America. But if you dismissed them too early, you missed the plainly lovely “Dosed.”
With love to the melismatic marvels of Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder was the only grunge singer born to croon. From the debut album’s languid “Black” to the down-home country of “Daughter” to the Otis-worthy “Nothingman” to the Harvest-worthy “Off He Goes,” you could compile an entire greatest hits collection from PJ’s prettiest. 1998’s Yield was especially generous, with “Wishlist” and the underrated “In Hiding.” But there’s a reason their biggest hit (yup) was a formidable cover of “Last Kiss.”
Aerosmith invented the power ballad, but more impossibly, maintained its gold standard up until that unfortunate, streak-breaking Armageddon annoyance. But boy what a run: “Dream On,” “Sweet Emotion,” a thunderous version of the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “Angel,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” “What It Takes,” “Livin’ on the Edge,” “Crazy,” “Blind Man” and Nine Lives‘ underrated “Hole in My Soul,” “Ain’t That a Bitch” and “Full Circle.” But their greatest song, and—if you’re being truly honest with yourself as a rock and roll lover—one of the greatest songs ever written, is “Cryin’,” a volcanic soul tune that offered more than introducing a generation to Alicia Silverstone.
This is another no-brainer, as James Murphy’s meta-tantrums about having to act his age would be mere novelties without the context of their heart-on-sleeve B-sides. “North American Scum” was a hoot of a catharsis for Bush America, while the piano-whittling “All My Friends” and EKG-blipping “Someone Great” told the flipside of people who go missing during hard times. “Drunk Girls” was secretly his smartest ever collection of thoughts (“Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut/ It comes back but it’s never the same,” oh GOD yes) but it staved off accusations of mean-spiritedness by being coupled with the broken prom theme “I Can Change” and the comedown-at-dawn “Home.”
Has any other punk band managed a graceful side career in pretty sonics? Maybe Green Day—if they put a “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” on every album. Otherwise give it up to Dean Spunt and Randy Randall, whose riffs are always surging with warmth, and glued together with ambient orgasms like “Keechie” and “Things I Did When I Was Dead” to break up the intensity. Best of all was when they affected Daniel Johnston’s wounded-kid voice and campfire acoustics for “Common Heat.” They’re maybe the only band that look forward to getting mellower.
System of a Down
If Mr. Bungle was talented enough to write the hit single they’d never want, they’d be System of a Down. The Armenian-Californian eggheads were unafraid to insert things into nu-metal that failed or terrified their peers: flawless pop harmonies, appropriations of non-Western music, particularly of the Middle Eastern sort, and flashes of ska, polka, disco and jazz. And very stupid humor. All of it worked, so there’s no disguising their pride for non-metal songwriting. But their ballads proved their greatest love really was melody. From the abrasive debut’s surprising “Spiders” and its screwed-and-chopped Mega Man riff to the completely acoustic “Roulette,” not even hardcore fans ever objected to their sellout moves. And it helped that the classic Toxicity‘s title track, “Chop Suey!” and “ATWA” were every bit as thrashing as they were pretty.
The Velvet Underground
For all the legend of white noise, proto-50 Shades BDSM and harrowing drug tributes, very few people in 2013 argue that Most Influential Band Ever’s finest work was their third and most subdued album, The Velvet Underground. “Pale Blue Eyes” has become their most-covered standard and it kicks the shit out of “Yesterday,” while “After Hours” proved a throwaway could become a classic. The soul ballad “I Found a Reason” is one of rock’s all-time prettiest songs—do not die before seeking out the Dylanesque demo version, complete with harmonica. And leaving 1969’s glockenspiel and string-adorned “Stephanie Says” in the vault until the 1980s was arguably the most antisocial punk move of their whole existence.
Lou Barlow was never cut out for indie noise. But it sure made a nice bed for his grade-A sap to cut through unsuspectingly. No indie-rock band has ever had a streak like “Truly Great Thing,” “Brand New Love,” “Soul and Fire,” “Not a Friend” and “On Fire” across five different albums. And topping it all off was 1996’s incredible “Too Pure,” which deserved to be as big as “Everlong.” How did he get away with all that sincerity in a clattering slacker band? Because those songs beat the clattering slacker ones.
At the Drive-In
For “Invalid Litter Dept.” alone. WISHING WELL WISHING WELL WISHING WEH-HELL
There wasn’t and will never be another song like “Stan,” the first and last recorded word on the scariness of fandom. But “Like Toy Soldiers,” “The Way I Am,” and “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” following in its footsteps were unprecedented. Say what you will about the tastelessness of bringing in Rihanna for the domestic violence theater “Love the Way You Lie,” but her solo heights never come close to pushing her voice to such spine-chilling places.