posted at 1:19 pm by brandon in now hear this

In a smashingly brilliant follow up to last year’s monumental ten-disc Classic Soft Rock collection — the infomercial promoting which was hosted by Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock (those peerless bastions of ’80s schmaltz who were better recognized by the masses as Air Supply) and was one of the finest, most compelling half-hours of television I have ever witnessed — the fabulous folks at Time-Life have truly outdone themselves with Ultimate Rock Ballads, a new eight-album assemblage of music which pulls together 133 of the most essential percussive dirges from the past four decades into one gloriously cheesy listening experience.


If you’ve not yet seen the ingenious infomercial for this latest set (which generally pops up around 2 am, somewhere inside the vast bowels of your cable dial), you’d be well-advised to begin pushing back your bedtime.  Trust me when I tell you, it’s absolutely worth the sleep deprivation:  opening as it does with the warmly familiar piano-pounding chords from Night Ranger’s 1984 landmark “Sister Christian” (the quintessential power ballad, bar none), the first five minutes of the show, which feature glimpses of Foreigner (who, when you combine their fertile output with that of their spectacular lead singer Lou Gramm, seem to contribute at least a third of this anthology’s material), Toto, Styx, my beloved Eddie Money (most seriously, I nearly wept when he appeared onscreen!), and REO Speedwagon (whose lead singer, Kevin Cronin — who, incidentally, has aged unspeakably well, considering he was hardly a spring chicken when his band first broke through in the early ’80s; and who, just like Russell and Hitchcock in the previous infomercial, grabs his guitar and bursts proudly into interstitial song — hosts this incomparable brilliance) are so uniformly riveting you’ll literally have to maim yourself to keep from reaching for the phone and ordering this collection.


Although this set offers nothing that you’ll find genuinely offensive, on even an aesthetic level, it’s true enough there are some questionable inclusions here (do Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” or Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head” really qualify as “rock ballads”?), but the mere sight of the pompous Grace Slick taking herself so hilariously seriously in the video for Starship’s 1987 smash “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” — did anybody else out there besides me used to live for her splendiferous insanity? — is all it takes to wash your doubts downstream.


And, doubtless, all it takes for your mind to return, wistfully, to a simpler time, when gasoline was a buck a gallon, when the men had longer hair (and higher voices!) than the women, and when the music — always more angst-ridden than the motions and emotions it betrayed — merely inspired the kids to grab a beautiful someone to shag instead of something crazy like opening fire on their confused classmates with illegally-obtained automatic weapons.  (Ah, the powerfully nostalgic lure of innocent debauchery.)   With that in mind, I’m ready to dig deeper into this collection of sensational songs, and offer up a cherry-picked playlist of its numerous awe-inspiring highlights:

1.  “Sister Christian”Night Ranger (from Greatest Hits) — Night Ranger - Greatest Hits - Sister Christian — yes, it contains the most singularly nonsensical chorus in the entire history of recorded music.  Who gives a damn; all by itself, this soaring orgasm-of-a-song — for which the demented auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, via the bonkers climax of his breathtaking breakthrough Boogie Nights, cemented a firm spot in cinematic history — practically invented the term “power ballad.”

2.  “I Want to Know What Love Is”Foreigner (from No End in Sight: The Very Best of Foreigner) — Foreigner - No End In Sight: The Very Best of Foreigner (Remastered) - I Want to Know What Love Is — in the liner notes for No End, a two-disc retrospective of Foreigner’s stunning career which was released in July, the band’s founder Mick Jones intimates that singing such earnestly sappy songs as this turned Lou Gramm’s stomach.  But listening to him sell it with full-throated verve, you could never tell.  Helped along by Jennifer Holliday (who just happened to be walking past the studio during the recording session, and was coaxed inside to lay down a vocal) and the New Jersey Mass Choir, this became the band’s first and only number one hit.

3.  “Alone”Heart (from Greatest Hits: 1985-1995) — Heart - Heart: Greatest Hits - 1985-1995 - Alone — in much the same way a starving bulldog knows only one way to consume a succulent pork chop, Ann Wilson knows only one way to sing.  And God love ‘er for it.

4.  “Drive”The Cars (from The Complete Greatest Hits) — The Cars - The Cars: Complete Greatest Hits - Drive — the offbeat Ric Ocasek was more or less the band’s lead singer, but for what would become their biggest (and best-loved) hit, he handed the reins to Benjamin Orr, who turned in a devastating vocal.  ’80s pop scarcely got this serious, and even when it did, the results were scarcely this brilliant.  Forever a masterpiece.

5.  “Keep On Loving You” REO Speedwagon (from The Essential REO Speedwagon) — REO Speedwagon - The Essential of REO Speedwagon - Keep On Loving You — of course host Cronin and his cronies were gonna land a spot on this list!  I’ll admit, I had a tough time choosing between this and their 1985 classic “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” but I went with “Keep” simply because it has aged as fantastically well as its author.  The message is as simple as it is timeless.

6.  “We Belong” Pat Benatar (from Best Shots) — Pat Benatar - Best Shots - We Belong — for her final top five smash, Benatar saved the best for last.  A confident vocal laid atop that slammin’, off-center drum arrangement equaled an unparalleled tour de force.  Some twenty-five years later, this (like almost all of Benatar’s major hits) still holds up.

7.  “Love Song”Tesla (from Time’s Makin’ Changes: The Best of Tesla) — Tesla - Time's Makin' Changes - The Best of Tesla - Love Song — without question, this 1990 stunner was the high water mark for that (blessedly) short-lived hair metal uprising that introduced us to bands like Skid Row and Great White.  In the end, Tesla ended up following the same two-hits-and-done template that sank every last one of the bands that they came of age with, but for a second there, didn’t Jeff Keith’s incredible voice make you think you were listening to the next Jon Bon Jovi?

8.  “To Be With You” Mr. Big (from Lean Into It) — Mr. Big - Lean Into It - To Be With You — a monster hit from the spring of 1992 (when radio, just months ahead of the grunge revolution which shook the globe to its very core, had turned into a sticky-sweet wasteland fueled by Michael Bolton, Amy Grant, and Mariah Carey; maple trees in Vermont should have been so sappy!), this classic — featuring a fearsome, raspy vocal performance from Eric Martin, whose curly, conditioned-to-within-an-inch brunette mane was the crushing envy of many a young lass back in the day — would have been right at home in the late-’80s heyday of Bon Jovi, Poison, and Whitesnake.  Which only goes to prove that cream always finds its way to the top, no matter the era.



4 responses to “motorin‘!”

  1. the buzz from J.B.:

    If “Listen to Your Heart” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” aren’t on it then I object to the title. 🙂

  2. the buzz from brandon:

    “Total Eclipse” is front and center, but sadly, Roxette is not.

  3. the buzz from J.B.:


  4. the buzz from A.:

    Let me begin this response with a story. Some fine Friday evening in April of last year, I was enjoying a few drinks with my colleagues, about a half-mile from my home. By the time the clock struck nine, several of the said colleagues were enjoying (quite a few) more than “a few drinks,” but the night was still young. As if on cue, Brandon rang, asking if I would tape something for him on TV. Pleased to have a reason to escape the more-than-a-little-drunk colleagues, I dutifully returned home, set up the timer on the VCR per Brandon’s exact instructions, and returned to the party to check on the clearly-drunk colleagues. (After all, a half-mile is only 10 minutes of brisk walking!)

    A surprising and mysterious fellow that he is, Brandon never revealed what exactly I was taping for him (and I never had time to check myself until afterwards), though given his previous requests for sports, dramas, interviews, etc., I was not expecting anything exotic. Imagine my horror when I realized that I taped an infomercial. An infomercial! Of course, Brandon calls it “one of the finest, most compelling half-hours of television” that he has “ever witnessed. ” Yes, that was the Classic Soft Rock collection, hosted by Air Supply. Well, as is the case with many things, I eventually found reasons to quite enjoy this infomercial — condensed to 17 minutes, it is actually quite fun!), and I’ve “gleaned” many songs from it.

    So, I was much less dubious when I read — and, in due time, watched — the Ultimate Rock Ballads collection presented in this post. While I would not necessarily advise you to get cable (if you don’t have it) and search the bowels thereof for this infomercial, if you do catch it, you may want to give it more than the usual ten seconds you give an infomercial. You may discover some gems, just like I did.

    Here are my picks from Brandon’s list of eight, though I am sure I will acquire even more songs from this collection:

    1. Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”
    2. Heart’s “Alone”
    3. The Cars’ “Drive”
    4. Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” (I finally know who Pat Benatar is!)
    5. Mr. Big’s “To Be With You”
    Bonus Pick: Wynonna Judd’s cover of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”