Sometimes, music criticism in the 21st century can seem like one big, hapless exercise in re-evaluation. The ascension of poptimism means we can no longer scoff at or ascribe shame to mainstream commercial tastes, and when critics aren’t heaping praise on the Beyoncés and Taylor Swifts of the world, we’re turning back the clock and heaping overdue praise on disco and other trends that made our forebears cringe. But one genre that tends to get lost in this orgy of reexamination is perhaps the most garish, excessive, and commercial-driven of them all: Hair metal.
A popification of metal that began with late ’70s glam rock and spanned the entire subsequent decade, hair metal continues to be shunned by most folks who consume music critically and self-seriously. It lives on in the minds of fiftysomethings who remember being there, whether “there” constitutes a trashed Vegas hotel room or the sordid greenroom at West Hollywood’s Troubadour nightclub.
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Defined by its hedonistic baggage as much as its blistering riffs and shout-at-the-sky choruses, hair metal has a definite PR problem in today’s musical landscape. After all, isn’t this the dumb crap Nirvana and all those other great ’90s alt-rock bands pushed back against? Isn’t this the stuff that preached style over substance and eventually morphed into reality TV dreck like Rock of Love and Tommy Lee Goes to College? Yes. It is. But here’s the thing: Some of it also kind of rules.
You might think we’re scraping the bottom of rock’s barrel by stumping for hair metal, but hear us out. This shameless and shameful genre actually spawned a ton of great records that fans of punk, hard rock, heavy metal, and even blues shouldn’t dismiss out of hand. To prove it, we’ve assembled a chronological list of 10 hair metal albums that definitively do not suck. And we didn’t even have to include Appetite for Destruction!
(Masterpiece Reviews: Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction)
If you’re a hater, we hope you find something here that changes your mind or reinforces your iron-clad prejudices. On that note, leather up and enjoy.
Senior Staff Writer
Mötley Crüe – Too Fast for Love (1981)
Though it remains a larger-than-life touchstone of the genre, Mötley Crüe’s debut album also serves as a backdoor entry point for punk fans willing to give hair metal a chance. The leather-clad iconography of the album’s cover is certainly relatable, and even the phrase “Too Fast for Love” echoes the “Live Fast Die Young” battle cry of LA punk contemporaries Circle Jerks.
But set aside the superficial imagery — a difficult task when it comes to hair metal, we know — and Too Fast for Love still rocks on its own terms. The lightning-fast debut single, “Live Wire”, sets an unsustainable pace that the rest of the album somehow sustains, and all the glitz and glam in the world melts away in the presence of the bruising, blues-inspired riffs that blow the doors off the title track and “Stick to Your Guns”. Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Tommy Lee, and Nikki Sixx would come close to outdoing themselves a few years later with Shout at the Devil (1983), but they’d never sound quite as tough or as fun as they do here.
Hanoi Rocks – Self Destruction Blues (1982)
If you’re not already predisposed to liking the genre, one of the best ways to get into hair metal is to start early in the timeline, when punk and ’70s glam rock hadn’t yet been excised from its DNA. Finland’s Hanoi Rocks split the difference between Bowie and the New York Dolls, with vocalist Michael Munroe wielding his platinum hair and British-tinted accent to kiss-me-deadly effect.
Living halfway around the world from the bright lights of LA and New York City was a blessing in disguise for the group, as their seminal Self Destruction Blues doesn’t suffer from the trappings of any one scene. Buzzcocks-era power pop fuels the rollicking “Nothing New” while closer “Dead by Xmas” sounds like a less tough, less self-conscious version of The Skids. Sax and keys lend an additional color to the album that’s sometimes whimsical, sometimes cinematic. In any case, Self Destruction Blues still sounds like a breath of fresh air in a genre better known for its putrid offerings.
Quiet Riot – Metal Health (1983)
Some might quibble with Quiet Riot’s classification as a “hair metal” band, but the LA group’s second incarnation (formed after the departure and subsequent death of original guitarist Randy Rhoads) came of age in the same LA scene that spawned the likes of Mötley Crüe, Dokken, and countless others. Their breakthrough 1983 album, Metal Health, also served as an important bridge between ’70s heavy metal and the more pop-oriented hair metal of the ’80s. That tension can be heard in the dynamics of opener “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)”, a song whose smooth, polished verses belie the ass-kicking that’s coming in the chorus. The album’s most enduring track, a cover of Slade’s 1973 jam “Cum on Feel the Noize”, stands as yet another example of hair metal’s formula at its best: classic heavy metal plus swagger, sparkle, and even more solos.
W.A.S.P. – W.A.S.P. (1984)
There’s no getting around the simple, indisputable fact that W.A.S.P. kicks ass. Whereas most LA metal groups were content to preach to the already-converted on the topics of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, these shock rockers were out to pollute the hearts and minds of America’s youth. Their efforts were rewarded with a bit of notoriety when Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center called out their debut single, “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)”, as morally objectionable.
The song ultimately didn’t make it onto the album, but don’t worry: Everything about W.A.S.P. is gloriously, wholeheartedly morally objectionable, from the flayed skeleton on the cover to the satanic howl of frontman Blackie Lawless on “I Wanna Be Somebody”. More dangerous than Kiss and fueled by a meaner guitar-drum attack than Alice Cooper (see “L.O.V.E. Machine” for proof), W.A.S.P. set the standard for hair metal that’s not afraid to let the darkness shine.
Ratt – Out of the Cellar (1984)
If you’re beginning to sense a theme here, the best hair metal albums tend to offset the vast quantities of cheese with a keen understanding of what makes leaner, meaner genres like punk and heavy metal tick. Speaking of cheese, there’s no shortage of the stuff on Ratt’s 1984 semi-classic Out of the Cellar, on which the leather- and mascara-clad Hollywood rockers aim to out-Van Halen Van Halen. The fact that they don’t fall flat on their faces is a testament to Robbin Crosby and Warren DeMartini, two of the scene’s most talented guitarists and apparently huge fans of British heavy metal, if the tight, snarling guitars of “Round and Round” and the staccato blasts of “In Your Direction” are any indication. Vocalist Stephen Pearcy and the rest of the band are replacement-level by hair metal standards, but Crosby and DeMartini brew something special on Out of the Cellar.
Kix – Midnite Dynamite (1985)
Though this list is out to prove that hair metal isn’t entirely a joke, we’re not sure Kix would agree with that assessment. Unquestionably the group with the best sense of humor in the scene, Kix leaned hard into hair metal’s perceived excesses, and it paid off with an unforgettable live show; ask folks who went to one of their shows in the mid-’80s, and you’re likely to hear stories about glitter, pyrotechnics, and all other manner of spectacle.
In spite of their flame-throwing efforts, Kix never quite broke through in the mainstream — a shame, because 1985’s Midnite Dynamite has all the makings of a platinum-selling hair metal masterpiece. Every member of the band pulls his weight here, with guitarists Ronnie Younkins and Brian Forsythe forming a two-man blitzkrieg on “Layin’ Rubber” and bassist Donnie Purnell showing an uncanny knack for funk on “Cold Shower”.
Cinderella – Night Songs (1986)
Unlike most of the other bands on this list, Cinderella were not from LA. If you didn’t know that from reading the liner notes, you’d surely figure it out while listening to the band’s 1986 debut, Night Songs. Uncommonly dark and bluesy for a hair metal album, Night Songs basks in an intoxicating mix of grit and glamor. The anthemic “Shake Me” (complete with cowbell throughout) digs around in the dirt before transcending to its arena-ready two-word chorus, and tracks like “Once Around the Ride” and “Nobody’s Fool” feel similarly far removed from the hyper-polished sound of the Sunset Strip. The fact that this is a freaking debut makes it all the more impressive; there are moments on the album when Cinderella sound like a tighter, more self-assured version of AC/DC.
Def Leppard – Hysteria (1987)
Unlike most of the other albums featured on this list, Def Leppard’s Hysteria aims for the softer side of hair metal — so much so, in fact, that some listeners still consider it too wimpy for the genre. On it, the band trades blistering guitar solos for smooth-sailing verses on tracks like “Animal” and the synth-heavy “Love Bites”, the latter of which is the closest hair metal can come to straight-up pop balladry before crossing the event horizon. But if the one thing hair metal lacks most perceptibly is innovation, Hysteria has it in spades. Megahit “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, for example, dabbles in both industrial rock and electropop. It’s a mixture that might have earned the band a fair amount of derision, but it also helped them transcend the hair metal label for good.
Faster Pussycat – Faster Pussycat (1987)
It’s not easy to disassociate Faster Pussycat with their far more successful counterparts, Guns N’ Roses. Both bands hailed from LA (no surprise there), and their debuts came out within the span of just a few weeks. We all know how that worked out for GnR and the earth-shattering Appetite for Destruction, but Faster Pussycat never quite gained the same traction despite the strength (and sleaze) of their self-titled first record. That’s a shame, because tracks like “Bathroom Wall” capture the spirit and humor of hair metal in a concise, thrilling fashion, transcending the genre’s typical trappings every so often with a countrified guitar wail or a flashback to New York Dolls-era glam punk. And that’s to say nothing of the super-weird and prescient “Babylon”, which may be ground zero for the rap-rock movement of the ’90s.
L.A. Guns – Cocked and Loaded (1989)
Is there a more hair metal band name than L.A. Guns or a more hair metal album cover than a bikini-clad woman straddling the butt end of a revolver? Rhetorical questions aside, Cocked and Loaded remains an overlooked masterpiece of the genre, zooming from 0 to 60 within the span of minutes as it transitions from the sentimental (but not cloyingly so) “Ballad of Jayne” to the bluesy, blown-out racing anthem “17 Crash”.
Cocked and Loaded came towards the end of hair metal’s arc, a time at which not a lot of the genre’s heavyweights were still producing great (or even passably good) albums. This one doesn’t reach the same highs as Too Fast for Love and other early touchstones, but it flexes some serious muscles in terms of versatility. If this strange brew of blues, hard rock, glam metal, and power pop is as far as hair metal ever got, we’ll take it with a smile and a slight bang of the head.