The cleanup hitter

Me ‘n’ Steven differ on many subjects, including cycling, otters, and the proper condimento to heap on top of a plate of linguine. Yet there is one thing on which we always agree, and that thing is: power ballads. We love them. Many are the mediocre albums we’ve sifted through just to locate the big, cheesy fist-pumper to play and replay. I thought I knew everything I could possibly know about the tight relationship between Steven and ballads.

So I was recently surprised to learn — straight from the horse’s mouth, or text messenger — that Steven doesn’t think that a power ballad should be placed fourth on a standard pop-rock album. He believes that a band jeopardizes its forward momentum by downshifting early in a set. This not-uncommon sequencing phenomenon reminds him of the miserable days when the ’83 Mets batted the lead-footed George Foster cleanup. Foster had plenty of power, but no speed. Everything got clogged on the basepaths, innings died, and Frank Cashen spent late nights crying on the phone.

Now, if you’d ever asked me where the power ballad ought to go on a pop-rock album, without hesitation I would have said fourth, and I would have been deadly resolute about that. Yet it occurs to me that I have no clear idea why that is. When I have no clear idea, I get nervous, and when I get nervous, the bad vibes I produce are harmful to my house plant (a jade). Certainly I have listened to a buttload of albums, but Steven, in his capacity as the major domo of Piano’s Blooze Bar & Grill, has experienced a buttload of his own. Could he be right? Was I jumping the gun on the big ballad? A few days after writing an essay about, among other things, the new possibilities of record sequencing in our zany digital era, here was an example of a music listener to whom the order of songs matters deeply. I, alas, cannot and do not write power ballads; I write disempowerment chants, protest songs, uptempo synthesizer freakouts. But if I did (and perhaps you do), I’d want to know how to sequence it in order to achieve maximum vainglory. Where should the power ballad go? Where, historically, has it gone?

Well… Aerosmith stuck “Dream On” third on their debut album. KISS buried “Beth” on the second side of Destroyer, and Poison put “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” in the same position. “November Rain” was somewhere in the bowels of Use Your Illusion I, while “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and “Stairway To Heaven” were both in that magic number four slot. So was the less-epic “Sister Christian,” and “The Search Is Over,” and “Love Bites” and Bryan Adams’ classic “Heaven”; all of those were cleanup hitters. Heart was a little bolder about frontloading the balladry: both “What About Love” and “Alone” were placed second on their sets. “Always,” the gooiest power ballad in Bon Jovi’s boardwalk-caramel repertoire, slotted in at number four on Cross Road; “Wanted Dead Or Alive” closed side one of Slippery When Wet in the fifth spot. “Faithfully” did the same honors in the same position on Frontiers, but Journey fans had to wait for the very end of Escape to hear “Open Arms.” “Home Sweet Home”? That was another number five, right before you flipped the cassette (or didn’t) on Theatre Of Pain.

But wait a second: while some of these are awesome records, I can’t say I care for many of the albums that they’re from. I learned most of these songs straight from MTV. Even if it was a hair metal convention to put the power ballad fourth or fifth, I couldn’t possibly have acquired my ideas about pop-rock sequencing from Survivor. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Survivor album in my life. I must have gotten my funny ideas somewhere else. Maybe I just take the essentialist position that after twelve minutes of rock crunch and howling abandon, the stage is set for a slow-burning, heartrending, grotesque showstopper, and maybe Mutt Lange arrived at the same conclusion years earlier than I did.

More likely, I learned power ballad sequencing from the pop-rock albums I do listen to. Our favorite artists don’t usually talk about power ballads, since they don’t want to be associated with the worst excesses of the 1980s. But they certainly make them. Their power ballads may be more lyrically and harmonically sophisticated than “When I See You Smile” (or maybe not), but they’re stamped out from a similar template. Game Theory and the Loud Family, for instance, wrote many songs that were essentially power ballads — usually one per album, but sometimes more. Scott Miller used those ballads just as Steven Tyler might have: they came after a series of songs that attempted to make an impression on the listener by flashing hooks and choruses at a breakneck pace, signifying ‘tude, insouciance, musical ideas to burn. “Amelia, Have You Lost” took the cleanup spot on 2 Steps From the Middle Ages; “If And When It Falls Apart” closed the first side of Real Nighttime (fifth position, if you don’t count the eight second opening track), “Blackness Blackness” marked the end of the front half of Attractive Nuisance, and Days For Days had a medium-wattage ballad fourth and then a total slow-building powerhouse — “Sister Sleep,” the band’s version of “Stairway To Heaven”¹ — at the tail end of the set. My two favorites, though — “Some Grand Vision Of Motives And Irony” from Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things and Lolita Nation‘s sublime “Nothing New” — were strategically placed at the climax points of narrative/emotional arcs on long albums.

Paramore arrived at the mutually assured destruction stage of band development quicker than many, but I hope we can all agree that at their non-litigious best, these kids made first-rate pop-rock. They, too, tend to slot the power ballad deeper in the album than the lite metal bands generally did. “When It Rains,” the first ballad on Riot! , comes fifth, but “We Are Broken,” the real showstopper, is saved for the back half of the album. Brand New Eyes features five tracks of sturm und drang in various flavors before Hayley Williams hits you with “The Only Exception”²; “Misguided Ghosts,” a gentler number, sets up the proggy, sludgy conclusion. I count “Last Hope”, which is probably what they used to call a midtempo ballad, among the lighter-wavers, but the real tender track on Paramore, “Hate To See Your Heart Break,” is saved for the home stretch. The turn away from the power ballad, which is a Warped Tour circuit staple, was probably part of the band’s strategy to shed the emo tag once and for all. I’m not sure they did that. Once they’re through suing each other, that’s something they should work out.

I know nobody is trying to hear this, and I completely understand why. But before they turned the songwriting over to Deep Blue, Maroon 5 was an exemplary pop-rock band (yes, band!) with exemplary showstoppers. “Never Going To Leave This Bed” and “Won’t Go Home Without You,” which are similar songs, held down the fifth position on Hands All Over and It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. “She Will Be Loved,” the sopping-wet power ballad that made them a Thing, hit cleanup on Songs About Jane. Adam Levine kinda abandoned the power ballad once he capitulated utterly to contemporary Top 40 logic, rather than try to bend it to his will, which was the group’s initial strategy. Not coincidentally, the same thing has happened with the modern master of crowd-pleasing traditionalist songwriting: Taylor Swift. In days of yore, a fan could set his watch by her sequencing — a big, yearning mid-tempo number would come third, followed by a coy genre piece, followed by the devastated, torchy, confessional ballad designed to bring down the house for the star and opprobrium on the rake who’d wronged her (“Dear John,” “White Horse,” “All Too Well”). On 1989, there aren’t any ballads until the second side, and the one we got was mostly an attempt to nose a fender into Lana Del Rey’s lane. Power ballads and electropop are incompatible: process the analog signals to hell and back if you must, if you don’t have a real drummer and a real guitarist, you end up with a pile of digital mush.³

Which is probably why they dig them in Nashville. Pop-country outfits love power ballads. Some music-mill artists — including some very good ones — attempt to freight every album with multiple power ballads, which does get grueling even for Mayor McCheese over here. Male country singers have taken to frontloading their ballads: Blake Shelton ran “Lonely Tonight” third on Bringing Back The Sunshine; Brad Paisley put “Perfect Storm” in the same position on Moonshine In The TrunkMiranda Lambert, my favorite practitioner, is a little more judicious about it: since she’s got her tough-guy reputation to maintain, she tends to lead with barnburners. “Love Letters,” the first ballad (and fifth track) from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is more of a Western saloon song than an arena rocker, for instance, and “More Like Her,” the real showstopper, doesn’t arrive until two songs later. “Dead Flowers” does bat third on Revolution, but the most traditional power ballad in the Lambert repertoire — “Over You,” from Four The Record — waits in the grass until number nine. “Smokin’ And Drinkin’,” the cleanup hitter on Platinum, is a ballad of sorts, but it’s more mid-period Mac than musclebound masher, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, I didn’t get into Miranda Lambert, or any other mainstream country album, until 2010. By that point, I’d already been making records with various pop-rock outfits for a million years. I must have gotten my ideas about sequencing from somewhere else — likely something I was spinning when I made my first serious decisions about the order of a songs on an album. Back in 1995, I helped sequence the first Favorite Color album, and as it was my first time stringing together real studio tracks, I wanted to get the order right. The biggest proximate influence on that Favorite Color album was Blur, which was just about the only group in the world that everybody involved in the group could agree was good. The Great Escape, Blur’s ’95 album, does indeed contain a power ballad, even if Damon Albarn would never, ever call it that: “The Universal,” my favorite song of theirs by a wide margin, and the seventh track on the set. Not coincidentally, we ran “Mergers & Acquisitions,” the closest thing the Favorite Color had to a power ballad, seventh on our album.ª

Blur wasn’t the only Britpop band we were paying attention to, though, and they weren’t my act of choice. In the hyped-up battle of the U.K. then occurring, my sympathies were with Oasis, since their big goony-bird sound suited my big goony-bird personality. Oasis also had an album out in 1995: What’s The Story (Morning Glory). Might there have been a huge, fish ‘n’ chip greasy, beer-swinging power ballad on that set? Let’s check the tracklist and see….

…well, yes. Yes there was. “Don’t Look Back In Anger” contains pretty much everything I want from a power ballad. It’s played at top volume, its lyrics contain a long skein of fist-pumping slogans, the band wrings every ounce of drama out of each step in the chord progression, there’s a woman’s name in the chorus, there’s a prominent major-to-minor change in the chorus, there’s a guitar solo that transcends cliche through pure conviction and nothing but, the drummer hits the skins like he’s trying to break them, and the singer takes it to the outer limit of his modest vocal ability (Liam Gallagher, you’ll remember, was on the bench for this one, and Noel sang lead himself.) Sure enough, Oasis batted that one cleanup, and clean up it totally did. Heavy metal album pacing aside, I believe that the entire reason I expect the power ballad to be sequenced fourth because of my fond memories of the “Don’t Look Back In Anger” experience. Noel Gallagher was such a committed formalist that it’s likely he put his power ballad fourth because John Lennon or Marc Bolan did.  He slotted “Stand By Me,” another power ballad, fourth on Be Here Now; “Stop Crying Your Heart Out,” a “Don’t Look Back” redux, ran #4 on Heathen Chemistry. Worth noting: the British rock star most respectful of classic rock precedent (if never any of his peers or bandmates) firmly believed that the showstopper went in the number four position, which suggests, if anything does, that there’s something to the notion that it’s the proper home for a power ballad.

I’ve mentioned forty-seven songs in this post. Even if you’d like to quibble about the power they pack, they’re certainly all ballads, and they sure are dramatic ones. The average tracklist position of those ballads is 4.936. Just about every song I chose to list came off the top of my head, so confirmation bias inclined me toward cleanup-hitters. Steven, I conclude, may well have a point — but it’s probably not a fine a point as the one on the needle of his favorite deejay’s turntable. Most sabermetricians now argue that it doesn’t really matter that much where players bat in the lineup — as consequential as the decision to hit Speedy Johnny ahead of Slugger Pete feels, it’s worth, at the very most, a handful of runs over the course of a single season. I wonder if something similar could be said about album sequences. Everything I believe I know about music tells me otherwise, and probably you feel the same way too, but if My Aim Is True or More Adventurous had been presented to you with tracks shuffled, how much quality would they have lost for you? Imagine the most suboptimal running order you can, and then ask yourself: after a couple of plays, would this begin to feel natural to me? After a time or two through a set, the first couple of tracks are no longer a handshake to the uninitiated: they’re just part of series of songs that’s best apprehended as a body of work. Many great albums do tell a linear story, but with a few notable exceptions, I’ve come to believe that line could be radically redrawn without losing the conceptual essence of the whole. That’s not to say I’d ever want to; like Noel Gallagher, I cherish classic rock conventions and take no small satisfaction when they’re reinforced. If brilliant sequencing makes 1% of difference in the quality of an album, I still believe it’s worth sweating that 1%, because everything about an album is worth considering carefully. But whether you want to run your power ballad fourth, or fifth, or last, or as a hidden track available at Wal-Mart only, chances are, you’re in good company.°


¹”Stairway” and “Sister Sleep” aren’t exactly built like lite the metal power ballads are — they’re much longer and more intricate, for one thing. You might insist that songs that begin slowly and snap midway to an uptempo section require a different category. I don’t; I think they’re power ballads, or at the very least, kissing cousins of power ballads. The power ballad in sequence is, at heart, an attempt to extend the intensity of a pop-rock album by means other than speed and effrontery, and an attempt to intervene in the monotony of the single-tempo album. That’s why they’re so wonderfully bombastic. They pour the thermoactive liquid compound into a wider and clearer vessel.

²Likewise, I’ve heard it said (by cretins) that a true power ballad can’t be in 6/8. To me, the hallmarks of a power ballad are a pleasantly hamfisted approach by the drummer and rhythm guitarist, an overwrought performance by the frontperson that demonstrates technical and emotional range, and maybe a screaming solo. That can happen in any old time signature.

³Just now, in the car, Hilary explained the appeal of the power ballad like this: “You need real drums, hitting hard, to get your heart pumping, and the blood coursing through your veins to remind you you’re alive.” We were listening to “Change,” the last number on Fearless. Blood was coursing.

ªCome to think of it, I badly wanted “Mergers & Acquisitions” to sound like “Hand In My Pocket,” which was the quasi-ballad in the magic number four spot on Jagged Little Pill. The rest of the band plus the producers much preferred Blur to Alanis Morissette, so I probably talked up “The Universal” in the control room as a reference point. It was a long time ago and I didn’t know what I was doing.

°Just for the hell of it, and because I’m shooting the breeze and having fun here, I thought I’d look at the sequencing decisions of some of my favorite pop-rock albums of the last couple of years. “Aluminum Crown,” the cleanup hitter from Aureate Gloom, starts out slow and dramatic and then speeds up. But Kevin Barnes throws so many variations into his songs that it’s probably more accurate to treat him like a prog-rocker with a penchant for formal experimentation than the power pop champ he could be if he ever wanted to be. After a frantic start, Ezra Furman takes down the tempo on track number four of Perpetual Motion People, and then gets slower yet for number five, but waits until seven for the statement ballad. Natalia Lafourcade’s Hasta La Raiz is another pop-rock album that gets slower and more serious as it goes along. “No Mas Llorar,” an American- style power ballad, closes the set, right after “Estoy Lista,” a long-and-winding-road power ballad. She probably didn’t need both of them, but she’s such a great singer and songwriter that I don’t mind a bit; really, people, I can’t recommend Natalia Lafourcade highly enough. Kevin Parker of Tame Impala is another classicist who likes to put the first slow song fourth — but the real power ballad on Currents, “Cause I’m A Man,” doesn’t come until the album’s second side. Short Movie also downshifts after a couple of electric guitar numbers — “Walk Alone,” track number four, is an acoustic ballad, but for my money, it’s more intense than all the ’80s hair metal showstoppers put together. Laura Stevenson made the unusual decision to kick off Cocksure with the power ballad “Out With A Whimper.” She probably thought it was too good to be buried, and if she did, she was right. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness doesn’t really have a ballad on it — it takes off easy, cruises at a steady altitude without much chop, and lands smoothly without circling the airport. Okkervil River got mid-tempo-ish on “Down Down The Deep River,” slowed down to a psychedelic stroll two tracks later with “Lido Pier Suicide Car,” but saved the power ballad “All The Time Every Day” for the penultimate track on Poll winner The Silver Gymnasium. Finally, Carl Newman actually has a designated cleanup hitter in the New Pornographers: Dan Bejar, who has contributed song number four to the last three albums. On the three albums before that, he handled song number five. Get enough hits, and the manager will move you up in the order.