Some of the greatest artists of all time have turned to rock ballads to share their deepest emotions. These songs tell heart-wrenching stories but also bring memories of cherished romantic moments. Here is our list of the best rock ballads.
1. “All Apologies” by Nirvana
Song year: 1993
Kurt Cobain might not take too kindly to having one of his songs labeled as a ballad, but there's no mistaking the raw beauty of his Nirvana composition “All Apologies.” Ironically, the song is on the band's album In Utero, a crushing and metallic alternative record produced by famed rock engineer Steve Albini.
While the song is relatively soft fare compared to the group's usual searing grunge, the slower tempo and classical cello play foil to Cobain's ragged vocals and the rhythm section's plodding march. The juxtaposition illustrates the track's dichotomy as an existential love song. The result is a heavy-hearted ballad that feels powerfully minimal.
2. “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones
Song year: 1971
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones turned to country music for inspiration for their single, “Wild Horses.” The Glimmer Twins had made acquaintances with sing-songwriter Gram Parsons, and his western influence added a new element to the band's blues-rock.
The cowboy ballad finds the band lamenting life on the road and being away from loved ones. It's a showstopping track on the band's classic album Sticky Fingers.
3. “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses
Song year: 1992
Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose took his love of Elton John and repurposed the typical piano ballad in a hard-rock package for the single “November Rain.”
Heavily influenced by John's epic “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the song is over nine minutes long and features a sweeping, cinematic song structure. The single is one of the longest to ever chart in the U.S.
4. “Keep On Loving You” by REO Speedwagon
Song year: 1981
The seventeenth video ever played on MTV, REO Speedwagon's single “Keep On Loving You” kicked off the '80s with a power ballad formula that would become highly imitated.
With its melancholy piano intro and anthemic chorus, the band's hook-laden declaration of love catapulted them into the mainstream and topped the charts. The track is now a signature of the band and synonymous with '80s rock ballads.
5. “With Or Without You” by U2
Song year: 1987
The ethereal sound of U2's classic ballad “With or Without You” comes courtesy of guitarist Edge's unique Infinite Guitar. The instrument's design allows for a guitar note to sustain from an amplifier indefinitely. This sound lends the single its iconic guitar intro and helps set the stage for singer Bono's conflicted tale of living the outsized life of a musician while trying to keep his domestic life afloat.
The song was U2's first American number-one single. Its success helped the band's album The Joshua Tree win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums ever.
6. “To Be With You” by Mr. Big
Song year: 1991
Mr. Big's handclapping acoustic power ballad “To Be With You” topped the charts in twelve countries. The vocal harmonies in the song's chorus are robust and sing-along friendly. Even the virtuosic guitar solo eschews histrionics in favor of a riff built around a motif of the melody.
Acoustic-based ballads are rarely delivered with the bombast of this single, making it stand out in the sentimentally saturated hair metal of the early '90s.
7. “Come Sail Away” by Styx
Song year: 1977
The prog-rock ballad “Come Sail Away” finds Styx riding over waves of serene piano pop. As the single's classical-inspired piano gives way to a guitar-driven ending, the lyrics take a sci-fi turn.
It turns out that the occupants of this ship, the subject of a top ten Billboard hit, are abducted by aliens. While the track is not the typical lyrical fare for a ballad, the cinematic scope of the story and music make this track swoon-worthy.
8. “Changes” by Black Sabbath
Song year: 1972
Heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath took a detour from their aggressive sound with their aching ballad “Changes.” Recorded while the band was in the throes of addiction, the shockingly sincere rock ballad feels so raw it becomes heavy despite its strings and mellotron.
The song is about drummer Bill Ward's divorce, but the chorus' imagery works just as well as a coming-of-age anthem. Whether the listeners are experiencing the beginning or end of something, they're all singing along together.
9. “Wonderwall” by Oasis
Song year: 1995
Oasis, notorious fans of The Beatles, cribbed the title of their iconic Britpop single “Wonderwall” from the George Harrison album Wonderwall Music. Oasis would blaze a trail into the U.S., like the Fab Four three decades earlier, thanks to the track's global success.
The band's psychedelic lyrics are open to interpretation, but there's no doubting their powerful imagery. This poetry, coupled with the song's minor-key acoustic guitar, made for one of the '90s best rock ballads.
10. “Hey Jude” by The Beatles
Song year: 1968
“Hey Jude,” the first single released on The Beatles' Apple Records, became another number one hit for the band internationally. Written by Paul McCartney for John Lennon's son, the song is a beautiful appeal to the child of divorce to move onward while always staying open to love.
The song's release came during a year of upheaval for the world. Released on the same day as the beginning of the 1968 Democratic Convention, the song serves as a hopeful counterpoint to one of the most violent years in American history.
11. “Free Falliln’” by Tom Petty
Song year: 1989
Tom Petty's debut single without the Heartbreakers, “Free Fallin',” became the biggest hit of the songwriter's illustrious career. While he never shied away from sentimentality before, the singer put all his emotional chips on the table with this existential nod to California.
With help from album producer and ELO frontman Jeff Lyne, Petty's laconic vocals and shimmering acoustic guitar sound like the musical equivalent of the golden hour. By the time the anthemic chorus hits, singing along is inescapable.
12. “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi
Song year: 1987
Taking inspiration from the Wild West and Bob Seeger's song about life on the road, “Turn the Page,” Bon Jovi wrote the power ballad cowboy anthem “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
By combining the imagery of gunslingers and guitar shredders, the group sounds like a weary band of outlaws. The song continued a streak of top ten hits from their breakout album, Slippery When Wet, and is one of the band's signature songs.
13. “Good Riddance” by Green Day
Song year: 1997
Green Day took a risky detour from their usual brand of California-flavored pop-punk with their acoustic ballad “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” While the song is about lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong's girlfriend leaving him to move out of the country, the bittersweet sentiment of the lyrics has made it a coming-of-age anthem.
Despite the single's departure from the punk sound, it has become a fan favorite and a staple of Green Day's concerts. It is often played last amidst a sea of glowing phones.
14. “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica
Song year: 1992
As pioneers of thrash metal, Metallica garnered a reputation for fast guitar licks and even faster living. During the constant barrage of drinking and tour dates, singer James Hetfield found himself feeling alone and incredibly homesick. He channeled his feelings into one of the band's best known songs, “Nothing Else Matters.”
Though the song was a departure from their heavier material, the visceral nature of the band's performance is emotionally heavier than any riff could be. The track helped catapult Metallica into music's mainstream.
15. “Glycerine” by Bush
Song year: 1995
British alternative rock band Bush scored the biggest pop hit of their career with the power ballad “Glycerine.” Over distorted, palm-muted minor chords, singer Gavin Rossdale ruminates over the timeless nature of love while appealing to the listener to appreciate the experience of finding love.
The song struck a chord with the post-grunge generation with its opaque and open-ended imagery and became one of the few alternative ballads of the '90s to transcend its era.
16. “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” by Meat Loaf
Song year: 1993
Powerhouse vocalist Meat Loaf is no stranger to rock ballads, but even with a career built on bombastic and theatrical rock, the chart-topping success of “I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)” was impressive. The song's achingly sincere twelve minutes of balladry topped the charts of 28 countries.
The over-the-top ballad's music video features Meat Loaf dressed as the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. The song would garner the singer with a Grammy Award, completing his '90s comeback.
17. “Somebody To Love” by Queen
Song year: 1976
Inspired by American soul and gospel music, Queen used over 100 vocal tracks to make the singing of its members sound like a church choir in their classic ballad “Somebody to Love.” The song's complex harmonies and construction resemble their earlier hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but with the swing and brevity of traditionally Black forms of music.
The single is sweepingly sentimental, with its refrain acting as a resounding appeal to the heavens for love. Singer Freddy Mercury’s performance is full of power and conviction. With a career full of classics, it's telling that this track is among Queen's best.
18. “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger
Song year: 1984
Night Ranger's coming-of-age arena-rock ballad “Sister Christian” is about drummer Kelly Keagy's younger sister. After realizing how quickly she was growing up, he wrote this iconic '80s single as words of wisdom.
The track's universal themes and anthemic chorus hit a nerve with listeners, becoming the biggest hit of the band's career. It has also become a part of the pop culture canon, with its inclusion in Boogie Nights and 2009's Friday the 13th introducing it to a new audience.
19. “Crazy” by Aerosmith
Song year: 1994
Aerosmith experienced a late-career resurgence thanks to the strength of their blues-inflected single “Crazy.” With its simmering tempo, harmonica flourishes, and Steven Tyler’s passionate vocals, the band scored a top 20 hit and a Grammy Award.
The song's music video is the third from their album Get a Grip to feature then-unknown actress Alicia Silverstone and became a mainstay on MTV. The video is notable as the screen debut of Tyler's daughter, Liv Tyler.
20. “Purple Rain” by Prince
Song year: 1984
Prince's career-defining single “Purple Rain” serves as the showstopper from The Purple One's debut feature film. The song's epic balladry is fitting for a movie, with a cinematic song structure that rises and falls like a plot from the silver screen.
The track's masterful combination of gospel, soul, and rock creates its wholly unique and thrilling song — one that Rolling Stone has listed among the best ever. The single is a high-water mark for Prince and proof of his legendary genius.
21. “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Song year: 1992
Red Hot Chili Pepper's singer Anthony Kiedis was reluctant to share his lyrics for “Under the Bridge” with his bandmates. The vocalist was recently sober and wrote the song as a meditation on the difficulty and loneliness of sobriety.
After a slight nudging from producer Rick Rubin, Kiedis and the rest of the band went to work on the alternative ballad. The maturity of the music and subject matter marked growth in the band's funk-rock sound and helped them break into the cultural mainstream.
22. “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin
Song year: 1986
As the featured song during the love scene of box-office hit Top Gun, Berlin's “Take My Breath Away” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1986. The song's light new wave synthesizers and romantic chorus are tailor-made for romance, with the breathy vocals of Terri Nunn lending the ballad a heavy dose of sincerity.
Written by disco godfather Giorgio Moroder, the song won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song. It is Berlin's signature song and synonymous with '80s synthesizer ballads.
23. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler
Song year: 1983
After singer Bonnie Tyler saw Meat Loaf performing on television, she contacted his producer Jim Steinman about working on her next project. Tyler loved the bombastic sound of “Bat Out of Hell” and wanted to pursue the same Spector-esque maximalist approach.
Steinman agreed to produce Tyler and wrote her several songs, including the chart-topping “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The epic power ballad is Tyler's signature song and one of the most enduring songs of the '80s — not to mention a staple of most karaoke nights.
24. “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
Song year: 1971
Led Zeppelin's song “Stairway to Heaven” has become one of the most iconic songs in classic rock history. The eight-minute epic is full of fantastic imagery that rises and falls with the notes of the virtuosic guitar playing. The track resonated strongly enough with listeners that it received airplay despite not being issued as a single.
Today, the song occupies a rare status. Seen as one of the best songs ever, its guitar intro and final lyric live on in the consciousness of popular culture. Its transcendence from rock ballad to cultural touchstone makes it an indelible part of music history.
25. “Because the Night” by Patti Smith
Song year: 1978
It's no surprise that Patti Smith Group's single “Because the Night” was co-written with Bruce Springsteen. The anthem's darkly-tinged sound aligns perfectly with Darkness on the Edge of Town, the album Springsteen was working on during the song's writing.
Smith adds her achingly desperate vocals and rock mysticism to the song, giving its power ballad tendencies a powerfully grounded torch. The song gave punk pioneer Patti Smith her first exposure to the mainstream.
26. “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John
Song year: 1972
Considered one the greatest songs of all time, Elton John's “Tiny Dancer” is such a recognizable entry in pop music that it's become part of the canon of music history.
Initially, the song was a lackluster hit, stalling at number 41 on the Billboard charts. But as time has worn on, the single's slide guitar, backing choir, and iconically poetic – if indecipherable – lyrics have become a high-water mark in rock and roll.
27. “Drive” by The Cars
Song year: 1984
The Cars traded in their nervy new wave sound for moody synthesizers and sentimentality in the classic '80s ballad, “Drive.”
The song's lyrics are oblique, open for interpretation either as a love song or an appeal to someone in the throes of addiction and abuse. This somber tone helped the single reach the third spot on the Billboard charts, becoming one of the band's best-selling tracks.
Top Rock Ballads Ever, Final Thoughts
While it's fun to sing along to a rock band's tales of hard living, most fans can't relate. That's why rock ballads are so powerful – they allow us to share the universal themes of love and loss with our idols.
The sight of a crowd's devil horns turning into a sea of lights during a ballad is one of the greatest spectacles in rock and roll. We hope your heart headbangs to our list of the best rock ballads.