The 40 best AOR vocalists of all time

 Bob Catley, Pat Benatar, Steve Perry, Ann Wilson and Michael Lee Smith onstage.
Bob Catley, Pat Benatar, Steve Perry, Ann Wilson and Michael Lee Smith onstage.
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Adult Orientated Rock (some prefer the term 'Album Oriented') has frequently been sidelined by "serious" music critics, many of whom deride melodic rock for the shaggy perms and satin attire of yore rather than pay heed to music which has sold by the multi-million.

Fronting those albums were the true gods of AOR, the singers. These men and women were – are are – silver-throated channellers of love and loss, enveloping songs with the sort of drama and emotion that make them evergreen classics. And these are the 40 best of them.


40. Brad Love

Never trust anybody with the name Love, especially if he’s wearing a silk shirt, gold medallion and enough chest hair to knit a beard. Brad Love’s a pouting David Lee Roth lookalike who fronted obscure Washington rockers Aviary. Bizarrely, Love’s style was rather at odds with his appearance: his timbre is an amalgam of Freddie Mercury, Jon Anderson and Mika, and his vocals are as astonishing as they are perhaps unexpected.

39. Kip Winger

Jon Bon Jovi’s one-time rival for sexiest man in rock, Kip Winger had the big hair, the stubble and the muscle to take him far. His band’s debut album made Kip the toast of the MTV hard rock generation, pumping out hit after hit and mesmerising his fans with his wide-eyed smile and natural bonhomie. That he could actually sing (a bold clarion-call timbre), and do it very well, was a pleasant surprise.

38. Robert Fleischman

Another obscure contender, Fleischman was hired by Journey only to be dumped a few short weeks later when band manager stumbled upon a tape of Steve Perry – and Journey went supernova. Fleischman quickly recovered, scoring a solo deal with Arista and joining the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, helping to record one of the world’s greatest melodic rock albums. Check out Do You Wanna Make Love, from Vinnie Vincent Invasion’s 1986 self-titled debut album. Great song, production and guitar, topped off with a masterful falsetto.

37. Jimmy Barnes

Antipodean vocal legend with a long, chequered history of misfortune that is no reflection on the quality of his voice. In 1987, he turned his attentions to the USA, recording one of the greatest AOR albums of all time, Freight Train Heart. Featuring Journey’s Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon, it was a triumph, thus securing Barnes’ place in this AOR Hall Of Fame.

36. Karen Lawrence

Leader of 70s proto-arena rockers 1994, a band that appeared to have it all in the palm of their hand before it all went south. Karen Lawrence was – and still is – a truly gifted singer, pitch perfect and positioned somewhere between Pat Benatar and Ann Wilson. Her voice was a revelation, casting a spell over young rockers everywhere. In a perfect world, Karen would have gone on to become a huge international star, but not even connections with Aerosmith could save 1994 or Lawrence from obscurity, though she later guested on the second album by Slash’s Snakepit, 2000’s Ain’t Life Grand.

35. Michael Lee Smith

Step aside, Mr. Steven Tyler, for you are an imposter. Meet Michael Lee Smith, true heir to all that is low-slung in the world of sleazy melodic 70s rock. True, his band, Starz, weren’t exactly AOR in the purest sense, but their style was highly melodic, packing a punch to rival the likes of Ted Nugent, Aerosmith and Kiss.

Although their 1977 Violation album is universally regarded as their masterpiece, they broke rank on Attention Shoppers! (released the same year), penning the sort of power pop that would give Mr. Smith the opportunity to assert his signature vocal to maximum effect. What a voice.

34. Mike Reno

The cavorting red-leather‘n’headband-wearing frontman with Canada’s greatest AOR export, Loverboy, Reno’s honey-sweet vocals were first utilised in the far heavier 70s rock unit Moxy. Upon forming Loverboy with ex-Streetheart guitarist Paul Dean, the results were spectacular, their debut album earning plaudits from every conceivable corner, spawning hit singles and going double platinum in the US.

Reno was in many ways the perfect frontman – energetic, communicative and possessing a signature vocal that gave every track a contemporary pop-rock edge. He rivalled the emerging skinny-tie competition without sacrificing his hard rock roots.

33. Peter Cetera

Known for his tenure with Chicago, who he remodelled into a streamlined AOR unit on hits like If You Leave Me Now and Hard Habit To Break, Cetera’s smooth, feather-light vocal was tailor-made for their soft rock. Departing for a solo career in the 80s, he scored his biggest hit with Glory Of Love, while his self-titled 1981 solo debut might be the best record that Steve Perry never recorded.

32. Bob Catley

Bob resembles a wayward uncle on a shoplifting spree, yet beneath his Dungeons & Dragons facade hides a sensitive soul with emotions worn on a finely embroidered sleeve. As the foil for late Magnum guitarist Tony ‘The Hat’ Clarkin, Bob’s lot in life was singing about loves lost and toy soldiers, all set in the depths of Mordor. His voice, a thing of rare beauty, improved with age.

31. Paul Sabu

Paul Sabu had been kicking around the LA scene for years, recording both disco and rock, and occasionally mixing both. In the mid 80s, he launched the four-piece Only Child, specialising in strong-arm power chords with lashings of melody. Sabu’s vocal prowess, courting comparisons to the likes of David Coverdale and Dave Meniketti, should’ve made him a star. Instead, Paul turned to production work with a then-unknown Shania Twain.

30. Chris Ousey

Chris Ousey is one of the best vocalists to have ever emerged from the UK. His first band, Virginia Wolf, blew the cobwebs off the Brit AOR scene with their perfectly crystallised melodic rock, Ousey’s unique vocal – all raunchy yelps and sky-high screams – their calling card. Chris went on to front AOR heroes Heartland and continues to ply his trade to a world that really needs to wake up and smell the coffee, most recently on Hear Us Out, released by supergroup The Flood in 2023.

29. Pat Benatar

During the early 80s, Pat Benatar was omnipresent, seducing a fledgling MTV with her fresh tomboy image and singing songs about female empowerment, pre-empting the Spice Girls by at least 15 years. Neither did it hurt that her guitarist, co-writer, producer and husband Neil Giraldo was a talented player who’d previously played in Rick Derringer’s band.

28. Thom Griffin

You’ve probably never heard of him, but Mr Griffin is one of the most accomplished vocalists to have ever swung a mic stand. Replacing future Toto singer Fergie Frederiksen in little-known AOR demi-gods Trillion, Griffin was a vociferous vocal god. Possessing a timbre that could reduce battle-hardened warriors to tears, he took Trillion to heights just south of the Moon.

27. Frank Dimino

Frank Dimino had an extraordinary range pitched somewhere between Demis Roussos and Geddy Lee, perfect for Angel’s jubilant anthems and pure progressive pomp. Sheathed in white, Frank cut an intriguing figure, with a mob of tumbling black locks and enough five o’ clock shadow to silence the gender police. He never amounted to much after the band split, releasing a single solo album, Old Habits Die Hard, in 2015, but he returned to a reconfigured Angel for 2019's Risen and Once Upon a Time in 2023.

26. Jimi Jamison

Memphian Jamison debuted with obscure southern rockers Target, before Cobra put him on the AOR map big-time. Sleek yet raunchy, the band grabbed the attention of Survivor, who hired him to replace departing singer Dave Bickler. Jamison’s raspy vocals are delivered with polished professionalism, striking a balance between hard rock and easy-on-the-ear commercial sweetness.

25. Mike Tramp

Not just a pretty boy, Danish-born Mike Tramp, leader of New York-based four-piece White Lion, had a style and delivery that could wring a tear from every dry eye in the house. Sure, we know White Lion mainly as a cock rock unit, but Tramp’s ear for melody and Vito Bratta’s precision guitar playing lent them a dollop of harmonious drive, setting them apart from the other big-haired bozos of the day. Tramp was always best on ballads, his slightly Euro-inflected vocal lending the songs a slightly eerie, almost ethereal quality.

24. Leigh Matty

Meet Leigh Matty, vocalist for late 80s Brit AOR hopefuls Romeo’s Daughter, a band that snagged not only a major label deal but also managed to persuade multi-platinum producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange to down tools with AC/DC, Foreigner, Def Leppard and twiddle the knobs for them instead. Talented and beautiful, Leigh injected the jam into RD’s doughnut, coming across as a sultry minx with ambition far beyond the confines of low-rent venues like the Marquee or Walthamstow’s Royal Standard. The band's most recent album, Slipstream, was released in 2023.

23. Michael Mcdonald

McDonald initially came to prominence as a member of The Doobie Brothers, soulfully steering their sound away from hard rock to the AOR middle ground. During this period, they scored a series of top-flight hits, allowing McDonald to assert his presence not only as a Doobie Brother but also as a subsequent solo artist, recording a series of brilliant blue-eyed soul albums that straddle the AOR fence with the same meticulous balance as the late Robert Palmer and Steve Winwood. McDonald, though, has the edge – a rich baritone stretching to a heart-breaking falsetto in the blink of an eye.

22. Kelly Keagy

Among the rare breed of drummers who also sing (Don Henley, Phil Collins and Gil Moore), Keagy is hugely engaging, especially on mid-tempo heartstring tuggers. Odd-looking fella though, sitting sideways to the audience, wearing loose-fitting sports pants and using daft call-centre headphone mics. Night Ranger remain very popular in Asia and even some parts of Iowa.

21. Terry Brock

Although the band were predominantly Scottish, it was American vocalist Terry Brock who turned out to be Strangeways’ ace in the hole. Brock’s range was immense, flying high as a kite one moment, before swooping back down to earth with a whisper the next on utterly exquisite songs that provided him with a launching pad to Jupiter and beyond.

20. Keith Murrell

Keith Murrell is best of a tiny handful of British AOR vocalists who can give the Americans a run for their money. With Airrace, he helped craft one of the definitive melodic rock albums of the mid 80s. Burrell was later poised to replace Lou Gramm in Foreigner, only to be beaten out at the eleventh hour by Johnny Edwards. Not Mick Jones’ brightest move.

19. Dennis De Young

Dennis wasn’t your average lead singer but his vision, passion and dogged determination to succeed made dreams come true. His onstage theatrical shtick gave Styx’s songs just the right amount of depth to separate them from the pack, arguably turning him into one of the world’s great live performers.

18. Kevin Cronin

As a kid, Kevin Cronin must have been hooked on Phonics. With a unique singing style based on extending every syllable of every word of every sentence, the effect is quite mesmerising and sometimes a little perplexing.

Still, after an uncertain tenure at the very start of the REO Speedwagon story, Kev’s distinct style came in handy when, against all odds, they started having massive hit records like Keep On Loving You in the early 80s. They had once been a perennial support act, but suddenly became arena fillers, basking in multi-platinum success and nothing up an incredible string of single, all propelled by what seems like Cronin’s extraordinary vocal mannerisms.

17. Steve Walsh

Athletic frontman of über progressive rock giants Kansas, who stormed the US charts with a neat hybrid of technical pomp and wistful melody, best expressed on their epic smash hit Carry On Wayward Son (inspired by 19th century slave abolitionist John Brown, who graced the cover of their eponymous 1974 debut album).

Without Walsh, Kansas might have been just another bunch of midwest no-hopers looking to ride the coattails of the original Brit prog invasion, but his voice took them to levels of success they could have only dreamt about. But it’s not all about Kansas. During the early 80s, he formed Streets, a cracking melodic rock band who recorded two highly combustible albums that sadly failed to ignite the charts.

16. Robin Zander

With his striking blond locks, pencil-thin build and a voice from heaven, Robin Zander helped elevate the slightly zany Cheap Trick to major stardom. Big in Japan when nobody really knew what that meant, hordes of giggling Japanese schoolgirls fainted at his mere presence.

A string of hit albums followed, but like all shooting stars the sparkle soon faded, leaving the band exposed to cruel major label machinations forcing them to use outside material – which rather ironically, produced their biggest ever hit The Flame, a song penned, bizarrely, by an ex-member of Brit prog outift Atomic Rooster. Recent albums have been reassuringly solid.

15. Eddie Money

Edward Joseph Mahoney first arrived on the scene as a sort of white soul singer, wielding a sax instead of an axe. Press reports made much of a phoney NYPD career (apparently he was a trainee in the typing pool) but it wasn’t until his fourth album, No Control, that the AOR cognoscenti started to embrace this husky-voiced power-popper, watching wide-eyed as tracks such as Shakin’ and Think I’m In Love gave him hit single success. I remember sitting with Money one time in a London hotel suite, and it was like talking to Rodney Dangerfield on acid.

14. Bryan Adams

Hailed primarily in AOR circles as a songwriter rather than a singer, there can be no denying the impact of Adams’ voice on some of the best material to have ever been crafted by a Canadian this side of, er, Randy Bachman.

Most of the key tracks in Bryan’s canon sound like he’s singing with a throat full of wood shavings, in a good way. Immediately identifiable and straddling that difficult line between sounding hoarse and mellifluous, Adams’ early work gives the impression of limitless capacity. The fact that on stage he looks like he’s been placed under temporary house arrest is neither here nor there.

Early rock’n’roll hits like Run To You and Summer Of ‘69 later gave way to MOR balladry for movie soundtracks that, while hardly electrifying, certainly proved massively lucrative: (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, infamously held the top spot in the UK singles chart for four long months during the summer of 1991, a record which remains unbeaten. Only Ed Sheeran and Drake have come close to dethroning it in recent years.

13. Dave Bickler

Millions know the voice, but few know the name. Bickler is the unsung hero of AOR vocalists, having sung on the second most popular track in the entire history of melodic rock (after Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’), namely Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger. Bickler had been with the band for four years when Sylvester Stallone heard their Premonition album, and in particular the track Poor Man’s Son, requesting that they writer a similar tune for his upcoming movie Rocky III. Natch, the song became an American anthem, used for just about any occasion that requires grit and determination. Bickler’s performance is truly astonishing – raspy yet melodious, perfectly matching the song’s revving riff.

12. Glenn Hughes

Not really known as an AOR vocalist per se, more a man influenced by R&B who just happened to cut his teeth in two seminal British rock bands: funk rock pioneers Trapeze and hard rock behemoths Deep Purple (where he played bass and harmonised with David Coverdale, injecting their love of soul into the group’s pompy riffage).

When the latter group crash-landed in 1976, Hughes went on an infamously debauched and debilitating five-year bender, issuing very little in the way of notable product until he teamed up with guitarist Pat Thrall in Hughes/Thrall. Together, they cut one of the greatest, most underappreciated AOR albums of all time, featuring catchy songs and Hughes’ greatest ever vocal performance.

11. Jon Bon Jovi

We might be lambasted by many for not placing Jon Bon Jovi higher in our chart. Bu this is an exercise based not on popularity but, quite rightly, on vocal ability and in that respect, our boy Jon must take a back seat.

Sure, he has all the chutzpah, good looks and the get-up-and-go to make him a star several times over, but even his most dedicated fans must admit that his range had always been, er, restricted. That was until Canadian producer Bruce Fairbairn fixed things with the colossal-selling Slippery When Wet, a record that suddenly gave Jon a voice and hits. If Jon is upset by his placing on this chart, he can always dry his tears on a million dollar note.

10. Steve Overland

Overland possesses one of the most flavoursome voices you’ll hear this side of Paul Rodgers, Robert Palmers or Frankie Miller. His voice has a deep, velvety quality, with the sort of intonation that suggests he’s lived a thousand years and seen it all. Give him the right material and you’ve got a match made in heaven.

Steve’s tenure with FM over the years has seen him come within inches of commercial success, only for it to be cruelly snatched away at the last moment. Sure, he’s got a reputation that’s second-to-none, but that doesn’t make up for years of underachieving, despite the fact that the band enjoyed a renaissance on Radio 2 and appearance at Download in 2010.

9. Bobby Kimball

Toto are very much the epitome of AOR as we know it. Their diligent approach to every aspect of compositional craft is to be commended and, frankly, not unexpected bearing in mind that they were mainly comprised of the creme of the LA session world, musicians who anonymously laid down the faultless instrumental tracks behind many of pop and rock’s greatest hits.

Singer Bobby Kimball had previously been in an obscure Three Dog Night spin-off band called S.S. Fools (don’t bother trying to locate the album, it’s really not the considerable effort) before finding his feet with the boys in Toto and cutting their debut album. The results were spectacular, giving Kimball a platform to shine brighter than any other singer of the era.

An industrious band, Toto could do no wrong, notching up hit after hit, culminating with the worldwide smash Africa, from 1982’s Grammy-winning multi-platinum album IV. By this point, however, touring had taken its toll upon the singer, and Kimball was a wreck.

The band mounted an intervention of sorts which resulted in him leaving, only to return some 14 years later after they had ploughed through umpteen replacements only to conclude that the original was probably the best, although the merry-go-round continued, and he was eventually replaced by Joseph Williams, one of the men he'd replaced. A documentary, Kite on a String: The Bobby Kimball Story is in the works.

8. Joe Lynn Turner

He launched his career in a blaze of obscurity, via a band called Fandango (who infamously boasted a guitarist by the name of Rick Blakemore) only to be ‘discovered’ by Ritchie Blackmore, who had tired of Rainbow’s then-vocalist Graham Bonnet. Blackmore’s plan was simple: he would use Turner’s voice to ram-raid the US charts. For five minutes, it worked. I Surrender reached Number Three on the UK singles chart and Rainbow’s profile went into overdrive.

But it wasn’t to last. Turner was blessed with the perfect voice for US FM radio but, try though Rainbow might, the airwaves resisted them at every opportunity, leaving Blackmore no option to dump the band and reform Deep Purple. For Joe, it meant a lifetime hopping from one high-profile project to the next, including, of course, a stint in Deep Purple. The only questionable episode was teaming up with Yngwie Malmsteen, and that was just because of the poor-man’s Rainbow accusations. Joe’s output has always been of the highest calibre.

7. Eric Martin

Cherub-faced Martin was a fixture on the Bay Area scene for much of the early 80s with his band 415 (San Francisco’s area code), later changed to EMB – the Eric Martin Band – upon signing with Elektra Records. Failing to make commercial headway, Eric dismantled the band and commenced a solo career, issuing two albums of perfectly precise AOR that forced the melodic rock world to sit up and take notice.

The songs were strong (mostly covers and co-writes) but it was Eric’s voice that really caused heads to turn. With the voice of an angel, his tone was straight from the Stax stable, immediately comparable to Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Marvin Gaye.

Of course, his greatest commercial achievement was the formation of powerhouse rockers Mr. Big, a virtuoso ensemble whose influences stretched back to the early 70s and acts like Free, Humble Pie and Led Zeppelin. Eric’s impressive roar drew instant comparisons to Paul Rodgers and Steve Marriott, hardly surprising, considering their own personal debts to 60s R&B.

6. John Waite

Lancashire born and bred, Waite’s introduction to the world of AOR came via British ex-pats the Babys, with whom he scored several sizeable hit singles. When that project fell apart, he went solo, hitting the big time in 1984 with Missing You, a million seller.

When Journey ceased trading in 1987, Neil Schon and Jonathan Cain turned immediately to Waite, inviting him to front a new band that they were putting together called Bad English, a supergroup aimed precisely at Journey’s recently abandoned audience. Their second single, When I See You Smile, was an immediate success, topping the US chart and cementing Waite’s reputation as one of the world’s greatest singers.

5. Ann Wilson

Ann Wilson is unquestionably the greatest female AOR vocalist of all time. Her early years with Heart were spent fine-tuning a folky hard rock sound of a Led Zep hue; she could imitate Robert Plant perfectly, but the hits soon started to dry up, and by the early 80s the band were wandering around looking for an appropriate exit strategy.

Capitol Records insisted on a visual makeover and bringing in outside songwriters, resulting in the still-thrilling AOR hits like Alone and These Dreams. Ann and guitarist sister Nancy later dismissed this era of the group, but we would respectfully suggest that they are wrong: the quality of material and performance was hugely impressive, Ann delivering some of the finest vocals of her career.

4. Michael Bolton

Modelling a hairstyle based on a controlled explosion in a deckchair, Michael Bolton’s journey through AOR was initially slow but rapidly accelerated when he issued two jaw-dropping solo albums. Still, though, this combination of his vocal range and Grade-A material eluded commercial success. The Hunger, issued in 1987, found him entering the MOR snooze zone and a world of homogenised family entertainment. Still, he should worry – at the last count, he’s allegedly sold over 75 million albums worldwide.

3. Brad Delp

Brad Delp emerged from the superunknown in 1976 as lead vocalist for Boston, whose self-titled debut was an instant success, notching up sales in excess of 17 million units. The sound was built on brilliant songs, a great guitar sound and, perhaps most conspicuously, Delp’s incredible signature vocal.

Regrettably, guitarist Tom Scholz’s autocratic leadership, together with various lawsuits, served to impede the band’s progress, resulting in just three albums over 17 years, leaving Delp’s incredible talent cruelly underused. As time moved on, he had pretty much become just an occasional contributor to Boston, one of several singers. Sadly, he took his own life in 2007, depriving the world of a truly incomparable voice.

2. Lou Gramm

One of the few American vocalists to rival the melodic earthiness of the early-70s Brit blues howlers. Gramm’s hurricane of a voice – part Paul Rodgers growl and part David Coverdale raunch – gave both form and function to Foreigner’s hook-laden pop rock compositions, providing a foundation to impress with his unique and immediately identifiable style.

The great thing about Gramm (like, say, Rodgers) was his ability to handle both gutsy rockers and gentle ballads with equal confidence and ability. There’s a gospel quality to his vocals too, something that Foreigner leader Mick Jones soon realised and made conspicuous use if, especially on I Want To Know What Love Is, holding his own alongside the New Jersey Mass Choir (and, indeed, The Thompson Twins and Broadway actress Jennifer Holliday, who also contributed to the song’s mammoth backing vocals).

As the singer flirted with a successful solo career, Gramm and Jones grew apart, resulting in a perhaps inevitable split within the ranks of Foreigner. They reunited in the mid-90s for a remake of I Want To Know What Love Is, and even continued touring after Gramm bravely weathered debilitating treatment for a benign brain tumour, but have since gone their separate ways. A pity, as given the right circumstances a reactivated alliance between the two could have been a force to be reckoned with.

1. Steve Perry

Appointed in 1976, Steve Perry’s initial contribution to Journey was with the Infinity album, a platinum record that set the scene for a string of super-selling releases and riches beyond their wildest dreams. Perry’s effortless switch from breezy improvisation (La Do Da) to epic bombast (Wheel In The Sky) provided a template from which future grandeur would merge, a metamorphosis, broadening the appeal of Journey while the rest of the competition looked on aghast.

Perry’s reference points evolved from diverse if not unexpected sources, including the R&B of Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson. These influence would eventually erupt to the surface on 1981’s multi-million selling Frontiers LP, and the blatant soul-strutting of the penultimate Perry-fronted Journey album Raised On Radio (especially Girl Can’t Help It) securing his place not only in the hearts and minds of melodic rock lovers but reaching out into a wider world of mass pop culture.

His good natured bonhomie, enhanced by boyish looks and the world’s most charming smile, knocked fans off their feet. Sporting a formal black tailcoat, performances came alive as he swished around the stage entrancing audiences with charisma that instantly burnt the oxygen right out of the venue. It was pure dynamite. As the undisputed king of the power ballad, Perry reigned supreme.

Faithfully, from Frontiers, is sublimely moving. Who’s Crying Now made me reach for a crate of Kleenex, and Open Arms was like navigating by moonlight. There are many more, of course. Perry released his first solo album in the wake of Frontiers' impressive success, 1984’s Street Talk, followed a decade later by his second, For The Love Of Strange Medicine.

Journey meanwhile, went on hiatus between 1986 and 1989; following their comeback album Trial By Fire, Perry finally vacated the Journey mic stand in 1997, when an injury to his hip while hiking in Hawaii meant he couldn’t tour with the group without painful replacement surgery, which, understandably, he was reluctant to undergo. But, after more than two decades largely away from the spotlight, Perry finally completed work on a new solo project, Traces, in 2018.