You will frequently see Your Humble Reviewer throwing the adjective “AOR” around in this blog’s Schlock-O-Phonic review section. This acronym-turned-term is the kind of word that cult-minded rock fans throw around as an adjective without ever fully defining it. It’s a word that everybody in the scene knows and uses… but the definition remains slippery, even for its partisans. This essay will attempt to provide context for the term so readers can understand how and why it is being used at Schlockmania.
In the historical sense, AOR is an acronym for “album-oriented rock.” It refers to a radio format that programmers devised in the mid-1970’s as a way of taming the progressive, anything-goes FM radio style of early 1970’s into something similar to Top 40 Radio. It was still “experimental” in a superficial way — in other words, some album tracks would still be played along with singles — but the diversity of styles was cut back drastically. Soul, jazz and other exotic flavors of music were thrown out in favor of an emphasis on a polished style of rock with radio-tailored appeal.
Around the same time, a breed of bands rose up who were ready to play the AOR format’s game. Some were veterans of the business and others were fresh-faced newcomers but all were eager to fill the new format with their own creations. It’s arguable that the first shot across the bow for AOR as a form of music was Boston’s first album, which immediately began selling by the truckload upon its release in 1976. Soon, the record store racks were filled with albums by bands with names like Foreigner and Survivor. Pre-existing bands like Styx, Journey and REO Speedwagon caught the wave as well, retooling their lineups and musical approach to get in on this new sound.
The success of the AOR format and the new music it spawned ushered in a golden era of radio-friendly rock. A sound quickly coalesced around the AOR concept: hook-filled songs with pop structures pumped up via a massive sonic approach fueled with vocal harmonies, multi-tracked guitar riffs and ornate keyboard lines. The music sounded grandiose but it also retained a radio-friendly sense of discipline, downplaying epic song lengths and bloated solos in favor of singalong choruses, direct lyrics about life and romance and — most importantly — strong, easily accessible melodies. AOR bands also placed a premium on ballads, which pumped the melodrama with rock riffs to create what we now call the “power ballad.”
Naturally, rock critics hated AOR music, dubbing it “corporate rock” or “arena rock,” but there was no way it could lose with an entire radio format backing it up. It continued to rack up the ratings and the album sales into the mid-1980’s. Eventually, its dominance was chipped away by a pop-R&B resurgence brought on by Michael Jackson’s Thriller album and the rise of glam-metal (which shared a lot of similarities to AOR, right down to the power ballads). By the time alternative rock killed off the likes of Poison and Warrant, AOR had been almost totally abandoned by its format that spawned it.
But the sound survived, retreating into the shadows of cult fandom to regroup. AOR bands new and old continue to enjoy small-scale success around the world and cult-specialist labels like Rock Candy Records regularly unearth and reissue gems from the sound’s golden era. Many bands and fans have redubbed the sound “melodic rock” to differentiate it from the now-unrecognizable radio format that spawned it. Hipsters and rockists still laugh at AOR… but many of those same people will be the first to bust out “Keep On Loving You” or “Don’t Stop Believin” during a drunken karaōke session.
Even with its contentious history and critical stigma, AOR music remains worth hearing — especially for the discerning schlock fan. In an era where popular music is defined by a variety of niches, it’s refreshing to hear grandiose, dramatic music that knocks itself out trying to charm the listener with a one-two punch of melody and muscle. This site will do its part to introduce budding schlock-rockers to the pleasures of quality AOR because that’s what this site is about — celebrating the critically forbidden. Why should the cultural élite dictate what defines an “acceptable” good time?
Keep your lighters raised high and brace yourself for the guitar-plus-keyboards melodrama — AOR is alive and well at Schlockmania.