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.