The "build-up" is one of my favorite types of songs.
What is a "build-up" song? Well, I define it to be a song that has some sort of mellow or slow opening that gradually increases in either tempo or volume until it hits a climax (preferably with an epic guitar solo) and then goes back down. This separates them from songs that simply have a slow intro that goes into a booming first verse. The ideal "build-up", in my opinion, should contain some form of delayed gratification, most of the time in the form of a second verse that is just as slow as the first (but with maybe some hints of the climax to come) before the first booming chorus.
The delayed gratification is really the key to the song. Sure, we all want the meaty part in the middle where we can pump our fists, but without the slow opening the song loses all it's power, and becomes just another pop song.
These are not to be confused with the popular "power ballad." While similar (and many on this list would probably be considered power ballads), the power ballad does not necessarily have to build up to an epic climax, not does it have to start off slow or soft. I despise songs that act like they are going to build up and then leave you hanging...it is like foreplay without the sex.
So here are my rankings, enjoy:
10. Changes -Tesla
This doesn't build up quite as much as some of the others on this list, but it's still a really good song and has a nice slow piano intro followed by a somber and brooding guitar lick. The booming chorus doesn't come until about a minute and a half into the song, so I think it qualifies.
9. Standing on the Verge - Hardcore Superstar
This song has a good example of a faux climax, happening just after the first verse when they tease you and make it sound like the good part is going to happen, but then go right into a second verse that starts out the same as the first, then quickly accelerates. The guitar solo sounds suspiciously reminiscent of the more famous "Freebird" solo, but it still sounds really good. The lyrics were also quite appropriate for times in college when I was just about to lose it after hours of studying.
8. The River - Dan Fogelberg
My dad really likes Dan Fogelberg so I grew up listening to a lot of his songs. While most of them were a bit too mellow for my taste, I quite like this one. The lyrics are really powerful to me, and I'm not exactly sure why. My brain fills with images of a man who is conflicted and trying to find himself, which speaks to a lot of times in my life (and I'm sure everyone's life). Musically, the song is basically a three chord progression that keeps repeating, stronger each time, until it hits the climax with a few sick guitar solos and a really powerful conclusion.
7. Brothers in Arms (Live Version) - Dire Straits
This is the only song on the list that I feel really needs to be this particular live version. While I still think the studio version is a great song, this live version really extends the interlude and brings it home with a great guitar solo. I also really like his little guitar licks at the beginning, they are short and simple, but the emphasis with which he plays them really adds some definition that is not found by too many guitarists.
6. Time - Strangeways
I've always described this song as being "hauntingly beautiful." The lyrics are pure majesty, "moments lost in time never fade away," what does that even mean? I love to listen to it before I go to bed, it gets me in kind of a deep, relaxed mood where I find myself contemplating my own existence and decisions. It also has, of course, a great guitar solo that perfectly ties into the song and gives it that much more power.
5. Rock Me - Great White
I think this song more or less perfectly fits the characteristic of the "build up." It's starts slowly with some short little guitar licks, but constantly gives hints of the awesomeness to come. The thing I love most about it is that it hits the climax, has a nice guitar solo, and then starts to go back down. At this point, you are thinking, "that was nice, I guess the song's about to be over." But then, it ramps back up and breaks into a second guitar solo, even more awesome than the first. It gets me every time, and I love it.
4. Winds of Change - Scorpions
From the whistle intro to the passion-driven Stratocaster backing in each verse, this song perfectly sets the somber mood of the Cold War. The awesome rockingness of the chorus and guitar solo give the whole world reason to believe in a brighter future. The images of various historical events in the music video also gives us a reminder of the world's dark past (and dark present), and hopefully will give us all a reason to make it a better place.
3. The Eleventh Hour - Fates Warning
The intro guitar arpeggios and volumes swells in this song are just plain eerie and perfectly set up the booming power chord to come. I have to stop whatever I'm doing and just let the awesomeness hit me when the tremolo picking starts and the drums kick in around the 3 minute mark. The singing during the bridge part is nearly incomprehensible, even to my well trained hair metal ears, but I think the song is about breaking up with someone (or realizing that it is going to have to happen). In any case, it's an awesome song and a must-listen if you like prog-metal.
2. Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin
The quintessential "build-up" song in my opinion, it is pretty much the one that started it all. I've always thought the beginning acoustic guitar part sounded very medieval, as in, something that you might hear like a court jester playing for a king, but that's just me. It also has a recorder in the intro...a recorder! Who knew you could play the recorder in a song that becomes probably the most famous rock song of all time! The guitar solo is a genius use of the A minor pentatonic scale, leading perfectly into the hard and heavy outro. If you aren't pumping your fist at the end of the song, then someone needs to check your pulse.
1. Nothing Else Matters - Metallica
Between the slow acoustic intro, James Hetfield's passion-fueled singing, and one of the best climactic solos I've ever heard, this song tops the chart in my book. I find it transcendental in some ways, and there have been times when I have listened to it and truly felt like I was in a different state of being. I think it is best to crank it up when driving on a long deserted road, and just let that solo hit you like a ton of bricks. There are no other words I have to describe it, just a powerful song, plain and simple.
Hope you liked this list, let me know if there are any that I forgot (I tried to include several lesser known songs as well as the radio staples).