They're called slant rhymes, or half rhymes, or near rhymes, or maybe even just crappy rhymes. Whatever you call them, they're rhymes that are almost there, but not quite. Or, to put it in verse: "a slant rhyme is one that you just about had,/ but when you threw the ball to home, you somehow missed the tag." (See, ""had" and "tag" don't quite rhyme. Get it?)
Many great poets have employed the slant rhyme technique, from William Butler Yeats to Emily Dickinson to the inimitable Bret Michaels of the 80s hair-band Poison-- whose ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" has one of the most egregious... er, notable examples:
Every rose has its thorn
Just like every night has its dawn
Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song
Every rose has its thorn
Those madcap creative geniuses behind Poison might be able to dupe the casual listener into believing that the words "thorn," "dawn," and "song" rhyme, but we know better. In fact, none of them rhyme. As in not a one.
(Note: Earlier in the 80s, The Thompson Twins tried to pull a similar sleight of hand in their song "Hold Me Now," which contains these lyrics: "Look at our life now, we're tattered and torn/ We fuss and we'll fight and delight in the tears that we cry until dawn." No, "torn" and "dawn" don't rhyme, but as my wife said, "They're British, so they can get away with it." Ah, those wacky Brits.)
The following are other pop-culture examples of what I'm christening "thorny rhymes" (after our sponsors at Poison):
(1) Semisonic, "Closing Time":
Gather all your jackets
Move it to the exits
Great tune, and a valiant attempt at rhyming, but only a guy closing out a bar and slurring his words could make "jackets" and "exits" rhyme. (Maybe that's what they were going for?)
(2) Men at Work, "Down Under"
I met a strange lady, she made me nervous
She took me in and gave me breakfast
I said, "Do you speak my language?"
She just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.
Sorry, mates, but "nervous" and "breakfast" don't rhyme, nor do "language" and "sandwich." But I'll forgive them because (1) they're Australian, which makes them even cooler than the British; (2) their album Business as Usual was the first record I ever bought; and (3) they introduced "Vegemite" into the pop-culture lexicon.
(3) Bon Jovi, "Wanted Dead or Alive"
Hey, I love JBJ, and this is arguably their best tune, but in this case, I think the Cowboys from New Jersey were on the run from the Rhyming Posse. First, consider the anthemic, but nonetheless unrhyming, chorus:
I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride
I'm wanted dead or alive
And let's not overlook the first verse, which also gives rhyming a bad name:
It's all the same, only the names have changed
Every day, it seems we're wasting away
A lonely place, where the faces are so cold
You drive all night just to get back home
Obviously, "cold" and "home" aren't even in the same arena. But what about "changed"? Is it supposed to rhyme with "same" or with "away"?
While we're on the subject, here's another Bon Jovi mis-rhyme that is actually quite clever, from the song "Always":
I'll be there till the stars don't shine,
Till the heavens burst, and the words don't rhyme
See, in this case, the words don't rhyme... and, as he promised, he's still with the girl! A brilliant marriage of form and content! Jovi rules!!
(4) INXS, "Devil Inside"
I can't even give sample lyrics, because that would mean quoting the whole song. Honestly, except for "bells" and "hell," there's not one actual rhyme in the whole tune. Part of me even wonders if the lyrics are supposed to rhyme. And yet, they're so close ("Here come the man, look in his eye/ Fed on nothing, but full of pride/ Look at them go, look at them kick,/ Makes you wonder how the other half lives") that I think they were legitimately trying to rhyme, but it didn't quite pan out for them.
Possibly, they were suffering from rhyme fatigue after writing the song "Mediate." (Remember that one? Every word in the song ends with the "ate" sound? "Hallucinate, desegregate, mediate, alleviate, try not to hate"...)
(5) Steve Miller Band, "Take the Money and Run"
Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is
He ain't gonna let those two escape justice
He makes his livin' off other people's taxes
This stretch might even be better than "Every Rose has Its Thorn," because the rhymes here are so absurdly beyond slanted: "Texas," "justice," and "taxes"? And while you could that "facts is" does rhyme with "taxes," it's grammatically incorrect: in the context of the sentence, shouldn't it be "facts are"?
Personally, I think Stevie knows the rhymes are ridiculous and that he's wink-winking his way through the lyrics. After all, he's a joker, a smoker, a midnight-toker.
And there you have it: an initial smattering of thorny rhymes. If you have any additional examples, please let me know.