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Pete Townshend unwittingly named power pop. In the '60s, the Who guitarist used the term to describe the style of his group as a way to link them to groups such as the Beach Boys and other smart, melodic pop acts Townshend admired. Power pop, as it grew, became a lean sister to punk rock’s “burn everything down” ethos yet its musical conservatism gives it a rather nerdy air. The Weezer video for Buddy Holly where the band performed in suits and glasses was not far off from the truth.
Power pop is somewhat easy to define yet it is a sound that is easily malleable. After acts like Big Star and Cheap Trick defined the foundation in the '70s, a lot of acts began incorporating different aspects of the sound with varying degrees of success. It made a resurgence in the '80s with bands like The Knack and the dBs giving it a new wave spin. The 1990s alternative rock boom introduced a new guidebook - Kurt Cobain described Nirvana as the '90s version of Cheap Trick and the paradigm shift they inspired with Nevermind created a fertile ground for pop-minded songwriters and musicians to hit the charts running. With that in mind, here’s an exploration of ten releases that are essential for the power pop genre and also important for your rock/pop collection.
Big Star have the tagline of “cult band” following them wherever they go. It’s tragic considering their world-conquering ambitions — embedded in their album titles like #1 Record — and how they wanted to be the first and final word on Beatlesque pop. The challenge with Radio City was to see if guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Alex Chilton could prove he could carry on without songwriting foil Chris Bell, who left after the commercial failure of #1 Record. The relief with hearing Radio City is how Chilton not only rose to the occasion but arguably superseded #1 Record in the process. It’s a looser, sparser affair in parts yet his (and the rest of his bandmates’) grasp on melody and songwriting hadn’t regressed: the track sequence “You Get What You Deserve" to “Morpha Too” has some of Big Star’s best pop writing on record. Chilton had his best ballad yet in the chiming “September Gurls,” with its guitar arpeggios straight from the Byrds’ songbook while the drums push it along with a peppy stride. It’s an approach that’s been tried many a time by imitator bands looking for some of Big Star’s magic but none seem to have nailed that idyllic yet angsty feeling that Chilton does here.
Unabashed nerds. That’s the Exploding Hearts, to the very core: ardent students of the form and uninterested in anything else. On Guitar Romantic, The Exploding Hearts’ vision looks backward: an alternate take on first wave British punk rock that first takes a massive detour through the most exciting bits of garage and bubblegum. It’s reckless fun and games, from the massive singalong that is “I’m A Pretender” to the guitar heroics embedded in album finale “Still Crazy.” The Exploding Hearts didn’t take themselves too seriously yet were savvy to embrace every songwriting trick in the book they could. Sadly, a car crash prematurely ended the lives of three band members, cutting their story to a close. As fantastic as Guitar Romantic is, the world needed more.
Matthew Sweet has an Essential compilation, and surprisingly, it is not every track from Girlfriend in sequence. With Girlfriend, Sweet predicted the brashness of ’90s power pop and beyond, wise enough to draw upon the roaring guitars of contemporary alt-rock to feature on his pretty little numbers. The title track has a lead guitar playing over everything else during the duration of the song and it works — granted Sweet did a lot of the major lifting with his fantastic vocal melodies and swaggering chord progression but hearing that lead guitar is like watching your door get kicked in while you stand off to the side. The rest of Girlfriend is split between songs such as these and songs where Sweet quiets down and other influences seep in — the country undertones on “Winona” frame his lyrics of pining well and the gentle “Thought I Knew You” illustrates Sweet’s Athens roots with its R.E.M. jangle. What holds it together is Sweet’s emotional range: He’s not afraid to let everything get jagged and frayed but restrains from turning Girlfriend into a vehicle of rage. Striking that balance gives this caustic breakup album just enough sugar to have it go down easily.
In 1996, Sloan were a band that no longer existed. Their second LP, Twice Removed, was a melancholic, melodic indie rock album that was a complete left-turn from their previous dalliances in noise-pop. The stillborn reception that followed and complete lack of promotion from their label Geffen put the band on kibosh. Their third and ostensibly final LP was meant to serve as a swan song for the band. Yet One Chord to Another revitalized Sloan and turned them into heroes in their native Canada. What made One Chord to Another thrilling was watching Sloan pull their myriad influences and directions together in a unified package that rocked out, a lo-fi Beatlesque pop romp that took no prisoners. All four band members got their turn in the spotlight and it didn’t feel like a strange mishmash, but a celebration of what they overcame. It also helped matters One Chord to Another marked the emergence of guitarist Patrick Pentland as Cancon singles machine, who scored two top 10 Canadian hits with this album including the breezy stomper “The Good in Everyone,” whose music video came with an Easy Rider spoof that ran longer than the actual song itself.
Alien Lanes isn’t an obvious choice, nor is it an easy listen. You’ve got 28 songs whizzing by in over 40 minutes, many of them sufficing as quick little fragments. Guided by Voices were content to just bang them out and move on to the next one but it’s fascinating how many fun hooks Robert Pollard and company were able to effortlessly tuck in. Filtering classic rock, lo-fi jangle and punk with a healthy dose of surrealism and indie sensibilities, Guided by Voices albums were sonic patchwork quilts. In fact, subsequent live renditions of some of the Alien Lanes material show just how much indebted to the British Invasion Guided by Voices really were — listen to the Tigerbomb EP version of “Game of Pricks” and marvel at how much muscle that song gained.
The unlikely album that could. This album should already be in your collection if you had parents who bought vinyl records and liked guitars. If not, prepare to get acquainted for this is power pop’s Year Zero. Any modern band with a fondness for three chords and melody can trace their lineage back to At Budokan, where Cheap Trick managed to convince an arena full of screaming Japanese fans that they were the American answer, or perhaps better, to the Beatles by doing all the same and more. At Budokan is similar to Singles Going Steady in that it streamlines all of Cheap Trick’s best into one package, a readily available greatest hits if you will. It also has the benefit of sounding fantastic for a ’70s live document: what was to be found on Cheap Trick studio albums was far too slick. The rawness of their live performances suited them perfectly.
Y’all might have seen this coming from a mile away. Weezer’s first self-titled album helped redefine power pop’s parameters in the 1990s. It went triple platinum, had several Spike Jonze-directed music videos. The best thing Weezer’s record label did was get them to record with Ric Ocasek. His production tastes suited the band and importantly, Rivers Cuomo’s talent for crafting fantastic melodies and pairing them with crisp, lean guitarwork. You never would have guessed Cuomo was a former metalhead — but there’s a effortless virtuosity at work on the Blue Album. Years before Cuomo revealed himself as an analytical songwriting fanatic, here he was outperforming every band he admired at their very game without putting too much work into it. The music of the Blue Album, in parts, felt like a throwback with its major-key guitar pop yet the absurdity and snark found elsewhere — the lyrics, Cuomo’s vocal delivery, all of “Undone” — is ’90s to a tee. Yet songs like “Say It Ain’t So” and “Only In Dreams” show just how big the heart on Weezer’s sleeve happened to be, something they’d later mine to great effect on both follow-up Pinkerton and convincing disappointed fans of their 2000s output they had some good left in them.
Initially billed as the biggest Vancouver supergroup that no one had heard of, the New Pornographers were burst to life fully formed on Mass Romantic. There are three different vocalists competing for your attention here — Neko Case, A.C Newman and Dan Bejar — all the while the band opts to throw everything into the same blender. What the New Pornographers excel at is making everything sound like a massive sugar rush with their voracious love of synths and guitars and catchy melodies. With Mass Romantic, the band proves themselves studious in their noted appreciation of the pop form and its classics but too hypercharged and frenetic to come across as retro. The highlights are many: The vocal harmonies on “Letter From An Occupant”! The way those brash synths build up and let loose on “Mystery Hours”! How it takes less than thirty seconds for the band to get to the chorus for “The Mary Martin Show”! The New Pornographers would scale greater heights in later albums and make big names out of everyone involved but Mass Romantic was where they thrillingly laid down the blueprint.
Years before they realized they could get by with rewriting songs by the Cars and scoring Drew Barrymore vehicles, Fountains of Wayne were a more ramshackle, underrated group. Their debut album was solely written and recorded by vocalist/guitarist Chris Collingwood and primary songwriter Adam Schlesinger, containing several set mainstays in “Sink To The Bottom” and “Radiation Vibe” even if it suffered from being a tad one-dimensional. When it was time to record Utopia Parkway, a quasi-concept album about suburban malaise, Fountains of Wayne had upgraded to full-band status and the LP benefits from having additional personnel. Whereas the songs on the self-titled album felt stripped down to the bone, Utopia Parkway feels like much like a blown-out movie sequel: the guitars are dialed down, there’s less of a punky thrash yet the attention on crafting fantastic melodies is high, resulting in an unexpectedly mature and sophisticated album.
Manchester outfit Buzzcocks’ innovation in punk was making the personal political. They didn’t go for grand statements like the Clash or the Sex Pistols would, they didn’t brand themselves experimentalists a la Wire. Yet there was something profound in the art of Buzzcocks writing high-energy songs about relationships and anxieties, Pete Shelley’s emotive yelp giving the songs their sneer and their heart. Shelley and guitarist Steve Diggle’s twin buzzsaw guitar attack was bright and the rhythm section of Steve Garvey and John Maher were what gave the songs propulsion. Singles Going Steady has all the trappings of a greatest hit compilation, mind-boggling when you consider everything on the album was written, recorded and released during a span of two years. Unfortunately, Singles’ slight revisioning of Buzzcocks as a premiere singles act pushes some of their experimental tendencies to the wayside but that’s a small complaint when you’ve got some of the best pop songs including the eternally incandescent “Ever Fallen in Love?” in your arsenal.