What’s power pop, you ask? It’s ridiculously radio-friendly hooks and close vocal harmonies, mixed with a hefty dose of Marshall stacks and relentless four-on-the-floor beat. Perfect for music fans who like a little sugar in their rock! The genre has its roots in the British Invasion sound of the mid-sixties, borrowing heavily from The Who and The Beatles, as well as Americans, The Byrds. Following the demise of the Fab Four at the start of the ’70s, a host of new groups hoping to carry the pop torch amped up their jangling Rickenbacker 12-strings and made a bid for Billboard glory. Only a few made it, but the music that came out of the power pop golden era (1973-1982) is still among the catchiest ever committed to wax.
Read on for 20 essential power pop tracks that will be lodged in your brain for the rest of your life. Overly commercial? Maybe. Guilty pleasures? Possibly. But you’ll be singing right along, we guarantee it! Be warned: This ear candy is so sweet, you’re going to have to brush your speakers before bedtime.
20. “So It Goes” by Nick Lowe (1978)
The British pub-rocker had scored previous hits during his stint in Brinsley Shwartz, recording the original version of Elvis Costello’s “What So Funny ’Bout Peace, Love And Understand.” That tune is power pop to the max, but Nick’s solo debut Jesus Of Cool brought out even bigger guns like “Little Hitler”, “Roller Show” and this cut.
19.“Abracadabra (Have You Seen her?)” by Blue Ash (1973)
This band straight outta Youngstown, Ohio anticipated the raw energy of Cheap Trick a few years early. Like a garage freak-beat band that recently bought amps, this stomper is just one of many great cuts from their excellent first album, No More, No Less. Despite boasting catchy riff-heavy songs and opening for The Stooges, Bob Seger, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, they didn’t match the success of Badfinger, The Raspberries, and other power-pop brethren.
18. “Black And White” by The dBs (1981)
You could pick pretty much any cut from their jangley debut Stands For Decibels and stick it on this list. Chris Stamey and Will Rigby, formerly of power poppers Sneakers, teamed up with Peter Holsapple in the early ’80s for a southern-friend sound. The dynamic tension between Stamey’s avante-garde style and Holsapple’s shimmering guitar work made for an interesting sweet-and-salty (or black and white) blend that has become a cult favorite. For many, they are the definitive power pop band.
17. “Joining A Fan Club” by Jellyfish (1993)
“Baby’s Coming Back” might be a tad more coherent, but the album opener from ’93’s Spilt Milk hits you like a potentially lethal sugar high. Queen-like multi-tracked harmonies, bone-crunching guitar, thundering drums, Beatle-y keyboards and even a string section all mix together in a uniquely-structured cotton candy confection.
16. “Girl Of My Dreams” by Bram Tchaikovsky (1979)
Bram (real name, Peter Bramall) scraped the U.S. Top 40 charts with this one, the catchiest ode to “solo fantasizing” since The Who’s “Pictures Of Lily” over a decade before. Considering his dedication to the ’60s Mod style, you almost have to wonder if it was an accident…or a tribute?
15. “Hanging On The Telephone” by The Nerves (1976)
The LA-based trio only released a four-song EP during their four-year lifespan, but it contained this pop standard that went on to be covered by Blondie. Just as the song went on to a bigger and better fate, so did the band members; Paul Collins went on to form The Beat, while Peter Case founded The Plimsouls, responsible for another power pop gem, “A Million Miles Away”.
14. “I’m On Fire” by The Dwight Twilley Band (1975)
Not to be confused with the Bruce Springsteen song, the Tulsa-born Dwight brought us this stellar cut, with roots in both British Invasion and Sun Records rockabilly. No one blended the two genres with his skill and sizzle, but sadly this proved to be the band’s only chart success.
13. “Good Girls Don’t” by The Knack (1979)
Although often maligned as a one-hit-wonder, The Knack are responsible for arguably the most successful power pop song of all time. “My Sharona” spent six weeks at Number 1 and was Capitol Records’ fastest gold status debut single since the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” fifteen years earlier. The song made them icons of the genre, but their lesser-known follow-up is equally incredible.
12. “Just What I Needed” by The Cars (1978)
The Cars evolved into more of a new-wave act, but their debut single had it’s feet firmly in the power pop camp. Elliot Easton’s punchy guitar riffs propel the song forward, but Greg Hawkes’ synth lines are the icing on top.
11. “Someday, Someway” by Marshall Crenshaw (1982)
Crenshaw had one hell of a musical bootcamp: he got his big break as a John Lennon impersonator in an off-Broadway touring company of Beatlemania. Several years of learning the ins-and-outs of the Fab’s catalog certainly had an effect, as his songs are a master class in how to write the perfect pop hook. Blending bright uptempo guitars with complex chord structures, he mimicked Buddy Holly hiccup’y vocal delivery so well that he was tapped to play the late rock pioneer in the 1987 film, La Bamba.
10. “She Goes Out With Everybody” by The Spongetones (1982)
It’s been called the best Merseybeat song that America has produced, and there’s no argument here. The descending “clothesline harmony” of the lead vocalists plays like an updated “Please Please Me”. If you squint, it almost looks like the real thing!
9. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” By The Rubinoos (1979)
Not to be confused with The Ramones’ song of the same name, the chorus from this Aussie group was so catchy that Avril Lavigne borrowed it for her 2007 single, “Girlfriend.” Or so it seems…
8. “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” by Todd Rundgren (1972)
Mr. Rundgren is a multiple inductee into the Power Pop Hall of Fame, first for this work with the late-sixties group, Nazz. “Open My Eyes” is a little too old (and a little too hard) to be considered power pop, but he certainly knew which way the wind was blowing. Several years later he was making blissed out tracks with his band Utopia, and in recent years he served as lead vocalist for The “New” Cars. But our favorite Todd-era is his early ’70s solo period, which brought forth Runt, Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren,and the sublime double-disc Something/Anything? The latter is front-loaded with perfection like “I Saw The Light”, “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”, “Hello It’s Me”, and this larynx-shredder.
7. “Shake Some Action” by The Flamin’ Groovies
Immediate disqualification for inclusion in the Clueless soundtrack. Immediate RE-inclusion for being awesome. The Groovies got their start way back in 1969 as a blusey San-Fran bar band, but really hit their stride after guitarist Cyril Jordan took command, injecting a some Mersey-side melodies and Byrds-like electric 12-string lines.
6. “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones (1978)
Purists might find this more pop punk, but sue us. The brash and yearning “Teenage Kicks” perfectly sums up the hormonal frenzy of young love (which is, as they say, hard to beat). The song was a favorite of the incalculably influential DJ, John Peel, who requested that the words “Teenage dreams, so hard to beat” be engraved on his tombstone. He tragically suffered a fatal heart attack in 2004, but was eventually granted his wish.
5. “Starry Eyes” by The Records (1978)
Wanna know what being in love feels like? Just listen to this masterwork from these Brits, filled with cascading guitars and rough and ready Wh0-like vocal attack. The breakneck pace sends that song forward faster than a ’55 Chevy on a spring day. This is one for the jukebox.
4. “In The Street” by Big Star (1972)
The late great Alex Chilton got his start in the mid ’60s fronting The Box Tops as a 17-year-old, showing off his best Joe Cocker impression on hits like “The Letter”. At the dawn of the new decade, he teamed up with Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel in Memphis to record the debut album for what would be called Big Star. Sadly, label woes kept the group from living up to their name, but they’ve gone on to become one of the most legendary and critically acclaimed cult acts in music. Songs like “September Gurls” and “The Ballad Of El Goodo” serve as the eccentric missing link between Memphis soul and London pop, but “In The Street” just happens to be our favorite of the bunch. Coincidentally, it helps form the basis for the theme to That ’70s Show, coupled with the “We’re all alright!” chant from…
3. “Surrender” by Cheap Trick (1978)
The folks who brought us the full length power pop staple Live At The Budokan also gave us this swirling anthem to teenage rebellion. It soars like a amped up symphony for four minutes and twelve seconds of pure ecstasy, and the final “We’re all alright!” softens to otherwise devastating emotional crash when it finally comes in for landing.
2. “Go All The Way” by The Raspberries (1972)
How does one of the best air-guitar riffs in rock sit alongside those gorgeous angelic harmonies? It’s a neat trick that takes us to pop heaven every time. Eric Carmen and the boys were determined to pay tribute to all of their ’60s favorites, borrowing the “come on” bridge from The Beatles’ “Please Please Me”. They looked to The Rolling Stones’ for lyrical raunchiness, which is totally masked with their Beach Boy vocal work. For more, see “Overnight Sensation”, “Tonight” and “I Wanna Be With You”.
1. “No Matter What” by Badfinger (1970)
The original power pop foursome. Although the “Beatle clone” comparisons grew tiresome, there was some truth to the hype. Badfinger were signed to the Fab’s Apple Records label, and their first hit, “Come And Get It”, was written and produced by Paul McCartney. But by the time the band truly took flight in 1970, they were doing it on their own. Kind of. George Harrison was rumored to have helped out on guitar duty, but the killer song was all theirs.
Runner Up: “Dance With Me” by The Wonders (1996)
Technically they weren’t a real band, but The Wonder’s titular “hit” song from the film That Thing You Do made a very real run on the Top 40. Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne wrote and lent backing vocals to the song. All their tunes are great, but our favorite always has to be this deeper cut.