LISTS Unsung Power Pop Gems From All Eras By Zachary Lipez · Illustration by Marine Buffard · May 22, 2023

Any time a modifier is attached to the genre of “pop,” it’s a safe bet that the “popular” implied by the modified subject is largely aspirational. “Alternative pop” means “within certain spheres.” “Dream pop” just says the aspirational part twice. “Hyperpop” means “popular, as long as it’s free.” And “noise pop”? You may as well just say “Sounds great. I’m going to need a co-sign on that lease though.” The only possible exception to this not at all glib and dismissive rule is “power pop.”

At least for a brief window in time, which tends to recur every decade or so, the kids go simply gaga over Beatles harmonies over Byrds guitars, performed by boys and girls and non-binaries who get their haircuts at the same Supercuts as Pavement. The Raspberries were big. Big Star got there eventually. Cheap Trick were gigantic. Material Issue was big enough to warrant a Screeching Weasel answer track. Weezer are, if current polling is to be believed, still bigger than Jesus. And you know “Stacy’s Mom,” even if you don’t know who sang it. The “power” part of the designation may seem dishonest; a spiky leather jacket hiding an argyle sweater and stovepipe pants. But the “power” part is more of a fun linguistic trick, a way to convince the jaded hep cat to open up their hep cat heart to the inherent virtue of swooning romance and repeated viewings of Clueless. Love is good for you, you silly garage punk!

The term power pop is also very much like hipsters and shoegaze: over-applied to the point of mass (relatively speaking) confusion. In this, power pop itself is also very much like pornography and art: easy to love; hated to an unsurprising degree, and with a definition that is largely dependent on the “I know it when I hear it” rule. In fact, it’s this rule that will be used in this catalog of overlooked power pop gems. If facts trumped feelings, the Romantics would have called themselves the Pedantics.

What we’ve compiled here is, first, a highly subjective overview of unsung power pop gems. Some very much not unsung classics have been included to give a firm foundation, but if we listed all the classics on Bandcamp, then the list would just be that. Feel free to switch out Big Star or Game Theory with Marshall Crenshaw, Paul Collins, or Milk ‘N’ Cookies if those omissions are too much to bear.


A Selection of Classics (That Are On Bandcamp but Not On Every Other List)

Big Star
Best Of

We start with Big Star because, when discussing power pop, until Paul McCartney sees fit to throw the Apple Records catalog on Bandcamp like a normal person, it starts with Big Star. And we choose a Best Of compilation because, while critics will often and occasionally correctly bully the neophyte into only buying albums, I feel it’s important to really drive home that idea that power pop was, and is, supposed to be pop– music. Failure to achieve success was only romanticized as an inherent positive for the genre in retrospect, when history and sales demanded some clawing back of power pop’s self esteem. Big Star was on Stax Records for God’s sake. Every song here—combining the open-hearted fragility of both Frank Sinatra and Joni Mitchell’s most late-night balladry, with effortless Abbey Road-esque hook-mongering—was supposed to be as big as religion and sports put together. Considering the ever expanding population of those whose lives were changed by these songs, it still might be. It’s only been 50 years.

 

Game Theory
Supercalifragile

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP

Scott Miller is one of the (along with Adam Schlesinger and Alex Chilton) patron saints of power pop. His work with Game Theory and Loud Family was as instrumental in making power pop a vibrant and relevant genre as much as anything that came from the Paisley Underground or any of the various power pop revivals over the years. Besides his art, he was nexus for an entire community of like-minded tragi-romantic auteurs; he’s even responsible for The Both coming together by introducing Ted Leo’s music to Aimee Mann. He took his own life a decade ago, but was working on this album at the time.

Enuff Z’nuff
Welcome to Blue Island

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

A (strong) argument could be made for including the Greatest Hits album by these Chicago spandex and glam survivors. The compilation is indeed wall-to-wall, Cheap Trick-y and Badfinger-tastic power pop bangers that give incontrovertible evidence for Enuff Z’nuff being so much more than their consignment to hair metal history might indicate. But that would, in and of itself, be buying into that historical misunderstanding. Welcome to Blue Island makes its own strong argument (with covers of the Beatles and Nirvana included to gild the lily) for a band that never stopped delivering sweetness and crunch in equal measure.

Pointed Sticks
Perfect Youth

One of the numerous less-than-zero stakes points of conflict that bubbles up within the power pop community is the eternal confusion between power pop and pop-punk. The two genres’ shared affection for saccharine melodies, adenoidal singing, and just-pubescent attitudes regarding the pillow fight between the sexes lends itself to a gray area of perceived overlap which is often resented by power pop purists and weaponized for credibility by pop-punkers. It’s a dumb and fun argument, rendered moot as far back as 1980 by Pointed Sticks. The Vancouver band took (the inventors of pop-punk) Buzzcocks’s reinvention of teenage kicks—as a facet of modern anxiety as important as the fear of nuclear annihilation—and slathered it in Canadian maple syrup; making a piano-dripping and propulsive pop rock that was as powerful as it was punky.

Nikki Corvette and The Romeos
He’s Gone

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

As important as the Beatles to power pop’s ethos are the girl group sounds which informed the Fab Four’s sense of traditional melodies. Since her 1980 Bomp! debut, Dominique Lorenz, aka Nikki Corvette, has been the standard bearer for the girl gang end of the power pop spectrum, simultaneously providing some gritty ballast to the genre and embodying a necessary counterpoint to power pop’s tendency to depict ladies as– well, let’s just say that the Milk ‘N’ Cookies album cover hasn’t grown any less unfortunate with time. Anyway, Corvette, with any of her backing bands, has consistently made a trailblazing, steely, angelic racket all her own; playing the part of the rocked when it suits her fancy/the song, but primarily the autonomous rocker.

The Toms
The Toms

Merch for this release:
2 x Vinyl LP

If The Toms‘s self-titled album was the greatest work of weirdo-savant-pop to come out of suburban New Jersey in 1979, it’s not only because the Misfits wouldn’t release a full-length till 1982. Rather, this debut by the “band” The Toms (really a solo project, with Tommy Morolda playing the part of every “Tom” on the album) gets its own (largely belated but well deserved) plaudits for being such a singular—shiny and sharp—sweet-toothed beast. Whether the album’s strange air of loneliness is a projection that comes from the knowledge of how it was recorded doesn’t really matter. There is a winning brightness to the album, but with a shadow of obsessiveness behind every song.


A Selection of Power Pop Gems From Bands that Started In The ‘90s (i.e the decade that, as “The ‘60s of the 2020s,” deserves its own designation in any contemporary Best Of List)

The Dandy Warhols
Distortland

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)

Besides writing the theme song for Veronica Mars—objectively speaking, the most power pop of all teen detective TV dramas—The Dandy Warhols, the Portland band merit inclusion in the power pop pantheon for being one of the few bands in the genre to make music that sounds like it came out the year it came out. If frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s lyrical concerns occasionally veer into “Free Weekly Styles Section Headline” territory, his band’s casual exploration of electronics and ambient sound ably keeps The Dandy Warhols sounding up-to-date without being instantly dated. Distortland is no different; just another collection of insinuating melodies and mid-tempo, classicism-imbued songcraft. This is not faint praise; it only sounds like it because The Dandy Warhols makes both “power” and “pop” seem so effortless that the band practically begs to be taken for granted.

Flop
Whenever You’re Ready

In a time when all music seems to exist at once, it’s hard to imagine how crazy and novel it was when Flop appeared, that here was this band from the Pacific Northwest who were more interested in Cheap Trick than they were in the Stooges—which is partially why this album, pun not intended but also unavoidable, flopped. The kids simply weren’t prepared for a heavy guitar music that was neither depressing nor about masturbating in a fake English accent. More’s the pity as Whenever You’re Ready is a masterpiece of soaring vocal harmonies, with evocative and sweetly oblique lyrics on top of riffs that wouldn’t have been out of place on the artier, more grunting songs off of Cheap Trick’s first record.

Juliana Hatfield
Blood

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, T-Shirt/Apparel, Cassette, Vinyl

One of the main qualities that differentiates power pop from the guitar pop of, say, Maroon 5 or the 1975, is an underlying toughness, even a hardness that allows power pop to not shy away from the bitterness and occasional emotional meanness that can come with singing about love honestly. Regardless of the candied charm of her singing voice, there’s few songwriters as tuff as Juliana Hatfield. Coming out of the Boston indie scene that simultaneously birthed the Lemonheads, Hatfield shared her peers’ knack for melody (and was a Lemonhead herself briefly, as bassist for It’s a Shame About Ray) but—again, despite what her voice might fool one into thinking—eschewed Evan Dando’s doe-eyed lack of guile, favoring a laceration aimed both inward and outward. And she never once softened her guitar attack. On her 19th (!) album, the singer-songwriter accurately describes her mouth as being full of blood.


The New(ish) School

The New Pornographers
Mass Romantic

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP

Not a “hidden” gem by any means, but such a gem that the album can’t be omitted in good conscience. The New Pornographers are arguably the band that brought power pop into the 21st century, and kept it from being a dead language spoken mainly by people who still blame Yoko for breaking up the Beatles (and are more upset with her for “Revolution 9”).

Baby Shakes
Shake the System

New York City’s finest skinhead-adjacent glam-power-pop outfit were dabbling in the now-fashionable bovver rock style long before all the boys traded in their D-beat shoelaces and deathrock hairdos for new boots and, uh, no hair hairdos. With sharp, Undertone-d guitar lines and spit-shined group vocals, Baby Shakes make songs that harken back to the ‘70s power pop originators’ reverence for rock ‘n’ roll’s primal roots, while also holding dear those same innovators impulse to infuse every verse and chorus with as much beach bingo joie de vivre as frustrated teen lust melancholy. (Full disclosure: Over a decade ago, I tended bar with one of the Baby Shakes. But last time I saw her, she strongly implied I was a poseur. Which, while accurate, was very hurtful. So it’s not like I owe the band any favors.)

Jonny Couch
Mystery Man

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

Easily the most “new wave” of all the albums listed here, Jonny Couch’s debut solo album may be heavy on the synths, but it’s arguably the poppiest of all the included albums. Part Roxy Music, part Robert Palmer, and part ooey-gooey bubblegum deliciousness, every song on Mystery Man would have—if released in 1983—been on the soundtrack of every single movie made, for the next decade, that concerned the loss of a shy youngster’s virginity.

The Courtneys
ll

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

Arguably more indie pop than “power” pop, but if distorted guitars are a dealbreaker then the deal needs breaking. When the fuzz lays just below the sweetest, most epic of harmonizing angst, the power pop judges must decide if following the letter of the law is more important than following the spiritual question that is part of all power pop deliberations: Would a million teenagers, alienated from anything existing outside of their libido and record collections, break up with each other to these songs? When that question is considered, this Vancouver band— signed to New Zealand’s legendary Flying Nun label—can be considered nothing less.

The Dirtbombs
Ooey Gooey Chewy Ka-blooey!

Power pop is a genre that begs for, and regularly indulges in, food metaphors. Everything is “sugary,” “sticky sweet,” “candy,” and a bunch of other descriptors that are definitely not metaphors for anything related to human anatomy. The Dirtbombs—on an album that’s ostensibly a tribute to bubble gum rock rather than, strictly speaking, power pop—take this tendency into hyperspace. The band practically begins the album with a grocery list of a dentist’s nightmares, and proceeds to underline those sugar rush metaphors with rhythms which rise and crash to match. If other contemporary bands like the Dandy Warhols perform a power pop sweetness that’s cut with an obvious psychedelic undertaste of strychnine, The Dirtbombs claim to take their sugar straight, getting Paisley high on only the ingredients found in the backroom of your average Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory—meaning that Mick Collins’s thinly distorted guitars thread in and out of the band’s boisterous horn section like sunshine passing through stained glass. Pedants will (once again) argue that any album meant as a tribute to The Archies can’t possibly be “power pop.” Those pedants fail to take into account that, when Archie Andrews was pawing at either Betty or Veronica in the backseat of his 1916 Ford Model T, he wasn’t listening to The Archies. That would be insane. He was listening to Riverdale Radio, which was playing The Raspberries, Todd Rundgreden, and, while I haven’t seen the tv show, probably the New Pornographers and the Dirtbombs.

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