Absolute Power: MAGNET’s Top 15 American Power-Pop Albums

THE BEAT The Beat (Columbia/CBS), 1979
thebeatAfter warming the drummer’s seat in the Nerves, Paul Collins led the Beat through its debut, a dream synthesis of eight important records: the first four each by the Ramones and Cheap Trick. Plus, it has an adolescent let’s-dry-hump-in-the-rec-room, big (but not dumb) rock feel to it. Centerpiece “Don’t Wait Up For Me” is usually mentioned when people discuss the very best ‘70s power pop, which isn’t advisable unless you’re into arguments and tears.

BIG STAR #1 Record (Ardent), 1972
bigstar_big125“In The Street” (a.k.a. “That ‘70s Song”) may now be lodged in TV Land’s unconscious as an anthem for suburban myopia, but the whole of Big Star’s debut is a study in weird ambition. Nobody expected—or even wanted—Alex Chilton and Chris Bell to build a bridge between soul-gritty Memphis and poncey-pop London, but they did it anyway. Tough and beautiful, #1 Record is the sonic equivalent of a girl lipsticking a cigarette and pouting at an imperfect world.

CHEAP TRICK Heaven Tonight (Epic), 1978
cheaptrick125fBefore Robin Zander’s At Budokan introduction evolved into a Beastie Boys sample, “Surrender” served notice that these heartland heavies had arrived. The song stands as the band’s finest moment, putting the lie to any notions of hipness (the singer’s parents get their kicks smoking sess and rocking his Kiss albums) while sporting a hook that could land Moby Dick. Heaven Tonight forged the hair-metal template by welding glam-rock chops to straightforward pop.

THE dB’S Stands For deciBels (Albion), 1981
dbs125The sound of high-school angst bundled up and shipped off to college. Amid brainy variations on the boy-lusts-after-girl theme, Peter Holsapple’s buoyant jangle-garage collides improbably with Chris Stamey’s funkier psychedelic musings, making for the perfect tension-based songwriting partnership. As bolstered by adventurous production detail, the sonic house of cards wobbles but never topples. Import-only at the time, deciBels became a nexus of insiderdom cool in the ‘80s.

FLAMIN’ GROOVIES Shake Some Action (Sire), 1976
056__page_1_image_0003tiffWhen guitarist Cyril Jordan assumed command of the Groovies and dumped their Stonesy pout, they became an altar for his heroes, fusing Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” density, Byrds-like mega-jangle and Fab Four melodic sense. Shake was intended as burnt offering, but its buzzing, 12-string-soaked originals—Jordan’s inflammatory guitar sparking Chris Wilson’s tinder-dry vocals like a match to kindling—stands up alongside anything created by their idols.

TOMMY KEENE Songs From The Film (Geffen), 1986
tommykeene125Though Keene generally disavows the power-pop tag, he’s a melodic god to bands ranging from the Goo Goo Dolls to Velvet Crush. Songs is the biggest reason why. Keene’s sizzling guitar playing, sharp, wistful lyrics (recurring themes: loss, backstabbing, carnivals) and a re-recorded version of “Places That Are Gone” cement the album’s landmark status. The indignity of Songs’ lackluster chart performance was compounded when the 1998 CD re-release quickly went out of print.

THE KNACK Get The Knack (Capitol), 1979
knack_get125Critics may have launched a campaign to “Knuke The Knack,” but make no mistake: The little girls understood. This L.A. band’s coming-out party went gold in a mere 13 days, converting more than five million devotees along the way and making it one of the most successful debuts ever. It’s an overtly sexist, insanely catchy run through the new-wave jungle, highlighted by the invincible “My Sharona” and the Penthouse Letters-inspired “Good Girls Don’t.”

THE PLIMSOULS Everywhere At Once (Geffen), 1983
pimsolsFormer Nerves hipster Peter Case fronted this gritty L.A. combo with one foot in the nocturnal badlands of garage punk and the other in the jingle-jangle morning dew of folk rock. Placement of “A Million Miles Away” in the punk puppy-love flick Valley Girl—and the band’s multi-ethnic personnel—raised hopes that the Plimsouls had the tools to tunnel out from the genre’s college-kid/urban-bohemian musical ghetto into the bright sunlight of mass appeal. No such luck.

THE POSIES Frosting On The Beater (DGC), 1993
posiesfrosting125With producer Don Fleming (Sonic Youth, Hole, Screaming Trees) applying a layer of rocked-up grime to the Posies’ pristine pop, the group’s third LP finds it adrift in the sea of grunge that flooded Seattle during the early ‘90s. But the added toughness does the band a measure of good. The Posies’ once-precious songs turn ferocious (“Dream All Day” and “Solar Sister” particularly benefit from the sonic shagginess), at last achieving harmonic balance on the power/pop scales.

RASPBERRIES Raspberries (Capitol), 1972
raspberriesThis debut is generally regarded as the first fully formed, start-to-finish American example of the genre. The popular Beatles comparisons are overstated; this sounds like 1972, the year it and Big Star’s #1 Record would unknowingly birth the most venerable, unchanged and frustrating style in all of rock ‘n’ roll history. At the nose of Raspberries is “Go All The Way,” a song about Eric Carmen’s white suit lying crumpled next to your 16-year-old daughter’s bed

SHOES Black Vinyl Shoes (Black Vinyl), 1977
shoesFrequently mischaracterized as Shoes’ lo-fi debut album (that would be 1975’s vinyl-only Un Dans Versailles), this contains all the mythic trappings of obscurity surrounding its creation. Recorded to four-track in Jeff and John Murphy’s Zion, Ill., living room and originally intended as a demo, Black Vinyl Shoes captures the magic of Shoes at their best (sparkling melodies, pitch-perfect harmonies) and sounds even fresher today than it did during the Carter administration.

MATTHEW SWEET Girlfriend (Zoo), 1991
sweetgirlfriend125Often thought of as his first album (two substandard earlier LPs deservedly stiffed), Girlfriend saw Sweet come seemingly out of nowhere to establish himself as a new-school melody wizard. A smart, tuneful song cycle featuring achingly catchy tracks like “I’ve Been Waiting” and “I Wanted To Tell You,” Girlfriend is a signpost of ‘90s power pop and offered a brief, if ultimately futile, glimmer of hope that this kind of music might make a dent in the marketplace.

20/20 20/20 (Portrait), 1979
20_20125The hormonal heatwave of a high-school dance. Girls. Piloting your convertible, top down for effect, with the radio up full blast, doing 65 in a 35. Girls. Breathless late-night phone calls professing undying devotion—at least until the next crush comes along. Girls. Guitar riffs that reflexively make you grab a nearby tennis racket, resplendent in the glory of rock poses staring back from the bedroom mirror. A girl named Cheri. Weird simultaneous references to the Creator and “Yellow Pills.” Girls.

THE DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND Sincerely (The Right), 1976
dwight twilleyTwilley’s debut has it all: intricate stealth ballads, note-perfect Zombies/Beatles and Elvis/Jerry Lee pastiches, widescreen Sam Phillips-meets-Phil Spector production. And it sizzles with lust and aches with longing while rocking like a mofo—has there ever been a more exhilarating slab of throbbing sonic Tantrism than “I’m On Fire”?—in stark contrast to the sexless, so-bored bleatings of punk, a category into which Sincerely was inaccurately lumped at the time.

VELVET CRUSH In The Presence Of Greatness (Ringers Lactate), 1991
velevetcrush125Self-proclaimed greatness for a debut album? As Hall Of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean once said, “If you can do it, it ain’t braggin’.” In The Presence Of Greatness sports a thoroughly homogenized mixdown that assigns equal weight to vocals and instruments. Poured from a bar’s Waring blender, the Crush’s teenage symphonies are sweet as pineapple juice with a guitar aftershock like 120-proof vodka—overwhelming evidence to all still upright that these guys certainly could “do it.”

Power Pop: What I Like About You: Artists Surrender Their Favorite American Power-Pop Songs


The bands you mention (Big Star, Raspberries, Flamin’ Groovies, Cheap Trick, Dwight Twilley, Shoes, dB’s, Matthew Sweet, Posies) are utterly unrelated. I can tolerate some of them, love the Flamin’ Groovies and Cheap Trick and have a profound hatred of the rest. I cannot bring myself to use the term “power pop.” Catchy, mock-descriptive terms are for dilettantes and journalists. I guess you could say I think this music is for pussies and should be stopped.

“Open My Eyes,” the Nazz

In today’s music world, how you look seems to be more important than the music you play. The Nazz dressed cooler than most and played music that sounded as cool as they looked. “Open My Eyes,” the title track on their debut, is a power-pop song that expands the boundaries before the boundaries were set. Great riff, great percussion and a great style.

“Valerie Loves Me,” Material Issue

It exemplifies the era of power pop that I come from. KROQ in Los Angeles used to never stop playing the blasted thing.

“Yes It’s True,” Flamin’ Groovies
I bought my first Groovies album when I was 18 because I’d seen their name in The Trouser Press Record Guide and was into the idea of being able to tell people I owned a record called Teenage Head. And I liked it, but it surprised me because it sounded like an American Rolling Stones—I was expecting a pop record. Then a couple years later, I heard Shake Some Action, and it all made a lot more sense. Shake Some Action is all pop songs with chiming guitars, recorded by Dave Edmunds just after the band had relocated to England. My favorite song is “Yes It’s True” because of the weird drum beat and the great two-part harmonies that sound so calm and collected as they’re singing words so sad.

“Feel” and “The Ballad Of El Goodo,” Big Star

You’ve got to have two Big Star songs: one that’s quintessentially Alex Chilton and one that’s quintessentially Chris Bell. “Feel” satisfies the latter requirement; Bell’s voice soars, the band rocks like hell behind it, the lead guitars blister and bend and the middle-eight breakdown absolutely drips White Album, white-boy soul. Chilton’s “El Goodo” presents the flip side of the Big Star coin, framing his world-weary vocal with lush, Beach Boys harmonies, swirling Stratocasters and a sense of foreboding that’s almost tangible.

“Hello It’s Me” And “Open My Eyes,” the Nazz

While I love Todd Rundgren’s version of “Hello It’s Me” on Something/ Anything?, the Nazz version is really kickass; it’s weird, mellow, Beach Boys-esque. And “Open My Eyes”—I always picture a ‘60s drug film with the camera zooming in and out really fast while there’s some crazy dancing.

“I Want You Bad,” NRBQ

Though it’s hard to pass up such power-pop classics as Big Star’s “Kanga Roo” and the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Slow Death,” I’m going to choose a song by a band even less appropriately pigeonholed.

“Play On,” Raspberries

It’s the Raspberries’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” The lyrics are very rock cliché—“Play your hits and all the girls will come”—but the main riff is classic, and the too-high-for-my-high-school-band-to-cover harmonies are amazing. The record it’s on, Starting Over, is the quintessential power-pop album, a perfect blend of the Beatles, Beach Boys and Who. It was their attempt to shed their teenybopper image, and “Play On” sort of chronicles their frustration.

“Shake Some Action,” Flamin’ Groovies

In the verses, the narrator is defensive yet somehow defiant. This complex narrative view contrasts nicely with the brash and simple pronouncements of the chorus. The chords are also fat, and that to me is the number-one defining element of power pop: a hooky chord progression. You may have guessed I would pick this song, as Cracker covered it for the movie Clueless.

“Barracuda,” Heart

It just blew me out of my shoes. It sounded forbidden. I remember being disturbed by it as a little kid. It was almost like I was looking at a dirty magazine. It was the dance I never learned. The fact there were two women up front didn’t hurt matters, either.

“Surrender,” Cheap Trick

When we were on tour with Weezer last year, Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen asked if they could come out and play “Surrender” with us at a show in Milwaukee. It was one of the most exciting and surreal moments of my life. I’d give my left arm to be able to write a song half that good. It’s perfect pop—the chorus just repeats itself but never goes stale.

“Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” the Ramones

It rocks out with huge-sounding drums, attitude and it’s really catchy. In the equation, the power times the pop is about equal. Plus, it was produced by Phil Spector, and it has an explosion at the end, like Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” The Ramones were the new Beach Boys.

“September Gurls,” Big Star

A wonderful moment for treble, melody and astrology. Although I think your question should be American power-pop “recording,” not “song”: The sound, arrangement, production and mix were often the thing.

“Solar Sister,” the Posies

It’s their finest moment, the perfect balance of bombastic, tricky cheapness and vocal creme fraische. I can’t understand half the words, but it doesn’t seem to matter that much. I learned more about singing harmonies with this record in my car than I did in three years of choir.

“September Gurls,” Big Star

One, because I am indeed a September gurl, and two, because it’s the catchiest, most melodic sing-along since the Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week.” It makes you wish for one of those “December boys”!

Power Pop: Big Star, All The Way From Memphis


It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, and you look like a star but you’re still on the dole: The true story of Big Star, Alex Chilton’s rematch with musical glory. By Corey duBrowa

Paul Westerberg once proudly proclaimed that he’d “never travel far without a little Big Star.” Teenage Fanclub owes any career momentum it was ever able to attain to the style codified on Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City, the first of which was released 30 years ago. The Fanclub’s fetishistic obsession was deep enough to inspire the naming of its third album in honor of a favorite Big Star track (“Thirteen”), a song upon which Elliott Smith would later put his own wounded imprint. Cheap Trick—a band that clearly cribbed a move or two from the Big Star playbook—recently resurrected its career from irrelevance by re-recording Big Star’s “In The Street” as “That ‘70s Song,” the opening theme to Fox’s retro sitcom That ‘70s Show. (The original’s “Wish we had/A joint so bad” couplet has, of course, been surgically removed for the TV version.)

Musicians from all over the alt-rock kingdom have chased down Big Star’s producers, John Fry and Jim Dickinson, in an attempt to tap into the vein of beautiful loserdom they so perfectly captured on tape—the Afghan Whigs, Replacements, Primal Scream and Mudhoney foremost among them. Despite Herculean efforts, none has really ever gotten it quite right.

The Memphians known as Big Star forged the template for the genre that would come to be known as power pop: a mash-note mélange of sweet and sour that would be emulated by nearly every band that ever attempted to write a love song for the radio. If you ever sat in your car transfixed as 3:35 of jingle-jangle guitars, wobbly harmonies and lyrics putting a face to teenage confusion poured out of your speakers and down your spine in a cascade of chills, you have Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel to thank for it.

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Power Pop: The ’70s, The Birth Of Uncool


Defining power pop is the ultimate argument-starter. Explaining the genre without inciting fisticuffs, tears or yearlong grudges is a mountainous socio-cultural accomplishment. Pop is supposed to be fun, beautiful and, if done right, the flame underneath transcendent human desire. The well-written hook is the world’s most underrated aphrodisiac, right? You’d be sorely mistaken if you think any of that entered into the two months of e-mail discussions between MAGNET staffers as to what is and isn’t power pop. The real point, for writer and reader, isn’t to set boundaries or fish for phantom discrepancies—it’s to be turned on to this music of holy grails, doe-eyed dreamers and out-of-time progenitors.

Along with American power pop’s inception in the ‘70s came its almost immediate tendency to perpetually approach the puckering lips of failure. Ken Sharp, author of books on the Raspberries, Cheap Trick (pictured) and power pop itself, says it best: “Power pop is the Rodney Dangerfield of rock ‘n’ roll. It is the direct updating of the most revered artists—the Who, the Beach Boys, the Beatles—yet it gets no respect.”

But if you take away the extreme gender imbalance (there are more females making death metal), power pop—when broken down to its variables—is very cool. The makers and lovers of it tend to dress well and look healthy, and the fan base actually features real live women. The music is sexy and about girls. By comparison, the great unwashed and unlaid of today’s math-rock, laptop and noise scenes are a far more depressing, slovenly and uncool demographic.

Appropriately enough, the zillion-dollar term was coined by Pete Townshend. It popped from his tea hole in 1967 when asked by a journalist what the Who’s next single, “Pictures Of Lily,” would sound like. “Power pop is what we play,” he said. British bands in the ‘60s would plainly shape the American sound of the ‘70s: the Who, Zombies, Hollies, Easybeats, Move, Small Faces, Creation and, of course, Beatles. As for the U.S., Gene Clark’s compositions on the first two Byrds LPs, the Left Banke and the Nazz (Todd Rundgren’s Anglophilic pop group) provided some glaring precursors, but the real power in the pop was on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Power Pop: The ’80s, Style Over Substance


As the early ‘80s unfolded, it seemed the spring in our pogo was perceptibly flagging. In fact, a none-too-subtle indicator a hangover was about to crash down like the proverbial grand piano came in the ‘83 teen flick Valley Girl. “That techno rock you guys listen to is gutless,” says Nicolas Cage (as punk Randy) to his new-wave paramour in a club scene that neatly outlined the encroachment of synth pop at the expense of guitar-driven music. Playing in the background, of course, is the revved-up power pop of the Plimsouls.

The post-Knack feeding frenzy had coaxed every skinny-tie-wearing, Rickenbacker-toting hopeful out of the woodwork, but bonafide swipes of chart-action excellence—the Romantics’ “What I Like About You,” Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny”—were fleeting. Plus, upstart MTV was already busy reshuffling music-biz priorities, the style-and-visuals-friendly likes of Duran Duran and A Flock Of Seagulls leaving a lot of talented outfits no choice but to capitulate (remember the Red Rockers’ transformation from punk-poppers to poofy new-wavers with the hit song “China”?) or go underground. Journalist/pop archivist Ken Sharp wryly notes how “groups like 20/20, Plimsouls and Three O’Clock issued some very high-quality power-pop records despite not achieving the heights of mass success a la the Knack.”

That said, when a left-field entry became an MTV smash in 1984, the fact it came from a ‘70s power-pop holdout was all the sweeter. In the summer of 1975, a dark-eyed, handsome, 24-year-old Okie with a Sun Records/British Invasion jones had burst out of nowhere to storm the charts with the chiming, throbbing anthem “I’m On Fire.” But neither Dwight Twilley nor songwriting partner Phil Seymour was that concerned with how the music biz operated; the Dwight Twilley Band rarely performed live, and in its youthful arrogance, the group presumed 1976’s Sincerely would be boffo enough to sell itself.

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