While power-pop hangs on as a beloved genre, mostly among Baby Boomers, it’s decidedly out of step with today’s hit music. For starters, one of the style’s bedrocks is—the guitar. Another factor is that power-pop is very much a white male idiom, which is reflected in this survey of essential songs. That in itself puts it at risk of being a relic.
Nevertheless, good power-pop is good music, just like that of any other genre. And this list cites songs that far transcend good. At least one of them, Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” is part of the all-time rock lexicon. Others were hits of one degree or another. But most of these tunes, and the acts that made them, derived their fandom from serious power-pop enthusiasts, many of whom think it’s criminal that bands like Big Star, Jellyfish and Fountains of Wayne did not achieve wider acclaim.
I consulted with Bay area power-pop master Ed Woltil on my list of 25, which actually turned out to be 26, and offered him space below mine to include his Essential 10, which actually turned out to be 12. Find a playlist on Spotify.
The Kinks: All Day and All of the Night (1964) — This British Invasion hit (no. 7, U.S.) is more rugged than the power-pop to follow, but it possesses the early basics: killer hook, harmony vocals, a set of punchy guitar chords and short solo. It does not, however, include a bridge, which became a part and parcel of the genre.
The Who: The Kids are Alright (1965) — Pete Townshend was about 20 when he wrote this song about leaving the kids home with the wife or he’d “go out of my mind.” Sexist though it may be (unremarkable at the time, though), the song has an irresistible melody.
The Beatles: And Your Bird Can Sing (1966) — The guitar parts are brilliant. The lyrics are obtuse. John Lennon once referred to the song as "another of my throwaways …” Wrong.
The Easybeats: Friday on My Mind (1966) — Probably the first major rock hit by an Australian band. Love the strange, single-string guitar intro.
Badfinger: Baby Blue (1970) — This fab tune closed out the TV series “Breaking Bad” in epic fashion. Its opening line, “Guess I got what I deserved,” kicks in just after Walter White dies. A sublime melding of two mediums.
Todd Rundgren: Couldn’t I Just Tell You (1972) — Side three, song three of Something/Anything, a double album on which Rundgren played and sang most of the parts—an early example of the overdubbed one-man band.
Big Star: September Gurls (1974) — Alex Chilton, who wrote and sang lead on this classic, notched his first hit as the 16-year-old lead vocalist on The Boxtops’ “The Letter,” which reached no. 5 in the U.S. in 1967. No Big Star song came close to that chart success.
Flamin’ Groovies: Shake Some Action (1976) — This tune was included in esteemed critic Greil Marcus’s book “The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs.” Nothing else in the band’s milieu approached this infectious anthem.
Cheap Trick: I Want You to Want Me (live, 1979) — If you only heard the listless 1977 studio recording of this song, there’s no way you’d believe it would become a massive, time-tested hit.
Fleetwood Mac: Think About Me (1980) — This Christine McVie-helmed single (from Tusk) is among scores of Fleetwood Mac songs that fall under the power-pop umbrella but are rarely discussed as such.
Squeeze: Pulling Mussels (From a Shell) (1980) — Apparently, “pulling mussels” is British slang for sexual intercourse—a typical bit of lyrical sleight of hand by this British band, which belongs on the Mount Rushmore of power-pop.
The Go-Gos: Vacation (1982) — This all-female California band—whose sunny, frothy sound earned it a flash of superstardom—definitely belongs on this list. “Vacation” edges “We Got the Beat” by a nose.
The Bangles: Manic Monday (1986) — Prince wrote this song in ‘84 and ultimately offered it to The Bangles under the pseudonym Christopher. The all-woman band’s version far outshines Prince’s own.
Crowded House: Something So Strong (1987) — The Aussie band produced the rare power-pop hit (no. 7, U.S.) that features organ as its most out-front instrument.
XTC: Mayor of Simpleton (1989) — A typically clever track from an English power-pop institution, this galloping tune will tattoo itself into your noggin—unlike some of XTC’s more self-consciously oblique numbers.
The Smithereens: A Girl Like You (1989) — This is some of the heavier power-pop you’ll hear, and Pat DiNizio’s lead vocal doesn’t fit the sweet-tenor mold either. (He died in 2017 at age 62.) No matter—the song’s melody and energy earn it a spot here.
Jellyfish: The King is Half-Undressed (1990) — This short-lived San Francisco band (1989-’94) could never quite break on through, despite moments of brilliance. “Half-Undressed” packs a lot into three-minutes-and-47-seconds, including a middle section that exquisitely fuses homages to The Beatles and The Who.
Prince: Cream (1991) — The ultimate musical polymath, Prince has myriad power-pop numbers in his vast discography. With it’s heavy drum groove, “Cream” is, no surprise, the most danceable tune in this survey.
Matthew Sweet: I’ve Been Waiting (1991) — This cult artist had his timing all wrong, releasing his best album, Girlfriend (which includes “Waiting”), just as Nirvana began to rewire rock. (Nevermind came out one month prior).
Gladhands: Smallville (1997) — This obscure, probably defunct band from Omaha, which holds a soft spot in my heart, delivered this springy tune about breaking free of small-town doldrums as part of their noteworthy La Di Da album.
Fountains of Wayne: Little Red Light (2003) — Adam Schlesinger, the band’s ridiculously prolific primary songwriter, died on April 1 from COVID-19. Such a loss. This hard-driving and humorous tune is from my favorite FoW album, Welcome Interstate Managers (which also includes “Stacy’s Mom,” the band’s only hit).
The Ditchflowers: All the Time in the World / My Next Life (2007) — I’ve said it many times and I’ll say again: The Ditchflowers’ Carried Away is the best album ever released by a Bay area artist. I’m cheating a little here by including two songs—one written by Brian Merrill (“My Next Life”) and one by Woltil (“All the Time in the World”). Please, feast.
Steve Robinson & Ed Woltil (featuring Dave Gregory of XTC): Elastic Man (2015) — Robinson, a long-time power-pop stalwart in the Bay area, collaborated with Woltil and Gregory on this bouncy, elegant song with a decidedly Anglo feel. Robinson’s lead vocal is prototype power-pop.
Dirty Projectors: I Found it in U (2018) — Here’s an example of how contemporary bands are reshaping power-pop. The herky-jerky rhythms on this tune are anything but conventional, but the emphasis on melody, however angular, tuneful vocals and cool guitar parts are.
Kirk Adams: Here & Now (2020) — I’m so pleased that Woltil alerted me to Adams, a Bay area artist. This languid number oozes warmth and adds a touch of melancholy. Love the slurry guitar parts.
Eric has pretty neatly summed up the power pop basics: Beatles, check; Badfinger, check; Kinks, Squeeze, XTC … In fact, although I might pick a different song here or there, he’s pretty much already built my Top 12 right into his list. That lets me round things out with some favorites he had no room for, and also highlight some lesser-knowns—as well as offer evidence to suggest that piano might rival guitar as a power-pop staple. —Ed Woltil
Emitt Rhodes: Fresh as a Daisy / With My Face On the Floor (1970) — Eerily like Paul McCartney in both voice and sensibility, Emitt Rhodes came out of nowhere in 1970 to rescue Beatle fans grieving the recent break-up of their favorite band. Record company woes stunted Rhodes’ career, but his eponymous one-man-band debut album remains a power pop touchstone to this day.
Harry Nilsson: Gotta Get Up (1971) — There’s nary a guitar to be heard on this piano- and horn-driven gem. John Lennon once quipped that The Beatles’ “favorite American band” was Harry Nilsson. Who am I to disagree with John Lennon?
Paul & Linda McCartney: Too Many People (1971) — Macca’s boundless facility for gorgeous melodies and genre-hopping inventiveness was never so evident as on 1971’s Ram album. The lead-off track exhibits all the hallmarks of classic power-pop.
The Move: Tonight (1971) — A little hard-rock and psychedelic around the edges, The Move was big in the U.K. but only reached American ears through late-night FM radio and hard-to-find import albums. Yet they would morph into one of the most successful melodic rock bands in history (ELO), and one member, Jeff Lynne, would eventually find himself in the same band with Dylan, Harrison, Petty and Orbison.
10cc: The Things We Do for Love (1976) — With four gifted singers and songwriters—one of whom, Graham Gouldman, had penned hits for The Hollies and The Yardbirds—any given 10cc song packed more ideas into three minutes than many bands could conjure per album. “The Things We Do For Love” is 10cc at its most deliciously accessible. Also: Go down the rabbit hole for some of the group’s weirder, Zappa-meets-Beatles concoctions.
Rockpile: Teacher Teacher (1980) — I can’t do this list without including Nick Lowe, whose classic hits “Cruel to Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” belong here … but Rockpile’s one and only album, Seconds of Pleasure, also features Dave Edmunds alongside Lowe. Another infectious lead-off track with nifty guitar hooks, cool key changes, and boisterous vocal harmonies. Power-pop heaven!
The dB’s: Dynamite (1981) — Amid the surge of ‘80s American New Wave bands, The dB’s carried forward the Big Star torch with just the right balance of tunefulness, eccentricity, and scrappy instrumental verve.
The Dukes of Stratosphear: What in the World? (1985) — XTC’s psychedelic alter-ego was both a perfect parody of the genre and a masterful collection of power-pop gems in its own right. Funny, inventive, quirky—in some ways, a lot like any other XTC release—but with a cheeky flair that dialed the fun up a notch.
The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (2005) — The songs of this large, talented collective of Canadians (including Neko Case who’s carved out her own successful solo career) burst with big hooks and off-center but tasty twists. Interestingly, the band has also covered Fleetwood Mac’s “Think About Me” which appears on Eric’s list above.
Mike Viola: When I Hold You in My Arms (2007) — Perhaps my favorite pure power-pop purveyor who’s still active, Viola sings lead on the Adam Schlesinger-penned title song from 1996’s “That Thing You Do” (a movie about a power-pop band!), but his own songs rank right alongside anything Fountains of Wayne ever produced.
Theo Katzman: You Could Be President (2020) — Power-pop is alive and well, even in the year of the pandemic. If you know Vulfpeck, you know Katzman as the guy helming some of their catchiest fare. His Modern Johnny Sings Songs in the Age of Vibe album, one of this year’s best, is chock full of melodic gems.
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