In the context of music, the word “pop” is short for “popular”, and is often used to encompass both anything that actually achieved widespread success, or seems like it could or should have. In this post, we’ll focus on a guitar-based variant.

“Pop”, as an adjective applied to guitar-based music, usually also implies a more melodious composition, with fewer sharp edges or dark corners, and a generally bright or optimistic sound. While it can be, and often is, deceptively-complex in its design and execution, pop music has to sound effortless and go down easy; if the listener is made too uncomfortable by the lyrics or music, if it’s not “catchy” – it might not be pop, but something else.

To drag out a hoary old cliche´ just once more: while both were “popular” bands, it is the (generally) sunnier and more melodically-complex sounds that descend from bands such as The Beatles that to me still signal “pop”; while it is the (arguably) simpler, more rhythm-focused and darker sounds of bands that take more after the Stones that move the needle towards what I think of as “rock”.

(And of course, those bands, and many others such as The Who and The Kinks, crossed back and forth freely).

The grandaddies of melodic guitar-based pop are the “Big B’s”: the aforementioned Beatles, and their American contemporaries in The Beach Boys and The Byrds, amongst many, many others.

From these patriarchs came descendants like Badfinger and Big Star and Cheap Trick (dang, broke the “B” streak) and The Raspberries.

And from these, a whole constellation of bands that were forever chasing the ideal three minutes of electric melody and harmony came. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson famously described his album Smile as a “teenage symphony to God”; this is what these descendants sought to make with each cut.

These descendants are often tagged with the term “power pop”; the prefix of “power” denotes the fact that there should be some crunch in the guitars, just a little bite of jangling abrasion and volume and distortion to keep the melody and harmonies from swamping the composition and rendering the song unpalatably sweet. It needs some some rhythmic drive forward; the guitars and drums need to “pop” in the onomatopoetic sense.

This is music for finding (or losing) your first love; for cruising past the Stop ‘n’ Shop, with the radio on. And while it is on the surface upbeat, it’s also painfully aware of its own ephemeral nature. There is often a shade of sadness in it; of the implicit knowledge that just as soon as a perfect moment is experienced, it’s also gone forever.

Power pop is littered with innumerable same-sounding records and one-hit wonders; but amongst the dross, countless gems may be found by the patient seeker.

The subject of the track at the top of the post, “Starry Eyes” by The Records, is a little unusual for power pop; rather than the usual lyrical fare of cars, love (usually unrequited), and rock and roll, it’s a tirade about record company shenanigans. Luckily, all that sweet melody makes the bitter go down easy.

This is a a formalist, classicist genre, obsessively focused on the single; there is no real drive for innovation or reinvention or change, just a respect for craft and a desire to recreate that instant when they (and maybe you) fell in love with music. A recording made 35 years ago, and one made yesterday, will probably sound much the same. But hybrids and cross-pollinations are legion, blurring the lines between power pop and punk rock, r&b, garage rock, psych rock, and plain old pop and/or rock.

“Shake Some Action” is by San Francisco’s Flamin’ Groovies, who often straddled those lines. That exhilarated and seemingly-spontaneous “whoooo!” interjected at 2:15 thrills me every time.

Flamin’ Groovies – Shake Some Action

This one you might know, from its more famous cover version:

The Nerves – Hanging On The Telephone

As the Nerves/Blondie connection shows, power pop bleeds into much punk and new wave. Featuring the greatest-named-singer-ever in the quavering-voiced Feargal Sharkey, this was John Peel’s favorite song. Nothing with handclaps is truly punk, is it?:

The Undertones – Teenage Kicks

The Only Ones – Another Girl, Another Planet

A good power-pop single may naggingly sound like you’ve always known it; like its melody was plucked out of the eternal aether or collective unconscious; like it’s just been waiting for someone to finally sing it.

The Greenberry Woods’ “Trampoline” music video is a ’90s affair. But the song’s hints of darkness and melancholy, contrasted with the joyously weightless chorus, sum up the genre’s timeless appeal. It’s complete escapist teen fantasy; yet for 3 perfectly happy/sad minutes, while guitars ring like sky-blue bells, that fantasy can be the only thing that desperately matters:

Now we’re young, but we’ll get old, say that’s alright
‘Cos it’s a life
Yeah, it’s a life
We can be, what we want, when we try
Well, that’s a lie
But so am I

Greenberry Woods – Trampoline

And of course, some ur-texts. When it comes to American bands that turned out to have lasting influence infinitely larger than their record sales at the time would ever have predicted, Big Star’s legacy is right up there with The Stooges and The Velvets:

Big Star – September Gurls

In this next track from Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, the way lead singer Alex Chilton sarcastically spits out the word “prob-a-bull” can be read as bitterness at his own formative experiences as the youthful singer of The Box Tops, or the failure of Big Star to make any commercial waves in the band’s lifetime; or as prescience, since music like his would prove through the years to be often synonymous with “also ran” and “almost was”:

Big Star – Thank You Friends

Feel free to hold forth in comments about: pop music; your perfect three-minute melody; why it is that a “happy” music like power pop has so many notable suicides; or anything else that strikes your fancy.


Glyph is worse than some and better than others. He believes that life is just one damned thing after another, that only pop music can save us now, and that mercy is the mark of a great man (but he's just all right). Nothing he writes here should be taken as an indication that he knows anything about anything.


    • I thought it would be more of an edge case!

      No, Nick Cave is Not Pop. Neither is Iggy (usually) nor Pop Will Eat Itself.

      I do not intend to listen to enough Papa Roach to make the determination.

      “Big Poppa”, “Pop Musik”, “Pop Goes The World” and “Pop Life” definitely all qualify.

      • The reason I asked on that particular song is that if you didn’t know the performer, or listen closely, it always struck me as being out of his cannon, and quite upbeat.

        • Well, and here’s the thing (and I kind of touch on this in the OP) – it’s possible to sneak alllll kinds of darkness into pop music (ex. murder ballads, or “Every Breath You Take”), and in fact some of my favorite pop music is just that sort of thing (don’t get me started on the Furs’ “Pretty In Pink” and how most people completely misunderstand what THAT song is about).

          So yeah, it’s hard to make definitive statements, which is why I left myself some wiggle room (weasel-wording such as “it might not be pop, but something else.”)

          I think this quote from the linked Oxford American piece on Chris Bell may be relevant:

          Suffice it to say that Big Star invented power pop, loosely defined as unapologetically pretty and sophisticated melodies, with prominent harmony, played loudly and at times with an edge that approaches punk. (Didn’t the Beatles do this? you ask. Yes. But pop fans live by razor-thin and barely defensible categories, and this is one.)

          [emphasis mine].

          • Doesn’t this describe many of the early Who singles, you ask? (I Can’t Explain, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, The Kids are Alright, Pictures of Lily, Disguises, etc.) Yes, it does.

          • From wiki’s entry on The Raspberries:

            The group’s style arose from a variety of rock and roll groups that the members loved, especially The Who. Carmen later said:

            “Pete Townshend coined the phrase [power pop] to define what the Who did. For some reason, it didn’t stick to the Who, but it did stick to these groups that came out in the `70s that played kind of melodic songs with crunchy guitars and some wild drumming. It just kind of stuck to us like glue, and that was OK with us because the Who were among our highest role models. We absolutely loved the Who.”

          • Well, then you will have to put me on the rock side.

          • aaron – I tend towards the rock side myself; it’s a really hard line to toe, to make something pretty, and melodic, and emotionally direct, and not have it come across as cloyingly saccharine or emotionally manipulative.

            But you can work around that, by putting enough self-doubt or melancholy in it:

            “Baby, we’re the same, when we fail in each other’s eyes” – co-dependent much?:

            “She had nothing left to say, so she said she loved me / And I stood there grateful for the lie” – BRUTAL:

            Or, you can just go straight-up wistful:


            This isn’t even “pop” exactly, but there’s a track on Big Star’s 1975 record Third/Sister Lovers called “Kangaroo”.

            About the record itself, Glenn MacDonald of The War Against Silence said:

            The most vivid portrayal I’ve ever heard of total emotional collapse in progress. A decade of music that hadn’t even been invented yet is deconstructed here in advance.

            And here’s “Kangaroo”. Listen to the way it uses howling metallic feedback as compositional element; yeah, the Velvets had done that, but as per the quote above, this sounds more like Sonic Youth and REM songs from the 80’s and 90’s:


  1. So, a question for the world – I really thought that this topic was broad enough (with a solid tradition from 60’s to present, with lots of big names and one-hit wonders) and just controversial enough (what with imprecise and overlapping definitions) that I’d get more than 4 comments on this sucker. But maybe there’s a reason this music genre perpetually under-performs expectations – maybe nobody really likes it?

    Any feedback on the OP is appreciated.

    Too many songs? Too much text?
    Sucky songs? Crappy text?

    Is anybody out there?

    Consider this a free-for-all invitation to rip up the OP, and post links to whatever we should be talking about instead…

    I got the new Autechre. Still absorbing it, but here’s a thumbnail review.

    • I liked the post, and it got me to thinking about Elvis Costello (w/ the Attractions) and the bass lines.
      I went through this time when I didn’t listen to other peoples’ music because I was afraid it would affect me adversely as a writer. For several years before that time, what I was listening to at the time tended to reflect an aspect of my own music that I wanted to strengthen.
      When I grew concerned about writing better bass lines, I listened to the 60’s station & EC w/ the Attractions a lot.

      • Thanks Will.

        Elvis Costello is actually a bit of a gap for me. I only have My Aim Is True. My initial inclination was to wonder if he fit here…too lyrically acerbic, I thought, but then thought of the Records track up top. Not enough harmony; at least on the one I have, it’s pretty much just his voice…but then I thought of that Only Ones track.

        So yeah, he probably DOES fit here, better than with the punks he was slotted with originally anyway.

        In HS one of my best friends was a bassist, and it really brought me an appreciation for it. Previously I had not really noticed it, but for a while there it became ALL I could hear. Given the timeframe and my musical interests, there were a lot of interesting bass players – postpunk tended to give the bass a promotion voice-wise, often letting a bass riff lead the song composition (Basically, your Peter Hooks and Kim Deals and Eric Averys) or at least letting it go into higher, more melodic and expressive territories and share space with the lead guitar rather than just being relegated to the foundation (your Mike Mills and Andy Rourkes and Steve Severins and Les Pattinsons).

        (and before Schilling or Cahalan jump in, yes, I know who John Entwhistle and Geddy Lee are).

        Even today, a dull unimaginative bassline (and a surprising number of bands just don’t seem to put the effort into it that they should) can be a kiss of death for my interest in an otherwise-good song.

        • God, I haven’t seen Eric Averys name in a million years. I saw Janes just as they were breaking, in ’89. Horrible show, but it wasn’t their fault. I grew up in a college town exactly half way between LA and SF, so we got an amazing selection of college rock bands coming through town, what kills me is half of what was out there I didn’t get into until they were gone or too big to play the club circuit.

          • I saw Jane’s at a small outdoor courtyard venue in 1990 and they were awesome. Not as great the second time at Lollapalooza, but the show in general was still good (the Banshees rocked).

            Here’s a decent live “Three Days” from 1990:


            The studio version also came up on shuffle the other day, and it holds up.

            The part around the 8-minute mark when it goes into the lockstep 8th-note single-chord Stooges-style riffing that makes you want to get into a fight, then drops unexpectedly into that oceanic ambient drift just briefly, then back into the lockstep 8th-notes – amazing. Just masterful use of tension/release all throughout that song (appropriate, given the subject matter).

          • That whole album holds up really well in my book, solid front to back. The show I saw them at was an all day festival at another nearby college, UCSB. Along with the usual local type bands, two of the opening acts were Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Marys Danish. The Danish slaughtered that day, power funk all over the place. By the time Janes came on, the crowd was at a frenzy and it just went down hill, picked up a bad vibe and got worse.
            I never really hooked into Ritual, but they did pretty good live/ep album first that is worth looking into.

          • Ritual is WELL worth your time – the first side is more rockin’, and the second one more contemplative “head” music. I recommend it for “Three Days” and “Then She Did” alone (plus “Stop!”, “Classic Girl” – hell, “Ain’t No Right” and “No One’s Leaving” are no slouches). “Been Caught Stealing” is kinda goofy though.

            And yeah, I have that s/t one, it’s got “I Would For You” and the Stones and Velvets covers.

            Perry was in a gothy Bauhaus/Banshees-type band called Psi Com, pre-Jane’s:


          • Also, I saw Toad The Wet Sprocket with a female friend who was really into them. All I remember about it was that the singer had a nice clear tenor, and the drummer was…uh..”a little person”. Can I say that?

            It was pleasant, but that was about it.

        • I only remember a few songs off of My Aim Is True
          I recommend Armed Forces for EC w/ the Attractions. Every song is good; some are spectacular.

          For grins, here are two songs that remind me an awful lot of each other:
          Song One
          Song Two

          One more than the other?

          • Yeah, these both fit. That Kinks song reminds me of a song by The Damned, but I can’t think of which one.

            And that appears to be Tim Roth in that video at :46.

            Fun Fact: a good chunk of Costello’s backing band on My Aim Is True (Clover) went on to be “The News” of Huey Lewis fame. (also Toto & Doobie Brothers).

          • That’s pretty cool.
            I never was in to Toto, but I started listening to Steve Lukather after they split (well, one of those splits).
            One of the most expensive CDs I own is a Lukather CD from Japan that’s out of print in the US.

    • I am not good with genres, and I cannot think of much that I listen to that I really consider pop. One of the few names that I would put there would be Ben Fold’s Five. Their songs fit into my idea of pop songs, but they went about it in a very unconventional way.

      Maybe the Eeels? They are not a band I have spent much time with.

      Not really much for me to add on this topic.

    • Just wanted to say that I love your music posts, so keep writing them please. I’ve been at shows in just about every waking, non-working moment since Monday afternoon, so I haven’t had time to say anything, but I’m definitely reading.

      • Thanks Chris. Maybe it was just a timing thing. I’ve actually been sitting on this one for quite a few weeks and it’s been through a few polishes and I was pretty excited about it, so I guess I got discouraged when I thought I was hearing crickets.

        I just figured this one would have more broad appeal than the one about bands making hour-long sci-fi epics about weed; that one always seemed like a niche sell.

        See anybody good/terrible yet at SxSW?

        • I haven’t seen anybody particularly good yet, except a DJ last night who played so loud that I’m a bit worried about one of my eardrums, and they actually had to ask him to turn it down twice to get it under the noise ordinance’s max level. I did see Wyclef, though, so that was fun (I’d seen the Fugees many years ago, but in a large amphitheater; this was in a small club, and he came out and took pictures with the people in the crowd after his set), and Kendrick Lamar, who is my favorite young hip hop artist. And I saw The Eastern Sea, who I’ve seen a few times here in town (they’re from here), and generally enjoy.

          I’m hoping to see some good shows tonight, assuming I will be able to hear.

          • I just listened to “A Lie” by The Eastern Sea – nice!

            There’s a band of Austin kids I have been playing a lot recently. They have a TERRIBLE name (Ringo Deathstarr) but their music is pretty fun (they shamelessly pilfer all the 80’s/90’s Creation/4AD shoegaze/noisepop bands, like MBV, JAMC, Primitives, Slowdive, etc.)

            Looks like they are playing Friday at Brass House at…holy crap, 1 AM? I’ll be in my bed. 🙂

          • I may check them out. My girlfriend is scheduling Friday for us (I got Wednesday and Saturday), but I may be able to sneak out by 1 am.

            Also, I should note that SXSW venues are, in general, the absolute worst places to see live music. They put bands in just about every usable space from the East Side to North Lamar, and from Caesar Chavez up to at least 8th street. This means that in the vast majority of venues, the acoustics can be described as shitty if we’re being extremely generous, and it’s not uncommon to not be able to hear the band you’re there to see because you’re in the back of the venue and a few feet behind you another band is playing. Plus, any given artist will have to perform between two and four times while they’re here, meaning they get kind of tired (I can’t imagine how the drummers do it… amphetamines, maybe?), so I generally don’t judge people on their SXSW performances unless they’re so bad that I know no change of venue could possibly redeem them.

    • Not too familiar with these guys aside from what you have posted (IIRC you posted a different live performance of theirs before?) but they definitely seem to have a bit of a Kraftwerk thing going on (not sure who influenced who, or if they were contemporaries?).

      This came up on shuffle the other day while I was driving, and it still rocks:


      It’s pretty cool that Kraftwerk set out to make “European” robot music devoid of any American rock/funk/r&b etc. influences (my German friend tells me that at one point there was a minor kerfuffle in Germany over some comments Kraftwerk made about wanting to make a “pure” music based on Europe’s own musical heritage – comments they had to hastily clarify, given the troubling historical German associations with that word – no politics) – and their music ended up becoming foundational texts for hip-hop and Detroit techno et al; just getting it black and funky all over again:


      • I was working with early synths, still have an ARP Odyssey II. I was friends with Larry Fast, my first synth tutor, who did a lot of pioneering hardware work for Rick Wakeman, Nektar and Peter Gabriel.

        But for all that interesting stuff the Krauts were doing, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and such, none of it resonated with me: it was just knob-twiddling and what I call “tick-tock”, sequencer shit. Eno was just making ambient noises, interesting and some of it quite compelling, but it wasn’t until YMO took these noise makers and started writing stripped-down pop with them that I really became interested in the possibilities. After YMO, nothing was the same again: the synth had gone from curiosity to fundamental instrument.

        The Who had worked with some of the early synths and the Beatles had used a Moog on Abbey Road but the progsters made a dog’s dinner of the synth’s possibilities, especially Emerson Lake and Palmer and to a lesser extent, Yes. Pink Floyd, understandably bombastic, but then, not Pop either. Prog’s bombastic offerings turned many people off to the idea of synths on stage. Disco liked the synth but it liked the drum machine and sequencer better. Disco and I never got along. Those were dreadful days, Glyph.

        The result was punk, which as far as I can tell, never used the synth much, if ever.

        But as people got sick of punk’s febrile idiocy, the New Wave kids got wise to it all and embraced the synth with a vengeance: it was relatively affordable and was a good instrument for composition. They gave each other very bad haircuts but they wrote some fine pop music. By that time, the early samplers and sequencers were running, Steve Winwood and the Blue Eyed Soul crowd was playing elevator music to soothe suburbanites in Mom Jeans and polyester blouses. This, too, was a form of pop but was really ersatz rock. Elton John and Michael Jackson were the kings of pop and I’m pretty sure they’ll never be de-throned and both made extensive use of the synth.

        Michael Jackson would cover a YMO tune on his last and posthumous album, the song which set synth pop in motion, Behind the Mask.

        • We’ve got an Arp Odyssey, III, I think, with the pitch bender. Awesome instrument.

          Remember I asked about sensors? Here’s what he came up with, he taught this all at a symposium at Berklee earlier this week. You might get a kick out of some of the projects.

          • Your link got in trouble somehow. I’d love to see what he came up with.

          • Interesting stuff. Being a Linux guy, iOS is not my particular cup of tea, but the ideas behind them seem useful and compelling.

          • Sadly, Max does not run on Linux; but that was just the first of 4 workshops. I think the iOS came out of a development project for the iPad.

            I think there’s one thing in the lot using linux and a Raspberry Pi. A lot on data scraping as input.

        • And synth means Joe Zawinal, Jan Hammer, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Chic Corea. We include Emerson Lake and Palmer and Wakefield, but their classical training made it sound too much like a church dirge.

          • Yeah, this was when the synth became an instrument and not a curiosity. Joe Zawinul did more to make the synth a respectable jazz instrument than anyone. Well, Mahavishnu was doing much the same.

            It was about that time where I started spending more time behind the desk than in front of a keyboard. I’d already started working with sequencers, programming MIDI, writing patches for the early FM synths. Bits of my stuff turn here and there on this thing.

          • Almost all of that was orchestral music. Only one synth-oriented track in that film, by Wendy Carlos, this bit, aka “Rocky Mountains”.

            Kubrick used a great deal from Ligeti, he’d used his stuff before in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

        • iirc, Gary Wright’s Dream Weaver states on the cover that this is an album of keyboard music.
          I never really caught that listening to it on the radio, etc. And even though I saw him on the Midnight Special.
          But the bass and everything is keyboards. Trap kit for drums, as God intended.

    • Man, I am so sorry – I know that song is a nearly universally-loved one, but it has always seemed too repetitive and too long (which is weird, because sometimes “repetitive and long” are SELLING points for me).

      • Nothing to be sorry about, but that is about the only pop that is in my rotation.

        Checking out that Psi Com, man, you can really pick out the Peter Murphy vibe

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