10 Essential Power Pop Albums

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Essential Power Pop Albums Big Star

“Power” and “pop” aren’t exactly contradictions. Few people can look at someone like Taylor Swift and not immediately associate her with a billion-dollar brand first and her discography second. But power pop is a different thing entirely, a term whose meaning is something of a relic. In 2018, pop music comes in all kinds of forms, some of them noisy or muscular, and some of them more gentle and restrained. But in the ’70s, rock was rock and pop was pop, or so the literature states, but the history’s been translated back and forth so many times, it’s hard to tell by now. So power pop, then, was rock music that operated like pop, emphasizing the harmonies and hooks first and foremost, but with some badass riffs to drive them home. The roots of power pop lie in bands such as The Beatles and Badfinger, who passed down the gift of a dynamite chorus. And it continues into the present, with artists like Mikal Cronin, Jeff Rosenstock and Charly Bliss carrying the pop torch for a new generation. But we decided to select the best of the best for our own list of essentials—10 of the best power pop albums from the beginning on up to the modern era.

essential power pop albums The Raspberries

The Raspberries – The Raspberries

(1972; Capitol)

The origins of power pop go all the way back to the ’60s, with the influence of garage rock and “bubblegum” pop feeding into a more cranked-up, amps-cranked brand of pop music. But 1972 is generally where the critics agree on power pop actually taking hold, and it’s all thanks to The Raspberries. Specifically their song “Go All the Way,” which balances big, meaty rock ‘n’ roll riffs with a sweet melody and wonderful vocal harmonies—not to mention a bit of rickenbacker jangle, which would become a recurring sound throughout the power pop of the next 45 years. Yet the rest of The Raspberries’ debut album has its share of gems beyond that monster single, such as the Beatlesque “I Saw the Light,” the riff-boogie “Get It Moving” and the string-laden “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye.” Yet the “power” here is only part of the story, with many of the songs showcasing piano and acoustic-guitar balladry that’s as sweet as the band’s rockers are badass. – JT

essential power pop albums Big Star

Big Star – Radio City

(1974; Ardent)

Few flawless rock albums were ever as ill-fated from the start as the golden second album from Memphis’ Big Star. Co-frontman Chris Bell left soon after recording started, leaving them a trio under the guidance of Alex Chilton, an already fatigued music veteran at the age of 23. Compounding the insult, Radio City was buried by Columbia Records soon after they’d reached a short-lived deal to distribute Ardent releases. With withering guitar attacks and a voice struggling to contain its injury, Chilton cut down the poppies of youth and expectation that dotted their debut album. Now he was depicting vengeance (“You Get What You Deserve”), apathy (“Life is White”), and love cut with gibes, anxiety and discouragement (“O My Soul,” “Back of a Car,” “September Gurls”). At the same time there’s a songwriting grandeur that lets some hope seep through. Radio City is the perfect bridge between the juvenescence of #1 Record and the go-fuck-yourself annihilation of 3rd/Sister Lovers. – PP

essential power pop albums Flamin' Groovies

Flamin’ Groovies – Shake Some Action

(1976; Sire)

Power pop has in large part come to be known mostly for its most prominent American acts, even though some of its best (and most underrated) acts were British, like The Records, responsible for the incredible single “Starry Eyes.” Power pop was also steeped in the sounds of British music, like, for instance, a little band called The Beatles. On first listen one might even confuse San Francisco’s Flamin’ Groovies for being a UK export because of the Beatlesque harmonies and ’60s-style jangle to their songs. (Listen to “Yes It’s True” isolated and it’s easy to draw such a conclusion.) But Flamin’ Groovies packed a couple decades of pop and rock ‘n’ roll history into their career-high Shake Some Action, from the Chuck Berry-style “St. Louis Blues” to the glorious harmonies and acoustic strums of “You Tore Me Down.” Though there’s no more iconic song here than the opening title track, a perfect pop gem that had a minor resurgence in the ’90s thanks to Cracker’s cover on the Clueless soundtrack. – JT

essential power pop albums The Cars

The Cars – The Cars

(1978; Elektra)

It’s a strange fact that three members of The Cars—Ric Ocasek, Benjamin Orr and Jas Goodkind—started out in a folk-rock group called Milkwood. They even released an album in 1972, titled How’s the Weather. But when it failed to catch on, the three Boston musicians retooled and plugged in, revamping power pop into their own new wave image, complete with a fresh batch of synthesizers, which made hit songs like “Just What I Needed” all the more iconic. The band’s debut album is as close to a singles collection as debut albums get (“I’m In Touch With Your World” is the odd song out, being neither a radio staple nor even really a catchy song). “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”—it’s hard to name an album loaded with more front to back HITS than this wonder of songwriting engineering. The Cars didn’t perfect power pop, but they refined it and gave it permanent residence on the FM dial. JT

essential power pop albums Cheap Trick

Cheap Trick – Heaven Tonight

(1978; Epic)

Picking any specific Cheap Trick record is difficult, because in truth they haven’t really put out a bad record, but Heaven Tonight gets a slight edge for being their final studio record released before their legendary live record At Budokan. On it, they mastered their blend of pop sensibilities and rock heft, offering some of their catchiest songs married to some of their most convincing and satisfying guitar work. There are early power pop groups and there are more famous ones, but it’s hard to argue against Cheap Trick being the best for nailing the fundamentals of the genre most securely and doing so on Heaven Tonight better than any of their other studio records. – LH

essential power pop albums The Replacements

The Replacements – Pleased To Meet Me

(1987; Sire)

By the lead up to Pleased to Meet Me, the Replacements had already moved through punk, hardcore and alternative rock. They had a spiritual resonance with punk and its attendant forms but clearly had something else inside them; by Let It Be, their nascent pop leanings had started to emerge only to blossom in full on Pleased to Meet Me. Tracks like “Alex Chilton,” itself a loving ode to a fellow power pop master, effervesced a sense of ramshackle joy and eublience that previously had muddled. It’s easy to point to Let It Be as their best simply because it was their first to seriously indulge the style, but Pleased to Meet Me is where the husk was finally fully shed. – LH

Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend

(1991; Zoo)

After slogging through Georgia’s college-rock scene in the 1980s, Matthew Sweet came to a crossroads. One path was his professional one, supported by Lloyd Cole and Television and Voidoids alumni but nevertheless stuck between an unhelpful label and a prickly forest of reluctant ones. The other was his personal one, a miasma of feelings borne of a fresh divorce and an even fresher rebound relationship. He wasn’t so much in need of picking a direction in which to walk as he was being emotionally drawn and quartered. Sweet escaped his predicament using plangent and squawking guitars and more-often-wistful-than-not harmonies: “Divine Intervention,” “Evangeline,” “Does She Talk?” Inspired by myriad pop traditions from California and the South, as well as the spirited drama of anime he used to brand his work, Girlfriend guarantees Matthew Sweet’s eternal relevancy. – AB

Sugar - Copper Blue

Sugar – Copper Blue

(1992; Rykodisc)

Bob Mould spent the early part of his career pushing music to extremes of speed and volume with Hüsker Dü, though it didn’t take all that much effort to notice that, between the squalls of distortion, there were some pretty great melodies in there. Sugar, his short-lived but outstanding ’90s-era band, simply put a greater emphasis on the melodies themselves without turning the volume down even a notch. Copper Blue is, ostensibly, an “alternative rock” album, in so far as it’s a loud rock album released in the ’90s. But to hear the irresistible hooks and arpeggiated jangle of “Changes,” or the soaring verse of “Helpless,” is to hear power pop being updated for a new decade, and a few years before Weezer at that. For all of the intensity and muscle that Mould carried over from his old band, Sugar marked his greatest period of pop songwriting. – JT

New Pornographers

The New Pornographers – Mass Romantic

(2000; Mint)

It’s easy to look back now on the debut album by Vancouver’s pre-eminent indie rock/power pop supergroup and see the beginning of a long and fruitful career of hook-filled earworms. But it’s easy to overlook that this album was, well, overlooked at the time. A small-scale critical favorite that eventually led to the band’s signing with Matador in 2003, Mass Romantic was something of an anomaly in pop music in 2000. It brought together a wide swath of established musicians from the U.S. and Canada, including a then-buzzworthy Neko Case and soon-to-be-buzzworthy Destroyer, for a set of songs that evoked the likes of The Cars, Roxy Music and Todd Rundgren. With some perfect vocal harmonies, buzzy organs and choruses that soared to the heavens, particularly on the title track and “Letter from an Occupant,” The New Pornographers hit power pop gold on their debut album, and haven’t lost any of their sing-along charm since. – JT

Exploding Hearts

Exploding Hearts – Guitar Romantic

(2003; Dirtnap)

The Exploding Hearts’ story is a tragic one: Just three months after releasing their outstanding debut album, the Portland power-pop group ended up getting into a van accident while on tour, and three of the four members died in the crash. It would be a sad story no matter what, but the fact that they were just beginning their career makes it all the more heartbreaking. Especially considering they were off to such a magnificent start. With more than their share of punk grit and attitude, the band tore through 10 hook-filled songs of love, loss and carefree hedonism, nodding to the likes of The Undertones, The Jam and Paul Collins’ The Beat throughout. It’s power pop that’s tilted more toward punk than most, but it’s still perfect pop beneath all that fuzz. – JT

View Comments (8)
  • All in all an excellent list. There are two that are sorely missing however. I would replace the Matthew Sweet and New Pornographers albums with The Records’ first album and Cotton Mather’s Kontiki.

  • Great list but a bit US-centric. Missing The Who, the Jam, and many others from the UK power-pop/new wave scene of the late 70’s. Not to mention the more recent bands like Teenage Fanclub who have been keeping the Power Pop flame strongly burning.

  • I second including Teenage Fanclub, who have at least 3 albums that could make the list. Also, I think The Posies’ Frosting On The Beater is worthy. In response to a comment, the article states that they used 1972 as a starting point for the list, so no The Who.

  • Not a terrible list, but they chose the wrong Matthew Sweet album (should have been 100% Fun) and left off what would have been my No. 1: Let Go by Nada Surf.

  • you should also look into the Arkhams two albums out. The first one, Road to Arkham has Next Time You See Me, psychobilly’s closest moment to power pop. Very reminicient of Big Star at times.

  • Utopia-Deface the Music has to be on here. 4 different voices on the same page. I echo The Records. And no Sweet or Squeeze.

  • All lists are bad, but how can a power pop list not have Badfinger? And worse: how can it state that power pop begins in 1972? Nice try; but sorry, no.

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