Listen to this track by returning pop-punk chartbusters turned pop rock elders Blondie. It’s “Maria”, their comeback single as issued on their 1999 album No Exit. That record was their first together since 1982’s The Hunter. That’s a pretty long time between releases. But this song ensured their success as their sixth number one single in the UK where they’d always been championed since their early days. This new song’s chart placement corresponded to the day with another number one song of theirs in the UK, “Heart Of Glass” in 1979.
“Maria” was penned by Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, even borrowing the phrase “walking on imported air” from his own “Walk Like Me” from 1980’s Autoamerican. Also, the song shares a similar dynamic with their early song “Rip Her To Shreds” that has lead singer Debby Harry judgmentally (and with a heaping tablespoon of irony) commenting on an observed woman. “Maria” is kind of the twin sister to that song, more concerned with the woman as unobtainable object of love, or maybe lust, with a dash of the divine thrown in for good measure.
“Maria” demonstrates that classic power-pop perspective in this way, and is very connected to the band’s earlier oeuvre on these many fronts. It’s no wonder it did the business for them as a comeback single. Along with that I think it has something to say about women in general. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Elephant 6-affiliated power pop psych trio The Essex Green. It’s “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)”, a crackling power pop tune as taken from the band’s third album, 2006’s Cannibal Sea. The group is connected to a web of many indie bands, most notably Guppyboy, once based in Burlington, Vermont. Upon the dissolution of that band, members Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell and Chris Ziter moved to New York to start anew and with a fresh moniker to define them; The Essex Green.
Their sound is clearly based in sixties and seventies jangle pop, power pop, and folk pop. That’s a lot of pop! On this third album and on this song, those influences are apparent, although much more integrated than they are on earlier releases. A big part of this is down to producer Britt Meyers and his more elaborate studio set up and mixing skills. Another part of course is a step up in the songwriting and performance department, as good as the previous album, The Long Goodbye, was. Perhaps this was because the band had recently come off of a big tour by then. It could also be that each member was concurrently involved in making music with other bands (Ladybug Transistor, The Sixth Great Lake) allowing new ideas to flow from one project to another.
Overall, The Essex Green provided an example of what it is to be indie in a post-major label era. In this new paradigm musicians have to be constantly on the move to cover their bases in various side projects, holding down day jobs while honing their craft, and knowing where to find their audience in the absence of big label budgets and in the light of fragmented media. Read more
Listen to this track by instrumentally unique trio from Seattle The President Of The United States Of America. It’s “Lump”, their 1995 hit song as taken from their second LP that bears their name.
The song was a number one song on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, and later a number seven on the Album Rock chart. It would later be a feature on several musically oriented video games like Rock Band 2, Just Dance, and others. It would also gain the distinguished accolade of being spoofed by Weird Al Yankovic (his version was “Gump”, which summarized the popular Tom Hanks-led film). The song was a radio single on mainstream radio as well, standing out uniquely even in that time when unadorned guitar-pop was a completely viable direction. It was kind of weird. But, totally catchy.
That’s the thing about this song. It seems pretty lightweight all around, and maybe willfully weird and wacky. But for me, it held within it something else to offer that wasn’t so lightweight, and was actually kind of heavy for a pop song. Read more
Listen to this track by supremely malleable musical concern from Washington D.C and now based in Massachusetts, Lilys. It’s “A Nanny In Manhattan”, a short and potent blast of out-of-time psychedelic pop as featured on 1996’s Better Can’t Make Your Life Better.
The success of this track was boosted by its use in a Levi’s jeans ad in the UK directed by Roman Coppola of all people. The ad exposed the band’s sound to a pretty big audience once it was re-released in 1998 after the ad had paved the way. The single reached #16 on the UK singles charts, which would be Lilys only top twenty showing. Not bad for a song that was meant to be a fill-in tune for what the advertisers wanted, that being something that sounded like the Small Faces without the royalty payment headaches.
Success in the UK top twenty was a long way away from where the band started. Well, I say band. I should say Lilys’ creative engine in sole principle Kurt Heasley and his rotating line-up of collaborators; over 72 members to date, according to Wikipedia. But, this above average (to say the least!) turnover wasn’t because he couldn’t keep a band together. So if not that, than what was the deal with Lilys anyway? Read more
Listen to this track by former member of pub rockers The Motors and power pop proponent in his own right Bram Tchiakovsky, also the name of the band. It’s “Girl Of My Dreams”, a minor hit as featured on his 1979 solo album Strange Man, Changed Man.
The track scored attention on both sides of the Atlantic, with a sort of stylistic reversal at work. By that I mean that Bram Tchaikovsky was a British musician, playing American-style power pop, a style which had been influenced in turn by British musicians in the ’60s.
Influences in rock music had become pretty permeable by the end of the Seventies in that way, with an incredible and seemingly simultaneous shift back to the musical basics on both sides of the pond that made rock music so vital in the first place; hooks, lyrics that spoke to the experiences of an audience, and a simple is best approach to everything, from solos, to arrangements, to production.
All of that can be found here in this unassuming pop song. So where did it come from? Read more
Listen to this track by effervescent Mid-Westerner power pop flame-keepers Material Issue. It’s “Diane”, a sugar rush of a track with a bitter aftertaste as it appears on their celebrated 1991 record International Pop Overthrow.
The year this came out, it was grunge this and Seattle that, which made it somewhat of a harder job getting noticed on the national scene being a power pop band in the Midwest. But, this band made up of singer, guitarist, and head songwriter Jim Ellison, along with bassist and vocalist Ted Asani, and drummer Mike Zelenko had quietly (and very inexpensively) worked up a record that captured the attention of music fans in the Chicago area, and managed to move units too.
It was thought that it would sell fewer than 100K worth of records. But, it ended up selling almost twice that; good news as they were on a major label (Mercury). This attracted the attention of the Billboard top 200, on which this record gained a respectable #86 showing.
So, what is it that made this band shine during a period of seemingly ubiquitous grunginess? And how does this song demonstrate the secret of their success? Well, I think it’s probably this; it dealt in classic rock n roll themes, and with a modern twist that had everything to do with a love of women, and not in the way you might think. Read more
Listen to this track by British Invasion enthusiasts and power pop founding fathers from Cleveland Ohio, The Raspberries. It’s “Go All The Way”, their top five hit single also featured on their 1972 debut record Raspberries.
The Raspberries were a pretty singular group, even if you can tell they’re wearing their influences on their sleeve. By 1972, those very bands who had furthered the cause of guitar-based pop music you hear in this song had gone on to other projects. Art rock, rock operas, confessional singer-songwriter albums were common artistic avenues by the early ’70s while the four bobbing heads and catchy choruses model of the ’60s was left behind. Rock music as a form had expanded beyond that. Some would say it had grown up.
So, how did the Raspberries get their top five hit, given that the musical traditions they’re drawing from had been largely left in the past? Read more
Listen to this track by bespectacled angry young man and original hipster singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. It’s “Miracle Man”, a deep cut as taken from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True.
This song is in very good company with those that Costello worked up while he was an early signee to the nascent Stiff Records label. This was after seven years of graft, taking the then twenty-two year old songwriter from his teenage years as a member of pub rockers Flip City to when he was christened with his Kingly moniker upon hooking up with Jake Riviera at Stiff.
And maybe it’s because Costello had spent so many years making demos, and having them sent back to him by record companies, that his debut is a compendium of tales of frustration and insecurity marked by a fierce intelligence and the swagger of youthful ambition. With this song, that theme carries through pretty well. And on the surface, it comes off as a guy who’s attached to someone who doesn’t really appreciate his efforts in the love department. But, that really is just on the surface of things.
Listen to this track by neo-psychedelic janglers and left-of-center pop song crafters The Soft Boys. It’s “I Wanna Destroy You” as taken from their 1980 album Underwater Moonlight, their second.
The record would prove to be a slow burn when it came to success in the mainstream. But, in the meantime this song and the rest of the album would be a touchstone to inspire a number of bands coming up behind them in the new decade, including REM, Yo La Tengo, the Replacements, and the Pixies.
The Soft Boys was creatively driven by songwriter, singer and guitarist Robyn Hitchcock, a musician who would distinguish himself as a songwriter of unique lyrical perspectives and in no half-measures during the rest of the 1980s and up until the present as a solo artist.
And like Hitchcock would demonstrate in his solo career, the Soft Boys would pull from some of those same influences that must have seemed out of date at the time this song came out; The Byrds, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Revolver-era Beatles, and vintage Bob Dylan. By the end of the 1970s, new wave was the thing, and old wave was out.
But, the retro sound of the record was matched with the hostile sentiments laid down by punk rock, aligning the Soft Boys in both camps, yet in neither, too. Read more
Listen to this track by Deptford, London quintet and three-minute pop song master architects Squeeze. It’s “Another Nail In My Heart” as taken from their 1980 record Argybargy. The song would score them considerable success internationally, in particular amping up the reputations of head writers Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.
The scene set in the song is one of a broken relationship and a bereft man left with nothing, found in the bar – or at least what’s left of him. This would be subject matter pretty common to the Squeeze canon up until this point. But, this was their biggest hit to date outside of Britain, soon to grace set lists for the decades to follow, both as a band and in Tilbrook solo sets too.
The reasons for success of this song may be because it contains elements that are both expected, as well as unexpected. Read more