10 Greatest Power Pop Songs

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What exactly is power pop? Listen & learn!

pop-rocks-candy-1First item on the agenda is determining what we’re talking about. Power pop is one of those irritatingly vague terms that has mutated and expanded over the years to mean something quite different from its early intent. (Like virtually every term that attempts to define and classify types of music.) When Bomp! magazine editor Greg Shaw coined the term, he meant it to describe records such as The Who’s “Pictures of Lily”/”I Can See Miles” phase, or the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind” – late ’60s rock with harmonies, dynamics and a melodic pop sensibility.

But soon power pop was expropriated to label ’70s records that drew from those ’60s models, plus folk-rockers such as the Byrds and, of course, the overarching influence of the Beatles. In recent years it has been abused to describe anything on the pop side of Metallica, and even purists allow for inspiration from prog-poppers like 10cc and ELO and even Queen, presumably for the overripe harmonies.

This recent wholesale dilution of the term renders the concept essentially meaningless, while the music described by the original definition now mostly goes by the superior label freakbeat. So for this list, I’ve employed the second definition, which covers roughly the decade from 1972-1981, when the form consciously developed via dozens of jangling, heart-stoppingly thrilling classics. For diversity’s sake, it’s strictly a one-song-per-act affair.

10) “Wasting My Time” by Blue Ash (1973) – Nearly everything this Ohio quartet of neo-Merseybeaters recorded overflowed with joyous bursts of melody, as this typical but by no means solitary example illustrates.

9) “Tell Me Why” by 20/20 (1979) – Oklahoma-to-L.A. transplants parlayed a three-chord riff and the best stuttering on record since “My Generation” into a hypnotically gorgeous lament.

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8) “You Were So Warm” by Dwight Twilley (1975) – Not so rockabilly-infused as much of the Tulsa duo’s material (including predecessor single and sole hit “I’m on Fire”), this ditty suggested the Searchers in its cushion of jangly guitars and cottony harmonies.

7) “Hearts in Her Eyes” by The Records (1980) – Speaking of the Searchers, they may have cut an even stronger version during their second coming, but it seems right to acknowledge the originators of this sparkling pinnacle of hopeless romanticism. Mary Chapin Carpenter used to encore with a stunning live cover.

6) “Tonight” by The Raspberries (1973) – Other contenders abound in the Clevelanders’ repertoire, but the shameless Small Faces kineticism of “Tonight” makes it the top choice, even if more delicate power-pop sensibilities may find it a bit rough-edged and rock ‘n’ rollish for their tastes.

5) “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” by Todd Rundgren (1973) – It would be unfair to restrict Rundgren’s border-battering musical ambitions to tightly wound riffs and shivery harmonies along these lines, but the apparent ease with which he executed this tune makes you wish he’d done, oh, a half-dozen albums in this vein.

4) “Baby Blue” by Badfinger (1972) – Long before Breaking Bad‘s finale sanctified it, this sonic marvel endured as a poignant reminder of the heights this doomed band of Brits was capable of scaling. Makes you wish you were with Dixie.

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3) “Shake Some Action” by Flamin’ Groovies (1976) – At least a dozen tracks could vie for the Groovies’ slot on this list, most notably “You Tore Me Down,” but this is the acknowledged classic from the San Francisco savants. The guitar riffs cascaded over each other, the harmonies shimmered, and four decades on it still sounds glorious.

2) “September Gurls” by Big Star (1974) – What do you do when you achieve perfection and nobody (at least initially) cares? Much of Alex Chilton’s life was agony, but those chiming guitars made for a crowning moment of ecstasy.

1) “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls (1981; major-label reissue 1983) – Released late enough in power pop’s “golden decade” that it almost turns into college rock, Peter Case & Co.’s finest moment edges “September Gurls” for the top spot because more than anything else on the list, it captured the original conception of pop with dynamics, with guts, with… well, power.

Ken Barnes

Ken Barnes

Ken Barnes started writing about music for publications such as Fusion and Phonograph Record, also editing, typesetting and fetching snacks at the latter. He was also co-editor of pioneering rock fanzine Who Put the Bomp after it had already done its pioneering, and wrote for another pioneering zine, The Rock Marketplace. Later he wrote for Rolling Stone and Playboy and had singles columns in New York Rocker, CREEM and Rock & Roll Confidential while maintaining a parallel existence as an editor at music biz trade publication Radio & Records, semi-pioneering Microsoft music website Music Central, and once-prominent newspaper USA Today. He is currently trying to catch up on everything he missed while engaged in those activities.
Ken Barnes
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16 Comments so far

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  1. tery
    #1 tery 24 August, 2015, 22:53

    the first three, 10-8 couldn’t have been more off-base but for the remaining 7…SCORE, 100%.

    Reply this comment
  2. Peter Power Pop
    #2 Peter Power Pop 25 August, 2015, 01:13

    Hi, Ken. The term “power pop” wasn’t coined by Greg Shaw. It was Pete Townshend who came up with the name in 1967 when he said “power pop is what we play” in an article published in the May 20 issue New Musical Express. The article was promoting The Who’s latest single, “Pictures Of Lily”.

    You can read the NME article here: https://peterspowerpop.wordpress.com/2011/11/19/song-of-the-day-the-who-pictures-of-lily/

    Reply this comment
  3. Matthew Pop
    #3 Matthew Pop 25 August, 2015, 02:24

    this list is flawless!! so spot on!

    Reply this comment
  4. Laura
    #4 Laura 25 August, 2015, 07:27

    Great list! Mine would include Del Amitri’s “Roll to Me.”

    Reply this comment
  5. Peter Power Pop
    #5 Peter Power Pop 25 August, 2015, 20:26

    Hi, Ken

    The term “power pop” wasn’t coined by Greg Shaw.

    It came from The Who’s Pete Townshend who first used the phrase in 1967 in an article in the New Musical Express. Pete said, “Power-pop is what we play – what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop the Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun Fun Fun‘ which I preferred.”

    You can read the full NME article here: https://peterspowerpop.wordpress.com/2011/11/19/song-of-the-day-the-who-pictures-of-lily/

    Reply this comment
  6. zk
    #6 zk 26 August, 2015, 16:16

    Where are Bay City Rollers?!

    Reply this comment
  7. Razor
    #7 Razor 8 November, 2015, 22:44

    How bout lee Michaels, you know what I mean. ???

    Reply this comment
  8. Andrew
    #8 Andrew 25 January, 2016, 08:43

    I love the list. But a little surprised Nick Lowe is absent.

    Reply this comment
  9. Seniorscrub
    #9 Seniorscrub 6 March, 2016, 21:52

    Where’s “Tomorrow Night ” by Shoes???

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  10. John Mendelssohn
    #10 John Mendelssohn 12 March, 2017, 04:53

    I am crestfallen that Ken omitted my own power pop classic, from 2015.

    Reply this comment
  11. Keltickross
    #11 Keltickross 12 March, 2017, 08:49

    Not a bad list, but to leave off the Knack is criminal

    Reply this comment
  12. ME
    #12 ME 12 March, 2017, 13:34

    Unfortunately this song never got the acclaim that it deserved, incredible power pop song:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmXcwDIk1So

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  13. Dark Hill
    #13 Dark Hill 12 March, 2017, 18:54

    Great list! Thanks for turning me onto a couple of songs I hadn’t heard before. I think Nick Lowe should be on this list somewhere though!

    Reply this comment
  14. jayG
    #14 jayG 13 March, 2017, 11:57

    lists are subjective. this list isn’t a list to debate. it’s a list to sonically bathe in. not a single clunker in the bunch.

    Reply this comment
  15. Guy Smiley
    #15 Guy Smiley 14 March, 2017, 20:51

    Interesting list… Many, though not all, of these songs are unfamiliar to me.

    I’m still not clear what “power pop” is exactly and where the lines aredrawn between pop, “power pop,” pop-rock, and rock.

    So if The Who is power pop, is that just their pre-Tommy stuff we’re talking about? If they’re power pop, are The Beatles and Kinks too? Dave Clark Five? Beach Boys? The Monkees?

    I’ve seen Ben Folds Five called “power pop.” If Folds is, then what about Billy Joel and Elton John? Folds has spoken of Joel and John both inlfuencing him (and Folds opened for Billy at a New Year’s Eve concert a few years ago), so.. Maybe?

    So Todd Rundgren and Badfinger are. How about Elvis Costello? His stuff with The Attractions, at least. The Police?

    Are there power pop bands of note now? I don’t follow a lot of new music, and the ones I do are more of the “jam band” variety I guess, but I am curious.

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