10 Great Power Pop Songs

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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.

Related: The Records’ lead vocalist, John Wicks, died in 2018

6) “Tonight” by 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.

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
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36 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???

    Reply this comment
  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
    • john runion
      john runion 12 August, 2020, 17:28

      AMEN! any and every song on get the knack should be at the very least a contender for this list!

      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:

    Reply this comment
  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.

    Reply this comment
  16. Thanks
    #16 Thanks 4 February, 2018, 17:50

    The song that should be on the the list is “Starry Eyes” by the Records and “I’m on Fire “ by Dwight Twilly, these song are better representations then what it listed.

    Reply this comment
  17. steve b
    #17 steve b 15 January, 2019, 21:17

    big star was the greatest band and no one knew about them.you never heard them on the radio .I discovered them when everyone was getting songs from napster and I couldnt believe how good they were .How were they not noticed ? A better song from the Rasberrys would have been “GO ALL THE WAY” .If you looked up power pop in the dictionary that song would be used to describe it .

    Reply this comment
  18. ByrdBrother
    #18 ByrdBrother 4 March, 2019, 21:01

    terrific choices but I would have had to go with “I’m On Fire”

    Reply this comment
  19. BIWJ
    #19 BIWJ 6 March, 2019, 23:01

    I agree with many of the comments about other songs from some of these artists being better choices, including Starry Eyes by The Records, Go All The Way by The Raspberries, and I’m On Fire by Dwight Twilley. I’d also swap Couldn’t I Just Tell You by Todd Rundgren for Love Of The Common Man. Cruel To Be Kind by Nick Lowe and Girl Of My Dreams by Bram Tchaikovsky deserve a spot, too. I guess that’s why lists are created…

    Reply this comment
  20. BIWJ
    #20 BIWJ 6 March, 2019, 23:05

    Also agree with comment about Shoes. And let’s add Then We Go Up by Phil Seymour, Dwight Twilley’s bandmate.

    Reply this comment
  21. Jim
    #21 Jim 29 March, 2019, 22:32

    “September Gurls” by Big Star (1974) – What do you do when you achieve perfection and nobody (at least initially) cares?” Truer words have never been spoken. Alex cranked out the ultimate power pop song and the world changed the station. 45 years later I’m still baffled as to why this sing didn’t dominate the charts.

    Reply this comment
  22. John Rose
    #22 John Rose 7 May, 2019, 11:23

    That’s a great set of songs. I play it every time this story comes around.

    Reply this comment
  23. Burtell
    #23 Burtell 15 August, 2019, 06:31

    Missing The Rubinoos.

    Reply this comment
  24. Teddy
    #24 Teddy 9 June, 2020, 05:38

    I have one that doesn’t get much credit. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Love Letter” by Tim Moore

    Reply this comment
  25. MRodifer
    #25 MRodifer 12 August, 2020, 00:46

    My own list would definitely include Pezband’s “Stop! Wait a Minute”. (Re: the Shoes, I could never get past the singer’s style – matter of sonic taste.) Also I’d bring Tommy Keene’s “Places That Are Gone” and anything from his first band, the Razz, and then there’s Marshall Crenshaw (who isn’t fond of the term, but oh, well…)

    Reply this comment
  26. john runion
    #26 john runion 12 August, 2020, 17:40

    IF the early pre-Tommy Who are power pop then The Kids Are Alright is the greatest power pop song EVER!

    Reply this comment
  27. john runion
    #27 john runion 13 August, 2020, 18:54

    the knack. paul collins beat. rubinoos. shoes. greg kihn. phil seymour. the nerves. the romantics. tommy tutone. bram tchaikovsky.

    Reply this comment
  28. Tin Man
    #28 Tin Man 9 June, 2021, 00:20

    List should include Bram Tchaikovsky – Girl of My Dreams

    Reply this comment
  29. Da Mick
    #29 Da Mick 9 June, 2021, 01:21

    Love the list. Some on it are un-debatable, but I’ve always thought Dwight Twilley’s music was the epitome of power pop. But as we’re adding suggestions, “There She Goes,” be The The comes to mind.

    Reply this comment
  30. Marty
    #30 Marty 9 June, 2021, 01:39

    And yet again Power Pop as a term isn’t defined very well by the songs chosen and none of them outside of Baby Blue are well known making Power Pop an obscure and an ill, defined genre. My Sharona fixes that.

    Reply this comment
  31. Alias Pink Puzz
    #31 Alias Pink Puzz 9 June, 2021, 18:26

    Stay in Time by Off Broadway–great band from Chicago needs to be on this list. And seriously, any power pop list without the Knack cannot be taken seriously.

    Reply this comment
  32. Billy Busfare
    #32 Billy Busfare 12 October, 2023, 17:55

    Pardon my French, but the omission of Off Broadway from this “Power Pop” collection is a major faux pas. Cliff and the boys ruled!

    Reply this comment

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