Not sure how to define POP. It used to be a label given to schmaltzy vocal artists like Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion and Neil Sedaka. It has since been co-opted by a certain segment of the “alternative” crowd, bands and artists with a deeper focus on melody than edge. Most likely the term originated back in 1978, with XTC’s ground-breaking, off-kilter debut album, White Music, on the song “This is Pop.” My guess is that, since, at the time, Pop — as a label — was taken by the vocalists our parents’ listened to, the term “power-pop” was born. Bands like Big Star and The Raspberries and Badfinger suddenly were thrust into this new genre. The main influence clearly being the Beatles, but with more angular, punk or new-wave highlights. Bands like XTC, Cheap Trick, Squeeze and The Posies helped solidify Power-Pop as a legit sub-genre. And although power-pop is still used today, shortening it to “Pop” is also common. Though some people do think of crappy top-40 artists when they hear the term Pop, so I sometimes stick with the full Power-Pop even when a song, like most of these in my list below, are less power and more pop. I would say that my requirements for a pop-song are: a catchy, hummable chorus, a heavy dollop of piano, strings, acoustic guitar or, ideally, all 3. The vocals must not be gritty, and you should be able to understand the lyrics on first listen. Almost always, the song will be in a minor key and exude a feeling of wistfulness and/or nostalgia in the listener. The below 5 songs do all of these to perfection.
Fruit Bats – Humbug Mountain Song
This song has been an earworm for me on many a 2016 occasion. Not the lyrics really, but the repeating guitar/piano refrain. This fits all of the above pop-song checkmarks. With the added plus of Fruit Bats’ Eric Johnson’s perfectly nasal, John Lennon-esque vocals. The Bats’ 2016 release Absolute Loser was a top 20 album of the year for me.
Look Park – Minor is the Lonely Key
Look Park is the brainchild of Chris Collingwood, co-founder of Fountains of Wayne, perhaps one of the more iconic power-pop bands in recent memory. Adam Schlesinger, the other FoW co-founder has gone on to write for TV, movies and the theater and has been the more visible of the two. Until 2016, when Look Park released their debut album and opened for Squeeze on their world tour. This sounds a lot like FoW, but with even more polish, which took me a couple listens to come to terms with the slickness, recognizing the great songwriting beneath the sheen.
Case Lang & Veirs – Atomic Number
Boy, I could listen to Neko Case every day for the rest of my life and never get sick of her voice. And to add K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs? It’s almost unfair how good these songs are. Of course, for me, the Case songs are the most arresting, with Atomic Number sounding like it could have been an outtake from her amazing 2013 album, The Worse Things Get… Not sure what else to say other than, listen to it and bask in its greatness.
Night Moves – Carl Sagan
I really know nothing about Night Moves, other than what I’m about to look up right now…the Minneapolis band formed in 2010 in high school (!) with the desire to meld 70’s rock with country twang. Not sure I hear much country twang in this song, which I first heard on MPR’s Song of the Day podcast. It sounds to me like a blend of ELO and….why don’t you tell me what else you hear…maybe a little Steely Dan? Maybe something more modern? MGMT’s first album?
Nada Surf – Believe You’re Mine
What I said about Fruit Bats, ditto for this insanely catchy pop song. This one has the added touch of tons of backup harmony vocals. And actual strings too. I think it’s about being in love with the wrong person, the sort of person who sucks all self-identity out of you and keeps you just close enough to keep you hopeful. This could be the song that captures this Pop/Power-Pop sound best.