Two thousand and eight was one of the greatest years for pop music in history but you would never know it following the so-called music industry. The major labels are mired in obsolete thinking based on mega-records. Fools! There will never be another THRILLER! Mick Jagger will not live forever! During the American Music Awards, I watched Ne-Yo, Pink, New Kids on the Block, Taylor Swift, and Leona Lewis perform. With the exception of Lewis they all sang one-chord songs showcasing their one-octave ranges surrounded by a distracting carnival of dancers and light shows. It was awful.
This most misunderstood of genres, power-pop consists of catchy, upbeat songs built around at least three chords, to deliver a bridge and a hook. Fortunately there are thousands of young bands slaving away in their garage and basement laboratories crafting transcendent pop music—music that takes you out of yourself on shimmering waves of pure happiness.
The best records of the year are in descending order:
1. The Explorers Club-FREEDOM WIND
. Languid and exquisite, achingly beautiful, familiar but strange. Critics who chastise this young Nashville band as Beach Boy imitators are missing the point. The Beach Boys were not an end in themselves. They pointed the way toward a more sophisticated sound incorporating elements of doo-wop, Chuck Berry, American classicists such as Ferdie Grofe and Aaron Copland, and surf drums. Rarely has a record achieved such poignant beauty so effortlessly. Sure, the lyrics dealing with love and loss can be banal but the songs themselves are never less than striking. They possess a glowing afterlife that stays with you long after the record ends. Every song on this album is at least great.
“Forever,” sets the tone with gently self-assured surf drums leading into the type of soaring bittersweet architecture which Brian Wilson used to toss off with casual abandon. “I Don’t Know Why” combines tongue-in-cheek country twang with a chorus that takes your breath away. Separate the lyrics from their music on “Last Kiss” and it sounds almost bland. But couple those lyrics with a bridge and chorus that celebrates their unique harmonies and uncanny knack for the perfect hook you have a song you won’t be able to get out of your head.
2. Bryan Scary & the Shredding Tears-FLIGHT OF THE KNIFE
. Bryan Scary’s eponymous debut last year was a high point with his grandiloquent keyboard constructions and music hall zeal. Add a very intense band and the Shredding Tears don the mantle of Queen proudly, producing the type of music Freddie Mercury might have written if he’d worked with Ben Folds. The title song is an instant classic, beginning with a typically rococo operatic intro to a chunk of art rock that rolls over you like an Abrams tank. What it’s about? The lyrics are intriguing but extremely personal, encouraging listeners to find their own meaning.
“Imitation of the Sky” may have more hooks per square inch than any song ever written. By the time Graham Norwood busts loose with an enormous Brian May-like chorus, you cannot drag yourself away. The secret to great pop is in the dynamics, how the artist tricks you into running, slipping, falling forward, breathless with anticipation. In this regard Bryan Scary is without peer.
Too many highlights to list, but the double whammy of “The Purple Rocket,” which blends elements of children’s sing-alongs with King Crimson-like art rock and surf music, and “The Zero Light,” with its reggae rhythm and haunting chorus, will leave you gasping on the floor like a beached catfish.
3. Greg Pope: POPMONSTER
. This record explodes on the first track and never stops. Pope, ringleader of the Tennessee-based Edmunds Crown, does it all. He is the only musician on the record yet achieves a groove many bands would kill to possess. Pope’s guitar playing is both massive and puckish as in that great kerrang that ends “Sky Burn Down,” the CD opener.
Pope’s interests extend beyond puppy love. These songs are refreshingly adult. “Burden” is wry, rockin’ philosophy that recalls Scott Miller in Pope’s spoken choruses. “All Day Long” summons the Zombies. Through it all there is a refreshing joie de vivre
that translates effortlessly through these grooves. A hard record to take off.
4. The Offbeat-S/T
. This English duo writes pop songs in the tradition of the Zombies, Beach Boys, Beatles et al, yet put their own stamp on it. Each song is an event, in the same way as the Red Button. If you liked the Red Button, you’ll like this. Their minimalist packaging puts the only info on the disc itself, and that’s only song titles. They’ve got a website which isn’t much better. All the value is in the material.
“Lonely Girl” starts things off in an exquisite Turtles/Hollies mode with its sighing vocals and a fantastic bridge begging for hand-claps. “Keeping It Real” is a blend of Britpop and the Beach Boys. One reason these songs stick in the head is because nothing seems forced—each stage of the song grows ineluctably from what has gone before, and still manages to surprise. “Between Us” showcases everything that makes Offbeat great—an appealing melody, effortless harmonies, and propulsive percussion light as a French soufflé. The effect is whispered wisdom.
5. Josh Fix: FREE AT LAST
. Like Bryan Scary’s first record, Josh Fix presents an operatic hook fest with a brilliantly expressive voice and dramatic keyboards. “Don’t Call Me in the Morning” teases and teases and then delivers a hook that knocks it out of the park. And it goes on and on like a Queen opus with Sir Elton sitting in. Freddie Mercury and Elton John make a record.
Each song is fully rounded, in the way the Band’s first album of songs were fully rounded. None match the sheer exuberance of the opener, but they all repay repeated listens. “Jethro” evokes the Band sung by a smoothie. Imagine Robbie Robertson singing it.
Crazy soaring bass introduces “Whiskey & Speed,” an ode to despair whose bouncy melody ironically underscores the subject matter. “Tiger on a Treadmills” a Billy Joel-like stunner. “Bad With the Superbad” inevitably raises Ben Folds comparisons. “Rolled in from the South” lends itself to languid horns. This might have been written by Allen Toussaint or Tower of Power. Fix is a one-man band, like Greg Pope, Bryan Scary on his first record, and Ed James. You’d never know it listening to this.
6. The Quarter After: CHANGES NEAR
. Conjuring the full range of psychedelia from Country Joe to Arthur Lee, the Campanella brothers Dom and Robert summon guitar-driven rave-ups that get under your skin. This may be the jangliest of all contemporary bands, 12-string Rickenbackers, Les Pauls, and Mellotron kicking up dust. Quarter After’s textures are pure Byrds but they create their own spell. Changes Near is the type of album to which we used to drop acid and listen in college. It has the feel of a classic.
Less self-indulgent than their self-titled debut, CHANGES NEAR is better focused and edited. “Sanctuary” grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. “She Revolves” would make a great single with its instantly memorable guitar signature and chorus. “Counting the Score” and ”Early Morning Rider”could have come off American Beauty. “See How Good it Feels” is driving rock psychedelia. The title track contains a swooning pedal steel that turns your spine to jelly. This is one of those discs that WILL NOT get off my player. There is always something new to admire.
7. The Pillbugs-EVERYBODY WANTS A WAY OUT.
This is the second year in a row the Pillbugs have made my top ten list. Last year’s BUZZ FOR ALDRIN was a triumphant two-disc set of dynamic psychedelia, old wine in new bottles. This year is more of the same only different. Again the disc is generous, over fifty minutes. “Life As it Happens” opens the disc with a superb distillation of late sixties/early seventies California country/psychedelic rock, instantly familiar yet fresh. Like Rock4, they share a particular love for that era.
“Can’t Get It Right” reminds us that along with Hindu Rodeo’s Dirk Freymuth, Mark Mikel is a master sitarist (as opposed to Randy Newman, who is a master satirist.) The song’s bridge sounds like Arches National Monument looks. “Greeting Committee” is a swooning Mikel composition with gorgeous harmonies that holds the chord three beats longer than the ear expects. Lovely touches abound: the added rhythm instruments, the sinuous guitar line. “Emily Loves” is pure early Yardbirds/Kinks/Blodwyn Pig, a simple blues structure with an insistent guitar that lulls you into a state of suspended grooviness that the next song, “Sound Man,” delightfully blows up. This is magnificent power-pop that appeals to the head and the heart with ringing fuzztone guitars and great lyrics about a band on the make.
“Play the Hear Back” draws inspiration from King Crimson and Led Zeppelin but the Bugs dive reassuringly back into rockin’ psychedelia with “Trip Fast” and “North of Reality.” Instead of instant classic, let’s call this an event record. Yeah.
8. The Wellingtons-HEADING NORTH FOR THE WINTER
. This five-piece from Oz has a warm, rich sound stemming from exquisite harmonizing and the presence of two keyboards. Their music is like plunging into a Jacuzzi—immediate warmth. Zac Anthony has an elastic and conversational voice that infuses his music with wry joy.
Fat Farfisa powers “Come Undone,” a typically strong Anthony/Goldby composition. “I Get My Heart Broken Every Day” also features unforgettable chords along with whip-smart lyrics. “Popped Balloon” carries a trace of Eddie Cochran. “Waiting for My Time to Come” contains everything that makes the Wellingtons great: strong chords, warm, elastic vocals, and that inchoate yearning endemic to all great pop.
9. Private Jets: JET SOUNDS
/A FOUR LEAF CLOVER IN E MAJOR. What is it about Scandinavia in general and Sweden in particular that produces such great power-pop? Maybe it’s the long winters. Like their kin the Tunes, the Sun Shine, or the Mop Tops, Private Jets are a quartet of rosy-cheeked lads in pursuit of that Beatlesque epiphany. Unlike most of their brethren, Private Jets go beyond mere stylistic worship to forge their own sound. The cleverly titled Jet Sounds is a gorgeous slab of retro-pop but what really seals the deal is the four-song EP, A FOUR LEAF CLOVER IN E MAJOR. Too many highlights on the album, but “Extraordinary Sensations,” “Speak Up, Speak Out,” and “Fireman for a Day” and its follow-up “Fire Academy” all have that Brill Building ethic.
I don’t know why the Jets didn’t put the EP songs on the album. They’d fit, and they greatly expand the Jets’ sound. “Target in My Heart” and “Magic” are over-the-top, Jellyfish ambitious, suite-like compositions with gorgeous harmonies. “Magic” is a bodacious sunrise of a song with a soaring chorus and the line “My heart is beating like Keith Moon,” followed by the most exquisite acapella since Take 6.
10. Kelly Jones: SheBANG!
Tenth was a bitch to fill with many records vying. Then along came Kelly Jones to settle the question. Kelly Jones has a bell-tone altoid voice reminiscent of the Honeys and Ronnie Spector. Her collaborator, producer and co-writer Mike Viola has smart pop chops. These songs hit just the right note of frothiness and emotion. “Same Songs” with its brilliant balance of major and minor chords will replace that ear worm you’ve been carrying around for the past six months. Kelly channels Carole King and “Fire Escape.” “The Girl With the Silver Lining” is destined to become the theme song for a hit movie or TV show.