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Mix #1: Pure Power Pop for Now People

25 Aug

An introduction by music critic John M. Borack:

Everyone loves a good mixtape, right? The very concept is a music geek’s dream come true: select some of your favorite tunes, toss in a few obscurities that’ll make folks sit up and exclaim “Who is THAT?” and voila — instant entertainment for those long drives or those even longer nights alone at home. (Of course, nowadays mixes are tapeless, and in the case of the one you’re about to dive into, there isn’t even a CD or iPod involved. Ah, technology. But I
digress …)

Power pop is perfect for a mix, too, since the genre has been around for 40+ years now (!), with oodles of great songs, performances, and artists (both celebrated and obscure) to choose from.  For the first Mixtured compilation, Doug Hoepker has gathered together a lineup of very cool people to assemble a highly varied mix that’ll excite both the power pop connoisseur and the relative novice alike. (Matter of fact, I was tempted to choose a song as my contribution to the mix by either Adam Schmitt or Paul Chastain, two of the very cool people in question.)

You’ll hear some stone classics of the genre (courtesy of The Plimsouls, Dwight Twilley, and Todd Rundgren) as well as some acts that have undeservedly flown under the radar for one reason or another (The Nines, Kimberley Rew). You’ll also get to experience some old dogs/new tricks (’60s UK pop icons The Searchers going all jangly in 1979, Paul Collins dressing up one of his 30+ year-old tunes in 2010), new wave-era raucousness (Dramarama), a Beatles cover (The Jam), and addictive angular guitar-pop heroics (The Bongos).

And if all that isn’t enough, feel free to check out the reckless romanticism of the Exploding Hearts, the classic power pop stylings of Australia’s DM3 (a personal fave), Piper’s “AOR with chiming guitars” monster “Who’s Your Boyfriend?” (featuring a young Billy Squier on lead vox), and Donnie Iris’ rifftastic 1980 charmer “Ah! Leah!”

And for me, the cherry on top of the power pop sundae is the inclusion of tunes by Shoes, Material Issue, and Tommy Keene, three acts that rank high on my list of all-time favorites.  (Of course, there is also one act included in the mix that I absolutely detest, but as my dear old dad used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, then shut up!”)

At any rate, big thanks to Doug for asking me to become involved with this worthwhile project. Keep reading to see my own selection for the mix.

Pop On!

John M. Borack wrote the book on power pop — Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide — and has a book ab0ut John Lennon coming out soon. His writing has appeared in Amplifier, Goldmine, and Trouser Press, in addition to numerous liner notes for power pop records like Rhino’s Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the ’80s. He also plays drums with the Popdudes.


Here’s how this process works: Each participant was asked to choose one song that fit their definition of power pop. The participants selected songs one after another in a pre-determined, random order, with the only stipulation being no repeats (of songs or artists). Here are the results.

1. Ben Deily chose …
The Plimsouls, “A Million Miles Away”

Listen to “A Million Miles Away” WHAT HE SAID: It combines every requisite element: dark and surging moodiness, anthemic refrain, and a sense of infinite longing. In terms of both form and execution, it’s pretty flawless: comes in hard with the snare crack, ends with a BIG raved-up finish. Hooks shooting out every-which-way. Awesome guitar tone. I mean, just LISTEN to this song! The thing speaks for itself.

Ben Deily plays in the band Varsity Drag, was a founding member of The Lemonheads, and is an “unrepentant advertising junkie”/copywriter. He lives in Boston.

2. Lisa Bralts chose …
Redd Kross, “Jimmy’s Fantasy”

Listen to “Jimmy’s Fantasy” WHAT SHE SAID: Oh, it’s powerful, all right, but this song is most definitely pop. The McDonald brothers have a way of combining pop melodies with power chording that makes me want to seriously bang my head and pogo at the same time. I’m pretty sure I did, in fact, back when the band played this song at a Lounge Ax (CHGO) show in 199-something.

Lisa Bralts is a Minneapolis native who now organizes the Farmer’s Market in Urbana, Ill., and does a weekly radio show, In My Backyard, on the intersection of food and neighborhoods. She knows a thing or two about Scandinavian rock music.

3. Suzy Shaw chose …
Paul Collins, “Do You Wanna Love Me?”

Listen to “Do You Wanna Love Me?” WHAT SHE SAID: For my selection it would have to be my new iPod favorite, “Do You Wanna Love Me?” by Paul Collins. It’s my choice because you can’t get more power pop than Paul Collins (thus the name of his new album, King of Power Pop). Paul has done more than anyone else I know to keep the name of power pop alive. He deserves to be king!

Suzy Shaw is an integral part of the American rock and roll institution that is Bomp! Records, still going strong as it nears its fourth decade in business. Her name regularly pops up in e-mail in-boxes around the country for those smart enough to subscribe to the Bomp! Mailorder weekly update.

4. Dan Raphael chose …
The Searchers, “Hearts In Her Eyes”

Listen to “Hearts In Her Eyes” WHAT HE SAID: Definitely more on the pop side than the power side. Most people think of the Searchers as having disappeared after the ’60s. But their 1979 comeback album has some great songs on it. This one was written by Will Birch and John Wicks of the Records and is  superior to the subsequent recording by the Records. The album opens with the incredible 1-2 punch of this song and Nick Lowe’s “Switchboard Susan.”

My dad used to listen to this album pretty regularly when I was a kid. For some reason, we’d always listen to this song in the Harbor Tunnel on the way to Orioles games at Memorial Stadium. I’m not sure how it got started but the tradition lasted for years — to the point that I was still doing it even when I was old enough to drive to games without my dad.

Dan Raphael is a schoolteacher living in NYC who wisely named his twin sons Sam and Otis. They have already got the requisite good looks to make it in the industry.

5. Paul Chastain chose …
Dwight Twilley Band, “I’m On Fire”

Listen to “I’m On Fire” WHAT HE SAID: Shoulda-been stars Twilley and Phil Seymour nail it right off the bat in 1975 with their first single. The impossibly catchy, soaring chorus grafted on to a solid Sun foundation seems custom made to blast forth from a car stereo. Great and greatly influential in my world.

Paul Chastain has been recording music for around 25 years and has played in too many bands to mention, but most notably The Springfields, Velvet Crush, Matthew Sweet, and currently New Ruins. You can talk to him on the phone when you order a record from Parasol Mail Order.

6. Curty Ray chose …
Tony Cox, “No More Lies”

Listen to “No More Lies” WHAT HE SAID: Tony provides a Sunshine Pop meets modern inspiration sound that will not be disappoint. The hooks are abundant and the harmonies are first rate.

Curty Ray is a West Coast transplant unused to the arctic North of Chicago. Currently, he is trying to drum up interest in Power Pop music via the fab Power Pop Overdose! blog. He  is also able to bake 5 minute brownie mix in 3 minutes.

7. Matt Hickey chose …
Tommy Keene, “Places That Are Gone”

Listen to “Places That Are Gone”

WHAT HE SAID: I waffled over this choice more than one reasonably should for a such a fun exercise, trying to determine if I should go with the obvious (Keene) or the less-obvious (tunes by Sloan, Finn’s Motel, and the Mayflies USA all received consideration when I was wavering). But simply put, any power-pop overview minus Keene is rendered incomplete, and since this is my favorite song of his, the selection ended up being rather easy after all.

Matt Hickey is a Chicago-based freelance music writer and contributing editor of MAGNET who recently wrote the liner notes for Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009. He continues to indoctrinate his 3-year-old son Luke by subjecting him to Weakerthans and Guided By Voices videos on YouTube.

8. Jonathan Wright chose …
Exploding Hearts, “I’m a Pretender”

Listen to “I’m A Pretender”

WHAT HE SAID: This song remains a perennial mix tape selection. While the same album’s “Modern Kicks” might be more acclaimed — it is, after all, Pitchfork’s 290th Greatest Song of the 2000s — I found myself humming this track more than any other. Sure enough, “this band threw away better songs than most bands will ever write,” as their close friend Fred Landeen notes in this essential piece of reading:

“They had so many hooks, so much melody and still retained a rocking Punk edge to it all. This was ideal Power Pop, they had exactly what I wanted from the genre. Instantly memorable songs, with the catchiest possible hooks. There were choruses that stuck in your head as soon as you heard them and never left. Keeping it all going was a driving guitar that supplied the power to the Amphetamine pop.”

Guitar Romantic: INDEED!!! Tragically, the Exploding Hearts story does not end on a pretty note, unlike most power-pop tunes, but this track must take its rightful place in the power-pop pantheon.

Jonathan Wright once brought Fugazi to his hometown of Peoria, Ill. A former music critic and concert promoter, he now manages trio of Central Illinois magazines and spends far too much time listening to his 6,500+ vinyl collection and getting to know his new analog synth.

9. Bill Johnson chose …
Donnie Iris, “Ah! Leah!”

Listen to “Ah! Leah!”

WHAT HE SAID: As a Rockford kid who rode his Schwinn Stingray to Appletree Records to buy Cheap Trick At Budokan as my first album, it pains me not to pick my hometown heroes. But I’m going with the first song that popped into my head for this one.

My main obstacle is in trying to determine if the song qualifies as Power Pop. Let’s see … adolescent angst gushing from a fully grown man? Check. Matinee idol good looks? Check. Natty suit? Obviously. Artist potentially lives in his parents’ basement and regularly attends Beatlemania conventions? I have a sneaking suspicion. Brilliant production? Undeniably. Infectious melody and killer hooks? In spades.

Looks like Donnie does it. All hail, King Cool.

Bill Johnson screamed for the bands Honcho Overload and Bad Flannel in the late-’80s and early-’90s and worked for many years as the buyer for Parasol Mail Order. He now sells books for a living and lives vicariously through YouTube clips of his favorite groups from the ’80s.

10. Adam Schmitt chose …
Kimberley Rew, “Stomping All Over The World”

Listen to “Stomping All Over The World”

WHAT HE SAID: For better or worse, Kimberley Rew is likely best known as the guy who gave us “Walking On Sunshine” by Katrina & The Waves, a band for whom he was songwriter, guitarist, and occasional lead vocalist. But around the same time as “Sunshine” was initially released, Rew also issued his fantastic and decidedly grittier 1981 solo mini-album, The Bible Of Bop, which featured other fellow pop icons such as the dB’s and Mitch Easter. The album may as well have been called “The Bible Of Pop” so far as I’m concerned — each one of it’s all-too-brief eight songs are pop masterpieces. Behind Rew, “Stomping” features backing by the Soft Boys, for whom Rew is probably (second-) best known as guitarist.

Adam Schmitt released a pair of critically acclaimed power-pop records, World So Bright and Illiterature, in the early 1990s for Warner Brothers. Since then he has focused on producing and recording other musicians and teasing his fans with a new record every decade or so. He sets up shop in Urbana, Ill.

11. Cristy Scoggins chose …
Material Issue, “Renee Remains The Same”

Listen to “Renee Remains The Same”

WHAT SHE SAID: I always think of power pop as a rock junkie’s amazing discovery. The bands seem to shine in eras in which they’re most unfashionable. The prog-drenched ’70s: Oh my gosh, there’s this band, Big Star, who sound like the Beatles! The synthy ’80s: Whoa, there’s this band, the dB’s, who sound like Big Star! The autotune-crazy ’00s: Sweet, there’s this band, Generationals, who sound like the dB’s!

In the early ’90s, it was Material Issue, who sounded like Cheap Trick. Most late Friday nights in junior high, I watched MTV, slogging through videos by Queensryche, Poison, and Cinderella. Cut to a black-and-white video featuring lanky clean-cut boys with a singer in a striped t-shirt who played a jangly guitar and sung with a (fake) English accent. I got the cassette as fast as I could, memorizing every two-minute song, every shout-along chorus about girls. Then a few years later, as it happens with these bands, Material Issue were gone. “But melodies, harmonies, and skinny ties never die. They’ll be back up when the pretty blue lights come on.

Cristy Scoggins lives in Urbana, Ill., where she co-hosts a lively radio show, Rock Geek FM, and regularly writes about music with her husband, William, on their website. She recently settled on the name Maxine Silverhammer for her roller derby persona.

12. Jason Muzinic chose …
Todd Rundgren, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”

Listen to “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”

WHAT HE SAID: While considering which song I’d offer up for this mix, I found it was easier to narrow down the field than to endorse a single candidate. Then Cristy steps up, taking Material Issue off the board, and making my final vote infinitely easier to cast.

For me, Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” may very well be the song that defines this genre. An infectious opening riff, powerful vocals, tempo changes, killer melody, unforgettable chorus … it’s all here, packed into 3 minutes and 22 seconds of unadulterated bliss. Simply put, it’s the perfect blend of power and pop.

Jason Muzinic spends his all-too-sparse free time providing his three children with a musical counterbalance to their steady diet of pre-manufactured Disney Channel tripe, obsessing about the organization of his CD library, and counting the hours until Andy Sturmer returns to the power-pop scene. He lives in Mahomet, Ill., and works for a publisher in nearby Champaign.

13. Donovan Finn chose …
Sloan, “Penpals”

Listen to “Penpals”

WHAT HE SAID: Damn, this was harder than I’d expected. And at the end of the day I surprise myself by picking something … CANADIAN? But my lovely wife was lobbying for Sloan, and when I started putting together a short list for this little undertaking, I kept finding myself listening to the options and saying, “too punk,” “too psych,” “too bluesy,” and knocking off a bunch of songs I’d pretty much settled on at one time or another in the last few days.

So many of them, though great songs in their own right, just didn’t really stand up to what I thought was the essence of power pop. That’s not to say that this song ended up as my pick just because it was less bad than all the rest. To the contrary, I’ve always loved this song and it was on heavy rotation in various tape decks in a number of crappy used cars I owned over the years, but I guess I always took for granted how purely pop it is. Or maybe that’s why I liked it in the first place. Still, I’m a little mad at myself for not picking something from the ’60s. Oh well, there’s no prize here except my pride, and I can more than live with this pick.

Donovan Finn is an Urban Planning prof living in NYC who recently downsized his massive record collection to make room for his first child. He used to do radio promotions at Matador Records and, before that, worked at Streetside Records in Lawrence and Applause Records in Minneapolis.

14. David Bash chose …
The Nines, “What Can I Do”

Listen to “What Can I Do”

WHAT HE SAID: When I first heard The Nines in 1997, I was absolutely blown away by their chord structures and changes, which were unlike any other I’d previously heard. “What Can I Do” is on The Nines’ Wonderworld Of Colourful and is probably their most power-poppy song, owing a bit to The Raspberries.  Since that album they’ve released four others, and they’re all wonderful. Lead singer/songwriter Steve Eggers has a very rare gift.

David Bash organizes the International Pop Overthrow Festival, now in its 13th year. This year the fest, which the NY Post described as “like speed dating for the rock ‘n roll set,” takes up residence in 10 cities around the USA, Canada, and UK.

15. Len Kasper chose …
DM3, “Everything That You Told Me”

Listen to “Everything That You Told Me”

WHAT HE SAID: With a tip of the cap to fellow panelists Paul Chastain, whose work with Velvet Crush cannot go unnoticed, and Adam Schmitt, who is not only an ace producer, but has released an impressive catalog of finely crafted power pop himself, my choice is “Everything That You Told Me” off DM3’s 1998 release, Rippled Soul. No power pop comp would be complete without a song from Australia’s amazing singer/songwriter/guitar hero Dom Mariani. I picked this song because it has 1) a unique, killer 48-second intro complete with a hellacious guitar solo which makes you want to blast out the speakers in your car, 2) Mariani’s signature sugar-coated lead vocals, and 3) of course, killer harmonies throughout. All the ingredients are there for an A+ classic. If you aren’t familiar with Dom’s work with DM3, The Stems, and The Someloves, check it out immediately.

Len Kasper, a Chicago Cubs TV broadcaster, is a longtime power-pop aficionado whose favorites include the Replacements, Tommy Keene, Dom Mariani, the Romantics, and more. Len also played in a power-pop band called Your Indentured Servants; their record is available at Amazon, though he doesn’t necessarily recommend it.

16. William Gillespie chose …
The Jam, “And Your Bird Can Sing”

Listen to “And Your Bird Can Sing”

WHAT HE SAID: “Powerpop?” I asked, “what’s that?” He didn’t answer right away. Smoothing his moustache as he put the top down, tapped the cassette into the dash, and dropped the convertible into gear. Easing out of the parking lot, slowing to admire the waitresses on roller skates, he checked his sunglasses in the rearview mirror and said, “It all starts with the Beatles.” I sense we are in for a long ride.

One facet of the Beatles is a preverb of powerpop, except the Beatles escaped the curse of obscurity, that bad paradox by which songs crafted to be so commercially perfect, pleasing, single-sized, compressed, and seemingly radio-friendly are resigned to the box of shrugs, not played in the sports car but left in the garage to be rediscovered at the yard sale by people like us. So I choose this cover, one degree removed from the Fab Four. No disrespect intended. To me the song has the characteristics of my favorite gems of the genre: an overly melodic guitar line (more net than hook — I’m thinking “Shake Some Action,” “Baby Blue,” “Starry Eyes”), a certain bratty exuberance to the lyrics, and, of course, those loud lollipop vocals: if it’s worth singing, it’s worth harmonizing.

William Gillespie co-hosts the radio show, Rock Geek FM, and regularly criticizes music with his wife, Cristy, on their website. William also oversees an independent book publisher, Spineless Books.

17. Amy Lingafelter chose …
Dramarama, “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)”

Listen to “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)”

WHAT SHE SAID: It’s all in the drums. Listen. They’re just totally and completely propulsive. (And, on a side note, this song seems like a realllllly bad way to get someone to marry you.)

Amy Lingafelter is a published poet who attended the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She lives in the Chicagoland area, where she is a librarian, Cubs fan, and teevee critic. She really likes the song “Can’t Hardly Wait” (the version with the horns) by The Replacements.

18. Matthew Campbell chose …
The Bongos, “In The Congo”

Listen to “In The Congo”

WHAT HE SAID: In 1982, Hoboken’s The Bongos released Drums Along the Hudson, a U.S. collection of the group’s British singles.  In 1998, while spending more time in record stores than in lecture halls, I found this LP and fell in love with it. “In the Congo” is such an exciting guitar pop tune. From the opening lick to the midpoint percussion break to the refrained outro, Richard Barone & Co. exude raw emotion. Here is an unappreciated contribution to the power-pop genre.

Matthew Campbell plays in the Midwestern rock duo Common Loon, whose debut album was released this year and called “nuanced, sugar-spun psych pop” by The Stranger.

19. Steve Simels chose …
Shoes, “Your Devotion”

Listen to “Your Devotion”

WHAT HE SAID: Oh god, obviously I could pick a hundred songs just off the top of my head that would deserve to make the mix, but at this point I have to go with something by the power pop gods of Zion, Ill., and not solely because a certain co-blogger I know is currently putting the finishing touches on Boys Don’t Lie, the definitive critical biography of the band.

In any case, “Your Devotion,” which first appeared on what is perhaps Shoes’ masterpiece Stolen Wishes (1989), has everything you could want in four minutes of pop-rock — definitively winsome vocals, a lyric that blurs the distinctions between love and sex in an endearingly sly way, a gloriously melodic chorus for the ages, and a guitar solo that slices the song in half like a scythe. I should add that Shoes has a (mostly unwarranted) reputation as being brilliant but just a tad wimpy, so the version of “Your Devotion” I’ve picked is actually from their ace 1995 live album Fret Buzz; as you can hear, it kicks all sorts of posterior.

Steve Simels, the Oldest Living Rock Critic™, has been writing, more or less continuously, for the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review (now Sound + Vision) since 1972. He also pontificates at PowerPop.

20. Edward Burch chose …
Piper, “Who’s Your Boyfriend?”

Listen to “Who’s Your Boyfriend?”

WHAT HE SAID: A few folks thought I should choose Big Star, and in many ways Big Star are the most appropriate. Their first two albums are the prototype of power pop. Add in the cult status derived from decades of commercial neglect, and they seem assured a place in this mix. But what song to choose?

Actually, I was this close to picking Adam Schmitt for this round because, though I’ve loved the music that has come to be defined as “power pop” for many years prior, it was when I first heard Adam’s records in the early 1990s that this type of music was linked in my understanding with said descriptor (“You know, power pop — like Tommy Keene, Matthew Sweet, Velvet Crush, etc.”). Problem was, I couldn’t decide on any one song of his, either.

Then I remembered a late night at Adam’s house when he engaged me in an impromptu lecture: “In Defense of Billy Squier.” At the time, I liked Squier fine, but the corpse of the 1980s was still warm on the slab, so I was reticent to embrace him whole-heartedly. Then, Adam broke out Squier’s mid-’70s outfit, Piper. Though Squier would later rerecord this tune for his solo debut (Tale of the Tape), it was with Piper that “Who’s Your Boyfriend?” truly shines: jangly guitars, youthful angst, catchy hooks, and chromatic walkdowns that would make Big Star and Badfinger proud. I find this to also be an instructive example because, while I do not consider the bulk of Squier’s oeuvre as falling into the category of “power pop,” with this early version of “Who’s Your Boyfriend?,” Squier hits all of the requisite aesthetic and stylistic marks of the genre. In other words, Billy Squier may not be power pop, but this song most certainly is.

Edward Burch is an Illinois-native now living in the Austin area. The longtime collaborator has performed and recorded with a long list of musicians, including Jay Bennett, Leroy Bach, Andrew Bird, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, and the Handsome Family. He is also a music critic whose writing has appeared in Harp and No Depression.

21. John M. Borack chose …
The Keys, “I Don’t Wanna Cry”

Listen to “I Don’t Wanna Cry”

WHAT HE SAID: My own personal pick for the power poppin’ mix is another obscuro, but a great little ditty nonetheless: “I Don’t Wanna Cry” by The Keys. It’s a hyper-Beatlesque number from 1981, produced by Joe Jackson and performed by a UK combo that featured former Wings drummer Geoff Britton. Not sure how it didn’t become a smash in England (it was released on a major label), but it’s as catchy as the proverbial flypaper that everyone talks about when writing power pop reviews.