Top 10 ‘Power Pop’ Rock Songs
Sure, classic rock fans love pop music – but they prefer it with a little extra punch. So, we’ve created the Top 10 ‘Power Pop’ Rock Songs, in honor of the 35th anniversary of a significant year in the subgenre: 1978. This was the year that Cheap Trick released the masterpiece ‘Heaven Tonight’ and played their legendary shows at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan (although the resulting live album wouldn’t hit the U.S. until ’79). It was the year that the Cars released their classic, self-titled debut, along with its three hit singles. And 1978 marked the founding of the Knack, who would land a power pop blockbuster the following year.
Although the phrase “power pop” had been coined in the ’60s (thank you, Pete Townshend) and the style would remain strong for decades to come (hello Fountains of Wayne and Matthew Sweet), the period between the early-’70s and early-’80s contains power pop’s strongest tunes. Here are 10 gems from that era.
Springfield scored the smash of his career after penning this song, which was about the girlfriend of his friend Gary (‘Gary’s Girl’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it). While Rick certainly knows his way around an axe, the punchy guitar part that drives this No. 1 hit was played by Neil Giraldo, Pat Benatar’s guitarist and husband. ‘Jessie’s Girl’ is a timeless pop-rock classic – although, for some movie fans, it will be forever tied to Alfred Molina’s firecracker-punctuated performance in ‘Boogie Nights.’
This thunderous hit was inspired by a particularly violent Sweet gig in Kilmarnock, Scotland, where the crowd showed their disapproval of the band’s glam look by showering the stage in glass bottles. However, the single wasn’t written by the band. No, that credit belongs to the team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who penned all of Sweet’s early hits and went on to write their share of chartbusters by Suzi Quatro, Mud, Tina Turner and Toni Basil (they’re the ones responsible for ‘Mickey’).
1978 was a big year for power pop, but so was ’72, which saw debuts from the Raspberries and Big Star (See Nos. 2 and 3 on our list of the Top 10 ‘Power Pop’ Rock Songs), along with this double-dose of perfection from Todd Rundgren. Although ‘Hello It’s Me’ would become the big single from the album, side three’s ‘Couldn’t I Just Tell You’ would prove to be the most influential track to future power poppers – given its strong harmonies, chiming guitars and muscular verses. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs (the Bangles) contributed an excellent cover version on ‘Under the Covers, Vol. 2.’
‘I Want You to Want Me’ (Live)
You couldn’t have the Top 10 ‘Power Pop’ Rock Songs without “I Want You to Want… Me.” Rarely in rock and roll history has a song undergone such a tremendous transformation in between the studio and the stage. Written by guitarist Rick Nielsen years earlier, ‘I Want You to Want Me’ was included on 1977’s ‘In Color’ as a bouncy little number with a honky-tonk touch. Released as a single, it flopped everywhere – except Japan. By ’78, Cheap Trick had dropped the song from the setlist, but decided to put it back in for their shows at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan because of the tune’s popularity in Japan. Good move. The live version, with its charging tempo and buzzsaw guitars, would become Cheap Trick’s breakthrough hit in the U.S. and establish the group from Rockford, Ill. as one of the best live bands in rock history.
Not only was ‘My Sharona’ the biggest U.S. hit of 1979, it was the fastest single to achieve gold status since the Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ in 1964. That feat must have impressed the Knack, who wore their ’60s influences on their skinny ties. That was especially the case with ‘My Sharona,’ which featured a drum beat reminiscent of ‘Going to a Go-Go,’ a riff that was ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ played backwards and Roger Daltrey-esque stuttering from frontman Doug Fieger. The undeniably catchy gem was written (in 15 minutes!) about Fieger’s lust for a teenage girl, who eventually became his girlfriend. Yes, her name was actually Sharona.
With its opening, crunchy riff and those choirboy harmonies, ‘No Matter What’ is one of the earliest examples of the genre – which makes it a solid entry on the Top 10 ‘Power Pop’ Rock Songs. It was the first Badfinger hit to be written by a member of the band (Pete Ham) – following 1969’s ‘Come and Get It,’ penned by Paul McCartney. Of course, this song still carries some notable Beatles connections, having been recorded at Abbey Road Studios for the Beatles’ Apple Records with one of George Harrison’s Gibson guitars.
‘Just What I Needed’
The Cars’ first single was also one of the songs that helped the band get signed to Elektra Records. In fact, the demo version became an often-requested local hit on Boston radio in 1977, a year prior to an official release. Ric Ocasek wrote ‘Just What I Needed,’ but it is bassist Benjamin Orr who sang it with too-cool-for-school detachment. The combination of Elliot Easton’s crisp riffage with Greg Hawkes’s candy-coated synths would create a signature sound for the Cars, as well as a lot of ’80s power pop.
One of the coolest cult bands of all time, Big Star made a big impression on bands such as Cheap Trick, R.E.M. and the Replacements with just a few records. Written by frontman (and former Box Top) Alex Chilton, ‘September Gurls’ hits all the power pop sweet spots – glistening guitars, lyrics about love troubles, tumbling harmonies, soul-deep melodies – in the space of less than three minutes.
‘Go All the Way’
Pop songs don’t get much more perfect than this nugget, courtesy of the Raspberries and lead singer Eric Carmen. Trying to encapsulate everything he loved about ’60s pop-rock in one song, Carmen paid tribute to the Beatles (the shouts of “come on” are nicked from ‘Please Please Me’), the Beach Boys (the drastic key change for the bridge) and the Stones (the song’s sexually suggestive subject matter). In addition, he kept the verses short and the choruses long for maximum catchiness. Add in that titanic guitar riff at the top and the Raspberries packed more brilliance into one single than most bands could achieve during a whole album.
The greatest power pop song ever crafted is this Cheap Trick classic, in which the band offers a different brand of teenage rebellion. The lyrics, written by Rick Nielsen and sent to the stratosphere by Robin Zander, tell us that our parents are just “a little weird” and that it’s better to surrender to their strangeness than get all upset about it. But, “don’t give yourself away.” ‘Surrender’ is a densely packed recording that easily soars in overdrive. And, like any Cheap Trick song, it’s even better in concert, when Rick straps on his five-neck axe and guitar picks rain down on the audience like confetti. “We’re all all right!”