When Power-Pop Ruled (Again)
The first International Pop Overthrow Festival took place in August 1998, uniting a globe-spanning crop of power-pop tunesmiths in the ultimate capital of sunshine, Los Angeles. The timing is fascinating: The genre rose to prominence over two decades prior, as artists like Cheap Trick, Raspberries and Badfinger melded the sugary melodies of the British Invasion with the crunch and muscle of harder rock. It’s not like that style evaporated over the years, even as it traveled further underground with more alt-friendly bands like Teenage Fanclub and the Posies. But that California festival was a meaningful symbol of rebirth: After years of absorbing the darkness of grunge, didn’t we all deserve a little light?
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, sandwiched between trendier movements like rap-metal and the garage-rock revival, power-pop once again bloomed into a potent cultural force. Weezer had already established a nerdier spin on the genre with their self-titled debut LP in 1994, pairing fuzz riffs that could please an open-minded metalhead with spit-shined choruses your average suburban mom might play in her minivan. And that delicate balance of cool and very uncool, of savviness and accessibility, helped define this new golden age.
Many defining power-pop bands of this period, like Jimmy Eat World and the Get Up Kids, crossed over into emo and pop-punk. More hipster-friendly groups, like the New Pornographers and Nada Surf, drew more of a conventional indie-rock fan base. But they all shared a common strand of DNA: their love of an instantly hummable hook.
Let’s sample that variety and dive into a half-dozen of the best power-pop albums from this fertile era.
Feeling Strangely Fine (1998)
Dan Wilson is one of pop’s most prolific songwriters — and versatile enough to collaborate with Céline Dion, John Legend, Nas, Dierks Bentley and My Morning Jacket. For the uninitiated, he’s the guy who belted out “I know who I want to take me home” on Semisonic’s signature sing-along, “Closing Time,” one of the most instantly recognizable choruses of the decade. The band’s second LP never equals that time-capsule classic, but it’s full of immaculately crafted moments, like the Beatles-y chord changes of dreamy ballad “Made to Last” and the windows-down energy of the power-chord anthem “Singing in My Sleep.”
Jimmy Eat World
Bleed American (2001)
Jimmy Eat World have punk/emo credentials, but few bands in that arena were vulnerable enough to write a song like “Your House,” a heart-tugging power ballad built on acoustic strums, polished vocal harmonies and swirling organ. The Arizona band’s fourth LP straddles that line perfectly: supremely catchy, bruising when it wants to be, nakedly emotional even at its heaviest. Plus, Bleed American features two of the sharpest power-pop tunes ever written: “Sweetness,” full of detuned distortion and soaring “whoa-oh” vocals, and “The Middle,” which boasts a dizzying hook that bounces like a ping-pong ball.
American Hi-Fi (2001)
Stacy Jones seemed like an unlikely frontman for a power-pop band, having launched his career as the drummer for alt-rock act Letters to Cleo. But he reinvented himself on the self-titled debut from American Hi-Fi, mingling the power chords and teenage angst of punk with the sun-kissed vocal harmonies of vintage pop. The recognizable hit is “Flavor of the Weak,” an endorphin rush of start-stop riffs and bratty hooks. But Jones’ masterpiece may well be opener “Surround,” which flaunts clever chord changes and melodic scoops amid its grunge-y distortion.
Let Go (2002)
After scoring a breakout hit with the snarky, half-spoken indie-grunge tune “Popular” in 1996, Nada Surf were in danger of becoming a period novelty. But their third LP reintroduced the band as melody-first craftsmen who weren’t afraid to experiment within the power-pop framework. Almost every track on Let Go paints its own unique sonic color: the chilly, down-stroked acoustic guitars of “Blizzard of ’77,” the sleek electric riffs of “Hi-Speed Soul,” the locomotive pop-punk of “The Way You Wear Your Head.”
Fountains of Wayne
Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)
Chris Collingwood and the late Adam Schlesinger were pop-rock chameleons, fully embodying the style of whatever form they attempted. Their band’s third and most famous record highlights that malleability, maintaining a McCartney-like level of pop craft no matter where the arrangements take them. “Stacy’s Mom” is the obvious masterpiece, a forbidden romance daydream that would come off as a Cars homage were it not as catchy as anything that band ever wrote. But there’s more to Welcome Interstate Managers than that transcendent single, from the Weezer-ish crunch of “Mexican Wine” to the wistful folk of “Hackensack.”
The New Pornographers
Twin Cinema (2005)
You know you’ve written a great power-pop song when the bridge is as catchy as the chorus. That’s the verdict on “Twin Cinema,” the pulverizing title track of the New Pornographers’ third album. With its clattering power chords, caffeinated drum breaks and noisy synths, the song sounds like Cheap Trick and the Cars jamming with John Bonham behind the drum kit — it’s equal pop and power, a textbook example of the genre. And all of Twin Cinema hits that elite level, even when the architecture is unconventional: Take “The Bleeding Heart Show,” which, in a glorious display of short-term melodic memory, builds from minor-key acoustic melancholy to strident “woo-ooh” and “hey-la” chants.
Ryan Reed is a writer, editor, professor and record collector with regular bylines at Rolling Stone, Relix, Ultimate Classic Rock and Revolver. He’s also contributed to Pitchfork, Billboard, Stereogum, Esquire and Salon, among other outlets.
Image: Fountains of Wayne in 2003. From left: Adam Schlesinger, Chris Collingwood, Brian Young and Jody Porter. Credit: James Keivom/NY Daily News Archive via Getty.
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