As is evident from the following rundown of my 2011 faves, last year was a fine one for both established pop artists and some upstart newcomers. And for the first time in a few years, there was so much great pop music being released that I had a tough time whittling my favorites down to just 20. But alas, after many long, painful nights which ended up with me pondering my very existence on this planet….ah, who the hell am I kidding? There’s no existential B.S. allowed here – just some cool music. Here’s the list:
1. Kurt Baker – Rockin’ For a Living (Stardumb/Oglio)
Baker lets his pop flag fly loud and proud – on good ‘ol fashioned vinyl, yet – on this 10-song release. How do we know he’s pop? Well, he wears a skinny tie, he co-wrote one of the tunes here with Tommy Dunbar from the Rubinoos, and he covers not only the Knack, but also a 30-year-old number from Wisconsin’s new wave/power pop semi-legends Yipes!, for corn’s sake. The other (pop) proof is in the pudding, where Baker and his band barrel their way through a deliriously catchy group of stellar original tunes (“Just Forget About It” and “Don’t Steal My Heart Away” in particular deserve induction in that mythical Power Pop Hall of Fame) that owe big ‘ol debts to early Elvis Costello and the aforementioned Rubinoos. Hooks, energy and panache to spare – what’s not to love? (Technical-type notes: the LP was released by Stardumb in the Netherlands, while Oglio released a condensed, 6-song EP here in the U.S., which unfortunately excises the Knack cover and a sweet little Gary Lewis-like charmer called “Since You’ve Been On My Mind,” among others.)
2. Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)
Ho hum, another typically wonderful FoW disc. Snappy melodies, smart (and often smartass) lyrics and Chris Collingwood’s understated lead vocals are again the stars of the show, while tunes such as “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart” and “A Dip in the Ocean” are as good as anything they’ve ever done. Elsewhere, “A Road Song” manages to push both the sweet and smartass buttons while name checking Steve Perry and Will Ferrell, and “Hate To See You Like This” is actually a pretty tender ballad(well, as tender as a song that uses the word “disinfected” can be).
3. The Wellingtons – In Transit (Zip)
Ain’t no power pop like Aussie power pop, and the Wellingtons dish it out here in a high energy, fun and consistently engaging manner. The boy/girl vocals are quite fetching indeed, as are the daubs of well-placed synthesizer on many of the songs. Nothing even close to a duff track to be found, and “Baby’s Got a Secret” just might be the song of the year for me.
4. An American Underdog – Always On the Run (Pop Factory)
Michigan’s Andy Reed is the brains behind An American Underdog, and here he fashions (nearly all by his lonesome) a winning combination of upbeat pop numbers (the distorto guitar-led “Nothing I Can Do” and the uber-poppy “I’ll Miss You Girl” are personal faves) and more languid slower ones. Reed’s clear, sweet voice is one of his greatest assets, and overall, this is the kind of stuff that gives singer/songwriters a good name.
5. Michael Oliver & The Sacred Band – Yin & Yanxiety (Self-released)
Some old school popsongs here, some Beach Boys-influenced whimsy there and a whole slew of well-written and well-played tunes that are just plain enjoyable (hello, “Love While it Lasted”) comprise the excellent Yin & Yanxiety. The downcast ballads “It Was You” and “I Won’t Get Over You” are highlights, as is the sweet “Tell Me What You’re Dreaming” and the boppy “This Close to Heaven.” Oliver’s obvious flair for melody and the fact that his spare ballads slot in easily alongside the full band rockers help push this album over the top.
6. Tommy Keene – Behind the Parade (Second Motion)
Keene’s been a model of consistency for close to 30 (!) years now, and Behind the Parade is one of his finest later period efforts. The guitars ring and crunch appropriately and songs such as “Deep Six Saturday,” “Already Made Up Your Mind” and “His Mother’s Son” should find their place on the next TK “best of” compilation.
7. The Cry! – The Cry! (Self-released)
If you’re a fan of Locksley – you know, young fellas who dole out slightly reckless, ’60s-influenced mod tuneage – then you’ll find plenty to like about The Cry! Hailing from Portland, OR, these kids also spice up their short, sassy tunes with some aural nods to the ’50s from time to time, and spit out their dozen songs in less than 30 minutes. Fave moment: during the instrumental break on the pounding “Modern Cinderella,” you can hear a Cry guy admit, “I f**ked up, guys.”
8. Smithereens – 2011 (Eone)
Reuniting with producer Don Dixon for their first collection of original songs in many moons, the Jersey boys sound as if they’ve never been away. As a matter of fact, tracks such as “Sorry,” “One Look at You” and “Rings On Her Fingers” make this sound very much like a worthy follow up to 1988’s Green Thoughts. Powerful guitar pop like only the ‘Reens can do it.
9. Brandon Wilde – Hearts in Stereo (Self-released)
A low-key, under the radar stunner of a record (actually a download, since that’s the only way to obtain it) from NY’s Brandon Wilde. It’s very singer/songwritery, but the melodies are quite often drop dead gorgeous: witness the sweetly glorious “Ooh La,” another contender for song of the year.
10. Dwight Twilley – Soundtrack (Varese Sarabande)
Beginning life as a batch of autobiographical tunes meant to accompany a proposed documentary about his life, Soundtrack ended up as Twilley’s best album in years. Joined by old cohorts Bill Pitcock IV on guitar (who sadly passed away not long after participating in the sessions) and Susan Cowsill on harmony vocals, it’s a welcome return to the classic mid-tempo, melodic Twilley sound. The ballsy “God Didn’t Do It” rocks like hell, the beautiful “Out in the Rain” recalls Twilley’s own “You Don’t Care” and “The Lonely One” should stand as one of his best ever cuts after everything is said and done. Oh, and “Good Things Come Hard,” an aural tribute to Twilley’s late bandmate Phil Seymour, is sure to induce a tear or two from power pop fans.
11. The Breakdowns – The Kids Don’t Wanna Bop Anymore (Rock Indiana)
You say you like classic late ’70s power pop? If so, you won’t want to miss this release, which recalls the Plimsouls (especially vocally) and other bands of the period, such as the Tremblers. There’s also a serious Ramones influence going on, especially on tunes such as “Summertime Twist,” which sounds nearly identical to the Ramones’ “Touring.” Still, it’s mighty fab stuff.
12. The Red Button – As Far As Yesterday Goes (Grimble)
Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruekberg are back with another helping of marvelous ’60s-inflected pop, greatly influenced by the Beatles (“Caught in the Middle”), Zombies, Nilsson, Byrds and sunshine pop. The overall sound is a bit closer to Swirsky’s solo efforts than it is to the first Red Button record, but no matter – it’s all good.
13. Michael Mazzarella – Songwriter (Kool Kat)
As the leader of the Rooks and as a solo artist, Michael Mazzarella has released some of the most outstanding – and deeply felt and personal – pop music of the past 20 years. Songwriter is a 5-disc collection of all things Mazzarella: it basically takes his entire songwriting output and presents it in a new light by juxtaposing all the tracks in an entirely different order from their original release. The quality of it all is revelatory, as is a 21-track bonus disc of previously unreleased demos – “Shades of Green,” “A Great Pretender,” “To Tell the Truth” and “Save Me Baby” (to name just a few) are all classic Maz.
14. The Fire Apes – A Life in Letters (Self-released)
A Life in Letters finds the Fire Apes transitioning to a more harder-edged and (dare we say it?) commercial sound without sacrificing one whit of their pop sensibility. “It’s Over” and “‘Cause You Don’t” are two uber-catchy examples of the Apes’ new direction, while “If Things Don’t Look So Good Today” and the string-laden “6 1/2 Years” both showcase leader John Seymour’s uniquely expressive voice in a slightly mellower pop setting. Very cool.
15. Meyerman – Who Do You Think You Are? (Pretty Decent)
Mixed and engineered by Gripweeds drummer Kurt Reil, Meyerman’s debut release features up front, power chorded guitars, snappy, compact tunes and tight vocal harmonies – in short, this is what power pop should be. Picks to click: the statement of purpose “New Direction,” the tongue-in-cheek “Permission to Rock You” and the Cheap Trick-influenced “Metalface.”
16. David Mead – Dudes (Self-released)
Gotta admit that I’ve never been much of a David Mead fan, but this one really hit me hard. From the gentle sway of “I Can’t Wait,” “Tell Me What I Gotta Do” and (especially) “The Smile of Rachael Ray” to the overtly non-PC vaudevillian strut of “Guy on Guy” (yes, it’s about that) and the hilariously vulgar “No One Roxx This Town No More” (the fact that it sounds like Michael McDonald-era Doobies is part of the gag), the songs here are across-the-board great. Oh, and I dare you not to sing along to “Bocce Ball” after one listen.
17. Cirrone – Uplands Park Road (Escape)
Miss Badfinger? Snap this one up, then. Quite beautiful, well-produced and unfailingly melodic.
18. Beady Eye – Different Gear, Still Speeding (Dangerbird)
I was never much of an Oasis fan, either – always thought they sorta tried too hard – but if you’ve got a hankering for a varied, entertaining record that brings the Britpop sounds of the ’60s into the new millennium without any sort of pandering or retro B.S., then check out the latest from Liam Gallagher’s post-Oasis combo.
19. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic (Yep Roc)
Nick Lowe’s last several efforts have generally been too quiet and mellow for my tastes, but The Old Magic seems to strike just the right balance between an “adult” sound and something of a subdued country rock vibe. I particularly dig the swingin’ “Somebody Cares For Me” (which sounds like a not-too-distant cousin to Lowe’s “Half a Boy and Half a Man”), a speedy little shuffle called “Checkout Time” (“I’m 61 years old now/Lord, I never thought I’d see 30″), the devastating ballad “House For Sale” and a nice reading of Tom T. Hall’s “Shame On the Rain.” The sound of growing older gracefully.
20. Terry Anderson and the OAK Team – More Smooth Jazz and Sweet Sweet Jams
Coming off like a cross between Exile On Main Street-era Stones and your favorite band at the local watering hole on a Saturday night, Terry Anderson and the boys play their brand of rock fast and loose and with some country-esque overtones. It’s a highly enjoyable brew that’ll have you singing – and probably drinking – along in no time flat.