Sunday, February 25, 2024

My Ten Favorite Power Pop Albums of the 21st Century

It's no secret that I really love power pop. Now "power pop" is a term that is open to considerable interpretation and sometimes fierce debate. I generally subscribe to a broad definition of power pop. If it's powerful, and it's pop, then it can be power pop in my book. I've left every single power pop group I've ever joined on Facebook due to my discontent with the overzealous gatekeepers and pontificating purists who suck all the fun out of celebrating this music so many of us love. I will never tell a self-described power pop band that they're not really power pop. Nor will I ever split hairs between power pop and pop-punk when sometimes the only difference is a band's choice of footwear. Because the way we all view music is so deeply personal, no two people will ever agree 100% on what power pop is and which bands best exemplify it. But I can write about bands that represent what power pop means to me. On that note, I thought it would be fun to feature my favorite ten power pop albums from this century — not the ten "greatest" or ten "most influential" but simply the ten I like the best. Just in case you've missed some of these titles, I've provided streaming links so you can hear for yourself! 

10. honeychain - CRUSHED (2017) 
This one remains an overlooked gem. Honeychain is a band fronted by Hillary Burton (The Pandoras), and Crushed was its full-length debut. I've had this CD in my car for years, and every so often I'll pop it into my car player and marvel at how great it is from start to finish. Burton's dear friend Kim Shattuck produced this album, and you can absolutely hear her influence. You can also hear Burton's extraordinary talent as a songwriter and singer. If classic power pop with a punk attitude and a '90s alternative rock feel sounds like your thing, you need to be on Bandcamp now purchasing a download of Crushed!

9. Natalie Sweet - Oh, By the Way... (2019) 
I remember hearing an advance of this album and absolutely losing my shit. I was a huge fan of Natalie Sweet from her band The Shanghais, and I consider Travis Ramin perhaps the single most important player in the modern power pop revival. The idea of these two collaborating on a record with Morten freaking Henriksen on lead guitar was a dream-come-true for power pop fans. The world never got a Shanghais full-length or a second Tina and the Total Babes album, but Oh, By the Way... was the next best thing.

8. The Yum Yums - For Those About To Pop! (2020)
The Yum Yums are one of those bands that are hard to pigeonhole. Some might put them more in the pop-punk category, but I've always thought of them as power pop with punk influences. The band's debut album Sweet As Candy was very influential on me as a young punk rocker discovering power pop. There is no such thing as a not-great Yum Yums album, but I think Morten really peaked with his most recent release, For Those About To Pop! That's not just a great album title — it's a mission statement!

7. The Dahlmanns-  All Dahled Up (2012) 
When it came to power pop in the 2010s, The Dahlmanns were the gold standard. Beluga Records has just released a super-sized re-issue of All Dahled Up with 13 extra tracks!

6. Kurt Baker - Brand New Beat (2012) 
Kurt Baker has always been a favorite of this blog. His albums have only gotten better over the years, but there's still something special about Brand New Beat for me. It defined a new era of power pop  — one that acknowledged the influence of pop-punk but was also heavily inspired by The Beatles and '60s pop in general. It influenced a lot of bands that have formed over the past decade, and it influenced the evolution of my own musical tastes.

5. Exploding Hearts - Guitar Romantic (2002)
There's just no denying how influential this record was. Prior to the release of Guitar Romantic, there was power pop, and there was punk rock. Then this album came out, and there were songs that sounded like first wave punk mixed in seamlessly with songs that sounded like 1979 power pop. And there were songs that were a little bit of both. And just like that, "powerpop/punk" was a real genre. But even if we remove the importance and impact of Guitar Romantic from the conversation, it's still an incredible record that stands the test of time. One can only imagine what this band could have become.

4. Mother's Children - That's Who! (2010)
This is the ultimate power pop "party album." It rocks your face off and begs to be played loud, yet it's still the epitome of melody-driven, super-catchy pop. If you like your power pop leaning towards the "power" side of the equation, you should immediately familiarize yourself with Mother's Children's full catalog.
3. The Speedways - Radio Sounds (2020) 
In my book, this is one of the greatest power pop albums of any era.

2. Tsar - self-titled (2000)
Tsar is still one of the most unlikely albums ever released on a major label. It was the turn of the century, and mainstream rock radio was the most unlistenable it has ever been in history. Almost anything that got airplay circa Y2K was dark and angst-ridden and utterly devoid of melody. All of the sudden, this debut album from Tsar was like an answered prayer for all those of who longed to make rock great again. Laden with massive, soaring hooks, it sounded like a greatest hits collection from some parallel universe where they still played radio hits on the radio. Of course the album flopped, but in my daydreams, "Calling All Destroyers" was a #1 smash on seven continents, and all these guys got to live in mansions.

1. Tina and the Total Babes - She's So Tuff (2001) 
She's So Tuff, the one and only release from turn of the century super group Tina and the Total Babes, remains my favorite album of the 21st century and one of my favorite power pop albums of all-time. Tina Lucchesi (The Bobbyteens, The Trashwomen) joined forces with Travis Ramin, producer to the stars, to create the greatest punk-influenced girl group power pop album of 1979 — in 2001! Of course the covers (such as the title track originally by The Demons and Holly & The Italians' "Tell That Girl To Shut Up") are great, but originals like "Christy" and "Tongue Tied" are classics in their own right. It's wild to consider that this album is now older than the records it emulated where when it was first released. The 2022 vinyl reissue is still available from the illustrious Surfin' Ki Records!

Honorable Mentions:
The Reflectors - First Impression (2020) 
The Whiffs - Another Whiff (2019)
Cheap Cassettes - Ever Since Ever Since (2022) 
The Cry! - self-titled (2011) 
Damone - From the Attic (2003) 
The Figgs - Sucking In Stereo (2000) 
First Base - Not That Bad (2017) 
Beach Patrol - It's Only Greener Til You Get There (2006)

Autogramm - "Diana"

Well, this was a nice surprise! A mere three months after it released its fantastic new album Music That Humans Can Play, North America's top new wave band Autogramm is back with a new single on Beluga Records! With "Diana," the now-foursome leans heavily into early '80s synth-pop with a sound that strikes a perfect balance between dark and danceable. The thing that gets me about Autogramm time and time again is that these guys don't just nail the style of new wave pop. First and foremost, they write absolutely top-notch songs with irresistible melodies and legit radio hit hooks. Playing this kind of music is a tricky thing because you want it to feel like the era that inspired it, yet you need to elevate so that people will like the songs even if they have zero emotional attachment to the '80s. That has been Autogramm's greatest success. Of course "Diana" would not sound out of place at the club on an '80s night playlist. But it would also grab your attention if you heard it while standing in line at Chipotle. It's a total earworm and a stone-cold banger in any era. Imagine Vince Clarke–era Depeche Mode if they'd had guitars! On the B-side, "Licht Aus" is a mostly faithful cover of a 1982 single single by German new wavers Nichts. If you're going to be a new wave band in 2024, covering largely-unknown gems from the heyday is definitely the way to go. The odds are that at least one person reading this will do a deeper dive into Nichts, and that's tremendously exciting to me. Two non-album tracks from Autogramm so soon after an LP release is a real treat, and they do not disappoint. Hit up the Beluga web site if you want to order the vinyl. Those of you in Europe should check out Autogramm's socials for details on the band's tour happening next month!  

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Shop Talk - "W.C.U.D."

One of the best things about writing about music is hearing a band for the first time and being totally blown away. Shop Talk, a punk rock band from Brooklyn, has just released an absolute face-melter of a single titled "W.C.U.D." I was wowed to hear a New York–based band in 2024 sounding like what I imagine The Adverts would have sounded like if they'd been from Southern California. And then I went back and listened to Shop Talk's debut EP from last year and felt totally lame about not having been hip to this band sooner! "W.C.U.D." is a blistering cut of straight-forward punk rock that hits you with killer hooks and a burning intensity. I dig the conviction of the vocals and the substance of the lyrics, and how hot is that bass playing? This is a relatable song since it concerns the moral implications of resigning yourself to a bad situation. We've all been there. It can freeing to absolve yourself of responsibility when you can no longer control a situation, but it doesn't mean you don't still feel shitty about it. "The Will," the virtual B-side, is a perfectly complementary track with its more measured, darkly melodic ferocity. I'm always a sucker for a band that can manage to be reminiscent of first wave punk rock without resorting to pale imitation, and Shop Talk totally hits that mark. "W.C.U.D." could pass for a lost classic 45 from punk rock's heyday. If the single floors you the way it floored me, I urge you to also look into the aforementioned EP, The Offering (in particular the Damned-ish title track). Shop Talk is the real deal, and I will be eagerly awaiting its future releases!

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Paul Collins - Stand Back and Take a Good Look

Adding to a roster full of some of the most formidable talents in the world of guitar-driven pop music, JEM Records welcomes to the family the king of power pop, Mr. Paul Collins. Stand Back and Take a Good Look is Collins' first new release in over five years and a master class work of timeless pop rock 'n' roll. Longtime fans will be delighted to hear Collins revisit his power pop roots on several tracks, but by no means does the king limit himself to any single genre. 

Without trying to copy his past glories, Collins still manages to celebrate his influential work in the late '70s and early '80s along with that entire era of classic new wave power pop. He recruited some highly talented friends to play on this record. The late Dwight Twilley appears on the album — as do members of Shoes and 20/20. Other contributors include Richard X. Heyman, Prairie Prince, Ronnie Barnett, and our pals Dany Laj & Jeanette Dowling. You may recognize some old Nerves and Beat songs getting their first proper release, and I don't think anyone will be complaining! With the opening 1-2 punch of the Jack Lee–penned title track and Collins' "I'm the Only One for You," Stand Back and Take a Good Look comes out teleporting you to Los Angeles circa 1978. This, my friends, is a legend in peak form! The Peter Case–penned "Will You Come Through?" and the re-vamped Beat number "Another World" will also send chills down the spines of power pop enthusiasts. Yet on the second half of the album, Collins shows plenty of versatility in his craft. He puts a touch of classical music on the melodious and reflective "Liverpool," dishes out first-rate country rock on "You Can't Go Back," and explores his folky side on songs like "Under the Spanish Sun" and "One Hill and I'm Home" (written by his brother Patrick). "How Will I Know" recalls the twangy late '50s/early '60s rock 'n' roll that would be a building block for power pop. 

All in all, Stand Back and Take a Good Look is a fantastic record with a good mix of should-be radio hits and quality deep cuts. Collins has stated, "The record is an attempt to show my DNA," and it does exactly that. In her liner notes, Palmyra Delran reflects on Collins' ability to craft earworm hooks — something that seems easy but is actually one of the hardest things to do in music. That talent is apparent even when Collins breaks from the power pop textbook formula. If "Liverpool" were any catchier, they'd need a vaccine for it. Once "You Can't Go Back" slowly works its way into your skull, it's there to stay. Even as he's matured and evolved as an artist, Paul Collins has never lost sight of what he does best. Stand Back and Take a Good Look rates among the very best of his solo efforts. Would you expect anything less from JEM Records?

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Prize/The Unknowns - split 7"

When it comes to blockbuster split EPs, Bargain Bin Records may have just taken the cake. Up for order now is a team-up between two of the best bands in Australia and two of the best bands in present-day rock 'n' roll. The Prize from Melbourne emerged a couple years back as perhaps the most promising new power pop group to come down the pike in years. The Unknowns have been standouts of the Brisbane garage/punk scene since 2016 and have only gotten better with each new release. Now these two bands share a piece of vinyl, and you're going to want in on the action. When we talk about how the Aussies have got it going on, this record is solid proof. While we await a momentous full-length debut album from The Prize, they've delivered a couple more smash hit tracks here to quench our thirst. If you like punk-influenced power pop with big hooks and arena-sized guitars, "One Day at a Time" will float your boat and power it across an ocean. Following up their brilliant album East Coast Low, The Unknowns are back with two more tracks of catchy old school buzz-saw punk with energy to burn. The vinyl comes in two colors and may be difficult to procure outside of Australia. At the very least, two of these four tracks are available now from the streaming sites and well worth snagging for your listening pleasure. If you're not listening to these two bands, you are really missing out! 

Lorne Behrman - Blue Love

It's sometimes mind-blowing to me when I realize that Lorne Behrman has been releasing solo music for less than three years. Songs like "Oh Lord, Give Me Time" and "Black Cars" feel like they've been part of my life forever, and hearing Behrman's extraordinary new album Blue Love (out now on the fabulous Spaghetty Town Records) is like catching up with a cherished, ever-dependable friend. While I've been a fan of his musical talents going back to the early days of my music-reviewing life, I count his decision to become a lead artist in his later 40s as a blessing to me and numerous others who've gained so much from his songs. On Blue Love, Behrman returns to his poetic rock style with roots in New York punk, but he builds off of it rather than rehashing it. I always knew he was a great writer — but on this release, he distinguishes himself as a truly great songwriter.  

Blue Love, like its predecessor A Little Midnight, exudes the spirit of New York City. The ghosts of Lou Reed, Jim Carroll, Tom Verlaine, Johnny Thunders, Robert Quine, and Willy DeVille inhabit these songs. Yet even with this influence so palpable, Behrman's sound and style are authentically his. What's particularly noticeable about Blue Love is how deeply melodic these songs are. Sometimes with poetic rock, the music is very minimalist or even secondary to the lyrics and vocals. That's far from the case here. These songs are well-crafted, highly tuneful, and constructed in a way that fully complements Behrman's conversational vocal style. Much credit must be given to Behrman's excellent guitar work and to the formidable talents of his supporting musicians (Matt Dougherty, Ray Mazza, Steve Mosto, Danielle McCullough, and Matt Chiaravalle [who also produces]). Yet there's just no denying the quality of these songs — which are chock full of memorable melodies and indelible hooks. 

Blue Love is loosely a concept record. Says Behrman: This album is about experiencing pain and joy at the same time—like finding new love when everything in your life feels like it's falling apart." Behrman manages to write about love in a way that's neither na├»ve nor cynical but rather relatable and true to life. In some cases, songs depict relationships which are damaged, turbulent, and perhaps even destined to fail. In others, songs find love turning up in otherwise unfortunate situations for otherwise unfortunate individuals. The theme of the album was at least partially inspired by the absolutely beautiful film The Panic in Needle Park (directed by Jerry Schatzberg, another artist who didn't find his true calling until he was in his 40s). In looking at love through a lens that is both deeply tender and bluntly realistic, Behrman channels the spirit of the movie and reminds us why it's so timeless. "Barbara," which tells a tale of two addicts in love, is the album's most literal homage to the film. "The Bellevue Song" finds its protagonists falling in love in a mental hospital, utilizing a mix of humor and heart that brings to mind my favorite love song ever written, the Parasites' "Crazy." "The Blue Goes On Forever" squeezes a novel's worth of co-dependent, unstable, and utterly doomed romance into just a few lines of verse. "Meet Me on the Moon" finds its ill-fated lovers grasping for one last glimmer of hope. On the album's remarkable finisher "Love in Desperate Times," Behrman opens a window to his soul with a very personal song about the love (between him and his daughter) that got him through a very difficult time in his life. What a beautiful way to tie together the themes of the album! 

Those who enjoyed A Little Midnight are sure to be fans of Blue Love as well. But this album is definitely a progression for Behrman. In terms of songwriting and production, Blue Love is a more ambitious affair that finds Behrman expanding his palette of influences. Certain songs on the album have the spirit, at least, of jazz or soul music. From the doo wop influences of "The Bellevue Song" to the KISS by way of the Dolls vibes of "Ferris Wheels" to the lounge-y smoothness of "Barbara" to the playful twang of "Blue Eyes Gone Green," there are lots of new wrinkles in the mix. Blue Love has the unique distinction of being both punk-inspired and also the perfect album for a chill Sunday morning.  And somehow this record manages to be full of warmth even as it oozes New York cool. The album bio's description of "Bob Dylan as produced by Phil Spector in 1970s CBGBs on a full moon" could not be any more on-point. Chiaravalle does a masterful job of assisting Behrman in realizing his musical vision. 

Considering the body of work Behrman has built in just a few short years, I would most definitely put him in the conversation if we're discussing my favorite present-day songwriters. And yet I wouldn't necessarily say it's a shame that he waited so long to find his calling as a singer & songwriter. All this happened at exactly the right time (and the right time in his life). We're in the midst of Lorne Behrman's moment, and what a privilege it is to receive what he's putting out there. 

Friday, February 09, 2024

The Sleeveens - self titled

I knew The Sleeveens were something special within thirty seconds of hearing them for the very first time. Here was a band that was totally up my alley yet absolutely unique and original. The singer was a a poet and a presence. The band had chops for days. The music had power and guts but also made me want to sing along and get up and dance. "Give My Regards To The Dancing Girls" struck me as an instant classic and a true anthem of our times. I was immediately left wanting more, and thankfully I didn't have long to wait. Out today on Dirtnap Records, the self-titled debut album from The Sleveens is the best punk rock record I've heard in a damn long time. It will delight fans of classic British and Irish punk rock, yet it feels fully fresh and current in the year 2024.  

The Sleeveens were born when Irish songwriter Stef Murphy (Count Vaseline/The Mighty Stef) and Stiff Little Fingers guitar tech Jamie Mechan met in Nashville, Tennessee and immediately formed a musical partnership. With the addition of Ryan Sweeney (Cheap Time) and Eli Steele (Sweet Knives), the band's lineup became complete. The group wasted little time establishing itself as a formidable live act, and "Give My Regards To The Dancing Girls" was released to tremendous acclaim on Sweeney's Cheap Time Records. The full album will quickly dispel any speculation that the brilliance of the single was some kind of beginners' luck. Murphy, a gifted songwriter with a background in a number of musical styles, brings something different to the '77 punk rock 'n' roll style. 

The Sleveens will no doubt bring to mind the heyday of record labels like Chiswick, New Rose and Stiff Records along with hints of early Clash and Stiff Little Fingers. But those broad influences are just one part of a sophisticated musical identity. No two songs sound alike, and The Sleeveens prove themselves adept at everything from punchy pub rockers to aggressive punk rippers to heartfelt ballads to pure pop songs. Recut for the album, "Give My Regards To The Dancing Girls" is sped-up and stripped to its essence — yet no less of an anthem. "Metallica Font," the album's second advance single, is a powerful ode to friendship and a blistering slab of rock 'n' roll. In a perfect world, "Aretha Franklin" would go viral and prompt the masses far and wide to adopt "Pissing in the eyes of your racist uncle!" as their new mantra. "Dry Cider," a nearly six-minute slow-burn, meets every definition of an epic. "Glory Holes" combines the creativity of post-punk with the speed and force of hardcore. "Tales from the Megaplex" channels the fury of first generation street punk in a fully modern context. "Paulie Says" is the kind of perfect pop song all great punk bands ought to be able to write. Oh, and there's an Undertones cover as well!

On their full-length debut, The Sleeveens deliver a bulletproof release. I can't find a sub-par track, and different songs emerge as favorites every day depending on my mood. Murphy's lyrics are some of the best I've heard in recent rock 'n' roll — and when he sings, there's no question he means every word. Dirtnap Records is no stranger to consequential albums in the modern punk universe, and it has another game-changer on its hands with The Sleeveens. Of course those hooks can't be denied, and this band rocks like a motherfucker. Beyond that, this is music that's life-affirming, exciting, and full of passion. Something tells me I won't lose much sleep trying to decide on a number one album of 2024.

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Owen Adamcik - One Way Owen

The second installment in Owen Adamcik's Power Pop Paradise series — which promises to be a monthly event — is titled One Way Owen and available now for your streaming pleasure. The prolific Orlando-based teenage songwriter has made a seamless transition from punk rock to power pop. Last month's The Owens was an exceptionally promising release, and One Way Owen is even better. This EP retains the home-recorded charm of its predecessor, but it finds Adamcik progressing in his recording process with the addition of real drums and amps. Again he favors efficient song structures and an emotionally direct style. Only one of these five tracks exceeds the two-minute mark, yet there's nothing about these songs that feels half-assed or incomplete. Adamcik's talent for crafting a simple but irresistible hook is undeniable. And on this release in particular, the strain in his voice really adds to the sincerity of the material (I'm reminded a little of a young Mikey Erg). Adamcik is clearly a student of power pop history, and he fully gets the timelessness of the style. As long as humans exist, love songs will never go out of fashion. If you're a power pop fan, the promise of monthly EPs from Owen Adamcik for the foreseeable future ought to have you really excited.

Sunday, February 04, 2024

WiMP! - Black Sheep

My takeaway from WiMP!'s debut album Black Sheep is that it sounds like something that could have been released in 1996. That is one of the highest compliments I could give to a piece of music. I came up on '90s punk rock, and anything that reminds me of that will have a special place in my heart. Rockford, Illinois's WiMP! does have some actual '90s punk lineage since guitarist Kevin Kalen was in Mulligan Stu with Bill Maynard — who recorded and mixed Black Sheep. Bassist Cheyenne Dean is Kalen's daughter. Guitarist Jordan Acosta and drummer Joe Salamone were in High School Pizza with Dean. Acosta has also played with Kalen in Mono In Stereo. With all these individuals playing together, we get the best aspects of all their other bands combined into one group. WiMP is punkier than Mono In Stero, but the band still has a similar Midwestern heart-on-sleeve appeal. I can hear some of the punch and melody of Mulligan Stu and the energy and attitude of High School Pizza. Overall, this album is a super-refreshing listen. There's nothing fancy going on here: just gutsy, straight-forward punk rock that comes straight from the heart and relates to real life. Honestly, there just aren't that many bands that play this kind of music these days. These tunes exude a real DIY punk spirit to the point where you'd wish WiMP! could come play at your next basement show or backyard barbeque. The title track is both an undeniable earworm and a gut punch to your soul. "Hypocrite" is a throwback to the glory days of American pop-punk. Anyone who's ever been burned or betrayed by a romantic partner will want to sing along to "Suitcase" at the top of their lungs. "Set You Free" sounds an awful lot like Mono In Stereo, and that's never a bad thing. "Yesterday" is definitive Heartland punk with hooks for days.  

Malibu Lou, who's been championing Mono In Stereo for years and was one of the biggest Mulligan Stu fans back in the day, was quick to jump all over this debut album from WiMP! and bring the band into the always-growing Rum Bar Records family. At a lean eight tracks clocking in at just under 20 minutes, Black Sheep is a terrific little album that will remind you why you love punk rock.

The Cavemen - Ca$h 4 Scrap

The Cavemen are so good at what they do that they make all other bands of their type seem almost irrelevant. Out now on Slovenly Recordings, Ca$h 4 Scrap is The Cavemen's fifth full-length album and first in five years. In a way, it's a quintessential Cavemen release which finds these crazed Neanderthals tearing into some of the wildest & most ferocious rock 'n' roll your senses could ever hope to encounter. At the same time, it finds the band continuing the musical evolution that was becoming apparent on 2019's Night After Night and the follow-up EP Euthanise Me. When they still feel inclined towards sheer sonic destruction, these fellas leave nothing in their path safe from obliteration. "Booze, Ciggies 'n Drugs" is absolutely the instant classic the title promises (imagine the Dead Boys on speed), and the raging "Personal WWIII" could not be more of a song of our times. There is no living punk singer who can scream with more force and conviction than the mighty Paul Caveman. The production and performances are still raw and trashy in a way that's definitive for garage punk. But on Ca$h 4 Scrap, The Cavemen's dirty little secret — that they are highly skilled songwriters & musicians and not just pugilistic savages aiming to club you into submission — is fully exposed for the world to hear.  

I wouldn't go quite as far as to say that The Cavemen have gone "pop," but they are leaning more than ever towards the tuneful side of classic punk. "Without You" is old school melodic punk rock 'n' roll just the way I like it. "Hangin Up" sounds like it could have been an A-side on Raw Records in 1977. If you had played "Can't Remember Your Name" for me and told me it was Los Pepes, I wouldn't have doubted you for a second. The sing-along stomper "Leather Boys" brings a heavy glam rock influence. And then there are some pleasant surprises: "Flowers On My Grave" is a brooding, haunting ballad, while the new single "Night of the Demon" is heavy rock done right. To just call Ca$h 4 Scrap a vintage Cavemen record would sell it short. To call it a completely untypical Cavemen record would sell it short too. So let's just say this is the best album yet from the greatest punk rock band on Earth.