Making great power pop records--those disarming blends of unbending romanticism and almost paint-by-number melodic simplicity--is one of the hardest things to achieve in the entire pop spectrum, which is why there are so few classic power pop tracks. If you miss the target, the record can sound slick and lightweight.
Though there is a long list of other influences, the power pop tradition stems chiefly from the way the Beatles and the Beach Boys mixed rock character and pure Top 40 instincts in such records as the latter's "California Girls."
To salute the style, which is enjoying a bit of a revival these days, Rhino Records has put together three "Poptopia!" collections, each focusing on a different decade. The results underscore the difficulty of the approach. Virtually all of the 18 selections on each album are worth a listen, but only a few per disc feel truly inspired.
In the '70s package, five tracks rise above the norm and touch you with a soulful innocence or infectious charm. They are Big Star's dreamy "September Gurls," the Dwight Twilley Band's ultra-sensual "I'm on Fire," the Knack's underrated "Good Girls Don't," the Beat's peppy "Rock 'n' Roll Girl" and the Shoes' aching "Too Late."
** 1/2 Various artists, "Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '80s," Rhino. In his liner notes, John M. Borack refers to the '80s as the lost decade in power pop, the time between the flowering of the genre in the '70s and the mini-resurgence in the '90s. He's not referring to the quality of the music so much as the way record companies decided to stay away from power pop after the rapid fade of the Knack.
But it's equally correct to think of the '80s as power pop's lost decade artistically. While still engaging in spots, the music on this album isn't as memorable as that of the '70s and '90s packages. The only ones I'd put on a single "best of" disc are Phil Seymour's spirited version of Phil Spector's "Baby It's You," the Plimsouls' enchanting "A Million Miles Away" and Candy's stylish "Whatever Happened to Fun . . . ."
*** 1/2 Various artists, "Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '90s," Rhino. Without sacrificing the spirit of the earlier power pop models, the best of these '90s entries update the genre by injecting a bit more of their own, often harder-edged sensibilities. The result is the most inviting CD of the three. Among the standout numbers: the Rembrandts' "Rollin' Down the Hill," the Tearaways' "Jessica Something," Redd Kross' "Lady in the Front Row," the Posies' "Solar Sister," Matthew Sweet's "I've Been Waiting" and the Wondermints' "Proto-Pretty." Delightful stuff.
*** Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, "Return to Hicksville . . . The Best of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks," Hip-O. Think of Hicks as the early-'70s, country equivalent of the Squirrel Nut Zippers--only far more original and fun. Formed in San Francisco, the Hot Licks stepped away from the city's voguish psychedelic movement in favor of the jazzy western swing style that you could picture coming from someone whose tastes were formed by the wry songwriting sophistication of Johnny Mercer (whose "I'm an Old Cowhand" is interpreted by the group) and the big-band coloring of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys.
At the time these songs were released by Blue Thumb Records, the music was regarded by much of the pop-rock world as merely amusing novelties. After all these years, however, they carry the feel of mini-classics. The band broke up in 1973, but Hicks continues to perform many of his old songs and new material with the Acoustic Warriors band.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).