It’s end-of-the-year ‘best of’ list time and we here at Poprock Record wish to join the almost evangelical rush to judgment that accompanies such proceedings, though with a twist. I mean, who am I to say whose records are the best? If I put them up on the blog then you already know I think they are pretty great and worthy of Beatlesque adulation. Still, I do feel like shining an extra light on a few songs that just screamed ‘hit single’ to my 1970s AM radio-trained ears. So instead of a ‘top ten’ list I’ve assembled a list of twelve ‘missing’ hit singles, songs that would easily top the charts in my alternate poprock universe.
Pulling together my twelve apostles of poprock was not an easy task. From the full list of songs featured on the blog in 2016 I singled out the ones actually released in this past calendar year – 59 songs in all! Then reducing that number down to just twelve was painful as there were compelling arguments for keeping any and all of the other 47 as well. But, in the end, cuts were made until just twelve remained. They appear in no particular order and the hotlinks take you to the original posts as they appeared on the blog. These are a dynamite twelve pack, sure proof that melodic rock and roll is far from dead, if somewhat remote from the more conventional charts.
It’s almost like somewhere a gargantuan holiday music factory is just pumping them out, songs that are largely indistinguishable from the regular commercial fare but for their obligatory invocation of Santa, mistletoe, and snow. But buried amongst the dreck are always some well crafted seasonal tunes, if you’re paying attention. Over the past year I’ve set aside any good holiday material I’ve run across for this very special Hooks for the Holidays blog entry.
Let’s begin with that classy poprock elder statesman, Nick Lowe. Considering he once eschewed the idea of recording a Christmas album as ‘vulgar, tawdry commercialism,’ his finished product is pretty impressive. Quality Street squeezes subtle hooks out of clever covers and new material. Though Lowe was once the quintessentially mercurial poprock artist, he has honed a more laid back, almost jazzy crooner sound over his last few albums. Quality Street continues in this vein. Check out the instrumental backdrop to Boudleaux Bryant’s classic, “Christmas Can’t Be Far Away” – arranged to perfection like expert miniature painting. Other highlights include Ron Sexmsith’s “Hooves on the Roof” and Lowe’s co-written composition with Ry Cooder, “Dollar Short of Happy” (the lyrics on the latter are hilarious). A lot of critics like Lowe’s sardonic “Christmas at the Airport” but my faves would have to be the raucous reworking of the traditional “Rise Up Shepherd” and Lowe’s own quietly moving “I was Born in Bethlehem.”
Rise Up ShepherdI Was Born in Bethlehem
Cheeky is a not uncommon approach to holiday music, meant to deflate a bit of the earnestness surrounding the whole ‘birth of a saviour’ thing. And no one flouts overweening sincerity like Jonathan Coulton. His “Chiron Beta Prime” is the perfect antidote to treacly sentiment, documenting the poor Anderson family’s travails on a robot mining asteroid. Robot overlords, soylent green pies, and redacted holiday messages: what could be more perfect this year? On the other hand, we’ve got earnest covered too. Canadian David Myles is just sooo nice, every mother’s dream date for their respective boy or girl. “Santa Never Brings Me a Banjo” is lovely tale of disappointed expectations. Actually, Myles has a whole album of Christmas tunes that is pretty solid. Check out the wonderful bouncy lead guitar line and jazz vocals on “Sleigh Ride” or the exuberant fun of “It Snowed Last Night.”Chiron Beta Prime
For something a bit different, Franco-American indie hipsters Freedom Fry have a fun rollicking tale with “Oh Santa (Bad World).” Seems the naughty list has gotten a bit too long and Santa is calling it all off this year. Forget that empty parental threat to cancel Christmas, this is much bigger – and the live version here sounds just like the recording! English band Farrah do a nice Paul McCartney re-invention on their 2008 release “Santa Don’t Go.” Now I’m having a wonderful holiday time. On the poppier side of poprock, two great singles: Allie Moss’ wistful “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and Schuyler Fisk’s upbeat and cheery “More Than I Wished For,” which bears the distinctive stamp of Tim Myers’ collaboration.Santa Don’t GoMore Than I Wished For
We began the year with Quiet Company, an amazing band from Texas, so it seems only fitting to fit a few selections from their terrific 2012 seasonal EP, Winter is Coming in here. This band loves the holiday, as evident from the series of house concerts they are doing throughout their home state this month. Here you can see they excel at both commercial and traditional Christmas fare, delivering fantastic versions of both “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Time for another trip around the dial with acts that offer something old, something new, or something completely different.
More Suzanne Vega? This is super new, from her most recently released album, Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers. Based initially on a project for art school, Vega developed it into a play featuring herself. On the whole, the record has a stylized cabaret feel, but for one track which really harkens back to a more familiar Vega sound, the single “We of Me.” For fans of her distinctive folk pop sound, this song will not disappoint: ringing acoustic guitars, a poetic cadence and a hook that stays in your head.
Michael Penn launched into the charts in 1989 with his debut album March, largely on the strength of a break out single – “No Myth” – which got to 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. But three albums later it was pretty clear that his chart success was a bit of a blip, despite turning out consistently strong material. Still, in 2005, after a five year break, he released the stunning Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947, an amazing concept album chock full of striking would-be hit singles: “Walter Reed,” “On Automatic,” “A Bad Sign,” and many others. Still, no chart love. So he walked away, shifting his considerable creative talents to television and movie soundtracks. I rue the day somebody lunched him into this decision. Luckily, the occasional single still emerges from time to time, like “Anchors Aweigh” from volume three of his soundtrack work of the HBO show Girls. Deceptively simple sounding, resting on a basic acoustic guitar backing track, Penn adds impressive depth and hooks with his vocals and the occasional instrumental flourish.Girls
Speaking of Penn, his spouse has had a very different response to chart indifference. Sure, Aimee Mann has done some soundtrack work too, most notably Magnolia in 1999. But she’s also kept up her solo work and a host of other creative partnerships. Mann is unique in not only consistently writing great songs, but she has developed her own distinctive songwriting style, something that few performers – the Beatles, Elton John, Elvis Costello – have really managed to do. “Can’t You Tell” is an original song Mann created for the anti-Trump political project, 30 Days, 30 Songs, narrated from the perspective of Trump himself, basically saying ‘come on folks, you know I don’t really want this job, it’s just my ego at work here …’ The song is not a charity knock off – that is not the way Mann does things. Instead, “Can’t You Tell” is a solid single, the mark of Mann’s talent that she can just give away such strong material for a one-off project like this.Can’t You Tell
Gentle Hen is the brainchild of Henning Ohlenbusch, seemingly the hardest working man in show business this side of Northhampton, Massachusetts. He is one of those guys who is part of half a dozen bands and collaborates with a half dozen more, while still getting out some solo stuff on the sly. The Bells on the Boats of the Bay is the debut album from his old band but now under a new name and everything seems to falling into place: fabulous design on the artwork, stellar songwriting, and a great sound. There are a whole lotta influences going on here: chiming guitars, Ben Vaughn-esque vocal stylings on some numbers, and hooks, hooks, hooks. “I Don’t Know Anyone Else But” is a strong single featuring a late 1960s British poprock guitar line opening out to lilting melody that shifts tempo to great effect in the chorus.
Some bands do variety in terms of song styles but others just sound like totally different groups. Ex Cons fall into the latter category. Some of their more recent work has a cool indie vibe going – definitely check up “Black Soap” and “Pretty Shitty” – but if we go way back to 2012 they were working a decidedly different seam of the poprock scene. “James” reminds me of Nick Lowe’s immediate post-Rockpile work on albums like Nick the Knife and The Abominable Showman. Definitely hooks galore!
No, not Lee Major’s late ex-wife. I’m talking about the knock out band from London that put out four albums between 2000 and 2010 and then dropped out of sight. I discovered Farrah in 2007 when a casual listen of “School Reunion” from that year’s Cut Out and Keep turned me into a big fan. I loved the over-the-top sweetness of the sentimentality, cut by just a hint of genuine pathos. The song’s story of a wanna-be musician who takes to the big city but fails could be seen as Farrah’s own story as none of their albums took off in the UK or North America (though, I kid you not, they are actually big in Japan!). Of course, the band’s decision to blaze a trail as a self-distributing independent group probably limited their exposure as they were arguably too far ahead of the social media curve to made it work. Still, the band’s catalogue is a success if creating great poprock is the measure.
Farrah’s debut album, Moustache, has a Fountains of Wayne power pop sound with a number of strong tracks like “Terry,” “Living for the Weekend,” and “Talk about Nothing.” Three years later Me Too seemed to slow things down as the band experimented with slower material like “First and Last,” “Half as Strong,” and their great moody cover of Joe Jackson’s “It’s Different for Girls.” But for me, it all comes together on Cut Out and Keep, an album that has the band in firm control of their own distinctive sound. The album shifts effortlessly between uptempo Squeeze-esque numbers like “No Reason Why” or the more FOW sounding “Fear of Flying” to wonderful acoustic songs like “As Soon as I Get Over You” and “Things We Shouldn’t Say.” They blast the calculation and insincerity of the music business brilliantly on “Dum Dum Ditty.” I could go on – there really isn’t a weak track on the album.
In 2010 the band released another strong record, the self-titled Farrah, and it was also full of would-be hits. The hooky “Swings and Roundabouts” was the obvious single but other uptempo highlights include “Stereotypes” and “If You Were Mine.” The album also has quite a few more languid, Beatlesque acoustic numbers like “DNA,” “Wasting Time,” and the wistful “Sleep Above the Covers.” But my favourite track is banjo-driven story song “Scarborough,” with its spot on rendition of awkward office romance.
Farrah have a webpage and Facebook page, but nothing new has been posted on either for years. Thus our plaintive blog entry title: ‘Where are you Farrah?’ Come back soon.
Poprock is primarily a guitar-based genre. Though one definition might define it as the classic rock and roll combo but with an extra accent on melody, that is often accomplished via chiming or ringing electric guitar chords or trebly hooky lead guitar lines. These bands showcase just how guitar drives the poprock sound.
Everything about The Spitfires’ “So Long” says excitement: from the crunchy opening guitar, to the pumping piano that carries the verses, to the heavily accented vocals that echo a bit of the Jam and Billy Bragg. This is a killer performance whose intensity just never lets up. “On My Mind” is another strong track from their debut album, A Thousand Times. The Spitfires call Watford, Hertfordshire home.
Hailing from Australia’s Sunshine Coast, Pop Cult have a indie vibe going with a pair of singles that would have made a fantastic double A-sided 45 back in the day. “Feels Right” has a effective combination of pumping piano, spacey guitar and uber-cool rhythmic lurch while “Gotta Keep Lovin’” is driven by hypnotic background vocals and a solid crashing beat. Both songs exude a Dandy Warhols-like élan, i.e. super catchy and oh so cool.
The Rifles are a monumental talent. Over five albums this east London band has honed sonic influences that include Oasis, the Jam, the Clash and host of other late seventies/early eighties bands into their own distinctive sound. Early records No Love Lost and Great Escape have a load of great songs like “She’s the Only One” and “The Great Escape” but things really take off for me with 2011’s Freedom Run. Check out “Long Walk Back” with its textbook perfect opening riff and shimmering vocals that draw you in while the hooks just won’t let go. Why this song didn’t zoom to the top of the charts is beyond me. The whole record is strong but the acoustic “Everline” is also a standout track. Since then two more albums only confirm this band’s strengths as songwriters and performers. 2014’s None the Wiser rocks with “Minute Mile,” a super single, and the lovely “All I Need,” another breezy tuneful acoustic-ish number. The band’s most recent release is 2016’s Big Life and there is no let up in the quality. If it were up to me, I would release “Wall Around Your Heart” as the potential hitmaker.Minute MileWall Around Your Heart
The heads up on today’s material came from that mercurial blogging genius, Best Indie Songs. Make sure to check out his site as you follow up on the Spitfires, Pop Cult, and the Rifles at their own internet locations.