The time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of many things. Of Shoes and Pips and Basement Tapes, and the best power pop records of the year. Forgive me if I repeat myself, but 2011 was a great year for pop music ALTHOUGH YOU WOULD NEVER KNOW IT FROM THE TRADITIONAL MEDIA!
The first six months saw the release of most of the best albums, while some of my favorites have already recorded next year’s contenders but won’t release them until ’12. These heavy hitters include The Foreign Films, Explorers Club, and Bryan Scary.
One: Marco Joachim, “Hidden Symphonies.” “Hidden Symphonies” is a pop masterpiece that achieves a Sgt. Pepper-like grandeur through constant melodic and textural invention. “Gramercy Park” is as memorable as anything the Beatles achieved in later years. “Cellophane Sue” is an obvious goof on “Polythene Pam” and a solid hit in its own right. Marco is immeasurably aided by producer/guitarist Jon Gordon whose epic guitar is all over these tracks.
Two: Cirrone: “Uplands Park Road.” These Sicilian brothers (with Ferdinando Piccoli on drums) reinvent the modern pop song drawing on the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Big Star, the Byrds, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Hollies, the Zombies and every other great power popper, but they have a unique sound built around three-part harmonies and Alessandro’s and Mirko’s thrilling guitar work. Don’t believe perfection is unobtainable. Listen to this record.
Three: Supraluxe: “The Super Sounds of Supraluxe.” The Twin Cities-based trio don’t sound like a trio due to the density of each member’s contribution. Every song burrows into your skull and contains a surprising but logical development. “Lester Bangs” pays tribute to the late writer (who once slept in my bed) with a rockin’ raver. “Sunday’s Not So Bad” should put-paid to “Easy Like Sunday Morning” once and for all.
Four: Bookends: “Proud Of My Stereo.” Silly name for an album of sweeping grandeur and emotional range. Like Supraluxe, this Finnish trio casts a spell out of all proportion to their size. The songs by Lauri Leskinen and Ville Terila shun Brill Bdlg. conventions in favor of an experimental melodic palette reminiscent of XTC. “Shaking Off the Mantra” has more melodic invention than whole albums by other groups.
Five: The Secret Powers: “What Every Rose Grower Should Know.” Mad pop experimentalism along the lines of Yes and XTC yields TSP’s best record yet. The title track in particular is pop rococo, each change-up sucking you deeper into the experience. And has there been a better animals song than “Tarantula?” Or a better Ennio Morricone/Sergio Leone riff than “The Desert?”
Six: The Turnback: “Drawn in Chalk.” Another trio with an enormous sound, The Turnback absorbs every great power pop trope of the past forty years and feeds them back fresh. Echoes of the Beatles, Moby Grape, The Cars, the Plimsouls and you name it find their way into the songs which emerge totally fresh. The record serves as a partial soundtrack to singer/songwriter/actor Todd Giglio’s gut-wrenching film of the same name, which asks the question, When do you give up on your dream of being an artist and face the real world? But not all these great songs appear in the movie. More about the movie later but in the meantime this is a must-have.
Seven: Radio Days: “C’est La Vie.” Like the Turnback, this Italian quartet has absorbed every power pop trope and turned them into something unique, with stunning harmonies, more hooks than a Russian trawler, and Omar Assadi’s massive guitar to which he frequently adds a lounge-like coda, like a drop of black paint in a bucket of white that ultimately results in the paint appearing even whiter. “Dirty Tricks” with its stop and go rhythm is a dirty trick on the listener as you want the song to go on forever.
Eight: Meyerman: “Who Do You Think You Are?” Gotta love a power pop pioneer who wears his heart on his sleeve. Theo Mayer’s quartet, with guitar monster Mike Eckhart, worships at the Fountains of Wayne, the Move, and Ed James, whose “Welcome to the Show” is a predecessor to Meyerman’s “Intro/Tonight” and “Permission to Rock You,” a one-two punch that will leave you reeling and gasping for more.
Nine: Kelly’s Heels: “Playing Into Your Hands.” Another trio with an enormous sound because they all sing. Bob Kelly’s songs are reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas and their greatest acolytes, Marmalade Souls. That is, these are songs of sweeping emotion, brilliant hooks and unending musicality.
Ten: Kensington: “Borders.” This Dutch quartet sounds like a cross between Field Music and the Byrds with great jangle and Everly Brothers harmonies courtesy of the two guitar slingers, Casper Starreveld and Eloi Youssef. Youssef has a unique guitar style that sounds almost pizzicato.