For the most part, Pop music is uptempo. It’s bouncy. It’s sound is relatively simple, and easily repeated. But that doesn’t mean it has to be devoid of meaning, does it?
I don’t think so.
As I discussed a few days ago, most pop music is made to be disposable. It’s little more than an empty statement on the current trends of the time. But some pop music manages to resonate long after the trend has come and gone. It’s rare, but it happens.
Some artists are destined to swim to the shallow end of the musical pool. It is there they will find the hits that bring forth this thing called “fame” for a brief period. But this end of the pool is crowded, and any artist swinging to this end will find it difficult to obtain and maintain notice for extended periods. And the people who buy this music often find themselves asking, “What was I thinking?” not long after making their purchase.
Artists swimming to music’s deep end certainly risk drowning in anonymity. But the deep end is also lest populated, with more room to create genuine art. The music may have a pop sheen, but it also holds a timeless quality that beckons the listener back time and again. It will never get old, and the consumer will have no regrets about making the purchase.
In addition to being a sound innovator and progressive rock titan, Adrian Belew has a knack for pop music as well. As he is also a dyed-in-the-woll Beatlemaniac, this makes perfect sense. He actually cracked the Top 40 once, back in 1989, with this little number.
I’ve been an Elvis Costello fan for a long time. The man is at his best when he’s feeling cynical, angry, and annoyed with the world. But that doesn’t stop him from dropping a solid pop gem every now and then. While I enjoyed Costello best when he had the Attractions behind him, I was also a huge fan of his 1989 solo album called Spike. This little ditty also got a bit of rotation on MTV. This was one of those rare times post-’85 when the music channel and I were on the same page.
Good pop music can tug at your conscience, regardless of whether or not it’s danceable. Australian band Midnight Oil got its hooks in to me with an album called Diesel and Dust, released in 1988. The big single was a song called “Beds Are Burning,” which I like a lot. But it was the first track on Side Two (yeah, I bought it on LP) that cemented the Oils as one of my favorite “new” bands. “The Dead Heart” is a pop song that left me wondering just what the hell was going on Down Under. I had to look into it.
I was deep into college rock in the late 80s. I was finding these artists deep on the left side of the FM dial. Where else would I find a band featuring fusion bass legend Stanley Clarke and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland working together, and fronted by singer/songwriter Deborah Holland? Animal Logic was their name, and while they were found on a college rock station, this band was making incredible Intelli-Pop.
Speaking of women emerging from nowhere, I most certainly was not looking for Ani DiFranco when she was put before me in the mid-’90s. But there she was, and there was no ignoring her. The relatively undefinable nature of this song makes it possible to view it as pop music. But there is an awful lot of substance here, which is what helped make Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up once of my favorite albums of the ’90s.
Ever heard an epic pop song? That’s what Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp set out to create when they wrote “Dinosaur” in 1995. Adrian said they had the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” in mind when they wrote it. King Crimson isn’t normally the first place to turn for quality pop music. But when it shows up, run with it! This song is a modern-day classic, even if it is more than 20 years old.
For years, I’ve wanted Aimee Mann to make a record with her equally talented husband, Michael Penn. Well, that hasn’t happened yet. But Aimee did make an amazing record with a singer/songwriter named Ted Leo, who kind of reminds me of Michael. The duo called themselves The Both, and their debut record is fantastic.
Bob Dylan is not a name I immediately associate with pop music. But thanks to The New Basement Tapes (a supergroup assembled by legendary producer T-Bone Burnett), a batch of Dylan’s unrecorded lyrics became a brand new set of songs, including this one, sung by Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons). There was a period of a few months when I could not stop playing this song. And Mumford and I have pretty much the same reaction by tune’s end.
These days, I’ve got my eye on an amazing band out of Boston called Bent Knee. They are, without question, what pop music should be. Alas, the Consultants that Be will never allow that to happen. If for any reason because the band’s music is all but undefinable. In a just world, this is the band that would be running riot through the Grammy awards, because they are genuinely talented. Hell, if they were to win, the awards would start to mean something to me again. I’d say this song qualifies as epic, as well.
There is good pop music out there. It’s just not going to be found in obvious places. As it comes across my musical radar, I’ll pass it along to you. Meanwhile, do yourself a favor and turn off the radio and start looking at places like Bandcamp, where you’re bound to find some incredible music. Be sure to let me know what you find.
Great post Cedric. I would offer up XTC as virtuosos at making pop as art music.
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Absolutely! Refer to the first installment of this series.
Oh, how I love Mr. Music Head! I showed my parents the Oh Daddy video, thinking they could relate and telling them how Ade used to live 5 blocks away from us. I’m so sad for Audie, losing her mom recently. You are so preaching to the choir here as I love EC and Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. I grew up listening to pop and I feel sorry for my boyfriend who seems to only respond if he can “tap his feet in 21” (I assume you’ve heard Tony Levin’s barbershop ode to KC).
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You assume correctly. And while I enjoy tapping my foot in 21, sometimes it’s nice to hear a little well-written 4/4.