Sound Check

Poor power pop. Few genres in rock have been more painfully misunderstood or so unjustly ignored. Over the last three decades, power pop has cemented its endearing underachiever status with an odd combination of timeless songcraft and bad timing. Locked in a perpetual search for a wider audience, this supplier of the ultimate guitar-driven sugar high is, alas, a trend that can't seem to locate its launch window, good for the stray hit single every now and then, but little else. And perhaps the cruelest irony of all is that the music, with its abundance of addictive hooks, soaring two- and three-part harmonies, streamlined song writing and rudimentary rock instrumentation, was largely conceived with radio airplay in mind.

Clearly inspired by British Invasion royalty (though honoring a couple of American bands as well), power pop's mission statement is most clearly defined by the music of England's Beatles and Badfinger and Memphis's Big Star (dubbed the great "B" troika by power pop enthusiasts), plus a few sundry others, including the Kinks, the Hollies and the Who. It was the last's outspoken leader, Pete Townshend, who is credited with coining the term "power pop," throwing it out when asked in a 1966 interview to describe the Who's relentless rhythmic, sonic and melodic union.

The genre's premise is at once simple, escapist and (to a somewhat innocent degree) hedonistic. Its songs -- which commonly address, with varying levels of irony, the interchangeable themes of unrequited love and insatiable lust -- rarely exceed three and a half minutes. Their structure is sleek and predictable, generally along the lines of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge (insert guitar solo and further lyrical reflection here), verse, chorus, repeat chorus and out. In the 26 years since proto-power popsters Eric Carmen and the Raspberries established the formula with the luminescent top ten single "Go All the Way," there's been surprisingly little messing with it. If one of these sweet, pocket-size nuggets has done its job, echoes of its payoff chorus will stay wedged in the listener's subconscious for hours -- even days -- to come.

Of course, determining exactly what is -- and what isn't -- good power pop hinges in part on personal experience and taste. For every self-respecting Knack hater, after all, there's another whose knowledge of power pop begins and ends with that much-maligned '70s outfit. So when Dave Kapp, senior domestic sales manager at Rhino Records, convened a committee of co-workers sympathetic to the genre in an effort to devise a working list of tracks for the label's three-CD Poptopia! set, rest assured there were heated debates galore. The Knack's repellently sexist "Good Girls Don't" was eventually voted on to Poptopia! with little protest, and even the Rembrandts made it -- though I can't help but hope that a few principled souls fought tooth and nail to keep that loathsome 1990's duo out of the running. As far as I'm concerned, their excruciatingly generic "I'll Be There for You" should have earned them lifetime banishment from the Poptopia! sphere. Instead, Rhino compromised by opting for another, less irritating Rembrandts offering, "Rollin' Down the Hill."

All of which means that Poptopia!, while smartly assembled, has some flaws. Two, in particular, are exclusions so glaring they almost pass by unnoticed (Beatlesque '80s powerhouses Squeeze and Crowded House). Then there's also the conspicuous absence of Material Issue, one of contemporary power pop's leading spokesbands. And what of the lack of women artists? To that, Kapp responds, "There just aren't that many good female-oriented power pop acts." Maybe so, but that doesn't excuse the omission of the ones that did exist, particularly Blondie and the Go-Go's. In fairness, though, the most glaring holes can be blamed as much on licensing restrictions as differences of opinion among the participants in Kapp's brainstorming sessions. Certain labels simply weren't willing to hand over their songs -- or at least weren't willing to hand them over for a reasonable price.

Regardless, there's still loads of fun to be had with the music that is included on Poptopia!, and the good times commence with a flourish on Power Pop Classics of the '70s. Almost from the get-go, power pop was saddled with its dark-horse stigma, the genre's AM-friendly pioneers arriving in force just as the bloated, arena-size indulgences of mega-acts such as Led Zeppelin and Yes were taking hold of the FM frequencies. Granted, there was the occasional hit (the Raspberries' "Go All the Way," Dwight Twilley's throbbing come-on "I'm on Fire"), but many of the craftiest works on Power Pop Classics of the '70s -- namely Big Star's "September Gurls," Badfinger's "Just a Chance" and "Couldn't I Just Tell You" by Todd Rundgren (whose late-'60s work with Nazz set the stage for much of the post-Beatles pop to come) -- made little, if any, chart progress in their era. Listening to them now -- all razor-sharp hooks, lush harmonies and exacting choruses -- that's hard to believe. Not that disc one is without some familiar names. In fact, contributions from the Knack, Cheap Trick (the underappreciated "Come on, Come On") and Nick Lowe (the inexhaustibly hip "Cruel to Be Kind") balance out the obscurities quite nicely. (****)