I am going to admit something that will be of no surprise to anyone who has known me since high school or college – I am a musical snob. An elitist. Opinionated and condescending and with little time or patience for ‘generic pop trash’ that is foisted on the public by an industry obsessed with making money by manipulating purchases rather than providing quality product. Yikes … did I just say that out loud?
For me music is something I take seriously … think about drinking good coffee, then having a cup of instant coffee; or drinking really good wine then going back to screw-top Riunite or something like that. It isn’t that I inherently dislike pop music – it is that I find most pop music ‘harmonically unsatisfying’ … like comparing your favorite dinner to, well, something like cotton candy.
Here are what I see as my three main roadblocks to enjoying pop music:
– I consider music an entirely audio medium, so anything that is related to visuals (music videos, stage shows, dancing, or an artist’s appearance) is totally lost on me and I consider it inconsequential.
– I don’t care about lyrics. That doesn’t mean I don’t know the words to thousands of songs, just that I really don’t care. I won’t listen to music I don’t like because of lyrics, nor will I turn off music I do like due to the lyrics.
– I need some ‘meat’ to my music. Great pop songs – ‘I Will Always Love You’ popularized by Whitney Houston, ‘Time After Time’ by Cindy Lauper, ‘Borderline’ or ‘Vogue’ by Madonna, tons of Prince stuff, etc – all have more than just a ‘catchy tune’. They are well constructed songs that stand out across the decades. Most pop .. doesn’t – I remember first seeing the ‘California Gurls / Tik Tok’ mashup showing they were essentially the same song (same team wrote them, no surprise), and then more and more and more.
But the reality is that even within the pop music world there is some absolutely incredible music that is made … though honestly when it comes to songs that hit the ‘top of the pops these days’ there is precious little quality or creativity. Which is sad, really – because I know the talent is out there, it just isn’t getting heard.
Going back through the decades it is fairly easy to pluck out top selling songs that are incredibly artistic and inventive and original. I decided to only pick from the pre-sample and pre-auto-tune era, as a simple dividing point (meaning pre-1990). So I decided to do a ‘Top 20’ … but then realized I had 23 so I threaded the rest in with others. Oh well. Enjoy!
1. Bee Gees – How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
The Bee Gees are forever tied to the disco era and therefore dismissed … but they had a bunch of huge hits before Saturday Night Fever, and this song is just amazing. Deep and complex and with a tremendous sense of building urgency.
2. Joni Mitchell – Hejira
Joni Mitchell transitioned from writing songs for others to becoming a master folk singer to a pop star and then … this. She kept progressing musically with alternate tuning structures, using her voice as if it was a jazz saxophone. Yet it remains beautiful and haunting.
3. Stevie Wonder – Overjoyed
Sure I could have plucked from Stevie’s ‘golden era’, songs like ‘I Wish’, ‘Higher Ground’ and so on, but this classic from a decade later reminds us WHY he is more than just a pop star, he is a pure musical genius.
Jazz saxophonist Richie Cole did a great cover version, but the CD is out of print and never was released digitally (I have way too many CDs from the mid-late 80s like that!)
4. Dionne Warwick – Say a Little Prayer
You would never guess that the verse is in 10/4 time and the chorus in 11/4 time, very complex meters for such an accessible song.
Blind Avant-garde multi-saxophonist Roland Kirk did a cover a year later that brought in the civil rights aspects … seriously, check this one out:
5. Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Elton John and Stevie Wonder are two of the main reason pop and rock was incredible in the 70s. This isn’t just stuff to listen to and sing, it merits actual study:
And “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”.
6. Neil Diamond – I Am, I Said
Like Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond started off writing songs for others, including “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees. Soon enough he was singing and performing his own music, like this classic anthem.
8. The Rolling Stones – Under My Thumb
While most people think of Jagger & Richards as the keys to the Stones, every major melody that was a hit in the early years was composed by Brian Jones – including this jazzy syncopated tune with vibes added to the mix.
9. The Cars – Drive
I like the anthemic feel that was their sort of swan song, but it also embodies the modal harmonies from Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’.
10. The Police – Darkness
The Police were masters of expanded harmonies, advanced rhythms and other things you simply don’t get in pop music. This is my favorite song of theirs, as there are multiple rhythms playing against each other.
11. The Beatles – Tomorrow Never Knows
Picking a great Beatles song is easy, so I wanted to do something less well known but that shows off their musical creativity and also their studio wizardry.
12. The Yardbirds – Shapes of Things
The same year as the last song, The Yardbirds were advancing ‘hard rock’ in a way that was melodic yet in-your-face. Jeff Beck’s early solo albums would introduce heavy metal before Led Zepplin and others arrived.
13. Mary Ford & Les Paul – How High the Moon
Going back to the #1 song of 1951, this is a reminder of how pop songs were always pop – but at one time there was a genuine requirement to be able to sing and play instruments.
14. Simon & Garfunkel – Scarborough Fair / Canticle
Not an original melody, but shows an amazing example of taking an centuries-old classic and reworking it for the modern era!
15. Bridge over troubled Water
Paul Simon has an incredible library of deceptively complex songs that are memorable and instantly recognizable. With an over-the-top dense production and wearing its heart on its sleeve, this remains an iconic piece of pop art nearly 45 years after release.
16. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Marvin Gaye was an incredible vocalist, and this song just rips at your heart and soul … and much of that has to do with the movement within the harmonic structure. A good song can ‘play you’ emotionally even without words, and that is what happens here – the vocals just add even more pull.
17. Blondie – Rapture
The first bit hit for rap, and the first one to get any play on MTV … and just an insanely catchy song that remains interesting and worth listening to while thousands of other rap songs fall to the wayside.
18. Michael Jackson – Thriller
The reason Thriller works so well (the album as well as the song) has to do with the full orchestration of Quincy Jones as much as the great songs themselves. These are essentially big band songs for the modern day, with pop instrumentation supplanting horn sections. And it completely works.
19. 10cc – I’m Not In Love
It is hard to hear this song and not feel like you are floating on air; like so many on this list, this song brings me back … this one to AM radio and getting ready for school in he 70s.
Also check out this Buzzfeed post about the making of the song.
20. Steely Dan – Peg
Aside from writing great songs, Steely Dan enlisted some of the greatest studio musicians and perfectly crafted their sound while having others playing the instruments. The results were always interesting.
There are many more I could have chosen – I didn’t touch Queen or the people I mentioned before like Madonna or Prince. There is an incredible library of popular music out there – I just got and am listening to an upcoming release by the jazz group ‘Thrasher Dream Trio’ of popular R&B songs such as ‘Where is the love’ and others.
So what are some of your favorite ‘not musically trivial’ pop songs? Or do you just hate me now?