I always find it odd when people say they don’t like “pop” music. It covers such a broad spectrum of influences and styles that it is almost impossible to find nothing redeeming at all. Granted, there is an awful lot of dross in the field, but it’s easy to romanticise about the Good Ol’ Days of pop. Everyone remembers Bowie, Blondie and the Beach Boys, conveniently forgetting about Sonia, Sequal and Son of Dork.
The point of this isn’t necessarily to say “here are some great songs that you should listen to”. That’s for pretty much everything else on here. This is to highlight some tracks that don’t necessarily get the credit (or should that be “credit”?) they deserve for where we are in popular music right now. They’re far more influencial then they ever were popular, and they’ve shaped what is played on the radio right now, for better or worse.
Some of this I don’t even like. Some of it I downright loathe, but that’s not the point. The point is to look at points where the game changed; the crossroads that led to where we are now.
Oh, and incase you are wondering why there’s so much of the 50s and 60s ignored, that’s because pop music was invented in these decades. I’m looking at the key points at which it evolved and grew legs. In my humble opinion, modern pop music is particularly indebted to the late 70s and 1980s, so that’s reflected in the selection. Feel free to disagree. I’ll probably think you are wrong.
Revolution 9 by The Beatles (1969)
There are any number of reasons to include this, not least because it introduced tape loops, sampling, borrowed sounds and overdubbing to popular music. 30 million people bought it. It’s not an easy listen, but that almost makes it even more remarkable because this was released by the biggest band in the world. Next time someone compares One Direction to The Beatles, play them this. Is it good? Hmmm. Is it important? Absolutely.
Amen Brother by The Winstons (1969)
Rarely can a work have been so influential yet so routinely overlooked for its importance. Fittingly, it was originally relegated to the B-side of The Winston’s Grammy winning single from 1969, Colour Him Father.
In this case it is the drum part that makes the composition so important. GC Coleman’s six second solo – known as the “Amen Break” – became the basis for any number of genres, not least drum and bass and breakbeat. It is also a hugely important record in the evolution of hip-hop. How many times have you heard that beat before? Probably in works by NWA, Oasis, Nine Inch Nails, Grandmaster Flash and even the Futurama theme tune.
Saved by the Bell by Robin Gibb (1970)
Although best known as a member of the Bee Gees, the recently departed Gibb arguably made a more telling contribution to the way popular music was recorded with this track from his first solo album. Saved by the Bell was the first commercially successful track to feature the now ubiquitous drum machine.
DJ Kool Herc’s Merry-Go-Round (1972)
During his early stints as a DJ in New York, the Jamaican-born Bronx DJ hit upon a novelty way of maintaining the beats during his set, and inadvertently created the blueprint for hip-hop, samples and rapping. DJ Kool Herc, aka Clive Campbell, played two records at once, flitting between the drum breaks between the two so he could MC over the top of the records.
I Feel Love by Donna Summer (1977)
As Pablo Picasso once said: “Every value has its price in negative terms. The genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima”. This was the high water mark that influenced everything from Stock, Aitken and Waterman to Cheiron.
It may have been the year that punk broke, but in terms of last cultural impact on pop music there was no greater record than Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Need further evidence? This would have sounded modern no matter at what point in the last 35 years it was released.
Rapture by Blondie (1981)
It wasn’t the first time that hip-hop and rap had crept into the mainstream, it wasn’t the best thing that Blondie recorded and there’s a solid argument over whether it’s actually any good, but…
One of the most common tropes in modern pop music is the “rap bit”. The pop-princess will sing her verses and choruses before letting a guest (usually Snoop Dogg) tag his bit on. If Rapture were released now, Debbie Harry probably wouldn’t have shown her ill rhymes at the end (it’d probably have been Snoop Dogg) but this introduced another weapon to mainstream pop’s arsenal.
The Girl is Mine by Michael Jackson (1982)
The term “R&B” is something of a misnomer, given that it stands for rhythm and blues, and the genre contains a lot of the former and none of the latter. What we’ve come to know as R&B is basically just a slowed down version of disco.
Drop the tempo of Jackson’s 1979 hit Rock With You and there’s a basic blueprint for the whole genre. This was far more realised, and while there are far more “creatively interesting” Jackson works, you can draw a line showing the influence of this through Boys II Men, Mariah Carey, TLC and pretty much anyone on American Idol. It also featured Paul McCartney, which managed to both give it further exposure and encourage the notion that the former Beatle was incredibly uncool. It was almost as if there’s only a certain amount of cool in the world, and in 1982 Jackson took it when Sir Paul gave it up.
Someone Somewhere in Summertime by Simple Minds (1982)
If you are going to be playing to stadiums, conventional wisdom says that you go down the rocker route with AC/DC, or the more all encompassing U2 road. This is massively unfair on Simple Minds.
Someone Somewhere in Summertime has an obvious influence on Bono and co., but you can still hear it in Coldplay, Snow Patrol and even the more recent stuff from Take That.
Running Up that Hill by Kate Bush
Madonna may be a wider influence, Nina Simone may be the name to drop, but it is Kate Bush’s influence that is felt most thoroughly in Pop in 2012.
Wuthering Heights might be the calling card, and Hounds of Love was given new life by the Futureheads, but it’s Running Up that Hill which really captures the ennui and the grandeur so emulated now. Florence Welch, Marina and the Diamonds, even Ellie Goulding; they were taking notes.
On the Rocks by Thomas Bangalter (1995)
Take one look at the artists who earned the most money last year and you’ll see just how important the likes of David Guetta and Calvin Harris have become in pop music. The influence of French House on their work is unmistakable, and so they obviously owe a huge debt to Thomas Bangalter, who would go on to find much more acclaim as one half of Daft Punk.
Believe by Cher (1998)
Don’t torture yourself. As hideous as it is, Cher’s Believe was the first song to pioneer the use of Autotune, giving it that trademark aluminium sound. For a decade it became an easy go-to for any songwriter wanting to iron all the bumps (and some would say personality) out of a singer’s voice.
Even when Jay-Z proclaimed the “Death of Autotune” it came back like a Romero creation and continues to (pun intended) pop up all over the place. But Kanye West used it quite artistically on 808s and Heartbreaks. Quite.