Nov 14, 2007

On Moments of Pop Perfection

Cover of the single by the The Byrds, Turn! Turn! Turn!Cover of the 1965 single by the The Byrds, "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

I have been thinking today about the qualities that make up the perfect pop song, that three-minute aural ecstasy that can momentarily brighten even the darkest days, or with which you connect on a visceral level.

The perfect pop song must have a memorable melody to separate it from its many thousands of musical competitors. It should have a hook that suddenly catches your ear, and such a song should jump out of the speakers with an immediacy that jars you and generates shivers.

You instantly know this song is flawless.

Perfect pop songs should possess first-rate musicianship, as well as recognizable compositional ability. I'm not arguing that every pop composer needs to be on par with Chopin, but at the same time I hesitate to classify a three-chord, boisterous song like the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie" in this perfect category.

The lyrics of the perfect pop song should not only synch with the music, but should convey human emotion in a unique and meaningful way. The listener and the lead singer join together in a moment of pathos, and the separation between the two blurs.

Thus, having laid out some basic criteria for the perfect pop song, let's move to some examples of songs I put into the category of "perfect," which I have organized in chronological fashion. Feel free to leave your nominations in the comments section of this post.

The Byrds, "Turn! Turn! Turn!": From the opening twang of Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar to the soaring harmonies, this song exemplifies the possibilities afforded to the genre of pop at a time when people were beginning to recognize that this musical form could communicate more than the emotions of lovestruck teenagers.

The Beatles, "When I'm Sixty-Four": Yes, there are probably two dozen Beatles songs that could qualify as inherently perfect, so I picked one of my all-time favorite love songs. At times following Tin Pan Alley chord structures, "Sixty-Four" blends a series of deceptively simple piano riffs with a clarinet trio, chimes, a plucked cello, and Paul McCartney's busy bass lines, along with those characteristic Beatle harmonies.

Todd Rundgren, "I Saw The Light": Rundgren wrote this song for singer-songwriter Carole King, and this 2:15 gem is a testimonial to the concept of the one-man band (he played all the instruments and provided all the vocals on the self-produced album Something, Anything). A truly inspired piece of pop magic about a protagonist who just figures out he's in love.

The Raspberries, "Go All The Way": Once billed as "Cleveland's Paul McCartney," Eric Carmen shines in this power pop ballad whose titular double-entendre slipped passed the censors. The blending of Wally Bryson's blistering lead guitar and Carmen's operatic tenor, coupled with a dizzying flurry of key changes and bridges, makes this song more like an electrified symphony than a mere pop song.

U2, "Sunday Bloody Sunday": That angry arpeggiated guitar riff sets the tone for this uncompromising look at the effects of war on everyday people, and Bono was in fine form when he belted out the defiant lead vocals. Still gets my blood rushing when I first hear the Edge, that pounding, martial drumbeat of Larry Mullen Jr., and the plaintive cry of the violinist, Steve Wickham.


LTLOP said...

Ahh, When I'm sixty-four... That song has saved me from killing many a times. The kids were young, screaming, either from being overtired, cranky or just to annoy the hell outta me. I would put that song in and it was like kidde opium. They would quiet down and listen to the song and give dad a few moments of peace.

HumboldtsClio said...

I might add Andy Kim's "Rock Me Gently" to that list. But that could be because its been stuck in my head for more than a week now.

historymike said...

Humboldt's Clio:

Agreed! I have always loved that song, although the use of it in that car commercial is a bit annoying.

historymike said...



"Music that can bridge generations" should also be a consideration is the perfect pop song.

Despite the fact that some of the music my kids like leaves me underwhelmed, they all have a solid appreciation for music of the past.

When my oldest daughter went away to college, she "borrowed" some of my Beatles CDs. I was both irritated and flattered by her choices.

Tim Higgins said...


I would add another category for your consideration. When the harmonies of a song are just so tight that they make the hair on the back of your nect stand up.

"Seven Bridges Road" by the Eagles comes to mind, but there is another one by Graham Nash and David Crosby "To the Last Whale" that always does it for me. The "Critical Mass" section has no words, but the combination of voices is something to hear.

-Sepp said...

Only 2 dozen Beatles tunes? Are you mad sir? I strongly suggest this one from youtube...


Engineer of Knowledge said...

Hello History Mike,
I would like to add that it was not only the great harmonies of the group which included David Crosby (later of CSN fame) with Roger Mc Guinn’s lead singing and 12 string Rickenbacker guitar that just rang with the double strings, but when you have folk song writer legends like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan supplying your material; well it was a formula that would be hard to duplicate today. Not to say that their own originals like, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Eight Miles High” that was soaring to #1 until the FCC decided it was a drug song and should be black listed for regular radio along with Dylan’s, “Every One Must Get Stoned.” Go Figure? Even the Beatles said that the Byrds were their favorite American group at that time.

A group that defined a generation and others emulated until a black man from Seattle taught everyone else how the guitar should be played!! I think his name was Jimmy something?!?!? :-)
Too many great songs that are attached to so many different memories for my generation.

Todd Rundgren:
At the age of 17 and wrote a song call, “Hello It’s Me” when he was with his high school garage band called Nazz. For me this is the time that defined Todd.

historymike said...

Tim Higgins:

Those are some excellent examples of pop harmony that transcend mere sonics.

historymike said...


OK, seven dozen. Nice montage on that YouTube video, BTW.

historymike said...

Engineer of Knowledge:

You raise a good point about having talented songwriters cranking out your material.

microdot said...

Mike, I'm blogging from East Fifth Street in NYC....How could I
not resist posting on this subject...
There are moments of perfect pop that make my goatee stand on end, or as Little Richard might say, make my big toe stand up in my boot...
I love Mr. Engineers choice of 8 Miles High by the Byrds...totally visionary music that some how fused John Coltrane with a future that was somehow never realized.
I Can See For Miles by the Who.
7 and 7 Is, by Love
and I'm still just glancing the surface before 1967........
Music that can stand the test of time and still be as exciting today
as it was 30 years ago......
The shimmering new wave disco of Hearts of Glass by Blondie.
Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads
Rock Lobster, B52's
Flashlight by Parlament/Funkadelic
Or, One Nation Under A Groove....
Oh, Mr. History Mike, why did you do this to me? They are all my favorite songs. There are so many songs that "changed my life" and for 20 seconds, at least were PERFECT POP!
Say, when was the last time you listened to Here Comes The Warm Jets by Brian Eno?