Pop music is a tricky thing, because it simultaneously encompasses momentary cultural fixations and expert songwriting. What separates a Ke$ha from a Beyoncé? And what artists get lost in the shuffle? We takes a look at what worked in vintage pop — and what we could learn from it today.
Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
Remember that scene in Back to the Future where Michael J. Fox commandeers the band playing at his high school’s dance? Before any schmuck could cue up an iTunes playlist, live bands played pop songs for audiences to dance (not grind) to. Back then, Chuck Berry’s songs were staples.
Does it still work? Of course! Who doesn’t get hit with a wave of nostalgic glee when they hear classic records from the likes of Berry and Elvis Presley?
The Beatles’ catalog
Could there be any other choice? From their humble roots as the prototypical Chuck Berry-style pop band to their eventual ascent to the throne of rock music, The Beatles portrayed a slew of musical styles that are still popular today. From the tight perfection of “Can’t Buy Me Love” to the sheer human brilliance of “Hey Jude,” The Beatles did it all.
Does it still work? Not all Beatles songs are upbeat, but 1, the compilation album with all 27 of the band’s No. 1 singles is a career-spanning collection of great tracks.
The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack
There’s a romanticized notion of the '70s these days. The decade is the home of classic rock titans and the birthplace of punk, after all. It’s easy to forget that for most of the decade, disco dwarfed other genres in its popularity. Disco hasn’t earned its modern caricatured persona without good reason either: When was the last time you wanted to throw on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack for any other reason than a joke?
Does it still work? Again, how often are you struck with the desire to crank some disco?
Alternatives: Get the Led out, but on the dance floor. Riff-heavy songs like “Black Dog” and “Dancing Days” (Seriously! Dancing days!) can win out on their classic rock prestige alone, but it’s easy to forget that Zeppelin also knew how to bring the funk. “Trampled Under Foot” was built with rhythmic motion in mind, and “The Crunge” was partially plagiarized from a groovy James Brown song.
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson
Forget about Michael Jackson's potential criminal problems and string of outrageous media stunts for a second: In the '80s, was there anything the King of Pop couldn't do? Few pop songs have ever been as well-crafted as "Billie Jean" — or the entire 1982 album Thriller that houses it.
Does it still work? Thrillerspent 80 consecutive weeks on the Billboard 200, 37 of which it ranked first. Throw on the record, and songs like "Billie Jean," "Thriller" and "Beat It" will show you why Jackson is still an icon 30 years after their release.
“MMMBop” by Hanson
Bad fashion, corny boy bands and painfully annoying music: Hanson embodied everything that was awful about pop music in the ‘90s. When it came to teen pop, genre giants like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys at least had sexual attraction working in their favor; Hanson was just a group of awkward adolescent guys singing music that sucked.
Does it still work? No. The popular misconception is that the ‘90s were a poor time for music, but it actually saw the peaks of grunge and alternative, indie’s emergence and hip-hop’s golden age.
Alternatives: In a modern world where electronic sounds and sampled elements dominated the party music scene, quirky alternative icon Beck might be able to find a new niche. His 1996 album Odelay was one of the first to wholeheartedly embrace digital sampling, and tracks like “Devils Haircut” and “Where It’s At” that sounded avant-garde 15 years ago are more sonically contextual today.
“Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley
Producers ruled the last decade, and the best example is “Crazy,” brought to listeners by indie producer and musical Swiss Army knife, Danger Mouse. Along with singer Cee Lo Green, Danger Mouse created one of the most ubiquitous pop hits in memory and embodied the ‘00s: Diverse collaborations between producers like Timbaland and unique artists created a vibrant tapestry of heterogeneous pop music.
Does it work? The pop charts from the ‘00s are best taken holistically. Other options to consider? Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”