6 Essential Power Pop Tracks from the Early 1980s

The late 1970s into the early ‘80s was a golden time for power pop, the genre birthed in the late ‘60s and influenced by the early years of rock and roll. At the dawn of the MTV era, a plethora of artists mined that robust sound, walking the line between pop melodiousness and rock vigor. They included The Knack, Nick Lowe, and Dwight Twilley. The following tracks are among the best songs of that era. Five are from America, and one is an undiscovered gem from Down Under that most Americans don’t know. Some of them were underappreciated in their day.

Videos by American Songwriter

“Ah! Leah!” by Donnie Iris and the Cruisers (1980)

Take a cursory look at Donnie Iris in this video with his nerdy glasses and yellow suit, and he looks like that awkward guy who might go stag to the prom. So you might be surprised at the wall of sound that he and the Cruisers produced. An underrated Top-30 hit, “Ah! Leah!” is one of the best power pop songs ever. This ode to romantic frustration is a collision of chunky chords and heavenly vocal harmonies one can easily play on repeat. What’s equally impressive is watching footage his band performing it live back in the day and even later—it sounds as good to the actual recording. They were that good.

“She Sheila” by The Producers (1982)

This Atlanta-spawned quartet also deserved bigger success back in the ‘80s. “She Sheila” hit No. 48 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock radio chart but really should have at least been a Top-40 hit. The lead single from their second album You Make the Heat, “She Sheila” combines a classic power pop song with an ‘80s vibe, due especially to Wayne Famous’ synth work. Its moody intro and break clash with hyperactive verses and choruses in the best possible way—the song is catchy as hell. Some people may not know or remember that The Producers were actually one of the live acts on the second MTV New Year’s Eve Ball in 1982 with Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, A Flock of Seagulls, and Duran Duran. Lineup and label changes derailed the group by the late ‘80s, but they reunited years later to play occasional gigs in the south and Wisconsin.

“She’s Tight” by Cheap Trick (1982)

Illinois icons Cheap Trick were already stars when MTV started, but the channel’s consistently heavy airplay of “She’s Tight” certainly helped sustain their career going into the ‘80s and reach a new audience. Surprisingly, the song only hit No. 65 on Billboard’s Top 100 singles chart. This was one of the raciest videos shown in the early days of that fledging network with closeups of a woman’s bright red lips and lyrics about calling up a girl to set up a rendezvous with the implication of making dirty videos. It was definitely pushing things on MTV in 1982. Their charisma and humor emanated from the clip, and the song’s raucous quality made it an instant video hit. It’s arguably Cheap Trick’s catchiest song.

“One in a Million” by The Romantics (1983)

Clad in leather suits and boasting big ‘50s-era pompadours during this part of their career, The Romantics were well known in the early days of MTV for “What I Like About You” and the sexy video for “Talking in Your Sleep,” featuring a roomful of lingerie-clad models. But the underrated Top-40 hit “One in a Million,” the video for which takes place in a ‘50s malt shop, is equally good. The ‘50s influence is very clear here, and the use of synth marimba in the break section is wonderfully unexpected. These guys also deserved to be scale greater heights. Another good pick from the In Heat album: “Rock You Up.”

“A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls (1983)

This California quartet certainly had an affinity for the ‘60s, and their single “A Million Miles Away,” which was included in the early Nicolas Cage movie Valley Girl, sounds like a slightly harder version of The Byrds. Singer Peter Case’s raspy delivery makes him different than other vocalists on this list, and the energized, jangly guitars are a standout. This is one of those tunes whose guitar hooks sink into your ears and will keep reeling you back in, no matter the distance. 

“Italian Boys” by Electric Pandas (1985)

Taken from their lone album Point Blank, which hit No. 22 on the Australian music charts, this perky cut stands out for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s a little bit of a cheat time-wise (not the early ‘80s), but the song really fits well with the other tunes here. Secondly, Lin Buckfield is the lone frontwoman on the list. (By the way, she went on to become an award-winning television news producer.) “Italian Boys” spawned a moody synth intro and dramatic guitar riff in the verses that contrast nicely with the upbeat choruses and a pounding, ska-like mid-section. It’s surprising this band did not get a shot here, but perhaps it was not ‘80s-sounding enough at a time when rock and pop music became increasingly commercial in America.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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