Rough Trade Essential: Pop

Rough Trade Records

April 26th, 2024

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Memorable melodies, accessible anthems, music consumed on mass appeal. Pop music has always been music of the moment.

It’s hard to pin down what defines the genre of pop. In the simplest of terms, the label pop is merely an abbreviation of the word ‘popular’, making it an umbrella label for any genre or style which reflects the aesthetic appetite of the moment.

From the snappy lyrics and clean-cut image of The Beatles to the sensual disco-inspired club-cuts of Madonna, pop is a vehicle which brings together musical influences from a range of eras, showcased by artists who have become icons, not just through music but also through image. During the ’60s, pop music was largely synonymous with the energy and attitude of rock and roll, perhaps psychedelic tinges, and then shoegaze-y dream pop. Latterly, the 90s charts became flooded with infectious ‘dance-pop’ tracks, boldly borrowing from 70s/80s disco and house music, an equally pivotal influence in pop’s evolution.

All of these musical scenes still permeate the sound of pop today, but the upbeat and high-energy nature of dance-pop has certainly held one of the tightest grips, with the rise of experimental electronic pop music responsible for some of today’s biggest pop stars (Dua Lipa, Caroline Polachek, Charli XCX or K-Pop titans such as BTS and Blackpink breaking the internet). As the genre proceeds to climb to new heights of popularity, we can also quite clearly acknowledge this impact on vinyl with mainstream pop albums driving the ongoing vinyl boom. (Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Olivia Rodrigo leading the charge in sales.)

It may be a resurgence, but pop and vinyl have long enjoyed a synonymous relationship, as Rough Trade director Nigel House remembers the influence of Seymour Stein, the late music mogul who discovered Madonna:

“He came into the old shop on Kensington Park Road with a box of 12″s in ’82 by an artist called Madonna. We were selling Ramones, Talking Heads… what did he think we were going to be able to do with this?! How wrong we were.”

Nigel House

My Goal is to Rule the World! - Brilliant Photos of Pre-fame Madonna in 1982  by Richard Corman - Flashbak
Madonna pre-fame in 1982. Shot by Richard Colman

An immortal phenomenon of modern music. We explore the evolution of pop and its enduring nature via a selection of Rough Trade Essentials and firm favourite pop classics.

Prince Purple Rain (1984)

One of pop’s most enigmatic masters, proving just how experimental the genre could be. Blending rock, R&B, gospel, and orchestral music, Purple Rain is an era-defining album which came with an aesthetic that Prince would be remembered for forever: ‘The Purple One.’ The timeless title track became the go-to, heard booming from every 80’s kid’s ghettoblasters, capturing the attention of popular culture hook, line and sinker.

Album artwork for Diamond Life by Sade

SadeDiamond Life (1984)

A sleek and sensual album evolving the pop-R&B sensibility. The debut album of English band Sade straddled these two genres, showcasing a sinewy after-hours groove, laden with minimalist funk. As the eighties boomed with synth-pop and electro-pop from bands like Pet Shop Boys or Duran Duran, Sade’s style was labelled ‘sophisti-pop’, a new brand of stripped-back sounds for the dance floor, whilst remaining equally infectious and danceable, true to pop characteristics. Beyond the music, the figure of front person Sade Adu has forever become embedded in pop culture, her signature style and beauty establishing her as an icon of mid-80s music as well as her smooth soulful sound.

Madonna – Like A Virgin (1984)

Unapologetic pop provocation leaving a lasting mark on pop culture. Madonna is undoubtedly one of pop’s most enduring icons, her nightclub-ready beats took the world by storm with their overt sexualisation and infectious nature. Blending elements of disco, pop, and punk rock Madonna drew inspiration from artists like David Bowie and Debbie Harry and sensationalised these into her signature sound. It was not only her pop star presence on stage or the studio which made her an icon, but also her actions offstage, as an advocate for women’s rights, sexual liberation and the LGBTQ+ community. With hits like Material Girl and Like A Virgin, this album will forever be an essential in pop history, cementing Madonna as our queen of pop.

Kylie MinogueFever (2001)

An introduction to millennial pop futurism. Kylie‘s eighth studio album Fever is arguably the definitive album of her career. Featuring iconic hits Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (which amassed a staggering 40 number ones across the globe), It’s In Your Eyes and Love at First Sight. The legendary recording artist catapulted dance and electronica into the mainstream, provided the whole package with image, songs and videos always perfectly executed. Very heavily informed by disco, Minogue’s artistry is an example of how the disco genre majorly influenced contemporary pop for the better.

Taylor Swift 1989 (2014)

The country sweetheart’s graduation into an unstoppable pop force. Pure powerhouse anthems, 1989 was widely perceived as Taylor‘s step away from more retro influences to claim her place as one of pop’s finest songwriters of all time with the most infectious hooks and vocal urgency. Themes of romance, adolescence and defiance of expectations run through this album, proving widely relatable to the eager pop fanbase, the perfect amount of boldness and brashness to be a stone-cold pop classic.

Lorde Melodrama (2017)

Emotionally charged electronics inspiring a new wave of introspective electro-pop. Melodrama is Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor (Lorde)’s pop opus, a high-octane style with maximalist production and gothic undertones. Pop’s most in-demand producer Jack Antanoff (Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Bleachers) brings a catchier side to Lorde’s surging tracks, also creating softer moments, for an album largely inspired by breakup. Antanoff’s productions reach new territories, building melodic hooks around synths and syncopated beats, capturing the mood of pop fans ready to be immersed in grittier sonics and the aesthetic that comes with that.

Caroline PolacheckPang (2019)

Changing the face of hyper pop forever with her sweeping debut Pang, Caroline Polachek embodies the maximalism which pop can be all about. Beautiful vocals, soar over electronic soundscapes, often ethereal at times. Everything about Polachek’s style is intricate yet bold, the arrangements, vocals, lyrics, melody, the production is all top-notch. Epic avantgarde soundscapes which are emotive and sexy (tracks like So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings) Polachek’s pop is all about world-building whilst still being accessible, a more fluid, future-facing sound for today’s future-facing pop fans, invited to cry on the dancefloor to her alt-pop masterclass.

Harry Styles Fine Line (2019)

The perfect full-package pop album from pop’s biggest star today. The ascent of Harry Styles from boyband pinup to the highest level of pop stardom has been quite something to behold. Style’s perfect pop crooners increasingly hark back to 60s and 70s rock and folk (Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac) and the fully-formed star’s onstage presence emulates a glam-rock charisma reminiscent of Bowie, the chameleon of pop. Fine Line serves up number-one hits in Watermelon Sugar and Golden, a No. 1 seller on vinyl in 2020 and continuing through 2021 as the No. 4-selling vinyl album. A key indicator of ‘pop’ music’s success on the vinyl format, it’s also notable that Harry’s self-titled debut record sold 236,000 copies on vinyl when it debuted in 2017 and his third solo effort would have reached no1 just on vinyl sales alone. If pop music means bestselling, then Styles paves the way.

Charli XCX How I’m Feeling Now (2020)

Although made in the confines of lockdown, Charli XCX‘s How I’m Feeling Now flows uninhibited, a frenetic concoction of hyper-digital ear-worms, a party we’re all invited to escape in. Charli knows the formula for creating perfect but distinctive pop songs, combining rap verses with glitchy production quirks and distortion. No matter how wild and wonky she may take it, every song on How I’m Feeling Now can boast a killer pop hook, undoubtedly driving fans wild and defining Charli as a true pop queen of this generation.

Rina SawayamaSawayama (2020)

Truly memorable music from a modern-day pop star. Rina Sawayama is clearly a distinct force, her genre-splicing style drawing on nu-metal and avant-pop elements whilst also delivering uplifting pure pop goodness in its hooks. Camp and hyper-realistic, Sawayama has long established the ties of her music to her own queerness and the queer community she wishes to speak to and represent (Chosen Family). Operating with the perfect level of melodrama her debut enraptures, flitting from some of the best new ballads in pop to sensual dance floor sensibilities (Comme Des Garcons or Xs).

Olivia Rodrigo Sour (2021)

Pop-punk-flavoured anthems from a Gen-Z icon, Olivia Rodrigo made her triumphant introduction on SOUR with confessional but biting songwriting and Paramore-esque angst. Rodrigo has flourished within this new era of music revitalised by emo, seamlessly switching from belting vocals to sugar-sweet melodies with the pop-punk petulance first laid down by her icons Hayley Williams and Avril Lavigne.  Channelling both heartbreak and rage Rodrigo is an amazing songwriter, more than prepared to claim her place in pop music’s upper echelon.

Further listening…

Sophie Ellis-Bextor | Studio photography fashion, Fashion photography  inspiration, Lips photo
Sophie Ellis-Bextor in 2009.

The King of Pop himself Michael Jackson, a hitmaker like no other. An artist with many faces, David Bowie‘s pop side is equally as important as his eclectic alt-rock status. His bold visual identity made a huge impact on pop culture of the time, influencing music videos, live performances, and the ’80s as a whole. Bowie will forever be heralded as a pioneer of the genre after his legendary Starman performance on Top of the Pops in 1972 cemented itself as one of pop culture’s most unforgettable moments. Catchy, upbeat song craft promoting messages of peace and love, The Beatles set a blueprint for traditional pop in the ’60s. And fashion queen and disco diva Grace Jones transformed the ’80s pop landscape.

Murdering the dance floor since 2001, Sophie Ellis-Bextor is an unforgettable noughties pop sensation, soaring to the top of the U.K. charts with her glossy, disco and ’80s-synth-pop influenced dance sound. One of the biggest pop stars on the planet today, Billie Eilish is an excellent wordsmith, captivating massive audiences with her melodic gothic flair. Another swift riser, Dua Lipa‘s ascent to global pop stardom is delivering consistent bangers and classic-sounding dance-pop songs. Dua’s collaboration with Elton John saw the pop-rock legend return to the top of the U.K. Singles Chart for the first time in 16 years, making Lipa your ‘favourite rock star’s favourite pop star.’

Rising pop experimentalist Chappell Roan emerges as pop’s next big thing, raised on a neat diet of late ’00s and early 2010s pop music such as Kesha, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Embracing a drag persona and aesthetic Roan is set to lead the queer pop revolution. The hyperpop world just keeps expanding. One of its freshest new faces is Queens-based artist Eartheater, a fascinating figure crafting enchanting, raw experimental pop whilst still drawing from traditional pop structures.

While the future is never assured, we can feel certain that pop music’s insatiable legacy and its ever-expanding nature is sure to influence a generation of artists to come.


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