Between his countless publications, podcasts and YouTube appearances, it’s hard to determine if Martin Popoff ever sleeps. It seems like there’s something new from him a couple of times a week. Case in point: he just debuted a pair of short publications in digital form under the banner Popoff’s Top 20. The first two installments are devoted to two very different sorts of cult musical acts and they offer a mixture of career retrospective, reminiscence and the type of cut-against-the-grain opinions that the author seems to live for.
First up is Popoff’s Top 20: Budgie. For those who don’t know them, they were a Welsh power trio that cranked out a long string of albums that combined prog, heavy rock, folk and all manner of other musical fancies in a manner that made huge commercial success impossible but also guaranteed the work would inspire fervent devotion in certain corners. For example, their work was covered a few times over by the retro-metal addicts turned superstars known as Metallica.
In his Budgie piece, Popoff quickly establishes his contrarian bonafides by ignoring the group’s first two albums entirely and devoting no less than 20% of his list to selections from Deliver Us From Evil, the synth-tinged final album of the band’s early ’80s run that remains a hot topic of debate amongst Budgie fans. The dismissal of the first two albums will ruffle feathers but he makes a good case for the sense of songcraft and impressive production on the material from Deliver.
Elsewhere, he includes some of the obvious suspects like “Breadfan” and “Crash Course In Brain Surgery,” both later waxed by Metallica, as well as material from the NWOBHM makeover they pursued on Power Supply and Nightflight. Appropriately, Bandolier is singled out as perhaps the best album of the catalog via discussion of a few key cuts. In a nice touch, he singles out a few songs from the underrated Impeckable album and speaks with appreciation for the pedal-to-the-metal approach of guitarist John Thomas during Budgie’s NWOBHM era.
The second Popoff’s Top 20 is devoted to the Babys. They are beloved to AOR fanatics for a string of albums that combined radio-friendly arena rock with periodic pomp rock touches and sleek ballads. They’re best known for the lavishly-arranged ballad hits “Isn’t It Time” and “Every Time I Think Of You” as well as the fact that they produced a pair of future stars in singer John Waite and keyboardist Jonathan Cain, who would later be a key player in Journey’s most successful albums (both men would also reunite in AOR supergroup Bad English).
Popoff expresses his atypical opinions a few different ways in his Babys essay. The most pronounced is the way he not only dismisses Broken Heart, a key album to Babys fans, but also criticizes the production of Ron Nevison. The latter charge is peak Popoff-ian contrarianism to Schlockmania’s mindset as Nevison’s Cinemascope approach to production is a key part of the album’s appeal and makes it a uniquely lavish venture into arena rock (it’s kind of like a shadow twin to UFO’s Lights Out, a similarly lavish and orchestral-tinged Nevison production). Popoff also leaves off a bunch of hits while devoting a full third of his list to cuts from the final Babys album, On The Edge, which is often written off for as an afterthought that preceded the group’s dissolution.
The essay is an interesting if difficult read because Popoff seems like he’s arguing with the band’s career and catalog, dropping a little interesting gossip about their famously turbulent professional affairs here and there and taking the tack they were a band that suffered from too much hype and never managed to live up to their promise and sense of ambition. In fairness to the author, there is the ring of truth in those charges: despite a string of memorable singles, they never stayed in one creative place long enough to solidfy success due to a mixture of bad breaks on the professional side and stormy creative relationships on the personal side.
That said, there’s more than enough quality material in the Babys catalog to make a strong and varied playlist of quality AOR, regardless of whose opinions you go by, and Popoff makes some solid picks here. He includes both of the hit ballads mentioned earlier, a handful of choice rockers like “Run To Mexico” and “Head First” and even a super-deep cut in “Step In Line,” a song from a collection of demos that was released after the band was a few albums into their major label contract.
Elsewhere, he includes the title track from Broken Heart, even if he seems to be at war with the album itself, some pomp-tinged cuts like “Union Jacks” and even makes an interesting case that “True Love True Confession” could be considered a predecessor of ’80s pop metal. No less than seven of the ten cuts that comprise On The Edge make Popoff’s list: to his credit, they’re all strong songs that prove it was an underrated album full of well-crafted material powered by the urgency of a band that was fighting for its professional life.
If you’re a devoted fan of either group, Popoff’s takes might make you bristle at times but they’ll also get the old neurons firing, making you ponder why you love what you love in each group’s catalog and perhaps sending you to your stacks of music to pull a few albums. It also helps that the price is right: they’re priced at 0.99 Canadian so American readers can snag both for just under $1.60 American. Brace yourself for a bit of quirkiness and you’ll find a pair of intriguing reads.
Buy Popoff’s Top 20: Budgie here
Buy Popoff’s Top 20: The Babys here