Before he came the kingpin of hard-rockin’ discography overview books, Martin Popoff established himself as a specialist in heavy metal criticism via review guides. In his initial flurry of publications, he also released a book entitled The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs Of All Time. The concept for that book was straightforward: he took a worldwide poll of metal fans, used the results to discern the top 500 songs, deployed his critical chops to write a capsule entry for each song and dug into his vault of personal interviews and vintage publications for anecdotes that allowed the artists to provide background info on their work.
He recently revisited this concept but took it a step further, breaking down the polling into decades (’70s, ’80s and ’90s). The first fruits of this process have been issued in Riff Raff: The Top 250 Heavy Metal Songs Of The ’70s and they offer a fun, informative trip back to Popoff’s past as a two-fisted critic.
The list of winning songs in this 250 title list offer a high-octane blast for anyone into that developmental/experimental birth period that heavy metal experienced in the ’70s. The top entries are dominated by a few familiar names (specifically: Sabbath, Priest, Purple, Led Zep). Said names are also quite prominent in the later rankings but the focus widens to work in other beloved institutions (Queen, Rush, AC/DC, The Scorpions, early Van Halen) as well as key songs from cult acts (Starz, Angel, Sir Lord Baltimore, etc.).
Popoff has taken his original entries for familiar tunes from the previous book and rewritten/expanded them plus added several fresh capsule reviews for new tunes with interview quotes to accompany them. The results make for breezy reading: Popoff stepped away from writing reviews a while back but one gets a sense he’s having fun flexing those chops again here, indulging himself with poetic descriptions of riffs and song structures as well as some tongue-twisting wordplay. In vintage Popoff style, he’s also not afraid to throw out the occasional critical dart when he disagrees with a particular ranking.
Indeed, some of the most entertaining stuff once you reach the obvious selections that dominate the top of the list are Popoff’s zingers towards the songs he doesn’t care for. Sample heresies: “Stairway To Heaven” is described as “Bit of a duff track, filler… would have made a good b-side” and “Child In Time” is described as “more like hot dog and bathroom break time, despite what rewritten history might try to tell us.” He’s more careful about throwing out such contrarian bits than he was in his younger, scrappier days but watch out for the occasional dig that might raise your eyebrows.
That said, anyone who gets their feathers ruffled by the intermittent tart opinion from Popoff will find solace in the artist commentary sections. Popoff has done a fine job of selecting comments that either illuminate the creation of a particular recording or add context to what was going on in the group’s career at that moment. For example, you get insight into how Nazareth’s choice of studio informed the sound on their classic Hair Of The Dog album or Jimmy Bain’s acerbic commentary on his sudden, unexpected dismissal from Rainbow. Those are just two of the 250 choice nuggets the heavy music fan can pick up here and one could argue these bits alone make the book worthwhile for such readers.
All in all, Riff Raff: The Top 250 Heavy Metal Songs Of The ’70s offers perspective, information and the occasional thought-provoking moment. Better yet, it’s assembled in a way that ensures you can enjoy whether you read it cover to cover or riffle through it to seek out favorite bands/songs. If you’re already a Popoff fan, it’ll also whet your appetite for what will be unleashed when he gets around to the ’80s and ’90s.