Best audio goose bumps

Local pop songs that stole my heart

illustration by Don Button

It started nearly 20 years ago with an Anton Barbeau song. I’d just started going to local shows. I caught one of the singer-songwriter’s sets at a Midtown coffeehouse and was instantly smitten with his odd take on true love gone horribly, horribly wrong in an auto accident.

“And then her friends came ’round / they were beautiful / they’d been drinking,” Barbeau sang before gutting us with the tragic kicker: “All I wanted was her hair and incense, all I got was crash, crash, crash.”

I found “Heather Song” heartbreaking, yet saved from dismal gloom by the music—a dark and twisted amalgamation of XTC and the Beatles that ruthlessly stuck in my head. Never had a drunk-driving story sounded so catchy. I was humming that damn song for days.

Pop music, by its very definition, means “popular music”—think Top 40 and American Idol—but pop music at its smartest, most sophisticated and most beautiful is often not what plays well in Peoria. Nor is it always embraced by those who believe that anything with a hooky melody can’t be serious, adventurous or even forward-thinking.

Sometimes a good pop song just can’t get a break. Sacramento pop music is largely overlooked by not only the rest of the nation, but by many of its residents as well. Too bad. Our local history is a musical minefield exploding with sonic surprises.

The following are my picks for 10 of Sactown’s best pop songs. These catchy numbers never fail to give me goose bumps, make me sing along or get me dancing. They’re songs sought out as part of a decades-long exploration fueled by the ashes of lost love in “Heather Song.”

Of course, it’s not a comprehensive list. There are so many great Sacramento pop bands, old and new (Go National, the Bananas, Moist, the Curbfeelers, Rocketship, the Tiki Men, the Decibels, Pets, English Singles, Buildings Breeding and Ganglians—just to name a very few), that it’s impossible and pointless to try to include them all.

So, no hate mail if I skipped your favorite, OK? Unless you want to write your missive in the form of a three-minute pop song. Then by all means—hit me with your best shot.

1. Agent Ribbons
“Chelsea, Let’s Go Join the Circus”

I spent spring 2007 playing this song over and over, imagining what life could’ve been like if I’d gone down that path not taken. Singer Natalie Gordon’s husky voice, set to Lauren Hess’ hypnotic drum beats, makes for a saucy, irresistible story of an intense friendship between two fun-seeking friends: “They may whistle when you bend over / but I’m the only one coming over / so boys, keep your nickels and your dimes.” Rawr.

2. Cake

Not a remake of the classic Dolly Parton song, but John McCrea’s wry ode to a woman who smells of “cream rinse and tobacco smoke.” This early Cake track, released first on a cassette EP and then later on 1994’s Motorcade of Generosity, has all the band’s trademark quirky characteristics: those staccato vocals, a nerdy amalgamation of country, funk and pop, and, of course, a bittersweet take on love. It’s the kind of song that makes me wish I was the Jolene in someone else’s life.

3. Knock Knock
“She Knocks Me Out”

This song makes me want to roller skate, and that is one of the auxiliary definitions when you look up the meaning of “pop song” in the dictionary.

4. Tiger Trap
“Sour Grass”

This track from the short-lived but much-loved Sacto pop band is a mixtape staple. It’s the kind of song you put on repeat and listen to on your headphones while strolling around Midtown, trying to get over a broken heart. Not that I, uh, speak from personal experience or anything.

All we wanted was Anton Barbeau’s hair and incense.

Photo By Olivier Rodriguez

5. Public Nuisance
“Small Faces”

The granddaddy of Sac’s modern garage-rock/pop scene,’60s-era Public Nuisance (featuring a then-teenaged David “The Dark Lord” Houston) crafted perfect psychedelic pop songs that still sound groovy today. This one is so timelessly badass, the White Stripes covered it.

6. Bourgeois Tagg
“I Don’t Mind at All”

I didn’t really appreciate this song when it first came out in 1987, but I’ve grown to love it as the years pass. With a sweeping string section and that Beatles-worthy melody, it’s a poignant goodbye song.

7. Groovie Ghoulies
“When the Kids Go Go Go Crazy”

Most of this band’s pop-punk songs were of the silly, horror-flick-inspired variety, but singer-songwriter Kepi is as influenced by Neil Diamond as he is by the Ramones. (Don’t scoff. It’s a combination that really, really works.) On tracks like this one, the result is tantalizing ear candy that makes you want to pogo as hard and fast as (non)humanly possible.

8. An Angle
“Green Water”

If you’ve ever ordered “the usual” from your favorite bartender, you’ll feel as though Kris Anaya wrote “Green Water” just for you. A jaunty horn section, pretty harmonies and the insistent refrain, “We’ll just dance it off,” make it one of my Sacramento summer perennials.

9. The Knockoffs
“Rumble in the Housing Project”

Tom Hutchinson is Sacramento’s punk-pop answer to Elvis Costello. This song about a frustration-fueled 3 a.m. brawl is so replete with aggressive, bouncy beats and hooks that you almost don’t notice how sharp and socially astute it actually is.

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10. Baby Grand
“My Heart Is Here”

Full disclosure: My significant other plays guitar in this band, but even if that weren’t the case, “My Heart Is Here” would be a constant in my life. Singer Gerri White has crafted a soft, beautiful song about a girl who “feels too young for this nostalgia.”

Someday I’m going to write a screenplay and this song is going to play at the end over the closing credits after the film’s heroine finally decides, once and for all, that her friends can leave for far-flung locales, but Sacramento will always have her heart.