There are a lot of subgenres of rock music. If you grew up with the evolution of rock music, you probably remember their names just as easily as you remember the names of your favorite bands. But if you're a younger fan, some of the names can get a little confusing.
One of those names is jangle pop.
You hear it thrown around a lot, but what does it mean? This article will be your jangle pop guide, walking you through the definition and history of this distinct rock genre.
What Is Jangle Pop?
Don't let the name confuse you. The bands you categorized in this subgenre are far more rock than pop and certainly don't have anything to do with bells.
Jangle pop is a genre of rock music — most popular in the '80s and early 90's — that features brittle, trebly, clangy, often upbeat, and major-key guitar parts. Jangle refers to the chiming, bell-like sound of the guitars, and "pop" refers to the more catchy, fun, sing-along quality to the songs as opposed to more "in your face" genres of rock music like punk and no-wave.
Jangle pop has its origins in the same place that most sub-genres of rock music have their origins — the 60's.
Bands like The Byrds, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and some of Bob Dylan's early bands had a distinctly tinny, jangly sound to the guitar work. This was more out of necessity than anything — rock music was young; Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin hadn't come along yet with their annihilating, dark, power-chords.
The Grandfather of Jangle Pop
A great example of a proto jangle-rock song is "I Want You" by Bob Dylan. "I Want You" features Bob Dylan's signature folk-rock rhythms and bizarre vocals, but rolling through the background of the track is a pretty, clanging major-key guitar lead.
That's not the only influence Mr. Dylan had on the genre though. The Byrds' phenomenal cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man" features a distinctly jangly guitar sound that Dylan hadn't included in the original. This, paired with the Dylan lyric "in the jingle jangle morning, I'll come following you", is what gave the whole genre its name.
(Side note: in the 21st century, it's easy to write Dylan off as a folkie, but he was a titanic figure in the history of music. He influenced everyone from folk-rock singers, to punks, to popstars. He was even an influence on The Beatles.)
A Dark Age
While that wonderful jangly sound was at the forefront of 60's pop music, the seventies saw the birth of more forceful rock tunes. Bands like Roxy Music, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC forced the genre into a heavier direction.
You can think of the '70s as a sort of the genres dark age — there's a lot of great music in that decade, but not a lot of jangle pop.
However, the '70s weren't a jangle-wasteland. If you dig deep enough you can hear some shouts from the future of the sound. Musicians like Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman of The Modern Lovers, and Colin Newman of Wire, were developing a 60's-influenced sound that would vastly influence post-punk and jangle pop.
Check out our history of post-punk to see some parallel developments. Listen to "The Passenger" by Iggy Pop, and "Girlfriend" by The Modern Lovers for a diminished — but distinct — taste of the jangle sound.
The decade of the seventies did span an even more jangly band though.
While the rest of the elements of the genre aren't quite in place, you can hear highly jangly guitar work on cuts off of Big Star's influential yet underrated album "Radio City".
Songs like "O, My Soul", and "September Gurls" feature that an almost uncannily prescient jangle pop sound. It's especially impressive when you consider that Aerosmith dropped "Get Your Wings" the same year. Big Star is often forgotten about, but they were extremely ahead of their time.
The Golden Age
In the '80s, jangle pop took off.
The early pioneers like Iggy and The Modern lovers spawned a ton of wonderful bands in the post-punk movement of the late 70's/early '80s who embraced the edge of punk along with the fun of pop. Bands like X, XTC, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, Television laid the foundation for what was about to explode.
And explode it did. In the early '80s, out of post-punks foundation, the most famous jangle pop bands emerged. Bands like The Go-Betweens, Felt, and The Soft Boys released albums that took the jangle sound of the '60s and raised it to a higher, smoother, catchier degree.
Only the genre wasn't done yet.
R.E.M burst onto the scene some of the most distinct jangle pop albums of all time. Just listen to any song off of "Murmer" to hear the genre in full swing. Though R.E.M achieved greater fame later on with 90's alt-rock songs, back in the '80s, you couldn't get more jangle pop than them.
That is... unless you listened to this next band.
Jangle Pop Shakespeare
If you're looking for the most "jangle pop" band of all time, look no further than The Smiths.
When The Smiths broke through in 1984 with their self-titled debut, they forever revolutionized rock music. Gone was the braggadocio, the hyper-masculinity of rock's formative years.
But The Smiths lead vocalist isn't the one we're calling Jangle Pop Shakespeare. That title would have to go to The Smith's guitarist, Johnny Marr. All jangle pop artists who came after him were inspired by him in some way, directly or indirectly, and all pioneers who came before him wouldn't be regarded as "jangle pop" if it weren't for him revolutionizing the sound.
How did he do it? Well, just listen to him play "This Charming Man" to find out. Once Marr came through with this laid-back, deceptively complex, subtle guitar part, the days of the guitar-shredder were numbered. Guitar playing from here on out would focus on building landscapes, not firing rockets.
You can hear echoes of the jangly, twangy, laid-back-but-virtuosic guitar part of this one song in decades of music to come. Just listen to "Range Life" or "Harness Your Hopes" by Pavement, "Lives" or "Float On" by Modest Mouse, and "Ode to Viceroy" by Mac DeMarco to hear it reverberate.
(Side note: for further demonstration of Johnny's influence, just listen to this clip of The Smiths, far-right and racist nonsense spewing singer, singing "This Charming Man" with a different guitarist in the background. It just falls flat without that distinct Marr sound.)
Future of Jangle Pop
After the peak in the '80s and early '90s, jangle pop as a genre slowly started to wind down. It certainly doesn't have the eye and ear of the world like it used to, but let's take a look at some artists that are keeping the spirit alive.
For a while, it looked like the future of Jangle Pop was going to lie in the hands of one young British boy, Archie Marshall, AKA King Krule. His early songs (written when he was only a teenager) like "Easy Easy", "Rock Bottom" and "Out Getting Ribs" had that washed-out-but-intricate, sleazy-but-serene sound popularized by The Smiths.
He brought a unique flair to the genre — while his guitars sounded like Johnny Marr, his vocals sounded more like Johnny Rotten, and his production had the slickness of a contemporary hip-hop album. It looked like he was leading the charge to take the genre into a more experimental, direction, the same way Johnny Rotten took punk rock into the world of early electronic music/dub with his band Public Image Ltd.
(Speaking of Public Image Ltd, if you like post-punk, we are a post-punk record label. Check out some of our artists!)
But as the 2010s wore on, Krule focused more on an experimental jazz-rock approach. He still might come back and claim his place as jangle pop's savior, but for now, we're looking at someone else...
Rock music has a lot of confusing subgenres. Thankfully, jangle pop isn't nearly as confusing as it sounds. Now that you know some of jangle pop's forefathers, like Bob Dylan, some of its key figures, like Johnny Marr, and some of its saviors, like Snail Mail, you're well on your way to building the jangle pop playlist of your dreams
If you have more questions about jangle pop, contact us today!