Millennials love Steely Dan. It seems that my generation cohort has fallen in love with the kitchen-clean jazzy rock full of seedy characters and acerbic wit created by studio wizards Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Steely Dan were a great band who recorded some of the best albums of the ‘70s, but where do you go after you’ve heard them all? Many have gone deeper into what is now known as “yacht rock”, a genre term coined decades later by a quirky web show to describe the smooth, jazzy soft rock of Steely Dan’s era, and have gotten into Toto or Pablo Cruise. Aside from yacht rock, though, there’s another path to take in musical exploration after you’re done playing Gaucho for the 11th time: An entire genre and era of music that sprung up after Steely Dan’s 1981 breakup and was highly influenced by the duo. Sophisti-pop, like yacht rock, was also coined years later to describe a musical trend that didn’t quite have a name in its time.
The sophisti-pop bands were smooth and jazzy like the yacht rockers, and sprung up from the British new wave scene of the early 80s. Some of the groups brought in R&B, glam, and post-punk influences, while others tried to match the sardonic wit Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Sophisti-pop’s golden age was from the mid 80s to the early 90s, and the genre continues to influence newer artists like The 1975 and Destroyer.
This article is an introduction of sorts to the genre of sophisti-pop through 12 key artists. If you like yacht rock but have explored that scene thoroughly, this might be your next port of call.
What is sophisti-pop and how did pop get sophisti?
Sophisti-pop was coined in the 2000s to describe a trend in music in the 1980s that previously did not have one specific name. The basic definition of the genre is that it is a smoothed-out jazzy style of post-New Romantic new wave with strong Roxy Music and Steely Dan influences. Roxy Music’s 1982 swan song Avalon and its enduring hit “More Than This” are sort of the blueprints for what sophisti-pop would become: Lush, layered, suave, and the kind of music that feels like it’s been tinkered with in a studio for days. The early ’80s Britfunk genre also provided an influence as well as the mix of American R&B, funk, jazz, disco, and soul that would come to be integral to sophisti-pop, as heard in hit singles like 1981’s “Southern Freeez” by Freeez.
What would come to be known as sophisti-pop starts up in earnest around the time that both Roxy Music and Steely Dan split in the early 1980s. The genre’s performers were mostly British and most of the big records came out between 1983 and 1990. It was one of the last styles of new wave to emerge in the 80s before that entire genre faded out for a couple years in favor of alternative rock and Britpop. Many of sophisti-pop’s biggest acts were pop stars in the UK, but only had modest success in the US. With a few key exceptions like Sade or Simply Red, most of the sophisti-pop bands that crossed over the US only did so for one or two songs.
It seems like the term was codified in 2007 by Stylus Magazine writers Thomas Inskeep and Alfred Soto, who wrote two pivotal columns defining the genre and the artists therein. In the second of those columns, Solo said he first heard the term on the influential music forum I Love Music, or ILM, in a thread dating to 2003.
Ten essential sophisti-pop artists
The Beautiful South
Hailing from Hull, England, where another band we’ll talk about shortly hails, The Beautiful South formed out of the ashes of the quirky indie pop act The Housemartins. Led by the songwriting team of singer Paul Heaton and guitarist Dave Rotheray, The South specialized in pairing sardonic, biting lyrics with sweet pop melodies. The ballad “Song for Whoever” is from the perspective of a jaded songwriter who breaks up with his partners just for the material, “We Are Each Other” is about a toxic, co-dependent relationship, “Old Red Eyes is Back” is an upbeat jaunt about a sad bum who drinks himself to death, and their UK number one hit “A Little Time” captures a bitter argument between an unhappy couple.
All of these songs sound like hits, catchy and bouncy and ready for the radio. The South inherited the biting sarcasm of Steely Dan, but went even further pop with their sound, and were rewarded with great commercial success: Their singles collection Carry On Up the Charts was number one in the UK over Christmas 1994 and wound up that year’s second best selling album there. Throughout their career the band remained consistent while cycling through members, especially female vocalists who acted as counterpoints to Heaton, most memorably Briana Corrigan and Jacqui Abbott. Heaton, Rotheray and Housemartins alumni Dave Hemmingway remained with the group through their split in 2007, and Heaton has since reunited with Abbott for a string of successful duet albums.
The Blue Nile
Known for their immaculate sounding albums and patience, who only made four albums over the course of 23 years, The Blue Nile inherited the technical mastery from Steely Dan much like how the South captured their irony. Formed in Glasgow, the trio recorded for Linn Records, a subsidiary of a manufacturer of high-end audio equipment. There are urban legends that the Nile’s 1984 debut masterpiece A Walk Across the Rooftops was specifically commissioned to demonstrate the company’s hi-fi products, but in reality the band’s pristine sound just so happened to line up with what Linn was looking for.
A Walk Across the Rooftops is one of the best debut albums of the 1980s and a pivotal album in the sophisti-pop genre. On songs like “Tinseltown in the Rain” singer Paul Buchanan’s lovelorn lyrics and crooning baritone are perfectly paired with an intricate, complex river of synths and jazzy rhythms. Follow-up Hats didn’t come out until 1989 and was another masterwork that found them fans in everyone from Annie Lennox to Rickie Lee Jones and gave them a minor US rock radio hit with the gorgeous “The Downtown Lights”. The band slowed down after that, going in a more acoustic direction for 1996’s Peace at Last and 2004’s High. While they never broke up, there hasn’t been any activity from The Blue Nile since that last album, but their devoted fanbase are still waiting just in case.
Here’s a sophisti-pop band so indebted to Steely Dan that Walter Becker once joined their lineup. China Crisis were a band that went in and out of the sophisti-pop sound, and never stuck to it for an entire album, but they’re worth a mention here for recording so many important singles in the style. Led by singer and keyboardist Gary Daly and guitarist Eddie Lundon, the band brought ambient stylings to new wave songs like “Christian”, and started the push to this new post-New Romantic style of synthesized pop. One of their catchiest songs, “Working with Fire and Steel” isn’t quite sophisti-pop and actually missed the UK Top 40. but the Working with Fire and Steel album so impressed Becker that he requested to work with them on their next record.
Flaunt the Imperfection lists Becker as a full-time band member and you can hear the distinct Steely Dan sound on the jazzy, smooth synth hooks of single “Black Man Ray”, while “King in a Catholic Style (Wake Up)” one ups “Steel” in the catchiness department. Becker didn’t stay for long, and China Crisis went in an art pop direction for the rest of the 80s and early 90s, while recording the occasional sophisti-pop tune like “Arizona Sky”. Still, the band’s direct connection to one of sophisti-pop’s core influences makes them one of the genre’s most pivotal groups.
Everything But the Girl
Years before they stepped off the train to walk down your street again, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt recorded six albums of immaculate pop that was alternately jangly (“Native Land”), folky (“I Don’t Want to Talk About It”), and jazzy (“Driving”) over the course of a decade. Like the Beautiful South, EBTG hail from the Northern England town of Hull. Their music earned them a devoted cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly for Thorn’s unforgettably expressive voice – the kind of singer you’ll never forget after you hear her for the first time. Despite a loving fanbase and a series of best-selling albums, the band remained underground favorites until a remix of their song “Missing” exploded into a worldwide mega-hit in 1995. “Missing” isn’t quite sophisti-pop, that genre was basically dead by the mid-90s, but it’s a great song that made a great band into the stars they always deserved to be, albeit only briefly. If you only know “Missing” but love that song, or know Thorn’s later solo work and score for the 2014 film The Falling, you owe it to yourself to explore EBTG’s discography, which is one of the most consistent of any sophisti-pop group. The fact that Thorn and Watt, who married in 2009, are releasing their first EBTG album in over two decades next year should make exploration of their back catalog even more of an imperative.
Another band who didn’t stick to the sophisti-pop sound their entire career, Level 42 had its roots in the Britfunk scene that directly preceded the style. Early tracks like “Love Games” and “Turn It On” show off a funky jazz-fusion sound led primarily by the instrumental interactions between the band’s members. Level 42 were known just as much for their technical proficiency as their pop songs, particularly singer Mark King’s slap-pop bass playing. By the time they released their sixth album World Machine in 1985, Level 42 had smoothed out their sound, and brought dance-pop influences into their high-tech jazz song. This can best be heard on the worldwide smash “Something About You”, which highlights Mark King’s smooth vocals and Boon Gould’s spectacular guitar solos. Beyond that one big hit, though, Level 42’s discography is full of gems created by a truly gifted ensemble.
There’s several bands in this genre that have great, deep and consistent discographies, but the one with the best is by far Prefab Sprout. Led by singer, songwriter and guitarist Paddy McAloon, the Sprouts were the best of all worlds situation for an ‘80s answer to Steely Dan. They didn’t have the sardonic lyrics of the Beautiful South, quite the opposite: McAloon’s lyrics were often idealistic and lovelorn with classic influences of Cole Porter, Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. Prefab didn’t have the direct Dan connection like China Crisis, but their primary studio collaborator Thomas Dolby proved to be their Roger Nichols, perfectly capturing the spirit of the band’s music while adding in his own sonic contributions like the banjo on “Faron Young” that ties the song back to its American country singer namesake. And then there were the songs, with McAloon’s perfectly constructed lyrics and Wendy Smith’s ethereal soprano counterpoints to his own Northern croon. Songs like “Appetite”, “Goodbye Lucille #1 (Johnny Johnny)”, “Cars and Girls”, and “Don’t Sing” are filled with quotable turns of phrase and ingenious musical tricks. The line “Life’s incomplete ’till your heart’s missed a beat” in “Goodbye Lucille #1” is sung two ways; First the word “beat” is sung one beat too soon, then when the line appears a second time, it comes in one beat too late, illustrating themes of heartbreak in the very fabric of the song itself.
The band’s sonic highpoint is their second album Steve McQueen, and they reached new commercial heights with 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis. That album contains the band’s biggest hit, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, containing a great McAloon story-lyric about a fading pop star who spends his waning years singing a novelty song about a jumping frog that has overshadowed the rest of his career. The song kind of did the same thing to Prefab Sprout, although it’s much better than a mere novelty and the band had some more chart success in the early ‘90s. Nowadays, Prefab Sprout is intermittently active as a solo project of McAloon due to his health condition, and may release a new album whenever you least suspect it. Smith, a crucial part of the band’s best music, remains active on social media. Steve McQueen remains a sophisti-pop essential listen, and the album I suggest you queue up first after finishing up this article.
The most commercially successful act in the genre, Sade have sold millions of records worldwide, won the Grammy for Best New Artists, and their hits are probably playing on the radio somewhere right now. Sade exploded in popularity with their 1984 debut Diamond Life and its jazzy blockbuster hit “Smooth Operator”. The album is a showcase for singer and lyricist Sade Adu’s contralto, her gift for vocal melodies (see the double decker chorus on “Hang On to Your Love”) and her lyrics that touch upon all aspects of the romantic experience. Adu’s prominence and fame has overshadowed her band to the point where it’s easy to assume that she’s a solo artist using a mononym a la Madonna.
The other three core members of Sade, however, have remained since its foundation and they provide the lush, jazzy instrumentation on which Adu’s vocals and lyrics sit. In the years since Diamond Life, Sade has released new music at their own pace and have continued to be successful and acclaimed whenever they do, all the while their classics endure on the radio and in playlists. 2010’s Soldier of Love, just their sixth album in 25 years, saw the band take a downtempo, electronic approach to their music, bringing sophisti-pop into the future without being a direct throwback. Sade are a band worth your patience.
Sophisti-pop is a songwriters’ genre, and no band has their appeal wrapped in their lyrics more than Scritti Politti. Green Gartside usually wrote lyrics like a writer constructing a paragraph, sticking long dictionary words and complete sentences into his songs’ meter. Even on nominally pop songs like “Wood Beez (Pray for Aretha Franklin)” or “Perfect Way”, he’s conveying his feeling through novel turns of phrase (“You wanna message, a confession, you wanna martyr me too/You wanna margin of error for two”, what’s that couplet doing in a pop song?) Gartside started Scritti Politti in the late ‘70s as an avant-garde post-punk band, but began moving towards pop in the early ‘80s with the deconstructionist “The ‘Sweetest’ Girl”, an offbeat, wandering song that is jazzy, irresistibly catchy, and wonderfully weird. The song appeared as a demo on the landmark C81 compilation in early 1981, but didn’t come out as a single until October, the delay dooming its chart chances. But the song acted as kind of an ur-text for sophisti-pop after Steely Dan and Roxy Music set its stage.
1985’s Cupid & Psyche 85 is kind of the textbook for all sophisti-pop to come after, solidifying Scritti’s core traits with Gartside’s catchiest hooks (“Perfect Way”, their lone US Top 40 hit, is on there) At the height of their fame, they were big enough in America to appear alongside Dick Clark on American Bandstand and won the praise of David Bowie and Miles Davis. However, Gartside would later admit he felt uncomfortable with the band’s growing fame even as he reached his goal of being an unconventional pop star. Later interviews peg that American Bandstand performance as something of a breaking point. When followup Provision failed to live up to its predecessor’s success upon its 1988 release, Politti had become tagged as a one-hit wonder despite all their promise, and Gartside didn’t release another album until 1999. In the years since, they’ve released albums that have combined their sound with hip-hop (on Anomie & Bonhomie) and arty indie rock (on White Bread Black Beer) all while still sounding like themselves. Scritti performs concerts more than they record nowadays, including with newer bands like Hot Chip, and they have a reputation for being a great live band. Maybe seek them out next time they come your way.
Simply Red are the only band here that have a number one hit in the US, two of them in fact. Not even Sade has one. And yet, they’re probably the least critically respected and have the least credibility. Lead singer and namesake Mick Hucknall was part of the legendary Manchester post-punk scene and was one of the 40 or so attendees of a legendary 1977 Sex Pistols concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall that also launched the musical ambitions of Joy Division, The Fall and The Smiths. What happened? Well, they were just kind of boring. Hucknall has a good voice and he clearly loves classic soul music, but I dunno, he doesn’t really stand out as the talent of either the sophisti-pop or Manchester scenes. Not when Sade Adu and Ian Curtis were his contemporaries.
Simply Red’s first big hit “Holding Back the Years” is a perfectly solid and affecting ballad about not fitting in with your family and being frustrated with your life choices, and its journey to number one on both sides of the Atlantic was deserved. Hucknall was a classic British working class hero archetype that a lot of people identified with when his band first got big. The other US number one, though, is a bad cover of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ great “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” that is some real easy listening Michael Bolton slop that has nothing to do with sophisti-pop whatsoever. (I don’t mean this entry to be me dumping on Hucknall or his band but ugh. I tried.)
Simply Red are still going and even still have one other original member in the lineup other than Hucknall (that being the saxophonist). More than any other artist on this list that have since been reduced to the lead singer and new musicians, Simply Red feel like a nostalgia solo act nowadays, even though they had hits in the UK through 2007(!). Simply Red are important to the story of sophisti-pop and they should be given a fair shake by anyone interested in the genre. Just don’t make them the first band you do a deep dive on.
The Style Council
In late 1982, Paul Weller broke up The Jam, one of the most commercially successful (in the UK at least) bands in the new wave/post-punk sphere. Less than four months later in February 1983, Weller’s new project the Style Council made its debut with “Speak Like a Child”. While the last few Jam singles like “Town Called Malice” and “Beat Surrender” had a soul influence, the Style Council immediately established themselves as a much smoother band than the jagged Jam. Third single “Long Hot Summer” is their key sophisti-pop tune, a chilled out ballad that has so much American soul in its DNA that it wouldn’t sound out of place next to contemporaneous hits by Cameo or Luther Vandross.
The Style Council would continue their mix of new wave and soul and became a signature band of the sophisti-pop scene. “My Ever Changing Moods”, Weller’s only-ever American Top 40 hit in his entire career, has two versions that feel like different sides of the coin: A jazzy solo piano version with a soulful vocal, and a Northern soul rave up. “Shout to the Top!” and “Walls Come Tumbling Down” come close to pure British soul while keeping enough of a new wave edge to them. Like the Jam, The Style Council did not have a long career: Just six years before Weller broke them up too to start his belated solo career just a few years early to the Britpop party, but they continued Weller’s high profile and influence, and became an indispensable group during the golden age of sophisti-pop.
Spandau Ballet, Swing Out Sister, and other names to know
Aside from these twelve big acts, there were several other artists recording in the sophisti-pop style during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Spandau Ballet is perhaps the biggest omission from the above twelve essential artists, considering that “True” might just be the defining hit of this genre in the U.S., even moreso than “Smooth Operator” or “Holding Back the Years”. Gary Kemp’s vocal and the smooth guitarist definitely make it. That band made a lot of music, some quite sophisti-pop (I prefer “I’ll Fly for You” to “True”, for what it’s worth), but others work more as straight ahead post-New Romantic new wave (“Only When You Leave” for instance). They are certainly an important band for discussion about this genre, though.
Another act that nearly got its own entry is the trio-then-duo Swing Out Sister, whose transatlantic hits “Breakout” and “Twilight World” were showcases for the standards-influenced vocals of Corinne Drewery. While the band never matched the international success of their debut album It’s Better to Travel, they recorded pretty consistently through the mid-2000s.
London group Curiosity Killed the Cat only had a brief moment of success, but was enough of a big deal that Andy Warhol(!) directed the video for their 1986 single “Misfit”. Scottish band Deacon Blue, led by lead singers and, later, married couple Ricky Ross and Lorraine McIntosh, proved their sophisti-pop bonafides by taking their name directly from the title of a Steely Dan song. Their first few albums took a guitar pop take on sophisti-pop, best heard on singles like “Real Gone Kid”.
Polish-born singer Basia got her start in the jazz-pop group Matt Bianco before embarking on a solo career and brought bossa nova influences to songs like “Cruising for Bruising”. There’s also a couple really solid entries in the genre from countries outside of the English-speaking world, particularly by Brazilian artists like singer-guitarist Marina Lima’s propulsive “Fullgás” and former Os Mutantes singer Rita Lee’s disco injected 1981 hit “Lança Perfume”, which just slightly predates the genre.
Do you like ‘80s one hit wonders? Of course, you do, everyone has a few favorites. There’s plenty to pick from in sophisti-pop too, the genre was loaded with bands that only released one big album, maybe even only one big song, and then vanished. One of the best is the Scottish band Danny Wilson, whose irresistible “Mary’s Prayer” is no longer streaming. The Swiss band Double had an an international hit with the smooth and contemplative “The Captain of Her Heart”, a yacht rock song in all but the era. Johnny Hates Jazz sure sounded like they actually didn’t hate jazz on their semi-jazzy lone hit “Shattered Dreams”. Fiction Factory skirted the lines of sophisti-pop on the new wave ballad “(Feels Like) Heaven”, and there’s also Hipsway’s “The Honeythief”, Tanita Tikaram’s “Twist in My Sobriety”, The Blow Monkeys’ “Digging Your Scene”, and The Lotus Eaters’ “The First Picture of You”, all great on-offs in this genre.
In addition to his production work with Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby had a fascinating 1980s as a session musician and producer who worked in nearly every style of music that decade, from the keyboards on Def Leppard’s Pyromania to co-writing and producing the early hip hop hit “Magic’s Wand” by Whodini. He’s someone who should be much better remembered than just as the “She Blinded Me With Science” guy, and a good place to start with him is 1983’s arty The Flat Earth. On songs like his cover of Dan Hicks’ “I Scare Myself”, Dolby finds himself in a similar sophisticated jazz-pop lane as the one he’d help Prefab Sprout define two years later. That album isn’t quite all-the-way sophisti-op, but it’s a good example of something simpatico to that sound.
There’s a few cool obscurities in this genre as well. If you’re looking for something more horn-inflicted, you might want to try the Manchester band Dislocation Dance and their 1983 single “Show Me”. If you’re looking for something with a bit of a Blue Nile with more guitars approach, seek out the Glasgow band Love and Money and their 1988 tracks “Halleluiah Man” and “Jocelyn Square”.
Some big name new wave and pop acts released a couple tracks in the sophisti-pop sound or something close to it. The jazz and soul influences ran pretty heavy with some of the later groups in the genre after the original run of electro-pop turned into the New Romantic scene, a close cousin of sophisti-pop.
Among the artists who have a couple great sophisti-pop tunes but are not entirely of it the way Prefab Sprout are include: ABC (“When Smokey Sings”), Talk Talk (“Give It Up”), The Human League (“Human”), Split Enz (“Message to My Girl”), David Bowie (“Loving the Alien”), Wet Wet Wet (“Wishing I Was Lucky”), Sting (“Fortress Around Your Heart”), Joe Jackson (“You Can’t Get What You Want”), Annie Lennox (“Why” and her own cover of the Blue Nile’s “The Downtown Lights”), George Michael and/or Wham! (“Careless Whisper” is an essential sophisti-pop track), Grace Jones (“Victor Should Have Been a Jazz Musician”), Elvis Costello (“Everyday I Write the Book”), Pet Shop Boys (“Being Boring”) and even Leonard Cohen (“Everybody Knows”). All these acts have tracks from the late 80s that sure sound like they were hearing what was coming out of the scene and wanted their own try at its smoothed-out sound.
There’s even some debate on the edges of the genre. Like, is “Living in a Box” by Living in a Box a sophisti-pop song? or “Careless Whisper” by George Michael and Wham! is almost certainly a definitive sophisti-pop song, but how much of the rest of the duo’s discography counts as part of the style? Does the all-the-way soft pop band Breathe have just a little sophisti-pop in their hits like “How Can I Fall?” or are they a full-on part of this genre? What are the lines between sophisti-pop, jazz pop and vocal smooth jazz? That’s up for you to decide.
America didn’t really have its own sophisti-pop scene, but a lot of new wave and post-punk ballads come close. There’s not much separating, say, Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” or Romeo Void’s “A Girl in Trouble (is a Temporary Thing)” or The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove” from the sophisti-pop tunes made in England and Scotland in the ’80s, after all. Former Steely Dan singer Donald Fagen’s 1983 debut solo album The Nightfly is likely the definitive statement of American sophisti-pop, fitting that it comes from one of the progenitors of the whole thing. That album’s big single “IGY (What a Beautiful World)” has a bit of a different feel from the British sophisti-pop but it comes from the same jazz-pop foundations.
The present and future of sophisti-pop
In the late 2000s and 2010s, there’s been a bit of a renaissance in sophisti-pop in modern indie pop. The 1975’s Matty Healy namechecked The Blue Nile as an inspiration for their single “Love It If We Made It” and you can hear the genre’s influences in the band’s other songs like “Somebody Else”, “A Change of Heart”, and “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”. More directly sophisti-pop influenced is former Pains of Being Pure of Heart drummer Kurt Feldman’s projects Ice Choir and Roman a Clef, both of which have strong Prefab Sprout and Scritti Politti influences (listen to Roman a Clef’s 2013 track “Bye/Gone” and Ice Choir’s Designs in Rhythm album). Blood Orange (“You’re Not Good Enough”), Westerman (“Confirmation”), Destroyer (“Chinatown”), Turnover (“Much After Feeling”), Carly Rae Jepsen (“Comeback”), Laura Mvula (“What Matters”), Josh Rouse (“Businessman”), and TOPS (“Janet Planet”) have all made some great sophisti-pop throwbacks too.
Sophisti-pop is a genre that’s waiting for its revival. Either by a modern act taking its sound into the Top 40 again or by experiencing an internet revival by way of something like the Yacht Rock web show was to that style. In any case, this piece was meant to be a field guide to the style for those interested in exploring something new if they’re already into new wave or yacht rock, something of an update on the Inskeep/Soto Stylus piece from 15 years ago. If you love the idea of smoothed out jazzy new wave, do yourself a favor and check out this stuff right away.
Featured image courtesy of Linn Records and A&M Records