Sunshine pop (originally "soft pop") is a subgenre of pop music originating in Southern California in the mid-1960s, although it only acquired the name later. According to Noel Murray of The A.V. Club, its practitioners were rooted in "the pretty sounds of easy-listening, the catchiness of commercial jingles, and the chemically induced delirium of the drug scene, ... [expressing] an appreciation for the beauty of the world mixed with a sense of anxiety that the good ol’ days were gone for good."
The genre began as an outgrowth of the 1960s California Sound and folk rock movements. Sunshine pop largely consisted of lesser-known artists who imitated more popular groups like the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, and the 5th Dimension. Its music is characterized by prominent vocal harmonies and lush orchestrations. In some ways the genre is similar to baroque pop music through being elaborate and melancholic, though it also crossed into folk pop and Brill Building styles.
Sunshine pop enjoyed mainstream success in the latter half of the decade, with many of its top 40 hits peaking in the spring and summer of 1967, especially just before the Summer of Love. Popular bands include the Mamas & the Papas, the Turtles, and the Association. Other acts, like the Millennium, Sagittarius, and the Yellow Balloon were less successful but gained a cult following years later; with albums like Begin (1968) and Present Tense (1968) highly sought-after on the collectors’ market.
Sunshine pop originated in the American state of California in the mid to late-1960s. The music may be seen as a form of escapism from the turmoil of the times. While artists such as Bob Dylan, Country Joe and the Fish and others used pop music to deliver political or social commentary, acts such as the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the 5th Dimension, Harpers Bizarre, Spanky and our Gang, Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Association instead popularized a cheerful, sunny sound. Typical are airy themes like color and balloons, as found in the canonical examples "Up, Up and Away" and "Yellow Balloon".
Concerning the Beach Boys' involvement with sunshine pop, the orchestral style of Pet Sounds (1966) was imitated by many Los Angeles record producers, but as The A.V. Club notes: "Though [the Beach Boys] ... were hugely influential on the sunshine pop acts that followed, [their] music was rarely in step with the genre." The Suburban's Joel Goldenburg believes the closest the group ever came to the genre was the lightly produced album Friends (1968): "the vocals of sunshine pop songs are a little more anonymous and not as lushly featured as that of The Beach Boys. And I don't see the [Phil] Spector connection. The light touch applied to the songs reminds me more of soft samba music."
While some very well known bands are associated with the style, songwriters and producers played an important role in shaping the sunshine pop sound as well. Apart from the production influence of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, other producers generally regarded as influential for the genre include Lenny Waronker, Lou Adler, Gary Usher, Curt Boettcher, Bones Howe and Gary Zekley. Notable songwriters included Jimmy Webb, Roger Nichols and Paul Williams. As this apolitical music grew in popularity, dozens of groups began recording sunshine pop, with widely varying degrees of success. Some acts were fortunate to score one or two hits, while others failed to achieve commercial success. Notable among the former category is the Association who scored five US Top 10 singles, including two #1 hits, and their 1967 hit "Never My Love" was ranked as the #2 most-played song of the 20th century on American radio (by BMI).
Sunshine pop is strongly associated with a specific time and place, namely California from the mid-1960s to early 1970s. However, it should be noted there were plenty of groups from other parts of the United States as well, including The Cowsills (from Rhode Island), The Free Design (from New York), The Clique (from Texas) and Spanky and Our Gang (from Illinois). Moreover, British acts such as The Flower Pot Men, Harmony Grass, Design, Gullivers People and Eternal Triangle, show that sunshine pop was not a strictly American phenomenon.
In the early 1970s, the popularity of sunshine pop quickly started to wane. Its lightweight sound made way for new music styles such as singer-songwriter music, progressive rock, hard rock, and heavy metal. Many groups thus faded into obscurity.
For many years, the genre lingered in obscurity, although it enjoyed some interest among collectors of rare vinyl singles and LPs. Certain albums would occasionally fetch hefty prices at online auctions or in record stores. A name was eventually given to the music, "sunshine pop", rarely deployed outside of record collecting circles. In the early 1990s, a renewed interest began in Japan, where record companies started publishing compilations of long-forgotten, obscure 1960s music. This revival subsequently spread to Europe and the United States. Music that was previously available only on vinyl was now re-issued on CD.
Notable examples of compilations containing sunshine pop are:Morning Glory Daze: Universal Soft Rock Collection (2 volumes; Universal, 1997)
Sunshine Days: 60s Pop Classics (5 volumes; Varese, 1997–1998)
Get Easy! Sunshine Pop (double-disc, Universal/Polygram, 2003)
Soft Sounds For Gentle People (5 volumes; Pet, 2003–2004)
Come to the Sunshine: Soft Pop Nuggets from the WEA Vaults (Rhino, 2004).
A reappraisal of the Beach Boys – and Brian Wilson's work in particular – has also contributed in providing an afterlife for many obscure sunshine pop groups and their songs. Compilations or even box-sets by groups such as Spanky and Our Gang, The Association, The Arbors and The Love Generation have also been released on CD. As a result, a wide audience has been able to get acquainted with sunshine pop and many of its key acts. Two record labels in particular have specialized in these sort of sunshine pop re-releases; Revola Records from Britain and the American label Sundazed.
The influential role of sunshine pop can be heard in the later genre of twee pop and the culminating C86 movement which originated in the mid-1980s within the United Kingdom. Sunshine pop has also attracted the attention of hip-hop acts such as Masta Ace and KRS-One for use in their songs, mostly due to its melodic beats.