The 20 Best Local Pop Albums Ever

20. "Jadoo" - Milestones (1993)

Criminally ignored on release, this is actually a jazzy lil’ pop-rock gem awaiting some well-deserved rediscovery. Candy Pereira had an excellent set of lungs. Wonder where she went?

19. "Billo De Ghar" - Abrar-Ul-Haq (1995)

Placed on this list solely due to its jumpy, funky title track, which became one of the scene’s biggest hits and a favorite target of Punjab’s myopic moral brigade! Everything else on the album is nothing more than flat, generic bhangra-pop. Billo saved the day and eventually turned her sickened lover into a cola spouting super star. And they thought 'she' was a, you know who?

18. "Greatest Hits" - Dr. Aur Billa (1999)

Pulls some hilarious punches at pop star pretensions, corporate sponsorships and Lollywood clichés. This album introduced Pakistan to the irreverent joys of parody-pop long before Jawad Bashir decided to “grow up” and start taking himself a little too seriously. How boringly “mature” of him.

17. "Shola" - Awaz (1996)

Certainly the poster-pop-boy-band’s most impressive outing and also its last. Just when Awaz were striving to start looking for influences outside the disposable bubble gum pop of New Kids On The Block and Wham, Pepsi slammed the door on them! The result: A pretty edgy pop album (with a slight twist of emotional bitterness) and, of course, sudden disbandment! Mainstays Haroon and Fakhir can now be seen selling soap, tea and shampoos and, oh yes, they sometimes make “music” too.

16. "Roop Nagar" - Najam Shiraz (1999)

Najam’s last hurrah as a “middlegounder” airing pleas against urban paranoia and greedy women, until deciding to go all moralistic and Tapal-crazy! Still has a decent set of lungs, but these days used more to air choreographed naats and interpreting the holy book for us dud sub-humans. Applause, everybody.

15. "Roshni" - Hadiqa Kiani (1999)

This is the album with which Hadiqa finally overcame her reputation of being a folksy Nazia Hassan imitator. Glided across various different genres in a single album, from millennium techno, to crisp FM-pop and the usual folk-pop thing. The brilliant production remains to be the highlight here. Too bad the lady’s next album saw her putting more effort in upgrading her wardrobe other than matching or outdoing the dynamism of Roshni.

14. "Ali In Action" - Mohammad Ali Shaiki (1980)

Ali took his main contemporary, Alamgir’s idea of mixing in generic disco and glam bits into local fimi music and added to it ‘70s Indian film vocalism. This was a mighty entertaining outing and made a star out of Shaiki, until he was rudely booted out by the likes of the Vital Signs, Jupiters, and Ali Haider in the late ‘80s. Tried to level the scores but age (and weight) failed to compliment his sudden (tactical) liking for black leather pants. Still wears them but most probably to amuse his grandchildren. I hope.

13. "Music Channel Charts Vol: 1" - Various Artistes (1993)

Obviously, this was long before Pakistan finally got its very own (cheesy) 24-hr-music-channel. MCC was the testing ground for assembly-line producer, Ghazanfer Ali, and what a show it turned out to be! This compilation album is a vivid example, packed with some crackling new talent (of the time), who actually started to give matter like VS and others quite a spin even though most of this talent never managed to fulfill its true potential. Led by Yatagan/Fakher-e-Alam’s juicy bhganra-rap dittie, “Bhangra Pao” matched by the great entertainment value of Jazba’s militant rap outburst, “Jago”, the proto-sufi-rock of Collage’s “Sohni Mahiwal”, the Milestones’ marvelous, FM-pop offering, “Aag”, and the proto-Awazian heroics of underrated boy-bands, Fringe Benefits and the Sequencers, MCC also showcased Junoon, Strings and Nadeem Jaffery. Of course there were the usual duds as well: Symphony, Arid Zone, even though Yasir Akhtar proved himself to be a better video-director than a vocalist. Ghazanfer’s 24-hr-a-day Indus Music has simply failed to achieve what MCC achieved in a span of around 20 episodes: i.e. originality without making the viewers watch phone cards coming out of the musicians ears and tea packs continuously hovering over and under the VJs’ heads and feet!

12. "Irtiqa" - EP (2003)

Not since Junoon’s “Talaash” (1993), Jazba’s “Jago” (1996), and Najam’s “Khazana” (1996), has the local scene been assaulted with such rage and fire. In fact, the whole of Irtiqa is packed with raving angst rock, smartly arranged with dynamic twists and turns and some excellent lyrics. That is, if you minus the misdirected (slanglish) rap parts and that irritating lil’ Pepsi logo on what is otherwise quite an album cover. I plan to barter mine for a Mecca Cola poster (wink, wink).

11. "Signature" - Aamir Zaki (1995)

Live, Zaki can come across as being quite a six-string genius, but in the studios, he seems to repress his instinctive feel, replacing it with an obsession for technical correctness and “perfectionism.” That’s why even though Signature may stand out as a compact and competent exercise in crisp neo-jazz-fusion and Fleetwood Mac like FM-rock; in the end it does start sounding like thinking man’s elevator music! The school boyish lyrics don’t help either. His strength lies squarely in the instrumentals.

10. "Suno Kay Main Hoon Jawan" - Noori (2003)

The Pakistani pop scene’s best kept secret suddenly burst onto the scene with this pie of wholesomely digestible alternative/college-rock and a natural feel for all the right media-savvy moves. A highly enjoyable outing but with a sound and attitude threatening to deviate and willingly land in the laps of cynical corporate sugar daddies and blinding media overexposure. However, listen closely to drummer Gumby’s Stuart Copeland like roundabout style for all the right reasons.

9. "Sandesa" - Ali Haider (1993)

This is definitely one of the most entertaining filmi-pop outing by a Pakistani pop musician. This also left Haider reaching a peak in his chubby poster-boy phase, setting him up for an interesting period in dabbling with techno until recently returning to recreate the Sandesa sound but only to find men like Ahmed Jehanzeb and Jawad Ahmed replacing him on teen posters.

8. "Disco Deewane" - Nazia & Zoheb Hassan (1980)

It was Disco Deewane which was a more direct influence on the acts which (after 1988) started the new Pakistani pop scene, as we know it today. Bouncing and rebounding with cheesy late-`70s disco beats and filmi lyricism, Disco Deewane captured and successfully reflected the whole invasion of early Disco music in Bollywood and Pakistan. The album is quite like "classic" disco: Cheesy, mindless, dhish, dhish fun, but just short of also being sleazy. Great entertainment, though, as in artless but in no-way heartless. Awwww...

7. "Inquilaab" - Junoon (1996)

After belting it out for six years as the scene`s leading guitar-driven pop-rock cult attraction and an enthusiastic bunch of left-field angry-young-men (with a solid anti-"Dil Dil Pakistan" socio-political anthem, "Talaash" to boot), Junoon finally broke-through the mainstream scene with the highly versatile and passionate sufi-rock bombshell, Inquilaab. An album on which the band took leader/guitarist Salman Ahmed`s catchy, off-the-wall riffs and clashed them head-on with raving Sindhi/Sufi-folk-music ("Saeein"; "Mera Mahi"); Floydian introversion ("Rooh Ki Pyas"); the ambitious intoxicated quasi-Progressive-Rock swinger, ("Neeli Ankhain"); and their pumped-up, U2ish & Zeppelinsque "Spiritual Revolution" chestnut ("Main Kaun Hoon"). Inquilaab stands and walks tall in spite the fact that it also contains a cash-in patriotic-pop-anthem, "Jazba-e-Junoon" and misguided missiles like the directionless rock remake of an old Jupiters' song. However, soon after 1999’s wonderful Parvaaz, the band was about to get itself into a messy, contradictory situation by loudly making "revolutionary" and "spiritual" appeals while sitting pretty and smugly on a lucrative Coke contract! With this year`s lame, tame Dewaar, Junoon have now only managed to let all their passionate hard-work burnout with a whimper. Thus Ali’s sudden loss of hair and Salman’s liking for being the one holding the Coke bottle on those humongous billboards? Pathetic!

6. "Vital Signs: 1" - Vital Signs (1989)

Perhaps the album that kicked-in the very first-Wave of the post-'88 new pop explosion in Pakistan. A wave led by Vital Signs and a number of acts that followed (such as: The Jupiters, Live Wires, Aamir Saleem, Ali Haider, The Barbarians, Final Cut, etc.), all of whom creatively expressed the feeling of euphoria, hope, and celebration of a brand new era in the cultural & social melodrama of the country. VS: 1, though wholesomely apolitical, however, the songs and the music on it, are vividly reflecting the euphoria of the times, in spite the fact that the album`s last two songs ("Musafir" and "Yeh Shaam"), are excellent examples of the deep-blue melodicism and the dreamy melancholia of the type of beautiful '70s filmi-noir compositions by the great Robin Ghosh.

5. "Volume: 2" - Strings (1992)

Under produced and roughly cut, this album is quite a gem, really. Kicking off with the wonderfully melodic, “Sur Kiye Ye Pahaar,” it never looks back, cutting across a number of genres, from teen pop, to meaty FM-pop all the way to quasi-hard-rock, using short, sharp ditties as vehicles. I’m surprised it took Pepsi execs another ten years to pick the band up and which, come to think of it, wasn’t such a bad thing at all. The being ignored part, that is.

4. "VJ: Vols: 1 & 2" - Various Artistes (1996 & 1998)

VJ is the other pop show with the proud distinction of introducing the kind of new talent that was powerful enough to raise the post-'88 scene`s third-wave. Totally low on budget (compared to slick, expensive, but rather substance-less shows like Pepsi Top Of The Pops), VJ was rather hilariously hosted by anti-heroic, non-slick and parody/satire-friendly vj's such as Faisal Qureshi and Ahmed Ibrahim, and directed by Jawad Bashir and Ahsan Rahim (all of whom have now become big names, but still as anarchic as ever). Apart from introducing excellent new talent in the shape of Hadiqa, Dr. Aur Billa, Abrar-ul-Haq, Jawad Ahmed, Sharique Roomi, and many others, VJ was equally popular for the mad-cap ways it went about ruthlessly parodying the pretensions of major-league pop stars, the smug mainstream scene, cheesy Lollywood/Bollywood films and as well as itself! So, if you can lay your hands on these compilation tapes, experience the nostalgia of all the anarchic fun and power of the wave of songs and sarcastic jabs with which VJ become a massive, sponsor-less cult attraction and a real pain in the neck for a number of bloated, exhibitionistic, and narcissistic corporate-pop acts.

3. "Chief Sab" - Sajjad Ali (1995)

The classical-music-trained-vocalist decided to take the plunge and dive into the pop arena with the big-selling Babia 93; and even though he has gone on to become one of the finest and popular acts, it was his (most versatile) 1995 album, Chief Sab, which broke all previous local pop sales records until, of course, Abrar`s stunning debut, 1996`s Billo De Ghar surpassed the big retail numbers. Chief Sab is basically Sajjad Ali in great multidimensional form, taking the listener for a superbly entertaining joy-ride across a number of genres, like: from the addictive, slow-mo' hip-hop of the title-track which, with a tongue-in-cheek wink, parodies Bollywood gangster movies (and that too by fluently using vintage street-smart Bombay-speak and Karachi's college-slang); to the riff-friendly hard-rock vibe of "Tumhein Mujh Say Nahin Pyar," and all the way to the floating, feel-good pop of "Bulbul." Chief Sab is sheer listening pleasure, and no wonder it eventually became Sajjad Ali`s platform from where he moved rapidly into becoming one of the local pop scene`s most talented and consistent performers. Still a humble, unpretentious asset.

2. "Saagar" - Fuzon (2002)

One of the finest debuts ever since the Signs’ VS: 1, this one however took local pop dynamics into uncharted territories. The hypnotic, beautiful FM-pop of the title song set things up for some catchy, competent takes on fusion-pop and hard-rock, all arranged, composed and played to remain addictively assessable but without ever compromising the edge. Powerful, operatic vocals, understated but highly melodic guitar runs and simple but likable lyrics are Fuzon’s mainstays. And in spite of becoming a huge draw due to the nationwide success of this brilliant debut, Fuzon have (so far) decided not to play the sponsorship rat race. And why should they? They’re wining it simply by playing well. I sure hope they’ll stay away from enthusiastic tea, cola and flavored biscuit execs, or for that matter, Muslim evalangelists who already have a number of pop TV stars under their beards. Some of ‘em goatees.

1. "Vital Signs: 2" - Vital Signs (1991)

Long before the Vital Signs turned from being an astute and deeply melodic FM-pop act and into a shameless, "greedy," and complacent corporate-pop business venture, they delivered not only their finest album, but also local-pop`s best 45 minutes. Even though the album begins with VS:1-like filmi-pop ("Sanwali"), and then moves along into scoring great, melodic FM-pop ("Mera Dil"; "Teray Liye"), its overall sound and mood throughout remains rather sombre, with subtle, moody shades of melancholia and even pessimism. If their debut album reflected the social/cultural euphoria cutting across the land`s new, urban middle-class youth cultures, VS: 2 captures well the confusion, depression and anti-climax that followed the shattering of the initial euphoria due to a new round of ethnic/sectarian/campus violence and the "democratic" return of Ziaist myopia and "constitutional coups.”

It is true that the Vital Signs were (freshly) taken under the cynical wings of a lucrative Pepsi deal, and that by the time they had gotten down to recording VS:2, they had lost their lead guitarist (Salman Ahmed, now of Junoon, and "fired" by Vital Signs leader and synth-player, Rohail Hayat, for "creative differences"), all this, paradoxically, and actually, helped make the album radiate a dark-blue sound and compositions (produced crisply and in dreamy Floydian style by Rohail; a sound and overall mood that would not have been possible without "mentor", Shoaib Mansoor's introverted lyrics; vocalist Junaid Jamshed's sombre vocals, and especially, new guitarist, the highly underrated, Rizwan-ul-Haq's deeply melodic and moody playing. Back in 1991, this album was quite ahead of its time, especially via the Floydian overtones giving great melodic depth to beauties like "Yaad Karna" and "Hum Rahay"; and the pumping sub-techno landscapes of songs such as "Baazar" and the band`s most angry and direct socio-political statement, the powerful and thumping, "Aisa Na Ho Yeh Din."

The production and creative qualities of VS:2 have helped it to sound as modern as anything done with the help of far more advanced recording facilities today, even after twelve years when it was first released. Brilliant stuff, indeed but its success left the Signs looking fat, decadent and bald. Too much Pepsi, I guess, and then came Rohail’s love for Blue Audis and finally JJ’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t mullah cut beard. A sad and surreal end.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha
December, 2003