20. No Love - Dr. Aur Billa
Released as a video in 1995, this offbeat local slacker anthem quickly put the irreverent Dr. Aur Billa entourage on the then chequered map of the Pakistani pop scene. Relishing the whole idea of poking fun at the done-to-death video and lyrical formulas of the Indo-Pak pop stars, “No Love” set the scene perfectly for Dr. Aur Billa’s hilarious debut album in 1998. However, many years later the once madcap pranksters somehow lost sight of the their initial purpose. Surprisingly ending up actually taking themselves a bit too seriously, sounding no more than an out-of-tune folk-pop outfit with neither the early laughs nor the required cuts. Yes, unfortunately, they decided to “grow up.”
19. Bhangra-Pao - Yatagaan, Billo De Ghar - Abrar-ul-Haq
Bhangra-Pop has been a ubiqutious and overbearing genre in the Indo-Pak pop scene for quite a while now. But, at least in Pakistan, it was first slipped in by Yatagaan (aka Fakhr-e-Alam) back in the summer of 1993. His debut dittie, “Bhangra-Pao,” still sounds far more funky, jumpy and fun than a million Bhangra-Pop releases we are bombarded with every year. Too bad Alam failed miserably to take creative advantage of his inventive initiative, falling instead for Pepsi’s alluring (but manipulative and cynical) charms and eventually failing with each one of his following releases.
Alam’s initiative however was grabbed three years later when in late 1996 Abrar-ul-Haq debuted with the wonderful “Billo De Ghar.” This number completely changed the face of Bhangra-Pop in Pakistan, making it more populist and raunchy in appeal. Punctuated by street-smart Lahori humour and telling a tongue-in-cheek tale of a harassed young Romeo falling in love with a caged prostitute, “Billo,” set alight the country’s moral squads, mostly made up of Punjab’s urban petty-bourgoise and the usual mullah lobbies. These in turn pressurised the always-willing right-wing PML (N) government to ban it from state-owned media. However, this only ended up creating exactly the sort of hype required by Abrar to move on and become the land’s biggest selling Bhangra-Pop act, and, eventually, Coke’s biggest catch ever since Junoon.
18. Irtiqa-III - EP, Manwa Re - Noori
EP and Noori are two of the most promising and exciting acts emerging from Pakistan’s rampaging post-‘90s pop scene. EP proved this by releasing an impressive debut album complete with complex Tool-like prog-metal dynamics, enraged vocals and excellent, literate words about the socio-political plight of their countrymen. “Irtiqa-III” is a vivid example. Set to some of the most intense chops and drops this side of metal, “Irtiqa-III” further heightens the intensity by adding great drama to the vocals and terrific, weighty lyrics. These effortlessly equal (if not surpass) the powerful lyrics put down by veteran music critic, Farrukh Moriani and Salman Ahmed for Junoon’s 1993 ripper, “Talaash.”
Noori’s debut, though a bigger seller, was (thus) artistically and conceptually a far tamer event. Taking the radio-friendly college-rock route, the Bengali-folk-music-inspired “Manwa Re” became the song that most helped the band attract popular taste. It did anger and embarrass the band’s previous underground following, but was a revelation to many about a highly talented former fringe act tastefully embracing commercially viable pop formulas. However, the relative success also did much to finally make Noori succumb to the cynical ways of corporate sponsorship and its artistic pitfalls.
17. Mr. Fraudiye - Awaz
Awaz were the arch-typical Pakistani boy-band moulded in the shape and sound of 80’s teen acts Wham and NKOTB. Though commercially successful and backed by a lucerative Pepsi deal, their first two albums were no more than disposable bopper-pop until Awaz decided to grow some teeth on their last outing, "Shola," in 1995. The highlight of that album was a surpassingly jazzy and stylistic dittie called “Mr. Fraudiye.” The lyrics of the song complimented the addictive tune well, attacking the vicious, two-faced nature of the country’s rich elite with great wit and clarity. Too bad then that Awaz’s sudden maturity came at the fag-end of its otherwise predictable and tame career, with the band’s two mainstays, Fakhir and Haroon, going solo. Unfortunately, this maturity has yet to show any inkling in both men’s rather unremarkable solo efforts.
16. Sohni Mahiwal - Collage, Allah Meray Dil Ke Andar - Jawad Ahmed
1993 was the year when guitar-driven music finally started to get some mainstream attention in Pakistan, especially with the comparative success of Junoon’s second album, "Talaash." And, interestingly, just as Junoon were about to enter their most important “Sufi-Rock” phase, a Karachi-based underground act, Collage, actually beat them to it with the release and success of “Sohni Mahiwal.” A raving proto-Sufi-Rock chestnut centred around the modern retelling of a famous Southern Punjab folk tale of a tragic romance, it also take’s the region’s trademark folk music blueprint and reinterprets it with swirling guitar riffs and synth histrionics. With the widespread success of this song, Collage managed to create an ideal platform for themselves to launch into a full-length album, but laziness, misplaced egos and lack of vision saw them releasing the album three years too late. By then Junoon had finally arrived as torchbearers of the “Sufi-Rock” moniker.
But this did not stop Jawad Ahmad to offer his own version of “Sufi-Rock” with a crackling debut album in 1997, the highlight of which was a powerful song called “Allah Meray Dil Ke Andar.” Surprisingly, the song failed to generate any worthwhile sales of the impressive album, leaving the once long-haired and intense Jawad follow it up with a harmless collection of formulaic bhangra and soapy pop ditties and tear-jerking ballads. Its instant success found him stuck in all the trappings of conventional stardom and unabashed corporate pop, a phase he is yet to shrug and rediscover his still unrealised (artistic) potential.
15. Dupatta - Hadiqa Kiyani, Mera Pyar - Aamir Zaki
Hadiqa confirmed her unchallenged status as the land’s first post-Nazia pop diva with the release of her second album in 2000 (almost four years after her successful debut release). Consolidating this was her elusive persona and charismatic style and which is best captured by 2000’s sexy “Dupatta.” Imaginatively produced, “Dupatta” fuses a quasi-bhangra rhythm with fat, funky techno beats, and when fronted by Hadiqa’s dreamy-meets-husky- vocals, the results are rather stunning. Something her latest album clearly lacks, no matter how much slicker her wardrobe and videos have become.
Talking about enigmatic artists in a local pop scene otherwise infested with publicity-hungry and overbearing pop stars, Aamir Zaki is always a refreshing prospect. And in spite of a rather clinical debut album, (1995’s "Signature"), the brilliant and exceptionally gifted guitarist actually managed to bag a mainstream hit with “Mera Pyar.” Recorded during an emotionally turbulent time in his life, Zaki sounds convincingly soulful and so does the composition, a ballad rich in genuine pop melody but never lacking in edge. Certainly not your average, pretentious fluff, even though Zaki is not exactly Ali Azmat or Junaid Jamshed as a vocalist.
14. Purani Jeans - Ali Haider
Back in the early ‘90s, Ali Haider was king of harmless filmi-pop. Even though his music was mostly all fluff and stuff, it remained highly entertaining, like his third release, 1994’s "Sandesa." The album’s success was led by a likeable little tune, “Purani Jeans,” on which Haider insightfully captured the lifestyle of the average, middle-class Pakistani college kid. This was also to be Haider’s last great filmi-pop number, before he started to tread the fading, ageing pop star territory via a surprising and bold techo album (a commercial flop!), a massive sex scandal and desperate attempts to recapture his otherwise evaporating popularity.
13. Channo - Ali Zafar, Co Co Corena - Ahmed Rushdi
If Abrar’s popular debut was about street-smart raunchiness, Ali Zafar shot to fame by getting on the bhangra-pop bandwagon but giving the genre a slicker and more “modern” feel and look. Though his big-selling debut album was a patchy affair, its leading tune, “Channo,” became an instant hit with its catchy, playful ways and maybe also because Zafar cleverly sung it like the great Kishore Kumar would a modern bhangra tune! The results are pretty impressive and colourful.
Ahmed Rushdi on the other hand had no bandwagon to jump. He was a pioneer of sorts of what became to be known as “filmi-pop.” In fact, when he lend his enthusiastic voice to 1966’s “Co Co Corina,” he made history by recording perhaps Pakistan’s first home-grown pop song. And surprisingly, “Co Co Corina” has dated well, with its borrowings from vintage ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and early ‘60s twist, all liberally weaved in with the time’s chocolate-coated filmi sensibilities.
12. Disco Deewane & Aye Dil Meray Chal Ray - Nazia & Zoheb
Talking about local pop pioneers, Nazia & Zoheb were a dynamic duo. They were way up-front all through the ‘80s, adding generic disco beats and modern pop dynamics to filmi-pop and in the process laying down the sonic and social blueprint for a whole new generation of local pop acts in the ‘90s and beyond. The title song of their 1980 debut album set the stage for an exciting and refreshing sounds to come, blazing, multicoloured disco beeps and bleeps complete with moans and groans and allusions to the decadent, tacky pleasures of disco. All this was certainly a breath of fresh air and rather liberating for a generation of teens sadistically suffocated and repressed by a myopic dictatorship which was busy peddling morality and heroin side by side and with equal enthusiam.
But N&Z were not always or only about disco sleaze and flaky ‘80s dance music. Both could suddenly morph into soulful balladeers or energetic FM-Pop advocates. The solidly melodic and galloping “Aye Dil Meray Chal Ray” (1983), is a good example and proof that Zoheb Hassan was a highly underrated vocalist, always lurking in the shadows of his pop-diva sister. Wonder whatever happened to his comeback solo album?
11. Uss Rah Par - Junaid Jamshed
Never mind his recent bouts of confused, self-righteous religiosity, Junaid Jamshed remains to be one of the finest and most melody friendly vocalists in the local pop scene. His voice was magic for his fellow composers and lyricists in the Vital Signs and for collaborators who worked with him on his two fine solo outings. It automatically attracted material that was moody, highly melancholic in sound and lyrics that were usually full of distant longings. It was as if he was always questioning himself and his place in the world and interestingly, the beautiful “Uss Rah Par” from his first solo album, may hold the answers to the following questions: Exactly why is JJ always at cross roads regarding his art and his religion? Why the sudden need for divine salvation even before he hit middle age? And, of course, why is he always using music as a scapegoat for this and not his boutique?
10. Dekha Na Tha - Alamgir
Nazia & Zoheb are rightly credited for beefing up the local pop sound and making it seem more modern than its ‘60s and ‘70s forerunner. However, it was actually a young Alamgir who first added the required meat to Rushdi and Runa Laila’s filmi-pop. Especially when he released “Dekha Na Tha” in 1976. Recorded at the height of the over-the-top and the wonderfully kitsch disco scene in the West, the bouncy tune at once captured the listeners’ changing taste when it first aired on PTV (even though it was originally recorded for a forgettable 1976 Lollywood stinker). Unfortunately the popular song was suddenly and rudely taken off PTV and Radio Pakistan by the new Jamat-e-Islami controlled information ministry under the right-wing Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship that had toppled Z. A. Bhutto’s populist government in July 1977. This did not stop Alamgir to finally evolve into one of the country’s leading and most successful pop attractions until he called it quits in 1993.
9. Sona Chahta Hoon - Najam Shiraz
Even though Najam has been around for almost a decade now and there has never been any doubt whatsoever about the obvious talent behind his powerhouse and operatic vocals, he has usually failed to fully realise his potential and get the recognition he deserves. His sudden moves from solid, passionate pop openings (his first two albums), to rock (with Karavan), to bhangra and now naats (!!), haven’t helped his cause as well. Today he seems to be a totally different entity than the one who unleashed the powerful “Sona Chahta Hoon” in 1994. This brilliantly arranged and performed song screams for instant attention as Najam rants and raves about social insomnia in the face and wake of urban violence and upheavals. All passionately communicated with a composition derived from purposefully maddening mimicking of Eastern Classical music. It is thus rather sad to note that after this there has only been an empty lull and deluded accolades for the Almighty coupled with a few disposable tea jingles from the talented (but erratic) vocalist. Pity.
8. Yaad Karna & Main Chup Raha - Vital Signs
Till this day (and ever since the explosion of Pakistan’s neo-pop scene in the late ‘80s), no pop act has managed to sound as warmly melodic and brilliantly understated as the Vital Signs. In spite of the fact that through out their eight-year-career (1987-95), the popular act remained haunted by sticky emotional demons, personality crisis, ego clashes and immoral corporate antics, none of their four albums were ever a disappointment. In particular their second (1991’s "VS: 2") and fourth (1995’s "Hum Tum"). Both stand tall as near-perfect examples of solid FM-Pop and on which VS quite incredibly give the regular filmi-pop genre a rich melodic texture, moody intensity and seething melancholia. This they did by weaving in compositional and production-related dynamics associated with excellent acts such as Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and Pink Floyd. The brooding “Yaad Karna” (from "VS: 2") and the galloping “Main Chup Raha” (from Hum Tum") are two outstanding examples in this respect. “Yaad Karna” is classical VS, floating with rich melody, longing lyrics and vocals, radiating a haunting beauty with productional and compositional allusions to Floyd and as well as the melody-heavy Indian film music of the early ‘70s.
“Main Chup Raha,” on the other hand, though, again constructed on the same compositional principles, however, adds in an interesting twist to the usual moody, longing and melancholic proceedings It ups the tempo, giving itself a swinging, epic momentum with the help of some bluesy Wah-Wah guitar gymnastics. Pretty awesome stuff, really.
7. Talaash & Garaj Baras - Junoon
After clashing with VS leader, the enigmatic and shifty, Rohail Hayat in 1990 over the band’s musical direction and corporate ambitions, guitarist Salman Ahmed, quit the popular band and picked up the mercurial Ali Azmat (the disgruntled slacker ex-vocalist of filmi-pop act, Jupiters), and former VS synth-player, Nusrat Ahmed, to form Pakistan’s first up-front rock band, Junoon. Also having the ambition to spout populist, leftfield politics through their music, Junoon’s debut album was a commercial dud, though it did contain the seeds of what would eventually grow into the trademark Pakistani rock sound. But three years later in 1993, Salman replaced Nusrat with the introverted Brian O’Connell on bass and added the volatile Rush-freak drummer, Fawad Abbasi, and unleashed "Talaash." This gem of an album was the starting point of Junoon’s gradual commercial and creative accent.
Leading it was its roaring, angry tittle track. Kicking off with a blazing guitar riff it whirlwinds across the most meaningful three minutes in Pakistani rock music, furiously attacking political hypocrisies, slave mentality and demagogue-ism. “Talaash” was a concentrated do-or-die plunge into dangerous territory, complete with tongue-in-cheek snippets mimicking radio broadcasts about student clashes, urban violence, and most hilariously, a voice impersonating a very Pushtu-sounding former President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, announcing the mid-air assassination of the late tyrant, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq!
Of course, all this was long before Salman one day suddenly realised the number of children he had, the size of the house he was living in, and the number of grey hair that had started to appear in his moustache. And viola! The volatile rocker revolutionary finally decided to let Coca-Cola turn them into a ubiqutious, cynical cola selling mockery and a sad, balding self-parody.
But all was not lost. Because if 1999’s "Parvaaz" was to become the last good Junoon album, the ageing band did manage to occasionally spring a solid surprise, reminiscent of their more meaningful and passionate days in the ‘90s. 2003’s “Garaj Baras” from the otherwise disastrous and flat, "Deewar," was one such occasion. Again revolving around Salman’s knack for coming up with catchy off-the-wall riffs, the song gallops ahead with great might and fanfare. Vocalist Ali Azmat is in top form, proving once again why he is one of the finest and most versatile vocalists in the scene. But the song’s instant charisma is also due to the way it was brilliantly and deliciously mixed and produced by former VS bassist, Shahzad Hassan. This was also the last great Junoon song on which its long-time bassist, Brian, would appear. He was fired on one of the many of Salman’s recent whims in the summer of 2004. Sad.
6. Teri Yaad & Paanion Mein - Sajjad Ali
One of the most prolific and consistently good pop artists in Pakistan, Sajjad Ali neither seems to be ageing nor sounding tired or cynical. The man keeps coming up with one excellent album after another and each one a bigger seller than the previous one. And he’s been doing so ever since his crackling 1993 debut, "Babia." There are so many great Sajjad Ali songs to choose from, but I believe 2000’s “Teri Yaad” and 2002’s “Paanion Mein” are his finest moments yet. The former was recorded and released for a TV soap but is anything but soapy. Centred around Sajjad’s distinct voice and sense of moody melody, the most interesting aspect here is the way he so innovatively uses the sound of a sliding bass to communicate the emotionally sticky content and nature of the song. “Paanion Mein” is equally moody but has a more haunting and dark edge to it. It brilliantly and convincingly communicates the whole idea behind the theme of the song: A restless, sad spirit of a dead young man telling his tragic but simply tale to a group of young picnic makers who first take it as pure entertainment but end up feeling thoroughly disturbed. Sajjad is quite clearly an unassuming genius. And never has he allowed himself to say yes to dozens of multinationals that are always ready to sign up this giant of an artist.
5. Sayonee Junoon, Kaho Ek Din - Ahmed Jehanzeb
Even though Junoon finally dented the mainstream charts with 1996’s versatile, "Inquilaab," it was the following year’s "Azadi" that not only became the most profound and indulgent expression of the band’s Sufi-Rock phase but also helped Junoon break into the widespread Indian market. The breakthrough was achieved mainly by one of the album’s strongest numbers, “Sayonee.” Inspired by the traditional Sufi music of Turkey’s whirling dervishes and as well as the music centred in the Beralvi psyche of Pakistan’s Mazar culture, the band brilliantly fused it with raw but understated guitar twangs and with the tabla taking the place of the drums. It was a typically bold experiment that Junoon had become famous for and it worked wonderfully.
So far Ahmed Jehanzeb has been the only new act who has managed to come close to equalling the brooding warmth and seething melancholia that was so distinctly present in the music of the Vital Signs. His debut album was a wall-to-wall affair in this respect, especially his song “Kaho Ek Din.” On surface level it plays like a conventional (but impressive) ballad, however, on repeated listening, one can then hear the many layers it is made up of: sounds and movements inspired by modern ambient music and even some neo-psychedelia. Nice.
4. Yeh Shaam & Aitebar - Vital Signs
The release of Vital Signs’ debut album in 1989 was a major milestone in the history of Pakistani pop music. It marked the beginning of a whole new era of pop music in the country, an era and scene that first started to develop the creative and commercial make-up of local pop music as we know it today. To many early Signs fans who were in their teens at the time of the album’s release, "VS: 1" remains to be their favourite VS album. And why not, because this album captured well the feeling of euphoria, hope and liberation felt by the youth culture of the time at the violent demise of Zia’s myopic and repressive eleven-year-dictatorship and the arrival of “democracy” in the shape of the liberal Benazir Bhutto government. One of the album’s standout tunes has also become a local pop classic. In fact “Yeh Shaam” can also be a worthy guide to what would eventually develop into the patent VS sound i.e., dreamy, longing, brooding and rich with floating melody. And this is the sound that is best represented by another most memorable VS dittie, “Aitebar,” the title song of the band’s third and perhaps weakest album. In fact the crystallised beauty and the careful construction of the song’s structure and lyrics, plays well the part of a gesture of saving grace on an otherwise disappointing album that was clearly dented by the band’s new-found reign as the scene’s biggest corporate act and an inband tussle that saw Rohail firing its second guitarist (the highly underrated Rizwan) soon after the album was released in mid-1993.
3. Aadat - Jal
Jal appeared as one of the most promising new post-‘90s rock acts and they confirmed this with an excellent song called “Aadat.” It right away turned itself into a solid mainstream hit and that too without compromising the band’s rock roots and a liking for intelligent lyrics. It maintains a galloping hard rock pace but never losses sight of melody, becoming an extremely likeable and tightly constructed youth anthem about pessimism and fate. “Aadat” could have become Jal’s calling card to sprint past its many local rock contemporaries. In fact, it was powerful enough to have even propelled Jal to become the next Junoon. But, alas, lack of vision and an appreciation for their own talents (more than for their own suddenly inflated egos), have left Jal scattered and in no shape to ever function again as a coherent unit able to express themselves the way they did through “Aadat.”
2. Sar Kiyay Ye Pahaar - Strings
Back in 1992, the then teenybopper band, The Strings, suddenly took everyone by surprise by releasing “Sar Kiyay Ye Pahaar” (the opening track of their second album). Soon this song was a sleeping hit, and interestingly this is also the nature of this rather charismatic composition. It does not play at all like a likeable little conventional pop song. Instead, its melody is brilliantly understated, elusive and subtle and this is exactly what saves it from being just another successful but disposable pop dittie. And even though The Strings’ return ever since 2000 has been an equally successful affair, their knack for turning in charmingly subtle but highly likeable pop music has been marred by certain loud and ubiqutious projects pushed down their throats (and ours) by their sponsors, (Pepsi, Walls, etc.) The point being, this sort of acrobatic corporate fanfare totally betrays the nature of the band’s music and image.
1. Aankhon Ke Saagar - Fuzon
One of the finest and richest pop melodies to come out of the local pop scene, “Aankhon Ke Saagar,” at once turned Fuzon into a solid pop force. Praised for their creative talents and applauded for their commercial laurels, Fuzon are now headed the way where biggies like N&Z, VS, Strings and Junoon treaded and prospered but ended up like cola-fed dinosaurs! But Fuzon are still a new story and if they keep their egos intact and don’t fall early for the glitzy and amoral ways of corporate pop, they have a future that can only become bigger and better. Their concept of fusion music seems pretty sound and grounded in the reality of the sounds easily recognisable by the commercial listener. And yet, as “Aankhon Ke Saagar” proved, they are not afraid to blend in diversified influences such as rock, filmi-pop, ghazal and Eastern Classical into the mix.Nadeem Farooq Paracha