The Art of the (Pop) Trio
by Jason Gubbels | August 5, 2014
In rock music, a trio generally means a Power Trio, which in turn generally means a guitar/bass/drums lineup as first perfected by 1960s heavy metal prototype Cream and psychedelic innovators The Jimi Hendrix Experience -- bands in which blasting amplifiers and showy lead guitars helped steamroll over the lack of additional instruments. You can probably think of more '60s/'70s trios in this vein (Blue Cheer, ZZ Top, Rush) and even plenty of later acts mining the same hard rock territory (Nirvana, Green Day and Sleater-Kinney, although the latter did away with bass altogether).
But not all trios thrive on power. In the pop tradition, a three-woman or -man frontline isn't about who plays lead guitar and who plays drums; it's about how three vocal personalities compliment and interact with each other, allowing a group to showcase individual voices and also play with harmony. And while there have been plenty of pop duos and even a fair number of pop quartets, trios seem to hit the sweet spot, as evidenced by their continuing popularity from the close-harmony sister acts of the 1930s to the three-person R&B superstars of today.
Our playlist of pop trios follows a roughly chronological path through the years, but skips around genres pretty freely. You'll hear swing-era vocal outfits like The Andrews Sisters (who often mined a slightly oddball approach that would find eventual echo in 1970s cult act The Roches); early '60s folk acts like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary; and such three-woman soul/R&B practitioners as The Supremes (on the absolutely ridiculous "Buttered Popcorn") and Labelle (back before Patti LaBelle left Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash behind). You'll also hear plenty of New Wave synth acts (Depeche Mode and Heaven 17), a few country pop trios (Dixie Chicks and supergroup Pistol Annies), and a handful of '90s indie trios (Everclear, Better Than Ezra). Perhaps the best in overall show comes from the intersection of hip-hop and R&B, where trios have long ruled and continue to dominate. From the Fat Boys and the Beastie Boys to TLC and Destiny's Child, three microphones have always been just enough to go around.