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POP MUSIC : DISC DERBY: RIDING THE NEXT 'WAVE' : ORDER OF FINISH : WIN: Meat Puppets : PLACE: Minutemen : SHOW: (tie) Beasts of Bourbon, : Game Theory


Remember the old days (say, 1978), when the "new wave" was virtually a guarantee of independence and spirit in rock? No longer.

The movement--which was inspired by young punk forces like the Sex Pistols and Clash who attacked the musical Establishment--has become so accepted a part of the commercial mainstream that most of the acts dangled by major labels at the young "new wave" market are indistinguishable from the old-wave acts of the late '70s.

Spandau Ballet and Tears for Fears may rely on different instrumental textures from old targets like Styx and Journey, but there is the same absence of imagination and challenge in their records.

The sad truth is, we've come full circle in many ways. If the guys in Styx had been born 10 years later, they'd probably have started a new-wave band and they'd probably be good enough at re-creating the new-wave sound that they'd get signed and played on KROQ-FM.

What goes up really does come down.

In the early days of new wave, there was a sense of kinship between the acts, whether based in London (Elvis Costello, the Jam), New York (Talking Heads, Television) or Los Angeles (X, the Blasters). They seemed part of a crusade to restore vitality to a dormant rock scene. Their weapons: ideas, energy and personality.

Until some of these acts caught on commercially, record companies were nervous about them for two reasons. There was a rawness to much of the music that made their records unacceptable to rock radio, and there was an almost reckless disregard among many of the artists for pop convention. Even if it was an illusion, these new forces seemed to care more about making interesting music than selling records.

Thanks to exposure on renegade radio stations (such as KROQ and KNAC-FM here) and, eventually, all-powerful MTV, the new-wave acts found a young audience that was as tired of the disco, heavy metal and recycled rock that had been dominating the airwaves.

This breakthrough resulted in an invigorating flood of new faces and sounds. The quality was wildly inconsistent, but most of the dozens of newcomers offered a freshness that greatly brightened the pop menu. Among the varied dishes: Culture Club, Devo, Duran Duran, English Beat, Human League, Joy Division, Pretenders, Psychedelic Furs, Public Image, R.E.M., Simple Minds, Siouxie & the Banshees, Stray Cats and U2.

As sales increased, hundreds of new bands popped up, either looking or sounding roughly like the "new wave" pioneers. Excited by the trend, record companies quite naturally signed up bands that sounded the most commercial. Similarly, the alternative stations and MTV also generally opted for groups likely to attract the widest audience.

After all, rock fans can't tell the difference between a great "new wave" band and a mediocre "new wave" band, right? So why worry about quality when the least adventurous ones will probably sell a lot more?

The difference is that we have an alternative now. One outgrowth of the punk/new-wave movement is the healthy network of independent labels that supply us with albums by dozens of young groups that do continue in the independent tradition of the late '70s.

These bands have found an ally in college radio, which aggressively promotes record-makers who exhibit maverick styles and intriguing ideas. Some turkeys still pop up on college radio: LPs by Tears for Fears and Howard Jones were among the 10 most-played albums on college stations, according to the latest CMJ New Music Report newsletter. But the average playlist on FM stations like KXLU and KCSN is infinitely more lively than anything you're likely to find on commercial radio.

Some major labels, aware of the importance of constantly injecting new vigor into the pop diet, are trying to tap into this well of talent by establishing ties with grass-roots labels like Slash (affiliated with Warner Bros.), I.R.S. (now with MCA) and Enigma (EMI America).

Mostly, though, you're going to have to turn to independent labels to pick up on much of what's interesting in rock. The idea isn't to limit yourself to these new forces (the success of Springsteen, Prince and Fogerty in recent months shows that sales and artistry aren't mutually exclusive), but to open yourself to them.

This expanded edition of Disc Derby looks at 14 albums that are at least loosely affiliated with the new-wave tradition, either in spirit or in style. The challenge is to separate the records that add to the tradition from the ones that simply conform to it.

The entries in the Derby, which separates special merit LPs from routine or less ones:

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