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ROBERT HILBURN

Welcome Ripples On Still Pop Waters

November 30, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN

Yawn.

Or am I the only one who thinks the tone of commercial pop music again has become distressingly bland?

The enormous success over the last two years of such gifted yet accessible artists as Michael Jackson, Prince and Bruce Springsteen demonstrated that you can have imagination and passion in mass-appeal records.

But today's hits, such as Starship's "We Built This City" and Phil Collins-Marilyn Martin's "Separate Lives," are all too typical of the passive, unchallenging fare that once more dominates radio's pop play lists and, therefore, the national Top 10 charts. Even Stevie Wonder's latest hit, "Part Time Lover," seem to reflect pop's lowest common denominator.

This trend sends a discouraging signal to record executives. Where the success of visionary artists leads labels to be more adventurous in signings, the triumph of the Pop Slumber brigade tells them to avoid any artist that may try to rock the boat. These mostly slick, heartless records also tell casual music fans that nothing's happening in pop--and that they should look elsewhere for entertainment and ideas. The truth is there are lots of stimulating and purposeful records available--but you have to search for them. Start with "Sun City," which tops today's Alternative Top 10.

For rock fans, college radio makes the search for interesting records easy. The stations pride themselves in uncovering bands with fresh sounds or points of view. But the extremes of college radio programming make that outlet generally unsatisfactory for most pop and country-oriented listeners.

The Alternative Top 10 is designed to aid in that search for more active, yet still mainstream music--a search that centers on rock, but also includes such related fields as country and street-affiliated black music.

The good news is that "Sun City"--the blistering attack on South African apartheid--is finally beginning to get some exposure on local stations. Radio's early reluctance when the record was released last month was widely attributed to the song's political message.

But my suspicion is radio programmers were even more uncomfortable over the record's aggressive tone and its failure to conform to radio's rigid pop, country, rock, soul guidelines. Here suddenly was a record that involved jazz, rock, salsa, rap and pop artists. The issue isn't the strength of the record, but whether it fits the format.

Part of the power of "Sun City" is that it also attacks radio's musical apartheid by bringing together artists that are isolated by radio into different categories. Among them: Miles Davis, Steve Van Zandt, Afrika Bambaataa, Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Pete Townshend, Ruben Blades, Daryl Hall and Springsteen.

Following is an Alternative Top 10 that spotlights the exciting range of material--singles or album tracks--that aren't today's radio-controlled real Top 10. The goal is to find music that makes you think--or feel some emotion.

1. Artists United Against Apartheid's "Sun City" (EMI-America)--It's probably the single of the year.

2. Bono Hewson's "Silver and Gold" (EMI-America)--This track from the "Sun City" LP is a raw, desperate country-blues lament that--along with the biting "Let Me See Your I.D." rap--shows why "Sun City" may also be the album of the year.

3. The Replacements' "Swingin' Party" (Sire)--A richly introspective ballad about loneliness and youthful insecurity from "Tim," the generally raucous major-label debut by a Minneapolis band that is at the forefront of the American rock renaissance. The group will be at Fender's in Long Beach on Dec. 13 and at the Roxy in West Hollywood for two nights starting Dec. 16.

4. Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" (EMI-America)--Radio has gotten behind this single enough to push it into the Top 30, which suggests stardom may finally be at hand in this country for this idiosyncratic English singer-songwriter whose dramatic pop lacks the poetic edge of Joni Mitchell, but whose best songs speak to you in much the same personal and insightful way.

5. The Long Ryders' "Looking for Lewis and Clark" (Island)--One of the year's best singles from the grass-roots L.A. rock bands. The driving music echoes the '60s (an unmistakable "You Really Got Me" riff), but the concerns (including the lines about diplomats hawking secrets in the park and the President walking through Harlem after dark) speak to a search for personal and social values that is up to the minute.

6. 10,000 Maniacs' "Scorpio Rising" (Elektra)--A highlight of this New York band's big-label LP debut, the song is an angry, compelling response to betrayal. Natalie Merchant's lyrics are more sketches than formal exercises ("Save the pistol . . . / Save the cynic's tongue . . . /Save the cool white stare . . . "), but she sings them with bite and the swirling, folk-accented arrangements add engaging grace. The group makes its local debut Thursday at Safari Sam's in Huntington Beach before moving Friday to the Lingerie in Hollywood.

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