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The Best Rock Albums At Midyear

July 05, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Psychocandy" was the most stimulating album of the first half of 1986--but was it a hit?

The answer is no if you measure success only by the Billboard magazine best-seller list. But the album was a hit according to the CMJ New Music Report, a biweekly industry newsletter.

While it also surveys play lists of a few commercial "new wave" stations like KROQ-FM, the CMJ newsletter reports on the music played around the country on college and non-commercial radio, the most daring outlet for contemporary pop.

"Psychocandy"--a record that combines some of the melodic charm of '60s pop-rock and an overlay of relentless though artful guitar feedback--never made the Billboard Top 200 because the album was virtually ignored by mainstream rock and Top 40 stations. Yet, it was intriguing enough on the college and non-commercial circuit to reach No. 3 in the CMJ Report.

One reason for the wide gap is that the college and non-commercial audience is more interested in the original and challenging than in the familiar and easily absorbed.

No one knows exactly the tolerance level of the wider pop audience, but radio programmers operate on the theory that it is low. They avoid records like "Psychocandy"--even though several singles from the album were big hits in England--because they fear the strident guitar feedback will antagonize listeners.

The worlds of commercial and non-commercial radio aren't mutually exclusive. Peter Gabriel's "So" and the Bangles' "Different Light" are albums with enough distinctive edge and accessibility to make the Top 10 in both Billboard and CMJ. However, most of the albums on today's mid-year list of best albums fared much better in the CMJ charts.

There's a tendency to interpret the presence of unfamiliar or "underground" groups (like the Jesus and Mary Chain) on a best 10 list as sign that a critic is trying to be elitist or snobbish. The suspicion is that no one really listens to these records. But think of it this way: If some of these records are unfamiliar to you, you may just be listening to the wrong stations.

The 10 best albums so far this year.

1. The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Psychocandy" (Reprise)--After repeated playings, I find there is a certain sense of "age" to the album--but in a positive sense. It is one of those few records that achieve a magical balance between being fresh and exciting, and having the classic feel of being part of your musical experience for years.

2. Peter Gabriel's "So" (Geffen)--Thoughtful, sophisticated musical textures are paired with lyrics that are sometimes playful (the sexual bravado of "Sledgehammer"), and sometimes deeply poignant (the loss of self-esteem in "Don't Give Up"). The most fully satisfying and approachable LP yet from one of contemporary pop's most valuable figures.

3. The Bangles' "Different Light" (Columbia)--I enjoyed this album from the start, but the critic in me got caught up in such side issues as, "Should the album be downgraded because the best songs weren't written by the group?" My attitude now: Don't try to analyze the record, just enjoy it. The songs, the harmonies and the spirit are all delightful.

4. (Tie) the BoDeans' "Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams" (Slash), Steve Earle's "Guitar Town" (MCA) and the Pogues' "Rum, Sodomy & the Lash" (MCA)--Warning: I get enthusiastic about new artists with potential, so these debut albums may not really deserve to be above the LPs that follow by veteran artists. Wisconsin's BoDeans talk in traditional rock language (a bit of Dylan, Springsteen and Buddy Holly) about dark mysteries. Earle, a rock-influenced country singer from Texas, finds new things to say about working-class struggles. The Pogues, from Ireland via London, write songs that sound as if they've been handed down through union halls, but the themes--about individuality and freedom--are timely and sharp-eyed.

7. (Tie) Elvis Costello's "King of America" (Columbia), Husker Du's "Candy Apple Grey" (Warner Bros.) and the Minutemen's "3-Way Tie (for Last)" (SST)--The most appealing Costello collection since "Imperial Bedroom" in 1982, and the most appealing LPs ever from the already highly regarded Husker Du and Minutemen.

10. Janet Jackson's "Control" (A&M)--Michael's little sister teams with former Prince allies for the surprise success of the year: a playful, aggressive, confident album that all but struts its way across your turntable.

LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Sunday for George Benson's Sept. 12-14 engagement and for the Smiths' Aug. 26-27 dates, both at the Universal Amphitheatre. . . . Tickets go on sale Monday for a second ZZ Top Forum show on Aug. 15. . . . Friday's Jeffrey Osborne concert at the Pacific Amphitheatre has been rescheduled to Nov. 2.

A "Return of the '60s" festival featuring the Mamas and the Papas, Sky Saxon & the Seeds, Arthur Lee & Love, Spirit and others will be held July 19-20 at Glen Helen Regional Park near San Bernardino. . . . A second Luther Vandross-Patti LaBelle show (July 20) has been added at the Forum.. . . The Call will be at the Palace July 31. . . . Coming to the Roxy: Michael Des Barres (Aug. 6), Screaming Blue Messiahs (Aug. 7) and Danny Wilde (a date change to Aug. 26).

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