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ROBERT HILBURN

A Top 10 That Touches All Bases

May 02, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

Cutting Crew's lushly romantic "(I Just) Died in Your Arms" single is No. 1 this week.

But so is Atlantic Starr's "Always."

And Conway Twitty's "Julia."

And . . . Smokey Robinson's "Just to See Her."

Welcome to the fragmented world of pop music, where what's No. 1 depends on where you look--or listen.

Cutting Crew's record is the most popular single on the nation's pop radio stations, according to Radio & Records, the weekly trade publication.

But switch the dial to soul, country or easy-listening stations and the odds are you won't hear "Died in Your Arms" at all. The top records on those formats, respectively, are the ones by Atlantic Starr, Twitty and Robinson.

This isolation of music by styles has been going on for years because programmers have found they can best serve advertisers by targeting their play lists to specific audiences. But the practice is increasingly destructive to the health of pop music.

One reason pop was so fertile in the '50s and '60s was that musicians and fans were exposed on the radio to a wide range of styles. Rock 'n' roll itself was simply a mix of two renegade styles (country and R&B) that had been largely isolated themselves in the pre-rock music world.

By the late '60s, however, mainstream rock stations disassociated themselves from country and R&B artists, and--in a move that would eventually cost them all credibility--resisted the whole punk/new wave movement of the '70s and '80s.

Unless you turn to college stations where today's most adventurous rock has been relegated, this fragmentation leads listeners to simply choose a single commercial format and stick it with it.

This means you are sentenced to an endless diet of the airheaded dance-floor sensibilities of KPWR-FM (where Stacey Q is the model of excellence) or the incessant "hey dude" mentality of KROQ-FM or the follow-the-leader conservatism of KIIS-FM.

But what if radio returned to the good old days--not the retrogressive sounds of KLSX-FM, but a format that allowed a healthy interchange of styles?

In that spirit, the Alternative Top 10 will look each month at some of the best music from all sources: country and underground rock, imports to album tracks. The only guideline is that the record not actually be on the Top 100 pop charts.

The Alternative Top 10 for the first week in May:

1. The Jesus and Mary Chain's "April Skies" (Blanco y Negro Records import)--The London-based brothers Reid follow through on their promise to step away from the relentless guitar feedback of their splendid debut album without sacrificing the supercharged tension and romantic cushion of that LP's best moments. This new single--about trying to unravel the complexities of a troubled, obsessive relationship--benefits from a majestic studio approach that starts with a Spector-influenced edge reminiscent of the band's "Just Like Honey" and pushes the accelerator to the floor.

2. Concrete Blonde's "Your Haunted Head" (I.R.S.)-- Johnette Napolitano shares Chrissie Hynde's refusal to play the part of the helpless female. She knows when it's time to step away from a relationship. Sample lyric: "I don't wanna know about the wrinkles in your bed / And I don't wanna know about the ghosts / Inside your haunted head."

3. Throwing Muses' "Finished" (4AD import)--A captivating blend of the artful mystery and grace associated with 4AD artists like the Cocteau Twins and the hyperactive studio energy of Thomas Dolby's most inspired tracks.

4. The Mekons' "Hole in the Ground" (Twin/Tone)--Has any band had a more colorful history than the Mekons, who started out in England as punk minimalists and now play country music with a reckless brilliance? And has any band made a more playful or biting salute to Johnny Cash's working-man narratives than this?

5. Thelonious Monster's "If I" (Relativity)--Who ever imagined these inventive L.A. rock radicals would come up with one of the most intense, soul-cleansing ballads since John Lennon's primal scream days?

6. Lyle Lovett's "God Will" and John Schneider's "At the Sound of the Tone" (both MCA)--The trick in appreciating country music is learning to celebrate clever word play and/or to marvel at new ways of expressing heartbreak. The word play is the hook in Lovett's song (he tells his unfaithful girlfriend that God may forgive her, but that he won't), while a novel approach is the twist in Schneider's ballad (he phones his wife only to hear a message on the answering machine that she can't come to the phone because she is packing to leave him).

8. Public Enemy's "Sophisticated Bitch" (Def Jam)--Public Enemy is the latest street-level rap entry from the Run-D.M.C./Beastie Boys empire, and this record--about a struggling black man's resentment of a woman's use of sex to win a better life--has the same controversial, misogynist overtones as Oran (Juice) Jones' "The Rain."

9. Wednesday Week's "Why" (Enigma)--This co-ed L.A. band likes to downplay its resemblance to the Bangles, but it draws in this track on the same bright, jangly pop-rock '60s influences. Yet the group asserts its own character and potential in this wry tale of ambition.

10. Prince's "The Cross" (Paisley Park)--The second great spiritually tinged track from the Purple One (the first was "4 the Tears in Your Eyes"), this acoustic number might make you say a prayer that Prince will put together a whole gospel album 1 day.

LIVE ACTION: Bon Jovi and Cinderella will be at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on June 21, while REO Speedwagon stops there July 3. Tickets go on sale Sunday. . . . Tickets go on sale Monday for several Pacific Amphitheatre shows, including the Bangles' appearance July 4 with the Untouchables, an Al Jarreau-Chaka Khan bill on July 11 and Emmylou Harris on July 24. . . .

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