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In Search of the Perfect Top 10 List

December 27, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

I love Top 10 lists.

They're not only fun to put together, they also encourage reader participation. Who can resist second guessing?

That's why Calendar's pop music department chose to share 19 of them with you this year (See opposite page).

But there are problems with Top 10 lists. One is that the numbers 1 through 10 alone don't adequately describe the qualitative differences between albums. Was it a photo finish between the first and second albums, or was there a big gap?

The Village Voice skirts this hurdle by asking each participant in its annual survey of the nation's leading pop/rock critics to weigh their choices. Instead of simply submitting a Top 10 list, critics must divide 100 points among the 10 albums, giving no album more than 30 points or less than 5 points.

Here's how the Village Voice system works when applied to my own Top 10 for 1987:

1--U2's "The Joshua Tree" (Island)--This landmark work combines a glorious and graceful musical sheen that is the equal of the Who's "Who's Next" with challenging social/cultural themes as purposeful as prime Bob Dylan. A contender for "best album of the '80s" honors, "Joshua Tree" is a deceptively radical work that may well be the most encouraging statement about the future of rock 'n' roll since "Born to Run" and "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols." 25 points.

2--Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love" (Columbia)--Another classic work that examines the complexities of modern love with both the innocence of Springsteen's most endearing early records and the darker, troubled reflections of his anxious "Nebraska." 21 points.

3--Los Lobos' "By the Light of the Moon" (Slash)--There are some routine moments on this album that caused it to fall a notch below the front-runners, but the key moments--including "One Time, One Night" and "River of Fools"--are inspired salutes to the resilience of the human spirit. 11 points.

4--The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Darklands" (Reprise)--This studio-oriented British band has problems getting its music together live, but the best songs--including "April Skies"--are hauntingly personal statements of romantic obsession as alternately beautiful and unsettling as the scenes in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet." 8 points.

5--Sting's " ... Nothing Like the Sun" (A & M)--Sting balances in this two-record set a seriousness of purpose (most notably the poignant "They Dance Alone," a song of courage and hope inspired by Sting's involvement with Amnesty International) and a joyful musicality which leaves little doubt that an artistic heart beats beneath his cool, aristocratic surface. 8 points.

6--Terence Trent D'Arby's "Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby" (Columbia)--This London-based American isn't perfect. There's an anonymous feel to much of Side 2 of "Hardline," but D'Arby's vocals (as silky as Sam Cooke's in places, as explosive as Otis Redding's in others) and apparently radical pop instincts infuse this debut LP with an electrifying promise. 6 points.

7--Thelonious Monster's "Next Saturday Afternoon" (Relativity)--An underground rock jewel that, sadly, was even overlooked by much of the rock underground and college radio. Lead singer-lyricist Bob Forrest examines questions of identity and self-worth with a convincing, unflinching spirit that makes the LP the most affecting work by an American rock upstart since the Replacements' "Tim" in 1985. 6 points.

8--R.E.M.'s "Document" (I.R.S.)--The important thing about this uneven but still invigorating LP is that R.E.M. takes a bold step toward more concrete lyrics in the band's continuing examination of the chaos and confusion of a social order that lead singer Michael Stipe sees as slowly unraveling. 5 points.

9--Concrete Blonde's "Concrete Blonde" (I.R.S.)--There are echoes of the Pretenders, X and the Motels in these tough yet vulnerable tales of survival in a world filled with all sorts of emotional land mines, but there is also an undeniably arresting vision that suggests this blonde's roots are deep and true. 5 points.

10--John Hiatt's "Bring the Family" (A & M)--In one of the most heartwarming pop stories of '87, this formerly L.A.-based singer-songwriter (Hiatt now lives in Nashville) emerged from a period of personal turmoil with an album that asserts a warm but never falsely sentimental toast to the comforts of love and music. 5 points.

So far so good. But even this weighting system has a weakness. Limiting a list to 10 keeps it from offering insights to the artistic depth of a year.

This was a strong year. Nearly 100 albums were nominated by the 19 critics who participated in Calendar's Top 10 poll, and my guess is that many of the critics juggled 15 to 20 albums in putting together their lists.

In my case, more than a dozen other albums reflected enough vitality and vision to live up to the standards associated with Top 10 status. They, too, in effect, were virtually interchangeable with the final three choices on my Top 10 list.

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