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POP EYE

Scoring the Labels: A Very Mixed Year

January 03, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN and PAUL GREIN

Who said it was easy predicting the pop charts?

A year ago, we wouldn't have bet a truckful of eight-track tapes that obscure hard-rockers Whitesnake would suddenly blossom into a quadruple-platinum supergroup, with an album that's been perched in the Top 5 for 33 straight weeks.

And that's just the beginning.

Cartoon rap heroes the Beastie Boys sold 4 million albums. Mick Jagger's much-ballyhooed second solo album didn't even crack the Top 40. Twenty years after the Summer of Love, the Grateful Dead finally landed its first Top 10 album (and more amazingly) a Top 10 single.

It's been that kind of year.

Freshly inked to industry powerhouse Warner Bros., the Bee Gees came--and went--barely scraping the Top 100. Yet Europe (whoever they are) sold more than 2 million albums--as did Yup-Pop saxophonist Kenny G and glam-rock rookies Poison.

Billy Joel went to Russia--and came back with a flop live album. After having a 1985 smash with the "Miami Vice" sound track, MCA bombed with "Moonlighting." The sound tracks that really hit paydirt were low-profile surprises "Dirty Dancing" and "La Bamba," which both hit the top of the charts and spawned No. 1 singles.

Here's a look at how the industry's major labels performed last year:

A&M

The label marked its 25th anniversary with a gold album from label founder Herb Alpert. Of course, it didn't hurt that the red-hot production team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis oversaw the project. The label had an encouraging breakthrough with pop chanteuse Suzanne Vega (who had a Top 5 single with "Luka") and gave the industry a platinum-wrapped holiday greeting with "A Very Special Christmas," a superstar compilation album whose proceeds go to the Special Olympics. The downside was a true flop (Supertramp's "Free as a Bird") and several disappointments, most notably Bryan Adams' "Into the Fire," his follow-up to the quadruple-platinum "Reckless," which stalled around the 1.5 million sales mark.

Arista

Maybe Clive Davis should give Whitney Houston a corner office and let her run the label for a while. She followed her 1986 blockbuster with "Whitney," a quintuple-platinum smash that was No. 1 for 11 weeks, longer than any other album last year. Other successes: a dramatic comeback by the Grateful Dead, big breakthrough albums from Kenny G and faceless dance-music trio Expose--plus a sleeper hit from Carly Simon. Missing in action: one-time hitmakers Air Supply and the Thompson Twins. Still, if Clive can wake up the Dead, can Barry Manilow be far behind?

Atlantic

The good news for the industry's dullest, lowest-profile label is that it distributes Island Records, which had perhaps the year's most acclaimed album with U2's quad-platinum "The Joshua Tree." Otherwise, Atlantic had lots of losers, including disappointing follow-ups from Ratt and Yes. Bright spots: Aussie-rockers INXS, teen star Debbie Gibson and soul balladeer Levert.

Capitol

This troubled label has a new high-profile boss (industry toastmaster Joe Smith) who is looking for a way to improve on the label's mediocre 1987 showing. The label had just four platinum albums--and its best-seller was Poison's "Look What the Cat Dragged In," a pick-up from indy Enigma Records. (Two other platinum discs were holdovers from 1986.) Here's the good news: Heart had a successful follow-up with "Bad Animals," Crowded House emerged as a promising new pop group (as did Great White on the metal front) and Freddie Jackson built on his string of R&B hits, landing Billboard's Top Black Album of the Year.

Columbia

COLUMBIA: Here's another stumper--who would've guessed that two of this industry giant's three top-selling '87 releases would've been from Def Jam Records, its fledgling New York-based rap outpost? Def Jam contributed the Beastie Boys' quadruple-platinum "Licensed to Ill" and L.L. Cool J's double-platinum "Bigger and Deffer." The label also had a double-platinum album from Bruce Springsteen and platinum entries from Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and Pink Floyd (and has a current blockbuster with George Michael's solo debut, "Faith"). On the other hand, Columbia had some noisy belly-flops, led by its expensive Mick Jagger album, as well as relative failures from Billy Joel and Loverboy. P.S. Whatever happened to Paul Young?

Elektra/Asylum

The label's biggest hits came from opposite ends of the pop spectrum--metal maniacs Motley Crue and pop stylist Anita Baker, who both topped the 2-million mark last year. It was also a big breakthrough year for headbangers Dokken and Metallica, critic-faves the Cure, Dixie-rockers the Georgia Satellites and R&B singer Shirley Murdock. Maybe some of those new hot-rods can make up for the Cars, who seem to be running out of gas.

EMI/Manhattan

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