Tracy Chapman . . . Tracy Chapman . . . Tracy Chapman.
No question about it: The 24-year-old folksinger from Cleveland-via-Boston was clearly the pop arrival of 1988.
Chapman's debut album--a remarkable blend of understated commentary and disarming craft--has sold more than 6 million copies worldwide and Chapman was a key figure in Amnesty International's celebrated six-week, five-continent tour to promote human rights.
But Chapman's success was more than merely a victory for her art.
By introducing tales of society's underclass (from welfare mothers to children terrorized by racism) to the pop charts, Chapman sent a liberating message to radio programmers and record executives of the increasing willingness of pop audiences to deal with music with content.
More important, Chapman was far from the only promising new artist with individuality and point of view.
The freshman Class of 1988 was an unusually impressive collection of talent, the best of which spoke about social issues with a commitment and passion associated with '60s rock.
Bob Krasnow--a record industry veteran who turned a struggling Elektra Records into one of the industry's most respected and profitable labels--believes there is an return of the '60s spirit in pop.
"I think we've finally got to the other side of the so-called disco age," said Krasnow, who signed and championed Chapman at Elektra.
"The point where artists like Tracy and bands like 10,000 Maniacs, the Sugarcubes, Hothouse Flowers . . . come together thematically is that they talk about socially relevant issues."
In an age where so many record executives are attorneys or businessmen, Krasnow, chairman of Elektra, is primarily a music man--someone with "ears" and a point of view about talent.
"I saw an article in a Miami paper earlier this year and the reviewer said something about the new Talking Heads album that kind of stuck with me . . . that it's possible with the album to dance and think at the same thing.
"To me, it's a good analysis of what records can be today--records that you can not only enjoy, but which can stimulate your feelings on a lot of different levels. As a '60s person, that's very gratifying."
Two factors, Krasnow suggested, contributed to the increasing rise in the late '80s of important new talents: A desire among record-buyers for new heroes and voices, and a record industry that is willing to take chances on adventurous new artists because business has been so strong.
"The record business is in extremely high times right now, so you are able to exercise a lot of judgments financially where maybe 10 years ago, you wouldn't take those risks because of the (climate) of the business at the time," he said.
The most obvious thing about the Class of 1988 is that the new voices are exceptionally diverse. Joining Chapman are such independent voices as Iceland's mysterious Sugarcubes, Ireland's uplifting Hothouse Flowers, Texas' provocative Michelle Shocked and Los Angeles' unsettling Jane's Addiction.
Only time will tell how many of these musicians--if any--will grow sufficiently in artistry or influence to rank with the greats in rock history, or whether the Class of '88 will ever rival the best of past rock classes (see related article).
No one these days, even someone with as strong a start as Chapman or the Sugarcubes, seals its place in the Rock Hall of Fame with a single album the way artists did in the '50s when it was possible to demonstrate sufficient original vision in just a few singles to achieve rock greatness.
One of the tests of greatness today is sustained excellence. Prince's "Dirty Mind" album alone in 1980 contained as much striking and influential music as some of rock's most prized pioneers, but it took three more excellent albums--"Controversy," "1999" and "Purple Rain"--until he probably cemented his place in the Rock Hall of Fame.
The following artists, however, exhibited enough traces of greatness to distinguish them from the hundreds of other artists that made their debuts this year. They don't all deal with social issues by any means, but there is sense of honesty and imagination that connects them. As many as five may make my own list of the year's 10 best albums.
Though some of the artists had earlier releases on small, independent labels, they are considered part of the Class of '88 because they all made their major label debut this year.
The artists, alphabetically:
Big Pig's "Bonk" (A&M)--On record, Big Pig's songs (a bit of Eurythmics here, a bit more Eurythmics there) are sometimes thin conceptually, but the Australian band's mix of mainstream pop craft and art-rock instincts comes alive on stage. At the Roxy last May, the band--thanks to impassioned vocals and marvelously intricate rhythms served up by three percussionists and a bassist--offered as much sensual rhythm as the early Talking Heads.