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POP MUSIC : This Year's Pop Freshmen Mix and Match Traditions

November 18, 1990|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

I\o7 ce Cube is the first record artist to make a second appearance in Calendar's annual salute to pop's 10 most promising new arrivals of the year.

The controversial Los Angeles rapper was on last year's list as a member of N.W.A, whose "Straight Outta Compton" album both ignited and defined the West Coast gangsta-rap movement.

Now on his own, Ice Cube, who contributed many of the key images and raps to the "Compton" collection, delivered a solo album--"AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted"--that was even more ambitious and provocative, though nothing in it prompted an FBI official to write a formal letter of protest, as an N.W.A song did.

The following U.S. major-label debuts reflect the diversity of a pop scene that is struggling to redefine itself during a period when rock's creativity and impact are being challenged by rap and techno-pop. At least half of the 10 artists, significantly, are experimenting with the pop form by mixing hip-hop or metal with traditional pop, rock or R&B styles.

In drafting the list, the emphasis was on artistic potential and vision, not on sales. Mariah Carey, whose debut album has outsold all but one of the artists cited here, may have a great voice and she may someday develop a strong musical point of view. The same thing, however, was said about Whitney Houston in 1985, and we're still waiting for a personal stamp to emerge.

These 10 artists offered a glimmer of a pop vision in their 1990 debut works.

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Bell Biv Devoe

Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison" (MCA)--"Our music is mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal to it," this talented New Edition spinoff trio declares on its album cover, underscoring the growing willingness of key artists to step beyond the artificial pop boundaries that have been erected in recent years by conservative radio programmers. The encouraging thing about Bell Biv Devoe isn't just that other musicians might be inspired by their blend of traditional R&B and contemporary hip-hop, but that record companies--noting the album's 2 million sales--will begin encouraging artists to become more innovative.

The Black Crowes

The Black Crowes' "Shake Your Money Maker" (Def American)--Chris Robinson, the lead singer of this Georgia band, and Rich Robinson, his guitar-playing brother, offer lively, accessible music that is a cross between the good-time, R&B-accented rock of the Faces and the rawer, Dixie-fried stylings of Lynyrd Skynyrd--a combination that may sound too dated to compete for our attention in 1990. But the brothers, who also write the songs, swagger through their engaging debut album with an authority that has made the Crowes one of the quiet but welcome success stories of the year.

Digital Underground

Digital Underground's "Sex Packets" (Tommy Boy)--Ice Cube and Public Enemy gave us the most compelling rap albums of the year, but the Underground delivered the most entertaining. Another group that isn't shy about fusing and rearranging traditional pop forms, thiscrew combine the freshness of De La Soul with the comic persona of Tone Loc in such inviting novelties as "Humpty Dance" and "Doowutchyalike." Just when you think the novelty of "Sex Packets" has worn off, another playing makes you a fan all over again.

808 State

808 State's "90" (Tommy Boy)--Part of Manchester's high-energy dance-rock contingent, this techno-conscious outfit deals in such a streamlined version of post-Kraftwerk synthesizer grooves that it can easily be mistaken for a seamless, new-age band if the album is played too softly. But pump up the volume in a club or on your own system and the music--with clever world-beat samples, frequent wit and silky allure--becomes as stylish and engulfing as the best of Soul II Soul, one of last year's freshman class members.

The Gear Daddies

Gear Daddies' "Billy's Live Bait" (PolyGram)--One tendency of ambitious and talented young songwriters is to reach for big, central issues in hopes of hitting on purposeful anthems. But writers--from Dylan to Springsteen--often tell us far more about the human condition by concentrating on life's everyday moments. Thelonious Monster's Bob Forrest and the Replacements' Paul Westerberg have been especially effective in recent years at relating on this personal level. That's also the strength of Martin Zellar, whose Minneapolis-area quartet combines the basic, bare-bones rock style of the Replacements with a touch of the country color of the early BoDeans.

John Wesley Harding

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