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POP MUSIC : A Year of Confession and Rage

December 23, 1990|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

A\o7 t a time when marketing strategy and video flash rule the pop world to such a degree that we can no longer be sure who is singing on a record, Sinead O'Connor and Neil Young reminded us during 1990 of the continuing power of classic pop-rock values.

In the year's two most distinguished albums, both artists--although they are from different rock generations--relied on passion, craft and meaningful songs about relationships and ideals.

O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" is an especially commanding reflection on a journey that leads from confusion and doubt to optimism and faith--an album that ranks with U2's "The Joshua Tree" and Paul Simon's "Graceland" as one of the best works of the last decade.

Young's "Ragged Glory" is another stirring work--a member of rock's glorious '60s class taking inventory in the '90s. It is strong enough to top a 10-best list most years, including last year, when Young's "Freedom" was the top choice on dozens of critics' lists.

The rest of the albums on my 10-best list ranged from the provocative social commentary of rappers Ice Cube and Public Enemy to the invigorating musical experimentation of Paul Simon, Was (Not Was) and Digital Underground.

Whatever the differences in approach, the albums cited share a sense of ambition and character that separated them from the hundreds of other releases of the past 12 months.

1 Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" (Chrysalis)--"I thought that nothing would change me," this young Irish singer-songwriter offers in a voice barely above a whisper in the album's opening moment. By the end of the song, the whisper has risen to a joyous scream as O'Connor declares: "But now I feel so different / I have not seen freedom before."

These tales of personal exorcism of bad relationships and eventual spiritual transformation are often constructed more with a dramatist's feel for scene than a songwriter's instincts for image and rhyme. Yet she can write quite eloquently in a more traditional vein, as in "Black Boys on Mopeds," a song about racial injustice in Britain:

England's not the mythical land

Of Madame George and roses

It's the home of police who kill

Black boys on mopeds.

Throughout, O'Connor's vocals are breathtakingly convincing and the music is soulful in a modernistic pop-rock fashion.

2 Neil Young & Crazy Horse's "Ragged Glory" (Reprise)--The veteran of '60s rock reunites with the Crazy Horse band in a series of searing, guitar-driven excursions that challenge his generation to take self-inventory and that warn the younger rock generation to get its priorities in shape. Sample lyrics:

It seemed like such a simple thing

To follow one's own dreams

But possessions and concessions

Are not often what they seem

They drag you down

And load you down

In the guise of security

But we never had to make those deals

In the days that used to be.

3 Ice Cube's "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" (Priority)--How ironic: Rap, the pop style that was put down through most of the '80s by both the pop establishment and mainstream pop fans as mindless noise, turns out to be pop's most powerful forum for social comment. In his solo debut, this former N.W.A. member takes us on a tour of the projects that is filled with such anger and rage that it has made many listeners recoil. Powerful in a way that M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice fans probably can't imagine.

4 Paul Simon's "The Rhythm of the Saints" (Warner Bros.)--You've got to set aside the brilliance of "Graceland" to fairly evaluate this follow-up, which is hard. "Rhythm" is destined to be underrated for quite a while. But even now this cross-cultural feast, with its seductive Brazilian rhythms, stands far above most of this year's pop competitors.

"The Obvious Child" is the song from the album that has been getting the most radio airplay, but the heart of "Rhythm" is in such songs as "Proof" and "The Cool, Cool River," where Simon most clearly explores lost ideals in these troubled and cynical times. Sample line from the latter:

Who says: Hard times?

I'm used to them

The speeding planet burns

I'm used to that

My life's so common it disappears

And sometimes even music

Cannot substitute for tears.

5 Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet" (Def Jam/Columbia)--Not as consistently forceful as the New York rap group's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." But the album--including the frenzied "Welcome to the Terrordome" and the jabbing "Who Stole the Soul"--still dissects aspects of the black experience with an energy and vision that illustrates why rap continues to be the most creative genre in pop.

6 Was (Not Was)'s "Are You Okay?" (Chrysalis)--Part of the vanguard of artists who are attacking radio's rigid pop formats by mixing and matching everything from rap and funk to rock and jazz, Don and David Was continue to be masters of pop invention. Wacky but inspired.

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