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POP MUSIC | MIXED MEDIA

Getting to the Lowdown on Top of the Pops

January 12, 1997|Robert Hilburn

**** "TOP POP ALBUMS 1955-1996" By Joel Whitburn, Record Research

In an age of Kenny G, Celine Dion and No Doubt, it's easy to think that the pop music sales charts are the last place to look for record makers with compelling artistry and vision.

But Joel Whitburn, the Wisconsin researcher who is the leading chronicler of the charts, offers some reassuring news about public taste.

In the latest volume of his landmark "Top Pop Albums" series, Whitburn reports that the three artists who dominated the charts from 1955 through most of 1996 are arguably also the most acclaimed and influential pop figures of our times: Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.

Several other artists on Whitburn's list of the 20 most popular album artists would also finish high on any ranking of the great contemporary performers. They include Barbra Streisand, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.

At the same time, Whitburn's survey reminds us that the pop scene has always been inflicted by what might be called the Kenny G factor--best-selling artists whose music may be effortless and pleasant, but is hardly challenging or inspiring.

That contingent is led on Whitburn's list by Johnny Mathis, who compiled enough points in Whitburn's scoring system to finish in fourth place. Others in the Top 20: Mantovani, Ray Conniff, Lawrence Welk and Andy Williams.

Under his scoring system, artists are given points for every week their albums appear on the charts, with bonus points awarded according to position. Presley, for instance, amassed 15,538 points on the basis of 93 albums, 48 of which broke into the Top 40 and 25 of which went to No. 1. Sinatra and the Beatles trailed with 12,766 and 10,918 points, respectively.

Of artists who didn't break into the album charts until the '70s, Elton John (No. 7 overall, with 7,290 points) leads Paul McCartney (No. 27, 5,100). They were trailed by Rod Stewart, David Bowie and Prince. As a solo artist, Michael Jackson finished No. 78 on the list.

But this artist ranking is only a bonus in a 1,000-plus-page book whose main value is its comprehensive listing of all the nearly 19,000 albums that have made Billboard magazine's pop album charts since 1955--as well as the name of every track on the collections.

"Top Pop Albums"--which can be ordered for $89.95 from Record Research by phoning (414) 251-5408--is both an essential pop reference work and a delightful way to explore the commercial landscape of modern pop.

**** "Top R&B Singles 1942-1995," by Joel Whitburn, Record Research.

Whether back in the '40s when it was titled "Harlem Hit Parade" or these days when it is called "Hot R&B Singles," Billboard magazine's weekly black music charts have served as a remarkable snapshot of American pop music over the last half century.

Not only did R&B largely fuel the rock 'n' roll revolution in the '50s, but the Motown explosion a decade later redesigned mainstream pop in ways that still reverberate in Top 40 fare--be it the stylish romanticism of Babyface or the funky hip-hop pulse of Dr. Dre.

In this book (listed at $64.95), Whitburn focuses on R&B singles. He lists all 16,700 records to make the chart since 1942 and uses his own scoring system to measure the popularity of individual artists.

James Brown stands as the most successful R&B artist, registering 8,495 points in a system that gives points to singles for every week on the chart and highest position reached. Aretha Franklin trails Brown by some 1,200 points. The rest of the Top 10 represents an honor roll of contemporary pop. They are in order: Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Isley Brothers and Fats Domino.

Books are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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