POP MUSIC : DISC DERBY: RIDING THE NEXT 'WAVE' : ORDER OF FINISH : WIN: Meat Puppets : PLACE: Minutemen : SHOW: (tie) Beasts of Bourbon, : Game Theory

Remember the old days (say, 1978), when the "new wave" was virtually a guarantee of independence and spirit in rock? No longer.

The movement--which was inspired by young punk forces like the Sex Pistols and Clash who attacked the musical Establishment--has become so accepted a part of the commercial mainstream that most of the acts dangled by major labels at the young "new wave" market are indistinguishable from the old-wave acts of the late '70s.

Spandau Ballet and Tears for Fears may rely on different instrumental textures from old targets like Styx and Journey, but there is the same absence of imagination and challenge in their records.

The sad truth is, we've come full circle in many ways. If the guys in Styx had been born 10 years later, they'd probably have started a new-wave band and they'd probably be good enough at re-creating the new-wave sound that they'd get signed and played on KROQ-FM.

What goes up really does come down.

In the early days of new wave, there was a sense of kinship between the acts, whether based in London (Elvis Costello, the Jam), New York (Talking Heads, Television) or Los Angeles (X, the Blasters). They seemed part of a crusade to restore vitality to a dormant rock scene. Their weapons: ideas, energy and personality.

Until some of these acts caught on commercially, record companies were nervous about them for two reasons. There was a rawness to much of the music that made their records unacceptable to rock radio, and there was an almost reckless disregard among many of the artists for pop convention. Even if it was an illusion, these new forces seemed to care more about making interesting music than selling records.

Thanks to exposure on renegade radio stations (such as KROQ and KNAC-FM here) and, eventually, all-powerful MTV, the new-wave acts found a young audience that was as tired of the disco, heavy metal and recycled rock that had been dominating the airwaves.

This breakthrough resulted in an invigorating flood of new faces and sounds. The quality was wildly inconsistent, but most of the dozens of newcomers offered a freshness that greatly brightened the pop menu. Among the varied dishes: Culture Club, Devo, Duran Duran, English Beat, Human League, Joy Division, Pretenders, Psychedelic Furs, Public Image, R.E.M., Simple Minds, Siouxie & the Banshees, Stray Cats and U2.

As sales increased, hundreds of new bands popped up, either looking or sounding roughly like the "new wave" pioneers. Excited by the trend, record companies quite naturally signed up bands that sounded the most commercial. Similarly, the alternative stations and MTV also generally opted for groups likely to attract the widest audience.

After all, rock fans can't tell the difference between a great "new wave" band and a mediocre "new wave" band, right? So why worry about quality when the least adventurous ones will probably sell a lot more?

The difference is that we have an alternative now. One outgrowth of the punk/new-wave movement is the healthy network of independent labels that supply us with albums by dozens of young groups that do continue in the independent tradition of the late '70s.

These bands have found an ally in college radio, which aggressively promotes record-makers who exhibit maverick styles and intriguing ideas. Some turkeys still pop up on college radio: LPs by Tears for Fears and Howard Jones were among the 10 most-played albums on college stations, according to the latest CMJ New Music Report newsletter. But the average playlist on FM stations like KXLU and KCSN is infinitely more lively than anything you're likely to find on commercial radio.

Some major labels, aware of the importance of constantly injecting new vigor into the pop diet, are trying to tap into this well of talent by establishing ties with grass-roots labels like Slash (affiliated with Warner Bros.), I.R.S. (now with MCA) and Enigma (EMI America).

Mostly, though, you're going to have to turn to independent labels to pick up on much of what's interesting in rock. The idea isn't to limit yourself to these new forces (the success of Springsteen, Prince and Fogerty in recent months shows that sales and artistry aren't mutually exclusive), but to open yourself to them.

This expanded edition of Disc Derby looks at 14 albums that are at least loosely affiliated with the new-wave tradition, either in spirit or in style. The challenge is to separate the records that add to the tradition from the ones that simply conform to it.

The entries in the Derby, which separates special merit LPs from routine or less ones:

The Beasts of Bourbon's "The Axeman's Jazz" (Big Time Records)--How does a cross between the irreverent country side of the Rolling Stones and the perverse rockabilly stance of the Cramps sound to you? What about a version of "Psycho," the old country oddity that Elvis Costello dug up for his Palomino show a few years ago--the song where a guy flips out and kills everything from his girlfriend to his dog? What about a song called "The Day Marty Robbins Died," a warmhearted spoof on country music sentimentality? What about "Evil Ruby," a stylish country-rocker that outlines the tensions growing out of a romantic triangle involving a man, a woman and the man's love for trains? How about a great new trucker song titled "Ten Wheels for Jesus"? And the beat (from this Australian band) goes on. . . . YES.

The Beat Farmers' "Tales of the New West" (Rhino)--Even without the versions of "Reason to Believe" and "There She Goes Again," this San Diego country-rock quartet's blend of Springsteen's populist sensibilities and Lou Reed urban survival suggests that the group has been drawing from some important American rock influences. Some of the carefree barroom exercises are clumsy, but the best of them give the album an intriguing tension that grows out of the conflict between commitment and independence. YES.

Big Boys' "No Matter How Long the Line Is at the Cafeteria, There's Always a Seat" (Moment Productions/Enigma)--This Austin-based band adds some humor and spark to the punk genre and demonstrates the curiosity and skills to move beyond it. Among the stops: a tasty James Brown-meets-David Byrne matchup in the highly accessible "What's the Word?" and a decidedly contemporary scratch/rap workout on "Common Beat." YES.

Bongos' "Beat Hotel" (RCA)-- Bright , bouncy and tuneful are words frequently applied to this pop-rock quartet, which continues to employ all sorts of catchy pop hooks. But the music fails to connect. This now veteran outfit is like a pitcher with a single pitch. He can dazzle you for a few outings, but you start anticipating every move. NO.

The Drongos' "Small Miracles" (Proteus)--This collection by some New Zealand transplants was recorded on a New York sidewalk, but that's not what makes it special. There's an endearing balance of innocent folk charm and sly social observation. The versions of Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm" and Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" are witty commentaries on the pace of New York street life, while "With or Without You" is typical of the Drongos' tendency to have fun with even life's most trying moments--in this case the old standby, romantic rejection: "She filled me up, she filled me in/She drank me like a double gin/Threw me up and threw me down again." YES.

Go West's "Go West" (Chrysalis)--Like Wham!, Go West is an English duo that is starting off in this country with a dance-floor hit, "We Close Our Eyes." Like Wham!, Go West deals in shallow pop, but there's nothing even close to the disarming charm of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." Like Wham!, Go West ought to just Go Away. NO.

Game Theory's "Real Nighttime" (Rational/Enigma)--Scott Miller exhibits the kind of flair for lyrics and youthful wonder about the world around him that would have led critics a decade ago to employ the "new Dylan" or at least the "new Roger McGuinn" tag, but we've all progressed beyond that, right? There is a lot of the old singer-songwriter sensibility here, but producer Mitch (R.E.M., Let's Active) Easter gives Miller a modern, frequently acoustic setting. The music is less developed than the lyrics and Miller's singing could use more force, but there may be something evolving here. Favorite line: "She'll be a verb/ When you're a noun/ You've just got to laugh/ When she tries to put you down." Game Theory opens for the Three O'Clock on Friday at the Palace. YES.

Howard Jones' "Dream Into Action" (Elektra)--There is nothing in this Englishman's second album--the hit single "Things Can Only Get Better" notwithstanding--to combat the impression that Jones was hopelessly out of his league sharing the stage with synthesizer cohorts Stevie Wonder, Thomas Dolby and Herbie Hancock during the recent Grammy Awards telecast. NO.

Katrina and the Waves' "Katrina and the Waves" (Capitol)--Remember when ABBA was almost as big a target of ridicule as disco because the Swedish group's music was based on such sweeping, sentimental strains? But ABBA's sound was often remarkably appealing, and it's no wonder that bands have begun to borrow aspects of it: Katrina Leskanich reaches for it in the supercharged choral effects on "Red Wine and Whisky" and "Que Te Quiero." But the strength here isn't so much Leskanich, a powerful singer who lacks a distinctive edge, as writer Kimberley Rew, whose compositions include "Going Down to Liverpool," which was covered by the Bangles and is included in this package. His best tunes have a likable, if modest, pop-rock twist. MAYBE.

Meat Puppets' "Up on the Sun" (SST)--Without an ounce of trendy calculation, the Puppets summarize much of what's refreshing about the new American rock. On stage, the Phoenix trio exhibits an instinctive, works-in-progress stance similar to the Replacements, while the records feature the gorgeous, guitar-shaped instrumental paintings a la R.E.M. The music--a search for values and purpose in this age of disbelief--reflects both the soothing spaciousness of the band's Arizona homeland and the nervous pace of Los Angeles, where it records and frequently performs. A band on the edge of greatness. YES.

The Minutemen's "Project Mersh" (SST)--If you've had a hard time getting a fix on this high-principled but sometimeselusive San Pedro trio, this six-song EP should help bring things into focus. The Minutemen play American music in its broadest sense, employing country, blues, jazz and punk-rock elements and favoring themes that search for the major and minor injustices and deceits that betray the country's ideals. In this effort, the Minutemen balance concerns about the country and their own rock experiences, underscoring quite effectively the connection between politics and daily life. YES.

Nip Drivers' "Oh Blessed Freak Show" (Bemisbrain/Enigma)--The novelty of the year is this local punk outfit's rendition of Olivia Newton John's "Have You Never Been Mellow." The rest of the LP asserts a bratty humor and some nightmarish explorations that live up to the spirit of the LP's title. The Drivers will play the Anticlub on Saturday. YES.

Tears for Fears' "Songs From the Big Chair" (Mercury)--These guys have loosened up considerably since their Oh-So-Serious-and-Sensitive debut, but I still don't think I'm ready to accept the suggestion of one English critic that Tears' moody textures make the band the new Pink Floyd. I was never a huge Pink Floyd fan, but that group at least had an arty, experimental side. The Tears' music is full of atmosphere and punctuation, but it's hollow and self-important. NO.

'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry" (Epic)--Aimee Mann is a star. She's marvelously charismatic in the band's video, and exhibits winning vocal authority on record. The only thing she needs is another Dave Stewart to give her more tailored and absorbing arrangements and material. Maybe they could just borrow him from Eurythmics long enough to rework "Love in a Vacuum," a song with hit written all over it. NO.

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