If you think you see some familiar faces in this year’s edition of the Top 40 Guide--designed to help the Christmas shopper by providing capsule reviews of the Top 40 albums on Billboard magazine’s current chart--you’re right. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bryan Adams’ “Reckless” and Wham!'s “Make It Big” were also in the Top 40 a year ago at this time. Stevie Wonder, the Cars, Barbra Streisand and Kiss were also there, but with different albums.
The top spot is held by the first television sound-track album to reach No. 1 since Henry Mancini’s Grammy-winning “Music From Peter Gunn” in 1959 . The chart is also dotted with such newcomers as Whitney Houston, Mr. Mister, Freddie Jackson, A-Ha, Ready for the World and the Hooters.
The reviews are drawn from Calendar’s original reviews, but the ratings in some cases reflect additional staff input. Contributing reviewers: Terry Atkinson, Matt Damsker, Robert Hilburn, Steve Hochman, Dennis Hunt, Connie Johnson, Jon Matsumoto, Lori E. Pike, Steve Pond, Duncan Strauss , Dan Sullivan and Chris Willman .
Ratings: four stars, excellent; three stars, good; two stars, ho-hum; one star, poor.
1. “MIAMI VICE,” sound track, MCA. TV’s stylish cops usually chase stylish robbers to the accompaniment of rock ‘n’ roll, which is all the rationale the “Miami Vice” producers needed to throw together this disjointed collection of slick old hits, bad new songs and dull instrumentals. Criminal.
2. HEART, “Heart,” Capitol. Several songs cover Heart’s old screamer territory, but today it just sounds silly. The mid-tempo, “mature” songs with hard-candy gloss that dominate the record fare much better. The melodies and lyrics are catchy and haunting, not unlike those of ‘til tuesday. Like ‘til tuesday’s album, though, “Heart” lacks any emotional center.
3. JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP, “Scarecrow,” Riva. Mellencamp has been churning out superficially Springsteen-like songs about the good ol’ U.S.A. since before Bruce became big box office, and he’s been getting better at it all the time. Though contrived and unconvincing, this album has the thematic content and the sound--heavy back beat, strummed guitars, gritty vocals--that people want to hear. It’s big. It’s now. It’s American.
4. ZZ TOP, “Afterburner,” Warner Bros. This may be the most just-plain-fun album of the year. Like fellow hard-rockers Van Halen, this Texas trio has a keen sense of basic rock feeling, technical skill and has been effectively interweaving synthesizer into the guitar attack. Even the single ballad on this LP has the grainy feeling of the Eagles at their best. “Afterburner” is a blast.
5. 1/2 DIRE STRAITS, “Brothers in Arms,” Warner Bros. The band has stuck to the same game plan since its first hit, “Sultans of Swing,” and like all Dire Straits albums, this one is easy to listen to but unmemorable.
6. STEVIE WONDER, “In Square Circle,” Motown. Wonder’s first complete album in five years features mostly fast- and medium-tempo songs with romantic themes--likable but tame stuff. The closest he comes to excellence is in the simple, powerful attack “It’s Wrong (Apartheid).” Otherwise, Wonder seems to have settled into a pop groove, and we expect more from “The Genius” than passable pop.
7. WHITNEY HOUSTON, “Whitney Houston.” Arista. Neither the frequently listless arrangements nor the sometimes mediocre material of this debut LP hides the fact that Houston is a singer with enormous power and potential. Her vocal on “Saving All My Love” should mean a cinch Grammy nomination.
8. TEARS FOR FEARS, “Songs from the Big Chair,” Mercury. The group has discarded the distractingly heavy, ponderous probings of its debut LP and replaced the rampant breast-beating with an artful finesse. At least one of our critics thinks so.
9. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, “Born in the U.S.A,” Columbia. The most uplifting figure in American rock puts the stark emotional landscapes of his last LP, “Nebraska,” into a more easily digested framework. A richly absorbing album that, despite its lighter tone and ringing guitars, suggests that the American Dream is slipping away because of our own indifference.
10. FREDDIE JACKSON, “Rock Me Tonight,” Capitol. Jackson is hampered only by lackluster material--with the exception of the title track, which is sparked by a kind of lazy, zonked-out sexiness. The rest of the album could use some of that track’s proficiency and style.
11. RUSH, “Power Windows,” Mercury. Another set of mostly invigorating music that, despite Geddy Lee’s one-dimensional singing and Neil Peart’s convoluted lyrics, brings some intelligence, restraint and vigor to the often maligned form of progressive rock.
12. STING, “The Dream of the Blue Turtles,” A&M.; The Police chief voices a clear, anti-war global valentine amid a boggling array of polished, passionate yet subtly insinuating tunes. Without losing sight of the pop audience, Sting has delivered a brilliant, uncompromised fusion of pop and jazz.
13. BARBRA STREISAND, “The Broadway Album,” Columbia. When Streisand puts herself in the service of a song, she makes it her own. When the reverse occurs--disaster. Nothing else on the album is as embarrassing as the misguided “Putting It Together,” but the more complicated the arrangement, the more problematic the result.
14. 1/2 ARETHA FRANKLIN, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” Arista. Teams Franklin with several different artists, from Annie Lennox to Sylvester to Peter Wolf. There are some good moments--notably “Freeway of Love” and (with Lennox) “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves.” But all these cooks add up to a tasty dish only for Franklin fanatics. 15. STARSHIP, “Knee Deep in the Hoopla,” Grunt. All the glossy production in the world can’t help this album reach escape velocity. With virtually every song written by outsiders--including the No. 1 single “We Built This City"--and with Grace Slick the only remaining link to the vibrant Jefferson Airplane, the Starship is out of fuel.
16. THE CARS, “Greatest Hits,” Elektra. No surprises here--words that apply both to the contents (“Just What I Needed” through “Tonight She Comes”) and the music, which, for all its eccentric edges and often seductive charm, lacks the originality and insight to make it wear well.
17. 1/2 BRYAN ADAMS, “Reckless,” A&M.; Adams is the latest in the long line of rock’s sensitive toughs, and “Reckless” sounds as if it was spit out by a computer programmed with old Bob Seger records. You can’t blame the targeted teens for falling for it, but anyone old enough to have studied the collected works of John Cougar Mellencamp ought to know better.
18. PHIL COLLINS, “No Jacket Required,” Atlantic. Collins’ recipe of tense vocals spiced with saucy horns and splashy electro-jitterbugging synthesizers often leaves little room for real feeling to squeeze through. When he slows down and lets his smoldering moodiness take over, the effect is magical.
19. 1/2 MR. MISTER, “Welcome to the Real World,” RCA. There is some sensitivity in a few of the songs here, especially the Top 5 hit “Broken Wings,” but this Phoenix / L.A. band coats everything with pop-by-the-manual mediocrity.
20. IRON MAIDEN, “Live After Death,” Capitol. A well-performed, well-recorded record of Maiden’s fast and furious, yet precisely played rock. There are some heavy-metal cliches, but particularly for slice-and-dice guitar valor, Iron Maiden does come across as the state of the art on this album, the state of the art being what it is. 21. LOVERBOY, “Lovin’ Every Minute of It,” Columbia. Truly without socially redeeming qualities. Loverboy rips off Foreigner, smuggles in heavy-metal riffs that other bands have already played to death, and grabs little bits and pieces of trendy pop for a song or two. Unoriginal and dull.
22. 1/2 BILLY JOEL, “Greatest Hits, Volume I and Volume II,” Columbia. This two-record set gives Joel fans everything they’d want from this talented but highly derivative pop chameleon’s catalogue, which means it moves from his Harry Chapin days (“Piano Man”) through his Frankie Valli days (“Uptown Girl”).
23. THOMPSON TWINS, “Here’s to Future Days,” Arista. All the trappings from the Twins’ last mega-seller are here--the fluffed-up ‘60s R&B; inflections, Caribbean rhythms and Thomas Dolby-ish techno-goofiness. But the zombie-like absence of any real feeling or thought pervades almost everything.
24. 1/2 A-HA, “Hunting High and Low,” Warner Bros. The lyrics seem to have been garbled in translation and the techno-pop is frequently more bubbles than brew, but this Norwegian band’s debut has a naive charm that lifts several songs, especially the hit “Take On Me” and a pretty ballad, “Here I Stand and Face the Rain.”
25. 1/2 SIMPLE MINDS, “Once Upon a Time,” A&M.; The Scottish band’s sound might be Americanized, but in many ways this is the group’s most international album. Jim Kerr’s visionary idealism can be infuriatingly oblique. Indeed, he’s such a relentless romantic that you’re thankful he’s such an impressionist. If Kerr was any more literal-minded, he’d probably be drippy beyond belief.
26. KISS, “Asylum,” Mercury. Another collection of two-chord brain-bashers. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons flesh out the simplistic rock exercises with a booming drum sound, full choruses and loads of flashy guitar solos, but while the production helps, it can’t lift the lyrics out of the gutter.
27. KOOL & THE GANG, “Emergency,” De-Lite. Reaffirms the nine-man band’s continuing knack for nifty, commercial R&B.; Sometimes you wish for the old party atmosphere, but the Gap Band-like gloss-plus-grit feel in the uptempo numbers is infectious.
28. READY FOR THE WORLD, “Ready for the World,” MCA. If there are any musical sources worth drawing from aside from Prince, this sex-obsessed sextet from Flint, Mich., apparently hasn’t heard of them. Some cuts miss the boat entirely, but others are so well-crafted that they’re irresistible.
29. OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN, “Soul Kiss,” MCA. The title cut ranks with Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls” for high-tech titillation; Newton-John appears to be shedding her nice-girl image for good. Some of the numbers, though, are all artful tease and no delivery. She’s on the right track, but she needs a few more interesting songs.
30. TALKING HEADS, “Little Creatures,” Sire. Say goodby to the polyrhythms of the last few records and hello to the odd narratives and familiar four-piece sound of the band’s beginnings. The lack of ground broken may seem like a retrogression to some, but this is the closest thing to a Beach Boys LP the Heads will ever make.
31. KATE BUSH, “Hounds of Love,” EMI America. A dark and dreamy masterpiece that flows through enough moods and textures for 10 albums. Bush’s voice falls, rises, pushes and retreats in wonderful expressiveness, accompanied by a vast array of instrumental approaches, with a frequent and congenial reliance on Celtic sounds.
32. ABC, “How to Be a Zillionaire,” Mercury. Despite ABC’s return to agreeable disco-funk dance grooves, “Zillionaire” is discouragingly uneven. ABC has the potential to be the elite of the English dance bands, but the highlights here make it all the more difficult to explain those frequent moments when the funk lacks spunk and the raps lack class and gas.
33. EDDIE MURPHY, “How Could It Be,” Columbia. Murphy’s attempt to add “singing sensation” to his resume has much-needed help from the likes of Rick (“Party All the Time”) James. But it runs into an unsurmountable stumbling block in Murphy’s voice, which is so thin and wimpy that it turns the comedian’s oh-so-earnest musical debut into a bad joke.
34. 1/2 PATSY CLINE, “Sweet Dreams” sound track, MCA. Beware: Cline’s great vocals from nearly three decades ago are intact, but several of the instrumental tracks have been redone for this sound track--an improvement at times, but a disaster in the case of the brassy “Walking After Midnight.” Country purists should stick with the original versions on Cline’s 1980 “Always” collection.
35. ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID, “Sun City,” Manhattan. “Sun City” is the first album this year with the purpose and passion to make it essential. The seven songs here--by a wide spectrum of artists from several pop-music fields--were made specifically for this anti-apartheid collection, and each bristles with the deep-rooted emotion that you’d expect of such an urgent, spontaneous endeavor.
36. THE HOOTERS, “Nervous Night,” Columbia. “All You Zombies” is the best Old Testament-themed hit single since “Turn, Turn, Turn,” as the band offers righteous indignation and warnings of judgment to come over a lolloping reggae beat. Alas, both beat and divine heat are straightened out for the rest of this serviceable slice of FM-rock with a slight new-wave orientation.
37. WHAM!, “Make It Big,” Columbia. Get past Wham!'s white-bread, neo-Shaun Cassidy surface and there’s an authentic, ingenuous pop sensibility at work here. Though the center doesn’t quite hold, the LP fulfills a certain conceptual ideal of bubble-gum music--it dissolves on you. Finally, here are art songs for the Saturday morning TV crowd.
38. 1/2 JAMES TAYLOR, “That’s Why I’m Here,” Columbia. Taylor’s laconic, low-key style has changed little over the past 15 years--but if it’s hardly surprising, it is oddly refreshing when done with the kind of quiet authority he shows here. “Laid-back” doesn’t have to be an insult.
39. PAUL YOUNG, “The Secret of Association,” Columbia. An above-average pop album, but disappointingly limited. Young’s smokey voice has appeal, but his taste in choosing and writing material is uneven, he frequently opts for ill-conceived arrangements, and the passionate phrasing sporadically heard on his debut album seldom shows its teeth.
40. “WHITE NIGHTS” sound track, Atlantic. A perfectably acceptable, standard-issue 1985 film sound-track album, which means it’s got a big hit ballad (Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s “Separate Lives”), songs from quality performers working below their potential (John Hiatt, Lou Reed, Nile Rodgers), and some filler. Note: Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” is in the movie but not on the record.