It's time to talk dollars and sense in pop music.
Critics enjoy challenging listeners to expand their musical horizons by taking chances on interesting new artists. But remember: Critics get albums free.
All it costs them when an album turns out to be a dud is 45 minutes. Time is money, but a record buyer loses time and money if he pays $8 for an album that he discovers is a stiff.
And those stiffs can add up.
If you bought an album by every artist that Times pop reviewers have had something good to say about so far this year, you'd have some six dozen LPs at a cost of more than $600. That's a lot to ask someone to pay to keep up with what's happening.
Hence, the $25 Guide to Pop, yet another new monthly Calendar pop music feature.
Here's how it works: I'll go into a store each month and figure out exactly what I'd buy if I had only $25 to spend.
The $25 ceiling is firm. Any album that doesn't fit into the budget has to wait until the following month when it will have to compete with that month's new releases. Thus, a holdover from May could pop up in July's recommendations--if July turns out to be a slow month. Only 1986 releases, however, will be considered.
The guide focuses on new music--not reissues or greatest-hits packages. And there'll be an emphasis on variety--interesting new wrinkles from established artists, promising newcomers and occasional journeys into the side genres of pop/rock.
To introduce the Guide, here's a recap of how it would have worked over the first five months of 1986. Updates will appear each month. Prices vary (look for the handsome discounts on hot new releases), but these "average" rates were established: $8 for an album, $6 for an extended-play album or EP, $4 for a 12-inch single and $2 for a traditional seven-inch single.
One secret in stretching your record budget is knowing when you want a whole album ($8) and when you just want a single from the album ($2). If you love a particular song, the best bet is often a 12-inch, which gives you a longer version (often remixed and improved) than either the album or the single offers. But not all 12-inch records are worth twice the price of a conventional single.
And a word about CDs. I'm a fan. Compact discs usually sound far better on my stereo system than records or cassettes. They are also easier to handle. And it's fun to program the CD so that it plays the tracks in the sequence of your choice. But CDs are expensive, generally $15 each. That means you've got to increase your monthly budget to at least $30 if you are going to get even two CDs a month. Since much of the CD money is spent on catalogue albums, I'll simply note which of the recommended new releases are available in CD.
The Bangles' "Different Light" (Columbia)--This L.A. quartet's version of Prince's playful "Manic Monday" is a contender for single of the year, but there's enough else to enjoy in this especially good-natured and accessible album to make you go for it rather than just buy the single. On Jules Shear's "If She Knew What She Wants," the Bangles' voices blend with the kind of seductive charm that you swore disappeared the day the Mamas & Papas called it quits. CD available.
The Minutemen's "3-Way Tie (for Last)" (SST)--One of the few rock bands ever deserving the description "brave," the San Pedro trio was quite possibly the most independent-minded and idealistic of all the post-'77 L.A. bands. Its aggressive blend of unbending hard rock, free-form jazz, thrashing punk and cleansing folk served as a powerful base to reflect on everything from political nightmares to the unacceptability of moral compromise.
Demanding everything of themselves and their audience, the Minutemen seemed to be on the edge of attracting a wider following when time ran out. Singer-guitarist D. Boon was killed in an auto accident last December.
Erasure's bright, techno-pop "Who Needs Love Like That" (Sire), 12-inch version; Robert Palmer's driving, sensual "Addicted to Love" (Island), and Nu Shooz's sparkling, Madonna-influenced "I Can't Wait" (Atlantic), seven-inch versions.
Aaron Neville's "Orchid in the Storm" (Passport)--There's barely 20 minutes on this five-song EP, but Neville's soulful tenor is as almost as beautiful as the human voice can be on some R&B; standards (including "Pledging My Love," a '50s hit for Johnny Ace, and "Earth Angel," the Penguins' classic from the same decade).
Janet Jackson's "Control" (A&M;)--You'll probably end up playing Side 1 (highlighted by the spunky "What Have You Done for Me Lately" and the teasing "Nasty") more than Side 2, but there is enough personality in Jackson's singing and enough punch in producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' arrangements to make it worth going for the whole album rather than just the singles. CD available.
Jesus and Mary Chain's "Psychocandy" (Reprise)--This candidate for rock album of the year is a strange, exhilarating blend of '60s-echoing pop-rock romanticism and unrelenting guitar feedback.
Prince's engaging "Kiss" (Paisley Park), seven-inch version.
Elvis Costello's "King of America" (Columbia)--Easily Costello's most appealing album since 1982's "Imperial Bedroom," the former Angry Young Man of British rock focuses on the American rock, country and blues influences that have always been underlying features in his work. He still seems to be guilty of trying to go too many different ways at once in the album, but there are some moments as personal and poignant--notably "Indoor Fireworks"--as anything he has done. CD available.
Stan Ridgway's "The Big Heat" (I.R.S.)--Ready for something different? Ridgway exhibits in his first solo album much the same tension and understatement that characterized his work with his old band, Wall of Voodoo. Yet there is definite growth here as he explores his storytelling instincts on some late-night, B-movie scenes that you might expect in a Tom Waits album. However, Ridgway rejects Waits' sentimental attraction for "ordinary" people in favor of a more wry commentary on the human condition.
Falco's "Falco 3" (A&M;)--You're probably sick enough of "Rock Me Amadeus" to scream at even the thought of buying this Austrian popster's entire album, but there is a constant sense of pop invention and fun that makes the LP surprisingly entertaining. The targets of his whimsy range from American tourists to other pop stars' stylistic habits (chiefly the florid melodrama of early David Bowie). CD available.
BoDeans' "Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams" (Slash)--The easiest way for current scene-watchers to think of this Wisconsin rock band is as a soulful version of Marshall Crenshaw, which means the historical link dates back to Buddy Holly and Del Shannon. But the group has also listened a lot to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and John Prine. They show their roots at times, but they frequently connect on songs that are about everything the album title suggests.
Husker Du's "Candy Apple Grey" (Warner Bros.)--The Minneapolis trio's last Roxy appearance was a disappointment because the band exhibits so little personality live. Everything seems like such hard work on stage. On record, however, Husker Du continues to open up its once brutally forceful rock style with Grant Hart's warm, personal ballads.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik's "Love Missile F1-11" (Manhattan). This blatant calculation works because of its wonderful mix of synthesizer-produced tension (these folks have obviously listened to Giorgio Moroder records) and energy-filled pop-rock hooks (a la the Sweet). 12-inch version; Bob Seger's gale-force "American Storm" (Capitol) and Belinda Carlisle's sugar-coated "Mad About You" (I.R.S.), seven-inch versions.
Steve Earle's "Guitar Town" (MCA)--Don't worry about whether this Texan is mostly country or mostly rock, just check the quality of Earle's songs and the conviction of his singing in this collection, which explores the roots-conscious, blue-collar terrain of the likes of John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp.
George Clinton's "R&B; Skeletons in the Closet" (Capitol)--The Wild Mind of funk has used some of these sonic tricks before, but that's almost part of the gag. The lyrics and musical touches are so outrageous at times that you're tempted to break into applause in your living room. When's the last time you even made up a song title as brazen as "Do Fries Go With That Shake?"
"Woman Talk: Caribbean Dub Poetry" (Heartbeat)--This follow-up to "Word Soun' 'ave Power," the label's anthology of Jamaican dub poets, features female poets. It's uneven, but there's a freshness to the best moments that revives the social urgency and optimism at the heart of the most affecting reggae music.