Unsilent Nights. . . : Four Stars Being Best, a Guide to the Top 40

The compact disc may be supplanting the old vinyl record, but whatever the

format, recorded music remains the ideal item for the last-minute shopper. Calendar's annual Top 40 Shopping Guide is designed to relieve the panic

associated with belated buying by clarifying just what is in the grooves, or the bytes, or the oxide, of the 40 most popular pop albums, as calibrated by Billboard magazine for the week of Dec. 12.

The comments in the following Top 40 Guide are drawn from Calendar's original reviews, but the ratings in some cases reflect additional staff opinion. The rating system is the same as for Record Rack--four stars: Great Balls of Fire; three stars: Good Vibrations; two stars: Maybe Baby; one star: Running on Empty.

1. * * * VARIOUS ARTISTS. "Dirty Dancing" sound track. RCA. The sleeper smash of the season is an intriguing, satisfying mix of old and new hits. Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes' well-crafted but plodding "(I've Had) The Time of my Life" is the front-runner to win the Oscar next April, but the real delights here are golden oldies like "Be My Baby" and "Love Is Strange." (Paul Grein)

2. * * * MICHAEL JACKSON, "Bad," Epic. Jackson turns in two supremely relaxed performances on an album whose consistency, sureness and scaled-down intentions make it a respectable successor to "Thriller." The LP's retreat from "Thriller's" ambition is a letdown, but it's understandable. All in all, "Bad" is more reminiscent of "Off the Wall's" uniform strength than "Thriller's" peaks and valleys. (Richard Cromelin)

3. * * 1/2 WHITESNAKE, "Whitesnake," Geffen. An armload of songs with anthem-like lyrics, no-frills guitar solos, a rhythm section carved in granite and nary a nod to pop crossover. In keeping things basic, the band occasionally leans heavily on the past, but David Coverdale is in fine voice, helping to make the LP everything it strives to be: a completely unapologetic heavy-metal record. (Sharon Liveten)

4. * * 1/2 PINK FLOYD, "A Momentary Lapse of Reason," Columbia. David Gilmour is in the driver's seat now, and this album more often resembles a Gilmour solo LP than a Floyd record. Either way, it beats the heck out of the last Floyd disc--there's far less creepy verbal venom, and more of Gilmour's fiery, piercing, almost metallic guitar lines. (Duncan Strauss)

5. * * * GEORGE MICHAEL, "Faith," Columbia. The songs on Michael's first solo album are more grown-up in tone than his Wham! hits, and one of the major weighty matters on his mind is sex. Michael has a take on life that isn't cliche-ridden or predictable, and he can sound like a modern-day, soul-weaned pop star on one cut and a suave '40s songsmith on another. (Connie Johnson)

6. * * * * BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, "Tunnel of Love," Columbia. This homage to the human sprit is a remarkable combination of "Jersey Girl's" unbending romanticism and Nebraska's stark, cold-sweat anxiety. These simple songs with simple arrangements remind us, in an uncommonly affecting way, about the precious yet precarious nature of love in these times. (Robert Hilburn)

7. * * 1/2 JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP, "The Lonesome Jubilee," PolyGram. With its country flavoring, this is Mellencamp's most terrific-sounding record ever. But Mellencamp is a man on a mission--he wants to string together as many anecdotes about economic-cum-spiritual oppression as possible, but none of the characters comes to life within the song. They're loser icons, used just long enough to impress a point. (Chris Willman)

8. * * 1/2 DEF LEPPARD, "Hysteria," PolyGram. This sprawling, hourlong package has something for everyone of the head-banging persuasion. It's like a 12-song sampler of popular metal styles, past and present. No one's going to confuse Leppard's lyrics with literature, but many songs do possess a cinematic quality--short sound tracks in search of videos. (D. S.)

9. * * * * STING, " . . . Nothing Like the Sun," A&M.; Sting's second solo album burns with real emotion, though its musical veneer is once again quite cool. It sounds like he actually has a heart, full of romantic fear and trepidation, no less. With compelling jazzy-funky grooves, "Sun" is noir through and through, but a curiously warm noir . (C. W.)

10. * * WHITNEY HOUSTON, "Whitney," Arista. For all its commercial sheen, Houston's second album does precious little to define the singer's vision. She glides through a number of styles without telling us much about who she is or making us feel she is the least bit irreplaceable. Most of the material adds up to a sampler of today's adult-contemporary styles that suggests formula at work. (R. H.)

11. * * AEROSMITH, "Permanent Vacation," Geffen. Once one of the all-time great muscular boogie bands, Aerosmith has gone soft. All the old rawness and freshness have been squeezed out of these fine-tuned tunes. The album is full of perky, somewhat quirky up-tempo pop-rock with all sorts of commercial trimmings tacked on. (Dennis Hunt)

12. * * * * U2, "The Joshua Tree," Island. The music is more tailored and assured, the lyrics are more consistently focused and eloquently designed than in past albums, and Bono Hewson's singing underscores the band's expressions of disillusionment and hope with new-found power and passion. The LP confirms that U2 is what the Rolling Stones ceased being years ago--the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world. (R. H.)

13. * * 1/2 TIFFANY. "Tiffany" MCA. The most successful of the new crop of teen pop stars sounds like a young Stevie Nicks singing in front of a small army of synthesizers and drum machines. Her bouncy update of "I Think We're Alone Now" hit No. 1, but some of the new material falls flat. (P. G.)

14. * * 1/2 INXS, "Kick," Atco. The songs that combine INXS' new-found power-chord kick with the dance rhythms that have been the hallmark of its hit singles are the ones that shine with power and originality. The band's adeptness at constructing spare instrumental tracks helps mask a basic lack of fundamental song skills, and the lyrics are best left unexamined. (C. W.)

15. * * * GEORGE HARRISON, "Cloud Nine," Dark Horse. Harrison neither denies his Beatle past nor panders to it, helping make this the most pleasing pure pop offering from a former Moptop since 1973's "Ringo." The arrangements are generally spare, but the spotlight is on Harrison trademarks that automatically recall that long time ago. (Steve Hochman)

16. * * * BILLY IDOL, "Vital Idol," Chrysalis. Even in his Generation X days, Idol was keenly aware of the dance elements inherent in even the most searing of punk/New Wave tunes. Now, The Sneer has opened up his more popular solo tracks to the X-ray-like remix format, and--in large part thanks to producer Keith Forsey's blast-furnace mixes--it works like a charm. (John Voland)

17. * * 1/2 DOKKEN, "Back for the Attack," Elektra. Some of the songwriting has that studio-rush, isn't-this-awesome hastiness about it that the band was thought to have abandoned in favor of a more commercial approach last year. More of the salad-days metallic grind is back, but so are the bonehead lyrics and unimaginative tunes, and guitar hero George Lynch is too obsessed with effects and tricks for a die-hard metallurgist. (J. V.)

18. * * * 1/2 R.E.M., "Document," I.R.S. A tougher, meaner, leaner album than its immediate predecessors, with a far more hard-edged guitar sound and tenser rock rhythms. And the opaque mystery that was so enticingly R.E.M. has been largely replaced with something more definite and immediately tangible, though side trips--psychedelic, political and otherwise--are plentiful. (C. W.)

19. * * * FLEETWOOD MAC, "Tango in the Night," Warner Bros. As arresting and unique a work in its time as "Rumours" and "Tusk" were in theirs. The main reason is arranger, co-producer and dominant writer/singer Lindsey Buckingham's adventurous approach. The album is characterized by a pervasive, unsettling weirdness, and even the relatively conventional material benefits from the subtly bizarre undercurrents Buckingham creates. (S. H.)

20. * * * BELINDA CARLISLE, "Heaven on Earth," MCA. A big improvement over Carlisle's nondescript debut solo album. As long as she finds more songs that encourage her to come on strong and fewer that make her sound wimpy and undistinguished, Carlisle should have no problem living up to the potential she showed during her Go-Go's years. (C. J.)

21. * * * STEVIE WONDER, "Characters," Motown. The hit single "Skeletons," which has a funky R&B; sound, is the clear highlight of Wonder's first album in two years, but it's not representative of the LP. The songs are mostly pop-minded, and they range from good to very good. But the album lacks the sense of unity and purpose--well, the character --that marks Wonder's best collections. (P. G.)

22. * * * RICHARD MARX, "Richard Marx," Manhattan. This debut album yielded two smash hits, including "Don't Mean Nothing," a searing, Eagles-like rocker that features the former members of that '70s supergroup. On that cut and others, Marx combines rock textures and attitudes with pop's attention to melody and craft. (P. G.)

23. YES, "Big Generator," Atco. The former prog-rock-giant-turned-'80s-hit-machine aims low on its follow-up to 1983's "90125" with an album notable primarily for the silly pseudo-spiritual prattlings of singer Jon Anderson and a hodgepodge of borrowed musical styles. (S. H.)

24. * * 1/2 HEART, "Bad Animals," Capitol. Ann Wilson is still the best female belter in rock, and this album is loaded with slow, savory, impassioned rockers. The songs are tamer and slicker than Heart's '70s sound, and this album is strictly for those who prefer their rock laced with pop. (D. H.)

25. * * 1/2 KENNY G, "Duotones" Arista. This saxophonist had the instrumental hit of the year with the soothing, classy "Songbird." The rest of the album blends soothing yuppie lullabies with more spirited material like a remake of Jr. Walker's "What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)." (P. G.)

26. * * * VARIOUS ARTISTS "A Very Special Christmas" (A&M;). Because this 15-song collection lacks a single, unifying vision, it doesn't replace Phil Spector's mid-'60s jewel with Darlene Love and others as the best Christmas package of the rock era. But the "Special Christmas"--whose parade of stars includes Madonna, U2 and Run-D.M.C.--may well be the runner-up. (R. H.)

27. * KISS, "Crazy Nights," PolyGram. Make-up and members may come and go, but the songs pretty much remain the same. This is competently executed but numbing metal-by-the-numbers, from the ode to headbanging, "Crazy, Crazy Nights," to stoopid single-entendre exercises like "Bang Bang You." (D. S.)

28. * * * STEVE WINWOOD, "Chronicles," Island. This album features highlights of Winwood's last four LPs--from the majestic "While You See a Chance" to the classy "Higher Love." But it's missing most of the big hits from the last album, "Back in the High Life," including "The Finer Things" and "Freedom Overspill." Perhaps they're being saved for "Chronicles II." (P. G.)

29. * * EXPOSE, "Exposure," Arista. Though Latinized disco dominates, it's on the album's dreamily yearning ballads ("Seasons Change," "December") that this Florida girl group really exposes its talent. Otherwise, more spice is definitely called for. (C. J.) 30. * * POISON. "Look What the Cat Dragged In." Enigma. These local boys are making good behind a collection of burnished bubble-glam: rock-solid rhythms, streamlined guitar riffing, and loads of vocal harmonies. Pedestrian, but tuneful and feisty. And, boy, do the little girls understand. (D. S.)

31. * * * ANITA BAKER, "Rapture," Elektra. Baker became a star on the strength of this eight-song collection of warmly evocative mood music for grown-ups. The diminutive singer's rich, darkly shaded vocals made her one of 1986's best musical discoveries. (C. J.).

32. 1/2 JETHRO TULL, "The Crest of a Knave," Chrysalis. Apparently the 600 people who participated in the marketing research that determined this album's song selection and running order are real fond of Dire Straits, because that's what a lot of the record sounds like. The lyrics carry little bark and even less bite, and Ian Anderson sounds too tired to care. (S. H.)

33. * * 1/2 RUSH. "Hold Your Fire," Mercury. The power and the glory of the band's instrumental assault remain fully exposed, but some of the group's more annoying traits (those lyrics! those orchestrations!) are creeping back into the mix. In sum: a small step backward, but no great leap for Rush's kind. (J. V.)

34. * * * MADONNA, "You Can Dance," Sire. Madonna's originals pale next to the elaborate disco orchestrations on this collection of extended remixes of her best dance tunes. There's one new song, "Spotlight," whose long, hard-driving closing passage is guaranteed to turn dancers on. (D. H.)

35. * * 1/2 PET SHOP BOYS, "Actually," EMI-America. This brand of pop , sung in a deadpan manner and with a heavy emphasis on money and all the nice things it can buy, is a tad soulless. The boys do tend to take themselves a bit seriously --with most of the songs delivered as if to imply that they contain Very Big Ideas. Only on the post-disco "It's a Sin" is that device justified. (C. J.)

36. * * * SQUEEZE, "Babylon and On," A&M.; This comeback LP is a vast improvement over Squeeze's last record. It features tight, sprightly songs that dissect the attraction/repulsion of romantic love. What really gives them staying power is the fact that they sound so great. (Kristine McKenna)

37. * * * EARTH, WIND & FIRE, "Touch the World," Columbia. This return after four years off would be a polished and competent project for most groups, but it doesn't burn quite as brightly as EWF's past classics. The two Philip Bailey lead vocals are fine, but neither is excellent in the manner of "Head to the Sky" and "Reasons." Still, the LP should further secure EWF's niche in pop/funk history. (C. J.)

38. * * * LOS LOBOS, OTHERS, "LA BAMBA" sound track. Slash/Warner Bros. The remake of "La Bamba" starts off as a faithful throwback, but Los Lobos uses its command of Mexican folk styles to bring the song full circle. The group gives the other Valens material a pumped-up, '80s feel. They didn't just re-do these songs--they revealed a new dimension in their own music through David Hidalgo's singing. (Don Snowden)

39. * * 1/2 GREAT WHITE. "Once Bitten." Capitol. A stylish, lyrical-poppish metal band not unlike the current champs of the form, Whitesnake, Great White has a leather-lunged vocalist, spitfire overdubbed guitars, the obligatory kinda spectral slow tune and big boom drums. The L.A. band patrols this platinum-potential territory with great aplomb and even flashes of brilliance--even if they are packaged within an inch of their lives. (J. V.)

40. * * * JODY WATLEY, "Jody Watley," MCA. As a solo artist, the former Shalamar member is still most comfortable with a straight-on, assertive groove, and the first single, "Looking For a New Love," expresses it best. There are some low spots, but Watley redeems herself on "Still a Thrill," in which she shows her nerve and her pop panache. (C. J.)

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