Scoring the Labels: A Very Mixed Year

Who said it was easy predicting the pop charts?

A year ago, we wouldn't have bet a truckful of eight-track tapes that obscure hard-rockers Whitesnake would suddenly blossom into a quadruple-platinum supergroup, with an album that's been perched in the Top 5 for 33 straight weeks.

And that's just the beginning.

Cartoon rap heroes the Beastie Boys sold 4 million albums. Mick Jagger's much-ballyhooed second solo album didn't even crack the Top 40. Twenty years after the Summer of Love, the Grateful Dead finally landed its first Top 10 album (and more amazingly) a Top 10 single.

It's been that kind of year.

Freshly inked to industry powerhouse Warner Bros., the Bee Gees came--and went--barely scraping the Top 100. Yet Europe (whoever they are) sold more than 2 million albums--as did Yup-Pop saxophonist Kenny G and glam-rock rookies Poison.

Billy Joel went to Russia--and came back with a flop live album. After having a 1985 smash with the "Miami Vice" sound track, MCA bombed with "Moonlighting." The sound tracks that really hit paydirt were low-profile surprises "Dirty Dancing" and "La Bamba," which both hit the top of the charts and spawned No. 1 singles.

Here's a look at how the industry's major labels performed last year:

A&M;

The label marked its 25th anniversary with a gold album from label founder Herb Alpert. Of course, it didn't hurt that the red-hot production team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis oversaw the project. The label had an encouraging breakthrough with pop chanteuse Suzanne Vega (who had a Top 5 single with "Luka") and gave the industry a platinum-wrapped holiday greeting with "A Very Special Christmas," a superstar compilation album whose proceeds go to the Special Olympics. The downside was a true flop (Supertramp's "Free as a Bird") and several disappointments, most notably Bryan Adams' "Into the Fire," his follow-up to the quadruple-platinum "Reckless," which stalled around the 1.5 million sales mark.

Arista

Maybe Clive Davis should give Whitney Houston a corner office and let her run the label for a while. She followed her 1986 blockbuster with "Whitney," a quintuple-platinum smash that was No. 1 for 11 weeks, longer than any other album last year. Other successes: a dramatic comeback by the Grateful Dead, big breakthrough albums from Kenny G and faceless dance-music trio Expose--plus a sleeper hit from Carly Simon. Missing in action: one-time hitmakers Air Supply and the Thompson Twins. Still, if Clive can wake up the Dead, can Barry Manilow be far behind?

Atlantic

The good news for the industry's dullest, lowest-profile label is that it distributes Island Records, which had perhaps the year's most acclaimed album with U2's quad-platinum "The Joshua Tree." Otherwise, Atlantic had lots of losers, including disappointing follow-ups from Ratt and Yes. Bright spots: Aussie-rockers INXS, teen star Debbie Gibson and soul balladeer Levert.

Capitol

This troubled label has a new high-profile boss (industry toastmaster Joe Smith) who is looking for a way to improve on the label's mediocre 1987 showing. The label had just four platinum albums--and its best-seller was Poison's "Look What the Cat Dragged In," a pick-up from indy Enigma Records. (Two other platinum discs were holdovers from 1986.) Here's the good news: Heart had a successful follow-up with "Bad Animals," Crowded House emerged as a promising new pop group (as did Great White on the metal front) and Freddie Jackson built on his string of R&B; hits, landing Billboard's Top Black Album of the Year.

Columbia

COLUMBIA: Here's another stumper--who would've guessed that two of this industry giant's three top-selling '87 releases would've been from Def Jam Records, its fledgling New York-based rap outpost? Def Jam contributed the Beastie Boys' quadruple-platinum "Licensed to Ill" and L.L. Cool J's double-platinum "Bigger and Deffer." The label also had a double-platinum album from Bruce Springsteen and platinum entries from Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and Pink Floyd (and has a current blockbuster with George Michael's solo debut, "Faith"). On the other hand, Columbia had some noisy belly-flops, led by its expensive Mick Jagger album, as well as relative failures from Billy Joel and Loverboy. P.S. Whatever happened to Paul Young?

Elektra/Asylum

The label's biggest hits came from opposite ends of the pop spectrum--metal maniacs Motley Crue and pop stylist Anita Baker, who both topped the 2-million mark last year. It was also a big breakthrough year for headbangers Dokken and Metallica, critic-faves the Cure, Dixie-rockers the Georgia Satellites and R&B; singer Shirley Murdock. Maybe some of those new hot-rods can make up for the Cars, who seem to be running out of gas.

EMI/Manhattan

These two labels merged this year--and even together didn't produce a platinum album. The best news was a gold debut for singer-songwriter Richard Marx (who had a pair of Top 3 singles), while the Pet Shop Boys are probably headed for another platinum album. David Bowie's "Never Let Me Down" was a big letdown, stopping at gold while taking a licking from the critics. (Paging Sheena Easton: This company needs you in the studio, not in the sack with Sonny Crockett.)

Epic

EPIC: Remember the tale about Michael Jackson posting a note on his bathroom mirror, setting a goal of selling 100 million "Bad" albums? Well, he's about 90 million short worldwide, according to the label. Still, 10 million (4 million in the U.S.) is nothing to sneeze at--and the label picked up another 2 million in sales from Swedish popsters Europe, whose bathroom memo could've easily read: "100,000, please." Platinum perennial Luther Vandross didn't release a new album, but Alexander O'Neal emerged as a promising crooner in a similar vein. The label still has worries--the Miami Sound Machine is starting to sputter, while REO Speedwagon's latest did about 10% of the sales of "Hi Infidelity," 1981's top-seller.

Geffen

Remember when David Geffen was the impresario of Laurel Canyon pop? These days, his label owes its dramatic resurgence to a blast furnace of heavy-metal rock. In addition to Whitesnake's blitzkrieg, the label brought Aerosmith back from the dead with a platinum album and struck gold with Sammy Hagar and Sacramento newcomers Tesla. More recently, the label has gambled on Cher, whose single is off to a promising start, and Robbie Robertson, whose album barely cracked the Top 40. One longshot that didn't pay off--Donna Summer's "All Systems Go," which didn't crack the Top 100 and tumbled off the charts after just six weeks. Missing in action: Asia and Lone Justice.

I.R.S.

R.E.M. did more than just make the cover of Rolling Stone last year. The band finally cracked the Top 10 with its "Document" album, which is headed for platinum territory. The label also had a hit with Timbuk 3. Otherwise, the forecast was gloomy: two key artists (Belinda Carlisle and Stan Ridgeway) left the label, while another (Concrete Blonde) even tried declaring bankruptcy in an effort to gain free-agent status.

MCA

This resurgent label had a record-breaking 16 gold albums, a total matched only by Warner Bros. Records. The strong showing comes largely from MCA's R&B; and Nashville divisions, which contributed gold records by such black artists as Jody Watley (whose solo debut album went platinum) and country stars as George Strait and Reba McEntire (who had three gold albums). MCA also broke Tiffany (Norwalk's teen-age answer to Madonna), whose debut album has just topped the double-platinum mark, thanks to a No. 1 single ("I Think We're Alone Now") and a whirlwind shopping-mall tour. The only bad news at the label was MCA's continuing inability to break a new rock band--and its spate of art-film sound-track flops.

Motown

Berry Gordy's label had such a dismal year that Bruce Willis' widely ridiculed vanity album was one of its two biggest hits of the year. In fact, this was perhaps the worst year ever for the one-time industry giant, which had zero (that's zero ) platinum albums, didn't break any significant new artists and managed just two gold albums--Willis' and Smokey Robinson's "One Heartbeat." The label even seems to be fumbling Stevie Wonder's new album, "Characters," which just dropped to No. 18 on the charts. Thankfully, Gordy has another anniversary to celebrate (and market)--this year is the label's 30th.

PolyGram

Praise the Lord and pass the Bon Jovi albums. Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet" sold more than 5 million copies making it the top-selling album of the year (and that's after already selling 3 million in '86). That wasn't the label's only Lite-Metal smash of the year--Def Leppard's long-awaited "Hysteria" sold 2 million. Other stand-bys included John Cougar Mellencamp (who enjoyed his fourth consecutive platinum album), Kool & the Gang (who had two more Top 10 singles) and perennials Kiss and Rush. And talk about surprises--the label had perhaps the year's loopiest platinum album with "Crushin' " by king-size rappers the Fat Boys. One quibble: Where's that new Tears for Fears album--who do they think they are, the Eagles?

RCA

Were it not for the surprise year-end success of "Dirty Dancing" (which has been No. 1 for the last 9 weeks--beating out the Gloved One and the Boss), this label might not have been able to buy Nipper a bone for Christmas. How bad was it? That left-field hit was RCA's only 1987 release to go platinum. (Alabama's "The Touch" was a holdover from 1986.) Mr. Mister and Starship had weak follow-ups to their 1985 double-platinum bonanzas (Mr. Mister's album was a real dog, peaking at a lowly No. 55). One-time pop hot-shots the Pointer Sisters and Kenny Rogers continued their slides.

Warner Bros.

This Burbank-based label was the industry's true heavy-metal giant--it had more platinum albums (eight!) than any of its competitors. Warners lacked a bona-fide blockbuster--even without a new album this year, Madonna continued as the label's top seller. But it had two platinum albums from Randy Travis as well as a Top 10 album from the blue-chip/bluegrass trio of Emmylou, Linda and Dolly. The label also had a platinum sound-track surprise with "La Bamba" and an equally successful debut album from dance-masters Club Nouveau. And lest we forget--Prince spun off a pair of Top 3 singles from his "Sign 'O' the Times" double-album (though his Paisley Park proteges have yet to earn any gold spurs). With Dire Straits, David Lee Roth and Talking Heads slated for '88, Warners can probably find a way to write off its abortive Bee Gees comeback attempt, perhaps the year's most expensive flop.

Mighty Indies

Chrysalis' bad-boy rocker Billy Idol finally landed a No. 1 single with a cover of "Mony Mony," while Huey Lewis & the News nabbed three more Top 10 hits from its 1986 "Fore!" album. . . . Virgin signed a bevy of expensive new bands--and hit the jackpot with Brit popsters Cutting Crew, who gave the U.S. label its first No. 1 single with "(I Just) Died in Your Arms Last Night." . . . L.A. based Enigma Records (home of double-platinum Poison) also had a metal hit with born-again rockers Stryper. . . . Rhino landed its first No. 1 single ever with home-town club fave Billy Vera (who subsequently signed with Capitol--and stiffed). . . . And Priority Records struck gold with an "oldies" collection by the California Raisins, who performed the award-winning "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" animated TV commercial. So now we know what all those Motown fans have been buying.

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