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Pop’s Yule Tide

Think of the holiday pop sales picture this way: Instead of one big present under music retailers’ tree, there are lots of little presents.

Where one blockbuster album has often dominated the Christmas sales period--such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Live 1975/85" two years ago or “Dirty Dancing” last year, sales this year are split among a wide array of albums, according to an informal survey of music retailers.

Anita Baker’s silky “Giving You the Best That I Got” and U2’s sprawling “Rattle & Hum” lead the pack, but numerous other artists are also scoring well: the Traveling Wilburys, Gun N’ Roses, Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians, Mannheim Steamroller among them.

“There isn’t that one album this year that’s just driving everybody crazy,” said Jim Dobbe, who oversees the music department for the 220-store, Torrance-based Wherehouse chain.

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But Dobbe isn’t complaining: “Our business is up from last year,” he said. “It’s just spread out over more titles.”

Retailers surveyed report unit sales increases of 8% to 20% compared to the holiday period last year. Since December is the hottest month for the music business--sales run at two to threetimes their normal pace--the industry is well-positioned to top last year’s record-setting 12-month total of $5.6 billion in pre-recorded music shipments.

The season’s most popular albums cover a wide range of musical styles. The Top 10 in the current issue of Billboard magazine includes everything from hard-rock heroes Guns N’ Roses to lilting saxophonist Kenny G.

This wide-open mix marks a change from last year, when most of the hottest albums--including “Dirty Dancing” and “Tiffany"--were aimed primarily at younger buyers.

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“It’s a better mix than last year,” said Dick Odette, vice president of purchasing for the 660-store, Minneapolis-based Musicland chain. “There’s something for everybody and nothing is really pulling away from the pack.”

Some retailers argued that there isn’t enough music for kids this year. Mitch Perliss, director of purchasing for the 50-store Music Plus chain, noted that a lot of the Christmas releases are by acts that appeal largely to adults, including Barbra Streisand, Fleetwood Mac and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

“There’s no one record that kids are going to run out and buy; that the teens can rally around,” he said. “There aren’t one or two easily identifiable records--like ‘Dirty Dancing’ or Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ last year--that an aunt can come in and feel safe in buying for her niece. I don’t want to say that it’s a boring Christmas, but it is.”

But Perliss added that it’s also a busy Christmas.

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He reported that CD sales are up by 15% to 20% in his chain compared to last year, largely because CD prices have been reduced on older titles and non-superstar new releases. But because of that price drop, dollar volume on CDs is up just 5%, he said.

And make no mistake: CDs and cassettes are where the action is. Perliss said that cassettes are outselling vinyl LPs 15 to 1 at Music Plus, and that CDs are outselling LPs 6 to 1.

The success of the new albums by Baker and U2--both of which have already topped the 2-million sales mark--is no surprise. Both acts scored smashing breakthroughs with their last albums. Baker’s “Rapture” sold more than 4 million copies; U2’s “The Joshua Tree” topped the 5-million sales mark.

But there were numerous surprises this season, none bigger than the Top 10 success of the Traveling Wilburys album.

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This offbeat project--featuring pop veterans Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and the late Roy Orbison--could easily have been just a pop curiosity. Instead, it became a mainstream smash. It had reached No. 8 before Orbison’s death two weeks ago of a heart attack, and is expected to vie for No. 1 in January. A Warner Bros. executive said the album is selling 200,000 copies a week, bringing its sales total to date to 1.5 million.

Several other albums are also doing much better than expected. Many figured that a pair of sleeper autumn hits, the “Cocktail” sound track and Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” would drop out of the Top 10 once the heavy guns were released. But both have remained solidly entrenched in the winner’s circle. “Cocktail,” which spawned No. 1 singles by Bobby McFerrin and the Beach Boys, is No. 3 in Billboard, and “Don’t Be Cruel” is No. 6.

Another big surprise: Critically lauded newcomers Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians have cracked the Top 20 with their album “Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars” during a season when new artists are normally eclipsed by superstars.

Two disparate acts--bad boys Guns N’ Roses and new-age stars Mannheim Steamroller--are each represented with two best sellers.

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Guns N’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction” is No. 4, while its new “GN’R Lies” has shot to No. 22 in just two weeks. The band is virtually certain to become the first act to have two albums in the Top 10 simultaneously since Men at Work in 1983.

And Mannheim Steamroller’s new “A Fresh Aire Christmas” is No. 36, while its 1984 Christmas album is No. 54.

“It’s amazing how much it sells,” said the Wherehouse’s Dobbe, speaking of Mannheim Steamroller. “It’s the kind of music you hear playing in the department store while you Christmas shop. But a lot of people who buy CDs don’t have any Christmas discs yet, and it’s pretty generic Christmas stuff.”

Inevitably, some albums have gotten lost in the year-end shuffle. Duran Duran’s “Big Thing” and the Pet Shop Boys’ “Introspective” are already moving down the charts, and the Bangles’ “Everything” is climbing slowly--despite a current Top 10 single.

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Two greatest hits collections were chart disappointments: Paul Simon’s “Negotiations & Love Songs” stalled at No. 111, and Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” peaked at No. 62. (By contrast, “Journey’s Greatest Hits” has shot to No. 18, and Kiss’ “Smashes, Thrashes & Hits” is holding at No. 25.)

Both Dobbe and Howard Krumholtz, buyer for Tower Records’ Sunset Strip store, say Bon Jovi’s “New Jersey” hasn’t lived up to their expectations. Although the album shot to No. 1 soon after its release in October, it has since slipped to No. 5.

“It isn’t as strong as I thought it would be,” said Dobbe. “It hasn’t been Top 10 (in our chain). It’s a little bit of a disappointment.”

Dobbe and the Musicland’s Odette both expressed surprise that Tracy Chapman’s critically-hailed debut album, which topped the chart in August, has slipped to No. 27.

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“I thought Tracy would have been stronger (at Christmas) with all the press she has gotten,” said Dobbe. But he added that he thinks the album will have resurgence after the Grammy Awards in February, where Chapman is expected to make a strong showing.

Two other highly watched albums have done about as expected. Barbra Streisand’s pop-minded “Till I Loved You” cracked the Top 10, but failed to approach the No. 1 status of her 1985 collection of standards, “The Broadway Album.”

And Tiffany’s “Hold an Old Friend’s Hand,” the teen star’s follow-up to a chart-topping debut album, has climbed to No. 21 in three weeks. It’s already surpassed the expectations of detractors who view Tiffany’s success as a fluke, but it’s too soon to say if it will reach the Top 10.

One other big surprise is that five albums in the Top 40 have been riding the charts for more than a year. Guns N’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction” and Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” have both been listed for 70 or more weeks--and both are still lodged in the Top 10. George Michael’s “Faith,” INXS’s “Kick” and the “Dirty Dancing” sound track are also more than a year old.

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“It’s great that records hang on that long,” said Music Plus’ Perliss, “but in a way it shows that nothing exciting has overtaken them.”


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