N o album during the first six months of 1989 stepped forward with the epic ambition and power of last year's "Rattle and Hum," the inspired U2 collection that served as both a toast to rock's past and an attempt to re-ignite its early imagination and spirit.
Three albums, however, did emerge from the crowded pack as the clear front-runners in the album-of-the-year sweepstakes: Peter Case's thoughtfully evocative "... Blue Guitar ...," Lou Reed's strikingly outspoken "New York" and N.W.A's disturbingly explosive"Straight Outta Compton."
The three collections--and other key entries in this midyear top 10--are far too varied in style and intent to be lumped together as evidence of a new trend in pop.
There is, however, a common characteristic at work in the top three albums: The artists assert a strong sense of independent passion, even if--as in the case of N.W.A--that passion intends to do nothing more to grab notoriety and quick sales.
Several highly regarded pop-rock veterans--including Elvis Costello, Don Henley, John Cougar Mellencamp and the Replacements--made records with their usual songwriting command and purposeful themes, but they remained either within previously exhibited boundaries or offered only a slight advancement.
The albums on today's midyear list offered the most dramatic advances, both as individual artists and/or as representatives of a particular pop genre. The list includes a healthy number of debuts (three, all by rap or hip-hop-related artists) and some welcome comebacks.
1. Peter Case's "The Man With the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar" (Geffen)--It's been a long time since anyone wrote about relationships and the search for identity with the sensitivity and insight of Bob Dylan and John Prine, but Case does it with such a vitality and grace in the Los Angeles singer-songwriter's second solo album that you'd think he hitchhiked along the same highways that they followed two decades ago. Yet there isn't a moment in the album where Case seems to be leaning on borrowed images or ideas.
2. Lou Reed's "New York" (Sire)--Just as he showed in his Universal Amphitheatre concert in April, Reed--in his most commanding album in years--is telling the real New York stories of the '80s: a collection of generally blunt and provocative songs that speak with poignancy and anger about contemporary urban ailments, from AIDS to an apathy that results in a systematic plundering of society's underclass and the environment.
3. N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton" (Ruthless)--Rap's most incendiary activists make music as exploitative and repetitive, yet as boastfully radical, as the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks" and the Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill." The look at Los Angeles teen-age gang sensibilities is so outrageous that you sympathize with parents who fear that this debut album glorifies lawlessness, but the album--for all its overt theatrics--remains an anxious, unsettling documentary of an aspect of society in crisis.
4. De La Soul's "3 Feet High and Rising" (Tommy Boy)--Here's a debut album for people who believe that rap either (a) all sounds alike or (b) is too vulgar to be allowed into the home. There are moments among the nearly two-dozen selections that will still cause nervous flutters among parents, but the music for the most part is wonderfully varied, musically and thematically. The tracks by this Long Island trio range from the social observation of "Ghetto Thang" to good-natured tomfoolery.
5. Fine Young Cannibals' "The Raw and the Cooked" (I.R.S./MCA)--A stylish, dance-minded mix of rock and soul from England that is highlighted by the falsetto-edged vocals of Roland Gift and the consistently perky and appealing rhythms supplied by former English Beat members David Steele and Andy Cox.
6. The Cure's "Disintegration" (Elektra)--Some longtime Cure fans maintain the British band is simply retracing the bleak terrain of such earlier works as "Pornography" in the group's latest excursion through the gloom, but there is special elegance and depth to these latest lush, dark soundscapes.
7. Lyle Lovett's "Lyle Lovett and His Large Band" (MCA Curb)--Besides having fun with gender stereotypes (a straightforward rendition of the old Tammy Wynette hit "Stand By Your Man"), Lovett writes country songs that have humor and bite ("Here I Am") and songs that have heartache and whimsy ("Once Is Enough").
8. Paul McCartney's "Flowers in the Dirt" (Capitol)--Whether teaming with Elvis Costello or at his most intimate ("Put It There," "Motor of Love"), McCartney shows a new generation of rock fans why it wasn't just John Lennon who made the Beatles great.
9. Neneh Cherry's "Raw Like Sushi" (Virgin)--This former New Yorker, now based in London, is blessed with a vocal personality and charm that make her stand out in a Madonna-inspired world of youthful dance pop. Significantly, she doesn't rely only on those disarming traits in this most impressive debut.
10. Thelonious Monster's "Stormy Weather" (Relativity)--Rather than repeat the youthful alienation of its "Next Saturday Afternoon" (one of the most underrated rock albums of the '80s), this gifted Los Angeles rock band reaches out to more mature themes, including relationships and parenthood.