For all the mass appeal of pop music, the most compelling records are usually the ones that touch us on a deeply personal level.
That’s one reason John Squire, the soft-spoken guitarist for England’s much-admired new rock band, the Stone Roses, doesn’t like to discuss the meanings of the group’s songs.
He speaks of records as emotional paintings and feels that any “official” interpretation tends to put too much weight on a single interpretation of a song, thereby making it harder for listeners to relate to the music.
“To me, the best records are the ones that make you feel like you are listening to a close friend . . . records so intensely personal that they can make you laugh and cry at the same time,” he said in a recent interview.
No record underscored the personal nature of quality pop music during the first half of 1990 better than Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Here are my choices for the most distinguished and/or entertaining singles of the last six months. Only one record per artist was allowed. (My list of the 10 best albums so far this year will appear in Sunday’s Calendar.)
1. Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Ensign/Chrysalis)--Prince wrote the statement of romantic heartbreak in the mid-'80s for the debut album by the Family, a short-lived Minneapolis group, but the album went largely unnoticed. One person who did hear the song was O’Connor, whose stirring, gospel-edged version transforms “Nothing Compares” to a whole new level. It’s as easy now to see the song as an expression of spiritual longing as romantic loss.
2. Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” (Def Jam/Columbia)--With the legal controversy swirling around 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell, Chuck D. may no longer be viewed by rap opponents as the true public enemy, but he remains the music’s most forceful spokesman. This is a spectacularly designed sonic assault that captures magnificently the feeling of a man and a music under siege.
3. Madonna’s “Vogue” (Sire/Warner Bros.)--A marvelous pop exercise that blends a seductive beat with wry social observations about today’s renewed obsession with appearance and style. The salute to early Hollywood glamour also delivers a classic pop line: “They had style / They had grace / Rita Hayworth gave good face.”
4. Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter” (Geffen)--The F. Scott Fitzgerald of contemporary pop is back with more observations about the struggle between obligations and desire in what he describes as a graceless age. Trying to understand his own role in a failed relationship, he asks, “What are these voices outside love’s open door / Make us throw off our contentment and beg for something more?”
5. The Stone Roses’ “Fool’s Gold” (Silvertone/RCA)--There’s something mysterious and invigorating about this alluring mix of psychedelic-style rock textures and Curtis Mayfield funk. Your guess is as good as mine in defining its theme, which is just what John Squire had in mind.
6. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” (Reprise)--If one form of “personal” music in pop can be illustrated by the confession-booth honesty of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” this super-charged exercise documents the way records--think “Born to Run” and “Like a Rolling Stone"--can make your spirits soar. Complete with the usual Mary Chain mix of gentle melody and harsh feedback, the song declares how a special moment in life (or a special record), “Makes you want to feel / Makes you want to try / Makes you want to / Blow the stars from the sky.”
7. World Party’s “Way Down Now” (Ensign/Chrysalis)--A disarming blend of Rolling Stones darkness and Beatles light, complete with some fancy Dylan wordplay, as World Party leader Karl Wallinger battles against mounting social pessimism.
8. Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” (Tommy Boy)--This year’s “Funky Cold Medina.” In other words: dopey fun.
9. Tony Toni Tone’s “The Blues” (Wing/Polydor)--"Just because he drives a Porsche / And I drive a Nova / What about the man inside,” is the latest, stylish R&B; twist on the age-old lament of some suffering male who feels he’s being ignored because he doesn’t have the right car or job.
10. Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around the World” (Arista)--Next to the strong sense of personal vision in most of the other records on the list, this seems awfully conventional, but Stansfield’s vocal is something to behold--not as engulfing as O’Connor’s, but still a pop-soul tour de force.
MORE CHOICES: Colleague Dennis Hunt nominates Digital Undergound’s “The Humpty Dance” as the best single of the first half of the year. The rest of his Top 10, in order: Tony Toni Tone’s “The Blues,” Madonna’s “Vogue,” Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around the World,” M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love,” Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”, Louie Louie’s “Sittin’ in the Lap of Luxury” and Janet Jackson’s “Escapade.”