T riple crown winners aren't limited to horse racing and baseball. It's rare, but pop artists, too, can dominate the moment so completely that they deliver the year's best album, best single recording and best concert tour.
At the half-way mark of 1990, Sinead O'Connor appears to be one of the few pop figures in the last two decades to have a chance for that kind of sweep. The last triple crown winner, arguably: U2 in 1987, the year of "The Joshua Tree."
The remarkable thing about the young Irish singer-songwriter's emergence this year is that she isn't just a cult or critics' favorite.
During a time in pop music when the top of the charts seems the exclusive property of frothy, dance-oriented attractions, O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" album was No. 1 for almost two months.
Madonna may be portraying a character named Breathless in the movies this summer, but O'Connor is the one who more often took your breath away on stage. Her album, too, was far and away the most liberating pop work of the last six months.
The remainder of my list of the 10 best albums so far this year consists of a healthy mix of controversial rappers, promising newcomers and one reinvigorated veteran. Though most of the artists cited work in dramatically different styles, they share a common passion.
1 Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" (Ensign/Chrysalis)
--It's wonderfully satisfying in a pop age preoccupied with marketing images and camera-ready dance moves that the first superstar candidate of the '90s thrills us with her honesty and warmth. O'Connor hardly lifts an eyebrow in her no-frills video of "Nothing Compares 2 U" and her artistic vision is equally pure in this album, which explores gentle moments of spiritual transformation and angry, anxious moments of exorcising disappointments.
2 Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet" (Def Jam/Columbia)
--With three commanding albums in a row and an increasingly forceful live show, PE leader Chuck D. can quite accurately be called the Bob Marley of rap. He's a gifted and charismatic figure whose message of social justice and black consciousness is anointed with the same sense of heroic crusade that Marley brought to reggae. Armed with such provocative song titles as "War at 33 1/3" and "911 Is a Joke," Public Enemy is still fighting the power.
3 Ice Cube's "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" (Priority)
--This summit meeting between the key rapper of N.W.A and the production crew behind Public Enemy has turned into the year's most misunderstood album. Chief among the many complaints: Ice Cube is too angry--as if someone reflecting the frustration and rage of gang-connected, inner-city youth has an obligation to present that anger in a polite fashion. There are ugly, disturbing moments, but Ice Cube is struggling in "Most Wanted" to understand the anger both in himself and around him.
4 John Wesley Harding's "Here Comes the Groom" (Sire/Reprise)
--Harding is a diamond in the rough, an Englishman who sometimes sounds too much like a key influence (Elvis Costello) and may not always spend enough time focusing his material (he's reportedly dashed off 150 tunes since leaving Cambridge 2 years ago). But Harding--who delights in reworking classic rock themes, from the Everly Brothers to the Stones--brings a sense of lyric ambition and adventure to rock that hasn't been exhibited by a solo artist since Costello.
5 Mazzy Star's "She Hangs Brightly" (Rough Trade)
--Lots of reference points in these richly seductive slices of arty but immediate, moody-blue country portraits. But the most obvious parallel for this sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric but always gripping journey through a minefield of desires and doubts would be a more energized Cowboy Junkies. Befitting a Los Angeles band, however, "Brightly" also echoes some of the darkness of the Doors and the sensual atmospheres of Ry Cooder.
6 World Party's "Goodbye Jumbo" (Ensign/Chrysalis)
--Karl Wallinger offers a collection of songs almost as personal and ultimately hopeful as O'Connor's "I Do Not Want," so it's not surprising when O'Connor joins in on the spiritually accented "Sweet Soul Dream." The album's '60s-influenced textures are so pronounced in places that the album may seem on casual listening to be too retrospective, but Wallinger adds his own contemporary touches and viewpoint.
7 Fugazi's "Repeater" (Dischord)
--One reason rap has moved past rock, temporarily, as the most vital area in pop is that few rock bands are so passionate they sound like their lives depend on what they're playing. The Black Crowes' excursion through Stones, Faces and Skynyrd territory almost qualified, but it's a bit dated. Fugazi, the D. C. quartet that mixes the raw independence of Black Flag and the political insistence of Gang of Four, seems more forward thinking in this assault.
8 The Sundays' "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" (David Geffen Company)
--Moments on this British group's debut carries just enough mystery and grace to recall the early promise of 10,000 Maniacs, though the album's sometimes gray, acoustic tone is generally closer to England's Cocteau Twins. There is an enchanting sense of exploring feelings--as if marching into an uncertain world and relationships, armed with all the anxiety and hope that schooling and life has provided.
9 Digital Underground's "Sex Packets" (Tommy Boy)
--Imagine rap that sidesteps most of the confrontation of Public Enemy, the rage of Ice Cube and the constant sexual expletives of 2 Live Crew, yet manages to maintain a cutting edge. Along with the more R&B-aligned; Tony! Toni! Tone! and Bell Biv Devoe, these Oakland rappers are part of a new generation of black musicians who freely mix hip-hop, R&B;, funk and pop without regard to convention.
10 The Pretenders' "Packed!" (Sire/ Warner Bros.)
--Rock's greatest female star (and mom), Chrissie Hynde begins a new decade with much the same aggressive, independent spirit that made her the most striking female artist of the '80s. She's like the Michael Jordan of rock--someone who can deliver regardless of the makeup of the constantly shifting cast of characters in her band.