The Freshmen of '91: Rock, Funk, Punk, Metal and Spunk

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop critic

Rock showed evidence in 1991 of rallying against the doldrums of the late '80s as British and American groups moved in different but equally promising directions. This loose coalition of independent new bands dominates Calendar's annual salute to pop's 10-most-promising new arrivals.

Some of the rock acts on today's list released albums before 1991, but they either stepped up to major labels this year or experienced enough of a creative or commercial breakthrough during the last 12 months to greatly increase their chances of helping to shape rock in the coming years.

On the British front, the emphasis--as evidenced by such varied outfits as Jesus Jones, which was part of Calendar's 1990 Freshman Class, and EMF, a member of this year's class--combines some of the Jesus and Mary Chain's merger of melody and guitar feedback with the funk-inspired, Manchester dance-floor vitality of the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses.

In the United States, meanwhile, the key development was a group of young bands--from Dinosaur Jr. to Nirvana--that are forging a balance between thoughtful, singer-songwriter sensibilities and the hard-core urgency of rock's punk/metal traditions.

The focus in the list--which also includes soul's Oleta Adams and rap's P.M. Dawn--is on creative potential and vision, not sales. That's why many groups that enjoyed considerable success--such as C+C Music Factory and Deee-Lite--weren't included. These acts made some catchy singles but nothing compelling enough to make you eagerly anticipate their next albums.

The members of the Freshman Class of 1991, with their breakthrough albums, are listed alphabetically:

Oleta Adams

"Circle of One" (Fontana/Mercury). Here's a lesson in patience. The challenge for Adams wasn't keeping her spirits up during the half-dozen or so months that it took for this mid-1990 debut to finally break into the pop Top 20, but the dozen or so years that she spent singing in clubs and lounges before being discovered by the English duo Tears for Fears in a Kansas City piano bar and invited to join its tour. At a time when young singers (e.g., Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey) often become stars before quite figuring out what to do with their remarkable voices, Adams exhibits an authority and discipline that show she was perfecting a style during all those years in the clubs.

Dinosaur Jr.

"Green Mind" (Sire/Warner Bros). In the Freshman Class tour of the year, Dinosaur Jr. played several shows last summer with Nirvana, and there are enough parallels between the bands to make "Green Mind" the next stop for the army of MTV fans who have recently embraced Nirvana and pushed its album into the Top 5. Specializing in youthful frustration and doubt, J Mascis--the leader of this Amherst, Mass., trio--seems as willfully inarticulate at times as Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. But he's exploring one of rock's most fundamental themes: the search for something or someone to believe in.

EMF

"Schubert Dip" (EMI). Like Jesus Jones, EMF mixes punk, funk and pop in a dance-minded blender that is so appetizing you'd swear the band was part of the Manchester brigade. If, however, the Jones boys recall the songwriting precision of the Who and the Kinks, EMF revives some of the youthful sassiness of the Rolling Stones, right down to singer James Atkin's Jaggeresque vocal mannerisms. The band needs more variety and boldness to truly matter, but anyone who can top the U.S. charts with a single as bratty and infectious as "Unbelievable" bears watching.

Nine Inch Nails

"Pretty Hate Machine" (TVT). It wasn't too surprising to see Trent Reznor--the architect of this band's industrial Angst --blow Living Colour and Siouxsie & the Banshees off the stage during the San Diego stop on the summer's "Lollapalooza" tour. But you know that Reznor was on to something when his fussing and fretting also overshadowed headliner Jane's Addiction (even if it was an off night for the latter). Dark obsession is a dangerous path in rock when it is adopted as strongly as Reznor has, but it's also a compelling trait, and that's why major labels have been trying to latch onto him.

Nirvana

"Nevermind" (DGC). There's something so fundamentally honest about this album that it's refreshing to see it become a runaway bestseller. Whether the band is exploring youthful apathy or the mysteries of relationships, there's a convincing sense of struggle and confusion that makes some acclaimed rival bands seem a touch synthetic. This doesn't feel like music by rock stars trying to remember what it was like back when they were just ordinary slugs, but music by a group that doesn't know anything but its Everyman status. Both commonplace and profound, "Nevermind" is the year's most surprising entry in the best-album sweepstakes.

P.M. Dawn

"Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross" (Gee Street/Island). When the New Jersey duo's Prince Be whispers, "I'd like to welcome you to the utopian experience," and then offers a nod to God, don't feel alone if you are reminded of another pop Prince. But the music itself--an extension of Soul II Soul's silky hip-hop instincts--is fresher and more visionary than anything the Minneapolis Marvel has given us since "Lovesexy" in 1988. Who else could build one of the year's most appealing singles--"Set Adrift on a Memory Bliss"--around a sample of an old Spandau Ballet record?

Primus

"Sailing the Seas of Cheese" (Interscope). It's easy to see why quirky is the word most often applied to this Berkeley-based trio. "My socks and shoes always match /

Is it luck?" the band asks in one of the tunes on its major-label debut. Elsewhere, a storytelling alley cat named Tommy begins a wry tale by declaring, "I remember it as if were (just) a meal ago." In one of the year's most entertaining albums, Primus' music is full of surprise twists and struts--as close as anyone is likely to come to a cross between the Mothers of Invention and Was (Not Was).

Seal

"Seal" (Sire). The latest figure of worth from the late-'80s British soul uprising that gave us Soul II Soul, Roachford and Terence Trent D'Arby (who, incidentally, shouldn't be written off despite radio programmers' unequivocal rejection of his much underrated 1989 album). Seal shares much of D'Arby's eclectic pop-soul range, moving from the country-tinged flavor of "Deep Water" to the rock punch of "Killer." He also appears to exude a trace of D'Arby's charisma and independence. The main calling card here is the dance-minded wonder of "Crazy," one of the year's most distinctive and lyrically elusive singles.

Smashing Pumpkins

"Gish" (Caroline). Listen to the spacey, guitar-driven blues explorations of "Rhinoceros," the favorite track of alternative-rock radio programmers, and you can picture this Chicago quartet as the headliner if anyone decides to begin staging '60s light shows again at the Shrine. If the band's dreamy landscapes and Billy Corgan's understated vocals make Smashing Pumpkins seem like the ideal support group for the Grateful Dead, there is also a contemporary spirit and imagination that would make the band an equally acceptable opener on a Jane's Addiction reunion tour.

Chris Whitley

"Living With the Law" (Columbia). The seductive guitar style and lonesome vocals remind you a bit too much at times of Ry Cooder and other '70s descendants of country blues--and producer Malcolm Burn showcases those traits expertly in this debut. Eventually, however, it's Whitley's songwriting that proves his greatest strength. His classic blue-collar laments about the state of the American character are especially timely in a period of economic troubles. Sample lines: "Brother runnin' powder money / Daddy's somewhere on a drunk / In the hours after washing / I do my dreaming with a gun."

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