POP MUSIC : Raging Against the Machine : With challenging lyrical and sonic visions, American rap and rock artists lead the way among this year's Freshman Class

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

Rap and American rock continued to be the most fertile areas for challenging new voices in pop during 1993, winning eight of the 10 spots on Calendar's annual salute to the year's most promising arrivals.

While not as explosively original as the 1991 Freshman Class--which was highlighted by Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins--this year's choices are led by two Los Angeles acts that could do much to define '90s pop: Dr. Dre and Rage Against the Machine.

Dre's "The Chronic" album, which sold more than 3 million copies this year, not only made the former N.W.A. member the most acclaimed producer in rap, but also turned the album's co-star, Snoop Doggy Dogg, into a pop-rap sensation.

Rage Against the Machine, the rap 'n' metal band that was the talk of last summer's "Lollapalooza" tour, offers a combustible mix of '60s political radicalism and '90s sonic pulse and could also be a model for an emerging body of musicians.

Today's list, open only to artists that released debut albums or stepped up to major-label status this year, is based on creative vision, not sales, which explains the absence of such dreary bestsellers as Blind Melon and Stone Temple Pilots.

The only non-American-rock or non-rap forces: the Cranberries, an Irish band with a warmly seductive feel, and Moby, the New York master of techno and dance music.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the members of the Freshman Class of 1993, with their breakthrough albums:

American Music Club

"Mercury," Reprise. Moving up to major-label status after years of acclaim on the independent circuit, this San Francisco rock band examines demons, doubts and dreams with the fearlessness and craft of Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello. The AMC moment that I remember most from 1993 was the night at the Troubadour when leader Mark Eitzel (above, right) sang with such force that his voice gave out after 30 minutes and he had to cancel the rest of the set. What else should we expect from a singer-songwriter who cites both the Sex Pistols and Billie Holiday as models?

Counting Crows

"August and Everything After," DGC. The knock against Adam Duritz (above, second from left) is that his raspy singing and ambitious lyrics, which echo the idealism and questioning of the early Van Morrison

and Bruce Springsteen, are too derivative. But the positive thing about the 29-year-old leader and his San Francisco-based band is that he sometimes uses those influences wonderfully well. "Mr. Jones" (yes, there's a Dylan influence too) is a deceptively wry jab at fame ("When I look at the television / I want to see me staring back . . . "), while "Ghost Train" evokes romantic longing in ways that are tender and winning.

The Cranberries

"Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We," Island. "Dreams," from the album, is such a magical piece of pop romanticism that it alone would be enough to make me invest in this debut collection. It balances 21-year-old Dolores O'Riordan's vocal longing against a power-pop tension reminiscent of Phil Spector and the Pretenders. The young Irish quartet needs to focus its vision (the influences range from some Sinead O'Connor urgency to some Edge-y guitar), but the foundation is solid. Graceful and accessible enough to appeal to adult pop-rock fans, yet abstract and exotic enough to hook youthful alternative-rock adherents.

Digable Planets

"Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," Pendulum/Elektra. In contrast to the narrow musical designs that lead to such a rapid turnover of hip-hop acts, the Planets have the wide vision and deep-rooted imagination to stick around. The music is as purposeful and rich as Arrested Development's and as playfully original as Basehead's. The hit single "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" is typical of a jazz-tinged sound that is at once urban and urbane. Smart and ambitious enough to become the Talking Heads of rap.

Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg

"The Chronic," Interscope/Death Row/Priority. Parents beware. The language on Dre's solo debut is as raunchy at times as 2 Live Crew and as street-tough at others as Ice Cube. But it's not the words that matter most. Dre is a master producer and his punch is in the beats, which are as seductive in spots as '60s and '70s

records from the Motown and Stax labels. The co-star is rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg (above, left, with Dre), whose own just-released, Dre-produced debut album, "Doggystyle," offers a blend of new rap beats and traditional musical signatures so imaginative that its ideas could inspire rap for years to come.


"Move," Elektra. Living up to his reputation as the new master of techno, Moby, whose music reflects the symphonic grace of Ennio Morricone and the punk-inspired urgency of Ministry, establishes himself in this major-label debut as the most exciting dance-pulse creator since Giorgio Moroder. Rather than rely simply on the sensuality of the synthesizer pulse, the New Yorker adds a second, liberating layer to the music that hints at sometimes darker but mostly glorious obsessions. Moby may be the one who finally unifies the rock and dance worlds.

Me'Shell NdegeOcello

"Plantation Lullabies," Maverick/Sire/Reprise. The husky command in the voice and the sharp, unpredictable twists in the jazz 'n' funk arrangements may be what first catch your attention in this debut album, but the ambition and daring of the key songs about sexual and social politics are what suggest that this 25-year-old New Yorker could be a major figure. "I'm Diggin' You (Like an Old Soul Record)" isn't just about a romantic interlude--it's a salute to the Afro-American solidarity of the '60s. Much to admire.

Liz Phair

"Exile in Guyville," Matador. Using the Rolling Stones' landmark "Exile on Main Street" as a model and target, the Chicago singer-songwriter (who plays on Friday at McCabe's and Saturday at the Troubador) takes aim on a big and worthy subject in these sometimes sensitive, often seething tales: lingering sexism in the rock world and beyond. The decision to design the album as a song-for-song feminist response to "Main Street" gives "Guyville" a self-consciousness that Phair needs to move beyond, but she exhibits the confidence and flair to do it.

Rage Against the Machine

"Rage Against the Machine," Epic Associated. With a charismatic frontman in Zack de la Rocha (above, fourth from top) and ideological roots steeped in '60s radicalism, this Los Angeles rap 'n' metal outfit doesn't just echo the restless, vague alienation so common on

today's rock scene. Instead, the band writes songs about cultural and social repression that are as anthem-like as the best of Public Enemy. The quartet walked away with this year's "Lollapalooza" tour, and a strong second album could boost Rage into the national Top 10.

Uncle Tupelo

"Anodyne," Sire. Maybe it's the fiddle, maybe it's the sweet innocence in Jeff Tweedy's voice, or maybe it's the teasing reference to the huge Nashville publishing company whose catalogue includes most of the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison hits, but there is something so engaging about the song "Acuff-Rose" that you can't help but smile. Key lyric: "Name me a song that everybody knows / I'll bet it belongs to Acuff-Rose." The soulful, country-rock strains in this major-label debut may not have the striking originality of such influences as Gram Parsons, but the Illinois group at least seems like strong competition for Heartland roots-rock rivals the Jayhawks.


Our pop staff picks the 10 most promising new artists on the local scene. Page 58.

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