Who imagined during the near-hysterical adoration surrounding his "Born in the U.S.A." success a decade ago that Bruce Springsteen would ever be in need of a comeback record?
Yet the relatively cool public response to his two 1992 albums and a post-E Street Band tour left Springsteen--the man whose name for years was synonymous with integrity and quality in rock 'n' roll--with much to prove.
His most strident detractors dismissed him as no longer relevant.
Springsteen proved them wrong late last year with "Streets of Philadelphia," a moving ballad about a man whose body is being destroyed by AIDS. It was written for and featured in Jonathan Demme's film "Philadelphia."
On a commercial level, "Streets," which was released as a single in February, became Springsteen's first Top 10 hit since "Tunnel of Love" in 1988.
More importantly, "Streets" won an Academy Award for best song and stands as the most absorbing single of the first half of 1994. It's a work that shows Springsteen, despite all the questions raised by changes in his life in recent years, can still write purposeful songs that connect on a deeply emotional level.
I walked the avenue 'til my legs felt like stone
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Black and whispering in the rain
On the streets of Philadelphia.
While nothing else on today's 10-best list approached the somber eloquence of "Streets," the other records reflected a healthy diversity.
The singles range from the wry adolescent sensibilities of Beck's "Loser" to the smoldering soul intimacy of Me'Shell NdegeOcello's "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)."
Most of the records on the list were released in late 1993 or come from 1993 albums, but they all either entered the pop charts or reached their highest chart positions during the past six months. The list of mid-year best albums will appear in Sunday's Calendar.
My 10 best singles so far in 1994:
1. Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" (Columbia). "I was bruised and battered / I couldn't tell what I felt / I was unrecognizable to myself," Springsteen sings in a voice that expresses the helplessness and heartache of someone dying of AIDS as convincingly as Springsteen once conveyed the dreams and aspirations of youth.
Even more uncompromising than the film itself, "Streets of Philadelphia" pays tribute to those with AIDS by refusing to minimize the suffering. There's no false sense of celebration or optimism to make the topic or the record more palatable. This is a record that plays for keeps.
2. Beck's "Loser" (DGC). If "Streets of Philadelphia" gains its strength from the clarity of its message, the lure here is the teasing way Beck uses inarticulateness as a weapon to deliver much the same message Dylan did so often in the '60s: Question authority.
So, it's only natural that Beck has been embraced in the media as a Dylanesque spokesman for the slacker generation. And, like Dylan, Beck is wary of the tag. In Spin magazine, he good-naturedly downplays the single's sociological significance. "It's not some anguished, transcendental cry of a generation," he says. "It's just like sitting in someone's living room eating pizza and Doritos."
3. Me'Shell NdegeOcello's "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" (Maverick/Sire). A tale of infidelity that is classic both for its sensual beat and for the way NdegeOcello puts down everybody involved in the triangle.
4. The Cranberries' "Dream" (Island). Irresistible pop-rock romanticism, all the sweeter for the echoes of sweeping Phil Spector sonic design.
5. Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Gin and Juice" (Death Row/Interscope). The language in this party-time rap interlude is dopey, but the music itself is as silky and soulful as the great Memphis hits from the '60s and '70s.
6. Uncanny Alliance's "I'm Beautiful Dammitt!" (A&M;). Who said you can't have great dance music and content? A marvelous exercise in self-affirmation by a promising New York duo.
7. Pavement's "Cut Your Hair" (Matador). A light-hearted alternative rock warning against trying to fit in with what is fashionable.
8. M People's "Moving On Up" (Epic). Another glorious dance floor record--as spirited a declaration of independence (from a bad relationship) as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."
9. Crash Test Dummies' "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" (Arista). The exaggerated vocal narration makes this sound like a novelty, but it is a deceptively original work about how kids are often tormented for falling outside the norm.
10. All-4-One's "So Much in Love" (Blitzz/Atlantic). This debut single by the Los Angeles R&B; vocal quartet is pure poetry in motion.
Another Midyear 10
Colleague Dennis Hunt nominates All-4-One's "So Much in Love" as the best single of the last six months. The rest of his Top 10, in order: Masta Ace Incorporated's "Born to Roll," Me'Shell NdegeOcello's "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," M People's "Moving On Up," Snoopy Doggy Dog's "Gin and Juice," Us3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," Beck's "Loser," General Public's "I'll Take You There," Wynonna Judd's "Rock Bottom" and Crash Test Dummies' "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm."