'Pop' Flops to the Top

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

One of the most disheartening trends in music is the way both the industry and the audience get sucked into equating sales with quality.

Pearl Jam's "No Code" and R.E.M.'s "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" were among the most thoughtful and soulful albums in the bands' careers--but the 1996 collections are widely viewed as losers because they didn't match the sales punch of such earlier (and far less substantial) works as "Ten" and "Green," respectively.

U2's "Pop" is the latest example of this fuzzy thinking.

Though the album has sold more than 1 million copies in this country, the fact that it is not living up to commercial expectations has caused it to be stamped as a disappointment.


"Pop" is another remarkable U2 album, and the midpoint front-runner in the album-of-the-year sweepstakes.

Though the musical framework in "Pop" shifts from the dance-rock, mirror-ball tease of "Discotheque" to the stark isolation of "Last Night on Earth" and "Please," the songs themselves form another vital chapter in U2's spiritually edged, career-spanning effort to distinguish lasting values from transient ones.

The 10 albums on today's list of the pop highlights of the last six months underscore the diversity of today's pop scene. The common bond of the collections, which are listed alphabetically, is the ambition of the works.

Erykah Badu, "Baduizm," Universal. Freely mixing musical eras and inspirations (Billie Holiday to Stevie Wonder, jazz to hip-hop), Badu combines supper-club sophistication with an artistic vision as unique and independent as that of the Artist in the days when he was still known as Prince. Just a year after everyone crowned Toni Braxton the new queen of R&B; / pop, this Texan emerges not only as a contender, but also perhaps the favorite to end the year with the title.

Richard Buckner, "Devotion + Doubt," MCA. Basically, this Fresno native has only one country-accented tale to tell, but it's a universal one and he tells it well. As the titles suggest, the songs--sung in the aggressive, earthy style of Steve Earle--are about the complications of a relationship. There is a lonely, isolated feel to the arrangements that suggests someone who knows the enemy often lies within.

Geraldine Fibbers, "Butch," Virgin. Singer Carla Bozulich and mates examine the scars of relationships under an even more revealing microscope than in the band's striking Virgin debut, mixing two great L.A. rock traditions--the country-tinged introspection of Gram Parsons and the post-punk exposition of X.

Wyclef Jean, "The Carnival," RuffHouse / Columbia. The Fugees leader leans a lot on pop signposts, turning in his solo debut to such songs as "Stayin' Alive" for melodic embroidery the way the hit trio used "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and "No Woman, No Cry" on "The Score" album. But the musical lilt doesn't drop when Jean spins off on his own in an album that employs various pop-culture reference points with a sureness that hasn't been seen in hip-hop since De La Soul's delightful "3 Feet High and Rising" in 1991.

k.d. lang, "Drag," Warner Bros. In this smart, stylish embrace of pop's torch song tradition, lang displays the kind of ambition that is all too rare in mainstream pop these days. She weaves together cigarette-related songs from various eras for a reflection on human addiction. From the tasteful arrangements to the intimate, tailored vocals, "Drag" is going to be the kind of Grammy winner that you can cheer.

Prodigy, "The Fat of the Land," Maverick. This mix of rock and hip-hop kicks in with the energy and heat that you find at the center of a mosh pit or a world-class dance club. In fact, the album's sound is so bright and inviting that the music has the feel of a live show. Though there are enough words to serve as thematic guideposts, Prodigy leader Liam Howlett, like most dance music marvels, believes in the liberating power of the beat.

Radiohead, "OK Computer," Capitol. Talk about swimming upstream. Just when the success of such acts as the Spice Girls and No Doubt suggests the pop-rock world just wants to have fun, this British entry checks in with some of the darkest and most demanding music since Nirvana and the birth of grunge. In the album's most gripping moments, the band lays down tracks elaborate enough to make you want to put on headphones to catch all the nuances.

Ron Sexsmith, "Other Songs," Interscope. A quality singer-songwriter in the folk-tinged tradition of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and John Prine. If you want references, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney have offered glowing endorsements of Sexsmith's work. Better yet, just listen to the beauty of the melodies and the understated wisdom of the songs about longing and need.

Sleater-Kinney's "Dig Me Out," Kill Rock Stars. The influences on the latest album by this critically adored female trio range from the sheer musical abandon of punk to traces of the Top 40 verve of the Go-Go's. The themes of identity and relationships are familiar, but they are written and sung with a soul-baring intensity. Best of all, this is a band that shunsthe in-crowd self-consciousness that sometimes limits the appeal of indie bands. In its best moments, Sleater-Kinney sounds like a group that welcomes a crowd.

U2, "Pop," Island. This album is so filled with ideas and musical imagination that several songs compete for the position of centerpiece. In the moody "The Playboy Mansion," Bono recites some of man's conceits in an understated manner that adds to the sting: "If beauty is truth and surgery the fountain of youth . . . ," and "If perfume is an obsession and talk shows confession." By contrast, he rallies against disillusionment in "Staring at the Sun" with a fervor that has been a trademark of the group since the days of "I Will Follow." At once unsettling and reassuring, "Pop" mocks its throwaway title with the seriousness and strength of its music.


Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. He can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

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