Is Anyone Out There Really Listening?

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

The artistic community in pop doesn't deserve a very high mark for its work so far this year, but pop consumers deserve an even lower score.

Artists: C-.

Consumers: F.

Retailers must be pleased because album sales across the country are up nearly 9% over this time last year. But that can be traced largely to middlebrow (or worse) collections that reflect little of the boldness or depth that you'd like to see dominating the national pop agenda.

"Titanic" has led the way by selling more than 8 million copies, mostly to fans who fell so in love with the blockbuster film that they wanted a souvenir. Without the movie tie, the album would have been lucky to sell 1% of that figure.

The only album close to "Titanic" in sales this year doesn't offer any cheer. Celine Dion's "Let's Talk About Love," which has sold more than 4 million copies (in addition to the 3 million it already sold last year) is so shamelessly overblown that you'd think that a record company would have to strap people in a chair to get them to listen to it.

There's the parade of mostly anonymous soundtracks, lightweight pop (the Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls), exploitation rap (Master P) . . . and lightweight country-pop (Shania Twain).

What's doubly discouraging about the sales pattern is that there are quality albums on the shelf by proven bestsellers.

Pearl Jam, whose "Yield" is the most commanding rock album of the year, is a group whose first two albums, 1992's "Ten" and 1993's "Vs.," have sold more than 15 million copies. By contrast, "Yield" has only sold about 1 million since its release in February.

Public Enemy, whose "He Got Game" similarly is the most accomplished rap album of the year, gave us in the late '80s and early '90s the most acclaimed body of work ever by a rap act. The four albums, including "Fear of a Black Planet," all went either gold or platinum.

Given today's increased rap sales power, the new PE album, even with the group's relatively low profile in recent years, should have entered the pop chart at No. 1. Instead, the album came in at No. 26 two months ago and has already fallen out of the Top 100.

The relatively lackluster showing of both the Pearl Jam and Public Enemy albums reminds us that, as much as we like to think buyers are responding to quality, most are driven by a combination of other factors, including image and marketing.

In the case of Pearl Jam, the band's reluctance in recent years to aggressively promote its music through videos and constant touring has led it to lose much of its early fan base. The group still has a loyal core, which is why it is able to generate such heat at the box office on its current tour. But quality alone isn't helping the band reach much beyond that core.

With Public Enemy, the issues are image and content. Rap audiences tend to be young and want their own heroes. For all its respect, PE is associated with another era in rap. The music, too, may be too restrained for the thug-life tone favored by today's mass rap audience.

Here are highlights by category in a six-month period in which most other artists were just turning out product:

RAP

Public Enemy's "He Got Game"

(Def Jam)

In this soundtrack for the Spike Lee movie, the greatest rap group ever returns to top form, mixing a variety of topics (from the game of basketball to the game of rap to the game of life) with dazzling sleight-of-hand that is as thoughtful as it is superbly crafted.

ROCK

Pearl Jam's "Yield" (Epic)

Pearl Jam's continuing artistic advance is one of the great stories in rock. This is a group that has pursued its creative instincts to forge a more graceful and purposeful sound for its tales of personal and spiritual quest--even though that very maturity and growth have cost the band warehouse loads of sales because its musical sophistication has moved far beyond its early angst-driven fan base. "Yield" combines the most combustible elements of the group's early works with the introspective side of its more recent albums.

MOODY SOUNDSCAPE

Tricky's "Angel's With Dirty Faces" (Island)

Unlike the generally positive tone of most of the other midyear selections, the feeling here is moody and foreboding; raw expressions of anguish and dread that touch on both personal and social turmoil. At times, this trip-hop pioneer's music, with its ragged twists and turns, is as ominous and unyielding as "There's a Riot Going On," Sly & the Family Stone's desolate 1971 album, and as paranoid as "Fame," David Bowie's icy 1975 single.

SINGER-SONGWRITER

Peter Case's "Full Service No Waiting" (Vanguard)

Case's music combines the pessimism of the blues and the optimism of folk, and there are moments when he captures the enduring spirit of both fields. The songs are about chasing elusive dreams, and they're bound to make you think about your own.

MOST IMPROVED

Madonna's "Ray of Light"

(Maverick/Warner Bros.)

The debate over this record doesn't so much deal with its content as its credibility. Is its confessional, spiritual emphasis honest or simply another Madonna pose? Whatever your take is, she and writer-producer William Orbit deliver her best album--one whose highlights have the convincing feel of a woman truly taking inventory in her life.

BAND DEBUT

Ozomatli's "Ozomatli"

(ALMO Sounds)

Not since Los Lobos has a band come out of Los Angeles with Latin-based textures as joyous as this. The multiethnic outfit occasionally adds hip-hop touches to the mix, but they're not what makes Ozomatli special. In the album's best moments, the music--which draws on a far wider range of Latin music influences than the early Los Lobos albums--radiates with warmth and celebration.

SINGER-SONGWRITER DEBUT

Rufus Wainwright's "Rufus Wainwright" (DreamWorks)

This sparkling young talent draws upon an unusually wide range of sensibilities, from show tunes to cabaret, to brighten his well-crafted and revealing love songs. The purpose of these aggressive arrangements isn't to shield the emotion, but to underscore the mystery and complexity of relationships.

COUNTRY

Mike Ireland & Holler's

"Learning How to Live" (Sub Pop)

There has been so little of value out of Nashville this year that they ought to drape some mourning banners around the buildings on Music City Row. To find something with any bite, you have to turn to this honky-tonk collection from the indie Seattle label that gave us Nirvana. Ireland sings about the torments of romance with a level of intensity that gets beneath today's slick commercial surface.

R&B;

Maxwell's "Embrya" (Columbia).

It's fitting that the cover photo shows Maxwell under water. There's a floating, sensual quality to this spectacularly stylish album that makes the music seem as if it's coming to you in gentle but all-encompassing waves. The lyrics are a little too New Age, but Maxwell's singing and the arrangements live up to the marvelous promise of his 1996 debut.

REISSUE

Tom Waits' "Beautiful Maladies" (Island)

In a revealing and rewarding package, Waits has sequenced the best of his Island recordings in ways that spotlight marvelously the brilliance of the work. He hasn't downplayed the twisted, eccentric elements in his music, but he has surrounded them with the accessibility and warmth of his more straightforward pieces in ways that bring out the beauty and wonder in both approaches.

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