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Pop '91: a top-ten list, plus notes on music-industry weirdness

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The most important stories in music this year all concerned the industry. Nineteen ninety-one was a financial disaster for the record companies--sales were off about 10 percent across the board--and they moved in typical fashion to identify the problems. Was the $4 billion-a-year monolith worried about the decline in the CD catalog sales that have been welfaring the major labels for years? Concerned about how relative outsiders--David Geffen, say, or Charles Koppelman--managed to find and promote multimillion-selling artists (Nirvana and Wilson Phillips are two recent examples) right under the majors' noses? Thinking about what kids are going to be interested in buying five years from now?

Nope. If Billboard is any indication, the two issues most on the industry's mind right now are (1) used CD stores and (2) Columbia House, the CBS record club. CDs don't deteriorate, of course, so a used copy is just as good as a new one; why should a consumer pay 20 to 30 percent more for those wasteful cardboard "longboxes"? Unsurprisingly, the used-CD market is booming, to the point that even the big chains are thinking about getting into the act. The industry still isn't sure how to respond, save for the usual whining. Sony has recently restricted returns on opened discs from retailers, but no one can quite figure out whether this will discourage used-CD sales (Sony's contention) or encourage them (what else are retailers going to do with the disc but sell it again as used?).

The record clubs? Seems that all of a sudden some corporate bosses noticed that every magazine in America contains an advertisement from Columbia House offering at least eight CDs--and sometimes nine or ten!--for a penny. In the good old days you could get a dozen or more LPs for the same penny and no one cared. But today, in the era of the $14.99 CD, the disparity is noticeable, and this year both Geffen and CEMA (the Capitol distribution arm) served notice that they'd be letting their Columbia House contracts expire. Others may follow, making it tough on both CBS (now Sony) and Warner Brothers, which, after a complex 1989 deal involving Columbia Pictures and Batman producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters, ended up owning half of the record club.

These phenomena suggest that the almost unbelievably tolerant record-buying public may be beginning to show some resistance to the hugely overpriced CD. (Are they overpriced? You bet. CDs cost less to produce than LPs, and those expensive plant retoolings to manufacture the damn things were paid for long ago; the current retail prices--13 or 14 dollars for a rock 'n' roll album--are simply exorbitant. While in some areas like the north side of Chicago we do see stores with sales that bring the price down a dollar or two, remember that most people in America are paying mall prices.)

Nonetheless, it appears that the record industry will do anything to avoid lowering wholesale prices, which, depending on whether you're a big chain like Sound Warehouse or Tower or a powerless mom and pop, range from about $8 to $12. Instead, the industry will chase phantoms, like used-CD stores (what are they going to do, pass a law against selling used CDs?) and continue their almost pathetic complaints against the record clubs.

What can you, the consumer, do to help? Easy--keep buying used CDs. 2nd Hand Tunes, Dr. Wax, and Chicago Compact Disc, all on Clark near Diversey, and the terrific Reckless on Broadway at Belmont, have large used-CD selections. If you have to shop the chains, buy the sale stock: retailers aren't making as much on it, and lower profits will keep the retailers agitating for lower wholesale prices.

Speaking of industry weirdness, one of the odder movements at the moment is the campaign by something called the Jewelbox Associates and Manufacturers in favor of the "jewel box," the plastic container most CDs come in. The trouble with the jewel box is that it inevitably leads to the cardboard longbox. Most American retailers refuse to carry unlongboxed jewels because they're so easy to shoplift. And the longboxes, now being manufactured--and thrown away--at the rate of nearly one hundred million a year, are an environmental embarrassment.

A few artists have flatly refused longboxing, Peter Gabriel and Raffi among them. But Gabriel's greatest-hits album was kept out of chain stores--or placed in special theft-proof locations--and as a consequence sold poorly. The more promising trend seems to be toward alternative packaging made of plastic and cardboard that is shaped like a longbox but can then be folded down for storage into the usual CD-size box, a la Sting's Soul Cages or Bonnie Raitt's Luck of the Draw.

I don't think history is going to be on the Jewelbox Associates' side on this issue. The heart of their argument is that something as delicate and expensive as the CD requires the hardy protection only a jewel box can provide. But the environmental argument against them is irrefutable, and in any case for me one of the biggest drawbacks of the jewel boxes is the way they have stymied your typical rock 'n' roll artist's fondness for daring and sometimes extravagant packaging. The tiny five-by-five panel on the front of most CDs is a small canvas indeed compared to the great album covers. And few have noticed the opportunities the larger cardboard-and-plastic alternatives suggest. Certain record companies have put out elegant promotional boxes like little books, complete with fold-out design and custom artwork on the disc itself. The record-jacket-art nostalgia movement is taking hold--there was a "My Turn" column in Newsweek about it recently. An alternative to the jewel pack is a break for the environment and for Art as well.

The biggest industry story of the year was Billboard's switch to the SoundScan system. SoundScan uses those computer scanners at cash registers to give exact sales figures for albums, which can then be extrapolated into broader sales (and sales-pattern) figures. There are problems with SoundScan--the nation's second largest retailer, Tower, isn't participating, and critics say it undervalues sales from smaller and alternative stores. But the new system's influence thus far has been striking: the new charts' fast action--for example, a series of albums have debuted at number one, previously a rare occurrence--seems to capture the volatility of record sales well. It did one more thing as well--creating a new myth for the legendary Billboard charts, and just in time, it seems. The old one, to read the reports on SoundScan, had been hopelessly corrupt. Funny how the nation's music press never got around to telling us this before 1991.

There was never anything wrong with the Chicago rock scene that a few first-rate bands couldn't fix. I have two releases from Chicago acts in my top-ten list for the year--not, I assure you, to satisfy any kind of a quota. Indeed, the number of noteworthy releases out of Chicago this year--Smashing Pumpkins' worthy Gish, Material Issue's admirable International Pop Overthrow, the stylistically daring Eleventh Dream Day effort Lived to Tell, and the usual scary stuff from Al Jourgensen and Ministry (check out the new single, "Jesus Built My Hotrod") among them--has to represent something of a benchmark. When I moved here three years ago, people talked about Dick Holliday and the Bamboo Gang as a promising local act. Sheesh.

1. Pet Shop Boys: Discography (EMI) This irreproachable greatest-hits collection is, of course, the sound track to a life very different from mine or, most likely, yours. Money is the sexual currency, sex the main mode of transaction; what we would call basic qualities--fidelity, love, need, friendship--occur only evanescently to the genderless characters in Pet Shop Boys songs. And it's all done without cynicism or resignation. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are just trying to capture on record, as clinically as possible, their sense of the age: "Let's make lots of money"; "I love you / You pay my rent"; "I would leave you if I could." But remember, the Pet Shop Boys are pop artists--working against these ferocious pronouncements are exquisite melodies, a pristine, computer-driven backing, and Tennant's remarkably controlled voice.

2. The Clash: Clash on Broadway (Epic) This is both the compilation and retrospective the Clash deserved and the equal of any similar excavation yet released. The roughly 18 album sides the band released (including the three-record Sandinista! and the very long EP Black Market Clash) are slimmed down to fit onto three long CDs. The first disc nicely finesses all the theoretical complications surrounding the band's first album (the astonishing Brit version was "diluted" for the American release by several of the most powerful singles ever made) by including all but two tracks from both with demos, live tracks, and B-sides from the period added in to create a uniquely powerful and essential document of punk. Bursting out of the garage with their bullshit detectors on stun, leaders Joe Strummer and Mick Jones introduce a surprised generation to the concept of friendly fire, flattening themselves, the fans, and the industry in an unstoppable barrage of bad logic, great riffs, unshakable sincerity, and the biggest beat in the world. From there on in, it's all gravy: The second disc has the job merely of condensing two extremely strong rock and roll records--Give 'Em Enough Rope and London Calling--while the third one makes the case for the doomed latter-day band whose ventures into rap, world beat, and finally a nightmarish electric folk rock produced a top-ten hit and platinum albums and were deemed a failure nonetheless. In Clash on Broadway (the set is named for a chaotic series of concerts with Grandmaster Flash in 1979) you get all this and the funniest and most appropriate annotations of any boxed set released, courtesy of Lenny Kaye and the mysterious Kosmo Vinyl. (The Clash ultimately rejected a massive, 12,000- word retrospective by Ira Robbins; it'll be published, however, in the next two issues of the Big Takeover fanzine, available from Jack Rabid, 249 Eldridge St. #14, New York, NY 10002.)

3. Nirvana: Nevermind (DGC) "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--"Godzilla" upside down and backward, a de-sci-fied "Monkey Gone to Heaven," a love song cum letter bomb to the Sassy set--introduced a new take on an old character: Holden Caulfield joins a rock band and tries to convince himself that he never really gave a shit. Musically the album's marriage of uncompromisingly harsh attack with striking riffs and lyrical substance single-handedly made very hard rock music matter again. Nevermind makes both the estimable but limited Metallica and the heavy-qua-heavy impenetrability of Soundgarden equally irrelevant. The album's recurring themes--dumbness, violence, and the other varied territorial pissings of teens--made Nirvana the darlings of critics and more discriminating kids, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit"'s lacerating performance and attractive video did the rest: unlike other surprising number-one albums of the year--like those from N.W.A. and Skid Row, who hit the top spot on first week's sales, the new easy way to do it--Nevermind took its honors after months of growing popularity.

4. Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend (Zoo) Matthew Sweet's third album is a revelation: eschewing his drum machines entirely, this ambitious pop seeker traveled from Nebraska to Athens (Georgia) to New York to make it, ending up in Lloyd Cole's band with Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd and then finally producing the self-conscious masterpiece he's been after from the start. Pop (again) is the byword here, but that doesn't stop ringing guitar lines (like the one on "Evangeline") from bursting off the record again and again. For some reason what is patently the worst song on the record ("Girlfriend") is getting all the airplay, on both 'XRT and MTV; don't let it put you off. Check out the lovely and plaintive "I've Been Waiting," the obsessive "Winona" (as in Ryder), and the remarkable leadoff track, "Divine Intervention," in which a wary Christian resigns himself to faith, assisted by what sounds like the entire Beatles catalog encoded into one pop song.

5. Green: White Soul and Bittersweet (Widely Distributed) Green leader Jeff Lescher is far and away the most talented person on the Chicago rock scene. It's not just that he writes better songs, sings better, or even--though he's no technical whiz--plays guitar with more force and imagination. It's that he has that thing called vision, and it's a grander one than anyone south of Minneapolis has shown lately. The first three songs on White Soul (first released in Europe in 1990) are searing pop classics that sound as if they were written by Ray Davies, or Prince, or Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen. I've had a copy of the record for two years and haven't yet tired of it. On the CD, White Soul is paired with the more recent six-track EP Bittersweet, which includes the soulful title song and the rock 'n' roll bildungsroman "The Record Company Song." (You can now also pick up Bittersweet on LP on the local Rokchik records in a ten-inch edition on white vinyl.)

6. Robyn Hitchcock: Perspex Island (A&M) I've always admired Robyn Hitchcock, but I've admired his steady recording improvements even more. This friendly British eccentric takes his cues from the Byrds and Dylan musically and Aesop and Dali lyrically, and in the past he's produced interesting but never world-class work. That began to change a couple of years ago with the plangent and beautiful Queen Elvis; now, Perspex Island, his best album, continues the transformation into radio-friendly protostar. "Ultra Unbelievable Love," with its super "I'm gonna nail it down!" chorus, and the lovely "Birds in Perspex" are the standouts; much of the rest remains insular, and only Robyn knows what they're actually about, but this is the album that should have made him a star.

7. Pere Ubu: Worlds in Collision (Fontana) The title song includes a four-and-a-half-second murder mystery--a bottle dropping, a scream, a door slam, and a gunshot--and the evocative chorus, "Les haricots sont pas sale / Something weird is coming this way." The album starts out with the ghostly and memorable "Oh Catherine," and allows neobeat frontman David Thomas to tip his hat to Leadbelly ("Goodnight Irene," not a cover) and Sam Cooke ("Playback") along with his usual tangential observations on the state of the universe generally, as the rest of this onetime avant-garde aggregation turns out user-friendly riff after user-friendly riff.

8. Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Columbia) Ninety minutes of first-rate live and unreleased material filled out the five-record retrospective Biograph five years ago; now here's three more hours of previously unheard songs, ranging, it is true, from the sublime ("Farewell, Angelina," "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie") to the ridiculous ("Like a Rolling Stone" in waltz time, "The Cough Song"), but resting most often on the doorstep of the ineffable. I'll argue that this set is for everyone: if you like Blood on the Tracks, check out the chilling alternate versions. Like Dylan and the Band? Try "She's Your Lover Now," an edgy, exuberant tale that is the match of anything on The Basement Tapes. And the original fans of the whirling and brittle folkie will find song after song for the ages. I know, I know, Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynyrd are releasing boxed sets these days, but three discs of Aerosmith is just a joke: this is three discs of supposedly secondary material, all of it on a level that would qualify the maker as a master even if he hadn't already released something like 50 albums' worth of studio work.

9. Urge Overkill: The Supersonic Storybook (Touch and Go) Like labelmates the Butthole Surfers, Chicago trio Urge Overkill are believers in the aesthetic of ugly. The band members are ugly, their name is ugly, their albums are ugly, and their music and lyrics are ugly as well. The dominant emotion on the band's third album (it's actually halfway between an album and an EP) is an unrelenting sardonicism. On "Bionic Revolution" the band sing "free the children" with all the sarcasm they can muster--they hate hippie sincerity, and set the tune to a mock funk beat that wickedly parodies white efforts at black funk. Urge's trick, however, is to marry that sardonicism to an exquisite array of harsh, occasionally breathtaking musical textures, using the distant, aching vocals by King Roeser, the coursing, slow riffs proffered by guitarist National Kato, and the unrelenting drumming from Blackie Onassis as primary building blocks. The album's not perfect: the attitude takes over on goofs like "Henhough: The Greatest Story Ever Told." But on "The Kids Are Insane" the Urge boys turn the Who on their heads, and at their best--"Vacation in Tokyo," "What Is Artane?," and their mind-fucking, deeply disturbing cover of the old Hot Chocolate hit "Emma" (they call it "Emmaline")--they create a caustic, guitar-strewn landscape without peer in American underground rock.

10. Roseanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia) The theme of this breakthrough album--written, produced, and sung by Cash--is the breaking of bonds. It mirrors what the record itself represents: an artist in the undemanding field of country subverting the genre by taking typical banalities--"I want to be a real woman," "I need a cure," being "paralyzed"--and toppling them one by one with a firm hand. A real "real woman" "changes every day"; the cure she needs is for a "life in disguise"; and finally, even the paralytic vows "I'll move on, I'll go higher." Cash remains a country artist, in the negative sense, and rock fans will cringe at some of her concerns and constructions, but she is also one of the most talented people in popular music, and, as those who caught her quiet and moving speech at the South by Southwest conference last year saw, one of the most articulate, charismatic, and smart as well.

Runners-up, for what it's worth: R.E.M.'s kaleidoscopic but somewhat off-putting Out of Time, sure to be feted well at this year's Grammys; but how does a group that has never even been nominated before suddenly warrant more than half a dozen nominations? Paul McCartney's Unplugged (The Official Bootleg), a surprisingly listenable and pretty throwaway; McCartney reaches up in the air and grabs out classic after classic--"Be-Bop-a-Lula," sure, but "Here, There, and Everywhere"? "Singing the Blues"? "Blue Moon of Kentucky"? Also, The Curse of the Mekons, a dense and demanding song cycle to accompany the end of the cold war.

The single of the year was the irresistible "O.P.P.," by the New York rap group Naughty by Nature. Constructed on an elusive snatch of sample of the Jackson 5's "ABC," the song used dense wordplay and sexy asides to create a masterpiece of amorality: one of the funniest and most creative raps yet cheerfully laid down the dos and don'ts of cheating. And if you have a chance, check out MTV's very funny cover "Down Wit MTV." Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" turned out to be one of the greatest product-placement achievements in advertising history--the teen deodorant quickly took advantage of the song with a blanket of commercials anytime Nirvana appeared on TV. Benighted hard-core rappers the Geto Boys finally justified their existence with "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me," a lurid but convincing drug horror story. The Geto Boys are nasty as heck, and don't even know what the word "bastard" means, but the scary guitar line and the succession of impeccable raps make this a classic. L.L. Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" is a perfect melange of pop, rock, and rap. 3rd Bass's "Pop Goes the Weasel" is the best rock criticism of the year, as the white rappers make the case for authenticity and beat up on Vanilla Ice in the process. The Pet Shop Boys' "So Hard" is "O.P.P."'s flip side: cheating on the up and up, with the involved parties calmly--too calmly--discussing the implications. Billy Bragg's "Sexuality," a wistful but rollicking plea for sexual tolerance, crosses lines of nation, class, and gender and still manages to capture the shyness of a moment ("I feel a total jerk / Before your naked body of work"). Boogie Down Productions' "Love's Gonna Get You" is a convincing tale of a young man's descent into hell.

The concerts of the year were, in rough order, the Pet Shop Boys at the Chicago Theatre, Morrissey at the World, Urge Overkill performing as Navajo at the Czar Bar, Nirvana at Metro, Paul Simon at the World, and the Replacements' wan farewell in Grant Park.

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