HERE'S A CHICKEN or egg question for you: Which came first, rock records blending slick pop production supported by an insistent dance beat, or the Contemporary Hits Radio format that plays such records in heavy rotation? Whatever the answer, this upwardly mobile sound -- yuppie rock, if you will -- is the hallmark of some of the best- selling albums in the country right now. But though the singles may sizzle, few of the albums are very hot.
DURAN DURAN -- "Arena" (Capitol SWAV- 12374). The hit here is "The Wild Boys," and though it's less a song than an organization of chants, the arrangement and Nile Rodgers' flashy production make it ear-catching regardless of its musical merits. But the rest of this album, recorded live during the band's 1984 world tour, merely demonstrates how hapless these lads are out of the studio. Then again, perhaps the whole package is just an excuse to sell more tour programs.
WHAM! -- "Make It Big" (Columbia FC 39595). When Wham! was first heard in America, it was as a rather contrived white rap act. With this album, the duo takes the more conventional approach of two pretty boys singing buoyant, meaningless pop songs. "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" is a genuinely catchy song, of the type that sticks in your head until you're ready to scream, and "Freedom" makes for listenable retro-rock. But the twosome's attempt at soul, "Careless Whisper," is barely convincing.
SHEENA EASTON -- "A Private Heaven" (EMI America ST 17132). Like Olivia Newton-John before her, Sheena Easton is just another pop singer with a good voice and a pretty face. Give her a song that sells itself, and she'll usually return the favor with a hit; leave things up to her interpretive ability, and you're out of luck. "Strut," the obvious hit here, is the sort of song any schoolgirl could sing, and that's roughly how Easton handles it. But the rest of the album, which finds her trying to emulate singers ranging from Joan Armatrading to Barbra Streisand, is as flat as old ginger ale.
MATTHEW WILDER -- "Bouncin' Off the Walls" (Private I FZ 39879). Matthew Wilder has a nice voice and a good mind for melodies, but what he wants most of all is to be a funky guy. So "Bouncin' Off the Walls" is packed with thumping drum machines, percolating synthesizers and all manner of rhythm stimulants that keep the pace hopping. But even though "Mad For You" delivers the right amount of pop appeal, Wilder still has a ways to go before catching up with the likes of Dan Hartman.
PAT BENATAR -- "Tropico" (Chrysalis FV 41471). Where once Pat Benatar sang over screaming electric guitars, now she is accompanied by the raw strum of acoustics; where her older albums sold melody with a vengeance, this one is big on the beat. But though "Tropico" makes a reasonable bid to elevate Benatar and band from the sweaty stages of arena rock, only "We'd Belong" comes close to catchiness, suggesting that their upward mobility will be rather limited.