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IN TUNE WITH THE SEASON Hidden gems are gleaming in the pile of musical gifts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every year, the recording industry urges consumers to "Give the Gift of Music" -- that is, to do their Christmas shopping down at the local record store.

If what you want to give are the big hits, it couldn't be easier, since almost every store has them prominently displayed. But if you'd like to give a musical gift that hasn't been played to death on radio and MTV, that won't help; what you need is some expert advice.

So here it is. What follows is a sort of musical Santa's Helper, listing albums most music fans would love if only they had the chance to hear them. Gift-wrap a few of these, and the lucky people on your list will be astonished at your taste and discretion.

PD And if not, you can always blame it on the guy in the newspaper.

MAINSTREAM POP

You could opt for the obvious: Mariah Carey's gospel-inflected "Emotions" (Columbia 47980); U2's intense, inventive "Achtung Baby" (Island 314 510 347); Color Me Badd's hip hop-meets-doo wop "C.M.B." (Giant 24429); Richard Marx's bluesy "Rush Street" (Capitol 95874); or Michael Jackson's soon-to-be-platinum "Dangerous" (Epic 45400).

But why not try something different? If you're buying for someone who loves George Michael and Stevie Wonder, "Seal" (Sire 26627), from England's Seal, mixes singer/songwriter intelligence with dance-floor savvy. If a cross between Billy Joel and James Taylor is more in order, try Marc Cohn's jazzy, introspective "Marc Cohn" (Atlantic 82178).

Anyone who misses the days when Diana Ross and Donna Summer ruled the charts will fall head-over-heels for Lisa Stansfield's "Real Love" (Arista 8679). Those who liked "Don't Know Much," Aaron Neville's duet with Linda Ronstadt, should love Neville's Ronstadt-produced solo album, "Warm Your Heart" 5354). And listeners who like rap's rhythm but could do without the aggression will enjoy P.M. Dawn's gentle, psychedelic "Of the Heart, of the Soul & of the Cross: The Utopian Experience" (Gee Street 314 510 267).

ROCK AND ROLL

So your best friend is crazy for Bonnie Raitt, but already has her latest? No problem. Why not try Paul Brady's "Trick or Treat" (Fontana 848 454), which boasts strong songwriting, a similar feel for the blues, and a cameo by Raitt. Or try Chris Whitley's "Living With the Law" (Columbia 46966), which molds gritty slide guitar, vivid, evocative songs and achingly atmospheric production into an unforgettable whole.

Despite rumors of a reunion, the closest thing to a new Steely Dan album is the New York Rock and Soul Review's "Live at the Beacon" (Giant 24423), a mostly oldies show fronted by the Dan's Donald Fagen. Desperate fans might resort to the expanded reissue of Steely Dan's "Gold" (MCA 10387), but a better bet would be Deacon Blue's "Fellow Hoodlums" (Columbia 47937), which imbues the jazzy feel of Steely Dan's later albums with a strong Celtic melancholy.

Guitar fiends are already crazy for "The Sky Is Crying" (Epic 47390) by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. But if the one on your list already has a copy, try "The Eric Gales Band" (Elektra 61083), a searing, Hendrixian set featuring astonishing solos by 16-year-old phenom Eric Gales.

R&B;

Shopping for an R&B; fan who wants the latest hits but hasn't bought anything in a while? In that case, you'd want Jodeci's well-harmonized "Forever My Lady" (MCA 10198), Gerald Levert's gutsy, impassioned "Private Line" (East/West 91777), or Vanessa Williams' sultry, soulful "The Comfort Zone" (Wing 843 522).

Should your quest require less obvious choices, however, perhaps a rising star would do. Like 15-year-old Tevin Campbell, whose debut, "T.E.V.I.N. Campbell" (Qwest 26291), includes the Prince-produced "Round and Round" plus some surprisingly mature ballads. Or David Peaston, the sweet-voiced tenor whose "Mixed Emotions" (MCA 10383) backs tender crooning with slammin' hip-hop beats. And don't forget D'bora, whose light, Janet Jackson-style vocals shine over the house rhythms of "E.S.P." (Smash 848 325).

With a track record stretching back to Zapp's "More Bounce to the Ounce," Roger doesn't quite qualify as a "rising star," but that's no reason to ignore his ingeniously funky "Bridging the Gap" (Reprise 26524). And if Victoria Wilson-James' name rings no bells, her voice might -- she sang "A Dream's a Dream" with Soul II Soul, and offers a similar sound on "Perseverance" (Epic 46853).

HARD ROCK/HEAVY METAL

As ever, the albums chart is overflowing with hard rock and heavy metal, making it easy to shop the hits. Between Guns N' Roses' angry, ambitious "Use Your Illusion II" (Geffen 24420) and "Use Your Illusion I" (Geffen 24415), Motley Crue's hit-packed "Decade of Decadence" (Elektra 61204) and Metallica's blustering, tuneful "Metallica" (Elektra 61113), it's hard to go wrong.

Assuming, that is, the head bangers on your list don't already have those albums. If they do, why not try something like Pearl Jam, whose meaty, moody "Ten" (Epic 47857) is dark and dramatic enough to please any GNR fan. Or Soundgarden, whose ear-shredding "Badmotorfinger" (A&M; 5374) recalls both the majesty of Led Zeppelin and the bruising power of Black Sabbath.

If you're in the market for something more mainstream, check out Lita Ford's slick, melodic "Dangerous Curves" (RCA 61025), or "Follow for Now" (Chrysalis 21820), which finds the Atlanta-based Follow for Now matching Living Colour's effortless versatility with Lenny Kravitz's classic rock flavor.

Thrash fans with a sense of humor ought to get off on the wicked wit and killer licks of Scatterbrain's "Scamboogery" (Elektra 61224). But if something more serious is in order, try the noisy, knife-edged fury of Warrior Soul, whose "Drugs, God and the New Republic" (DGC 24389) is as impressive as it is intense.

COUNTRY

Assuming the country fans you know head to the record store fairly regularly, odds are they already have this season's biggest C&W; titles: Garth Brooks' astonishing "Ropin' the Wind" (Capitol 96330), Reba McEntire's polished, pop-friendly "For My Broken Heart" (MCA 10400) and Travis Tritt's delightfully down-home "It's All About to Change" (Warner Bros. 26589)

Don't despair -- there are plenty more where they came from. Brooks fans, for instance, ought to enjoy the sound of Great Plains, whose "Great Plains" (Columbia 48651) boasts a sound and feel similar to the early Eagles. There's also Trisha Yearwood, whose "Trisha Yearwood" (MCA 10297) has all the sparkle of Linda Ronstadt's California country rock.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, ought to enjoy the honky tonk spirit of Kelly Willis' "Bang Bang" (MCA 10141), or Marty Brown's aptly titled "High and Dry" (MCA 10330), which sounds like a visit from Hank Sr.'s ghost. Alternately mournful and unrepentant, Brown's music kicks like a mule. Finally, those who prefer the tang of Tex-Mex music will be blown away by Texas Tornados, whose "Zone of Our Own" (Reprise 26683) makes excellent use of Freddie Fender's voice and Doug Sahm's guitar.

RAP

Giving the gift of rap can be tricky. True, Ice Cube's vituperative "Death Certificate" (Priority 57155) and N.W.A.'s ultra-violent "Elif4zaggin" (Priority 57126) may be among the most popular titles in the country. But are they appropriate Christmas present material? This is where the buyer should beware.

There is, of course, plenty of unobjectionable rap on the pop charts; Naughty by Nature's infectious "Naughty by Nature" (Tommy Boy 1044) and A Tribe Called Quest's idiosyncratic, intelligent "The Low End Theory" (Jive 1418) are two that spring to mind. But there's even more bubbling under the hit parade.

HTC Like what? Like the live-band groove of "Brothers" (Pendulum 61142), the intriguingly funky debut of Hen-Gee & Evil E. Or like Downtown Science, a New York duo whose jazzy samples and savvy rhymes make "Downtown Science" (Def Jam 47092) utterly addictive. You could try the more-than-knee-deep rhythms Del tha Funkee Homosapien employs on the De La Soul-ful "I Wish My Brother George Was Here" (Elektra 61133). And for something completely off the wall, it's hard to top E.S.P.'s freaky, funny "Valoompadoom Pink" (Select 61208).

But if only a gangsta groove will do, both 2nd II None's densely detailed "2nd II None" (Profile 1416) and Cypress Hill's Latin-edged "Cypress Hill" (Ruffhouse 47889) have musical merits that far outweigh their sex-and-violence posturing.

ALTERNATIVE ROCK

Shopping for an alternative rock fan can be a challenge, since formerly cool bands like R.E.M. can lose their elan as they become mainstream successes. As such, the only sure thing in this field is Nirvana's "Nevermind" (DGC 24425), a burst of post-punk melodic frenzy everybody seems to love.

Beyond that, it's all a matter of taste. Looking for intelligent guitar pop? Try Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians' intoxicatingly tuneful "Perspex Island" (A&M; 5368), or Matthew Sweet's edgy, heart-broken "Girlfriend" (Zoo 11015).

Want something a little noisier? Keep an eye peeled for Teenage Fanclub's gloriously grungy "Bandwagonesque" (DGC 24461), or the twitchy, intense "Gish" (Caroline 1705) by Smashing Pumpkins.

In the market for some dance music with attitude? There's plenty industrial-strength groove in Die Warzau's "Big Electric Metal Bass Face" (Atlantic 82295), while the Shamen's "En Tact" (Epic 48722) is pure techno-rave bliss.

And if all you want is a safe sampler, it's hard to beat "Never Mind the Mainstream" (Rhino 70545-46), a 32-song double length sampler from MTV's "120 Minutes." You can even get a version on video.

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