Giving the gift of music is easy -- provided you know what to give. And most of the time, knowing is as easy as keeping track of which artists those on your list most like hearing.
But not always. A new album would be just the thing for that receptionist who adores Mariah Carey -- except that he already owns both of her albums, plus the "MTV Unplugged EP." Or say you want to buy something for your lawyer the music fan, but all you know about her taste is that she has every album Frank Sinatra ever made. And what do you do about cousin Chris, who loves Anita Baker and feels frustrated because there's no new Anita album to buy this year?
How do you shop for such people?
Easy: You simply start with what you know, and extrapolate. Take the Carey fan, for example. If he already has all of her albums, why not try the Trey Lorenz album, "Trey Lorenz" (Epic 47840). His name may not ring a bell, but it was he who took the Jermaine Jackson part in Carey's remake of the Jackson Five's "I'll Be There." And Carey returns the favor by producing his sparkling, soulful debut.
Likewise, if your lawyer loves the swinging sound of Sinatra, she'd undoubtedly enjoy Tony Bennett's "Perfectly Frank" (Columbia 52965). A heartfelt tribute by one of Sinatra's own favorite singers, this album -- devoted to "the torch and saloon songs of Frank Sinatra" -- would be a welcome addition to any Sinatra-lover's collection.
As for Chris the Anita Baker-booster, Miki Howard's "Femme Fatale" (Giant 24452) could be just the ticket. Howard's sultry, jazz-inflected phrasing is remarkably similar to Baker's, but her taste in material is a good bit broader, ranging from Billie Holiday's "Good Morning Heartache" to Sly Stone's "Thank You for Talkin' to Me Africa."
But what if you can't come up with an ideal alternative on your own? No problem. What follows is a range of suggestions, listed by style, designed to help the holiday shopper who hasn't spent the last year listening to four or five new albums every day.
Thanks to Bill Clinton's embrace of "Don't Stop," Fleetwood Mac seems hipper than it has in years. If you were feeling especially generous, you could spring for "The Chain" (Warner Bros. 45129), the new, four-CD boxed set from Fleetwood Mac. Or you could give your Mac addict something just as delightful: F.M. alum Lindsey Buckingham's "Out of the Cradle" (Reprise 26182), an exquisitely tuneful album that's as ear-grabbing as anything on "The Chain."
Sometimes, it's easy to make a match between an old favorite and a new discovery. Fans of the Georgia Satellites, for example, ought to adore the witty wordplay and roots-rock punch of Dan Baird's "Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired" (Def American 26999) -- no surprise, considering that Baird used to be a Satellite himself. And there are moments on Paul Brady's lustrous "Songs & Crazy Dreams" (Fontana 512397) where you'd swear you were listening to some half-forgotten Dire Straits album.
Other artists, though, are so singular in their sound that it makes more sense to find a performer whose music has a similar feel. For instance, anyone who enjoys the quiet, confessional approach of early Joni Mitchell will be pleasantly surprised by the Tori Amos album "Little Earthquakes" (Atlantic 82358). And any listener who remembers the edgy excitement of the Pretenders' first album is probably ripe for P.J. Harvey's "Dry" (Indigo 162-555-001), an angular, eccentric, utterly entrancing blend of guitar aggression and melodic invention.
Is there a Rolling Stones devotee on your list? Then look for Ronnie Wood's "Slide On This" (Continuum 19210), which finds the guitarist working with fellow Stone Charlie Watts and former Faces pianist Ian McLagan, as well as Def Leppard's Joe Elliott and U2's the Edge. Should something a little bluesier be in order, the Red Devils' debut, "King King" (Def American 26795), is as rough-edged and raw as any early Butterfield Blues Band LP, while Robben Ford's "Robben Ford & the Blue Line" (Stretch 1102) is the next best thing to a new Stevie Ray Vaughan album.
What if you're shopping for a fan of the Seattle sound? No problem. Pearl Jam fans, for instance, should go ga-ga for the churning guitars and tuneful vocals on "Sweet Oblivion" (Epic 48996) by Screaming Trees. Those bowled over by Nirvana's re-invention of punk rock will be similarly thrilled by Sugar's "Copper Blue" (Ryko 10239), an album that's loud, catchy and dangerously addictive.
Metal maniacs tend to be the most loyal of all rock and rollers, so finding something for them can be particularly intimidating. Don't worry, though. Any Guns N' Roses fan will find something to like about former Gunner Izzy Stradlin's gritty debut, "Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds" (Geffen 24490). And if you know someone who likes Metallica, there's a good chance that they'll be similarly entranced by the sound of Biohazard, whose "Urban Discipline" (Roadrunner 9112) is one of the freshest-sounding thrash albums in ages.
Red Hot Chili Pepper fans might be willing to settle for the band's not-quite-the-best-of collection "What Hits!?" (EMI 94762), but why not open their ears a little with "Rage Against the Machine" (Epic 52959) by Rage Against the Machine, whose funk metal fusion is even more intensely propulsive than the Chili Peppers'? One sure cure for Cure withdrawal would be a copy of "Are You Normal?" (Chaos 53154) by Ned's Atomic Dustbin. And if there are Helmet fans in the house, maybe you should serve some Milk -- specifically, Milk's raucous, guitar-crazed "Tantrum" Link 61380).
R&B;, rap and dance music
Considering how popular the satiny-smooth sound of Sade is at the moment, you might be looking for an album to compliment that group's latest. If so, seek out Ephraim Lewis' sensuous, soulful and sophisticated debut, "Skin" (Elektra 61318). Though it would be hard to find another singer with as much sonic sizzle as Vanessa Williams, Chante Moore shows that she can come pretty close with "Precious" (MCA 10605).
Let's face it -- nobody in the world sounds, writes or plays like Stevie Wonder. But if you know someone willing to settle for a close approximation, then Chuckii Booker's "Niice 'n Wild" (Atlantic 82410) is the album to give. Likewise, P-Funk freaks will find plenty of familiar grooves on Slapbak's insinuatingly insane "Fast Food Funkateers" (Reprise 45028). And what Temptations fan could resist the retro-soul sound of "Duophonic" (Capitol 97150) by Charles & Eddie?
If you don't usually listen to rap yourself, you might think it all sounds the same -- but rapaholics know better. So if you're shopping for one, it helps to have an idea of what kind of rap they like best. For instance, fans of fiercely political groups like Public Enemy are sure to enjoy the take-no-prisoners sound of Paris' "Sleeping With the Enemy" (Scarface 10100). Those who prefer the street-savvy sound of EPMD, on the other hand, will love Redman's "Whut? Thee Album" (RAL Chaos 52967). Dancehall devotees who usually groove to Shabba Ranks will be just as happy with "Hard to Wet, Easy to Dry" (Columbia 52751) by Mad Cobra. And if the eclectic, idiosyncratic sound of De La Soul is more to their liking, go for Basehead's quirky, imaginative "Play with Toys" (21010).
Shopping for someone who likes the Detroit techno sound of Inner City? Then be sure to seek out a copy of the Reese Project's thumpingly infectious "Faith Hope and Charity" (Giant 24460). Or if the synth-heavy sound of C+C Music Factory is more their scene, why not try the Shamen's trance-inducing "Boss Drum" (Epic 52925)?
Country, bluegrass and folk
As massively popular as Garth Brooks has been over the last couple years, it sometimes seems as if every country fan in the country owns at least one of his albums. So where do you look for an alternative? Well, how about Collin Raye? His second album, "In This Life" (Epic 48983) is almost as perfect a blend of pop smarts and country heart as Brooks' best.
A lot of country fans listen to Mary-Chapin Carpenter these days, but Carpenter listens to Lucinda Williams, and Williams' latest, "Sweet Old World" (Chameleon 61351), is sure to please any fan of Carpenter's story-songs. And those who like the inspired abandon of Travis Tritt but want something with a little more roots no doubt will love Marty Stuart's latest, "This One's Gonna Hurt You" (MCA 10596) -- and not just because Tritt sits in on one tune.
Looking for the next Willie Nelson? If so, maybe you ought to lend an ear to Guy Clark. One of Nashville's most respected and distinguished songwriters, he gets back to Texas roots on the gloriously unassuming "Boats to Build" (Asylum/American Explorer 61442). Know someone who loves the bluegrass side of Emmylou Harris? Then be sure to slip them a copy of "Every Time You Say Goodbye" (Rounder 0285), the latest effort from Alison Krauss & Union Station. And if you have someone on your list who still adores what the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," why not offer them the Irish equivalent: The Chieftains' star-studded Nashville album, "Another Country" (RCA 09025-60969).
If one of your friends' devotion to the Indigo Girls keeps them from feeling blue, odds are they'll also enjoy Shawn Colvin's perky "Fat City" (Columbia 47122). And if you have a friend who's addicted to the Celtic folk rock of Richard Thompson, be sure to administer a dose of Luka Bloom, whose "Acoustic Motorbike" (Reprise 26670) is resonantly Irish and irresistibly tuneful.
Jazz and worldbeat
Know someone who's nuts for Nancy Wilson? If so, then Nnenna Freelon's sultry, standard-filled "Nnenna Freelon" (Columbia 48981) is certain to please. Likewise, anyone who adored the sound of Billie Holiday will be more than interested to hear Abbey Lincoln pay tribute with "Abbey Sings Billie, Vol. 2" (Enja 7037).
Though his name may have you thinking of his late father, pianist Thelonious Monk, the sound T.S. Monk pursues on "Take One" (Blue Note 99614) is more along the lines of Art Blakey's great Jazz Messengers. Pat Metheny fans will likely find a lot to admire in the sound of John Scofield's "Grace Under Pressure" (Blue Note 98167). And it would be hard to imagine any Clifford Brown aficionado who wouldn't be nuts for Arturo Sandoval's "I Remember Clifford" (GRP 9668).
If buying another reggae album seems too obvious for the Bob Marley fan on your shopping list, why not broaden their listening with Boukman Eksperyans, the Haitian sensation whose "Kalfou Danjere" (Mango 162-539-927) is as Afrocentric and anthemic as Marley's best. Or perhaps Milton Nascimento is a favorite with one of your friends -- why not surprise them with the intoxicatingly tuneful "Parabolic" (Tropical Storm 76292) by fellow Brazilian Gilbertoz Gil? And should you know someone who rhapsodizes over the sound of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, perhaps you should turn them on to the moody, medieval sound of Arvo Part's "Miserere" (ECM 1430).
They'll be glad you did.