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The Gift of Music A guide to the season's hot titles

Has this ever happened to you? It's Christmas, and you're back in Kenosha with your kith and kin for the annual holiday gathering. Like a lot of families, yours has a gift lottery in November. Everyone's name goes into a hat, and the one you drew was your snotty college-age nephew, Kirk. "Oh, that should be easy," said your sister (his mom). "Just buy him some music. Kirk always has that stereo of his going."

So you go to the local CD store, and grab the new Eric Clapton album, "From the Cradle," figuring that since all your friends like it, Kirk will, too. But when Kirk finally stops fiddling with his nose ring and opens the present, he seems somewhat less than enthusiastic about your choice.

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"Eric Clapton?" he says, incredulously. "Isn't he, like, dead?"

Don't feel bad. Keeping up with who listens to what is almost a full-time job these days. It's hard enough remembering whether it was Green Jelly or Green Day that your 11-year-old daughter likes; do you really want to deal with distinguishing between alternative and industrial, or hard-core and horror-core?

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Not to worry. What follows is a basic guide to this season's hottest titles, broken down by category so you can figure out which to give Aunt Kathryn the blues buff, and what your country-loving cousin Sid might enjoy.

Before you head out to the stores, though, here are three things to remember:

First, know your format. If Grandpa Joe doesn't have a CD player yet, he's going to have a tough time listening to that jazz disc you bought him.

Second, save your receipts, in case somebody else had the same great idea you did.

Third, if you're shopping for someone out of town, shopping at a national chain such as Camelot, Tower or Sam Goody's can make exchanges a whole lot easier for the people on your list.

Rock and roll

It used to be that "rock and roll" meant anything that wasn't country, R&B;, show tunes or classical. Not anymore, though. Fans these days are often painfully specific about the kind of rock they prefer, be it thrash, alternative, progressive, metal or punk.

Even so, there are still people who just want plain, old-fashioned rock and roll -- and plenty of new music meets that description. Two titles top the list: First, Tom Petty's "Wildflowers" (Warner Bros. 45759) ranks among the singer's best work to date and is a perfect choice for folks who like their rock simple, smart and tuneful.

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Those looking for something a little more classic will be happy to hear that a new album from the Beatles is on the way. "Live at the BBC" (Capitol, 31796, due out Dec. 6) is a double-CD set featuring 56 previously unreleased performances by the Fab Four, as well as typically wry between-songs banter.

Somewhat less revelatory but a good gift nonetheless is the current Rolling Stones album, "Voodoo Lounge" (Virgin 39782). "From the Cradle" (Reprise 45735), a tribute to classic blues from Eric Clapton, ought to go over well with blues and guitar fans, but probably isn't a good choice for listeners whose only other Clapton album is the pop-oriented "Unplugged."

Likewise, although Neil Young's "Sleeps With Angels" (Reprise 45749) has earned reams of praise from the rock press, its occasionally abrasive sound may not go over with those who prefer the softer sound of "Harvest" or "Harvest Moon."

But almost any Led Zeppelin fan will find something to like about the Jimmy Page and Robert Plant album "No Quarter" (Atlantic 82706), which brings in everything from Egyptian drummers to a hurdy-gurdy player to remake classic Zeppelin songs.

(Oh, and if you're afraid the Zep fan on your list already has the album, you can always opt for the video version, "No Quarter/Unledded.")

Finally, the Elvis Presley fans on your list will be pleasantly surprised by the double-disc collection "Amazing Grace: His Greatest Sacred Performances" (RCA 66421). Not only are the ** performances often as soulful as his secular stuff, but the set concludes with some wonderfully offhand (and previously unreleased) performances with J. D. Sumner and the Stamps.

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Alternative rock

Buying for alternative music fans isn't just a matter of knowing which acts are the hottest. What you need is a sense of how hip your gift-recipient happens to be.

If he or she owns only a handful of albums and spends hours at a time without headphones or MTV, stick with the big names. The biggest by far is Pearl Jam, whose much-awaited third album, "Vitalogy" (Epic 66900), comes out on CD and cassette Dec. 6. (The LP version is in stores now, but it may be hard to find.)

Or consider R.E.M. and its raucous new album, "Monster" (Warner Bros. 45740). Regular MTV viewers will probably enjoy Nirvana's "Unplugged in New York" (Geffen 47272), as well as "No Need to Argue" (Island 314 524 050), the pop-savvy second album from the Cranberries. Should those on your list be of the young-and-rambunctious variety, try either Green Day's power-punk hit "Dookie" (Reprise 45529) or Offspring's loud and sarcastic "Smash" (Epitaph 86432).

Moving up the hipness scale, there's "Whip Smart" (Matador/Atlantic 92429), the tuneful, intelligent second album from college-rock icon Liz Phair; "American Thighs" (Minty Fresh/Geffen 47322), by rookies of the year Veruca Salt; and the quirky, engagingly nerdy "Weezer" (DGC 46292) by Weezer.

But if you're trying to impress the kind of listener who thinks Spin is too mainstream, there's always Guided by Voices, whose intentionally lo-fi "Bee Thousand" (Scat/Matador 35) is all the rage among alternarock hipsters, and "If I Were a Carpenter" (A&M; 314 540 258), in which songs by the Carpenters are deconstructed by the likes of Sonic Youth and Shonen Knife.

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Rhythm and blues

Like rock and roll, R&B; has gone through something of a generational shift in the last decade, with some acts playing mostly to younger listeners, while others play to a more mature crowd.

On the youth tip, the big news at the moment is Boyz II Men, whose second album, "II" (Motown 314 539 323), is one of the hottest sellers on the charts today -- and deservedly so, given its strong songs and impassioned singing. But TLC ought to be close behind, thanks to the sultry, soulful "CrazySexyCool" (LaFace 26009). And there's every reason to expect that the new Mary J. Blige album, "My Life" (MCA 11156, in stores Tuesday), will be the R&B; hit of '95.

Older listeners will probably be happier with more familiar

names. Barry White may be a good place to start; his "The Icon Is Love" (A&M; 314 450 115) may be programmed for contemporary rhythms, but it delivers the same, suave romanticism as his older albums. There's an equally familiar cast to Anita Baker's "Rhythm of Love" (Elektra 61555), which comes close to recapturing the sultry mood of "Rapture," while just around the corner is Vanessa Williams and "The Sweetest Days" Wing, due out Dec. 6), which adds a jazzy confidence to her already impressive sound.

Rap

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It's hard for non-fans to know where to turn when it comes to buying rap albums, particularly given all those "Parental Advisory/Explicit Lyrics" stickers. But unless the intended recipient (or the recipient's family) is genuinely shocked by swearing, most of what turns up on stickered albums is no worse than the language heard in many R-rated films. So the big question is, are you buying for someone for whom rap is just one part of their listening, or someone who doesn't believe there's any other music but rap?

If the former is the case, you're best off with material like Warren G's amazing "Regulate . . . G Funk Era" (Violator 314 523 335), or the witty, ambitious "It Takes a Thief" (Tommy Boy 1083) by Coolio. Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Murder Was the Case: The Soundtrack" (Death Row 92484) is also a good choice, though if the rap fan on your list already has the album, you may want to wait for the home video version of the film to come out.

Should you want something more hardcore, there's always "The Diary" (Rap-a-Lot 39946) from Geto Boy Scarface or the harmony-sweetened "Creepin' on Ah Come Up" (Ruthless 5526) by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. If you're buying for someone who likes both Ice Cube and P-Funk, then by all means try Paris' "Guerrilla Funk" (Priority 53882).

Country

Even though the talk of country music taking over the pop charts proved to be mostly hype, the fact remains that the boundaries between country and rock are fuzzier than at any time since Elvis hit the scene. When the Eagles released their last album, they were playing mostly to rock fans; now, "Hell Freezes Over" (Geffen 24725), the band's reunion album, may be bigger in Nashville than in Los Angeles.

So if you're buying for country fans, it helps to know how traditional their taste is. If they like to boogie a lot, opt for the party-hearty sound of the Tractors and "The Tractors" (Arista 18728); if they'd prefer a mixture of upbeat tunes and ballads, look for the Brooks & Dunn album "Waitin' on Sundown" (Arista 18765). But if they'd as soon sit and listen as dance, you can't go wrong with "Stones in the Road" (Columbia 64327) by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

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More traditional listeners would probably be happier with "Simpatico" (Liberty 29606), a lovely, low-key collaboration between singer Suzy Bogguss and picker Chet Atkins. And if there's a George Jones fan on your list, you're really in luck. In addition to the star-studded duets on "The Bradley Barn Sessions" (MCA 11096), there are two boxed sets to choose from: "Cup of Loneliness" (Mercury 314 522 635), which focuses on his '50s recordings, and "The Spirit of Country" (Columbia 52451), which covers the '60s and '70s.

Pop

Sheryl Crow may herself be hip enough for the youngsters at MTV, but the songs on her album "Tuesday Night Music Club" (A&M; 314 540 126) are tuneful and accessible enough for anybody. Likewise, though Madonna is usually thought of as being on the cutting edge culturally, most of the music on "Bedtime Stories" (Maverick 45767) is as pop-oriented as her early albums.

Pop fans who went through high school in the '70s will have a natural affinity for "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me" (Epic 66205), a collection of vintage cover tunes by Gloria Estefan. In a similar vein, though not quite so '70s-centered, is Shawn Colvin's "Cover Girl" (Columbia 57875), a perfect selection for pop fans who complain that they just don't write 'em like that any more.

Jazz

Buying for jazz fans has never been easier than it is today. Not only are classic recordings being reissued by the armload, but there also are plenty of young stars whose appeal roughly corresponds with that of many established greats.

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For example, if you know someone who loves Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaborations such as "Porgy and Bess" or "Sketches of Spain," odds are he or she will be just as impressed with "Misterios" (Warner Bros. 45641) by trumpeter Wallace Roney. If the person you're buying for adores the hard-edged individualism of Sonny Rollins, he or she should like what Joshua Redman does on "MoodSwing" (Warner Bros. 45643). And if you can imagine a cross between pianists Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, you'll understand why Cyrus Chestnut had the critics raving over "Revelation" (Atlantic 82518).

Or you could opt for an album that spans generations, like Tony Bennett's "MTV Unplugged" (Columbia 66214), which features cameos by Elvis Costello and k.d. lang.

New Age and Worldbeat

Know somebody who was knocked out by "Chant"? If so, then here are two gift ideas to consider:

First is "Officium" (ECM 1525), which brings saxophonist Jan Garbarek together with the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble for performances that combine the austere beauty of early church music with the blithe lyricism of jazz.

Then there's "Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen" (Angel 55246), a contemporary re-setting of the medieval abbess' hymns that recalls the sound of Enigma or Clannad. Loreena McKennitt's "The Mask and Mirror" (Warner Bros. 45420) offers a dreamy blend of Celtic melody and Moorish rhythm that ought to go over well with Enya fans, while "Talking Timbuktu" (Hannibal 13812) by Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder is perfect for both blues fans and African music aficionados.


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