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IN a SPIN Music: Too much of a good thing in stores makes giving CDs to tough-to-buy-for folks sound better than ever.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's easy to buy CDs for some people. They like the big hits, don't often go to the music store, and aren't likely to have the latest release by their favorite artist. So shopping for them is easy -- just pick up the new album by Bush (or Reba McEntire, or Kenny G, or Toni Braxton or Rod Stewart) and you're done.

Other people aren't so easy. You know they love music, but you also know they're among the first in line when a new album by one of their favorites comes out. So as much as you'd like to give the gift of music, you're really not sure what to buy.

Boy, are you in luck.

With so many albums being released these days, it's almost inevitable some of the good stuff will be ignored by the public at large. While that's a drag for the record industry, it's a godsend for those who have hard-to-buy-for music fans on their Christmas list, because it means you still have a shot at finding something they'll like and don't have.

A good place to start is with general interest albums whose sales have not been as high as the praise heaped upon them. Take, for example, the Norma Waterson album "Norma Waterson" (Hannibal 13932). Waterson is not the likeliest candidate for pop stardom, but her album nearly beat Pulp out of winning Britain's Mercury Prize (an album equivalent of the Booker Prize).

A veteran of the English folk scene, the 57-year-old grandmother has a magical voice; supple, resonant and comfortably worn, she fills these songs with the sort of authority associated with a Muddy Waters or Billie Holiday (though with a thoroughly English sound). Add instrumental work by Richard Thompson and Martin Carthy, plus songs by Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello and Jerry Garcia, and "Norma Waterson" harks back to the glory days of Fairport Convention or Bob Dylan with the Band.

There's a similar rock-and-roll edge to the new Johnny Cash release, "Unchained" (American 43097), a rock-oriented album that applies his familiar rumble to songs ranging from the Carter Family's "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" to a version of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage." Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers give the arrangements a tough, rockabilly-tinged country-rock feel.

Maxwell is no stranger to R&B; fans, but so far his "Urban Hang Suite" (Columbia 66434) has yet to have much impact. Too bad. Supported by lush, '70s-style production (mostly by Sade's Stuart Matthewman), Maxwell does for R&B; what Lenny Kravitz did for rock -- that is, manages to sound retro while feeling utterly up-to-date. Anyone who loved the old Stevie Wonder should warm up to this.

Because the Cardigans come on with a sound that's soft, smooth and tuneful, "First Band on the Moon" (Mercury 314 533 117) makes a perfect choice for those who like their listening both easy and hip. But thanks to the band's wickedly deadpan sense of humor, the songs -- which include a hysterical rendition of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" -- have enough artfully concealed edge to please any pop culture smart alec.

Banjo virtuosi are rarely household names, so don't be surprised if those on your gift list aren't familiar with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. But the music on "Live Art" (Warner Bros. 46247) is broad enough to appeal to everyone from jazz fans to jam band addicts. It helps, of course, that Fleck and his 'Tones are joined by guests ranging from Chick Corea to Bruce Hornsby to Sam Bush, but the writing is as strong as the playing, meaning that even pop fans won't feel lost in the solos.

Even though it's almost a year old, the soundtrack album from "Get Shorty" (Verve 314 529 310) is still being discovered by pop fans. For good reason. Drawing from sources as varied as Booker T. & the MGs, Us3 and Morphine, the music is a near-perfect blend of hip and cheesy, jazz and soul.

Shopping for someone whose tastes are pretty specific? Fear not. Here are more album suggestions arranged by genre.

R&B;

What do you do if your diva-loving friends already have the new releases by Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton? Why, introduce them to Ambersunshower, of course. Don't be put off by the run-on name; what Ambersunshower deals in is sultry soul with a strong undercurrent of jazz, and the songs on "Walter T. Smith" (Gee Street 314 524 200) are as haunting and atmospheric as anything on Soul II Soul's first album.

Sade fans needn't wait until she records again, as her band's core delivers the next-best-thing with the moody (and mostly instrumental) Sweetback album "Sweetback" (Epic 67492). And if you ever wondered what Prince would sound like if he had a serious Stevie Wonder fixation, the answer can be heard on the Eric Benet album "True to Myself" (Warner Bros. 46270). Maxwell and Tony Rich fans will be completely blown away.

Alternative

One day this will be a trivia question: Name the band fronted by the guy who wrote the song for "The Thing That You Do." Answer: Fountains of Wayne. As might be expected, the songs on "Fountain of Wayne" (Tag/Atlantic 92725) are addictively catchy, but with enough rough edges to never seem slick. A great choice for Gin Blossoms or Dishwalla fans.

Actual country rock may not be especially hip, but the raw-boned Americana version certainly is, and if Wilco is the genre's Rolling Stones, "Being There" (Reprise 46235) is its "Exile on Mainstreet." It's a little more country than some alternarockers may like, but anyone into Paul Westerberg or Chris Isaak should have no problem. For hardcore hipsters, though, try Butter 08, whose members hail from Cibo Matto and the John Spencer Blues Explosion. No wonder "Butter" (Grand Royal GR029) is such a boundary-busting blend of rock, hip-hop and warped blues.

Country

Alison Krauss is a huge fan of the Cox Family, and there's no reason Krauss fans shouldn't be Cox fans as well. "Just When We're Thinking It's Over" (Asylum 61809) is a masterful mix of high bluegrass harmonies, neo-traditional songwriting and tastefully understated playing. Speaking of understated, few bands grasp how less-is-more translates to music as well as the Texas Tornados. "Four Aces" (Reprise 46197) finds the quartet playing Tex-Mex and country with breathtaking ease and irresistible charm.

Yo-Yo Ma may not be the sort of name you'll find playing a week in Branson, but that doesn't mean he can't play country. In fact, he may be the best hillbilly cellist you'll ever hear. Most stores will probably file "Appalachia Waltz" (Sony Classical 68460) with the classical albums, but don't be fooled -- with Mark O'Connor's fiddle and Edgar Meyer's bass rounding out the sound, this is just long-hair bluegrass.

Jazz

Are there any jazz fans who don't adore the aural opulence and lyric improvisations found on Miles Davis' collaborations with arranger Gil Evans on "Sketches of Spain" and "Porgy and Bess"? Probably not -- which is why there is hardly a jazz fan alive who wouldn't love a copy of "The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings" (Columbia 2 67397, six CDs). A beautifully packaged, awesomely annotated set, it offers not only all the music from the original albums, but alternate takes and a whole CD of rehearsals, as well.

Those seeking something smaller in scale may want to opt for the Ellis & Branford Marsalis duet album, "Loved Ones" (Columbia 67396). A delightfully intimate set featuring piano and saxophone, it's the perfect jazz title for cold winter nights.

Should the jazz fan on your list prefer something more electric, try "Temporal Analogues of Paradise" (Day Eight 00362), a firebreathing fusion album by bass virtuoso Jonas Hellborg, who sounds like John McLaughlin, but two octaves lower.

Guitar

Look at the music section of your local magazine rack, and you'll see that readers come in essentially two flavors: pop fans and DTC guitar players. Should the one on your list have a fairly adventurous frame of mind, consider Vernon Reid's "Mistaken Identity" (550 Music 67396), which bounces from metal to hip-hop to jazz and back in an astonishing display of musical imagination and technical finesse.

Blues guitar buffs should warm up to the down-home sound of "Million Mile Club" (4AD 46367) by the Paladins, a live recording with so much presence you can almost smell the stale beer. But if the guitarhead you're shopping for prefers Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen to Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, there's only one option: "Heavy Machinery" (Heptagon 011), a collaboration between former Malmsteen sidemen Anders Johansson and Jens Johansson and guitar god Allan Holdsworth. A jaw-droppingly intense set.

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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