A few decades ago, guessing the type of music a person liked was a simple game. Teen-agers swore allegiance to the Top 40, while their parents preferred the big bands; farmers loved country music, and big-city sophisticates sought the sounds of jazz.
Giving someone an album for the holidays was simpler then.
Now, anything goes. In some households, it's mom who follows the Top 40, while the kids tune in to classic rock; there are brokers whose BMWs cruise to a country beat, and farmers who groove on Guns N' Roses. So how do you figure out a friend's pop preferences?
Well, you can ask. Or sneak a peek at the albums he or she already owns. Or note what station the radio is tuned to. Because once you know what goes into someone's personal hit-parade, what follows should steer you straight to the ideal musical gift.
Choosing an album for someone who enjoys mainstream pop (what used to be called the Top 40) ought to be easy - simply check the charts, and buy whatever's on top. But that can be tricky, because many best-selling albums actually appeal to specialized tastes. So it's best to be careful.
At the moment, the two most popular albums in America are rap records: "To the Extreme" (SBK 95325) by Vanilla Ice, and M.C. Hammer's "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em" (Capitol 92857). Given the extreme antipathy older baby-boomers feel toward rap, even relatively tame albums like these can fall on deaf ears (though younger listeners will likely love them).
A far better choice for your 30-ish friends would be Phil Collins' sizzling new "Serious Hits ... Live!" (Atlantic 82157), which also comes in a slightly longer video version. Or Steve Winwood's jazzy "Refugees of the Heart" (Virgin 91405). But be warned that Paul Simon's "The Rhythm of the Saints" (Warner Bros. 26098) is not an exotic pop treat like "Graceland," but a dense, difficult album.
For something a bit more rock and roll, there's "X" (Atlantic 82151), the irresistible new album from INXS. But rock doesn't dominate the pop charts anymore; dance music does. That's one reason Madonna - whose hits have been lovingly compiled in "The Immaculate Collection" (Sire 26440) - is so popular, and why Whitney Houston's "I'm Your Baby Tonight" (Arista 18616) tries so hard to be funky. Houston's album is a bit disappointing, though; a far better bet would be "Mariah Carey" (Columbia 45202), a young singer/songwriter's stunningly soulful debut, or even Debbie Gibson's perky, ambitious "Anything Is Possible" (Atlantic 82167).
Of course, given the way dance music has quietly taken over the nation's pop charts (not to mention its aerobics classes), you might want to start there instead. After all, Deee-Lite's tuneful, infectious "World Clique" (Elektra 60957) has as much pop appeal as anything on the Top 40, and the same can be said for the Pet Shop Boys' insinuating, introspective "Behavior" (EMI94310).
Dance pop covers a lot of ground these days, though. It can be song-centered and accessible, like Cathy Dennis' "Move to This" (Polydor 847 276), or street-savvy and inventive, like Information Society's irresistible "Hack" (Tommy Boy 26258). Some dance music even borders on new wave. For instance, there is the Cure's "Mixed Up" (Elektra 60978), which retrofits favorite singles with house-style beats. Or "Tom's Diner," the dance duo DNA's rethink of a Suzanne Vega oldie; look for it, along with other house hits, on a collection called "Jam Harder" (A&M 75021 5229).
Looking for something a little more soulful? Then how about Caron Wheeler and "UK Blak" (EMI 93497), an album sure to go over big with Soul II Soul fans. Also shaping up as smash hits are Guy's hard-and-funky "The Future" (MCA 10115), and the smooth-and-sexy "Private Times ... And the Whole Nine!" (Warner Bros. 26005) by Al B. Sure!
R&B isn't just for dancing, of course; some folks prefer a more romantic sound. Try the jazzy sophistication of "3 Deep" (Columbia 46772) by Surface, or Freddie Jackson's crooningly seductive "Do Me Again" (Capitol 92217).
Even though rap is the music industry's fastest-growing market,it remains mysterious, even off-putting to non-fans. Part of the problem is the speed with which new groups appear on the scene, but the bad image of groups like 2 Live Crew and the Geto Boys has made many parents and older pop fans wary of the style.
Not to worry. Rap records are routinely labeled for lyric content, and the majority - even those that use occasionally harsh language - take a positive perspective. Thus, though there's a lot to be said for the hard-core, gangster rap of Ice Cube's bracing "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" (Priority 57120), some gift-givers might be more comfortable with Boogie Down Productions' uplifting and informative (and no less fiery) "Edutainment" (Jive 1358). Or even mere entertainment, as offered by Candyman's cheerfully upbeat "Ain't No Shame In My Game" (Columbia 46947).