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.
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.
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.