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

November 27, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

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.

"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?

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.

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.

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).

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