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.

December 17, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

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.

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