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Music Lover's Holiday Gift Guide

Alternative stocking-stuffers to make you look cool



Whoever decided that 'tis the season to be jolly never had to contend with the annual challenge of thoughtful and creative gift-giving -- especially as it applies to "giving the gift of music." Buying that special someone on your list, say, a book almost always scores points. But it's hard to pull off the same sense of meaningfulness when it looks like you plunked down $18.99 at Blockbuster for the latest Shania Twain CD.

The trick is to subtly expand your recipients' horizons, based on your previous knowledge of their tastes and current circumstances. The more obscure you go, the more worldly and thoughtful you'll appear. Herewith, a few suggestions to get you started.

Melody in the U.K.
Any knowledgeable Brit-pop fan has long since snapped up Coldplay's lilting new- millennial lite-rock album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, and the next best thing -- a new Travis record -- is a long way away. Ditto any new Radiohead product. The Anglophile on your list may be curious about U.K. exports Starsailor (the new James), The Coral (nominated for the Mercury Music Prize) and The Music, to name a few. But the smart money is on Doves, whose The Last Broadcast mixes ambient atmospherics and swirling psychedelia with a sense of melody downloaded from vintage Tears for Fears.

Even better, Scotland's Idlewild has conquered Great Britain with its third album, The Remote Part, a stirringly melodic and rocking disc equal parts anthemic and poetic. Picture the bracing energy of classic Big Country crossed with the Waterboys' Fisherman's Blues-era love of verse and the populist arena-rock leanings of U2 (whose recent Best of 1990-2000 is a clunky misnomer). The best part? It's not yet available in the States. But a quick visit to Amazon U.K., and you'll appear mysteriously hip and connected.

Rap It Up, I'll Take It
This one's easy. Forgo Eminem for the aptly titled Fantastic Damage, from Def Jux wunderkind El-P. More hip-hop beyond the Nelly section: Blackalicious' Blazing Arrow, Jurassic 5's Power in Numbers and the hot-off-the-presses Phrenology from the Roots are either new enough to have escaped your loved one's radar or, in the case of Blackalicious, worth the slight risk that he/she already owns it.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do
The holidays are hard on the newly single, whose ranks seem to multiply this time of year. Your first instinct may be to reach for Beck's soulful, somber Sea Change. But while impressive, its heavy tone risks depressing your recently dumped friend even more. Luckily, Scottish supergroup The Reindeer Section, comprised of members of Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian and many other bands, crafts an engaging slice of Sunday morning melancholy on Son of Evil Reindeer. Informed by Gary Lightbody's soft-spoken Nick Drake sensibility, it's tailor-made for moping, though with just the right hopeful edge.Then there's former Come vocalist Thalia Zedek's You're a Big Girl Now EP, which showcases her idiosyncratic singing and lucid songwriting to fine effect. Her wistful, optimistic take on love's possibilities is affecting on the title-track, a cover of Dylan's broken-hearted classic.

Three Chords and the Truth
What to get the discerning fan of introspective singer/songwriter types? Don't even reach for that Ryan Adams CD. The former Whiskeytown savant and current Gap pitchman has bought into his own hype, in a big, unseemly way. Luckily, there's another Ryan on hand to pick up his slack. Gravel-throated Matthew Ryan's 1997 debut May Day earned him comparisons to Springsteen, Petty and Leonard Cohen for its balance of caustic grit and bruised, naked yearning. After two equally impressive follow-ups, he's still a well-kept secret, devoid of the major-label push afforded Adams.

Earlier this year, Ryan released Dissent From the Living Room, a collection of unreleased demos ranging from trenchant kiss-off sing-alongs to poignant, surly ballads and moody experiments swathed in minor-key melodies and loopy effects. It's a strong, brave work, suggestive of what might happen if, say, Josh Rouse overdosed on OK Computer and Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile.

Dissent is currently available only through Ryan's website, so buying it will make you seem all the more hip and resourceful. And isn't that what gift-giving is all about?

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