Last-minute Christmas gifts for all tastes

Two days before Christmas and all through the shack...there was still no gift for Rhonda or your cousin, Jack ...

Well, maybe this will help: here's a rundown of some of the latest discs that might appeal to that hard-to-buy-for person at the end of your list. Shop on:

 

FOR THE AVID "FRIENDS WATCHER:

Mariah Carey - Rainbow Various Artists
Friends Again
(Reprise)


The hit series now has a second soundtrack collection available in Friends Again. While you probably won't recognize most of these from the show (music isn't really featured very prominently that often), the best track here, Loreta's bubblegum dance track "Trouble With Boys," was recently featured on the episode revolving around the advance taping of Dick Clark's "Rockin' New Year's Eve" special. The disc is filled with mainstream pop-rock tracks from Waltons, Duncan Sheik, Semisonic and Deckard and also features a medley of Phoebe's "Smelly Cat" song with The Pretenders. Smash Mouth leads it off with a cover of Mitch Easter's jangly "Every Word Means No," Robbie Williams clocks in with the chimey Pet Shop Boys song "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing" and Lisa Loeb offers a handclappin' anthem of "Summer." Green Day fans will need to pick this disc up to get the collaboration of Billie Joe Armstrong with fellow L.A. punk scene veteran Penelope Houston on the crunchy new song "Angel and the Jerk."

It's a solid bit of contemporary rock, but all but the staunchest of fans will want to program their CD player to skip the periodic interruptions by bits of "Friends" show dialogue.

 

FOR THE HARD ROCKERS:

Metallica - S&M Metallica
S&M
(Elektra)


Who could have imagined a decade ago that Metallica would play with a symphony? The antithesis of classic orchestral music, Metallica has spent its career making furious gut-punching rock. But, as it turns out, the grandiose power of that metallic attack actually does blend well with an orchestra. S&M is a two-CD set of 21 songs covering Metallica's career, recorded with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Included are versions of their best known radio songs, "Nothing Else Matters" and "Enter Sandman," as well as longtime fan favorites like "Master of Puppets," "The Call of the Ktulu" and "One."

 

Stone Temple Pilots
No. 4
(Atlantic)


Stone Temple Pilots would probably have a more solid career if they could keep lead singer Scott Weiland from going into jail or drug rehab every time they release an album. But that doesn't change the fact that No. 4 is a kick-in-the-head collection of fat, heavy riffs and head-banging hooks.

"Down" rides an early '70s Led Zeppelin/Fleetwood Mac guitar vibe, while "Heaven &Hot Rods" trods more in the power crunch rock arena of Cheap Trick and Enuff Z'Nuff.

But even the Pilots have to sit back and noodle with something quiet now and then, and "Sour Girl" lets Weiland stop growling for a bit to croon over a lightly throbbing guitar and bass line. The sweetly harmonic chorus of this one which also hearkens to a '70s pop vibe is one of the catchiest moments on this disc. Likewise, the laidback barroom country vibe of "I Got You" has a late '60s Rolling Stones appeal to it.

With its breadth of rock styles and depth of pop sensibility, this may be the best album of the Pilots' career.

 

FOR THE COUNTRY FAN:

Faith Hill - Breathe Faith Hill
Breathe
(Warner Bros.)


It's hard to go wrong with Faith Hill; this album shot to number one as soon as it was released, so your biggest concern is whether the country fan on your list already went out and bought it this past week.

Along with Shania Twain and Reba McIntyre, Hill has been one of the leaders of modernizing country in the eye of the public, merging rock and pop with the traditional country twang. It's a heady mix, and on Breathe, it's a mix that Hill gets just right. On the leadoff track, "What's In It For Me" she belts out an impossible to resist chorus that rests on sliding country guitars but pounding arena rock drums. With the sing-song bang-bang-bang attack of the next track "I Got My Baby," there's hardly any country influence apparent in the song the "country" comes through in Hill's voice and the attitude of her band. This is a straight-up celebratory pop anthem of love. And speaking of crossover, she even covers a song from Bruce Springsteen. But Hill hasn't walked away from country; she's taking the tired form with her to new places. The titletrack "Breathe" is a tender swaying ballad that's reminiscient of much of the powerful material on Marie Wilson's recent Real Life CD.

Staunch country fans will be excited to find "Let's Make Love" included as the centerpin to this disc it's a duet with Hill's country star husband Tim McGraw that's romantic and stirring.

Both country and pop fans will enjoy Hill's well-crafted Breathe.

 

FOR THE POP FAN:

Mariah Carey - Rainbow Mariah Carey
Rainbow
(Columbia)
½


The music on Mariah's latest disc sounds about as plastic and processed as she looks on its well-airbrushed cover photo. As on her last couple of hit singles, this album's "focus" track, "Heartbreaker" is based around a sample of someone else's song (in this case, Stacy Lattisaw's "Attack of the Name Game") and its rhythm track is reminiscient of the vibe of Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" which was the basis of Carey's "Fantasy" single from a few years ago. All this musical pirating would be OK if Carey was doing something truly innovative. But the "uh huh"s and other senseless dialogue that rapper Jay-Z throws into the background of "Heartbreaker" is just annoying, not innovative. And the song's rap reprise halfway through the disc is completely unnecessary. This is B-side material at best.

Many of the tracks on Rainbow seek to meld Carey's heavily layered whispery background vocals with rappers and the result is rarely successful fans don't buy Mariah's albums to hear guys stepping all over her vocals. (the background percussive rap yells that introduce "Did I Do That?"are particularly irritating). With this increasing attempt to "modernize" and "urbanize" Carey's sound, on many tracks, she comes across as a second rate Janet Jackson wannabe. "Bliss" is a throwaway ooh-baby track and "How Much" pairs her in a whispery mix with Usher. Probably the most successful of the "urban" oriented songs here comes in "X-Girlfriend," which has Mariah handle some near-rapping on her own.

But Carey is really at her best when the spotlight is on her solo voice, not on her accompanying production "crew" as on the gentle acoustic guitar ballad "After Tonight" (which has an interlude reminiscient of Toto's "99") and in the Whitney Houston-esque "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)" a hymn-like song of strength based around a piano and her vocal solos. She also gives a convincing performance on Phil Collins' always-moving "Against All Odds," which only suffers from a predictable lapse of restraint at its end when Carey launches into a twisting stream of vocal histrionics (you just knew she'd do some caterwauling on this emotional number!)

This is a mish-mosh album that is definitely not Carey's best work, but dedicated fans will no doubt accept it as a fine stocking stuffer.