SHEILAH KAST, host:

The big music stocking stuffers across America this year will probably include your Bruce Springsteens, Kanye Wests and Mariah Careys, but our music director, Ned Wharton, has some CD gift suggestions from off the beaten path. Here's his annual gift guide for 2005.

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AMADOU AND MARIAM: (Singing in French)

NED WHARTON:

First, music from very far afield, Mali, to be exact. Amadou and Mariam met at a school for the blind in the 1970s. They've been a popular local act for years and recently burst onto the international stage with help from musician and producer Manu Chao. Their new CD, "Dimanche a Bamako," celebrates the open-air weddings on a typical Sunday in Mali.

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AMADOU AND MARIAM: (Singing in French)

WHARTON: Also on the world music stage, the Afro Celt Sound System has been melding global sounds into high-gloss dance music for over a decade. "Anatomic" is the fifth volume of Simon Emmerson and his group's exploration of Irish and African musical bonds.

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WHARTON: Singer-songwriter Imogen Heap has been sequestered in her West London home studio for years, combing over the intricate sound of her new CD, "Speak for Yourself."

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Ms. IMOGEN HEAP: (Singing) Skipping beats, flashing teeth, I am struggling.

WHARTON: Imogen Heap refinanced her mortgage and maxed her credit card to trick out her new studio and pulled out all the latest gadgets for her new CD. But there are some low-fi elements, too, including sounds from electronic toys, passing trains and carpet-packing tubes. She's recently come to the attention of American audiences with some music heard on "The O.C." TV series, including this cut called say "Goodnight and Go," which is also on the new album.

(Soundbite of "Goodnight and Go")

Ms. HEAP: (Singing) Why'd you have to be so cute? It's impossible to ignore you, unless you make me love so much. It started up, we get along so well. Say good night and go.

WHARTON: So how about some good, old-fashioned rock 'n' roll made in America? Well, Big Star is back with their first studio album in 30 years. The cult power-pop band was never quite a household name, but alternative rock bands from R.E.M. to The Replacements cite Big Star as an influence. The new CD, "In Space," features two new band members, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from the Posies, along with original players, drummer Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton, the man who wrote "The Letter" as a 16-year-old for The Box Tops in 1967. "Lady Sweet" from the new CD is an example of Big Star's updated power-pop sound.

(Soundbite of "Lady Sweet")

BIG STAR: (Singing) And I might as well be losing sleep for all the good it would do me, when the fear of feeling runs so deeply, truly. Lady sweet.

WHARTON: One of my favorite new indie groups comes from the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Nominated as best rock band for the LA Weekly Music Award, Silversun Pickups only whet our appetite for more with their debut disc. It's really just an EP, a handful of tunes on a disc called "Pikul"--that's P-I-K-U-L--a memorial tribute.

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SILVER SUN PICKUPS: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) armor, silver rain, silver rain.

WHARTON: If you like what you hear from Silver Sun Pickups, stay tuned. They're due for a full-length CD sometime next summer.

A couple of exciting instrumental releases this year should have gotten more attention. First this, from the fringes of jazz, the growly groove of the Hammond B-3 organ in the Benevento Russo Duo.

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WHARTON: Brooklynites Marco Benevento, who plays keyboards, and drummer Joe Russo were once a weekly fixture at New York's Knitting Factory. Their brand of urban jazz seems ready-made for the metropolis with song titles like the "Vortex" or "Scratchitti," inspired by graffiti scratched on subway windows. Their new CD is called "Best Reason to Buy the Sun." And if you're really smitten, you can even go online and download ring tones of their ditties, such as this one from the CD called "Becky."

(Soundbite of "Becky")

WHARTON: If this frenetic kind of jazz isn't quite the right sound for your music shopping list, ECM Records always has some titles to cleanse the palate. Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko has been touring and recording with a talented trio of young players who've been attracting attention as a band in their own right. Still under 30, the trio of pianist Marcin Wasilweski, double-bassman Slavomir Korkevitch and drummer Michael Miskiewicz once called themselves the Simple Acoustic Trio, but for this ECM debut they go by their own names for a CD called "Trio." As cold weather and the holidays arrive, this music is the perfect wintry backdrop to gently falling snow and hot cider by the fireplace.

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WHARTON: This time of year, as carolers tune up, vocal music rings out. The San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble has always sought out a unique repertoire, covering Middle Eastern, European and pre-Columbian music. Their latest release, "La Noche Buena," is a collection of Christmas music of colonial Latin America.

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SAN ANTONIO VOCAL ARTS ENSEMBLE: (Singing in Spanish)

(Soundbite of fiddle)

WHARTON: The holidays are a time to remember the neediest. On December 6th, Nonesuch Records will release "Our New Orleans," a benefit album of newly recorded songs by New Orleans musicians. Proceeds from "Our New Orleans" will help the Gulf Coast rebuild through donations to Habitat for Humanity.

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WHARTON: Artists mobilized quickly for this project, recording over the course of only a month, but the collection is thoughtful and first-rate, with performances from everyone from Dr. John to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Beausoleil. The CD ends with an iconic tune, Randy Newman's "1927."

(Soundbite of "1927")

Mr. RANDY NEWMAN: (Singing) It's easy. It's easy. It's time to wash us away. It's time to wash us away. It's time to wash us away. They're trying to wash us away.

KAST: Ned Wharton's director's cuts, including full audio selections, can be found on our Web site at npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Sheilah Kast.

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