Best music gifts, best CD gifts, box sets, Guns 'n Roses, Chinese Democracy, Bob Dylan, Lep Zeppelin
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We must give the music industry credit: just when it appears that they have completely run out of ways to spin their back catalogs into gold for the umpteenth time, they find a way. (They're nothing if not survivalists, those guys.) Along with the tried-and-true method of simply giving people something no one else has yet given them (Philly soul, holla!), one label got particularly inventive and celebrated the splendor that is/was the album cover. Oh, and we're going to prison again, hopefully for the last time.
Yes, the beautifully packaged, super deluxe three-CD plus two hard-cover book "deluxe edition" of this Dylan set sports a $120-ish price tag, but here's the thing: we've walked into artsy bookstores and thumbed through books that were on par with the two included in this set, and as far as we can tell, it's only overpriced by about $15. The two books (one of which contains 160 pages of reprints of Bob Dylan single sleeves from around the world) are worth more than the CDs, and the CDs are worth a lot themselves. If you love latter-day Dylan and you like having spiffy coffee table books for guests to thumb through while you fix some cocktails, it's worth every penny. And when you get to the actual music, Dylan's aural history continues in classic fashion as he tries on different colors of the same suit for many of his acclaimed songs of recent vintage, including three markedly different early versions of the Love and Theft
standout "Mississippi." It's an aurally and visually appealing way to catch up with modern music's most proudly anachronistic enigma.
We'll be honest: this set is totally nonessential. There are no bonus tracks – just Led Zeppelin's 10 studio albums. But the design of this set will have purists salivating: Each cover re-creates the original LP covers to the last detail, including the window insertions of Physical Graffiti
and the six different covers of In Through the Out Door
. Again, completely nonessential. But oh, so cool.
Following the 2006 deluxe edition of Cash's performance at San Quentin, Legacy finally tackles the granddaddy of prison albums with this two-disc, one-DVD set of Cash's performance at Folsom Prison. Every song Cash performed in his two shows that day are presented here, along with the sets by his tour mates: the Statler Brothers, June Carter and Carl Perkins. The DVD is a new documentary on those shows, including interviews with inmates who were in the audience. Ask any Cash fan, and they'll tell you: you can't own too much of his music, and there isn't a Cash fan alive who wouldn't love to own this baby.
One of the music world's greatest enigmas, Roy Orbison both defined and defied the notion of rock star cool. A shy man known as much for his signature sunglasses and unassuming demeanor as for his roll call of indelible hits, he possessed one of the most stirring voices to ever grace a record or a stage, a remarkable instrument that could draw on a full four octaves and swell with power, passion and poignancy. His was an amazing legacy, one that spanned the better part of four decades, a durability that gets its due via the ambitious box set The Soul of Rock and Roll
, the first collection to fully encapsulate his remarkable career. With four CDs focusing on each phase of Orbison's musical progression – from the dawning of rock ‘n' roll to his later collaborations with some of music's biggest names – it covers a remarkable expanse, boasting his signature songs, obscure entries, rarities and live tracks, while leaving no doubt as to Orbison's profound brilliance.
The Philadelphia International catalog has always remained more or less in print – the major hits, anyway – but it has never been given the care and attention it deserved until this year, when Legacy kicked off an ambitious, long-overdue reissue campaign centered around the label's biggest artists, including the O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The crown jewel in the 2008 titles, Love Train
collects a slew of hits produced by PIR principals Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff – both under and away from the label. Concentrating on the Gamble and Huff sound instead of sticking strictly to the Philadelphia International roster allowed the set's curators to widen the scope to include classic tracks from the Spinners, Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield, making for one fine box of silky ‘70s soul. Legacy is also reissuing albums from the PIR catalog, but for someone who's just looking for a fast and dirty collection of the best Philly soul, Love Train
|Single CDs for that person in your life who...
...longs for the days when bands like Duran Duran and Human League ruled the airwaves:
After the Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band-informed sounds of their sophomore album, the Killers revisit the synth-pop-heavy formula that made their Hot Fuss
debut so irresistible. On Day and Age
the Sin City combo teams up with Stuart Price (Madonna, New Order) and the results are more "Blue Monday" than they are "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." Songs like "Human" and "Losing Touch" have the kind of keyboard-kissed melodies that get stuck in your head from the very first listen. If you missed the anthemic dance floor rush of their first record, Day and Age
has your name written all over it.
...wants to act like the government and bail someone out of paralyzing, self-inflicted debt:
Fifteen years after the band's last studio album, Axl Rose finally lets his precious baby out of the house. And with an estimated price tag of $13 million, we're guessing that baby needs a new pair of shoes. Best Buy has said that they will accept canned goods in lieu of cash.
...thinks all the new young bands are tuneless emo dorks:
We'll be the first to admit that the sight of the song titles alone from the debut album by Las Vegas quartet Panic at the Disco were enough to give us hives – "The Only Difference between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage," ugh – so imagine our surprise when they unveiled their second album, Pretty. Odd
, and it was stuffed full of songwriting chops that had seemed permanently out of their grasp before. "Nine in the Afternoon" will make fans of Jellyfish and Tears for Fears jump for joy, while "When the Day Met the Night" has the kind of chorus that Brian Wilson once wrote in his sleep. The band even forays into folk, dance hall, and does a tribute of sorts to the Beatles' "Got to Get You into My Life." If Muse is this generation's Queen, then Panic at the Disco are its Supertramp, which is a damned sight better than we thought we'd say about them two years ago.
...laughs whenever Pitchfork falls on its sword for the sake of hipster elitism:
We're still amused by the decision of snark mag extraordinaire Pitchfork to give this Silverlake quintet a scant 1.6 rating for what we consider not only one of the year's finest albums, but the home of a surefire Single of the Year candidate in "Sometime around Midnight." Mikel Jollett is not the world's best singer, true, but neither is Lou Reed, Tom Waits or Bob Dylan, and like them, Jollett is a supremely gifted lyricist, and the band that backs him up can go from a whisper to a scream like the best of them. It is one thing to like or dislike an album; it is quite another to make an example of a band riding a wave of buzz because of a belief that doing so shows unique vision and objectivity. If anything, it only proves that the opposite is true. Maybe next time, Pitchfork will just tell people how they feel about an album, regardless of how cool that opinion may or may not be.
...still plays the soundtrack to "The Big Chill" with regularity:
As one third of the group that snuck the phrase "you can New Jack Swing on my nuts" into the Top 40, Raphael Saadiq might not have seemed like the likeliest candidate to record the most righteous soul revival of 2008 – but with The Way I See It
, that's exactly what Saadiq delivered this year. It's that rarest of musical animals: an album that celebrates the past without sounding stuck in it. In fact, Saadiq's Motown-flavored grooves sound timeless and fresh, propelled by finger-snapping rhythms, instantly memorable melodies, and his clear, keening vocals. The Way I See It
sticks out like a sore thumb next to anything else currently making the rounds at R&B stations, which probably has a lot to do with Jay-Z's cameo on "Oh Girl" – but that's more an indictment of the current state of the genre than anything on offer here. It's Saadiq's – and one of the year's – best.
...thinks of Johnny Marr as a member of Modest Mouse:
As New Order and the Cure continued to record – and ultimately do varying degrees of damage to their legacies – the more the Smiths looked like geniuses for breaking up at the height of their popularity. This two-disc set compiles every song the band released as a single, along with B-sides from each of those singles, and a few well-chosen album tracks. The resulting compilation is ‘80s indie rock at its best, with demonstration after demonstration of why Johnny Marr became the guitar anti-hero for an entire generation. The origins of Radiohead, Oasis and the Stone Roses, along with roughly a million other bands, are contained within these songs. No self-respecting music fan should be without them.
...played videotapes of "120 Minutes" at parties:
As much as we love the Smiths' set listed above, we wish Rhino had given their catalog the same treatment that they bestowed upon New Order's first five albums (Brotherhood
, Corruption and Lies
, Low Life
). Each album is presented with new liner notes featuring commentary from the band, as well as a bonus disc of B-sides and remixes, including some tracks that have up to this point been unavailable on CD or are extremely rare (the bonus disc to Low Life
sports a 17-minute
version of "Elegia"). Each album marks a clear step in the band's evolution from suicidal survivalists to techno pop gods. Anyone who sings the praises of Arcade Fire or Shiny Toy Guns should own one or all of these albums.
...likes old singer/songwriter tricks from a new singer/songwriter dog:
His sales have never quite caught up with the critical accolades his albums have piled up over the last decade, but for lovers of gently introspective singer/songwriter folk-pop, Josh Rouse has been one of the last decade's most trustworthy artists. He's been one of the most prolific, too, racking up an impressive eight "official" releases over the last 10 years, plus an array of EPs, digital collections, and other assorted goodies – which is why, even though you may have never heard of Rouse, this two-CD best-of both fills a need and serves a purpose. The first disc collects 18 tracks from Rouse's five Ryko full-lengths and adds a song from his collaboration with Lambchop's Kurt Wagner for good measure. The track listing leans slightly heavier on Rouse's more recent stuff, which is a good thing, as it means more room is devoted to the sunny 1972
and stellar Nashville
; meanwhile, on the second disc, fans are treated to the entirety of 2001's rarities compilation, Bedroom Classics, Vol. 1
, as well as a smattering of demos and outtakes. There probably isn't much here that Rouse fanatics haven't already found one way or another, but it's still nice to get it all in one place – and as a primer for one of the most sweetly melodic artists of the genre, it's just about flawless.
Three DVDs make up this fantastic slice of the history of soul music, and civil rights (timely in this season of Obama): First up is an incredible documentary telling the story of his Boston performance on April 5, 1968, the night after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Drafted to keep the peace while the rest of the country burned down its cities in riotous fashion, Brown was not pleased to learn his Boston Garden show would be televised live, because it canceled out $50,000 worth of ticket sales. The tense and exciting documentary features commentary from Kevin White, Boston mayor at the time; horn player Fred Wesley; Al Sharpton; Cornel West; and many others. Another DVD features the straight playback of the broadcast on local public station WGBH. A third DVD features a live made-for-TV performance with all the weirdo psychedelic trappings of the time, but showing The Godfather of Soul as an amazing force on stage in his absolute prime. Engaging, entertaining and educational, this DVD box is well put together and oh-so-relevant.
One of the most ferocious live bands on the planet, in one of the most hallowed concert venues on the planet. Any questions?
Nothing says Christmas quite like a Clash DVD: non-conformist, politically minded defiant band that changed the landscape and scope of the punk movement. "Revolution Rock," an 82-minute document of the band's live performances from small clubs to stadiums, is a testament to the incredible live energy that the band created regardless of the size of the crowd. Every note, every vocal, every incredibly crisp beat of Topper Headon's drumming feels as if it is the most important thing that each of the band members has done in their lives up until that point. A perfect stocking stuffer for anyone who needs to be oriented to the only punk band that mattered, or for the archivist, this is a fabulous collection that is as amazing for its warts as it is for the wonderful collection of material included. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones as the creative leaders act harmoniously (at least in front of the camera) as they pump out classic tracks like "London Calling" and "The Clampdown." This is riveting stuff as you watch every move made by the band members, wondering if they will explode because of the intensity. Merry Sandinista Christmas, everybody.
Although there is an unfortunate tendency to write off Donovan as either a Dylan copyist or a hippy-dippy relic of the Summer of Love, the reality is that he's a singer/songwriter whose place in musical history is assured, not only through his association with Dylan and the Beatles but, indeed, through his own hits as well. Those who enjoy both a good documentary and a catchy tune will find Hannes Rossacher's documentary about Donovan a fascinating viewing experience, especially if they're interested in expanding their knowledge of ‘60s music beyond the matinee names of the era. Those who already know Donovan's music, meanwhile, will be psyched to find that there's an entire second disc of bonus footage, including TV appearances, music videos and concert footage. Anyone who considers "Behind the Music" to be must-see television will be thrilled to take this "Journey." And if they don't already own a Donovan best-of disc, then you can bet they'll be ordering one by the time the credits roll.