Holiday Gift Guide: Music critic's picks point the way for gifts

Contributing Music WriterNovember 27, 2013 

Every year about this time, that same Steely Dan lyric starts to ring true: "When Black Friday falls, you know it's got to be. Don't let it fall on me."

OK, so Donald Fagen was singing about the stock market crash. But why not take exception to his thinking? Thousands have very willingly let Black Friday, the retail day from you-know-where, fall on them like a boulder.

What Fagen scored on, though, was letting music do his bidding. Let that ring true for your Black Friday adventures and all of your holiday shopping this season.

To that end, here is my annual roundup of new pop-and-more gift suggestions: sounds that will make Black Friday seem positively golden.


The Blind Boys of Alabama, I'll Find a Way. Bon Iver's Justin Vernon offers a relaxed take on the Blind Boy's powerfully genre-nonspecific spiritual music, from a percussive makeover of the Chi-Lites' There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated at the Conference Table) to the wintry ambience of My God Is Real to the revivalistic Jubilee.

Various artists, Songs for Slim. Slim Dunlap is one of the nicest guys in rock 'n' roll. Memories of a grand late '90s show at Lynagh's reinforce that. Songs for Slim brings together an all-star roster of pals, led by his former bandmates in The Replacements, for a tribute to Dunlap, who was permanently sidelined by a severe stroke in 2012.

The Beatles, On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2. Maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but these 50-year-old radio show sets have a charm, confidence and fading sense of innocence that make them sound remarkably inviting even today. On Air is also a vital timepiece, marking the arrival of the Fab Four as prime pop craftsmen.

Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt. The last band standing from the '90s grunge explosion still has its hotheaded moments on Lightning Bolt, as in the backbeat-crazy Getaway and the furious family yarn My Father's Son. But stretches of restless reflection like Future Days emphasize exactly how disinterested Pearl Jam is in becoming a nostalgia act.

Various artists, Inside Llewyn Davis original soundtrack. T Bone Burnett fashions an altogether different roots-music album for the upcoming Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis by recording live vintage folk music with actor/singer/guitarist Oscar Isaac in front and an unrecognizable Justin Timberlake as a very capable accomplice.

Thelonious Monk, Paris 1969. Blue Note Records offers us an extraordinary find for the holidays: an unreleased performance by the landmark pianist Thelonious Monk with a pick-up rhythm section in December 1969. This astoundingly subtle performance also was preserved on film, hence the accompanying DVD. Ideal for jazz lovers.

The Sadies, Internal Sounds. Guitarist brothers Dallas and Travis Good, once a leading exponent of the late '60s "cosmic country" sound, broaden their stylistic point of view and crank up the amps on this new blast of ultra-jangly psychedelic cool. But the band also throws in a few rootsy acoustic reflections to temper the trip.

Herbie Hancock, The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988. For the money-is-no-object set is a 34-disc collection with a list price of $250 that takes journeyman keyboardist Hancock through jazz, fusion, solo piano music, disco, hip-hop, world music and more. Best of all, eight of the albums (great works from 1974 to 1981) have never before seen a domestic CD release.

Linda Thompson, Won't Be Long Now. This veteran British folk vocalist has been out of the spotlight in recent decades. She returns with a voice full of rich but often uneasy beauty. A battalion of British folk-rock royalty and all-star family members help out, but Thompson's stately singing quietly towers above them all.

Jimi Hendrix Experience, Miami Pop Festival. Recorded in 1968, a year after Hendrix broke in America, this previously unreleased concert document is all rhythmic, electric chaos. More than 45 years later, the record remains an astounding document of the times and a testament to the guitarist's seemingly endless musical invention.

Los Lobos, Disconnected in New York City. This typically unassuming concert set is designed as a celebration of the West Los Angeles band's 40th anniversary. It downplays hit parades in favor of overlooked album cuts. The songs are then performed in a largely unplugged setting that places the Lobos crew in the opposite coast from its home.

The Rolling Stones, Sweet Summer Sun, Hyde Park Live. Just as this latest Stones live album — the double CD/single DVD version is most recommended — settles into the familiar, out jumps Emotional Rescue with brass, sass and Mick Jagger's impossible falsetto. The Stones, ever impervious to age, remain on a roll.

Big Star, Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star. While not a definitive look at Big Star's remarkable pop smarts, this entry in the Legacy label's Playlist series is a comprehensive introduction for novice fans. It pairs the band's brilliant '70s work with a fine mix of live and studio cuts from its '90s renaissance. Alex Chilton is in full anti-pop star form throughout.

The Band, Live at the Royal Academy of Music 1971. Available as a double-disc album and a vastly more recommended five-disc boxed set, Royal Academy expands The Band's Rock of Ages with a gold mine of unreleased alternate takes, many emphasizing Allen Toussaint's soul-charged horn arrangements. A showcase of The Band at its undeniable best.

Allen Toussaint, Songbook. Speaking of the great Toussaint, Songbook offers a terrific career overview through a series of solo piano concerts at Joe's Pub in New York, the performance home that this master New Orleans songwriter and stylist adopted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The result is a properly dignified set from a pop-soul giant.

Various artists, Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013. Clapton operates more as the curator for this ongoing guitar summit than as its marquee act. As such, this two-disc set of guitar-slinging exploits has plenty of star power. But the collaborations — like the teaming of Sonny Landreth and Derek Trucks on Congo Square — steal the show.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at

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