Music News & Reviews

The CD list: good tunes for hard times

What to give, what to give? Time is short, money is shorter and the mere thought of another trip to the mall, where holiday shopping has all the warmth of deer-hunting season, is edging you closer to terminal Scrooge-dom. So go easy on yourself: Give music.

Even uncomfortably tight budgets can handle the average price of a CD (about $16). They’re even cheaper when (legally) downloaded for the iPodders (about $10 to $12).

To help with the choice of what music goes where on your gift list, I offer my annual holiday guide of new recordings. This year’s guide presents three selections in each of 10 categories to cover almost any taste and budget. Think of it as a way to take a little of the danger element out of holiday shopping.

Here are the sounds worth picking up and checking out this season, including the new one from Sasha Fierce herself, Beyoncé.


The picks of the new fall releases.

David Byrne and Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today: A beautiful, pure pop record from the longtime rock journeymen and collaborators.

Ryan Adams, Cardinology: More of the same, only better. A loose but focused sampler of country-rock meditation, rockish release and stark pop confession.

Jolie Holland, The Living and the Dead: Another set of disarming tunes that are far less cheery than their sunny pop and jazz-colored exteriors would suggest.


Unearthed and, until now, unreleased recordings by groundbreaking artists.

Neil Young, Sugar Mountain: A CD/DVD document of a 40-year-old solo acoustic concert that Young played just before the release of his debut album.

The Clash, Live at Shea ­Stadium: The late Joe ­Strummer and the boys rock the Casbah on a stadium level with a 1982 show that was cut at their commercial peak.

Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: The eighth installment of Dylan’s bootleg series colors in the corners of his remarkable 21st-century renaissance.


The most arresting jazz albums of the season.

McCoy Tyner, Guitars: Béla Fleck, Bill Frisell and John Scofield top the guest list. But when Marc Ribot latches onto Tyner’s Passion Dance, the music roars.

William Parker Quartet, Petit Oiseau: The veteran New York bassist reteams with drummer pal Hamid Drake for an often-rapturous quartet session.

Dave Holland Sextet, Pass It On: The most important ­bassist/composer since Charles Mingus debuts a new sextet featuring piano giant Mulgrew Miller.


New and augmented editions of essential recordings.

Warren Zevon, Warren Zevon: A new look at Zevon’s ­breakthrough 1976 album with a bonus disc of demos that often outperform the fully produced tunes.

R.E.M., Murmur: Reissue of the blurry, beautifully indefinable R.E.M. album that started it all. It now includes a bonus disc of a July 1983 concert.

Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: A set that includes an extra disc of live Cash cut at Folsom, as well a DVD documentary on the 1968 concerts.


Roots-derived records that purposely veer away from commercial country music.

Lucinda Williams, Little Honey: A trashy duet with Elvis ­Costello, an AC/DC cover, and bits of romantic joy and desolation make for another gem from Williams.

Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile: A virtuoso and often playful set of acoustic bass and cello duets by two master ­instrumentalists.

Ollabelle, Before This Time: A tasty concert sampling of ­Ollabelle’s distinctive roots sound. The music is both ­feverishly spiritual and ­hauntingly earthy.


New grooves by three cross-generational soul divas.

Ledisi, It’s Christmas: This belongs in the holiday music category. But Ledisi’s soul, gospel and blues mix blows away the banner R&B acts this season.

Mavis Staples, Hope at the Hideout: A concert album by the gospel/soul vet, cut with a trim band and a riotous cover of J.B. Lenoir’s Down in ­Mississippi.

Beyoncé, I Am … Sasha Fierce: An indulgent and often downbeat album, Sasha Fierce nonetheless reaffirms what a commanding vocalist Beyoncé can be.


New takes on time-honored Christmas and holiday-related tunes.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Jingle All The Way: A warm mix of jazz, bluegrass and klezmer, with a chanting monk/Munchkin version of Jingle Bells.

Tony Bennett featuring the Count Basie Big Band, A Swingin’ Christmas: The ageless Bennett strikes up the Basie Band for some suave yuletide cool.

Julian Koster, The Singing Saw at Christmastime: Koster plays 12 holiday classics on a ­musical saw. Guaranteed to enliven the party or clear the room.


Abbreviated stocking stuffer “extended-play” discs with price tags of less than $10.

Mudcrutch, Extended Play Live: Immensely listenable live session by Tom Petty and pals, highlighted by the 15-minute psychedelic folk epic Crystal River.

Alejandro Escovedo, Live Animal: A five-song XM Radio session by Escovedo that packs even more punch than his recent album Real Animal.

José González, Live at Park Ave.: The indie songsmith again channels the pop-folk quietude of Nick Drake and early John Martyn in this concert snapshot.


Pricier, multidisc sets for the fans who thought they had everything.

Genesis, 1970-1975: ­Remasters of five defining ­albums with Peter Gabriel, along with a ­sampler of unreleased music. Each disc comes with a bonus DVD of interviews and ­performances. About $130.

Phish, At the Roxy: A no-frills, eight-disc set of three complete 1993 concerts performed in Atlanta by the seminal jam band. About $40.

Hank Williams, The Unreleased Recordings: Three discs of unearthed early 1950s recordings by the country legend. About $40.


Visually inclined treats.

The Flaming Lips, Christmas on Mars: Lo-fi sci-fi weirdness from Wayne Coyne and the Lips, with an accompanying soundtrack CD.

The Black Keys, Live at the Crystal Ballroom: After the expanded sound of Attack & Release, the Keys recoil into a blistering guitar/drums duo.

Respect Yourself: The Stax ­Records Story: ­Samuel L. ­Jackson narrates a ­documentary on the famed Memphis record label and its champion soul sound.