Music News & Reviews

Take your pick of the best recently released popular music

Perhaps you thought the sounds of the season dealt with sleigh rides, drummer boys and marauding reindeer with no regard for grandparents. Maybe in some other year it did. Not in 2010.

For the annual holiday guide of newly released popular music, I'm brushing aside the tired carols and offering 25 critic's pick selections.

From Staples to Springsteen, from Costello to Clapton and from Ribot to The Roots, it's all here. And in nearly all cases, the music is $20 or less, either as a download (legal, of course) or a good old-fashioned disc you can hold in your hand. Some of these releases are even available on that ancient substance known as vinyl.

Welcome, then, these new sounds of the season.

Elvis Costello, National Ransom: Ever the artful cynic, Costello offers up 16 T Bone Burnett-produced songs that merge his bands, the Imposters and the Sugarcanes. The result, all of which is rich in themes of death and deceit, rocks, pops, swings and stings.

John Legend and The Roots, Wake Up!: A soul summit teaming R&B champ Legend with the hip-hop war horses The Roots for hits by Harold Melvin, Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield, and Bill Withers' anti-war manifesto I Can't Write Left Handed.

Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone: The veteran gospel dynamo hooks up with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy for a set of spirituals and forgotten rock classics, including Creedence Clearwater Revival's Wrote a Song for Everyone, that sound righteous enough for a Sunday service.

Brian Eno with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, Small Craft on a Milk Sea: A mix of the serene ambient soundscapes that Eno began to promote in the late '70s, plus modern indie-pop distractions. The album sounds like a soundtrack, full of grace and tension.

Bruce Springsteen, The Promise: A two-disc set of 21 unreleased recordings from the sessions that gave us 1978's classic Darkness on the Edge of Town. The music is full of Jersey-inspired pop soul romanticism but with a deep lyrical restlessness.

Cassandra Wilson, Silver Pony: Pulling from intimate concert and studio performances, vocalist Wilson again blurs lines dividing jazz, soul and blues with a striking revision of 40 Days and 40 Nights and the regal, rootsy resolve of Beneath a Silver Moon.

The Old 97's, The Grand Theatre, Volume One: An album more in line with the jittery pop that Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller has cut on his own, The Grand Theatre is nonetheless a fun and efficient arsenal of big-beat pop enhanced with nervous country energy.

Randy Weston and his African Rhythms Sextet, The Storyteller: The bass, percussion and brass accents are rooted in multicultural swing and blues, but jazz pianist Weston tells a mighty story on the keys with bright, boppish melodies.

Marc Ribot, Silent Movies: Part avant garde renegade, part progressive Americana artist, Ribot tones down the abstractions along with the guest list for a spacious set of predominantly solo guitar selections. An album of quiet but uneasy beauty.

The Doors, Live in Vancouver 1970: This latest unearthed Doors concert recording centers on a full performance from June 1970 (about a year before Jim Morrison's death) that is highlighted by four jams with blues/soul guitar great Albert King.

John Lennon, Power to the People, The Hits: Part of Capitol Records' reissue campaign of Lennon's solo recordings is this essential single-disc primer anthology. The music spans a decade, from 1969's Give Peace a Chance to 1980's Starting Over.

Paul McCartney and Wings, Band on the Run: Not to be outdone by Lennon's reissues is a complete overhaul of McCartney's solo catalogue. First up is this 1973 smash, which remains, hands down, Sir Paul's strongest post-Beatles outing.

Charlie Hunter, Public Domain: The inventive jazz/jam band guitarist goes it alone on an album that, as the title implies, focuses on folk and blues gems from past generations. The grooves however, on Ain't We Got Fun and St. Louis Blues couldn't be fresher.

Dave Brubeck, Legacy of a Legend: A two-disc collection that covers music from 17 albums that Brubeck cut for Columbia Records from 1954 to 1970. Designed to celebrate Brubeck's 90th birthday, Legacy is an ideal introduction to the piano jazz titan.

Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, Almost Acoustic/Ragged But Right: A re-issue of 1988's Almost Acoustic with the previously unreleased Ragged But Right (collected from several 1987 shows). Both highlight Garcia's blues and bluegrass temperaments.

Bob Dylan, The Witmark Demos, 1962-1964: Some of Dylan's earliest recordings outline the folk genius to come. Blueprint versions of Ballad of Hollis Brown and Girl From the North Country are balanced with Woody Guthrie-style ruminations.

Oregon, In Stride: On this sublime album, Oregon sheds much of its world-music profile to become a more streamlined jazz quartet. But the sound remains distinctive with the blend of Ralph Towner's classical guitar and Paul McCandless's unearthly reeds.

Punch Brothers, Antifogmatic: Chris Thile picks up a new bass player (Paul Kowert), enlists a major-league pop producer (Jon Brion), cools the compositional design from multimovement suites to concise songs and emerges with another new grass delicacy.

Vijay Iyer, Solo: A sublime unaccompanied work by jazz piano sensation Iyer. The repertoire shifts from Duke Ellington to Michael Jackson, and the inspirations on this rich, dark piano adventure echo challenging giants Andrew Hill and Sun Ra.

Jimi Hendrix, West Coast Seattle Boy: A single-disc distillation of the mammoth four-disc anthology of the same name, West Coast Seattle Boy relies mostly on alternate takes of hits and newly unearthed gems, such as a stunning, mostly solo version of Tears of Rage.

Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, At Edwards Barn: A crisp concert document that doubles as a dual career retrospective of a decades-old musical friendship. The singing and musicianship are sterling throughout, yielding a glowing Americana intimacy.

Trey Gunn, I'll Tell What I Saw: A double-disc anthology highlighting 17 years of solo encounters and side projects by ex-King Crimson-ite Gunn. The music's design might be proggish, but the spacious, often orchestral charm makes the songs gloriously indefinable.

Eric Clapton, Clapton: A new Clapton album that is worth recommending? Believe it. On Clapton, the guitarist cools his own star power to examine lanky blues jams with J.J. Cale and Derek Trucks along with deep-pocket New Orleans swing.

California Guitar Trio, Andromeda: Two decades on, CGT finally give us an album of all-original material. It's a beaut, too. Global references abound, but so do wonderfully lyrical feats like Cathedral Peak. As always, three acoustic guitars lead the charge.

Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamers: A guitar-cello-drums trio session from the always-astounding Frisell that weaves wiry, wheezy original melodies together with generously reworked music by The Carter Family, Benny Goodman and, of course, Stephen Foster.