Sure, buying recorded music in a tangible form — you know, those prehistoric, soon-to-be-extinct plastic discs known as CDs — is a lost art. To most people, popular music is downloaded as if it were a grocery coupon — something to be used quickly and exactly, and then disposed of.
But the 20 choices (OK, 23, if you look closely) that make up my annual holiday music guide might make you want to re-explore music in a more physical and, dare we say it, permanent incarnation. They include compilations, boxed-set retrospectives, archival collections and several ultra-fine works featuring completely new and fresh tunes.
GIFT GUIDE PICKS
Here are 20 musical choices best enjoyed in forms that you can wrap and stuff under the tree.
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Leonard Cohen, The Complete Columbia Albums Collection. For the true Cohen completist, a 17-disc box of the pop poet's full studio and concert recording catalog, including neglected gems including Field Commander Cohen and Various Positions.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Their Last Time Out. A wonderful jazz excavation, Their Last Time Out documents the final concert performance (from December 1967 and unreleased in any form until now) of the original Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Ryan Adams, Ashes and Fire. One of autumn's great lost releases, Ashes and Fire is Americana renegade Adams' quietest and most reflective work ever. Yet it is beautifully pensive in a way that recalls Neil Young's Harvest-era music.
John Prine, The Singing Mailman Delivers. A fascinating double-disc rewind to the beginning of Prine's storied career, Mailman presents two 1970 performances — one from the studio, the other from the stage — that prefaced the release of his first album.
The Smiths, Complete. A sleek box set from Rhino Records sporting all eight albums — studio works from the self-titled debut to the exquisite Louder Than Bombs, live sets, compilations, the works — by one of the '80s' bravest alternative pop voices.
JJ Grey and Mofro, Brighter Days. Long known for live shows that emphasize their swampy Florida grooves, this CD/DVD set finally captures the mighty Mofro concert sound on record. Brighter Days also is available as a CD only.
Real Estate, Days, and Beirut, The Riptide. Fine studio sets by two outstanding indie-pop ensembles that recently played in Lexington. The former sports keen songcraft, and the latter sports distinctive instrumentation.
Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Four wildly versed string-music stylists blend chamber and barnyard accents into a progressive but immensely listenable variation on new grass music.
Johnny Cash, Live Around the World, Bootleg Vol. III. The third and most varied offering in the late country icon's "bootleg" series covers performances from 1956 to 1979, including a sublime Wreck of the Old '97, sung at the White House in 1970.
The Beach Boys, Smile. The iconic-album-that-never-was now emerges as a two-disc set (and, for fanatics, in more expansive and expensive editions). The actual Smile suite is a gem, but Brian Wilson's demos of Surf's Up and Heroes and Villains steal the show.
King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black/Discipline (40th Anniversary Series). The two newest Crimson reissues celebrate the 1974 prog/improv visions of Starless and the re-imagined racket (with help from Kentucky-born Adrian Belew) on 1981's Discipline.
R.E.M., Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, 1982-2011. A two-disc compilation/postscript by the lauded Athens, Ga., band, which split up this fall. We All Go Back to Where We Belong, one of three new tunes on the disc, says it all.
MSMW Live, In Case the World Changes Its Mind. MSMW stands for the union of avant jam trio Medeski Martin & Wood and jazz guitar great John Scofield. On this two-disc live set, the jazz and funk excursions possess a kinetic but deliciously fractured energy.
The Rolling Stones, Some Girls (Deluxe Edition). The last truly dangerous Stones album, Some Girls sports songs full of punk, soul and even disco immediacy. A bonus disc includes 12 unreleased songs (including the great Claudette) from the 1977 sessions.
Wynton Marsalis, Selections from Swinging into the 21st. This boxed set compiles the nine stylistically varied albums, plus the spiritual opus All Rise, that Marsalis issued in rapid succession in 1999. The killer: Mr. Jelly Lord, a record of tantalizing Jelly Roll Morton tunes.
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon/Wish You Were Here (Experience Editions). "Experience Edition" translates into a bonus live version of the entire Dark Side album and concert works on Wish You Were Here of music that would surface later on Animals.
Miles Davis Quartet, Live in Europe 1967. Spotlighting his classic mid-'60s quartet (with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams), this CD/DVD set is an astounding document of Davis at one of his many creative zeniths.
Tom Waits, Bad as Me. "No good, you say? Well, that's good enough for me," Waits sings with typical doomsday bravado. But Bad as Me is the songsmith's most accessible album in years, with rich ballads, combustible rockers and plenty of trash-can charm.
Wilco, The Whole Love. Another thoroughly enjoyable Wilco outing. The plot design seldom varies, with Jeff Tweedy's wistful, playful songs meeting a meaty musical charge led by avant pop guitarist Nels Cline. Yet the music always sounds new.
Bill Frisell, All We are Saying ... . An instrumental rethink of John Lennon's music by one of today's most daring guitarists. With songs spotlighting Lennon's Beatles and post-Beatles years, Frisell warps the music's inherent lyricism with obvious reverence.