Music News & Reviews

Critic's Pick Top 20 musical selections worth gift giving

Sure, the sounds of the seasons are forever defined by the same handful of carols that get pounded into your psyche every year, whether you're feeling festive or not.

That's never the case, however, with the sounds you can stuff into a stocking or slide under a tree. As is the case every holiday season, there is a bounty of new pop, rock, soul, jazz, folk and Americana releases to give as gifts and expand further the notion of what we think of as holiday music.

From Beefheart to Bowie and from Lucinda Williams to Led Zeppelin, the fall's finest new recordings have been whittled down to 20 critic's pick selections for our annual Holiday Gift Guide.

All are available in digital and compact disc formats. Many also can be found on vinyl.

In short, there is a sound, style and recorded configuration for everyone on your shopping list. Here's our 20:

Captain Beefheart: Sun Zoom Spark — 1970 to 1972. A four-disc box set that gathers three early-'70s Beefheart classics (including the long out-of-print Lick My Decals Off Baby) along with a set of unreleased avant-rock delicacies.

David Bowie: Nothing Has Changed. Does the world need another Bowie compilation? It does when it covers his career through last year's album The Next Day along with several unreleased gems. (Available in two- and three-disc editions.)

Bob Dylan and The Band: The Basement Tapes Complete. The 11th installment in Dylan's Bootleg Series revisits raw roots demo material cut in 1967 with the band that would become The Band. (Available in two- and six-disc editions.)

Bryan Ferry: Avonmore. After a Dylan tribute disc and a jazz/swing project, Ferry returns to the voodoo cool that fortified his first post-Roxy Music solo albums. Slip on the Ferry version of Robert Palmer's Johnny and Mary, and it's the '80s all over again.

Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways. Bolstered by an HBO documentary series of the same name, Sonic Highways is a travelogue through American music inspirations enhanced by Dave Grohl's ability to turn the most introspective of tunes into an erupting volcano.

George Harrison: The Apple Years 1968-75. A boxed set devoted to Harrison's first six solo albums. Some, including 1970's All Things Must Pass, are revered classics. But 1975's Extra Texture equally underscores the late Beatle's underappreciated greatness.

Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian: Hamburg '72. Jazz piano titan Jarrett assembled his trio with Haden and Motian in 1966. With the latter two now gone, ECM Records has unearthed this 1972 radio concert as a reminder of the group's collective cunning.

The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies — Legacy Edition. Arguably the most American-leaning album cut by this quintessentially British band, Muswell Hillbillies is a forgotten classic. First issued in 1971, this latest reissue version includes a DVD of 1972 performances.

Daniel Lanois: Flesh and Machine. The producer that either reinvented or considerably furthered the careers of U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris and many others, Lanois offers a solo recording of ambient reflection and jagged guitar immediacy.

Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. On this two-disc, 20-song collection, American songstress Williams offers bluesy, boozy tales of love, loss and redemption capped off with a brilliant reading of the late JJ Cale's Magnolia.

Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV/Houses of the Holy. The Led Zeppelin reissue series continues with two early-'70s cornerstone albums again remastered by Zep guitarist Jimmy Page and augmented by a "companion" disc of rarities and alternate takes.

Branford Marsalis: In My Solitude — Live at Grace Cathedral. True to its title, In My Solitude presents saxophonist Marsalis in a solo performance of jazz, classical and free improvisational works enhanced only by the Grace Cathedral's glorious echo.

Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood: Juice. The scholarly jam collective of Medeski, Martin & Wood reteams with jazz guitar vet John Scofield. Hearing keyboardist Medeski go head to head with Scofield is still a joy. But a rich, organic quartet groove dominates.

The New Basement Tapes: Lost on the River. This is what happens when a box full of unpublished Basement Tapes-era lyrics by Bob Dylan meets the music of an industrious pack of contemporary song stylists that includes Elvis Costello and Jim James.

Pink Floyd: The Endless River. Floyd mainstays David Gilmour and Nick Mason assembled The Endless River largely out of instrumental outtakes by keyboardist Rick Wright, who died in 2008. The results offer an epitaph for a friend, a band and an era.

The Rolling Stones: From the Vault — L.A. Forum (Live in 1975) and Hampton Coliseum (Live in 1981). After decades of bootlegged concert recordings, the Stones get in on the game with two vintage live sets. The '75 album shows the band at its then-decadent best.

Thompson: Family. Assembled by folk/pop stylist Teddy Thompson, Family is a collection of 10 tunes penned and performed by his siblings and, needless to say, his esteemed parents, Richard and Linda Thompson. A wonderfully intimate to-do ensues.

TV on the Radio: Seeds. The first new record by these genre-hopping groove merchants since the death of band bassist Gerald Smith is suitably expansive sounding. Tunde Adebimpe leads the vocal charge, but Seeds' melodic make-up is global in scope.

Various artists: Black Fire! New Spirits! Radical and Revolutionary Jazz in the USA 1957-82. Jazz can be many things. On this two-disc sampler, it is a social reflection of the times, with compositions by John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and others.

Wilco: Alpha Mike Foxtrot — Rare Tracks 1994-2014. One of two new Wilco collections (the hits anthology What's Your 20? is the other), Alpha Mike Foxtrot is a four-disc assemblage of unreleased live and studio tracks that honors the band's 20-year history.

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