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Special Pull-out Section: Holiday Gift Guide

BOOKS

LITERATURE AND NONFICTION

DENNIS LEARY RECENTLY JOKED THAT by now every household in America owns a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s gargantuan Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), but nobody’s actually read it. Ironically, this came amid a plea for every household in America to purchase Leary’s new book Suck on This Year (Viking Adult, $18), a collection of 140-character Tweets skewering just about everyone and everything. It’s not so much a feud as it is proof that the act of reading has come to mean very different things for each and every reader. In the age of tablet computers and microblogging, picking up a hardcover book is a fairly quaint manipulation of one’s personal time. And this is precisely why literature is still one of the most powerful gifts you can give.

Freedom is a case in point. At 576 pages, the novel is a commitment to almost four decades in the life of a liberal middle-class Minnesota family. Franzen’s periodic allusions to War and Peace are not coincidental, as Freedom reads like a Russian epic set in the deeply convoluted contemporary America. And his depiction is startlingly vivid. Through his many characters, we see the rise and fall of progressive idealism, gentrification, young love, midlife anguish and compromise, lost dreams, and reactionary neoconservatism, and are constantly forced to consider what freedom means in a society and family that has started to tailspin. All this, and the prose is light and breezy. For certain readers, this may be the only gift you need buy them.
On the “truthier” side of the bookrack, you’ll find another analysis of our contemporary moment, written with the urgency of the coming apocalypse in an effort to document humanity before it vanishes. Earth (Grand Central Publishing, $27.99) by Jon Stewart is an expansion of the faux-textbook formula first used in America: The Book but with a plea not toward good citizenship but rather genetic reconstitution at the hands of our future extraterrestrial overlords.

Which brings us to William Gibson and his new sci-fi novel Zero History (Putnam, $26.95). The third book in the Bigend trilogy, Gibson’s dystopian novel cuts ever deeper with a mind-bending Inception-style trip into the dealings of a multinational military fashionista tycoon in a post-crash economy. Matt Taibbi’s new book Griftopia (Spiegel and Grau, $26) might provide the perfect historical background for Gibson’s speculation. The Rolling Stone editor uses the 2008 financial crisis as the springboard for an analysis of the “grifter class” of high-power financial looters that have grown up on a diet of Ayn Rand and increasingly funneled capital upward through times of crisis.

Merry Christmas, right? Well one local author may have the antidote to all this doom and gloom. Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes is a rallying cry and how-to guide for average people to reclaim domesticity and basic sustainable homemaking skills as a viable, healthful alternative to the grind and greed of paid labor. This isn’t some back-to-the-land utopia; it’s instruction on ways to simplify one’s life in the name of closer communities and greater personal agency.

The character in Joshua Ferris’ new novel The Unnamed (Reagan Arthur, $13.99) also walks away from a conventional domestic life, but it’s something he can’t entirely control. He has a condition that compels him to literally walk away, and keep on walking to the point of exhaustion. The novel beautifully chronicles his attempt to hold it all together despite this peculiar affliction. Aimee Bender deals with a similarly surreal affliction in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Doubleday, $25.95). Her protagonist has the ability to literally taste the emotions of whoever prepared the food she eats. The novel is a coming-of-age fable, with all the complications of adolescence filtered through these uncommonly emotional experiences with food.

However, the great coming-of-age book this year has come from rocker Patti Smith, of all people. Just Kids (Ecco, $16) is a memoir chronicling Smith’s friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It starts in the late ’60s when the two were just trying to survive in New York City, through their mutual rise to artistic prominence and fame, eventually culminating in Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989.
Finally, here are two novels, like Freedom, that might confound the ADD generation, but will provide the anachronistic pleasure of prolonged absorption. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Random House, $26) takes the author’s command of pastiche and intertextual storytelling into the realm of historical fiction to tell the story of a young Dutch official charged with cleaning up the trading culture of the imperial enclave on a 19th-century Japanese island. Stories open into stories into stories. As do the interlocking narratives in Nicole Krauss’ Great House (Norton, $24.95). At the heart of each is a writing desk that first belonged to a Hungarian Jew forced to abandon his home as the Nazis closed in. In the following decades, the desk and its attendant stories occupy an attic in England and the possession of a Chilean poet, eventually ending up with a young writer in New York.

—JOSH POTTER

MUSIC BOOKS

THIS YEAR’S ROUNDUP OF MUSIC books starts with a pair that fills a void. Richard Henderson’s Song Cycle (Continuum, $10.95) examines and celebrates Van Dyke Parks’ debut album, along with his endeavors before and after. Texas Tornado, by Jan Reid with Shawn Sahm (University of Texas Press, $24.95), is a chronicle of the life and music of Doug Sahm.
Mainstays continue to add weight to their shelves. Life by Keith Richards (Little, Brown, $29.99) has been positioned to get attention (the publisher having paid a multimillion dollar advance) and lives up to the fanfare. Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney, by Howard Sounes (DaCapo, $29.95), moves smoothly from the familiar coming together and dissolution of the Beatles on to the subsequent bulk of his life as a solo artist, father, husband (including the disastrous second go-round), and knighted man of wealth.

Rob Chapman’s A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett (DaCapo, $28) is grippingly thorough, while Echoes: Pink Floyd by Glenn Povey (Chicago Review Press, $39.95) is loaded with ephemera, posters and a chronology of their tours, rehearsals and recordings. Stephen Davis, author of Hammer of the Gods, has brought forth another Led Zeppelin book, LZ-’75 (Gotham, $22.50), an account of their infamous 1975 American tour. Becoming Jimi Hendrix, by Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber (DaCapo, $17.95), is subtitled “From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London” and takes a look at his formative years on the chitlin’ circuit with the likes of Little Richard, Ike & Tina Turner, and the Isley Brothers.

Photographer Jim Marshall completed Pocket Cash (Chronicle, $19.95) shortly before his death. The photos range from the intimate to the iconic, and the book is rounded out with essays by Kris Kristoferson, Billy Bob Thornton and John Carter Cash. Timothy Knight’s Sinatra: Hollywood His Way (Running Press, $35) looks into all of his 59 films. The Ultimate Metallica (Chronicle, $35) is a rich photo collection by Ross Haflin, who’s been documenting the band for 25 years.

Shelter From the Storm: Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Years by Sid Griffin (Jawbone, $19.95) looks at the tour, the songs that rolled through it, and the album and baffling film that resulted. Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2006 (Chicago Review Press, $29.95) is Clinton Heylin’s second volume devoted to documenting and analyzing the more than 600 songs the erstwhile Mr. Zimmerman has written. Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus (Public Affairs, $29.95) collects his writings on Dylan’s music and the culture it moved through, from 1968 right up to this year. Marcus’ writing on Van Morrison have also been assembled in When That Rough God Goes Riding (Pubic Affairs, $22.95), with Morrison’s body of work being further explored by Peter Mills in Hymns to the Silence (Continuum, 448 pages, $24.95).
Bands from the past couple of decades also continue to be feted in various book presentations. Death Cab for Cutie, by photographer Autumn De Wilde (Chronicle, $29.95), offers lavish and artful photos, interspersed with intriguing and mysterious documents (including a transcript of a phone conversation on the merits of bus vs. van travel). Wowee Zowee by Bryan Charles and Kid A by Marvin Lin (both Continuum, $12.95 each) add the Pavement and Radiohead albums to the formidable 33 1/3 series.

There are memoirs and biographies, anticipated and unexpected. Lightnin’ Hopkins, by Alan Govenar (Chicago Review Press, $28.95), explores the prolifically recorded bluesman’s life and the music industry and culture he interacted with. Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love by John Einarson (Jawbone, $19.95) shows Lee to be a man of contradictions. Famously moody and often difficult on associates, he also once answered a friend who wanted to hang out by saying, “I’d love to, but my mom and I are watching the Carol Burnett Show right now, it’s kind of a tradition.” Memoirs of a Geezer (Serpent’s Tail, $14.95) is the autobiography of Jah Wobble, down the road with PiL, lost into the void, and back as a sober man. A Wizard, A True Star (Jawbone, $19.95) is Todd Myers’s musical bio of Todd Rundgren. A favorite surprise quote about the studio wunderkind from Kenny Rogers: “That guy’s the best background vocalist I ever heard in my life.” Pat Benatar’s Between a Heart and a Rock Place (Morrow, $25.99) reveals her to have both endured daunting embezzlement by her management, and been married for more than 30 years. Cherie Curie’s Neon Angel (Harper Collins, $24.99) is her story of being in The Runaways, the basis of last year’s movie of the same name. Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter (Chicago Review Press, $26.95) is Randy L. Schmidt’s examination of a tragic pop star.

Art, Music & Life (Q Book, $49.95), by George Frayne, aka Commander Cody, is a deliciously colorful art book. As Saratoga Springs-based Frayne himself says about it, “I have been painting for a long time. I have been rocking for almost as long. The tales of adventures in both run together and in some cases intersect. Here are the stories and the art of those moments.” Besides the attendant discographical and exhibition lists, he gets an extra tip of the hat for supplying a list of every car he’s owned. Me, the Mob, and the Music, by Tommy James (Scribner, $25) is another cautionary tale about bad deals, in his case, veritable indentured servitude to mob-connected Morris Levy. During his hitmaking years, James did have a home and acreage not far from Albany, in Stephentown, and he sets the scene of getting high and listening to King Crimson.

Speaking of King Crimson, there’s the new Mountains Come Out of the Sky by Will Romano (Backbeat, $24.99). The “Illustrated History of Prog Rock,” it traces the genre’s rise and relative disappearance. From lysergic literacy of the Canterbury Scene, to the Tolkien-rich realms of Yes and ELP, to the high-octane adrenaline of Rush and Colosseum, it’s all here in full color.

There are also a few memoirs by nonperforming members of the rock & roll world. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (ECW Press), by Sam Cutler, is subtitled “My life with the Rolling Stoners, the Grateful Dead and other wonderful reprobates.” He did the actual horn honking on the former’s “Country Honk,” and plenty more. Englishman Nick Kent had a front-row seat for the tumult of music that spilled out of the ’60s into the ’70s, writing for New Music Express. From living with Chrissie Hynde to out-of-control drug addiction, he depicts it all with the same honest flair that put him on the map as a journalist in the first place in Apathy For the Devil (DaCapo, $17.95).

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran (Dutton, $25.95) is Rob Sheffield’s follow-up to Love Is a Mix Tape. It’s an exuberant, and at times very funny, look back at his adolescence and the music that accompanied it in the ’80s.

The Complete History of Guitar World, edited by Jeff Kitts (Backbeat, $29.99), draws from the magazine’s 30-year history. Michael Heatley’s Stars & Guitars (Chicago Review Press, $22.95) offers photos, anecdotes and technical data on everything from Pete Townshend’s Rickenbacker to Jack White’s National Airline guitar. Max’s Kansas City, edited by Steven Kasher (Abrams, $24.95), subtitled “Art Glamour Rock and Roll” is rich with photos and artifacts (including desk calendar entries) of Mickey Ruskin’s NYC club that had an eight-year run commencing in 1965. Austin City Limits: 35 Years in Photographs (University of Texas Press, $40) is a glorious feast of Scott Newton’s photos, from Willie Nelson to The Flaming Lips.

There are numerous worthy jazz titles. Randy Weston’s autobiography, African Rhythms (Duke University Press, $32.95), is a rich journey leading from his childhood in Brooklyn to Africa, around the world, and back again. Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake, by Tom Nolan (Norton, $29.95), is the life story of Artie Shaw. And two books are devoted to a pair of innovating iconoclasts: Coltrane on Coltrane, edited by Chris DeVito (Lawrence Hill, $26.95) anthologizes every known interview with the saxophonist, while the directly titled Sun Ra (Headpress, $19.95), edited by John Sinclair, collects a bracing range of the originally named Sonny Blount’s interviews and essays.

Finally, there’s Becoming Elektra by Mick Houghton (Jawbone, $29.95). Subtitled “The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label,” this is a tale of good taste and honorable intentions making for good business and plenty of lasting music.

—DAVID GREENBERGER

CHILDREN’S BOOKS


WHAT A WONDERFUL TIME OF THE year, when all your favorite critics and news sources are picking their choices for year’s best in arts, giving you the opportunity to look very knowing when your loved ones receive, say, the new Kanye West (Spin’s No. 1 CD) or a copy of Winter’s Bone (tapped as best movie by many). But what about books, especially considering that there are so many genres, not to mention so much competition for your time and amusement. A good friend swears by his recently purchased Kindle, and indeed, it came in really handy on a trip halfway around the world, but I still like the tangible feel of paper product in hand, either nestled away from the rest of the gang and transported to another time and place, or comfortably ensconced on a couch with any number of little boys perched and alert nearby.

This year there are a number of amazing choices available for the young reader in your life. For the tykes, I particularly like Old Bear and His Cub by Olivier Dunrea (Philomel Books, $16.99), which is cute and compelling without being too pat. The little cub adores Old Bear and does everything he’s told, even though sometimes he puts up a fight. And when Old Bear comes down with a bad cold, he’s forced to listen to the voice of the younger generation, which, thankfully, has been schooled wisely. Art & Max by David Wiesner (Clarion Books, $17.99) also mines the treasure-trove theme of sharing what you know with somebody who might not seem ready to hear it. Another excellent choice: Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.99), which is an engaging celebration of how the love of books can translate to a never-ending supply of friends and adventure. The more precocious set should appreciate Mirror Mirror by Marilyn Singer with illustrations by Josee Masse (Dutton Children’s Books, $16.99). Singer takes the idea that there are two sides to every story and runs with it, retelling classic tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel in reversible verse couplets. Take the opening lines of “The Sleeping Beauty and the Wide Awake Prince”: “Typical/Hacking through briars/looking for love-/the prince at work./But I have to be sleeping/never/partying/never/out in the world./It’s not fun being/in a fairy tale.” Now, for the prince’s take, read it in reverse order.
With Sandra Boynton’s Amazing Cows (Workman Publishing, $10.95), dubbed “Udder Absurdity for Children” and aimed at “All Ages Up to a Hundred a Moo,” you know right what you’re getting. Boynton uses no end of ingenuity in crafting stories, games, puzzles, comics and even advertisements (for the livestock design book Cowleidescopes) and a take on mythology. It seems corny at first, but it’s really quite engaging. Cows figure prominently, but not solely, in Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin’s A Barnyard Collection: Click, Clack, Moo and More (Atheneum, $19.99). These are funny farm stories in which the animals always have the upper hand on poor Farmer Brown, like when, via use of a typewriter, they communicate a series of demands or else no milk. Also delightful is Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Holiday Drama (Viking, $16.99), which colorfully evokes a child’s—any child, even a llama!—seemingly endless wait for Dec. 25 to come, and celebrates the importance of that anticipation and the joy of the preparations. For the backyard explorer on your list, you can’t do better than Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors, by Joyce Sidman and with illustrations by Beckie Prange. Together, these two created the Caldecott Honor book Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems, another worthy gift. Ubiquitous offers poems, alongside factual prose, about things like lichen, geckos, ants, even bacteria. Sidman has a graceful way with language that soothes even as it informs. Grass, for instance, “drinks the rain” and “eats the sun,” and diatoms are described as thus: “Curl of sea—green wave alive with invisible jewels/almost too beautiful to eat. In each crash, roar, millions more.”

For the kid who’d rather be doing than reading, why not LEGO Star Wars Brickmaster set (Lucas Books, $29.99), which includes clear instructions to help re-create the Battle on Christophsis or a forest fight, to name just two. Not into building, but really dig fantasy and creating secret worlds? Fantasy: An Artist’s Realm by Ben Boos (Candlewick, $19.99) is a surreal creation of Perigord, a kingdom teeming with elves, dwarves, minotaurs, hobgoblins and undead horrors. Boos must have been some kid, and clearly, he retains a youthful flair for creativity and imagination, providing not just exquisitely drawn creatures but their weaponry, their training, blueprints of their labyrinthine lairs, cultures and training. Equally enchanting, but quite another story, is Robert Sabuda’s pop-up version of Beauty and the Beast (Little Simon, $29.99), which is spectacular and beautiful and a tad scary, like a distant neighbor of Perigord.

For the older child who may prefer to read to himself, there are a number of really good choices, including one I coincidentally just bought my 13-year-old, Benjamin Frankenstein Lives! by Matthew McElligott and Larry Tuxbury (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $12.99). This clever mystery pairs Victor Godwin, a kid whose only A-minus in a school career of A’s has met with his steely determination never to let it happen again, and Benjamin Franklin, described as “over 200 years old, renting a downstairs apartment and smelling like a cave.” Seems Ben, like Walt Disney and Ted Williams, had a yen for cryogenics, with very unexpected consequences! Another coming-of-age story that resonates is Rocky Road, by Niskayuna resident Rose Kent (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.99). In this, a financially strapped family relocates to Schenectady [!] to make their mark with ice cream [!]. Kent has a real knack for how young people in crisis think, talk and try to get by, and her blend of the serious with the sweet is quite good.

For slightly older kids, especially those with vivid imaginations and who are so over the Twilight saga (OK, even for those still interested), there’s a trio of worthy choices, including Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution (Delacorte Press, $18.99), which is a richly evolved story involving time travel—real or imagined?—between modern-day Brooklyn and Paris during the French Revolution. Protagonist Andi Alpers is a classic teenage rebel, distraught over the death of her brother and making myriad bad choices; in other words, somebody with whom lots of kids can identify. Her discovery of a journal written by an endangered woman blends two worlds and makes for a real page-turner. I want a movie version, starring the girl from Winter’s Bone, but not till I’ve enjoyed this one again on the page. Fans of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series will swoon over the debut of his new series, The Heroes of Olympus. The first installment is The Lost Hero (Disney Hyperion, $18.99). Readers of the Percy books will recognize not just some of the old characters from Camp Half-Blood, but also Riordan’s captivating blend of action, mystery, suspense and humor. Finally, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (Dial Books, $17.99) throws its readers into a macabre world in which inmates live not only in cells, but also in metal forests, dilapidated cities and unbounded wilderness. Seventeen-year-old Finn, convinced he’s from Outside Incarceron, enlists the aid of Claudia, the warden’s daughter, in his daring escape plan, which, of course, is fraught with issues like nothing, and nobody, is really what it seems. . . . Incidentally, Incarceron, which was first published in Great Britain, was selected by The Times as its children’s Book of the Year. Not a shabby extra in a holiday season filled with the wonders of the written word.

—LAURA LEON

COOKBOOKS


VERY LITTLE COOKING CAN HAPPEN IF you don’t wield a knife well, and that’s one reason why The Zwilling J. A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills by Jeffrey Elliot & James P. DeWan (Robert Rose) leads this list. Another reason is that it’s a terrific book, laying out the construction and design of kitchen knives before teaching different cutting techniques and then going on to show how they apply to a variety of meats and fruits and vegetables. Nicely illustrated and spiral bound for ease of tabletop use, it’s an essential.

We’re going to get awfully healthy as this list goes on, and where better to start than the Mediterranean? With the success a few years back with The Silver Spoon, Phaidon Press followed up with a similar book about pasta, and this year’s offering is titled Recipes From an Italian Summer. It comes from the Silver Spoon team and further explores what can be done with fresh ingredients from a benevolent climate. Lots of salads. Plenty of grilled items. Unusual fare like ham and kiwi mousse. Even in the dead of winter, it’s filled with inspiration.

There’s plenty of inspiration in the pages of the large, handsome volume Italy’s Great Chefs and Their Secrets by Academia Barilla (White Star Publishers). We know Barilla as a pasta source, but their Parma-based school was created to be a center of the country’s gastronomic culture. The book highlights notable chefs from every region, with signature recipes, most of them a little offbeat. Thus, Milan’s Luca Brasi offers shrimp sausages with white polenta discs and black-eyed peas and Herbert Hinter of San Michele Appiano gives us oxtail tartare with potatoes and thyme vinaigrette—recipes you may savor more as literature than something to whip up tonight.

Tapas is by definition a simpler style, and the bright yellow Book of Tapas by Simone Ortega and Inés Ortega (Phaidon Press) keeps it simple, starting with an overview of tapas history and Spanish ingredients, and going on to categorize recipes as vegetable, egg and cheese, fish and meat, each section further divided into hot and cold. Particularly recommended if you do much at-home entertaining and need ideas.
You’re going to whip out baguettes like nobody’s business after spending time with Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson and Eric Wolfinger (Chronicle Books). Even the most accomplished breadmaker will find ideas in the repertory of this famed San Francisco bakery. Techniques are detailed but easy to follow, and next thing you know, an olive oil brioche is on the table. Lots of good and strange ancillary stuff, too, like a nettle fritatine, and comfort food like baked french toast and leavened waffles.

Want a book for the beginning cook who already has The Joy of Cooking on the shelf? I’m still devouring Tom Hudgens’ The Commonsense Kitchen (Chronicle Books), which grew out of his years as chef at Deep Springs College in eastern California. It’s a two-year men’s school in which the students participate in all aspects of ranch life in addition to their studies, and Hudgens developed an approach captured in this book that lays out all of your basics before going on to recipes both essential and imaginative. It’s long on good prose, interrupted rarely by illustrations.
How to Cook Everything is another of those must-have books, and its author, Mark Bittman, now offers The Food Matters Cookbook (Simon & Shuster). It’s a tribute to coming to your senses (typically on doctor’s orders) and realizing you need to eat less crap. The emphasis is on vegetables and fruit, but enjoyably so, as a recipe for ziti with silky cabbage, oranges, and chickpeas demonstrates. Bake rather than fry, but if you must fry, stir-fry. I may even try the spinach and tofu burgers detailed herein.

Anthony Bourdain’s recent Medium Raw proved that he’s turned into one of the media-hungry figures he used to mock. He still takes time to trash Alice Waters, but she’s a too-easy target. And however you may tire of her seeming sanctimoniousness, she offers an excellent starter book in In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart (Clarkson Potter). It’s a slim, rather precious volume, but every word of it is worth reading as you learn (or relearn) the techniques behind poaching, steaming, roasting and braising—even washing lettuce and shucking corn.
Waters supplied forewords to two more recommended books, both with a locavore theme: Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America’s Farmers by Sur La Table and Janet Fletcher (Andrews McMeel Publishing) and Harvest to Heat: Cooking With America’s Best Chefs, Farmers, and Artisans by Darryl Estrine and Kelly Kochendorfer (Taunton Press). Eating Local looks at the community-supported agriculture (CSA) movement, with recipes, while Harvest to Heat profiles a number of people active in raising and preparing responsible food. With recipes.

You’re not going to find a foreword by Waters in a book about meat. Sen. Bernie Sanders will have to do, and he leads off the text of Good Meat by Deborah Krasner (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). It’s a book mainly of good recipes (nicely illustrated with photos by Marcus Nilsson, who is no relation), but Krasner gives butchering lessons along the way and introduces sources for responsibly husbanded meat. You’ll pay more, but these recipes help you prepare what will be more satisfying meals in many respects.

Then it’s on to dessert. The big book this year is Bon Appétit Desserts by Barbara Fairchild (Andrews McMeel Publishing), a companion to the magazine’s previous hefty tomes. You can’t begin to appreciate the wonder of the 600 or so recipes gathered here without risking a wrist sprain while thumbing through. Most come from the magazine, and replace your clippings; many are new. Good discussions on techniques kick things off, but, if you’re like me, you’ll get stuck in the cheesecake section for way too long. A slice of baklava cheesecake, anyone?

—B.A. NILSSON

RECORDINGS


POP/ALTERNATIVE

LOOKING FOR SOME INDIE CRED FROM your kids? Need a new dose of alt-rock to get you through the holidays? Here are some of the best bets for your little shoegazers.

Looking for a blast of alt-surf-rock ala Weezer but with you know . . . credibility? Look no further than Surfer Blood’s Astro Coast (Kanine)—a CD full of ironic lyrics and huge fuzzy riffs that feels like a lost summer you spend as an undergrad. If blues riffs are more your bag, you can’t beat the Black Key’s latest slow burn called Brothers (Nonesuch). The band bring the blues thump and throw in some bop and soul to produce perhaps the best album of their career. If you want your blues with less love and a whole lot more death, then plug into Dax Riggs’ Say Goodnight to the World, a bayou blues album that is haunting as it is glam. Riggs’ voice will give you chills.

If dance beats are more your thing, you are in luck, because this was a stellar year for indie alternative electronic. The premier in that sort-of genre is This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem (Virgin). The band mine David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy for inspiration and combine it with sharp modern synths and undeniable dance beats. This is the sound of warm, heartfelt, yet ironic techno that defines a generation. For dance beats with more strum, drang and sexy, pick up Sleigh Bells’ Treats (N.E.E.T.). Thrashing punk guitar meets DMX beats and the raspy coo of lead singer Alexis Krauss. For something more political and intelligent, but not nearly as catchy, there’s /\/\/\Y/\, the the latest from M.I.A. (Interscope). It may not be her best work, but it works great on the dance floor. Crystal Castles, by, well, Crystal Castles, takes the female-fronted techno act and turns it into a noisy, psychedelic art project not unlike work by old-school industrial artists like Skinny Puppy. Make sure to wear black when you listen.

On the fringe of the electronic indie world, you’ll find glitch heavyweight Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma (Warp), as well as Caribou’s Swim (Merge).

If you’re the sort who likes more of a mash-up between electro and traditional indie sounds, Broken Bells’ Broken Bells (Columbia) provides a low key mix of folk and bubbly beats that is as trance-inducing as it is emotionally sparse. You may have seen their video with Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as some kind of space robot. Xiu Xiu’s Dear God I Hate Myself, on Kill Rock Stars, is a compelling mix of Morrissey balladry with experimental electronics that are emotionally terrifying, soul-searing, destructive and yet absolutely gorgeous all at once.
For a real throwback, strap on the headphones and revisit your love for the Temptations on Fitz and the Tantrums’ Pickin’ Up the Pieces (Dangerbird).The album has all the funk and soul you will need to get into the holiday spirit. Blast forward with Sufjan Stevens’ new opus The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty). It’s got all the lush vocal arrangements Stevens is known for but also glitchy electronic beats and what sounds like an orchestra made of robots. Janelle Monae pursues a similarly sci-fi vision in her break-out R&B concept album The ArchAndroid (Bad Boy). The young singer has been compared to Michael Jackson, James Brown and Prince for all the right reasons.

Bradford Cox breathed new life into Deerhunter this year with Halcyon Digest (4AD), conjuring all that childlike wonder you expect out of good indie rock. And the Arcade Fire made another strong entry in a body of work that’s becoming so influential it’s got the NFL buying up song rights, with The Suburbs (Merge). Speaking of indie mainstays, Broken Social Scene pulled it all together to release another crowd-pleaser in the form of Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts & Crafts).

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention two of the biggest hip-hop releases of the year, which don’t really need us to yammer on about them, or you to stuff more money in these artists’ pockets. But theres a lot of merriment packed into Big Boi’s Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam) and, yes, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam).

—DAVID KING AND JOSH POTTER

JAZZ


ONE SHOULD GENERALLY PROCEED with caution when the words “Christmas” and “jazz” show up in the same sentence. Ten minutes in the waiting room of a dental clinic in December should be all the proof you need. So, if you’re shopping for a jazz fan, it’s probably best to avoid those season-specific displays at the entrance to Best Buy and go for some of this year’s best new recordings—the stuff that doesn’t include a vibraphone rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

A recent Grammy nomination has a lot of folks in and outside the jazz world talking about Esperanza Spalding, the 26-year-old upright bassist and vocalist, who just released her third album Chamber Music Society (Heads Up, $18.98). Go figure, her nomination is for Best New Artist alongside Justin Beiber. For this record, she’s supplemented her R&B-infused trio with a string section to conjure a sound that has as much to do with contemporary classical music as it does with jazz.

Guitarist Pat Metheny went a somewhat similar route this year, exploring what his brand of jazz would sound like in a large ensemble, except the ensemble he chose to explore consists of robots. Seriously. Orchestrion (Nonesuch, $18.98) takes its name from a 19th-century invention that squeezed a small orchestra worth of instruments into a player-piano-like box. Metheny updated the idea by equipping a wide range of acoustic instruments with robotic triggers to accompany his solo guitar playing.

Vijay Iyer also went the solo route this year, but in the manner that every great pianist eventually must: no sidemen or robots, just him and his instrument. Solo (Act Music and Vision, $15.99) situates Iyer in the lineage of Monk and Ellington, paying homage to both at turns, but also further establishes him as one of the great contemporary players, as his rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” will attest. Another great contemporary pianist, Brad Mehldau, has a new offering titled Highway Rider (Nonesuch, $19.98), featuring Joshua Redman, Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard playing over lush orchestration and some of Mehldau’s most mature compositions.

Iyer aside, 2010 seemed to find jazz musicians exploring maximalist tendencies. Fight the Big Bull’s new record All Is Gladness in the Kingdom (Clean Feed, $8.99) is another example. The postmodern big band invited downtown slide trumpet legend Steven Bernstein to join the group for a record that draws on influences as diverse as southern gospel, dub reggae, New Orleans R&B and traditional spirituals. The same rule applied to one of the year’s biggest reissues. It’s been 40 years since Miles Davis assembled some of the day’s best improvisers to vamp and squeal over rock grooves, and the result, Bitches Brew, has become one of the most influential fusion records ever. Bitches Brew: Legacy Edition (Sony Legacy, $22.98) includes the original remixed album on two CDs, plus one disc of bonus cuts and outtakes, as well as a DVD of the ensemble performing in Copenhagen in 1969. Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition ($124.98) goes one step further by adding the vinyl double LP, a 48-page booklet, and a recording of the ensemble performing at Tanglewood in 1970.

The best antidote for smarmy, smooth-jazz Christmas music might be the new record by the ever-irreverent Dead Kenny G’s. Bewildered Herd (Ropeadope, $13) is the long-awaited punk-funk jazz return to form for Skerik, Mike Dillon and Brad Houser. The disc grooves loud and heavy and manages to get in plenty of political punches with tracks like “Birther Blues” and “Death Panel.” The normally irreverent Bad Plus also have a new disc out, but it’s probably the most earnest thing they’ve recorded since making their name on tongue-in-cheek pop covers. Never Stop (E1 Entertainment, $15.98) is the trio’s first record of all-original material. And it’s probably one of their best. Stripping back the kitschy hooks has given them the opportunity to flesh out some of their most frenetic and grandiose ideas.

Finally, some local picks for the season include the long-awaited solo disc from Albany guitarist George Muscatello, called Angel Dust (Collar City Records, $5). The whole album is composed of Muscatello’s shredding jazz-metal variations on themes by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer. And Alex Torres y su Orquestra celebrates 30 years of Latin jazz this year with Añejo (WEPA Records, $8.99).

—JOSH POTTER

BOX SETS


THE ESSENTIAL BOX SET OF 2010 HAS very little to do with music, but that shouldn’t hold you back from buying a copy for everyone on your list. Bill Hicks—The Essential Collection is a brilliantly compiled two-CD/two-DVD set that celebrates the late, great comic’s provocative, intelligent, and frequently hilarious work. The CDs string together tracks from his several Rykodisc releases, interspersed with never-before-heard material and variations on classic bits, for what plays like a surprisingly seamless two-hour-plus concert. The DVDs offer a wealth of unseen performance and interview footage, as well as the short film Ninja Bachelor Party. To justify putting this under the music heading, there’s a bonus download card for Lo-Fi Troubadour, a collection of Hicks’ original tunes. I’d go on, but I don’t want to sound like I’m in marketing or advertising because, well, you know.

The year’s fastest-selling box set is The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, which chronicles the making of Bruce Springsteen’s landmark 1978 album over two CDs or four 180-gram vinyl LPs. To call it a “wealth of previously unreleased material” is almost a short-sell: No less than 21 never-before-heard songs from the Darkness sessions are included. Pony up for the deluxe three-CD/three-DVD (or Blu-ray) version and you’ll also get the digitally remastered Darkness plus more than six hours of video footage, and an awesome spiral-bound reproduction of the Boss’ original notes from the album sessions.
Iggy Pop and the Stooges finally got into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010; fittingly, they were boxed twice this year. 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions is a reissue of the highly coveted 1999 set from Rhino Handmade, documenting every single take from the band’s belligerent second album in chronological order over six discs; a seventh disc is packaged as a replica of the original Elektra “Down on the Street”/“1970” single. The packaging is identical to the ’99 set, which means the discs come in individual jewel cases with booklet inserts. Legacy’s four-disc Raw Power: Deluxe Edition gives that classic Bowie-mixed album the once-over, with a remastered Power accompanied by a full-length 1973 concert, unreleased and rare tracks, and a making-of DVD, plus a 48-page book, five photo prints, and a reproduction of the “Raw Power” 45 sleeve. It’s got shake appeal to spare.

Vinyl sets are all the rage this year, a fitting full-circle turn for the format that birthed the box set. Rhino has issued its second Joy Division vinyl box: +- (that’s the title, not a typo) is a set of 10 7-inch singles—some previously released, others specific to this collection. Thrash-metal stalwarts Slayer are offering The Vinyl Conflict, an 11-disc set that compiles their nine studio albums and the 1991 double-LP Live Decade of Aggression, all remastered from original analog tapes and pressed on 180-gram wax. Not to be outdone, punk-rockers Bad Religion celebrated their 30th birthday this year with a set that compiled every one of their 15 studio albums on red vinyl, including titles that never before appeared in the format. And good old Bob Dylan is getting his umpteenth box treatment with The Original Mono Recordings. It’s the first eight Dylan records, from his self-titled debut through John Wesley Harding, remastered and pressed in glorious mono, just like the old days. (The set is also available on CD.)

From there, we move logically to the Beatles. The media were all about John Lennon’s would-be 70th birthday this October; so, naturally, was Yoko Ono. Thankfully, she has a particular grace with reissuing her late husband’s catalog, and thus the Lennon Signature Box comes off as more than just a cash-in. This deluxe collection, packaged in a spare, ink-on-white housing, sports 11 discs: remastered versions of Lennon’s five official solo albums plus the three Lennon-Ono collaborative releases (but not the early, experimental records, nor Live Peace in Toronto), as well as a short compilation of single releases (like “Give Peace a Chance”) and two discs of early home demos. The discs are faithful to the original running orders and mixes, which means you’ll have to pony up extra if you want the recently issued Double Fantasy—Stripped Down (it’s worth it).

Meanwhile, the quiet Beatle is part-subject of Collaborations, a 3-CD/1-DVD set celebrating the George Harrison-produced work of Indian music legend Ravi Shankar. Included are 1997’s Chants of India, the 1976 Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival from India, and 1974’s Shankar Family and Friends, plus footage and audio from a 1974 concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. You’ll want to turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream when listening to this one.

Quickly, now: The Australian Beatles—better known as the Bee Gees—are given the family-album treatment on Mythology, which devotes one disc apiece to each of the four Gibb brothers (including non-Gee Andy). West Coast Seattle Boy—The Jimi Hendrix Anthology documents the legend’s transition from sideman to mountain-leveling guitar god over four discs, almost entirely composed of unreleased takes; the set also includes a 90-minute documentary film. Indie label Matador Records celebrated their 21st anniversary this year with a kickass weekend of concerts in Las Vegas and a limited-edition box called Matador at 21; the 6-CD collection includes five discs of tracks from the label’s peerless history plus a set of live recordings from their 10th-anniversary shows in 1999. Legacy took the term “comprehensive” above and beyond this year with The Genius of Miles Davis, a massive 43-disc box set of other box sets (packaged inside a trumpet case!), and The Complete Elvis Presley Masters, which chronologically documents every single song the King ever recorded—711 tracks—over 30 CDs.

Finally, there’s The Danny Elfman and Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box, a limited-edition set that celebrates the quarter-century collaboration between Elfman, the composer, and Burton, the film director. Expanded versions of the 13 Elfman-Burton film scores, from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (issued for the first time) through Alice in Wonderland, are included, along with loads of unreleased music, a DVD, and a USB flash drive containing all 19 hours(!) of music; all of this is packaged in an ornate, treasure-chest-like box. This set should make a fan’s millennium.

—JOHN BRODEUR

UNDER THE RADAR


EVERYBODY’S BUSY AND, AS WE GET older, and as the marketplace deals with us in ever more specific ways, we can easily miss things that may suit us perfectly. Here, then, are some music releases that you can easily surprise a friend or loved one with.

Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts (Tompkins Square) continues the laudable efforts this company makes in finding and restoring a wide range of music. This 16-song set is all culled from Frank Fairfield’s collection of 78-rpm records. Thrill to the exuberant “Ama Ama,” performed by the Tahitian group led by Tautu Archer. Delight to Hermosa Huesca, virtually forgotten in his Mexican homeland. It is his recording of “La Bamba” that Richie Valens heard, covered, and shook the world with.

The Complete Columbia Singles by Paul Revere & the Raiders (Collector’s Choice) is a 66-song tour through the career of a band born in the era of 45s. From their Northwest bar-band beginnings to the latter day Mark Lindsay-driven pop outfit, their 33 Columbia singles are here presented in order, A-side and B-side. There are the well-known hits, but it’s also the flipsides that tell the tale. The band would use the opportunity to show they could really play, eschewing the often brilliant arrangement and production flourishes of the chart-bound tracks for a chance to stretch out themselves. One of their greatest B-sides could well have been a hit on its own: “In My Community,” penned by bass player Phil “Fang” Volk (and with Van Dyke Parks playing on it).

James Blackshaw’s All Is Falling (Young God) is his eighth album. This time out, the London-based acoustic guitarist and multi-instrumentalist has concocted a mesmerizingly interwoven eight-part piece that organically moves in and out of its themes, as keyboards, strings, and woodwinds join in to the hypnotic swirl. Leland Sundries is an ensemble led by Nick Loss-Eaton, who quietly appeared in Saratoga Springs solo a couple months ago, all but unnoticed. The Apothecary EP (L’Echiquier) is a five-song disc whose 22 minutes carry the temporal bearing and emotional weight of an afternoon double feature of Morricone films. Loss-Eaton’s casual baritone floats easily over folkish balladry as well as Exile-era Stones-ish riffing (the unstoppable “High on the Plains”).

The Microscopic Septet play Thelonious Monk on their new Friday the Thirteenth (Cuneiform). Together for 30 years, the band trace their origins back to 1974 when saxophonist Phillip Johnston was playing a record of Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” in his NYC apartment. Pianist Joel Forrester, knowing neither the music or the apartment dweller, walked right in to find out what it was. The ensemble’s deliriously rubbery rhythmic swing and angular harmonic sensibilities make them a band Monk would have indeed loved.

Pianist Ran Blake has created a body of work that suspends time or bends it with gentle insistency. Now in his mid-70s, he seems ageless, as if his slivering of time has cut him loose from all calendars on earth. He has a new pair of duet albums, each with a female vocalist: Camera Obscura (Inner Circle Music) with Sara Serpa, and Out of the Shadows (Red Piano) with Christine Correa. The former opens with “When Sunny Gets Blue” and closes with “April in Paris,” framing a set that shows their common ground to be a love of songcraft, though they like to pull at the component parts, seeing what it’s made of. The disc with Correa is their second paring and they share delight in a certain edginess, seeing how little can be articulated and still describe sonic movement across time. The sound of walking a tightrope with no net.
The Morlocks, from Los Angeles, have stayed true to their garage-band roots for 25 years. On Play Chess (Popantipop), they dive right into the well, covering Chess Records nuggets from such roster kingpins as Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and Chuck Berry. The latter’s “You Never Can Tell” is a highpoint, draped in a mix of late-night menace and cocky drunken swagger.

Clothesline Revival’s They Came From Somewhere (Paleo) is the third album of Conrad Praetzel’s studio-based musical creations. The 13 instrumentals are deeply steeped in American traditions, but are fearlessly modernist in their deployment of arrangement combinations and the possibilities of recording processes. Guest Charlie Musselwhite adds the dazzle of human breath through a tiny harmonica—such a powerful sound when wielded by the likes of him.

—DAVID GREENBERGER

CLASSICAL


AS THE OVEREAGER “CROSSOVER” NONsense simmers down, we suffer through fewer attempts at audience-pandering. Aside from Sting singing “Dowland” a few years back, which was terrific, I have heard much that seemed truly sincere.

Until getting my hands on Bruce Wolosoff’s Songs without Words (Naxos). It’s a set of 18 miniatures for string quartet, played by the commissioning ensemble, the Carpe Diem Quartet. They asked the composer for “rock and jazz based music,” and he hit on the idea of improvising along with the 30-second samples you find online to familiarize himself with the sounds they sought. The resulting pieces aren’t rewrites, and they’re rarely even pay recognizable homage to their sources. Wolosoff produced an engaging and, dare I say, literate piece that does what classical music is supposed to do: give a more formal voice to the music of its day. And it’s a very fun disc to listen to. It’s at the top of my own gift-giving list.

Beethoven had no trouble working in the tunes he heard around him, and quotes and little jokes abound in his Ten Violin Sonatas, well served in a new recording by violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianist Frank Braley (Virgin Classics). Only a couple of these are ever heard in concert with any regularity, so it’s a treat to go through them all. What distinguishes this recording is what the artists don’t do: They don’t try to stamp the works with distracting overinterpretation. They serve the music well. And they share an easy-to-perceive excitement.

For the past several summers, pianist Martha Argerich has brought talented young players together in Lugano and EMI has put out a three-disc set of the highlights. I worry that it could become dull and predictable, but Argerich & Friends’ Live at Lugano 2009 features her in a gorgeous recording (with orchestra) of Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” that’s worth the price right there. Add to it Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1, little-heard sextets by Mendelssohn and Glinka, Renaud Capuçon in Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 2 and Argerich and the Capuçon brothers (Gautier plays cello) in Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 88, and you have a great array. And there’s even more.

Also in the piano realm, Leif Ove Andsnes in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (EMI) completes the concerto cycle brilliantly, with excellent support from Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony.
One of the most fascinating piano cycles of the 20th century is the set of 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich. Alexander Melnikov’s new recording, The Preludes & Fugues (Harmonia Mundi), spreads 23 of them over two CDs; the mighty 24th shares a disc with a DVD side of performance and interview footage. These are brisker interpretations than those of Tatiana Nikolaeva, the work’s dedicatee, and far less eccentric than Keith Jarrett’s. Like Glenn Gould, Melnikov has a way of giving each contrapuntal voice its own identity so you stop thinking in terms of fingers at work and instead enjoy the glorious intertwining.
Harmonia Mundi also issued the unusual and gratifying Gershwin by Grofé, saluting the composer’s association with Paul Whiteman’s chief arranger. Lincoln Mayorga plays the Rhapsody in Blue and “I Got Rhythm” Variations, and is also in the arrangement of “Summertime.” He’s a specialist in this kind of thing and is thus terrific. The late Al Gallodoro, who worked with both Whiteman and Toscanini, was in his 90s when he sat in on these sessions, and you’d never know it. If you think you have enough Gershwin—well, without this, you don’t.

And add to it Gershwin: Porgy & Bess, which Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded in performance in Austria last year (RCA Red Seal). Harnoncourt? You heard me. He brings a stylistic understanding to the score you might not expect—but versatility is one of his hallmarks. And there’s intensity to this, underscoring the bigger-than-life theatricality of the piece. Jonathan Lemalu as Porgy and Isabelle Kabatu as Bess have big voices that don’t always seem suited to the material, but the overall effect is utterly convincing. As soon as you hear Bibiana Nwobilo peal out with “Summertime,” you’ll be hooked.

There’s a fairly wacky jazz version of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio out there now with the King’s Singers as soloists, but for a splendid reminder of what this sextet does when at their best, look for their Pachelbel Vespers (Signum). Instrumental accompaniment is by Charivari Agréable, directed by Kah-Ming Ng. Seven works by Johann Pachelbel are featured, with two instrumentals by contemporaries Johann Krieger and Johann Kerll—nicely programmed.

Music of the past is brilliantly served by the astonishing flow of recordings from gamba virtuoso, arranger and conductor Jordi Savall, who always makes this list. His three-disc survey of music in an around The Borgia Dynasty (Alia Vox) in Renaissance Europe makes for evocative listening, although I wished for more detailed texts about the music. Still, it’s a beautiful book-and-CD package that will delight the eclecticist on your list. Other Savall highlights this year, all on his Alia Vox label, were a set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, The Celtic Viol, Vol. 2, and a fresh survey of music from the Spanish Caribbean titled El Nuevo Mundo.

A high-energy survey of recent Mexican music is conductor Alondra de la Parra’s Mi Alma Mexicana (Sony), conducting her Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in works by Moncayo (the ever-popular Huapango), Revueltas, Chávez and others, including Manuel Ponce’s Guitar Concerto (with soloist Pablo Sáinz Villegas). Contemporary composers are also represented, with works by Federico Ibarra, Eugenio Toussaint, Mario Lavista and Enrico Chapela.

Morton Gould (1913-1996) seems to have a legacy more as a light-music composer and arranger than the hard-core (but still fun) classical guy he was at heart. Once again, David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony seek redress with a CD, Morton Gould: Interplay (Albany Records), that features Findlay Cockrell as pianist in the American Concertette No. 1, renamed “Interplay” when Jerome Robbins choreographed it. Also here: American Symphonette No. 2, with its well-known Pavane, a 1944 Concerto for Orchestra and much more.

Last year I suggested that, if your generosity is fueled by deep pockets, you’d get Sony’s 70-disc Original Jacket Collection of Vladimir Horowitz putting all of his Columbia recordings in little reproductions of their original LP issue. This year it’s Jascha Heifetz, with a 103-disc Original Jacket Collection (Sony). And one more big-box recommendation: the 60-CD Leonard Bernstein Symphony Edition (Sony), which collects his New York Philharmonic symphonic repertoire, giving you complete symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Bernstein, with generous helpings of Mozart, Haydn, Dvoøák, Nielsen, Prokofiev and much, much more.

—B.A. NILSSON

FOLK, BLUES, BLUEGRASS AND CELTIC


WITH SANTA’S ELVES FURLOUGHED DUE to recent budget cuts at the North Pole, it’s up to you to find great folk, blues, bluegrass, and Celtic music CDs for your near and dear ones. But hey, no sweat—I saw the bad news coming and scoped out some of the many noteworthy 2010 discs in these genres for you. In addition to fine new releases, there are some killer reissues to tell you about as well.

Simon and Garfunkel swiped the arrangement of their 1966 hit, “Scarborough Fair,” from Martin Carthy, a leading light of the ’60s British folk revival who also helped launch the bands Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.

January Man (Hux) is the first official release of a live Carthy solo concert, this one dating from 1978. His magisterial performance abounds with the old English ballads that not only rank as fine music but also treasures of the English language.

On this side of the Atlantic, the trio the Carolina Chocolate Drops has in the last three years revived black string band music to critical acclaim.

Although Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch) is not as traditional as its predecessor, Donna’s Got a Ramblin’ Mind; in addition to foot-stomping banjo, fiddle and guitar breakdowns, the album ventures into Eastern European folksong, and maybe even some R&B-folkies will find it a delight all the same.

In the bluegrass zone, the recently formed outfit Dailey and Vincent have been earning top awards hand over fist. Their latest release, Dailey and Vincent Sing the Statler Brothers (Rounder) got best album this year from the International Bluegrass Music Association in addition to other honors. Here Dailey and Vincent reprise 12 of the favorite country band’s hits with smooth bluegrass instrumentation and their incredible harmony singing.

For the high and lonesome fan with less conventional tastes, the electric foursome Crooked Still have a new release, Some Strange Country (Signature Sounds), which was recorded during a long blizzard in Virginia last winter. Even though they don’t play traditional bluegrass, they are nonetheless performers at the annual Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in nearby Greene County. Crooked Still here weaves elements of string band music, bluegrass, and chamber music (they have a classically trained cellist) into a unique acoustic collage.

Blues hounds will love Johnny Winter’s new disc, Live at the Fillmore East (10/03/1970) (Collector’s Choice Live), which has been hailed as the Texas guitar slinger’s best live recording ever. In this recording, the albino bluesman, backed by second lead guitarist Rick Derringer, just goes postal and unleashes a landslide of hot riffs on a selection of covers and originals. Winter seems to know every blues guitar lick in the book, and his dueling counterpoint with Derringer also makes this one a must-have.

Charlie Musselwhite is for my cash the top blues harmonica player around. Although he’s been putting out albums since 1967, Musselwhite, who learned blues harp directly from the Chicago harmonica greats like Little Walter, had never made a record entirely of original songs. That changed with his latest, The Well (Alligator), though. The disc is named after the experience of Jessica McClure, a child in Texas who fell into a well and sang nursery rhymes to herself until rescuers pulled her to safety. Six of the album’s 13 songs deal with his turbulent life story, including his recovery from alcoholism, and the twin tragedies of the murder of his 93-year mother in 2005 in his hometown of Memphis and the death of his father very soon thereafter. This CD is as authentic and personal as the blues gets.

The Irish supergroup Altan began when two musician-schoolteachers in County Donnegal, founding members Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy, fell in love. This year the band mark their silver jubilee with 25th Anniversary Celebration (Compass), a collaboration with Dublin’s R.T.E. Orchestra on 9 songs and 6 tunes which Altanhas recorded over the years. Longhair music requires acute rhythmic precision, which can be challenging for traddies, but Altan are up to the job here. The tracks, two-thirds of which are traditional, tend to begin with the band in cameo and the orchestra joining in thereafter with arrangements crafted by Irish composer Fiachra Trench.

For the Celtic purist, however, there is Boston-based button accordionist Joe Darrane’s new album, Grove Lane (Compass). The son of Irish immigrants, Darrane was musically active during the 1940s and ’50s, but dropped out of sight for decades before resurfacing in the mid-1990s. The boxmeister composes many original tunes, and this CD features an Darrane tango and waltz. Beantown superpicker John McGann handles the backup chores, insuring the quality of this fine disc.

—GLENN WEISER

CHRISTMAS MUSIC


HO HO HO! LET’S PEEK INTO SANTA’S bag and see which artists will goose your Christmas spirit into action with new holiday music!

Everybody loves those kids from Glee. So, how is their new seasonal offering, the oddly titled Columbia release Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album? Not so lovable, as it turns out. While “Merry Christmas Darling” is lovely, and k.d. lang sounds charmingly amused singing lead on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” most of the other tracks (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Angels We Have Heard On High”) are overwrought and unlistenable.

Though no one seemed to be pining for their return, Wilson Phillips released their second holiday album—remember 1993’s Hey Santa?—titled Christmas in Harmony (Sony Masterworks). It’s as pleasantly chirpy as anything they’ve ever done.

Things pick up with Annie Lennox’s predictably arty and beguiling A Christmas Cornucopia (Decca). The pop chanteuse does right by a variety of songs, including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (listen up, you punks from Glee) and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” And while we’re visiting new-wave stars of the ’80s in the wayback machine, ex-B-52 Fred Schneider’s band, the Superions, bring the party to your rumpus room with Destination . . . Christmas! (Fanatic). Charmingly rinky-dink synths are at the heart of this good-time disc, with such cheesy delights as “Santa’s Disco” and “Fruitcake.”

The folks at Bing Crosby Enterprises have been going through Der Bingle’s archives for lost treasures, and the finds have ranged from a kinescope of the final game of the 1960 World Series to this collection of mostly unreleased Christmas recordings. The Crosby Christmas Sessions (Collector’s Choice) spans the 1950s to the ’70s, and includes duets with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and a certain famous collaboration with David Bowie.

They aren’t really sisters, but they sure sing like a sister act. Retro close-harmony trio the Puppini Sisters’ delightful Christmas With the Puppini Sisters (Verve) is one bright and shiny musical object d’art. They give a selection of tried-and-true standards (“Santa Baby,” “Let It Snow,” “Mele Kalikimaka”) the Puppini treatment, which consists of splashy, swinging harmonies as cool and refreshing—and hard, in a good way—as ice.

Country favorites Lady Antebellum offer up the Target-only EP A Merry Little Christmas. The arrangements seem, well, odd—for lack of a better term—and not particularly country-sounding, but the performances are solid. The best track is a cover of the Mariah Carey classic, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Which brings us to the diva herself: Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas II You (Island) is pretty wonderful. Her 1994 album Merry Christmas is the gold standard for contemporary, radio-friendly holiday music and this follow up does not disappoint. Highlights include a couple of the usual standards, perky pop tunes (“Oh Santa!”) and a nifty medley of music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. You can’t go wrong with this one.

—SHAWN STONE

VIDEO


The Great Recession has not been kind to home video. In the past, a new format like Blu-ray would have “saved” the business in much the same way DVD took over from Laserdiscs and VHS. While Blu-ray has extended its commercial reach, 2010 was also the year when the cheaper burn-on-demand DVD format came into its own.

“In disorder there is great opportunity.” This was proved again in the licensing agreement the Criterion Collection forged with nearly bankrupt MGM for some choice titles. First in the deal is Stanley Kubrick’s World War I drama Paths of Glory. Kubrick captures the futility of trench warfare and venality of the general staff with the cool distance we came to know, if not always love; you can’t look away.

Though the image quality is superb, there aren’t many extras on the Paths of Glory disc. The second title under the MGM deal gets the deluxe treatment. Charles Laughton studied the bucolic dramas of D.W. Griffith to prepare to direct The Night of the Hunter. With an atmospheric screenplay by James Agee, the result was one of the great American films of the 1950s, a rural horror drama that gave Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish indelible roles as, respectively, a demonic preacher and a practical saint. Again, the image quality is gorgeous, but it’s the main extra makes this offering special: two and a half hours of documentary footage of Laughton directing his cast.

Other notable Criterion titles this year include eye-popping upgrades of two Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger-directed Technicolor dazzlers, the musical noir The Red Shoes, and the nuns-in-the-Himalayas drama Black Narcissus. For adventurous cinephiles, Chantal Akerman in the Seventies is an essential set (on the budget Eclipse line) of the Belgian director’s work in the “me” decade. This includes two avant garde “place” films (Hotel Monterey and News From Home) which hauntingly capture a long-lost New York City in hypnotic, unbroken takes, and two early narratives (Je, Tu, Il , Elle and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna).

The Criterion set of the year is Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg. Sternberg created the modern gangster film in Underworld; Hollywood satire doesn’t get any sharper than The Last Command; and there are few films more beautiful than Sternberg’s waterfront melodrama The Docks of New York.

All of these Criterion titles are available on both DVD and Blu-ray—with the criminal exceptions of the Sternberg and Akerman sets, which are DVD only.

Disney recently released DVD and Blu-ray “diamond” editions of two favorites, Beauty and the Beast and Fantasia. (The latter is paired with the less enchanting sequel, Fantasia 2000.) The Mouse House caused something of a stir by making some of the extras in the Fantasia package Blu-ray only. If you want something more modern from Disney, there’s The Princess and the Frog, or the Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland (not in 3D, not yet anyway). The latter’s success prompted any number of versions of “Alice” to hit the marketplace, the weirdest being 1933’s Alice in Wonderland, from Universal, with the likes of Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields hidden under elaborate, creepy makeup/costumes.
Kino on Video just released the “complete” version of Fritz Lang’s epic bit of sci-fi insanity, Metropolis, which is perfect for fanboys of all ages. Also from Kino are newly remastered versions of two Buster Keaton comedies on one handy disc: the surreal and sublime Sherlock Jr., paired with the knockabout parody The Three Ages. (In the latter, Wallace Beery does much of the knocking while Keaton does most of the getting knocked about.) Both are available on Blu-ray and DVD.

And then there’s TV on DVD. Shout! Factory continue to license interesting stuff from the major studios, including this week’s release of all 26 episodes of Jack Webb’s laconic—Zenlike?—police drama Dragnet 1969: Season Three. The “season three” business refers to the fact that it follows Dragnet 1967 and Dragnet 1968, previously available, and precedes Dragnet 1970, which is not yet available. (All are DVD-only.) You got that, mister?

Now, about those burn-on-demand DVDs sold direct to consumer. Sony took a look at the money Warner Bros. was making with Warner Archive, and started Screen Classics By Request. (Go on, Google it.) They’ve opened the Columbia Pictures vaults to offer everything from 1930s westerns starring Buck Jones to 1980s made-for-TV movies starring Jean Stapleton. I haven’t seen very many of these, but the reports on disc quality have generally been positive. Notable releases include the British serial-killer drama 10 Rillington Place, starring a young John Hurt and a deliciously nasty Richard Attenborough; the experimental comedian-on-the-run drama Mickey One, starring Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn; and the gloriously schmaltzy Chopin biopic A Song to Remember, with Cornel Wilde as the great musician and scenery-chewer Paul Muni as his crusty musical mentor.

Warner Archive—the Warner Bros. DVD-on-demand service—upped their quality control in 2010 with a series of “remastered editions.” These have included the 1960s Japanese monster movie The Green Slime; Robert Altman’s nutty Brewster McCloud, starring Bud Cort as a bird-obsessed freak who lives in the Houston Astrodome; the Al Jolson musical Mammy, with spectacular restored color sequences; the ’70s sexploitation flick Pretty Maids All in a Row, with Rock Hudson as a high school football coach who beds and kills teenage girls; and, finally, two nifty newspaper dramas, Jack Webb’s resolutely by-the-book -30- and Mervyn LeRoy’s deliciously sleazy Best Picture nominee (!) Five Star Final, which has a career performance by Edward G. Robinson as an amoral editor who’s a little “too expert” at his job. These last two films will make you feel a bit like the rest of us ink-stained wretches.

—SHAWN STONE

VIDEO GAMES


EVERY KID (AND ADULT) WITH AN XBOX 360 is going crazy this year for the Kinect. The peripheral allows players to control games with their bodies rather than being restrained by any handheld controller. The initial experience is thrilling. Drive a car by holding your hands in the steering-wheel position, jump through obstacle courses, box, dance, etc., while the Johnny 5-looking camera that is the Kinect watches your every move and takes your picture. Unfortunately, the software Microsoft has released for use with the device does not utilize its full potential. Microsoft has hinted that eventually staple games from the rich 360 library will be compatible with the device, a prospect that is truly exciting: playing Call of Duty by pretending to shoot an imaginary gun, running, jumping and climbing in Castlevania and so on. But so far none of these complex games work with the Kinect. The current slate of releases is similar to the Wii’s simplistic, child-oriented games. This does Microsoft no favors, as the system has earned a reputation as the choice for hardcore gamers. Even though the device may appear on a number of gift lists you get this year, I would recommend holding off on a purchase until there is a worthy slate of games.

Playstation 3 owners have the similar Playstation Move to satisfy their motion-controlled gaming urge, but the technology is awkward and not nearly as hands-free as the Kinect. Again, the software released for the Move is fairly bland. Both the Kinect and the Move could easily end up as expensive paperweights in your house unless both companies design a better slate of releases.

A number of compelling releases for hardcore gamers came out this fall. On the top of my list is Bethesda’s Fallout New Vegas, available for PS3, X360 and PC. The game takes place in the post-apocalyptic world of 2008’s Fallout 3, but changes locales from the wastelands of Washington, D.C., to Las Vegas. The game’s cultural satire and brilliantly designed Vegas strip, complete with surrounding locales such as the Hoover Dam, and the radio stations rife with tunes like Marty Irons’ “Big Iron” and Jay Kyser’s “Jingle Jangle Jingle,” are worth the price of admission. But buyer beware: The game was rushed to market and has a number of critical glitches that can make playing the game’s main story impossible. There are still more than 50 hours of game play with plenty to explore and complete, even with the glitch, and a patch is supposedly on the way. But the game has been on the market over a month and devotees such as myself are still waiting.

Shooter fans can get their frag fix with the brilliant and epic Halo Reach and Call of Duty Black Ops. Both games are basically for fans of online play only; their single-player campaigns are short and don’t have much replay value.

Perhaps the most overlooked but most fun release of the year is Dead Rising 2. Imagine Las Vegas overrun with zombies, and you must take advantage of all of the resources in the casinos, shops and restaurants to take on the zombie horde while providing your daughter with medicine to stave off her zombie infection and saving as many survivors as possible. Now combine all of that with awkward, off-the-wall Japanese humor, and you get one of the most creative games released this year. Put a drill together with a bucket to create a drill-hat that destroys zombie brains, add a car battery to a rake to zap zombies into submission. The replay value here is great because there is a plethora of game-changing decisions to make and weapon combinations to explore.

Old-school gamers will be glad to hear that Castlevania made its triumphant return to the X360 and PS3 this year in the form of Castlevania: Lord of Shadows. The game is derivative of God of War, Uncharted and Ninja Gaiden, but in a sense, Castlevania defined hack-and-slash gameplay in the ’80s, and it’s fitting that it has returned to reclaim its throne. Sure, the story is wacky—having Patrick Stewart give you advice throughout the game is a little unsettling—and there are a few missteps in level design, but there is so much to explore in the game that it takes two DVDs to contain the entire vampire-slaying escapade. This one should keep you and the kids entertained for days.

—DAVID KING

KID’S STUFF


WHILE RAISING A CHILD IN A MODEST (read: small) home on a modest (read: penny-pinching) budget, potential toy purchases are subject to an elaborate rubric developed through, well, necessity and basic common sense. Our little one is still too small to put in requests of her own, which will surely sway the system. But for now, toys are judged on four criteria: size, price, endurance and awesome. The breakdown follows.

Size—The area of our rapidly shrinking floor space or one precious closet this item would require be sacrificed in its name.

Price—How many spaghetti dinners this is going to set us back.
Endurance—How long this will last and how well it will evolve in play and learning value as the little one grows.
Awesome—The irrational, emotional, kid-in-a-candy-store excitement level it incites.

For the purpose of these recommendations, we will assume 1) this is real 2) this is helpful and 3) the scoring works as follows: Size is to be measured vaguely in, um, cubic cubits; price will be indicated by dollar signs with one $ representing 10 dollars; endurance will be rated fairly arbitrarily, in seconds, with 60 seconds being infinity; awesome will be measured in gasps.
The following toys are winners according to the system, with awesome being weighted slightly higher than usual considering the holidays offer a free pass for a bit of shameless indulgence.
Twig blocks: $$$$$, 3 cubits, 55 seconds, 8 gasps

This colorful set of 72 sustainable rubberwood blocks ($49.99) is stained with a spectrum of vivid, nontoxic water-based dyes, precision cut and carved to create a new classic in building-block realms, safe for little ones and enthralling even to adults. The pieces—cubes, cuboids and columns—slide and stack together for unbounded, abstract architectural play that refines small motor, problem-solving, and visual-spacial skills, encourages imaginative, complex and open-ended designs that look so darn cheerful you might end up using them for a centerpiece at your next dinner party.
Citiblocs: $$$$, 3 cubits, 60 seconds, 9 gasps

Quality blocks are the overall victors in the endurance category—infants love them, kids will buckle down for hours of building, and I challenge any adult to sit for three minutes in a pile of blocks without starting to stack. Another winner in the precision-cut blocks division comes from citiblocs. Available in sets of 50 to 1,000 pieces ($13 to $340) and in natural pine or hot or cool colors, the magic of these blocks is in their exact simplicity. Every block is exactly the same size and shape, designed at the ideal ratio to stack, balance and cantilever them into spectacular creations. Skyscrapers, serpents, trees, trains, trestles, DNA, silos taller than the builder—you can create them all (and anything else you can imagine) with citiblocs.

eeBoo Puzzle pairs: $, 2 cubits, 25 seconds, 7 gasps

These super-simple puzzles for the preschool set from eeBoo ($14.95) are wonderfully manageable for independent tykes, and their contemporary classic designs are sure to please kids and parents alike. An array of puzzles are available for different learning levels, but all combine good old-fashioned matching games and puzzles into a single, fun tool for learning language and math. In the simplest set, a letter “A” and an airplane connect into corresponding puzzle pairs; the flipside teaches numbers and counting. More complex concepts pair opposites, rhyming words and illustrated short sentences.
Knot so Fast: $$, 2 cubits, 35 seconds, 6 gasps

If gathering your family together for traditional board games is a challenge, maybe you’ll have luck with this tricky, twisting, knot tying race from ThinkFun ($19.99). Maybe being a sailor’s daughter warmed me to this game a little more than most, but the smart and simple concept seems like a classic in the making: Players race to tie the complex knots on each of 40 challenge cards. They won’t even notice it teaches spacial development and dexterity—or that next year they may be able to tie the Christmas tree to the roof while you sip hot chocolate.
Thumball: $, 1 cubit, 30 seconds, 6 gasps

Proving yet again that simple is often best when it comes to toy concepts, Thumball is quickly becoming a hit from cribs to corporate retreats. Available in 18 designs, the 4- to 6-inch, paneled balls ($10.99-$13.99) resemble a traditional soccer ball, except for one key detail. Each panel of a Thumball is emblazoned with a symbol, a letter, a story starter, action, question, etc. Players toss the ball and the catcher responds depending on what panel their thumb hits. You can play by yourself, with a friend, or with 20, invent your own creative rules, change them as you go, play for competition, study, to break the ice, learn your alphabet, shatter writer’s block or just have fun.
Music Box Kit: $, 1 cubit, 60 seconds, 9 gasps

For the aspiring musician in your life comes this DIY music box kit from Kikkerland Design ($12.95). The old-fashioned wonder works like a nickelodeon, spinning music from punched paper strips. A number of songs are available prepunched, but what makes this tiny treasure particularly delightful is that it comes with three blank scores (printed with a treble clef and barlines) and a tiny punch to create your own tunes. Write your own, punch willy-nilly, or map out a few measures from the Flaming Lips or Yo Gabba Gabba. More blank strips are available for purchase separately ($5 for a five-pack). Note: While this may be cast aside after the last sheet is punched by some, it easily has 60-second, heirloom potential for the right kiddo (also, I want one).

The Magical Amazing Robot: $$, 2 cubits, 50 seconds, 10 gasps
This is officially one of the coolest toys ever. Ever. We unearthed a real old-fashioned 1950s one a while ago, but thanks to Perishpere & Trylon—a Los Angeles-based toy company named for iconic symbols of the 1939 World’s Fair—a retro version is now available for ($19.95). Did I mention this is awesome? The old-time novelty combines trivia, fortune telling, a touch of science, vintage graphics—and a magic robot—into an amazing game that “fascinates and educates.” (It really does!) Just place the robot on the question circle and turn him until his pointer is on the question you want to ask, then move him to the answer circle and ZIP! Like magic he will spin around and point to the correct answer. The board comes with 128 questions and corresponding answers on 5 double-sided trivia sheets. With some savvy whiteout usage and a scanner or photocopier you can create unlimited blank sheets and puzzle out your own questions and answers. Seriously. It’s a magic robot that teaches obscure trivia. A magic robot. 10 gasps guaranteed, plus a smile every time you see it on the shelf.

—KATHRYN GEURIN


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