The Holidays are upon us and if you need some help to lock down some cool gifts for your friends, lovers, spouses, and/or kids, let me steer you towards some fabulous content. There are plenty of vital books, music, DVDs, even collectible vinyl figures worth seeking out. Here's a short A - Z list:
Aloe Blacc: Good Things (Stones Throw)
Fresh, dynamic urban R&B; wicked throw-back cool. Mr. Blacc's voice is the bomb; whether dipping to guttural love pleas or rising to a excited falsetto. Reimagined cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" that is devastatingly soulful.
Audiokonstrukte: City Echoes (Fürni)
Yes, Virginia, ambient can be cool and warm. Just ask Santa after he's been zipping around from party to party and needs to chill. This Berlin outfit is the perfect holiday brain-melting bromide.
Auditorium: Be Brave (Self Released)
Auditorium is the nom du plume of singer/songwriter/musician/actor of the LA-based Spencer Berger. This 14 song, 30-minute album is one of the freshest releases of the year. Mining the lair of Arthur Lee (of Love) and Elliot Smith, Mr. Berger has crafted a wonderfully engrossing folk-rock affair that boasts a '60s pop-rock sheen with a modern day angular alt rock vibe; often just his multi-tracked voice with acoustic guitar and bass.
The Beatles: Abbey Road (EMI)
Finally available on iTunes, this release will always hold a special place in their canon of work. Reminds me of my youth. My cousin Vinny gave me this LP for Christmas when it was originally released. As history has shown us, the Liverpudians delivered on the final LP that they recorded before disbanding. Still an essential DID, even in twenty-ten.
Black Dub: Black Dub (Jive)
Daniel Lanois, known as the consumate producer for U2, Dylan, Neil Young, et al., has new quartet. Young 22-year old vocalist Trixie Whitley (Chris' daughter), critically-lauded jazzbo drummer Brian Blade, and longtime bassist Daryl Johnson reimagine the roots-rock genre with texture, passion, and killer chops.
Ron English Paintings, Books & Toys
Popaganda surrealist painter Ron English knows how to appeal to the toy collectors, art book collectors, t-shirt collectors, and yes, even the serious art collectors. And he recognizes that even a limited-edition vinyl sculptor run for ComicCon or Kid Robot may someday increase in value. Don't believe me? Check eBay for proof!
Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band: Almost Acoustic/Ragged But Right (Rhino)
This must-own, special two-fer is the newly remastered version of out-of-print classic Almost Acoustic and the previously unreleased Ragged But Right recorded back in the late '80s. JGCB opened about two dozen shows for Jerry's electric band on Broadway and in the Bay Area. Sandy Rothman (mandolin, dobro, banjo, vocals) and David Nelson (guitar, vocals), of New Riders of the Purple Sage fame, had even played with Jerry back in the early '60s in the bluegrass outfit the Black Mountain Boys. Will keep you grinnin' from ear to ear.
The Good Heart (Magnolia)
Movies for men, acting like men, in the company of men. Like a Tom Waits song come to life. Paul Dano and Bryan Cox spar like veteran actors although Dano is four decades his junior. Don't believe those critics that tell you that it has no heart, or soul, or point. The point is made from the get-go. That point is about friendship. Friendship that finds two disparate individuals who need each other. That keeps their hearts ticking. Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 1 (Warner Brothers) - The perils of growing up, especially in literature and film, can be perilous. Thankfully director David Yates has afforded both grownup and children the opportunity to embrace life's dark passages with our familiar friends and foes in this the potent 7th installment of J.K. Rowling's magnificent literary accomplishment. Kudos to the majestic cinematographer Eduardo Serra's sweeping landscapes and the use of Nick Cave's "O Children" in a particularly endearing moment.
Jónsi: Go (XL)
Jón Thor Birigisson, the singer/guitarist of Sigur Ros, released one of the freshest "pop" records of the year. Orchestral, majestic and weird this solo effort maintains his Icelandic band's otherworldly sonic sensibilities while sprinkling it with some magical Brian Wilson huldufolk dust.
Kristian Hoffman: Fop (Kayo Stereophonics)
Mr. Hoffman has been musical director for Rufus Wainwright and Ann Magnuson, wrote Klaus Nomi's hit "Total Eclipse," and was the chief songwriter for legendary CBGB's band Mumps. Here he is all pop-cool camp and arsenic; sweet and lethal. In "Ready or Not" he sings my favorite line of the year, "I'll bitch slap you with a flower."
Life by Keith Richards (Little, Brown, and Co.)
One can't argue with Keef's honesty. A true page turner in every sense of the word. The very first chapter had me laughing out loud about him and Ronnie Wood getting a arrested in Arkansas during their 1975 tour. And the bits about his "5-string guitar sound" and tunings and how it afforded him new creative songwriting peaks are fascinating, even if you're not a player. Co-authored by celebrated White Mischief UK-scribe James Fox.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Damn The Torpedoes (Geffen)
This Deluxe reissue -- with alternative, live, and demo takes -- proves how integral Mr. Petty and his Lads were to the American rock landscape and the legacy of FM Rock Radio. Sure tracks like "Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That" were played to death, but for good reason. They are great freakin' rock tunes played by an amazingly taut, tight quintet. And Tom and Jimmy Iovine's production perfectly captured them in the studio, too. Damn, 30 years later it still holds up extremely well, top to bottom.
The Rockettes: Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Forget how hip and cool you think you might be and grab your lover, or kids, or a friend and catch some Holiday magic at this storied venue. The Rockettes dazzle with precision and chops. And, oh yeah, great legs, too!
Bruce Springsteen: The Promise (Columbia)
Back in the '70s, The Boss could do no wrong. It's extraordinary that during his contract meltdown years he still found time to record a treasure trove of tunes. As Steve Holtje, our music editor, so astutely pointed out in his stellar review of The Promise, one could assemble tracks from those outtakes and release a record of staggering Springsteeness. Certainly every bit as viable as 1975's opus Born to Run, it would be the perfect bridge to his dark, brooding 1978 masterpiece, Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Ronnie Wood: I Feel Like Playing (Eagle Records)
Surprised? You bet. This grizzled ol' rocker cranks up the guitars and gets his Faces-era mojo workin' on 12 "comfort-food" tunes on his 7th solo effort. Lending chops to the proceedings are some of his buddies including Flea, Slash, Jim Keltner, Ivan Neville, Bobby Womack, Billy Gibbons, et al.
Toy Story 3 (Pixar)
How do they do it? With great stories, amazing animation, plenty of wit, and a whole lot of heart and soul. Their unprecedented success as a movie studio is staggering. In the final installment, Andy is preparing to leave for college and so he must decide the fate of his beloved toys. All the heartwarming elements are in place -- great dialogue, funny scenes, the loss of innocence, the passing of the torch, or in this case, Andy's toys, i.e., Woody, Buzz, Jessie, et al. The Ken and Barbie scenes are priceless. The perfect family movie in these over-stimulated times.
UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record by Leslie Kean (Crown)
Even the most ardent skeptic will find it difficult to refute claims by top military, political, and scientific folks from all over the world offering up compelling evidence -- including former Republican Arizona governor Fife Symington III. He wrote a personal letter about his UFO sighting while governor and called for the U.S. government to form an international investigative body in "Setting The Record Straight" chapter. For UFO aficionados, none of these cases will be new as they are all well-documented. But what is impressive is that Ms. Kean gathered many of these highly respected, high level officials together under one cover!
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.