One thing about Nirvana is clear: the band defined an era in rock. And they did it without selling out their principles and without selling short the fans who had been there with them from the beginning. Fortunately, this newly released three-CD, one-DVD set does much more than merely present a collection of Nirvana hits with a few rarities and live bits thrown in.
With the Lights Out (Geffen) is more of a complete reworking than a repackaging of the band's legacy, with almost every one of its tracks representing something that has rarely been heard before -- B-sides, compilation obscurities, radio performances, basement demos -- all lovingly assembled in more or less chronological order, giving fans an intimate look and rare insights into the genesis and evolution of Kurt Cobain's brilliant though ultimately doomed vision. -- Mike Corrigan
No Pavement fan who has been good this year should be without this deluxe two-disc reissue of the seminal indie band's second proper album, which includes (on disc one) a dozen rarely-heard bonus tracks from the album sessions along with (on disc two) 25 previously unreleased tracks from the same general era, along with a 64-page color booklet containing photos and personal recollections from each of the band members. By the time Crooked Rain Crooked Rain (Matador) was released in 1994, Pavement was approaching the zenith of its creative arc and was somehow also nearing the peak of its commercial viability (if you can even call it that), a tenuous viability at best that rested almost solely on the strength and relative radio-friendliness of the college radio hit, "Cut Your Hair." Yet the real pay dirt comes later, particularly with "Gold Sounds," one of the most unguarded and beautiful songs in the Pavement catalog, and "Range Life," a hazy and hilarious country-flavored snapshot of life on the road. The moody "Fillmore Jive" takes even a darker stab at rock touring as the song's insomniac protagonist tosses out recollections of drugs, hipsters, big hair, and lost kids. In all, a gloriously indulgent feast of prime '90s indie rock. -- Mike Corrigan
Broadway: The American Musical Box Set
For fans of the Great White Way, this massive new retrospective was released in October to coincide with the PBS series of the same name: Broadway: The American Musical. This box set features five jam-packed CDs spanning eight decades, from Al Jolson's "Swanee" to Matthew Broderick's "I Want to Be a Producer." Along the way, you'll be able to sing along with beloved tunes from Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Hair, A Chorus Line, Cats, Miss Saigon -- you name it. And all Broadway's best voices are represented, too, including Paul Robeson, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Jerry Orbach, Mandy Patinkin and even Hugh Jackman. The set also comes with in-depth liner notes by Broadway historian Laurence Maslon. But if you really want to splurge, there's a coffee table book also designed to go along with the PBS series. Break a leg! -- Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Buddy Miller United Universal House of Prayer
Not since the Blind Boys of Alabama's Spirit of the Century has gospel felt this resonant, raw and real. Buddy Miller, who (along with wife Julie) is perhaps most known for his backup work for Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams, steps up front -- right up front, brothers and sisters -- to testify for the Lord. There's a real yearning to this record and enough grit to satisfy even the most non-religious Americana fan on your list - gospel's never been about prettying things up or denying hard times. Harris adds her haunting voice to "Wide River To Cross," a bittersweet refrain of loneliness and hope. Give this to the folks on your list who are big Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and of course, Emmylou Harris fans. -- Sheri Boggs
Jan Garbarek In Praise of Dreams
A Norwegian on saxophones and synthesizer, a Frenchman on drums, an Armenian-American on viola -- not your usual jazz trio. But Jan Garbarek, whose long tones on tenor and soprano typified the ECM sound of the '80s, has been pulling off innovative collaborations for a decade now with Renaissance vocal groups like the Hilliard Ensemble. Listen here for his sinuous interplay with Kim Kashkashian on the title tune and for Manu Katche's subtle percussion fills throughout. While he ought to dispense with the drum machine, Garbarek has nevertheless created moody, brooding, dreamy music that lulls your soul just before it screeches out surprises. -- Michael Bowen
The Clash London Calling, 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition
London Calling is a sonic snapshot of the Clash -- arguably punk rock's most thoughtful and creative ambassadors -- in 1979 at the crossroads of their brief yet illustrious careers. Here the fury and moral indignation of early albums is fused to songwriting that was exponentially growing diverse and sophisticated. The title track is apocalyptic and prophetic. "Lost in the Supermarket" and "Clampdown" take vastly different approaches while targeting the same societal ill: apathy. The ironic "Death or Glory" ridicules the very notion of integrity in rock. It's the strongest collection the band ever put together. Epic's new 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition lovingly repackages this milestone album as a two-CD, one-DVD set complete with a handwritten lyric sheet (originally included with the LP version) and a lavishly annotated, full-color 34-page booklet full of photographs, cartoons and assorted scrawlings from the band. The second CD contains 21 previously unreleased London Calling rehearsal versions (including five new songs), while the DVD (called The Last Testament) contains footage from a recently discovered home video made during the recording sessions. -- Mike Corrigan
Matador at 15 various artists
To commemorate 15 years in the business of bringing exciting, challenging artists to the indie rock fore, Matador Records -- one of the biggest and consistently best independent labels in the land-- is giving it all away for cheap. Matador at 15 is not a retrospective. Rather, this generous two-CD, one-DVD compilation assembles random "greatest hits," rarities and unreleased tracks along with a dozen music videos from bands on the label's roster (Mogwai, Pavement, Mary Timony, Interpol, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, New Pornographers, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Cat Power, etc.) all roughly from the period 1999-2004. It comes in an embossed foldout digi-pak with a 20-page booklet recounting many of the highlights of the past five years via original documents -- all for the astoundingly reasonable list price of only $16. These are indeed happy holidays. -- Mike Corrigan