If U2 is a little too recent for your gift-giving whims, check out Mothership, the brand-new retrospective of those original monsters of rock, Led Zeppelin. Again, it's a two-CD, one-DVD set, but this one looks back on the entire Zepp catalog, from "Good Times, Bad Times" to "Kashmir." Believe it or not, there are kids out there today who have only heard snippets of Led Zeppelin on Cadillac ads. The DVD is filled with classic clips from 1970s concerts in London and New York. (TSM)
Slightly less luxurious but every bit as foundational is the series of The Essential... collections put out by Sony. Sure, you don't get the snazzy packaging and the bonus DVD, but if your aim is to educate said whippersnapper on where we've been musically (and, quite possibly, where we'll end up again), each of these releases acts as a good primer on some of the more important musical characters in our history. (It's kind of like musical Cliff's Notes.) And though the series occasionally errs by omitting an important work from the cannon (there's no "April Come She Will" on The Essential Simon and Garfunkel?!), they usually get it about right.
We recommend starting your musical neophyte with The Essential Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Take it from there.
Of course, there's a lot more than a simple Essential collection available in the world of Bob Dylan this winter. Dude seems to be everywhere lately. He had a big hit with Modern Times last year, he's still gaining gonzo currency with his weird Theme Time Radio Hour on XM and BBC radio, and now he's Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin all rolled into one in the new, fractured, fantastical biopic I'm Not There. You can't quite yet give somebody the film for Christmas, but you can give away the soundtrack, in which Dylan is played by about 35 different musical acts -- including Sonic Youth, Iron & amp; Wine, Calexico, Roger McGuinn, Los Lobos, Sufjan Stevens, the Hold Steady and Ramblin' Jack Elliott -- covering some of his most popular ("The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Stuck Inside of Memphis") and obscure ("The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues") tunes.
Dylan's songs are often best covered by those with more ample vocal gifts, but your newbie would probably benefit from hearing the genuine articles, too. To that end, there's a brand new, three-disc career anthology, Dylan, from Sony. Available in two flavors, deluxe (with a 40-page booklet and a red cloth box with a magnetic lid) and collector's (with a 25-page booklet and without some of the other flair), the anthology covers Dylan's career chronologically (somewhat disappointingly) from Song to Woody to When the Deal Goes Down, and everywhere in between. (JS)
This year has been surprisingly fertile for soundtracks, and not the usual collection of hip songs that are thrown together, a la Garden State. For Pearl Jam fans, one of the more anticipated records of recent years has been Eddie Vedder's collection of songs for Into the Wild. Director Sean Penn made all the right moves on the film version of the Jon Krakauer bestseller, and Vedder's bleak, sometimes angry, acoustic tunes fit the film's mood just right.
Viewers seemed to either love or hate Julie Taymor's Across the Universe, but there's no denying the power of the music. Her re-imagining of the music of the Beatles is a kind of magical, mystery tour all its own, and the songs are different, too, as sung by Jude (Jim Sturgess), Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Dr. Robert (Bono) and even Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard).
But for anyone who loves to sing along in her car, you can't do any better than the Hairspray soundtrack -- the Grease of this generation. There are so many catchy songs here it's ridiculous. Queen Latifah, Zac Effron and Nikki Blonsky really belt it on "I Know Where I've Been," "Ladies' Choice" and "Good Morning Baltimore." This is feel-good music, pure and simple. (TSM)
This year also, though, offered an astoundingly singable feel-bad soundtrack, with the songs from Once, an indie film about a down-on-his-luck Irish street musician (Glen Hansard of Irish indie darlings the Frames) who can't get over his ex but is starting to fall for a cute (and married) Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) with an angel's voice. The songs are almost unwaveringly sad -- and some, like the hair-raising "Say It To Me Now" are almost violently bitter -- but Hansard's ear for melody drives the tunes into your brain, and Irglova's harmony gives them all a strangely beautiful glow. This is one of the year's best records, soundtrack or not. (JS)
Let's face it, people want the hits -- and we're not talking about the lesser hits. No, people want the greatest hits, and this year there are some great greatest hits records. This year marked the end of one of the great musical careers of all time when Luciano Pavarotti passed away. To mark the master, Decca Records pulled together the new two-disc Pavarotti Forever . Disc One features his takes on some of opera's classic moments, while Disc Two is a trip through the rest of his massive catalog, including his duet with Frank Sinatra on "My Way."
One of the great voices in jazz these past couple decades has been Diana Krall, and this is a great introduction for someone who hasn't been turned on to Krall's distinctive voice and perfect arrangements. The Very Best of Diana Krall features her biggest hits, like "Peel Me a Grape," along with three previously unreleased tracks. If you want, you can upgrade to the Limited Edition, which comes with an eight-track DVD.
Speaking of legendary voices, Emmylou Harris also has a new collection worth giving, out just in time for the holidays. With five discs, and put together by the fine folks at Rhino Records (they do boxed sets right), this one is for confirmed fans. There's way too much to cover here, but these 78 tracks go back 40 years, and all have been hand-chosen by Emmylou. Not a greatest hits package exactly, Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems is just that -- a collection of the flotsam of a stunning career. The guest list is stunning, too, with Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Rodney Crowell, Mark Knopfler and, of course, the late, great Gram Parsons. This is the kind of collection you could spend your entire Christmas holiday savoring, and that is what giving the gift of music should be all about. (TSM)
When All Else Fails
There's no accounting for musical taste. While music can inspire impossibly deep emotions and connections, those feelings -- for all their depth -- can also be impossibly narrow. Giving somebody music for the holidays is a wonderful idea, but giving somebody the wrong music can be disastrous. (Harry Belafonte's Greatest Hits? Aw, Dad, you... really shouldn't have. Seriously.)
When you're not up to guessing which exact album from which exact artist is going to make your kid brother pee his pants (in a good way), play it safe. Get him a gift certificate to iTunes, or Amazon.com, or eMusic. Or get him something on which to play the music he already loves -- an iPod, a Zune, whatever.
Better yet, get him the iCarta, a stereo dock for an iPod or other MP3 player that has a very special feature: Besides playing music, it doubles as a toilet paper holder.
There are a lot of things kids these days don't give a crap about. Music isn't one of them. (JS)