The music part of Sunday’s annual holidaygift guide

Posted by David Menconi on December 2, 2013 

The annual “Holiday Gift Guide” ran in Sunday’s News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, including a dozen CDs. But due to some production issues, some of the blurbs I wrote didn’t show up online. So here’s the complete list. Buy early, buy often and buy local - half of these 12 albums are from North Carolina.

Olafur Arnalds, “For Now I Am Winter” (Mercury Classics) - This Icelandic electronic composer specializes in coldly beautiful soundscapes. He took a shot at mainstream Western sensibilities with this album, featuring vocals in English. The reason it works is that Arnalds also has unerring pop sense. “For Now I Am Winter” is as accessible as this kind of music gets.

“The Civil Wars” (Columbia) - Citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition,” the country-folk duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White split up while making this album, and the tension is easy to hear. And yet “The Civil Wars” is lovely despite the undercurrents. The first song’s indelible chorus sets the tone: “I wish you were the one that got away.”

Daft Punk, “Random Access Memories” (Columbia) - This French electronic duo's exuberant “Get Lucky” is every bit as carnally inclined as Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” but without the creepy date-rape undercurrents. It’s the hit single of 2013, and the rest of “Random Access Memories” holds up, too.

Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt, “Night” (Sony Classics) - On this intriguing collaboration, pianist Dinnerstein and expatriate North Carolinian Merritt meet each other halfway and conjure some moments as lovely as they are unexpected. Folk-classical just might be the next big thing.

Foreign Exchange, “Love in Flying Colors” (Foreign Exchange Music) - Former Little Brother frontman Phonte Coleman also presides over this sharp r&b ensemble, in which capacity he was born to captain your love boat. “Love in Flying Colors” sounds like a time-capsule recording of the greatest album that Earth, Wind & Fire never got around to putting out back in the day.

Hiss Golden Messenger, “Haw” (Paradise of Bachelors) - North Carolina has always been blessed with a plethora of great alternative-country acts, and M.C. Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger sounds destined for the pantheon of our state’s all-time greats. “Haw” is gospel-fired country-blues with an obsessive streak, spectacularly rendered.

Jason Isbell, “Southeastern” (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers) - Bar none, former Drive-By Truckers guitarist Isbell is roots rock’s finest pure songwriter working today. “Southeastern” is full of brilliant writerly flourishes that would come across as show-offy in lesser hands, but Isbell makes it all sound as natural as breathing.

Garrett LeBeau, “Rise to the Grind” (Music Road) - Bump-and-grind seduction music is rarely this understated, refined or all-around good. Texas soul singer LeBeau manages the neat trick of presenting himself as simultaneously cool and amorous, all while never breaking a sweat. Recommended if you like Boz Scaggs.

Mandolin Orange, “This Side of Jordan” (Yep Roc) - Another of our local alternative-country denizens checks in with a set of back-porch musings that sound both stunning and casually dashed off. Perfect Sunday-morning music to do with your coffee. The duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz make it look easy.

Leyla McCalla, “Vari-Colored Songs” (Music Maker) - Subtitled “A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” this album finds New Orleans singer/cellist (and Carolina Chocolate Drops alumnus) McCalla setting the late great author’s poetry to music with terrific results. Originals and (in a nod to McCalla’s background) Haitian folk songs fill out the collection, all fitting together seamlessly.

Superchunk, “I Hate Music” (Merge) - In theory, punk rock was never built for the long haul. In practice, the standard-bearing band from Chapel Hill's early-’90s “next big thing” period goes right on putting out excellent records. Superchunk will reach its 25-year anniversary in 2014, and the jokily titled “I Hate Music” sounds as fresh and vital as ever.

Third of Never, “Downrising” (Jam) - Frontman Jon lives in La Grange, N.C., but “Downrising” sounds like it originated from closer to the River Thames than the vicinity of the Neuse River. Dawson has always had a sonic crush on The Who, and “Downrising” wonderfully evokes that band’s amped-up glory. It’s as good a classic-rock-styled record as any I’ve heard this year.

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