The perfect CD to give is the one that the receiver doesn’t have, doesn’t know they need and doesn’t want to end. May your gift giving – and receiving – this holiday season be so inspired. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Ryan Adams, “1989” (Pax Am) Back when he called Raleigh home, Adams would sometimes throw the occasional Backstreet Boys cover into his live sets, suggesting more of an affinity for pure pop than you’d expect. Thus we have his cover version of the 13 songs from Taylor Swift’s mega-selling “1989,” reimagined as quiet songs mourning the end of his marriage. It’s a brilliant piece of alchemy.
Courtney Barnett, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” (Mom + Pop Music) There’s something so charmingly unassuming about an Australian accent, which sounds nonchalant even when it’s being hollered over churning throwback-grunge arrangements. “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” sounds like it could have come out of Seattle during the city’s ’90s heyday, but Barnett’s Down Under drawl makes it a bit of a curveball. Rewards binge-listening well.
David Bowie, “Five Years 1969-1973” (Rhino/Parlophone) The title is the only thing understated about this lavish 10-disc box set from the prime of Bowie’s artistic life, starting with the glam-rock landmarks “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane” for starters. “Five Years” compiles all his studio and live albums from 1969 to ’73, plus a rarities disc. The compact-disc version features shrunk-down reproductions of the original 12-inch vinyl records (right down to the inner sleeves). And it’s all great. Bowie would go on to plenty of subsequent glories, but this is still the period when he mattered most.
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Leon Bridges, “Coming Home” (Columbia) You’ve probably got at least one relative who thinks the last good singer who drew breath on planet earth was Sam Cooke. This young Texas soul and gospel singer’s debut album is what you should get for curmudgeons like that, because it will prove them wrong. “Coming Home” fits comfortably alongside Sharon Jones in the current wave of contemporary soul, with cool grooves to go with hot singing and playing.
Bob Dylan, “Shadows in the Night” (Columbia) On paper, Dylan covering Frank Sinatra sounds like a terrible train-wreck of an idea along the lines of his ghastly 2009 Christmas album (the memory of which can still induce shudders). And yet because he’s Dylan and not a lesser mortal like the rest of us, “Shadows in the Night” is remarkably, weirdly affecting. It’s the perfect soundtrack for your next seance. Move over, Tom Waits, and tell Tony Bennett the news.
Rhiannon Giddens, “Tomorrow Is My Turn” (Nonesuch) In which the Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder/chanteuse goes solo, with an assist from Americana auteur T Bone Burnett. As produced by Burnett, “Tomorrow Is My Turn” showcases the sonic boom of Giddens’ voice on an impressive range of material from old-country classical to sassy folk-blues. But the revelations happen when she goes country on the Patsy Cline standard “She’s Got You” and Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind.” There really isn’t anything she can’t do.
Jack the Radio, “Badlands” (jacktheradio.com) If arena-sized crowds still seemed like a reachable goal for young bands playing straight-up rock music, Raleigh quintet Jack The Radio would be a prime candidate for moving up to the major leagues. From the opening blast of spaghetti-western flourishes on the album-opening “Bad Man,” “Badlands” crackles with large-scale assurance and authority.
6 String Drag, “Roots Rock ’n’ Roll” (Royal Potato) It’s been (gulp) 18 long years since this local country-soul group last recorded, back when alternative-country was going through its next-big-thing scare. Yet Kenny Roby and Rob Keller somehow manage to make time stand still on “Roots Rock ‘N’ Roll.” That middle ground between Elvis Costello and Doug Sahm is still just as fertile.
Tame Impala, “Currents” (Interscope) This Australian ensemble has always had a super-sharp flair for Beatle-esque psychedelic drones. But the group’s third full-length album is less about melody than rhythm, with those drones cohering into a pulse that’s perfect for dance floors – without losing the hooks, either. Impressive all the way around.
Butch Walker, “Afraid of Ghosts” (Dangerbird) With production from the aforementioned Ryan Adams, “Afraid of Ghosts” more than lives up to its title. Hushed tones and anguished emotions prevail, which isn’t surprising given that Walker wrote these songs in the shadow of his late father’s passing. The results are exquisite, and not the least bit mawkish.