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Music Review: Indie CDs Holiday Gift Guide

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Want to put your ultracool knowledge of the best below-the-radar music to good use? Impress your friends and family with it! After all, they're probably just as tired as you are of the same old Keys-Kanye-Fergie-Foo that dominates the Billboard charts month after month after year after year. So here's what to do:

Buy 'em some really really good indie CDs.

"But wait," you say, "aren't CDs passé? Yesterday's news? Out of fashion?"

Hardly. In fact, buying a CD is usually the only way you can get the highest quality music. Unlike most downloads, CD tracks are not compressed or compromised in any way. It's music exactly the way the musicians and producers wanted you to hear it. You can't get that from iTunes. I repeat: you can't get that from iTunes.

Here at the Indie Round-Up we cover many sorts of music – a lot of rock, pop, singer-songwriter and roots music, with occasional ventures into jazz and classical and in fact almost anything (except rap, which we are too pickled and white to understand).

So look below and you'll find a good choice for almost anyone on your list. Few gifts are more personal than an unexpected but perfectly calibrated music choice that you obviously spent some time thinking about.

For someone who likes…
EARLY MUSIC

We're talking way early, back before J. S. Bach ever busted a move on the church organ. Pair the grave and beautiful German Music for Viols and Harpsichord by Les Filles du Sainte-Colombe with the Six Sonatas for Flute and Violin – Opus 51 – Boimortier by the fleet-fingered Duo de Bois, and you've got early-music heaven. These two CDs, by the way, are also available as uncompressed downloads, thanks to Magnatune. Either way they should delight any fan of early music. Use the above links to purchase.

For someone who likes…
CLASSICAL MUSIC

Give the gift of Brahms. Here's a fine recent recording of the great composer's three violin and piano sonatas, and it's authentically indie. You can hear extended samples of the disc thisaway. Available for purchase at Amazon.

For someone who likes…
JAZZ

Michael Wolff, Jazz, Jazz, Jazz and Christmas Moods

Jazz is like wine – so many vineyards and vintages, so little time. This holiday season, I'm going with Michael Wolff. The latest disc from the outstanding jazz pianist and former Arsenio Hall Show bandleader is a lovely set recorded in one day by Wolff, honey-toned bassist John B. Williams, and drummer Victor Jones, who always makes it sound easy. The disc sneaks up on you with a long, slow take on "Autumn Leaves." Throughout the selections, which are mostly standards, the trio creates a range of distinctive soundscapes sprinkled with many excellent moments. Wolff's solo introduction to Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" sparkles, for one. Pair this disc with Wolff's Christmas album, easygoing and tasty but with very different sounds and types of arrangements. The dying Warren Zevon appears as a guest vocalist; Kenny Rankin sings too and Mark Isham trumpets on songs like "Let It Snow," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and a lot more. Purchase at Amazon here and here.

For someone who likes…
BIG BAND JAZZ

Brian Setzer Orchestra, Wolfgang's Big Night Out

As The Big Geez said in his Blogcritics review, the Brian Setzer Orchestra's new CD of jazzed-up classical themes – or classical-themed swing numbers, however you want to look at it – is an "outstanding album from one of today's best practitioners of big band jazz." I thoroughly agree. It's a fabulous big band jazz album consisting of a batch of delightful, inventive, swinging, and often funny settings of famous classical music themes. In other hands, such a project might have turned out – well – kind of stupid, but in Setzer's, it's an inspired good time. Only the most dour classical music fan could possibly find it in poor taste, while it's hard to imagine any fan of big band jazz failing to enjoy Setzer's transmogrifications of Beethoven's Fifth, "Flight of the Bumblebee," Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," the 1812 Overture, and many other standouts from the classical hit parade. There's even a jazzed-up "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" the lucky recipient can play at his or her Christmas party. Purchase at Amazon.

For someone who likes…
POP-ROCK FOR GROWNUPS

Kim Richey, Chinese Boxes
Elisa Peimer, Pull of the Moon

These two discs will make a great pairing for anyone who insists on the highest quality songs and vocals for their pop-rock and singer-songwriter listening. Kim Richey's spare, alt-country-esque settings contrast nicely with Elisa Peimer's denser, 80s-inspired arrangements, but really it all comes down to great songs that will stick in your head – in a good way! – done with class and flair. Listen to extended samples of the Elisa Peimer CD. Hear two full songs off the new Kim Richey disc. Purchase at Amazon here and here.

For someone who likes…
ALT-ROCK

The Alternate Routes, Good and Reckless and True

Why aren't these guys household names? Maybe it's because they're too good, and none of the other bands want to play with them.* You, however, can make your friend love you forever by buying him or her the Alternate Routes' new CD, with the amazing single "Ordinary" and a bunch of other great tunes like "Time is a Runaway" and "Hollywood." Romantic and rocking at the same time, this disc is bound to impress anyone with an ear for great songs and a heart full of soul. Sample at their website or Myspace page. Purchase at Amazon.

For someone who likes…
TOUGH-GIRL ROCK AND POP

Guards of Metropolis, Alligator

Forget Avril Lavigne. Guards of Metropolis, a California-based band fronted by Norwegian singer Kristin Blix, has real attitude – and a new CD, called Alligator, full of great songs that won't quit. The All Music Guide points out the Guards' "delicate balance between sweet pop hooks and sonic aggression." Isn't a combination of sweet and aggressive just what Dr. Love ordered? Sample at their website or Myspace page. Purchase at Amazon.

For someone who likes…
ACOUSTIC AMERICANA / ALT-COUNTRY

Sam Baker, Pretty World
Todd Snider, Peace, Love and Anarchy

These two discs make great gifts for a fan of rootsy, acoustic Americana. Baker's strange voice and eerily beautiful songs reflect the sadder, gaunter side of life, while Snider's tunes are funny, quirky, and intelligent too. Between Baker's stark tales of the American fringe – gamblers, orphans, streetwalkers – and Snider's rough-edged rockers, love songs, and novelty tunes like "Combover Blues" and "Barbie Doll," you've got a pretty accurate picture of America if you ask me. There's a lot of good rootsy music out there now, but these two solo artists are among the best of the best. Purchase at Amazon here and here.

For someone who likes…
CLASSIC ROCK or BLUES-ROCK

The Pretty Things, Balboa Island

Forget those repackaged rehashes of the same old baby boomer hits. For the British Invasion and blues-rock fans on your list, pick up Balboa Island, the brand-new release from the most hard-core classic rock band still active: The Pretty Things, who were around when the Rolling Stones got their start – in fact they share a birthing story with the Stones. Read more about what the Pretty Things were doing in the 60s and what they're doing now, then pick up a copy of this disc for the aging rocker locked in your basement and tell him to turn it up to 11. It's a long album with a few saggy moments, but your friend in the basement probably has some saggy parts too. Guaranteed to make a unique and impressive gift. Purchase at Amazon.

For someone who likes…
MAINSTREAM COUNTRY

Laura Vecchione, Deeper Waters

You've rightly turned up your nose at the latest pop moppet Nashville is trying to foist on us, as if their dry-as-dust major-label machine is our only choice. Now where do you turn? Try Laura Vecchione's Deeper Waters. It's not strictly country – there's rock and soul mixed in – but "Fool's Gold" was our Mainstream Pop or Country Song of the Year last year, and the rest of the disc measures up. If you're not content with Amazon's 30-second clips (and who is?) you can hear long samples of every song or full versions of "Fool's Gold" and three other tracks, including the possibly even more hit-worthy "Jane." Purchase at Amazon.

For someone who likes…
ACOUSTIC BLUES

Beaucoup Blue, Hearts at Home
Michael Pickett, Solo

The father-son duo Beaucoup Blue is your ticket to the gentler side of acoustic blues and Americana. Balance that with the most recent studio disc from the sturdy-fingered, gritty blues traditionalist Michael Pickett, and you've got an unbeatable pair of albums. Sample and purchase here and here.

For someone who likes…
SOMETHING DIFFERENT…

How about some rockin'-sweet ukelele? This would make a great stocking stuffer for the music fan with eclectic tastes. On Jake Shimabukuro's brand new EP, he covers, in his inimitable four-string style, hits from Cyndi Lauper, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Sarah McLachlan, and The Wizard of Oz. Shimabukuro surely is a wizard too, the Wizard of the Uke, and this is a sweet little gem of a disc that's a fine introduction to this unique artist. (Note: technically it's not an indie CD, since it's on Sony Music Japan International. But I know someone at Sony Music Japan International, and trust me, when it comes to hard-to-classify music, those folks are in the same boat of confusion as the rest of us. Here in the Lower 48, anyhow, you're more likely to hear about an artist like Jake here at the Indie Round-Up than at most places that cover "mainstream" music.) Purchase at Amazon.

There you have it – good choices for most of the music fans on your Christmas-Chanukah-Kwanzaa list. As we like to say in synagogue – Good Shopping!


*Not true, actually – the Alternate Routes are touring with another Indie Round-Up favorite, The Clarks. I'll be at the show at the Blender Gramercy in New York on Dec. 15 – come by and say gesundheit!

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.