Giving the classics
Buying music for people is a lot like buying clothing. Unless you’ve studied the physiognomy of the target of your good nature, you’re very unlikely to make a hit. But, there is one way to avoid the usual pitfalls that reduce well-intentioned gifts to an in-store credit at Target: buy a classic.
Here are 10 albums that are so ingrained in popular music history that even if someone isn’t a fan of the stuff, they can at the very least return it to Everyday Music for close to the sale price. Admittedly, the list is light on jazz and devoid of classical and hip-hop. It’s hard to convince most under the age of 18 to listen to Bach or Miles, and I don’t think giving your co-worker a copy of Stankonia is the best idea in the world, even if it is a beautiful masterpiece. This is a safe list. For the nerds who are willing there will be innumerable web lists of the year’s best gift ideas. But that isn’t the goal here.
Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto
In 1964, Stan Getz reveling in his love of Brazilian bossa nova, teamed up with two of the country’s shining stars: Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim. In doing so, they ignited one of the most enduring musical trends in the United States. Bossa nova became lounge which became kitch which became retro which became hot again and again and again. Including the hit "Girl From Impanema" and a series of other enduring standards it’s difficult to find someone who can despise this album, let alone does.
Appropriate for: everyone.
Released in 1967, one year after Pet Sounds and the same year that Elektra labelmates the Doors wowed hipsters everywhere, this lush album of psychedelic rock songs capably diminishes the great accomplishments of both bands. Unlike the psych-outs of noted acid freaks like the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, Love obscures reality by blending musical styles in a way that is simultaneously unpredictable and sublime. The songwriting on the album is itself beyond belief, with vocal harmonies creeping in every direction and guitars, trumpets and drums crashing around them. It’s nearly as impossible to document Love’s influence on recorded music, as it is to describe their final album’s beauty.
Appropriate for: parents, dates/spouses, siblings, grandparents, co-workers
Live at Folsom Prison
In 1968, high on whatever he damned well wanted, Johnny Cash emerged on the stage of the prison he made famous. Folsom. After a fire-breathing set where the "Orange Blossom Special" rode out of "Folsom Prison Blues" on the back of the Man in Black’s harmonica, the entire set was cut into vinyl and dropped on an unsuspecting public. Cash had recorded amazing singles up until then, but had yet put out a single album with the emotional weight, force and drive that Cash had obtained live. And here it was. The definitive Johnny. Well it’s still there and it’s still great.
Appropriate for: everyone.
This 1969 release from the band that brought you "Heroin" and hoarse-voiced chanteuse Nico is about as sure as a sure thing gets. It’s hip to own, it’s quiet and chill, it rocks liberally and adultly and is packaged in luscious black finery. Unlike other Velvets records, this one is unwaveringly quiet but what the VU lose in volume they make up in intimacy. You can almost feel Reed’s cigarette-stained breath blasting into the condenser mic.
Appropriate for: everyone.
With the punk revolution suddenly underway and the world of popular music being crushed under the furiously coiffed flop of Peter Frampton’s hair, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop secluded themselves in Berlin. The goal was to get clean. Unbeknownst to the trio, Berlin was the heroin capitol of the world come 1976. But much to the pain of their veins, the result of that year was a catalog of the best rock albums ever released. Iggy put out The Idiot and Lust for Life in 1977. Bowie began his "Berlin Trilogy" with Low. Heroes followed later that year and ’78 saw the release of Lodger. All these records are unblinkingly startling and gorgeous, but Low takes top billing. The washing synth, the clipping drums, the crooning coo of Bowie’s voice and the sickening liquidity of Carlos Alomar’s guitar all add up to one of the most bizarre and serene albums of all time.
Appropriate for: parents (depending on what they spent the ’70s on), dates/spouses, siblings
Off the Wall
Fresh out on his own and making the most beautiful R&B of his life, Michael Jackson scored a colossal hit with 1979’s Off The Wall – with good reason. The album is amazing. From the opening salvo of the skittering "Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough" to the gentle sway-along of "Rock With You," each spin of this monument to the art of soul digs the album deeper in the listener’s head as the needle digs a deeper groove. Forget the boy-love and remember the music.
Appropriate for: parents, dates/spouses, siblings, grandparents (if they shake it), co-workers
Fear of Music
In 1979 the Talking Heads sat down with Brian Eno (I know, I know, but the guy’s had his fingers in everything since 1967) to record an album that could combine dance music and African rhythms. Sound like the boring drone from KINK? Think again. Fear of Music is the darkest of Talking Heads albums with most songs clocking in at a short 3-4 minutes and few escaping minor keys. It includes the hit "Life During Wartime" (of "this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around" fame) with its apocalyptic fantasies and dark horn arrangements. But the album cuts deeper on the scary, miskeyed "Electric Guitar" and the funereal "Heaven."
Appropriate for: parents, dates/spouses, siblings, hip grandparents
Yo La Tengo
I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
Set squarely in the chewy center of ’90s indie music, Yo La Tengo’s billionth album is without a doubt their most accomplished. It’s no coincidence that the band has been likened to most of the others on this list, likewise it’s not surprising. Similar to Love (of which Yo La Tengo claims to be huge fans) who switch styles each minute, Yo La change styles from song to song – to amazing effect. The hits are too many to list: the pure fuzzpop bliss of "Sugarcube," the dark and trippy lope of "Shadows," the mechanical rumble of "Autumn Sweater." If the target of your gift is fond of anything from Nirvana to Coldplay, they will find something here.
Appropriate for: parents, dates/spouses, siblings, hip grandparents, co-workers
Neutral Milk Hotel
The Aeroplane Over the Sea
This gem from 1998, the only truly revolutionary output from seemingly defunct musical enclave the Elephant 6, is likely the most quietly defining moment of the 1990s. Certainly OK Computer had a loud and deafening impact on the world of guitar bands, but Jeff Magnum’s quietly loud remembrance of Anne Frank, Jesus Christ and Carrot Flowers twists inside the mind with the force and propulsion of the titular aeroplane. The title track, with its lilting melody played through singing saw accompanied by shimmering guitar, is a Portland jukebox classic for good reason. But it’s tracks like "Holland, 1945," with the surrealist turn in the lyrics "now I’m a little boy in Spain playing piano in the rain" cuing mariachi trumpets, that will kill every time.
Appropriate for: parents, dates/spouses, siblings
Earlier this year New York’s Animal Collective emerged from a noisy obscurity brought about by the shambling band’s ricocheting noise box of previous work into near indie rock stardom with the release of their third full-length Feels. The album condenses the experimentalism of their past into short blasts and shouts (the triple-tracked, looped yelp in "Grass" a prime example). The jangle of the guitars, the liberal tap delay and the endless harmony is a difficult thing to deny. I know there are those who will and they deserve to get this album in their stocking. Maybe they’ll give it another listen. It really is that good.
Appropriate for: dates/spouses, siblings, co-workers