News flash: the holidays are coming. In the last-minute dash on December 24, people will stagger into the malls, each and every one of them looking shocked and dismayed to find other people there with the same dazed looks on their faces. They'll grumble about long lines and crab about not being able to think of anything for Aunt Betsy or Uncle Dave. Come Christmas, Aunt Betsy will once again politely thank them for another dustcatcher and silently vow to set up an eBay account, and Uncle Dave will get drunk and vomit on his new novelty tie.
But you're smarter than that, aren't you? You wisely decided to get an early start on your holiday shopping, and naturally you came to Intrepid Media, with its finger firmly on the pulse of all pop culture, knowing we'd never let you down.
If you want to see smiles on the faces of your gift recipients this season, give 'em music.
Now, I know what you're thinking. I'm mad at the music industry too. They push the same old tired crap at us year after year and expect us to buy it, and when we won't, they sue us. Face it, there will always be lemmings and some people will mindlessly buy that which is shoved down their throats. The music stores do not need you, no matter what they say.
Not that there's not good stuff at Sam Goody; there is. To be sure, it's buried under all the over-promoted Top 40 garbage, but that's what I'm here for. I'll help you hone in on the good stuff and keep as much of your money out of their pockets as possible. You'll be out of there like a shot and sampling chicken teriyaki in the food court before they know what hit them.
I can even keep you out of the malls altogether. Along with the well-known sites such as Amazon, Suncoast and Borders, there are literally hundreds of other sites – CDBaby.com, CDNOW.com, CDUniverse.com, and Music.com are some of the better ones. Whenever possible, I urge you to buy direct from the artists' websites.
Without further ado, here are this year's best music buys, sorted by genre. (Note that not all were released in this calendar year.)
Bowling For Soup's latest effort, A Hangover You Don't Deserve, is chock-full of the Dallas drunkards' catchy, punk-tinged pop. You've heard their recent Top 40 hit "1985", and if it didn't make you giggle then something's just wrong with you. Chris Burney's catchy guitar riffs stick in your head, as do Jaret Reddick's cartoonishly foul-mouthed vocals. The band's site encourages you to download their music from Napster. Such rebels.
Maroon 5 makes big headlines for their lead singer Adam Levine's ego problems, but the music is fine, as in "fine wine" fine. I've discovered that if I'm hearing a song that sounds like it could be Sting, or no, wait, possibly Stevie Wonder, but I'm actually enjoying the song, it's probably Maroon 5. There's nothing deep about the music – it's light and easy to listen to, with just enough substance that it doesn't feel like junk food. The best release so far by this band is 2002's Songs About Jane.
Another holdover from a previous year is Fountain Of Wayne's Welcome Interstate Managers. Released in 2003, it is still the best pure pop album I can recall for about a decade. There is not a bad track on this album. Sure, you might understandably be tired of hearing Stacy's Mom, but don't let that put you off. Bright, catchy and not at all boisterous, this band will put you in mind of Simon and Garfunkel's pop stuff.
Peter Cincotti's On The Moon is not to be missed. This is the second release from the talented young pianist and singer from New York. While he's been compared to Harry Connick Jr., Cincotti is quieter and less “hepcat cool” with a voice very reminiscent of a young Mel Torme. He's not bold enough yet to bring a ton of improvisation to his piano performances, but he's smooth and skilled, and turns every song he performs into buttah, baby.
Be sure to check out Cyndi Lauper's latest, At Last. You remember the neon-haired Betty Boopster whose five octaves of babytalk had her galloping up the charts in the 80s? Her voice has mellowed over the years, losing the comic breathiness and gaining maturity and depth. Her renditions of Walk On By, Unchained Melody and the title track are astonishing. She performs well on the other tracks, too, and Tony Bennett joins her for a classy take on Makin' Whoopee.
I can almost guarantee you've never heard of Pink Martinis. And I can definitely guarantee you'll be missing something major if you don't check them out. Their second album, Hang On Little Tomato, has just been released, and it is required listening for cool kids. Mixing multicultural influences with a cool jazz background, Pink Martini sounds like the unlikely lovechild of Los Lobos and Edith Piaf. It shouldn't work, but it does, and gloriously.
There are loads of new, hot artists out there staking a claim to R&B's top spots, but none of them so far can hold a candle to the goddess that is Anita Baker. Her newest CD, My Everything, is her first foray back into the business after a ten-year break. The lady hasn't lost a thing. The only word for it is "lush." This is candlelit table for two music at its absolute finest.
Maybe it's just me, but as a rule, I find it difficult to take prettyboy singers seriously. Usher seriously breaks all my rules. His latest, Confessions, is a departure from his usual more funky fare. Jazzy and smooth, this collection of mostly ballads is just as pretty as the man himself.
Queen Latifah surprised a few people when she belted out When You're Good To Mama on the Chicago movie soundtrack. Who knew the feisty rapper could really sing? Like Usher, the Queen has ventured away from her roots and turned in a graceful performance. Her newest release, The Dana Owens Album, showcases her grand voice beautifully with a selection of classy standards. The sole disappointing track is her cover of California Dreamin', but the rest of the tracks more than make up for this unwise choice.
Yeah, remember when alternative meant something? This genre is cluttered with bands who are only alternative because they’re not good enough to be mainstream. I hear Green Day's new album is almost adequate.
Actually, the Killers' newest, Hot Fuss, is pretty good. I’ve been listening to that one a lot lately. You've probably heard Somebody Told Me in endless radio rotation, but it's not the best track on the album, a distinction that belongs to Andy, You're A Star.
Delving slightly deeper into alternative music, do check out goth/vampire/cynic Voltaire. Tongue firmly in cheek, this lounge lizard punk prankster turns out some really interesting music. His latest album, Then and Again, is slightly more serious than his earlier offerings and will likely be a breakthrough for him musically. However, I strongly suggest The Devil's Bris. Haunting music and truly bizarre lyrics, coupled with Voltaire's weird theatrical singsong vocal style, makes this THE album you'll listen to when you're sure no one else is around to laugh at you.
Uh. Can’t help you here.
If you were by chance to catch the Minstrels of Mayhem at any of the many Renaissance faires they perform at each year, you might be inclined to dismiss them as a light, comedic act with some music thrown in. Don’t be deceived. On their most recent release, Blind Man’s Bluff, the group performs traditional folk songs with a twist, and outstanding original compositions, including a shiver-inducing tribute to the space shuttle Columbia called Lost In The Blue (with lead vocal by guest Maia Rodriguez). The Minstrels of Mayhem tinge their more folkie offerings with rock, country, blues and jazz. Tight vocal harmonies round out this terrific offering from these Rennie rockers.
Julie Roberts' self-titled debut album is a refreshing change from most of the country/pop stuff churned out by Nashville these days. It's clean and a little bluesy and stands above the current crop of shit-kickers. Her voice is reminiscent of Sarah Maclachlan's, but somehow more sincere-sounding, with perhaps a touch of Bonnie Raitt's grit.
AND JUST BECAUSE…
… it wouldn't be Christmas without them, you simply must check out Trans-Siberian Orchestra's latest Christmas album, The Lost Christmas Eve. It’s been six years since their last Christmas album, and this one completes the trilogy that also contains 1996's Christmas Eve and Other Stories and 1998's The Christmas Attic. “Grandiose” is what critics have said, and grandiose it is – there ain't nothing subtle about TSO. As always, it's the instrumental tracks that carry the bulk of the album, with generous support from the multi-layered choral pieces.
Whether you're shoppiing for friends or family, or just hunting up a few well-deserved treats for yourself (after all, you did all that damn shopping!) this list ought to give you plenty of new music to explore. Enjoy, and um, take it easy on the turkey, will you?
Author's note: IM's Roger Striffler turned me on to Cincotti. IM-by-marriage Matt Kelley helped reinforce my daughter's recommendation that I check out Bowling For Soup. But I discovered the Minstrels of Mayhem and Pink Martinis all by myself, so there!
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
12.10.04 @ 9:47a
Julie knows her tunes. Having spent a little time as a passenger in her car, she has THE most eclectic and wide collection of all styles of music I've ever seen amassed. Now if she'd only LABEL those burned CDs, she'd be in much better shape as a driving DJ. :)
Bowling For Soup -- first out of the gate! Stupendous pop-punkers. I've journeyed from central Iowa as far as Denver and Chicago to see 'em live. "Hangover" is a fun disc but "Drunk Enough To Dance" is still my fave.
Also, digging your recommendation of The Killers. Been jamming on them too. They nailed three Grammy nominations this week. Guitarist Dave Keuning is from Pella, Iowa. But don't hold that against him/them.
12.10.04 @ 10:05a
Not labeling my CDs means every time I pop one into the player, I get a surprise.
12.10.04 @ 5:19p
I don't care much for Julie Roberts, as I think she's a dingbat. There are few females in country music that I do like, but not her.
However, Alison Krauss and Union Station have a new CD out now. Whoo-hoo!
I've tried to hate Maroon 5, but "She Will Be Loved" sticks with me. Otherwise, hating resumes.
12.10.04 @ 6:52p
I never think of classifying bluegrass as country, although they certainly mesh quite frequently. Alison's wonderful; I don't think she's ever done anything bad.
Roberts may be dingy, but she's got a rich, pretty voice, and she chooses her songs wisely to match.
12.11.04 @ 4:44p
It was a toss up for me last night, between Alison Krauss' new CD or Queen Latifah's. I wound up with Queen Latifah's...a definite recommend.
12.11.04 @ 8:08p
Definitely agree 100% on the Fountains Of Wayne album. As far as I'm concerned, it's better than 95% of what's been released in 2004 with a few exceptions. One of those exceptions being of course Green Day's American Idiot.
However, I must agree 100% with Tracey on Maroon 5.
12.11.04 @ 10:44p
My son's unique musical taste is taking me down multiple ailes in the music store...everything from Outkast to Pink Floyd to the soundtrack from Chicago, with a sprinkling of Metallica and Eminem.
12.12.04 @ 6:37a
try Mae, the CD is called "Destination Beautiful" and it's really listenable...
12.12.04 @ 9:31a
I think Martina McBride has one of the best female country voices today.
Hill music is the root of bluegrass, which is the root of country, thus, they are forever intertwined. Most bluegrass gives me the willies, (and a lot of other people, too, so that's why it's not featured on CMT very often) but the balance between pickin' and Alison's amazing voice is mighty fine.
I haven't checked out the new Anita yet, but she's is wonderful. The Queen Latifah sounds good, too.