Sunday, December 17, 2017

Last Minute Music Gift Guide 2017: Pop/rock/alternative/folk albums

With only a week left before Christmas, here’s a guide to some noteworthy albums for the music lover on your gift list. Most of them cane still be obtained via Amazon, Target, Best Buy with express shipping or the artists' individual websites.

For fans of NPR, power pop or adult-alternative, singer-songwriter fare:

Paul Kelly 
Life is Fine 
(Gawd Aggie/Cooking Vinyl) 
Last year, one of Australia’s finest treasures put out an intriguing concept album and EP (the excellent Death’s Dateless Night; Seven Sonnets & A Song). He followed them up with Life is Fine and saw it debut at No. 1 back home. Kelly uses his longtime touring band to great effect on these adult alternative tunes. “Leah: The Sequel” pays dreamy homage to the same-named Roy Orbison song. The sinewy rocker “Firewood and Candles” could’ve fit on an old Paul Kelly & Messengers CD. A joyous and romantic “Finally Something Good” boasts a memorable piano melody. The starkly haunting “I Smell Trouble” is a prime example of what Kelly does best. Finally, the lovely closing title track is a Langston Hughes poem set to music.

A.J. Croce
Just Like Medicine

Recorded "old school" style in Mono with legendary Sixties producer/songwriter Dan Penn (Box Tops, Patti LaBelle, Solomon Burke), singer/pianist Croce’s highly satisfying soul album was recorded by a stellar crop of musicians, including Stax Records guitarist Steve Cropper (“The Heart That Makes Me Whole,” co-written by the late Leon Russell), The Muscle Shoals Horns (which elevates four tracks), background singers the McCrary Sisters (a bluesy “Name of the Game,” also including Vince Gill on acoustic guitar), Colin Linden, David Hood and others. Among the standouts: slinky opener “Gotta Get Outta My Head,” the aforementioned “Name” – a previously unreleased tune written by A.J.’s late father Jim, the alluring “Move On” and “I Couldn’t Stop.”

Peter Himmelman 
There is No Calamity 
The LA-based folk/rock musician released his first solo effort in 1986 and has had an accomplished career composing music for film, TV and children. He recruited Steve Berlin of Los Lobos to produce his latest album. Featuring thought-provoking lyrics and prominent female backing vocals, it sometimes recalls Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello and stands as one of Himmelman’s strongest to date. Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Suzanne Vega) contributes Hammond organ, Mellotron and Celeste. Highlights include the topical “245th Peace Song,” “Rich Men Run the World” and “Fear is Our Undoing,” the driving “Memories in this Heart of Mine" and slightly funky “Sacrificial
Flamin’ Groovies
Fantastic Plastic
(Sonic Kicks/Severn)

The first new album from the San Francisco garage rock band in nearly a quarter century reunited the key Seventies lineup of Cyril Jordan, Chris Wilson and George Alexander. It finds the musicians in solid form on originals like the psychedelic, Byrdsy “End of the World,” Stones-styled “What the Hell’s Goin’ On” and two well-chosen covers: The Beau Brummels’ “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad” (done in a jangle pop style). The instrumental “I'd Rather Spend My Time With You” features The Tubes’ drummer Prairie Prince. 

Richard X. Heyman 
(Turn Up) 
This New Jersey native has backed Brian Wilson, Jonathan Richman, Link Wray and Ben E. King onstage and came to many people’s attention via his 1991 major label debut Hey Man! Nearly a dozen albums later, Incognito may have an element of darkness, but the power pop master writes, produces and performs the bulk of the material with impressive results.

For the casual music fan, you can't go wrong with the following pop/rock/alternative/folk retrospectives with a majority of the hits: 

Green Day 
Greatest Hits: God's Favorite Band 
Spanning the Berkeley punk rock trio's 30-year career, God's Favorite Band includes all the modern rock radio staples like "Longview," "Welcome To Paradise," "Basket Case," "When I Come Around," "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," "American Idiot," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Holiday," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "Know Your Enemy" and 10 more. There are also two new self-produced tracks: "Back In The USA" and "Ordinary World," a duet with Miranda Lambert.

Tears for Fears 
Rule the World 
The British synth pop band came to fame via such big Eighties hits as "Shout," "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Head Over Heels" and "Sowing the Seeds of Love." All those songs are included on this 16-track collection, plus early college rock faves "Mad World" (famously covered by Gary Jules and Adam Lambert in recent years), "Pale Shelter," "Change" and more. Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal's first new songs in 13 years - 
"I Love You, But I'm Lost" and "Stay" are characteristically enrapturing.

Bryan Adams 
In the liner notes to this retrospective, the Canadian superstar says it was a tricky prospect to include as many of his charted hits as possible to fit on a single CD (no doubt - he has a few dozen over several decades). Instead, Adams used his recent live show set lists as a guide and added a pair of new songs written with longtime collaborator Jim Vallance: "Ultimate Love" and "Please Stay." The latter was earmarked for "Pretty Woman," the upcoming Broadway musical based on the Garry Marshall film. Elsewhere, most of what will matter to casual fans is here among the other 19 tracks: "Summer of '69," "Run to You," "Somebody," "Cuts Like a Knife," "Can't Stop This Thing We Started" and "(Everything I Do) I Do it For You," etc.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band 
Marking the Americana band’s 50th anniversary as a recording unit, the 39-track, two-disc Anthology comprises selected pop and country hits ("Mr. Bojangles," "Long Hard Road"), deep cuts, instrumentals and fan favorites. Among them are collaborations with Linda Ronstadt ("An American Dream"), Nicolette Larson ("Make a Little Magic"), Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman of The Byrds ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"), Bruce Hornsby ("The Valley Road"), Alison Krauss ("Catfish John"), Johnny Cash ("Tears in the Holston"), Maybelle Carter ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken") and others. The liner notes include an informative history by noted music scribe Holly Gleason, rare photos from all eras of the band and full credits. 

The Human League 
A Very British Synthesizer Group
Most people know them from big 1980s hits like "Don't You Want Me" and "Human," but there was far more to the UK synth pop group. This anthology, in its 2CD Deluxe Edition and Deluxe 3LP box set versions, spotlights The Human League's entire history in 30 songs including 7 previously unreleased DJ edits from the earliest incarnation. Both packages feature a 20-page booklet featuring a new essay by David Buckley plus rare memorabilia and photographs. The 3LP box set includes special vinyl discs that were mastered at half-speed at Abbey Road Studios.

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