The last few months of the year aren't just the holiday season; for me, they're also "birthday season," as my parents, siblings and nephews all celebrate birthdays between September and December.
The urgency of selecting something appropriate for my nearest and dearest, with all their sundry preoccupations, has sharpened my gifting skills to a preternatural degree. I therefore offer the first installment of my seasonal rundown of round, shiny objects that might serve as tokens of your esteem.
For Boomers, Hippies and Classic-Rock Purists
The Band: A Musical History
This ravishing boxed set boasts five CDs and one DVD — encompassing the legacy of this American roots-rock collective from its inception to its glorious swan song. The DVD starts with dazzling film footage of the group running through the majestic "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" at Robbie Robertson's house in Woodstock, N.Y., and moves on to a suite of stirring concert excerpts, Saturday Night Live appearances and more. The package is a sumptuous hardbound book brimming with essays and photos. Short of having the Band reunite and play at your place, this is as much as any fan could want.
Cream: Royal Albert Hall 2005
What's most striking about this highly touted reunion show (on CD and DVD) is its lack of sentimentality and self-regard. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker simply get up on stage and play — reminding us in the process why Cream was so special. Clapton digs into the material with a fire he hasn't displayed in years, and Bruce's voice, though cracked, retains the grandeur and heft that made him one of the greatest rock singers of his time. In general, the playing doesn't so much suggest three virtuosos soloing at once (to paraphrase Clapton's famous description) as a vital unit that has distilled its strengths and dropped most of its excesses. And with jams like "White Room," "Sunshine of Your Love," "Tales of Brave Ulysses," "I'm So Glad" and "Born Under a Bad Sign," it's almost possible to forgive the absence of "Strange Brew."
Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia
Rhino Records is turning out a spate of Garcia and Dead-related material. Garcia Plays Dylan collects Jerry's assorted takes on Bob standards like "Positively 4th Street," "Tangled Up in Blue," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "I Shall Be Released," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Forever Young," not to mention ditties like the rockin' "Tough Mama" and quirky pop number "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)." But for those who prefer classic live Dead, it's hard to argue with Fillmore West 1969, a three-disc chronicle of the band at the roiling peak of its psychedelic phase, extending trippy Aoxomoxoa and Anthem of the Sun material to Olympian lengths.
For the Prog Freak
Yes: The Word Is Live
Speaking of extended jams, English prog-rockers Yes knew how to turn instrumental prowess and impenetrably spiritual lyrics into an epic journey. Nowhere is this better documented than on Rhino's new three-disc live comp. Covering roughly 20 years of performances, from the highest highs (kinetic material from The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge) to the, um, slightly more earthbound ("Rhythm of Love," anyone?), this set amply demonstrates why so many fans claimed to see God at Yes concerts.
Frank Zappa: The Dub Room Special
Footage from Zappa's 1974 public-TV program, A Token of His Extreme (which formed much of the basis for the criminally underrated One Size Fits All album), is combined with excerpts from a 1981 Halloween show in New York — as well as Bruce Bickford's trippy and disturbing stop-motion animation and bits featuring Zappa and friends cracking wise. This unwieldy gumbo was previously sold on tape via mail order; its arrival on DVD is cause for celebration if only because it (a) showcases the superlative 1974 band featuring George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Chester Thompson and other incredible players, (b) displays Zappa's unbelievably inventive fretwork, (c) provides a nice spotlight, in the 1981 segments, for guitarist Steve Vai and (d) is completely, inexplicably strange and silly.
For the Power Popster
Children of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the Second Psychedelic Era 1976-1996
Who knew there was a second psychedelic era? Well, this handsome boxed set makes a compelling case that the non-corporate rock preceding
Nothing exemplifies the 88's charm like the impeccable "Haunt You," two and a half minutes of bouncy bliss. It's a perfect pop song, and there aren't many of those these days.the punk explosion started a phase that ran through the power-pop revival of the Clinton years. Encompassing tracks from the Three O'Clock, the Rain Parade, Green on Red, the Chills, the Flamin' Groovies, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lyres, the Bevis Frond and the Wondermints, among many others, the four-disc Children is a satisfying stroll through the paisley underground, pop-rock alleys and various neon garages.
The 88: Over and Over
One of L.A.'s very best bands neatly avoids the sophomore slump with this engaging follow-up to 2003's superb Kind of Light. Blending classic-rock chops and feel with quirky new-wave touches and an unstoppable flair for pop melody, singer-guitarist Keith Slettedahl and the boys stretch into some quieter territory here (as on the delicate, touchingly simple "You Belong to Me"), but nothing exemplifies the band's charm like the impeccable "Haunt You," two and a half minutes of bouncy bliss. It's a perfect pop song, and there aren't many of those these days.
For the De-Evolutionist
Though they're often written off as a novelty act — maybe it was the flower-pot hats — these Ohio rock conceptualists were a great band. For one thing, their smarty-pants songs were hooky and thought-provoking; for another, they were tight, incisive players. This 1980 concert from Petaluma, Calif., offers the hits ("Whip It," "Girl U Want") from their breakout disc, Freedom of Choice, as well as a host of early favorites (including "Jocko Homo," "Mongoloid," "Uncontrollable Urge" and the rarity "Be Stiff"). With the DVD on one side and CD audio on the other, this dual disc is perfect for the spud in your life.
For the Metal/Emo/Screamo Singer
The Zen of Screaming
Just because you're the singer in a death-metal band and your songs sound roughly like a tape of a barking Rottweiler played backwards doesn't mean you have to lose your voice every time you sing. Or so says vocal coach Melissa Cross, whose innovative approach to hard-rock voice technique is both informative and entertaining. In fact, Zen is one of the best instructional DVDs I've ever seen, thanks to Cross' on-camera charm, humor and compassion, and her hard-rocking students' game good cheer. The artists seen demonstrating Crossian breath-control concepts like "by the way," "dump," "baby" and "rotunda" include Andrew W.K., Melissa Auf der Maur, Lamb of God, Thursday, A Static Lullaby and many other esteemed screamers.