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Holidays '09: Ten Music CDs I Bet You'll See On No Other Gift List

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It's the season of the boxed sets and the Christmas CD. (Bob Dylan, anyone?) The month of Susan Boyle and Glee, Rihanna and Lady GaGa.

To quote Sarah Palin, "Thanks, but no thanks."

For me, the holidays are the ideal time for unexpected gifts -- music that defines a moment, a season, a time in your life. Music that makes you listen, forces you to feel and think, inspires you to dance and dream. Above all, in the spirit of the holidays, music that brings you joy.

I don't think it's cheating to pick music that was made this year -- and in 1595. On the Internet, everything's available. And from that vast array, I chose these ten:

Venetian Coronation

In 1595, there was a new Doge -- or Chief Magistrate -- in Venice, and on the morning of April 27, there was a Coronation Mass in his honor at San Marco. It was quite the event. Giovanni Gabrieli, one of the organists at San Marco, composed a festival piece that featured the full arsenal of instrumentation: trumpets, sackbutts, a dulcian, violin, viola, drums and two organs. To that he added sixteen singers. And then he did something novel -- he positioned the singers and players in as many as eight locations in San Marco. The effect was like --- okay, bad example, but you get the idea -- hearing Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" played at midnight at a planetarium's light show. Or a musical tennis match, with people turning their heads to follow the music. Memorable, even in Venice. In 1990, The Gabrieli Consort & Players recorded a 71-minute recreation of that 1595 Coronation Mass. Turn up the volume. Lower the lights. Hear the pealing of the bells, the rich organ chords, and then the sudden flare of brass. Twenty seconds have elapsed, and already our century has disappeared. A few minutes later, the singers come in, and from there, the music is one extended swoon.

Amadou & Mariam
Do you like music that makes you happy? I don't mean moderately happy, 7.5 on a scale of 10, isn't it a great day happy, kind of sort of happy. I mean ecstatic, get up and dance happy, throw caution to the winds and kiss a stranger happy, pump up the volume and wake your neighbors happy, see yourself realizing all your dreams happy. That happiness is commercially available. It's even legal. You can get a preview of it by jumping on the video of "La Realite" (below). Amadou and Mariam are blind, married, from Mali, but in their music, they see quite a wonderful world. Dimanche a Bamako, produced by the populist prankster Manu Chao, recreates an outdoor Sunday concert in Mali's capital city. Welcome to Mali is pure studio sound; it's harmonious, world music meets pop that just happens to be symphonic in its power. Its real genius is its accessibility -- it sounds so simple, so organic, that it's like a song you've always hummed.

Josh Ritter
A Josh Ritter concert is a happy event, and no one is happier at a Josh Ritter concert than Josh Ritter. So while the studio music is terrific -- Stephen King called The Animal Years the best CD in five years -- you really have no insight into one of our best singer-songwriters until you see him onstage, with three musicians who have the crackle and wit of the E Street Band. But comparisons -- and Josh Ritter gets them all the time -- are odious. He's not the next anything. A good way to meet him, and to be launched from your chair, is a four-song mini-CD recorded live in Dublin. The last song, "Snow Is Gone," is not only the best Spring music since "Here Comes the Sun," it's got lyrics so powerful that the entire audience knows the words and sings along. "I'd rather be the one who loves than to be loved and never even know." Well, he loves. And -- just watch the video -- he's adored.

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen went on tour, at 74, because his longtime manager ripped him off for more than $5 million, leaving him with only a few hundred thousand dollars to show for four decades of recording and touring. "That person did the world a favor," my wife has said. She nailed it. Cohen is more than a musician -- he's our intimate stranger, the poet laureate of our secret lives, our personal bard. And though it's not often said about him, he's a great showman. He wears a sharp black suit, gray shirt, and black patent leather shoes, and tops off that boulevardier outfit with a black fedora; if he'd had a cane, he would surely have twirled it. Old? Frail? Spry? None of the above. "Vital" is more like it. Or "timeless." Which is why we decided not to sell our tickets for the $1,000 we were offered. And why the hard consumer choice is between the CD and the DVD of Live in London.

Miles Davis
In 1957, Louis Malle was 24 years old. He was filthy rich. Incredibly handsome. Prodigiously talented. Now he was ready to make his first feature. He chose an overlooked noir novel about a man who kills his lover's husband, only to get trapped in the elevator while fleeing. He gave the film an ironic title: Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud, or Elevator to the Gallows. As the lover, he hired Jeanne Moreau, a successful but not incendiary stage actress. And then this first-time director got Miles Davis to record the soundtrack. Davis had never written a score -- and he didn't really "write" this one, either. Oh, he said he "looked at the rushes of the film and got musical ideas to write down." But his real genius was in hiring the great American jazz drummer Kenny Clarke and three French musicians and putting them in an environment that mirrored the mood of the movie. The result: one of the greatest jazz soundtracks in film -- some say the greatest. The trumpet couldn't be more evocative: mostly slow and breathy, thoughtful and tender, lonely and okay about it. In a word: cool. The quintessence of cool.

Martha Wainwright
It was the last benefit of the summer in the Hamptons. Rufus Wainwright and Norah Jones were the headliners. Martha Wainwright -- sister of Rufus, a comparative unknown -- was the opening act. As she came on stage, the audience was checking its make-up, texting, drinking, chatting. Talk about your uphill swim! Martha Wainwright began singing -- in French -- an Edith Piaf song from her unreleased CD. The talking continued. She put a fist in the air, lost in the world of France's most celebrated singer. In another minute, she had the attention of those inattentive Hamptonites. In ten, she pretty much owned them. Now Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris is finally out, a two-CD and one DVD package that costs $33. The luxury gift of the season? Only if you haven't heard it. Then it's a necessity.

Teddy Thompson
It's a mystery why Teddy Thompson isn't the heartthrob of millions. He's handsome as Prince Will, droll as Hugh Grant. If he's written a mediocre song, I've missed it. And can he sing! About here is where writers point out that he's the son of Linda and Richard Thompson, and how he's rock royalty, but that talk's a bore -- it's what in the grooves that counts. And there's the trouble: Teddy Thompson is too smart for the room. There are songs of lacerating honesty, usually accompanied by self-loathing. There is acute social commentary. And very wry humor. I saw him in a small club recently, and he's fearless; among the lyrics was "I want a woman who's easy on the eye, but not so fucking stupid she makes me want to cry." You want A Piece of What You Need and Separate Ways.

Brandi Carlile
A dull way to describe Brandi Carlile is to call her the new Melissa Etheridge. And it's true that she can really power a song. Almost literally. She explodes out of your speakers. Looks you right in the eye. And flat-out screams. But she's not anyone's clone. She's original in every decision and gesture. Her two guitarists -- twins, as it turns out -- are so tall you think they're on stilts. Her drummer is a spiky-haired woman from Brooklyn. Against all that, off to one side, a cellist produces exquisite balance. But the theatrics would be meaningless if the woman at the center didn't write such emotionally vivid songs and didn't deliver them as if her life depended on it. The Story or Give Up the Ghost? Sorry. I can't choose.

Noirin Ni Riain
There are voices that crack glass. That's impressive, always. Noirin Ni Riain has a voice that stops you in your tracks and fills your eyes with tears and makes all that is holy to you as real as your hand. I don't understand the words she sings. But I don't need to use the liner notes to know what they say. Her music comes across time, from a place out of time. Her voice is of this earth, and not. There is no arguing with it -- this music is truth, beyond judgment. And this is the most wonderful thing about Vox de Nube: There's no negativity. Noirin Ni Riain may knock you to the floor, but she will never fail to lift your heart to the heavens.

Willie Nile
His first CD was released in 1980. Now out of print, you can buy a new copy for $99.95. Then there were the wilderness years. Now Willie Nile, no bigger than a leprechaun, is back, and House of a Thousand Guitars is so fresh it could put him on a Best New Artist list. There's irreverent good humor, a thoughtful slow number or two, and the songs that are his signature -- optimistic, with energy that won't quit. The idea is idealism and transcendence. Against a pounding drum and killer guitars, Nile sets himself up as a pure spirit, ripe with confidence and knowledge: "I've got the pulse of the universe running through my veins." Then come the invitations: "Run....to the far off places...Run...from the streets of silence..." And, through it all, radiance and hope that's infectious: "Everybody's looking for the safe way out/ Not me, I want to scream and shout." Thirty years later, I hear the new, updated, same as he once was only better and wiser and louder Willie Nile. And I think: Yes. Absolutely. Run.

For my list of 10 BOOKS that no one else is likely to suggest, click here.

For my list of 10 THINGS no one else is likely to suggest, click here.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]