Holiday Gift Guide 2011
Riffs & things
Critics choose stocking stuffers that just keep on givin'
Published: November 23, 2011
The Complete Albums Collection
She called her music "black classical," and so it is. Nina Simone was, perhaps, one of the most powerfully original and self-defining artists of her time. She was certainly one who understood her time and lived and created out of that understanding in the purest sense. This stunning collection of the nine albums she recorded for RCA between 1967 and 1974 is proof of that.
Who else could sweep through genres and interpret songs by Gershwin, the Beatles, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon, Aretha Franklin and the Bee Gees? Who else could move from interpretation to reinvention, taking possession of pop, folk, blues, gospel and rock 'n' roll, breathing through them like they were empty instruments? Only Nina.
This box set includes nine albums in replica mini-LP sleeves. Seven of the albums are fully remastered by Mark Wilder. It comes with bonus tracks, liner notes, and all the bells and whistles. But what you'll really hear is something like a heartbeat, songs you've heard before that have been erased and rewritten, unthought of, or given a second life. —Norene Smith
In the Garden
by Erik Larson
Crown, $26.95, 464 pp., hardcover
The fourth in Larson's series of gripping popular histories (most famously his stunning portrait of the World's Columbian Exposition, The Devil in the White City) is his most focused and sobering to date. You're bound to be riveted no matter how much you've read about the pregnant atmosphere in Germany during Hitler's sickeningly swift rise to power. By presenting the year leading to the Night of Long Knives through the eyes of displaced American ambassador William Dodd and his free-spirited daughter Martha, he offers a sparklingly clear sense of place; as the two of them grow mortified and disheartened by the influx of chaos throughout 1933 and 1934, we feel with them the ache of loss and impending doom. Unstated danger constantly lurks beneath the surface amid all the pleasantries of diplomatic parties and dinners. The book's conclusion is merely the beginning of the Third Reich, trailing off with Dodd's futile warnings to the rest of the world that echo into darkness, but seldom has that darkness been documented so rationally and vividly, in a book that reads like an expansive gothic horror novel, as savory as it is claustrophobic. —Nathan Phillips
The Complete Columbia
There's a mid-career photo of Leonard Cohen on the cover of I'm Your Man (1988) that shows him in dark glasses and a tailored designer suit holding a half-eaten banana. The image transcends album cover art and reaches into the realm of icon. He's composed, seductive, fearlessly confessional, and at the same time, a representation of something bigger than himself. What a perfect reflection of what he was and what he's become.
A great way to experience that becoming is to open up this dense, vast and reasonably priced boxed set of the 17 albums Cohen made for Columbia Records. It begins with his magically croaky-croony poetry on Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967/1968), an audio love letter that introduced itself by saying "So Long, Marianne." It waltzes on through Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and into his post-millennial efforts, which started with the raspy, heart-wrenching and wistful wisdom of Ten New Songs (2001). That same year, Columbia also released Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979.
The progression through the years feels as natural and perfectly paced as Cohen's sacred songs. His voice deepens, and his vision expands. But he never stops peering through those sunglasses or peeling that banana. —Norene Smith
Vapir No2 POrtable Vaporizer
Almost every other vaporizer out there requires you to have the thing plugged in to work. But the Vapir is powered by a rechargeable battery, so you can bring it with you anywhere, consuming cannabis like a ninja. You're able to get five uses out of it between charges. And you can use it while it's plugged in and charging as well. —Travis R. Wright
The Beach Boys
The Smile Sessions box
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