Nothing says the holidays like family, togetherness, and a pile of presents you’re really glad came with gift receipts. EW can’t turn a chenille snowman sweater into an iPhone, but if you’ve just unwrapped a bunch of music that you either don’t want or already own, we’ve got suggestions for less expected picks that will turn your musical lumps of coal into CD gold.
Say your second cousin bought you Taylor Swift’s Fearless, which you downloaded the day it came out in November. If you’ve got a thing for gentle, twangy melodies and dulcet-voiced storytelling, Tift Merritt’s Another Country deserves a top spot in your rotation too. The Texas-born 33-year-old’s sweet-sad vocals are just as accessible as Swift’s, only burnished by the hard-won wisdom and complexity that — no offense to the precocious Taylor — only come with age.
Chicago alt-rap veteran Common, now on his eighth album, usually draws equally well from experience, but December’s Universal Mind Control feels disappointingly stale. If this showed up uninvited under the tree, substitute the new one from another ’90s hip-hop icon: A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, whose long-delayed The Renaissance was unjustly slept on when it finally came out. His inimitable rasp is as sharp as ever, and his flow (see ”Move” and ”Won’t Trade”) every bit as smooth.
For those who want a super-mellow ride, R&B piano man John Legend turned out the perfectly pleasant Evolver in the fall, but listeners can get an even better easy-like-Sunday-morning fix from Raphael Saadiq. Try trading Legend’s disc for Saadiq’s new one; retro-soul gem The Way I See It could (Jay-Z cameo excluded) have come straight from Motown’s vaults. Even Stevie Wonder, who joins him on the strings-laden ”Never Give You Up,” approves!
Britney Spears’ thumping three-ring Circus might be too dance-floor-aggro for Stevie, but if she’s your jam, you’ve probably already had it on your workout playlist for weeks. Music buyers with a penchant for sinewy synths and strobe-light blondes could be equally pleased with Lady GaGa, the onetime Catholic schoolgirl whose The Fame zips by on fizzy melodies and naughty lyrics (she’ll trade you a ride on a ”disco stick” for Spears’ profanity-skirting ”If You Seek Amy”). ”Just Dance” already hit clubland big in ‘08, but ”Paparazzi” and ”Poker Face” are just as strong. (And may we also recommend Portishead’s Third for the inevitable wind-down afterward? Nothing says after-hours recovery like the beautifully morose Brits’ long-awaited follow-up to their 1997 comedown classic Portishead.)
Many fans who hoped for a return to My Morning Jacket’s Southern-rock revivalism were left flummoxed by the odd, genre-jumping Evil Urges. Fortunately, several other bands have thrown their hand-knit hats into the beard-rock ring. Most notable? Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, who turned out a lovely, pastoral self-titled debut, redolent of the Beach Boys, Neil Young, and…My Morning Jacket. Also check out Blitzen Trapper’s slightly more raucous Furr, part harmony-laden tambourine jangle, part British Invasion guitar charm, and fully worth braving brutal return lines at the mall.