Edited by Cristopher Rapp, NR associate editor
The holiday season is upon us, and NRO is here to help you decide what to give (and ask for) this year. We asked some of our editors and contributors to come up with their favorite CDs released in the last year or so. The result is the list of recommendations you see before you. Each album is linked to Amazon.com or another site where it can be purchased. If you’d like to check out NRO’s list of book recommendations, click here. Happy Holidays!
Recommendations by: Ben Domenech, Jeremy Hildreth, Dave Kopel, John J. Miller, Deroy Murdock, Ramesh Ponnuru, Cristopher Rapp, John Simon, and Andrew Stuttaford.
NRO contributing editor
1. The Wallflowers, Breach
Jakob Dylan & co. follow-up 1996′s Bringing Down the Horse, one of the greatest rock releases of the decade, with a beautifully crafted and graceful album, a return to the introspective variety of American rock that’s been sorely lacking in recent years.
All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a rediscovery of U2′s anthemic abilities, with crunching guitar riffs and soaring electric vocals that beg to be sung along to in a speeding convertible, top down and speakers cranked to 11.
3. The Beatles, 1
A fun, full, and generous offering of the Fab’s hits — needless for a true fan, but offering a marvelous glimpse of The Beatles’ earth-shaking seven-year romp.
4. The Jayhawks, Smile
The Jayhawks newest album, Smile, shows why you should start paying attention to these gadflies of alt-folk: while retaining only brief smatterings of their countryish roots, the Jayhawks have created an album abundant with the deceptive acoustic hooks, dazzling ballads, and wonderfully thick choruses of the best of pop music.
5. Moby, Play/B-Sides
Moby is the modern philosopher-king of the spiritual electric-groove. A thrilling album, not only for its accomplished blend of sweeping blues/folk/gospel influences with the europop sensibilities of the club floor, but for Moby’s surprisingly up-front and deep-rooted faith in God. Listen, dance, and spread the joy.
6. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Blues at Sunrise
A decade after his death, this live jam session/performance is a good introduction to the tangled world of electric Vaughan, his alcohol & cigarettes voice, and that amazing blues guitar.
7. Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2
For those of you that missed her soundtrack to Magnolia, Mann’s latest piano and guitar release is an accomplished and gorgeous album, designed perfectly for late nights and rainy days.
8. Pearl Jam, 26/6/00: Sporthalle, Hamburg, Germany
Pearl Jam, the last great giants of the Seattle rock world, decided to release 25 live recordings from their summer European concert tour (all double-CDs in lo-fi packaging). If you purchase only one album from the phenomenal collection, this performance would be it — it’s even got an excellent Pearl Jam-style cover of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”
9. Eduardus Halim, Eduardus Halim Plays Chopin
For those Chopin lovers who miss Vladimir Horowitz’s beloved piano interpretations, this album presents a recital by Eduardus Halim, one of the last of Horowitz’s students. Romantic, yet subtle, Halim’s piano is an astoundingly poised creature of beauty, with a blend of tones that can be remarkably intimate, or extraordinarily incendiary — it’s the best recording of Chopin in years.
10. David Gray, White Ladder
David Gray is an electronica-tinged early Van Morrison, with an innate sensitivity for the pop hook and an affinity for lyrical swathes of bittersweet heartache and love in Babylon.
11. Phish, Farmhouse
Farmhouse is a great studio introduction to these inheritors of the Grateful Dead mantle — that said, you should really see them live.
12. Creed, Human Clay
This album technically shouldn’t make this list — it was released in late 1999 — but it’s been at the top of the Billboard charts all year long. From Creed’s spiritual lyrics and thunderous guitars to singer Scott Stapp’s swaggering, Jim Morrison-like intensity, this band has grown and matured since its breakout 1997 album, My Own Prison. Grunge rock isn’t dead — it just took a shower.
Senior Economic Analyst at American Skandia and contributor to NRO
Ingrid Lucia and the Flying Neutrinos, Hotel Child
I first discovered the Neutrinos this summer in the jukebox at the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. I was drinking, their music was playing, and the sound and surroundings blended seamlessly. Now, even in December, and even without the absinthe, putting on a Neutrinos disc turns my apartment into a New Orleans nightclub, heat, smoke, and all. Fueled by a core of Big Easy natives now based in the Big Apple, the Neutrinos make jazz that really swings and rolls. Some say the Ingrid Lucia sounds like a young Billie Holiday, and they’re not wrong. She sings in a manner that is irrepressibly sultry, delivering clever or romantic lyrics with a knowing smile, and plaintive or somber ones with a perfect pout. Treat yourself to sound clips at flyingneutrinos.com, where there is also a tour schedule of their terrific live act.
Roxette, Don’t Bore Us Get to the Chorus
This new “best of” compilation features some of the greatest pop music you’ve never heard. Roxette is well known for the Pretty Woman soundtrack hit “It Must Have Been Love” and the 1988 single “(She’s Got) The Look” (which surely ranks as one of the great ice rink songs of all time). But the Swedish duo hasn’t released an album in the U.S. for eight years, so most Americans are unfamiliar with the group’s more recent standouts like “Crash! Boom! Bang!”, “Almost Unreal” (from the Super Mario Brothers film flop), and “Wish I Could Fly.” Such a shame. If acute enjoyment of ’80s music is something from which a friend or loved one suffers, you simply can’t go wrong with this brilliant stocking stuffer.
Jim Steinman, Bad for Good
If you hate Meat Loaf, you’ll hate this album. But if you like soaring, over-the-top rock opera, nothing exceeds this 1980 solo effort by the man some have called Little Richard Wagner. Steinman is not famous, but his songs are: “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” (Meat Loaf), “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” (Air Supply), and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (Bonnie Tyler), among others, were all gigantic hits. Many of the songs on this recording are just as good. Unavailable for years, this re-released album features Todd Rundgren on guitar, Max Weinberg on drums, and the New York Philharmonic on strings and timpanis. Hey, to make this much sound, you need a band like that.
NRO columnist and research director of the Independence Institute
The Grateful Dead have been issuing compact discs of selected great concerts. The “Dick’s Picks” series is named for the late Dick Latvala, the Dead’s recording archivist. There are now 19 CD sets in the Dick’s Picks series, covering a wide variety of the Dead’s 30 year career. You can buy them at www.dead.net, or 800-CAL-DEAD.
JOHN J. MILLER
NR national political reporter
My list of desert-island CDs includes Hollywood Town Hall, by the Jayhawks. It’s so good, I will probably forever buy anything the band records. So I snatched up Smile just as it came out last spring, even though some of the reviews weren’t very encouraging. And I really didn’t like it for a week or two; it’s slicker than anything the band has recorded previously. But I was too lazy to yank it out of my CD changer in the truck. Then my wife began humming a few of the songs. Next my three-year-old son started mouthing some of the lyrics. Now I love its big country-rock hooks. The band’s lineup has changed over the years, and it really doesn’t sound much today like it did just two albums ago. But this is a solid record that improves with listening. My secret hope is that my wife and son now will want to hear more of Hollywood Town Hall.
New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and Senior Fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia.
So much contemporary music oscillates between barbed wire for the ears (e.g. Eminem) to tunes so vacuous that listening to them is like stapling helium to the wall (Oops! Britney Spears sings again). Thankfully, there are a few artists around who actually survive on talent rather than buzz. Three recent albums deserve their places under the Christmas trees or menorahs of loved ones who cherish real music.
B.B. King and Eric Clapton effortlessly demonstrate why they are royalty in the worlds of blues and rock & roll. Their superb Reprise album, Riding with the King, offers a diverse selection of blues material ranging from energetic boot stompers such as “Days of Old” to a peaceful reading of “Key to the Highway” on which the two masters work their magic with acoustic guitars.
Two Against Nature, Steely Dan’s first new studio album since 1980 (Giant Records), should be re-titled Songs in the Key of Lolita. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the band’s leaders, perform nine original tunes, mainly about middle-aged men and their fascination with likely-legal young women. The perfectionist musicianship of Fagen, Becker and the industry’s best sidemen should delight discerning listeners. And the cryptic lyrics (“Teddy’s rolling now most every night/Skatin’ backwards at the speed of light/He’s changed — in a thousand little ways/He’s changed”) will leave them guessing just what this all means.
The Best of Strunz & Farah on Selva Records has very few words — mysterious or otherwise. Jorge Strunz and Ardeshir Farah are world-class “world musicians.” The Costa Rican Strunz and the Iranian Farah play acoustic guitar at a speed that tests the capabilities of human knuckles and finger tips. With both swiftness and precision, they and their accompanists present a baker’s dozen largely instrumental songs that blend Latin sounds with Flamenco styles and the general atmosphere of the Casbah. With snow drifts coming to a street corner near you, Strunz and Farah’s musical fire will make them melt away. Just crank the volume.
NR senior editor
I bought Eminem’sThe Marshall Mathers LP, I’ll admit, to see what the fuss was about. What I found was a rapper with far more lyrical fecundity — and wit — than most of his peers. I’m not as worked up about the violence depicted in the songs as a lot of people. The violence is too self-parodic to take seriously anyway. Actually, that’s my main problem with the album: It’s too self-referential, too concerned with Eminem’s status as a successful musician and accidental role model.
Many of Aimee Mann’s songs, too, can be read as comments on life in the music industry, but only by implication. She has been one of my favorite musicians for several years. In the last year she has released two albums, which overlap somewhat:Bachelor No. 2, and the soundtrack to Magnolia. (Paul Thomas Anderson has said the movie was conceived as an adaptation of her songs.) I always find that I like a few songs of any Mann album on the first hearing, and over time come to like all of them. She serves up clever, uncluttered, catchy pop. Buy her albums, and join an elite club.
NR associate editor
My favorite album of the past year or so is When I Look in Your Eyes, by singer/pianist Diana Krall. The playing by Krall and her jazz ensemble, sometimes backed subtly by an orchestra, is inspired and you can tell she is enjoying herself. But the real highlights are Krall’s beautiful voice — music critic and NR contributor Terry Teachout once described it as “wild honey with a spoonful of Scotch” — and her passionate interpretations of standards by Irving Berlin (a samba-tinged “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”), Harold Arlen (“Let’s Fall in Love”) and Jerome Kern (“Pick Yourself Up”). The fast ones make you swing, the slow ones make you swoon; what more could you ask for?
While I’m at it, let me suggest something by one of Krall’s inspirations, Nat Cole. There are several “greatest hits” style compilations available; I’m no expert, but I likeUnforgettable, a remastered version of which was released earlier this year. It contains 25 examples of Cole’s talents as a “stand-up” singer, including “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Route 66,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” and my personal favorite, “L-O-V-E.” Terrific, sappy stuff.
Film critic of National Review, and music critic of The New Leader
Samuel Barber, Orchestral Works, vol. 1
Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Chamber Music
Camargo Guarnieri, A Brazilian Salute
Prokofiev, War and Peace
Schubert, The Final Year
Shostakovich, The String Quartets
Richard Strauss, The Complete Orchestral Songs
Stravinsky, Shadow Dances
Anything by the throat-singers of Tuva. Growling, whistling and playing their own jolting, rhythmic country-and-eastern, Tuvan throat-singers are beginning to find a long overdue audience for their thrillingly bizarre tunes. Tuva? It is a small Buddhist region on the steppes of remotest Russia. And the re-emergence of yet another Soviet-suppressed culture gives us further reason to celebrate the end of the USSR. Good choice: 60 Horses in My Herd by Huun-Huur-Tu. The title says it all.