For all of us that were buying records way before back-catalogue compilations and the mp3 came to dominate the music scene, the 33 1/3 series of short books, each dealing with a different LP, make for perfect stocking fillers. Then comes the obligatory Greatest Hits, a digest of some of the best writing from the series. With the release of Volume 2 there is the usual mix of insightful personal experiences and professional encounters with the various artists. From pop to hip-hop, this book is guaranteed to shift Christmas Day away from the turkey and the inevitable re-run of It’s a Wondeful Life to a raiding of the record collection at hand. Conversations thus soundtracked and fuelled by the various chapters will try to resolve such affirmations as The Stone Roses “possessing an almost preternatural mastery of the pop paradigm” or how and why (and, indeed, if) the Pixies became “gods in abstentia”. A book for all tomorrow’s parties—oh, and the album you’re now thinking about is number 11 in the series.
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The History Channel Presents Modern Marvels - Architectural Wonders [$35.99]
For the curious-minded who wonder how things work and how things get made in the first place, these History Channel collections are splendid gifts. The technology set covers a nice range of topics, from the geek-friendly investigation of James Bond’s gadgets to the method of making candy. It goes from a basic fundamental like the science of sugar all the way to technology’s most menacing developmental extreme, the nuclear bombs created out of the work of the Manhattan Project. Science plays a great role, too, in the architectural side of the series. Covering a wide swath of human history, this set spans the most spectacular creations of the ancient world in the Eygytian pyramids and the Great Wall of China up to the 20th century and the construction of the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. These are wonderful and affordable collections for the science nut and the intellectually curious alike.
Naturally, anyone who experienced even but a fraction of the 30-year run of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson will see a bit of their life and times captured in this show. Every topic in the news and pop culture throughout its run is documented in virtually every episode of this Emmy and Peabody winning show. Viewers with a strong sense of their times, and an appreciation for recent history, will garner satisfaction from the six-DVD set, Timeless Moments, the three DVD-set The Original Ultimate Collection (vol 1-3), Carson Country (country stars on the show from 1964-1991) and The Best of Stand-up Comedians (2 discs). Some things get funnier with age; The Tonight Show is one of them. Besides, it’s good to get a laugh in, along with the memory.
Mutant Storm Empire is one of the most recent examples of the shoot ‘em up renaissance that is now taking place via Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade gaming download service. The gameplay mechanic isn’t that original (use the left analog stick to move, use the right one to fire), which is why this game seems to be getting overlooked as just another Geometry Wars clone. Or, if you were a coin-op kid in the ‘90s, you might prefer to think of it as a Smash TV clone. Regardless of what it’s cloning, it looks great doing it, complete with beautiful HD graphics that might best be described as bloopy alien polygons. The control is fantastic and responsive, and the strange alien worlds are beautifully laid out and quite intuitive to navigate. Perhaps best of all, there is pretty much no fanfare behind this game right now, so it’s a fantastic game with which to surprise someone with what is an extremely fun, and at its highest level staggeringly hard, gaming experience. At only 10 bucks, it’s also one of the most affordable gifts you could possibly come up with this year.
While their first Christmas album, 1996’s The Darkest Night of the Year, was heavy on standards, Snow Angels relies on mostly original material. That turns out to be a strength, as multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler and vocalist Karin Bergquist bring the jazz-and-blues-tinged intimacy of 2007’s The Trumpet Child to these Christmas songs. Songs like “Darlin’ (Christmas is Coming)” and “Snowed in With You” winningly recall the Christmas music of yesteryear, meant to evoke a cozy, snowed-in cabin or townhouse rather than a bustling mega-mall. Only on “White Horse” do Detweiler and Bergquist border on schmaltz. Otherwise, they’re up to the task, with Bergquist sounding like a modern-day Nancy Wilson or Billie Holiday. The pair of standards are given fresh, earthy takes, while “Goodbye Charles” is a fitting Schulz/Guaraldi tribute. Snow Angels exudes the peace and quiet that everyone longs for at Christmastime, and does so with class.