PopMatters has holiday music gift ideas for everyone you love now – and all whom you hope to love in the New Year. No matter your Christmas presents budget—flush and fat or anemic and scrawny—no matter the taste of those you aim to please – classic and pretty as hell (like a ‘Queen’) or more like bunch of drunk girls with a ‘sound system’ (get it? No? see below)—we offer box sets and single CDs that are sure to ring true for all those beloved, tender ears, and maybe even make ‘em dance as funny as Thom Yorke. What follows is drawn from our nationally syndicated column for McClatchy/Tribune’s wires, PopMatters Picks, wherein some of our top music picks for 2011 are trumpeted throughout North America – and heard throughout the great big world of music, sweet music.
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When the Heart Emerges Glistening
Akinmusire combines three brilliant instrumental merits: a virtuosity of speed and fluency, an ability to generate new kinds of patterns and intervals, and a freshly conceived approach to sound. He doesn’t show off by playing fast and high, necessarily, but he moves like a ninja through an alleyway—slippery and precise, in front of you, then behind you, then beyond you. This is a jazz record to rave about and to push on your friends. It’s the product of a talent that should send shivers up every jazz fan’s spine. Akinmusire has been holding back, finding his voice, developing his band, and now he is here in full bloom.—Will Layman
This is a sprawling, ambitious album, incorporating world music on a somewhat prominent basis, and one that sees the band move more in a pop-oriented direction. It’s impressive for both its sense of experimentation and its attempts to be polarizing, in that it is a whack of a lot more commercial. That, for better or worse, can only mean one thing: There’s going to be a boatload of new fans that finally “get” Battles for the very first time when they hear Gloss Drop.—Zachary Houle
Though it’s an album of quiet dynamism with no audible screams, James Blake certainly tempts its close listeners to fall in. It belongs to that branch of avant-gardism, nee synthpop and soul (not so much dubstep), that invites in as it perplexes. This CD is every bit as challenging, forward-thinking, and interesting as Blake’s previous EPs. It just uses a more digestible template to achieve its ends.—Timothy Gabriele
The secret to Cults’ success is the way the group takes reference points that have been cited to death by now and breathes new life into them, putting a twisted twist on what only appears to be lovey-dovey girl-group pop through their edgy, inventive compositions and the effed-up romances Follin sings about. It might be easy to become a prisoner of the moment when it comes to a flavor-of-the-month like Cults, but this initial effort is one that shows off strong enough pop chops to win them their fair share of true believers, now and hereafter. -– Arnold Pan
LIVE in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1
This quintet was a group through and through, a unified unit that took the “free” experimentalism and tightened it up in twisting structures. Miles Davis, always the innovator, would stretch sound further with later groups, later sounds. But this, the second quintet, might be the last purely jazz sound we get from Miles, his final statement on the jazz music he’d grown up in and would soon outgrow.—Matt Fiander
The King Is Dead
The King Is Dead suggests that Colin Meloy and co. are starting to have fun again, or at least deciding to let us have fun. The new record shows a strong turnaround for the Decemberists, and it’s a relief. It’s good to have Meloy and his band settling back to Earth and writing songs for the sake of the songs themselves—having stopped so plainly swinging for the fences, they’ve pulled off a record more impressive for its consistency and quiet confidence than anything they’ve done in years.—Corey Beasley
The Bang Years: 1966-1968
If Neil Diamond is the Jewish Elvis, then Bang was his Sun Records. If Diamond wrote and performed with innate beat savvy, his arranger Artie Butler and producers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich made those beats explicit. Barry and Greenwich had discovered Diamond, and the authors of “Hanky Panky” knew how to bring songs to life. That’s them singing backup and clapping throughout these songs; their vocal arrangement on “Cherry, Cherry” is one of humanity’s proudest achievements. Among other Diamond classics, this set has “The Long Way Home”, a majestic song that barrels like a subway train. And the whole comp ends with “Shilo”, the first big Neil Diamond power ballad.—Josh Langhoff
Past Life Martyred Saints
This is an album about how people get damaged or changed by politics or bad love or good love or art or by simply existing, and how inescapable that is. EMA’s jaggedly alive work is some of the most interesting I’ve heard in years. Her music is terribly raw; she lays everything on the line— you can find the wailing laments of “Coda” or the complicated ache of “Marked” riveting or gauche. EMA, from the sadly unheralded Gowns, makes the kind of record 2011 needs and deserves, whether it knows it or not.—Ian Mather