In the Presents of Greatness

What to buy for the person who knows everything

Illustration by Bob AulSo your loved ones love music. How sadfor you. Music is so awful. Fluency is as punishing as learning written Mandarin and so much less practical; if you don't cop out and buy an Amoeba gift certificate, you're gonna feel so gross when they're looking down at some CD with glittery type on the cover and all you can think is, "What? What? The guy at Target said it would be cooooooooooool!" So here's some instruction for the illiterate—observe your target carefully, and then spend like there's no tomorrow. We picked stuff that's good and expensive—for the true music fan, who's got taste to waste and no money to put behind it. Almost all of it's still in print. And that, wealthy and well-meaning holiday gift-giver, is where you come in.

IF THEY . . .

. . . HAVE A BOB MARLEY POSTER AND A BLACKLIGHT: The Trojan box sets are enthusiastically cheap but kind of overwhelming; instead, try Soul Jazz Records' Studio One series, an impeccably curated survey of Jamaica's (arguably) most famous reggae studio. The Musik City CD box set collects several volumes of various artists, but omits some of the best—either pick up Studio One Soul (reggae covers of the best of Motown—and one of the strongest releases of any genre in recent years), Studio One Scorchers (thick and heavy instrumentals) and Studio One Rockers (the best of the best) on CD, or buy each individual volume of the series on the lavish double vinyl. If their room always smells funny, start with Studio One Dub.

. . . REALLY LIKED THE MOVIE RAY: The man himself stuck around Atlantic proper, but the Stax/Volt singles box sets will move you without him: Volumes 1 and 2 cover 1959 to 1968 (the Otis Redding-ish years) and 1968 to 1971 (the Isaac Hayes-ish years), respectively, charting a casual slide from rough-and-tumble R&B to heart-rending soul and tense, taut funk and—eventually—catastrophic collapse. But in between, Stax had Carla and Rufus Thomas, Booker T and the MGs, and a sharp, heavy soul sound that put a lot of guts against Motown's polished glamour.

. . . WANT MATCHING TECHNICS 1200s INSTEAD OF MATCHING SOCKS: There are a million compilations of rare (and solid) comps floating around, but safe bets are these 45 box sets, reissuing the rare '60s and '70s singles that birthed the beats of today. The Atlantic Funk 45 box (10 reproductions of rare vinyl 45s) sneaks a few worthy oddballs (the Mighty Hannibal, the TSU Toronadoes) alongside the Soul Seven box (put out by the crate diggers nonpareil at Stones Throw subsidiary Now Again). Also get the Ultramagnetic MC's Critical Beatdown reissue and Madvillain's Madvillainy on vinyl (or MF Doom's MM . . . Food; just ask the guy at the counter). Your giftee probably has these, but they'll think, "Man, Grandpa has his shit together!"

. . . CORRECTLY PRONOUNCE "SHOSTAKOVICH": A bottle of good wine.

. . . PLAY KKJZ AS THEIR OFFICE ON-HOLD MUSIC: Madlib's Shades of Blue, which let the noted hip-hop producer into the musty archives of one of the best jazz labels ever—even though it came out in 2003, it'll be something you and your parents can smoke pot to for years. Too intimate? If you don't want the Revenant Records' Albert Ayler box set or 1962 Cecil Taylor sessions, then you'll want Dock Boggs' creepy murder ballads or the long-lost Volume 4 of Harry Smith's anthology of pre-Depression American folk (the website says it's out-of-print but due to be reissued in 2004; this writer saw it in stores last month, so apparently it's out there!).

. . . HAVE "JOEY RAMONE" MARKERED ALL OVER THEIR CONVERSE: Rhino's No Thanks! '70s punk box is great for the beginner, but anyone who's put a little plastic into the Hot Topic charge-card machine—or spent 20 minutes stealing shit off the Internet—probably has just about everything on here. Your little baby punker would be much better served by a double dose of Nuggets 1and 2box sets on Rhino—the first with the tuff '60s fuzz rock the punks (like, um, Lenny Kaye) ripped off and the second with the more challenging psychedelia they were too scared to play. And that leads us to:

. . . SING ALONG WITH ALL THE SONGS ON THE O.C.: Get the pretty-new Left of the DialCD box, also on Rhino—this fairly mandatory '80s follow-up to the '70s punk set is a Rosetta stone for every 2004 new-new-wave pop band ripping off the Cure or Gang of Four and will happily smarten up your giftee's taste. Tag it with the Brian Wilson Smile or a Pet Sounds reissue (as well as the American Anthology of Folk Music, see above), and you'll have every youth-guitar-music trend pinned like a butterfly. Be warned that Left of the Dial treads the same sort of familiar—but certainly not unworthy—territory as the '70s set, so buy for novices only. Still not sure? The Nirvana box set (see Dave Clifford's "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter," Dec. 10) is the failsafe twentysomething rocker gift of the season.

. . . GOT A TAN FROM STARING INTO A MONITOR ALL NIGHT: Strut's Disco Not Disco sets are a few years old but no saggier for it—both volumes pull together bizarro dance-beat tracks that set up in the droniest post-punk and then launch for outer space. There's a lot of magic in the context here—Volume 1 uses Yoko Ono's best track and a well-known Liquid Liquid song to make some experimental work by the Steve Miller Band (yeah . . .) sound real serious. Volume 2 is better track for track—though "Flow Motion" might have been a choicer Can song than "Aspectacle"—and Material's "Ciguri" is still sort of scary. Can't find that? Get Tigersushi Records' So Young But So Cold, which comps French proto-electro (quel pretentiouse!) into a creepy and chilly set about 20 years ahead of its time. Order direct at tigersushi.com.

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