Most Christmas shoppers take the safe route. After scanning the charts, they pick up a top seller at the record store, then gift-wrap it for the hip-hop, rock, or country fan on their list. Surprising someone with something original, however, takes a little more work. To make you look more musically savvy than you really are, the Straight has come up with a handy cheat sheet. Simply scan the music collection of that special someone on your list, and once you’re finished shaming them for their appallingly mainstream taste, invest in one of the following recommended albums. All are guaranteed to make you look smarter than Robert Christgau, not to mention Santa.
If they already own: The Killers, Sam’s Town
Then get them this: The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
Who it’s for: Heartland rockers whose only friends are Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniel.
Here’s the deal: Having ditched the eyeliner and skinny ties, the Killers have stuck their tongues up the ass of Bruce Springsteen in every interview they’ve done for Sam’s Town. If Brandon Flowers had half as much taste as he thinks he does, he’d be name-dropping the Hold Steady, who serve up gloriously ragged rock populated by the most alcohol-addled hipsters this side of the Five Point on a Friday night.
Why you’ll like it too: In addition to longing for the days when Telecasters and faded jeans were the height of cool, your favourite T-shirt reads “Liquor is the anesthesia by which we endure life.”
Find out more: www.theholdsteady.com/
> Mike Usinger
If they already own: Nelly Furtado, Loose
Then get them this: Lily Allen, Alright, Still
Who it’s for: The unabashed appreciator of pure pop who has outgrown her Onyx Hotel Tour T-shirt.
Here’s the deal: On the surface, 21-year-old British singer Lily Allen’s debut album is as light and sweet as cotton candy, flavoured with reggae rhythms and sugary pop choruses. Beneath the glossy coating, however, lurks a sharp wit with a nasty streak.
Why you’ll like it too: Allen is a sassy-tongued observer of human foibles whose lyrics deliver a delicious bite, especially when directed at the exes who have wronged her.
Find out more: www.lillyallenmusic.com/
> John Lucas
If they already own: Fergie, The Dutchess
Then get them this: Shawnna, Block Music
Who it’s for: Headstrong young women who don’t so much dump their cheating boyfriends as kick them, literally, to the curb.
Here’s the deal: Fergie’s album was perfect for the tweenage set, but older girls will want to study Shawnna’s take-no-shit attitude. Block Music lifts Salt-N-Pepa–style liberation-rap to a whole new level, asserting every woman’s right to fuck and fight whomever she pleases. The album’s crowning jewel is “Gettin’ Some”, Shawnna’s ode to the male tongue.
Why you’ll like it too: Even if the music’s not up your alley, the album comes with a fold-out poster of Shawnna holding a foot-long cigar. Steal it and let your imagination run free.
Find out more: www.myspace.com/shawnnadtp
> Martin Turenne
If they already own: Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds
Then get them this: Justin Nozuka, Holly
Who it’s for: Lovesick high-school chicks crushing on the hip-hop head next door.
Here’s the deal: On this iTunes release, 18-year-old Toronto singer-songwriter Justin Nozuka is a record label’s wet dream. Of Japanese and Canadian heritage, the Yankee-cap-wearing boy wonder has good looks, a magnetic stage presence, a honey-smooth voice, and the ability to write just the sort of heartstring-pulling, stripped-down acoustic soul ballads that send angst-ridden teens rushing off to the nearest record store.
Why you’ll like it too: If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that your wack cookie-cutter Jack Johnson records are just not filling the emo void in your life.
Find out more: www.myspace.com/justinnozuka
> Tara Henley
If they already own: Nickelback, All the Right Reasons
Then get them this: Leverage, Tides
Who it’s for: Anyone who’d shamelessly choose a double bill of Bon Jovi and Bad Company over Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Here’s the deal: Leverage’s full-on rock is geared for hockey arenas, and it sizzles like Miikka Kiprusoff’s best nights with the Calgary Flames. Similarly, the post-grungers from Hanna, Alberta, could benefit from this Finnish sextet’s example. Singer Pekka Ansio Heino brings all the grit and twice the range of Chad Kroeger on passionate ballads like “Stranger”, and riffs don’t come much tighter or more explosive than the ones that drive “Fifteen Years”.
Why you’ll like it too: This debut album sports an elegantly textured green cover that could inspire your next shower tiling.
Find out more: www.myspace.com/leverageband
> Lucas Aykroyd
If they already own: Moby, Go—The Very Best of Moby
Then get them this: Burial, Burial
Who it’s for: Twenty- and 30-something ex-ravers who refer to the 1990s as “the good old days”.
Here’s the deal: A product of England’s nascent dubstep scene, Burial hits plenty of ’90s-nostalgia buttons, sounding at times like a bleaker, corroded version of Massive Attack. Still, the album’s no mere retro-pastiche—its producer’s malevolence is just sorrowful enough to make you believe he’s mourning the future.
Why you’ll like it too: With its sluggish tempos and subaquatic bass tones, this is the perfect record to fall asleep to. Beware the night terrors, however.
Find out more: www.myspace.com/burialuk
> Martin Turenne
If they already own: Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way
Then get them this: Jolie Holland, Springtime Can Kill You
Who it’s for: Progressive Americana fans who, unlike three out of four red-state residents, understand that country music has more to offer than flaming assholes like ?Toby Keith.
Here’s the deal: Long dismissed as the music of intolerant inbreds and right-wing trailer trash, country did nothing to change that image when the Dixie Chicks were blacklisted for publicly criticizing George Bush three years ago. Springtime Can Kill You, which chronicles the painful demise of a relationship that once seemed unshakable, will make you rethink your position on the most-maligned musical genre this side of rap-rock. Old-time country and sepia-toned jazz form the backbone of the best hurting songs Hank Williams never wrote.
Why you’ll like it too: Like all of us, you’ve toughed it out in a relationship long after you realized the magic was gone.
Find out more: www.jolieholland.com/
> Mike Usinger
If they already own: The All-American Rejects, Move Along
Get them this: The Adored, A New Language
Who it’s for: Everyone from mall rats contemplating their first piercing to sweater-vested indie-rockers who still get misty-eyed thinking about Weezer’s debut.
Here’s the deal: Oklahoma’s All-American Rejects scored big with power-pop hooks on “Dirty Little Secret” off their second album, Move Along. On A New Language, Los Angeles–based the Adored drops AAR’s emo-style vocals while keeping the tunes punchy and high-energy.
Why you’ll like it too: Like most right-thinking individuals, the Adored believes Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan is the measure by which all rock records should be judged. Oh yeah, and the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley adores ’em.
Find out more: www.myspace.com/theadored
> Shawn Conner
If they already own: Jay-Z, Kingdom Come
Then get them this: Pitbull, El Mariel
Who it’s for: Peach-fuzzed gangsters who can’t seem to get their ballcaps on straight—and the girls who love them.
Here’s the deal: If the new Jay-Z album is rap music for grownups, Pitbull’s El Mariel is made for kids who are just too damn horny to ever grow old. For all his crude come-ons and bawdy chants, Pitbull is one of the best technical rappers in the game, not so much cruising over his beats as racing them until they give up.
Why you’ll like it too: Never mind that half the album’s lyrics are in Spanish and the other half are encoded in Miami street slang—even if you can’t understand him, Pitbull’s delirious beats will have you bumping and grinding people’s asses whether they want you to or not.
Find out more: www.myspace.com/pitbull
> Martin Turenne
If they already own: Fall Out Boy, From Under the Cork Tree
Then get them this: Cute Is What We Aim For, The Same Old Blood Rush With a New Touch
Who it’s for: Tortured Teen Beat subscribers who can’t quite get over the fact that they’re never going to meet Pete Wentz, much less marry him.
Here’s the deal: The best-looking thing to come out of Buffalo since, well, the city was founded, CIWWAF hits the mark with emotionally fragile odes about how it sucks to be an adolescent, especially one in love. Girls will swoon over the fact that pinup-perfect, dream-boat singer Shaant Hacikyan is indeed too cute—not to mention sensitive—for his own good. As for guys, unsurprisingly, they tend to refer to the band as Puke Is What We Aim For.
Why you’ll like it too: Let’s be honest: you won’t, unless you’re a tortured Teen Beat subscriber who can’t quite get over the fact you’re never going to meet Pete Wentz, much less marry him.
Find out more: www.cuteiswhatweaimfor.com/
> Mike Usinger
If they already own: Evanescence, The Open Door
Then get them this: Lullacry, Vol. 4
Who it’s for: The misunderstood princess who rates a 9.62 as “BleedingRose1991” on VampireFreaks.com (just check her browser history, Mom).
Here’s the deal: This melodic, gothic-metal band from Helsinki blends the anarchic energy of the Runaways with the hard-edged pop craftsmanship of Garbage’s first two albums. Frontwoman Tanja Lainio dishes up hooky, Gwen Stefani–esque vocals with sentiments Amy Lee could borrow to smack down her various ex-boyfriends, including “Did you think twice before cutting my soul in half?” Nice.
Why you’ll like it too: You’re a 9.83 and loving it.
Find out more: www.myspace.com/lullacry
> Lucas Aykroyd
If they already own: Death Cab for Cutie, Plans
Then get them this: The Long Winters, Putting the Days to Bed
Who it’s for: That aging hipster who’s too old to watch The OC but is still dialled-in enough to appreciate its soundtrack.
Here’s the deal: Judging by the songs he writes, Seattle’s John Roderick is clever enough to hold his own in a roundtable discussion with the likes of Ben Gibbard and Colin Meloy. Unlike those two horn-rimmed bookworms, Roderick is as cynically self-deprecating as all hell and, as he proves on the snarling “Rich Wife”, he’s not afraid to crank things up and beat the living fuck out of a song.
Why you’ll like it too: “When you get restless at night but it’s too late to start/There’s nothing left to eat in this house but your heart” is the story of your life.
Find out more: www.thelong?winters.com/
> John Lucas
If they already own: Iron Maiden, A Matter of Life and Death
Then get them this: Antiquus, Eleutheria
Who it’s for: Your favourite progressive headbanger who thinks Maiden’s version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” kicks Sam Coleridge’s butt.
Here’s the deal: You know what’s weird? This ambitious concept album describes a late-medieval voyage to find the New World that suddenly morphs into an interstellar murder plot. But that’s not it. What’s really weird is finding a quintet from metal-starved Vancouver, of all places, that can create music as technically challenging and melodically uplifting as this. The priests of the Temple of Syrinx would freak if they heard it.
Why you’ll like it too: You need something to scare away the raccoon that keeps knocking over your garbage can.
Find out more: www.myspace.com/antiquus
> Lucas Aykroyd
If they already own: Snow Patrol, Eyes Open
Then get them this: Muse, Black Holes and Revelations
Who it’s for: Self-styled alternative types who are convinced there are signs of intelligent life beyond the borders of modern-rock radio.
Here’s the deal: The English trio’s fourth album is an over-the-top exercise in squealing guitars, fuzzed-out bass, swirling synth arpeggios, and the sort of lysergic-Azimov lyrics that anyone who’s ever pissed away an afternoon throwing eight-sided dice and counting hit points in a black light–postered basement will appreciate.
Why you’ll like it too: Muse has somehow married pop hooks to a prog sensibility, and the full-metal riffage of “Assassin” is virtually guaranteed to bang the head that will not bang.
Find out more: www.muse.mu/
> John Lucas
If they already own: The Bad Plus, Suspicious Activity
Then get them this: The Microscopic Septet, Seven Men in Neckties and Surrealistic Swing
Who it’s for: Hipsters in search of ironic-cool cachet that goes beyond jazzing Nirvana or ironic takes on the Chariots of Fire theme.
Here’s the deal: Sounding like the music of John Zorn as played by the Duke Ellington Orchestra—or, sometimes, vice versa—the Microscopic Septet pioneered its brand of little-big-band postmodernism in Manhattan during the ’80s and early ’90s. The band never won much fame outside of the Apple, but these two new double-disc retrospectives seek to rectify that oversight.
Why you’ll like it too: Led by saxophonist and new-music composer Philip Johnston, the Microscopics offer the fun of authentic swing with cartoon-soundtrack twists and funky-drummer flair.
Find out more: www.cuneiformrecords.com/
> Alexander Varty
If they already own: Rise Against, The Sufferer & the Witness
Then get them this: Anti-Flag, For Blood and Empire
Who it’s for: Politically aware punks who are more interested in expanding their minds than getting loaded and torching a cop car.
Here’s the deal: Rise Against scored a surprise hit with The Sufferer & the Witness, a record that hinted that the Chicago-based band has concerns about such pressing issues as the environment. Anti-Flag’s For Blood and Empire offers more than vague generalities, delivering scarily articulate indictments of big business and bigger government delivered through a combo of spit-and-spikes punk and car-bomb hardcore.
Why you’ll like it too: One listen to “Emigre” and you’ll be convinced that stopping the genocide in Darfur is more important than making sure you get that new iPod for Xmas.
Find out more: www.anti-flag.com/
> Mike Usinger