Still shopping? Try new and classic CDs

ON POPULAR MUSIC

December 22, 2005

I'm in trouble. There are only a few days to Christmas, and I haven't bought a single gift. Thank God for my understanding family and friends. They know I can be trifling about such things. Usually, they receive gifts from me after the holidays when stuff goes on sale and the stores aren't madhouses. I try to make the argument that my warm, winning, beautiful personality is priceless, that just knowing me is a gift within itself.

How do my friends and family respond? Well, they either flip me the bird or just ignore me altogether. But they always seem satisfied and pleasantly surprised when they finally get their gifts.

For Christmas, I like to give music. Here are a few old and new CDs I recommend.

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue: I've written about this 1959 classic a few times in my column. It's one of the most stunning albums ever made. There really aren't enough superlatives to describe its transporting effect. The jazz gem is open and accessible, so anyone with a heart and a brain should get it. I imagine heaven would be even lovelier if there were a clear sound system playing this album regularly.

Stevie Wonder, Innervisions: The musical genius has a new album in stores, A Time 2 Love, his first release in a decade. It's not a dud -- far from it. But it is cluttered and doesn't stand next to this 1973 classic, one of the most sublime LPs ever released by Motown.

"Living For the City" and "Higher Ground" were the big hits off the record. But album cuts such as "Visions" and "All in Love Is Fair" are just as revelatory. Whenever I'm feeling a little down, I put on "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," the most infectious, joyous song Stevie ever put on wax. Motown/Universal re-issued the CD a few years back with stellar remastered sound. Get that version.

Mary J. Blige, The Breakthrough: This isn't the hip-hop soul queen's best record (that would be 1999's Mary). But a little more than half of it features the strongest vocal performances the native New Yorker has done. I have always thought she was a tad overrated. There are several hip-hop-influenced soul sistas with much better pipes. (Lauryn Hill, Faith Evans and Jaguar Wright immediately come to mind.) But what has always set MJB apart is her ability to convey pain and heartache so movingly. It's all about what comes through her. You feel Mary, never mind the flaws in her voice. The new album, released this week, features such gorgeous cuts as "Can't Get Enough" and "I Found My Everything." The former was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the latter by Raphael Saadiq. Those two numbers, and "Father In You" and "Good Woman Down" are worth the price of the CD. But then again, you can just download those joints and keep it moving.

Bettye LaVette, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise: One of the best CDs of 2005. Bettye is a soul soldier who has been working the scene tirelessly since the early '60s. But she has never achieved much chart success. And her records never rose above cult status. "Buzzard's luck" is how the Detroiter describes her fortunes.

This year, however, she garnered the most critical attention she has ever received. And for good reason. On the album, Bettye covers tunes from pop, country, folk and rock canons. And all were written by women.

With her smoke-and-leather voice, the singer rips through such cuts as Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" and Lucinda Williams' "Joy." This stripped-down album easily defies categorization as it braids several styles. But Bettye's powerful voice drives it. If you like your rock and soul unfiltered and uncut, this is the album to get.

Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine: A dazzling set by Fiona, one of the most talented songsmiths of her generation. Gone are the dramatic vocal affectations that marred Tidal, her 1996 debut. She always seems so fragile. But on this album, the artist reveals that she's ever resilient with a sly sense of humor. Streamlined but still adventurous, Extraordinary Machine glimmers with such solid cuts as "Get Him Back" and the cutesy title track. I always uncover something new when I play this record.

Raul Midon, State of Mind: Lyrically, he's a little trite at times. But I'm in love with this guy's voice. On his major-label debut, which instrumentally features little more than Raul's guitar, he croons songs of love romantic and universal. He pays homage to those who influenced him the most, namely Donny Hathaway. He mingles jazz and flamenco, pop and soul. Anyone who has ever loved should feel "Mystery Girl" and "Waited All My Life." Beautiful stuff.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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