Life during the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded music lovers of soul-sustaining simple pleasures, like dropping the needle on a crackly LP or digging into the catalog of a beloved artist.
And spending winter indoors will mean actually having the time for a voluminous Prince or Joni Mitchell or Tom Petty box set.
Plus, there’s an opportunity this year to make a real difference when you give the gift of music. Everything here can be purchased online, but shopping at a local record store will help keep those vital businesses alive.
Some suggestions: Repo Records, Long in the Tooth, and Brewerytown Beats in and around Center City, Main Street Music in Manayunk, Siren Records in Doylestown, and Princeton Record Exchange in New Jersey.
Online, the music platform Bandcamp makes sure that 80 to 85 percent of what you spend goes to the artists themselves. And if you can procrastinate and hold off shopping until Friday, Jan. 1, your favorite bands get a bonus — as they do the first Friday of every month — reaping 100% of sales.
Finally, consider a gift that supports shuttered Philly venues or helps sustain local musicians. World Cafe Live, Ardmore Music Hall, City Winery, and Johnny Brenda’s all accept donations to employee relief funds or have membership clubs. Donations to nonprofits Philly Music Fest and 30 Amp Circuit go to micro-grants for music workers in need.
Now on to the music, and music-related gift ideas — from Mariah Carey’s new memoir to Tierra Whack shoelaces and Low Cut Connie yarmulkes. (Albums are listed in alphabetical order, by artists’ last names.)
Albums and box sets
“Bobby Bare Sings Shel Silverstein Plus” (Bear Family Records). An essential set for country fans. Bare predated Waylon and Willie as a Nashville trailblazer who took creative control of his records. The music in these eight CDs documents his spectacular collaborations in the ’70s and ’80s with the songwriter, cartoonist, and author Shel Silverstein. Included are concept albums that cover the range from Singin’ in the Kitchen (with Bare’s wife and kids) to Down and Dirty and Drunk and Crazy. ($196)
John Coltrane, “Giant Steps, 60th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” (Rhino). The classic album Coltrane composed in the house on North 33rd Street in Philadelphia where he kicked his heroin addiction while living with his cousin Mary Lyerly Alexander. This commemorative set is available as two LPs or two CDs and includes outtakes previously only available on the mammoth Heavyweight Champion box set. ($21.49 on CD, $51.64 on LP)
Paul Desmond, “The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings” (Mosaic). Alto saxophonist Paul Desmond spent 17 years on the road with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and figured he was spent when he left in 1967. But Desmond soon acquired a Canadian quartet, and the results on these seven discs from 1975 are full of Desmond’s elegant bliss. These tunes, many of them standards, capture the breathy esprit that Desmond exuded. And it ends with Desmond’s “Take Five.” ($119, limited edition, 2,500 copies)
Megan Thee Stallion, “Good News” (300 Entertainment). The good news for the rap fan on your list is that the Houston rapper who emerged with “Hot Girl Summer” in 2019 and costarred with Cardi B on the salacious “WAP” video has delivered a debut album that combines her bravado, rhyming skills, inventive beats, and irresistible joie de vivre. Plus, a tour de force Beyoncé cameo on “Savage Remix.” What would be even more good news: if rumors turn out to be true, and Kendrick Lamar decides to release his first new album since 2017 before the end of the year. ($19.99)
Joni Mitchell, “Archives — Volume 1: The Early Years, 1963-1967″ (JMA / Rhino). Joni Mitchell herself had a revelation listening to this 5-CD box: “I was a folksinger!” That’s a label she’s resisted as being too limiting but apt when referring to these solo sides, including “Day After Day,” the first song she ever wrote. It’s a treasure trove, with a Philadelphia story, including two 1967 excerpts from late folk DJ Gene Shay’s radio show as well as two live shows from the Second Fret in Center City. ($64.98)
Thelonious Monk, “Palo Alto” (Impulse! / Legacy). This single-volume release captures the jazz pianist at Palo Alto High School one 1968 afternoon. Booked by a white high school student who promoted it in Black east Palo Alto in the name of racial unity, the show was recorded by the school janitor. A $500 payday in the midst of an engagement in San Francisco, the performance is nonetheless inspired, with Monk and band fully engaged. ($16.09)
Tom Petty. “Wildflowers & All The Rest” (Warner) The casual mastery of Tom Petty’s songwriting becomes ever more apparent the longer the singer, who died in 2017, has been gone. Released in 1994, Wildflowers was his second solo album and his first produced by Rick Rubin. Songs both bighearted (“Wildflowers”) and self-pitying (“You Don’t Know How It Feels”) are expressed with elegant simplicity, and most of the extras on this four-CD set are keepers. ($49.98)
Elvis Presley, “From Elvis in Nashville” (RCA/Legacy). This four-CD set collects the material Elvis cut in Music City in 1970 and largely makes the case that it ranks with what he produced in Memphis the previous year. The original 39 masters have been shorn of their orchestral embellishments, illuminating the country-soul at the heart of the performances and the superb backing of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section and guitarists James Burton and Eddie Hinton. ($36.49)
Prince, “Sign O’ the Times, Super Deluxe” (Warner). Sign O’ the Times is the most dazzling, varied album in Prince’s discography, a 1987 double album released when he was at his creative zenith. And the 18 songs on the original release are only a fraction of what the polymorphous genius was working on at the time. This seven-CD set features gems like the brokenhearted ballad “Wally,” mind-bending “All My Dreams,” and “Can I Play With U?” with Miles Davis. ($159.98)
John Prine, “Crooked Piece of Time” (Elektra). This seven-CD set encapsulates the first decade of the career of the songwriting sage, who died of COVID-19 in April. The brilliance of his 1971 self-titled debut, which included “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone,” overshadows the six albums that followed, but all are worth hearing, starting with the bitter, brilliant. and underrated Diamonds in the Rough. ($54.98)
The Replacements, “Pleased To Meet Me Deluxe Edition” (Rhino / Warner). Since the publication of Bob Mehr’s superb biography Trouble Boys in 2016, new attention has been paid to the greatest of 1980s post-punk bands to never find a mass audience. Released in 1987, Pleased To Meet Me was the third consecutive masterwork from the Paul Westerberg-led band whose contempt for professionalism could never conceal how much they cared about their art. ($64.98)
Staple Singers, “Come Go With Me: The Stax Collection” (Craft). “We’ve got to get ourselves together, and try to understand each other,” the Staple Singers sang on the first song of their Stax debut album in 1968. The timeless music on this seven-CD set gathers hits like “Respect Yourself” and “Come Go With Me” along with deep cuts by the great gospel-soul family band fronted by guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and featuring son Pervis and daughters Yvonne, Cleotha and Mavis. ($59.92)
Richard and Linda Thompson, “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight,” “Hokey Pokey,” and “Pour Down Like Silver” (Island). Shoot Out The Lights, the 1982 album that chronicled the dissolution of British folk-rock couple Richard and Linda Thompson’s marriage, has a towering reputation. But these exemplary 1970s albums deserve attention too, pairing Linda’s soothing vocals with Richard’s mostly grim songs and explosive guitar. They’re all reissued on vinyl. ($24.98 each)
Frank Virtue & the Virtues, “Rock” (Bear Family). Frank Virtue is an unheralded figure Philadelphia rock and soul history. A onetime bassist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he scored an American Bandstand-fueled hit in 1958 with “Guitar Boogie Jr.” and later founded Virtue Studios on North Broad Street. This single-disc collection on the German label Bear Family gives the early rock-and-roll bandleader his due. ($20.94)
Amy Winehouse, “The Collection” (Island / Ume). British soul singer Amy Winehouse released just two albums in her lifetime: her promising 2003 debut Frank and 2006′s breakout Back to Black, which brought on the fame that would engulf her. This five-disc box adds the posthumous, uniformly strong Lioness: Hidden Treasures, plus a disc of remixes and a 2007 live set. ($49.98)
Pop music books
“The Meaning of Mariah Carey” (Henry Holt). Carey’s book, in collaboration with writer Michaela Angela Davis, is a memoir from the diva who’s scored more No. 1 hits than any solo artist in history — including “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which topped the charts in 2019, 25 years after its release. The Meaning tells of Carey’s upbringing in a Black and Irish family, her marriage to music exec Tommy Mottola — “like being a prisoner” — and how she fought to make hip-hop a cornerstone of her music. ($29.99)
“Looking To Get Lost: Adventures in Music & Writing,” by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown) and “It Came From Memphis: Updated and Revised,” by Robert Gordon (Third Man). Looking gathers writings by Elvis Presley biographer Guralnick, with indelible profiles of American vernacular musicians like Bill Monroe, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. It Came From Memphis expands Gordon’s joyful chronicle of the Memphis musicians and “weirdos, winos and midget wrestlers” who helped detonate a pop culture explosion. (Guralnick $30, Gordon, $19.95).
“Black Futures,” edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham (Penguin Random House). This big, bold, stylish, 525-page collection of photos, essays, poems, art, tweets, memes, recipes, and more collects the works and thoughts of Black creators, globally and across disciplines. Music isn’t the focus, but flip through its glossy pages and you’ll find lyrics by pop superstar Solange and experimental musician Serpentwithfeet, an interview with rapper/producer Earl Sweatshirt, and a link to a digital mixtape by King Britt, among other recording artists represented in the mix. All that and pieces by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zadie Smith, Samantha Irby, and Hanif Abdurraqib, too. ($40)
COVID-19 has prevented musicians from touring and earning money from merchandise sales. But sidelined acts are getting creative with gift ideas:
Philly rapper Tierra Whack sells “I was adopted by Tierra Whack” shoelaces ($10) and tote bags ($20), along with “Whack” tees and sweatshirts ($20-$50), at tierrawhackmerch.com.
South Philly band Low Cut Connie is hawking boxing gloves ($40), a fragrance ($40), and yarmulkes ($25) at lowcutconnie.com.
The War on Drugs lapel pin set of band members goes for $45 at thewarondrugs.net.
Sadie Dupuis, who records as Sad13, has a $55 “Triple Feature Horror Hoodie” sweatshirt on her Bandcamp page.
The three members of Boyz II Men have launched their own line of Harmony Wines in red, white, and rose that are available at HarmonyWines.com for $19.99 a bottle.
And Neil Young’s “Never Known To Fail” rolling papers are available for $6.99 at NeilYoungWarnerRecords.com.
Live music by subscription
Remember live music? The Philadelphia-founded live music platform Nugs.net is the industry leader when it comes to streaming live concerts, with a vast audio and growing video archive. Jam bands like Dead & Co. and Dave Matthews are heavily repped, but there’s also lots of Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, and Rolling Stones, as well as niche artists like Albert Collins and Bebel Gilberto. A total of 484 Pearl Jam shows are streaming, including the April 2016 Wells Fargo Center date the band released on Nugs in October. All available for a $12.99 per month subscription fee.
Nick Cristiano (Bobby Bare, Elvis in Nashville), Karl Stark (Paul Desmond) and Patrick Rapa (Black Futures) contributed recommendations to this gift guide.