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Music Ideas for Everyone on Your Holiday List

November 27, 2013

Web columns don’t often stick with you for years. Most don’t stick with you beyond the hour in which you read them. But occasionally there comes along a column where, although you don’t remember the exact details years later, you do recall the gist of the column, that you enjoyed it, and maybe even that you’d like to revisit it one day.

Four years ago around this time I read one of those columns, by then ESPN columnist Paul Shirley. Shirley was a marginal basketball player with an unusual career trajectory. He wrote about his life as  professional athlete in a blog for That blog became a regular column where he pretty much wrote about whatever he liked – nonrmally music – right up until he was let go by ESPN for some insensitive comments about Haiti in the wake of the tragic earthquake there. That one monumental lapse in judgment (which it undoubtedly was, whether you agreed with his take or not) doesn’t make his writing any less interesting or his taste in music any less solid. Shirley is an indie music junkie, with a heavy lean towards the pop side. (He’s the man who introduced me to Passion Pit and Miike Snow, to give you a sense of his tastes.) The column I’m referring to was a pre-Christmas one titled, “Music Ideas for Everyone on Your List.” Shirley offered music suggestions – all 2008-09 releases – for a wide variety of personality types that one comes across in the family tree. In the spirit of giving to my readers, I’m going to present Shirley’s thoughts (quoted verbatim) along with updated gift suggestions for the upcoming holiday season.


Andrea, the know-it-all older sister. She used to listen to PJ Harvey, the Pixies and Liz Phair. But she’s been out of the loop since 1999, which, of course, she won’t admit. So, we ease her back in with something that she’ll think is obscure (because she’s never heard of it) but isn’t, really. She gets

Kate Nash, Girl Talk. Nash is everything that Phair was supposed to be. I discovered her first album earlier this year and I like the next two, including this year’s Girl Talk, just as much.

Reginald, the clueless older brother. He’s a bit of a doofus, but in a charming way. He has no taste in music, but he’s not afraid to admit that weakness. However, just because he’s able to make fun of himself doesn’t mean he’s ready to try anything too outlandish. We keep it simple:

Two Door Cinema Club, Beacon. Just a fun band that is slightly better quality than the other fun bands out there. Hopefully he’ll also pick up their last album, Tourist History, and take in one of their shows.

Dmitri, the brother who’s about your age, and who generally has the same tastes as you:

Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold and its follow-up EP, Tally All the Things That You Broke. I never expected this Brooklyn band to be my breakthrough artists of 2013 but I am in love with these two records. If I could only choose one new artist from 2013 to follow for the next five years, this would be the one.

Penelope, the slightly younger sister who fell in love with a diplomat six years ago and immediately moved to Africa. She hasn’t heard anything besides the braying of wildebeests for nearly a decade. When she left, she was excited about the resurgent New York music scene. She needs a flashback, and a pick-me-up. She gets …

Anything but the Strokes fifth album, Comedown Machine, because we envy the fact that she still lives in a world where the Strokes haven’t, well, come down. I’d give her the Vaccines 2011 debut album, What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?, because somehow this UK band managed to capture the energy and sound of the Strokes right out of the gate (Penelope’s Strokes, not the 2013 version) and then I’d throw in their 2012 follow-up Come of Age, because it’s just as good.

Xander, the brother who’s fresh out of college. Xander has hipster tendencies, which is why he now goes by the ridiculous last half of his name after leaving home as Alex. There’s no hope of impressing him with something cool. So, we go anti-cool and push something on him that he wouldn’t otherwise try …

I couldn’t help myself. Unlike Paul, I want to impress Xander. I think to myself, what band do I really like even though no one else understands the direction they’ve gone in? What band zigged when everyone else thought they’d zag? What band would say to Xander, you’re different, I’m different, we’re both cool man? I buy him MGMT by MGMT. (If you’re more like Paul and want to suggest something cool because it’s uncool, I suggest We the Common by Thao & the Get Down Sat Down.)

Courtney, the sister who’s still in college and who proudly displays her Chi Omega short shorts at every opportunity. Courtney’s a musical disaster. She claims she listens to “everything,” but what that means is she listens to “crap.” Her iPod is filled with singles, most of them of the Top 40 variety. Our best gift to her would be an “Eternal Sunshine”-style mind erasure. But, because no one has perfected that technology, we decide to ease her into something cool, without her knowing it …

We like Courtney. She means well even if she represents things we hate. So we give her two albums that we know she will like, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. We give her the debut albums from both Alt-J (An Awesome Wave) and Django Django (self-titled).

Robby, the high school-aged little brother. Robby needs to learn that he’s not going to marry the girl he’s currently dating and he needs some help in the “cool” department. The wrapping paper on his gift conceals …

Manifest! by Friends. Not only will “Friends Crush” teach him a little something about life, he’ll fall in love with the band’s singer, Samantha Urbani, and forget all about what’s-her-name.

Parents, Grandparents and Extended Family

Janet, the mother who’s having a life-awakening at 50. Janet is considering a return to school and a career change. She’ll eat up anything you give her, so you can push her boundaries. Therefore:

Metric, Synthetica. Emily Haines feels younger than she actually is, and her band’s music will make your mom feel younger too (without scaring her off).

Betsy, the mother-in-law who is not about to undergo any significant life changes. I don’t even want to discuss this woman. Just give her [this album] and put on a happy face when you unwrap a shirt from JC Penney for the 13th consecutive year:

Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City. It’s very good. It will not offend. Just hand it over and walk away slowly.

Jim, the father who’s the same at 50 that he was at 40. Lawn-mowing and beer-drinking are still his favorite activities to complain about and complain during, respectively. Retirement is 15 years away but he’s already settled into opinions that won’t change. That’s why he’s getting …

Deer Tick, Negativity. As Shirley writes about his suggestion, the Avett Brothers, “He (Jim) doesn’t need to know that the Avetts are critic-approved. He’ll think he’s listening to harmless bluegrass/folk.” My short time with Deer Tick immediately made me think of my dad, holding a beer and swaying along, saying “these guys remind me of the Stones” (even though they don’t remind anyone of the Stones). Throw in the fact that they’re also critic-approved and your dad will instantly be cooler than he really is. Of course, none of his friends will care.

For Ricky, the father-in-law who listened to punk a little longer than he should have, try …

Surfer Blood, Pythons. He’ll give them the benefit of the doubt just for the name, and with your father-in-law you probably need that extra edge. The music then ought to win him over.

Kevin, the uncle who’s 10 years younger than your father. His formative music weekends were spent with AC/DC and Van Halen. He’s single, but it’s not creepy yet. That’s why Kevin gets …

Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory. I doubt he’ll appreciate the subtlety behind the album, and why this is great music and his metal is not, but he should enjoy it anyway and perhaps some musical taste will seep in through osmosis.

Angie, the niece, daughter of your mom’s brother. Angie’s 12 and needs a pre-intervention. (There should be a word for that. Wait, there is: prevention.) For her prevention, it’s …

Hollerado, White Paint. It’s hard to come by in the U.S., but their debut album Record in a Bag will do just as well. This Canadian band never lets a show go by without a blast of confetti. Angie will be pleased.

Tony, your nephew, and the daughter of your mom’s sister. Tony’s also 12 years old. He needs to learn how to rock a little before he gets sucked in by the 12-year-old girls who, if there were any justice in the world, will be listening to Matt & Kim [Shirley’s gift to Angie] when your niece introduces it to them, but who, unfortunately, are listening to Miley Cyrus.

Shirley offers pre-teen Tony the Gaslight Anthem‘s “The ’59 Sound”, adding, “You might think it’s too adult, and maybe even too bleak for him, but that’s because you don’t remember what it’s like to be almost 13.” Personally, I think it’s not bleak enough. I remember being that age and listening to the Smiths, while others I know found Joy Division in their early teens. Let’s educate Tony on what it means to be a young man and give him the National’s Trouble Will Find Me. He’ll both thank you and blame you later.

Hattie, your cool grandma, gets …

Arcade Fire, Reflektor. She’s old enough that she possibly hasn’t heard of them, and cool enough to get it.

Your crotchety grandmother, Mary, gets Percocet. And no, that’s not the name of a band. That’s the name of a drug that will make her happier than any music can, at this point.

Poor Paul was running out of steam here. Personally, I choose to give her the ShinsPort of Morrow. For some reason this feels like the right gift for someone I don’t want to give too much thought to.

Alton, the slightly addled, but good-natured grandfather on your mother’s side. For Alton …

Ivan & Alyosha, All the Times we Had. He’ll like the exotic name, and be comforted by the accessible sounds.


In choose-your-own adventure form (and losing the naming gimmick):

If she … (intros by Shirley, band/album suggestions and everything that follows by me)

… knows more about music than you do, it’s Ex Cops, True Hallucinations. There’s a decent chance that even she hasn’t heard of them, and even if she has, she will appreciate your depth, musical and emotional.

… knows less about music than you, but is still a music fan, give her Passion Pit’s Gossamer. It will feel familiar to her, but you still get to show off your music-nerd chops by telling her all about Michael Angelakos’ back story.

… knows nothing about music, and says, like your sorority-belonging sister, that she “listens to everything,” get her a new boyfriend.

… knows nothing about music, but is aware of her limitations, it’s PhoenixBankrupt!


If he …

… stuck in the past and he claims that “the music of the ’90s will never be topped,” and staunchly believes what he says, then you should probably throw up your hands and put a bow on the new Pearl Jam album. Because really, why fight it?

… stuck in the past, and claims that “the music of the ’90s will never be topped”, but says that only because he likes to be argumentative, and will actually have an open mind toward something new, you should try sliding him back into good music with New Moon by The Men. And watch him go crazy for “Supermoon”.

… a hipster, get him Oshin by DIIV. Paul goes on an extended anti-hipster rant which I won’t republish here, though I do agree with his point about tight pants (in short: lose them). Why DIIV? Because like Z. Cole Smith (the lead singer and force behind DIIV), he’s probably not as cool as his hype.

… a standard, run-of-the-mill dude who likes mostly good music, but doesn’t make it the focus of his life, and who does nice things for you, listens to your problems, has opinions of his own, and makes you feel good about life, then you should put Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories under the tree. And maybe be sport and direct him to track #8 with a wink and a smile.

From → Music

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