USIC marketing during the Christmas season is filled with all sorts of repackaged crapola that caters to the emergency-driven shopper, be it the cash-in box set, the recycled anthology or the truly desperate "deluxe edition." The result: Dad gets stuck with two CDs of Led Zeppelin songs that he already owns (Mothership); Mom's got Van Morrison's hits all over again but with worse artwork (Still on Top); and your brother has the same early recordings of Bob Marley that've been released 543 times already (eight different times this year alone).
This year, get 'em something new that they'll love you for finding.
For example, Mom's probably hooked on the Leonard Cohen tribute I'm Your Man, but if she's never heard of M. Ward's Post-War, then you alone can rescue her. For the globally minded mom, there's Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale's Breathing Under Water, a unique, elegant soundscape from worlds away. And if Mom's too mellow for the revived howl-call of soul songstresses Bettye Lavette (The Scene of the Crime) or Mavis Staples (We'll Never Turn Back), there's always Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand, if only for their stunning, hypnotic rendition of "Killing the Blues."
For Dad, you could go with Neil Young's new Chrome Dreams II, but it's useless compared to two live recordings released this year: Live at the Fillmore East (totally rockin'; good if Dad still drinks beer) or Live at Massey Hall (captivating solo set; good if Dad still gets high). Bruce Springsteen's Magic pales next to the Live in Dublin double CD, awash in the liberating spirit that the E Street Band once oozed. And instead of an utterly inessential repackaging of Bob Dylan songs (Dylan, foisted off as a one-, two- or three-CD set), how cool would it be to open Dad's eyes with the soundtrack to I'm Not There, two whole CDs of Dylan's music as played by almost three dozen newer artists like Yo La Tengo, Calexico, Jeff Tweedy and the Black Keys?
Sure, your sister's been bumping Amy Winehouse, so buy her Sharon Jones' 100 Days, 100 Nights. Better yet, get Jones' earlier album Naturally—after all, Winehouse stole Jones' backing band, the Dap-Kings, along with a few ounces of her attitude. Buying Alicia Keys' As I Am or Colbie Caillat's Coco won't actually embarrass you, but wouldn't you feel better wrapping up something less watered down? M.I.A.'s forward-thinking Kala or Stephen Marley's Mind Control ought to fit the sisterly bill.
If your brother's just discovered the guitar, options abound: The Cribs' Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever is a cornucopia of catchy hook-driven Weezer-ish pop gems; Jesu's Life Line is a heavy soup of spaced-out distortion; and the Heavy Metal box set covers everything evil, loud and thundering from 1968&–1991 housed in a replica of a Marshall amplifier. If your brother's a budding DJ instead, go with DJ QBerts's helpful Scratchlopedia Breaktannica DVD, full of insider turntable tips.
Once the family's taken care of, there are the sprinkling gifts. Got a friend who loves the Pogues? Try Gogol Bordello's raucous Super Taranta. The Kinks? Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Talking Heads? The Arcade Fire's Neon Bible. It's not even a stretch for fans of the Police to love Menomena's Friend and Foe. Ohmega Watts' Watts Happening is perfect for kids who aren't allowed to hear rap music with swearing. The Heliocentrics' Out There is an intoxicating blend of hip-hop and free jazz. David Murray's Sacred Ground and Howard Wiley's The Angola Project are deep jazz picks, and Volker Strifler's The Dance Goes On is a satisfying blues choice. The electronica fan can find solace in Luke Vibert and Jean Jacques Perry's Moog Acid, Bassnectar's Underground Communication, or !!!'s outstanding Myth Takes, and even the classical fan can have something new with Osvaldo Golijov's beautiful Oceana.
Love Is the Song We Sing is a worthy box set that digs insanely deep into the 1960s San Francisco psychedelic scene—good for your crazy uncle?—while the Devil Makes Three and Two Gallants both have self-titled albums representing the new guard of the Bay Area.
Also, finally on DVD after decades of criminal unavailability, John, Paul, George and Ringo's Help!, sure to be a huge hit for Christmas and something fun for the whole family to watch while cleaning up wrapping paper.
And remember: there's nothing more boring than buying music on the Internet, so if all else fails, get 'em a gift certificate to your local independent record store.