Musical gifts: Still shopping for holiday presents? Seek out these albums

Twilight Soundtrack for Christmas

Forget Team Jacob and Team Edward. Sign me up for Team Death Cab.

Whatever you think of the banalities of teen romance played out against the supernatural mythos of vampires and werewolves, the soundtrack for “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” is a stellar work of art in its own right. If the stereotypical fan for the juggernaut’s books and movies is a screaming 14-year-old girl, the music for this latest film sounds like it was picked out by her hip older sister to endure the cinematic proceedings.

In addition to the yearning lead single by Death Cab for Cutie — “Meet Me on the Equinox” — we get new numbers by indie favorites both widely popular (Thom Yorke of Radiohead, The Killers) and cultish (Bon Iver, OK Go). Best of all are the quirky and beautiful “Possibility” by Swedish singer Lykke Li and the stark, haunting “No Sound But the Wind” by the Editors (the band released its own album, as well — “In This Light and On this Evening,” a dark, little treat for those who love Joy Division and Interpol).

Music is a great last-minute gift — whether you download it from iTunes or hark back to the last century and pick up a CD at the store. The “New Moon” album — which recalls exemplary indie soundtracks for “Wicker Park,” “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and television’s “The OC” — is sure to please the indie fan on your list and perhaps through mere association with the movie make a Britney Spears fan appreciate something a little more sonically sophisticated.

If one quirky film soundtrack isn’t enough, check out the music Karen O. (lead singer for the rock band The Yeah Yeah Yeahs) put together for “Where the Wild Things Are,” directed by her ex-boyfriend, Spike Jonze. Her strange and joyful numbers — such as “All is Love,” nominated for a Grammy — seem to court both pre-teens and Arcade Fire fans.

Speaking of Arcade Fire, the band was one of many artists featured on “Dark Was the Night” — the 20th compilation benefitting the Red Hot Organization, an HIV-AIDS charity. It seems 2009 was a good year for indie compilations, doesn’t it? Here we also get numbers from Cat Power, Feist and the Decemberists. Best of all is “So Far Around the Bend” by The National. Any album bearing a new song by this moody, underappreciated band should be hunted down now. “War Child Presents Heroes” came out around the same time as “Dark Was the Night,” and it’s another charity compilation featuring new music from indie favorites. The twist here? A legend selected a song from his or her canon and nominated a younger artist to record it anew. So we get Beck doing Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Franz Ferdinand transforming Blondie’s indelible “Call Me” and Elbow taking on U2’s drug-addiction hymnal “Running to Stand Still.”

Of course, that latter act proves that in this age of the single there’s still room for proper albums. And U2 have been doing it better than anyone for three decades. “No Line on the Horizon” is the band’s 12 studio album, but U2 haven’t lost their desire to explore new sounds, and “Moment of Surrender,” which details a junkie’s ride on a subway, might be the best song the band has released this decade. “Horizon” is as refreshing and challenging as “The Unforgettable Fire,” an album they originally released 25 years ago and rereleased this year. Even though it was the first CD I ever owned (along with the White Album from The Beatles) “Unforgettable Fire” continues to grow on me. I once thought it was very good. Now I understand its true greatness — and it lies more in its ethereal sonic textures than its lyrics, some of which come across as sketches instead of full-fledged songs. Still, several of them — the title song, “A Sort of Homecoming,” “Bad” — are among U2’s very best. There’s a bonus album with B-sides, rarities and live performances.

In addition to U2, a couple of other legends released albums this year. Bruce Springsteen did solid — if not amazing, by his standards — work on the studio album “Working on a Dream” while 75-year-old Leonard Cohen amazed by not only going out on the road again, but recording his quintessential live album, “Live in London.” His abundant wit and songwriting genius are on display as his band effortlessly runs through ’60s classics such as “Hey. That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and more recent numbers such as “Everybody Knows.”

Antony and the Johnsons, who did a stunning cover of “If It Be Your Will” in a recent Cohen tribute film, followed up his landmark “I Am a Bird Now” with “The Crying Light,” a remarkably harrowing collection of songs tinged with sadness and carried aloft by Antony’s ethereal vocals. Titles such as “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground” and “Epilepsy is Dancing” only hint at the raw emotion and songwriting craft Antony brings to them.

Talking about tough albums to follow, British bad girl (though not as bad as Amy Winehouse) Lily Allen faced the daunting task of living up to her 2006 masterpiece. “Alright, Still.” Her sophomore album, “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” doesn’t scale those infinitely catchy heights but its sassy tales of London life provide further evidence she’s one of the most entertaining singer-songwriters out there. Similarly, Green Day’s “21st Century Breakdown” paled when expectations ran so high following the Grammy-nominated “American Idiot.” But if you lower those expectations and consider the album on its own merits, Green Day’s punk-pop charms are still there.

Still looking for ideas? A couple of alternative music stalwarts released albums this year: The psychedelic-influenced The Flaming Lips (“Embryonic”) and Idaho rockers Built to Spill (“There is No Enemy”) proved once again they can do little wrong when they pick up their instruments. Their devoted fan bases likely have picked these up, but why not surprise a Grateful Dead fan with some Flaming Lips and a Neil Young junkie with a bit of Built to Spill?

One up-and-coming indie band I’m pretty sure will join the hallowed ranks of The Flaming Lips and Built to Spill is Grizzly Bear. Their latest is “Veckatimist,” a beautiful album of experimental music and folk rock, acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies. Grizzly Bear could make a case for itself as one of the premier bands of 2009, having offered up songs for both “Dark Was the Night” and — you guessed it — the “New Moon” soundtrack.

Hmmm, what do you think would happen if a grizzly bear tangled with a werewolf? I guess we’ll have to wait for the next installment. In the meantime, pick that soundtrack up and grab a few of these others while you’re out shopping.


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