If your holidays are anything like mine, the process of gift-giving centers on messages from one of your brothers, usually arriving on or about Dec. 19, reading, "So, Christmas is coming up, eh?" And then, whichever of the siblings is closest to home buys presents for everyone, under the impression that his brothers will eventually reimburse him for the communal gifts. Those brothers have every intention of doing that paying-back, but rarely get around to it. As consolation, they assume that by the time they're all dead, they'll be about even.
I've been the brother in the vice grip of by-proxy gift-giving before. It's a hellish role. When I find myself playing Santa, I'm often desperate for ideas. And that's where everyone's holiday gift-buying experiences are the same. Unless you're some sort of gift idea magi, you probably need some help. In that spirit, here a few suggestions of the musical variety, based on the personality types that many of our families encounter.
(Most of the albums I've chosen were released in 2009; some came out in 2008.)
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 Dead Weather, "Horehound."
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: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "It's Blitz." He'll respond well to the slightly world-weary, but upbeat attitude emoted by Karen O. (Note: he may also fall in love with Karen O, based only on her voice. Making this a hazardous gift choice if Reginald is married.)
Dmitri, the brother who's about your age, and who generally has the same tastes as you: Frightened Rabbit, "Midnight Organ Fight." This borrows a page from my Christmas playbook: My brothers and I like the same things, so gift idea generation usually consists of me considering, "Now what would I like to have?" In this case, I'm doing it twice. I'm assuming that because I like Frightened Rabbit, you, the reader, would too. And then I'm transferring that affection to a brother who's your same age. Yes, it was a lazy move.
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 the new Julian Casablancas, "Phrazes For The Young" and the latest from Stellastarr*, "Civilized." Casablancas' voice will take her back to The Strokes' "Is This It?" days, even if "Phrazes" sounds nothing like The Strokes. (It is good, however.) The Stellastarr* record will achieve a similar effect. Like the band's first album, "Civilized" is accessible and catchy and, listening to it, Penelope will feel comfortable back in the U.S. in no time.
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. We avoid Deer Tick because he had an advance copy and, instead, try Ladytron's "Velocifero," from 2008. After a conference, we decide AleXander could probably use a little dance/electro in his life.
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. She gets Miike Snow -- "Miike Snow." That two-thirds of the group once produced Britney Spears songs will escape the notice of her brain, but her hips will get the hint.
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 "A Brief History of Love," by The Big Pink. If he bangs this record in his Camry (the one your parents bought new in 2002), he'll have music street cred for at least 18 months. And, if you direct his attention to "Dominos," he'll learn a life lesson that will last until he's 30.
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: Tegan and Sara's "Sainthood." Just don't tell her they're twin lesbians. She's ready for some new stimuli, but maybe not that many, just yet.
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 Camera Obscura's* "My Maudlin Career" and put on a happy face when you unwrap a shirt from JC Penney for the 13th consecutive year.
*Not meant to imply that Camera Obscura is beneath remark. "My Maudlin Career" is a great album, from start to finish. But it is not a boat-rocker, just like Betsy.
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 the Avett Brothers, "I And Love And You." He doesn't need to know that the Avetts are critic-approved. He'll think he's listening to harmless bluegrass/folk. Feel free to talk loudly when they get to the parts about Brooklyn. Otherwise, the jig will be up. In a year, we can introduce him to Grizzly Bear.
For Ricky, the father-in-law who listened to punk a little longer than he should have, try Cage The Elephant's self-titled debut. It might be a little subversive for your wife's dad. But if he doesn't like it, you can always make fun of his love for the Sex Pistols.
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 "Cosmic Egg" by Wolfmother. He'll say something like, "This sounds like Zeppelin." He'll be right, but not because he knows that much about Led Zeppelin.
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 Matt & Kim's, "Grand," an album so infectious that you just might save the future of popular music by buying it for her.
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 when your niece introduces it to them, but who, unfortunately, are listening to Miley Cyrus. (Not that there's anything wrong with Miley Cyrus. Tell me you haven't taken a little glee from "Party in the USA" and I'll tell you you're trying to act too cool. That doesn't mean it's not bad for your soul, because it is bad for your soul. But you're old enough to handle a slight darkening of your being. Twelve-year-olds are not.)
Whew, got a little distracted by Miley Cyrus. You're giving pre-teen Tony the Gaslight Anthem's "The '59 Sound." 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.
Hattie, your cool grandma, gets Alela Diane's "To Be Still." Just remind her not to see Diane live, because even she will be bored.
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.
Alton, the slightly addled, but good-natured grandfather on your mother's side. For Alton, Emiliana Torrini, "Songs for Armini." You can convince him that Torrini is a legendary Italian songstress who's 48 and who's put out 15 albums. He'll be enchanted by a foreign woman who's old enough that he thinks he still has a chance, but young enough that it's still interesting. He doesn't need to know that she's 32 and has released only two albums that have made it out of her native ….
Errrrrt … (As in, what the hell? And meant to be pronounced phonetically.)
Iceland!? Emiliana Torrini is from Iceland?!
(The sub-story: I've long been a fan of Torrini's most recent album and knew that she didn't grow up saying the Pledge of Allegiance. But I assumed by her name that she is, well, Italian. In the process of looking up her age as I wrote this, I discovered that she's only half-Italian, claiming Iceland as her home. Emiliana Torrini and Lykke Li? I'm moving to a Nordic country.)
Alton got a lot of my time.
Now for the tricky part:
In choose-your-own adventure form (and losing the naming gimmick):
If she …
… knows more about music than you do, it's Bad Veins' self-titled record. There's almost no chance she'll have heard of them, girls tend to like their sound, and even if she has heard of them, she'll be impressed by your efforts.
… knows less about music than you, but is still a music fan, give her AC Newman's "Get Guilty." It's almost impossible to not like AC Newman.
… knows nothing about music, and says, like your sorority-belonging sister, that she "listens to everything," get her Titus Andronicus -- "Complaints and Grievances." And then break up with her.
… knows nothing about music, but is aware of her limitations, it's "Manners," by Passion Pit.
If he's …
… 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 Alice In Chains' "Black Gives Way To Blue." While you're at it, you should probably consider breaking up with him. You're going to get tired of hearing about the glory days of Candlebox.
… 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 MGMT's "Oracular Spectacular."
… a hipster, get him Kurt Vile's "Childish Prodigy" and a trip to the fertility clinic. He'll already have Kurt Vile, but he'll be wowed by your knowledge. Which settles the gift. As for the fertility clinic: You have to take him because those tight pants he wears aren't going to increase his sperm count. You might want to know exactly what it is you're dealing with, before you get married and then get mad at him for being sterile.
… 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 Phoenix's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" under the tree. And, when the time comes, you should put his ring on your finger.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.