Our Endless Numbered Days Iron and WineWith his tangled beard and hushed songs, Sam Beam appears to be a troubadour from the bayou. The truth is just as interesting: he's a cinematography teacher from Miami and a star on Sub Pop. His latest effort, Our Endless Numbered Days, is filled with quiet, meditative songs that recall Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, enlivened by crisp vocals and percussion. It's a simple formula, but the scholarly Beam makes it work.
Left of the Dial: Dispatches From the '80s Underground Various ArtistsIn 1984 Paul Westerberg poked his head out of Minneapolis, swallowed some gravel, and took his shot at commercial rock: "Seen your video/ Your phony rock and roll/ We don't want to know." Then he sank back into the genre-busting scene of '80s alternative. Rhino pays tribute to the era with a four-CD set of 82 bands, from Bauhaus and Bad Brains to Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth, all required listening for old and young alike.
A John Waters Christmas Various ArtistsDon't let Streisand's Christmas Album ruin another perfectly fine holiday dinner. This year, take some advice from John Waters and play "Santa Claus Is a Black Man." Don't have it? Of course not, it's a crazy song. So is "Happy Birthday Jesus," "Here Comes Fatty Claus," and nine others from A John Waters Christmas, a compilation the aberrant director calls "the most bizarre carols you've never heard." We won't argue.
Funeral Arcade FireThe debut by Canada's Arcade Fire is an eccentric, grandiose, theatrical whirl of instruments and emotions -- the perfect antidote to the "Take Me Out" automatons of '04 rock. Husband-and-wife songwriters Win Butler and Regine Chassagne deliver unapologetic anthems and string-heavy ballads, with Butler's voice quivering under the weight of his lyrics. Funeralis the ideal gift to thaw the irredeemably hip.
With the Lights Out NirvanaAh, yes: the fabled Nirvana tapes. The courtroom drama is over, Love and Grohl and that other guy have agreed to make money as a team, and With the Lights Out is primed to restore greatness to the band who ... what? Should've stayed indie? Had the sad singer? Or absolutely tore it up live? I'm going with number three. The three-CD/one-DVD set costs $59.98 and includes 68 unreleased tracks and video, including a 1987 show at a house party.