When Rachel Martin was given a slot guest-hosting weekends at All Things Considered, she took the opportunity to get a little holiday shopping out of the way. Needing musical stocking stuffers for a few pesky relatives — her fiance's mom, for example, or her dad, who likes "Tchaikovsky and Johnny Cash" — she consulted NPR Music's Stephen Thompson, and asked him for some tips.
Her fiance's mom likes The Doors, but mostly gravitates toward "anything that would play in the background at a day spa." Which gave Thompson the chance to sing the praises of Julianna Barwick, who makes somber but uplifting choral music by looping recordings of her own voice. "Flown," from The Magic Place, is enough to make a sunset drive along the New Jersey Turnpike feel both majestic and as relaxing as a trip to the aforementioned day spa.
For Martin's father, the one whose tastes don't run much more contemporary than Johnny Cash, Thompson names singer-songwriter Nick Lowe. Lowe, who was once married to Cash's stepdaughter Carlene Carter, wrote songs for Cash and shares the Man in Black's gift for capturing complex lives in just a few words. From Lowe's album The Old Magic, Thompson specifically recommends the song "House for Sale."
Martin's aunt Patty enthuses over Christmas music — everything from Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey to the Chipmunks. So Thompson takes the opportunity to rave about his own favorite, the Minnesota band Low and its 1999 album Christmas, and describes it as a crucial December companion to eggnog and Dansk butter cookies.
Finally, for Martin's music-savvy friend Hari — a fan of techno music and hip-hop — Thompson picks Shabazz Palaces and its album Black Up. Driven by the fertile mind of Digable Planets' Ishmael Butler, Black Up is hard to even pigeonhole as hip-hop: It's full of crazy beats, soul and jazz influences, and some seriously weird words. As Thompson says, even if Hari already has it, it's cool and unusual enough to score Martin some cred points if she passes it along as a stocking stuffer.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK. Now, if that didn't give you any ideas about possible holiday gifts this year, my next guest most certainly will. I've asked Stephen Thompson of NPR Music to join me for a bit of a musical challenge. Stephen's here with me now in the studio. Thanks very much for joining us.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: I am taking command of NPR's resources for a completely self-serving effort today. I need your help in finding music for friends and family - stocking stuffers. And a lot of these people are kind of stuck in their own musical tastes, and I need your help kind of pushing them out of it. Are you up for it?
THOMPSON: Like, these are gateway albums.
MARTIN: Exactly, gateway albums. I like it. OK. So we're going to start off first with my fiance's mom. She is really picky about music, first of all. She basically likes pretty much anything that would play in the background at a day spa.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: I mean, that's what she likes. She doesn't like it to be too much in the foreground. They're just kind of Enya-esque. What do you think?
THOMPSON: Well, I've got something that will keep her firmly in the vein of Enya-esque but pushing beyond that day spa stigma.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMPSON: It is a wonderful, wonderful singer and performer named Julianna Barwick, who makes these sort of looped compositions where she stands at a piano and then loops her own voice to create a kind of choral effect. I actually listened to this record while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike at sunset...
THOMPSON: ...and I found myself thinking, my God, the New Jersey Turnpike...
MARTIN: It's beautiful.
THOMPSON: ...is beautiful. This is the most gorgeous tableau I've ever witnessed.
MARTIN: It makes you a little delusional.
THOMPSON: It does make you - it's music to make you delusional. The album is called "The Magic Place." The singer is Julianna Barwick, and the song is "Flown."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLOWN")
THOMPSON: It's gorgeous.
MARTIN: Yeah. It's beautiful. There's this - I mean, obviously, this ethereal mystical quality to it that I would think the Jersey Turnpike is beautiful if I were listening to this.
THOMPSON: I find this record incredibly uplifting, and it actually - that it gives me a certain amount of energy. Even if it sounds a little sleepy, a little slow, whatever, I find that it's a nice palate-cleansing record. And you could totally hear it at a day spa.
MARTIN: Yes, you could, multipurpose. You could get your nails done to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: That was Julianna Barwick from the album "The Magic Place." OK. So that was the first challenge. Let's move on to the second, the big one, my dad.
MARTIN: No pressure. My dad likes Tchaikovsky...
MARTIN: And Johnny Cash.
MARTIN: And that's kind of it.
THOMPSON: They never work together, though.
MARTIN: It's a shame. If only they did.
THOMPSON: I feel like I've got to choose one or the other here.
MARTIN: Yeah. It'd be tough to find a hybrid. So what do you think?
THOMPSON: All right. I'm going to go the Johnny Cash route and recommend a singer-songwriter named Nick Lowe, who a lot of people know as the man who wrote the song, "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding." And he used to be married to Carlene Carter, June Carter Cash's daughter...
MARTIN: From her first marriage.
THOMPSON: ...from her first marriage and Johnny Cash's stepdaughter. So Nick Lowe was related to Johnny Cash and wrote songs for Johnny Cash. So got a little connection to the family there.
MARTIN: A little family connection.
THOMPSON: It's always good to have, like I said, that gateway. He had an album this year called "That Old Magic." My favorite song from the Nick Lowe record is this absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful song called "House for Sale."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE FOR SALE")
NICK LOWE: (Singing) House for sale, take a look inside, this is where love once did reside. But now it's gone, and that's the reason I'll be traveling on.
MARTIN: I'm sitting on a back porch drinking some iced tea.
THOMPSON: It's back porch iced tea, but it's also - it's a divorce song, but it also is infused with a lot of hope. And part of what I love about his songwriting is how much he says in very few words and the fact that in the end of that song, it's ultimately very hopeful.
MARTIN: So like Johnny Cash, he's taking these really sad people who found themselves in dark moments and still finding a way to find some kind of hope in that.
THOMPSON: Right. Johnny Cash's music is very much about redemption, in one way or another, and sometimes about the complete inability to find it. But he painted these very large human pictures, and I think that Nick Lowe is in that spirit and something that your dad would really like.
MARTIN: OK. So that was Nick Lowe from the album "That Old Magic." Challenge number three coming up: good friend of mine, his name is Hari, he's sophisticated. He's got very diverse kind of musical tastes, and he's up on all the things people are up on when it comes to music. He digs techno and rap, like Eminem. These are musical worlds, Stephen, that I do not inhabit on a regular basis. So I'm at a loss.
THOMPSON: OK. Shabazz Palaces.
MARTIN: Shabazz Palaces.
THOMPSON: Shabazz Palaces. It's a performer named Ishmael Butler who used to record in a band called Digable Planets.
MARTIN: Yeah. I know Digable Planets.
THOMPSON: Now, if you remember the song, like, "Cool Like That," you know, this kind of cool, easygoing hip-hop in the '90s, kind of in the wake of like that Arrested Development kind of stuff. He made this wonderfully weird record that is - it's a hip-hop record, but it's kind of a record with no genre of its own whatsoever. It's hip-hop, it's jazz, it's got these crazy thick beats and weird words going on. The album is called "Black Up," and this particular track we're going to listen to is called "Recollections of the Wraith."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RECOLLECTIONS OF THE WRAITH")
SHABAZZ PALACES: (Singing) The ghetto sounds crawl, it bounce wall to wall, it draws us and y'all, it's music that chews up, just prove it, we use it, you lose it, it's crucial, all we do is answering the call, to tonight, tonight...
MARTIN: I love that little soul interlude in there.
THOMPSON: If nothing else, if you give him this record, maybe he already has it, but he's going to think you're so cool for thinking of it.
MARTIN: There you go. I get cool cred.
THOMPSON: And really, isn't that what the holiday season is all about?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: It's all about me, yeah. That was the group Shabazz Palaces from the album "Black Up." All right. Moving on, my Aunt Patty in Tucson, Arizona. Maybe 'cause she lives in Arizona, but she - she never sees snow, but she loves Christmas albums.
THOMPSON: Sure. This one's...
MARTIN: Help me.
THOMPSON: ...this one's the easiest for me because I'm right with her. Probably my favorite holiday record of all time, if you set aside the fact that as a kid I wore out "Christmas with the Chipmunks," an absolutely wonderful band from Minnesota, one of my favorite bands called Low made an album called "Christmas" about 10 years ago. I thought about actually ordering in bulk wholesale, like, 50 copies of this record and using the cardboard sleeve of the record as my Christmas cards...
THOMPSON: ...because I love this album so much. The album is called "Christmas." This particular song is called "Just Like Christmas."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST LIKE CHRISTMAS")
LOW: (Singing) By the time we got to Oslo, snow was gone. And we got lost. The beds were small but we felt so young. It was just like Christmas.
MARTIN: I dig it.
THOMPSON: This is one of my holiday traditions that - it's sort of like eggnog or Dansk butter cookies. You only break out these certain things at a certain time of year. And for me, eggnog, Dansk butter cookies and "Christmas" by Low are, for me, the signs of the season.
MARTIN: For me, it's the Mint Milano by Pepperidge Farm.
THOMPSON: Oh, nothing wrong with that. Oh, yeah. Those are good.
MARTIN: Good, right? Underrated. OK. Another successful challenge completed. That was the band Low from the album "Christmas."
THOMPSON: Aunt Patty, check.
MARTIN: Aunt Patty, check. OK, Stephen Thompson, you have done it. Everyone from my father to my future mother-in-law... it's very important to find her something she likes. Thank you so much.
THOMPSON: It is my pleasure.
MARTIN: Stephen Thompson is an editor with NPR Music and a personal shopper in his spare time. You can post your own musical challenges in the comments section to this story at our website, nprmusic.org. Stephen, thanks again.
THOMPSON: My pleasure. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS")
MARTIN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Check out our weekly podcast, the best of weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.