Holiday Treats for Music Fans

Buying presents for lovers of rock, pop, blues, jazz, R&B, country, or folk? We’ve got you covered.

Here are more than two dozen gift ideas for music lovers, starting with the best of this year’s CD box sets, which deliver dramatically expanded versions of classic albums from artists like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell. We also offer an annotated listing of some of 2021’s other standout releases, all of which would make great stocking stuffers.


Though half a century has passed since the Beatles broke up, previously unheard material from all of them continues to surface. This past year has been a particularly good one for Fab Four fans, as it has witnessed the arrival of three gargantuan box sets. 

The Beatles couldn’t just let it be when it came to Let It Be, their Phil Spector co-produced 12th and final studio album, which offers such classic tunes as the title track, “Across the Universe,” and “Get Back.” In 2003, their label released a Paul McCartney-led remix with a somewhat different tracklist; and now comes a 50th-anniversary edition that includes another new mix plus a previously unreleased version of the album that contains some different material and eschews the original LP’s polish in favor of a live-in-the-studio ambiance. Also here: a hardcover book, a surround-sound Blu-ray, and dozens of previously unheard tracks drawn from rehearsals and studio sessions. 

George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass—his post-Beatles debut and arguably one of the best solo outings ever released by any member of the group—returns in a variety of 50th-anniversary editions, ranging from a cardboard-sleeved two-CD set to an “uber deluxe” version that arrives in a goodies-packed wooden crate and sells for a thousand bucks. Best bet: the “super deluxe” edition, which carries a considerably more down-to-earth price but features all the music in the “uber deluxe” package, including 47 demos, session outtakes, and studio jams, plus a surround-sound Blu-ray.

An “ultimate edition” of John Lennon’s Lennon—Plastic Ono Band lives up to its billing with a version of the late Beatle’s emotive first solo album that features six CDs, a pair of Blu-rays with surround sound, and a well-illustrated hardcover book. The more than 11 hours of music incorporate 87 previously unreleased tracks, many of them revelatory.


Bob Dylan turned 80 this year, but he isn’t slowing down. He’s still touring and releasing new CDs; meanwhile, the flood of material from his vaults continues. Bob Dylan 1970 contains 74 previously unreleased tracks, including nine with George Harrison. It features variations on most of the songs that would surface on the excellent New Morning, plus alternative readings of some of Dylan’s earlier material and covers of rock and pop oldies ranging from Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” to the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” Also new this year is Springtime in New York (1980–1985), which focuses on rehearsal tapes, outtakes, and alternate versions from a time when many critics were writing him off. The nearly four-and-a-half-hour collection contains more than enough winners to prove those critics wrong.


The Who Sell Out, the British rock group’s third record and first concept album, wasn’t their most popular release, but it’s one of their finest. Featuring between-song jingles and fictitious ads that poke fun at England’s commercial “pirate” radio stations, the consistently excellent record includes the psychedelic “Armenia City in the Sky,” the majestic “I Can’t Reach You,” the Latin-spiced “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” and “I Can See for Miles,” which became a major hit. A new “super deluxe” edition of the LP, which includes an 80-page, oversized hardcover book, offers a feast for Who fans. Including 112 remastered tracks, many of which were previously unavailable, it incorporates stereo and mono versions of the original album and a truckload of demos, alternate versions, and outtakes. 


The smash-hit title cut from Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat is the track that made him famous with its evocative lyrics and soaring sax solo. But the rest of the album is great, too, and it’s even greater on a new 45th-anniversary edition, which includes a remaster of the original LP, a 16-song contemporaneous concert recording from Seattle, and a DVD with a surround-sound mix of the studio album.


Crosby, Stills & Nash’s eponymous 1969 first album made a huge splash, but they managed to top it the following year, with Déjà Vu, which adds Neil Young to their lineup and contains such standouts as “Country Girl” and “Teach Your Children.” A 50th-anniversary edition of Déjà Vu features remastered audio on both CD and vinyl, plus three additional CDs packed with 38 outtakes, demos, and alternate versions, most of which haven’t previously been available. Among them: “Know You Got to Run,” the first recording the quartet ever made; and a reading of Nash’s “Our House” sung as a duet by him and his then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell.


One of America’s best blues-rock artists celebrated his 70th birthday this year by releasing The Jimmie Vaughan Story, a massive box set that embraces excellent material from throughout the singer and guitarist’s more-than-four-decade career. The first of its four discs duplicates the tracklist from a 2013 anthology from Vaughan’s old group, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, while the remaining CDs find him playing alongside his late younger brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, and other major artists. 


Germany’s Bear Family label is known for superbly assembled gargantuan box sets, and this year’s R&B in DC: 1940–1960 certainly won’t mar that reputation. The limited-edition, 16-CD collection features 472 songs from artists connected (in some cases only tenuously) with Washington, D.C. As the accompanying oversized, 352-page hardcover book explains, rhythm and blues was originally a marketing term for recordings by Black artists that embraced lots of material that we now would not call R&B. As such, the more than 20 hours of music here includes everything from jazz and big band recordings to pop, doo-wop, and early rock. You may recognize the names of a handful of the artists and songwriters but not many; the compilers were clearly less interested in featuring hits than in spotlighting great recordings that never received the attention they deserved.


Like 2020’s Archives, Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963–1967), Joni Mitchell’s new five-disc Archives, Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968–1971) consists entirely of chronologically arranged recordings that have not been previously released. It features home recordings, demos, and outtakes, plus a wealth of live performances, including Mitchell’s entire debut concert from New York’s Carnegie Hall, some duets with James Taylor, and a Canadian gig that Jimi Hendrix (a fan, as it turns out) personally recorded. Versions of many of the compositions here—“Urge for Going,” The Circle Game,” and “Both Sides, Now” as well as songs from her landmark Blue album—are now well-known classics, but this box also makes room for a bit of noteworthy material that has not previously surfaced in any form.


  • Maria Muldaur has been making music for six decades, but she has never sounded better or more at home with her material than on Let’s Get Happy Together, where a New Orleans street band backs her on a set of Dixieland jazz, jug band, and blues music.
  • Ashley Riley, a pop-folk singer from Illinois, isn’t well known but based on the beautiful vocal work and seductive melodies on Set You Free, her latest collection of self-penned tunes, she deserves to be a household name.
  • Like his son Jeff, singer/songwriter Tim Buckley died tragically and young. The latest archival release to remind us of just how much we lost is Merry-Go-Round at the Carousel, a jazz-influenced set that underscores his talent and inventiveness.
  • The soundtrack from Broadway’s Girl from the North Country consists entirely of Bob Dylan songs, and the cast’s interpretations of numbers like “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Hurricane,” and “Like a Rolling Stone” are consistently tremendous.
  • You’ll discover more great Dylan readings on Standing in the Doorway, which finds the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde memorably interpreting gems such as “Love Minus Zero No Limit” and "You're a Big Girl Now.”
  • One of modern jazz’s most adventurous groups is at the peak of its powers on the two-CD Oregon – 1974, a two-hour concert recording from Bremen, Germany.
  • Lindsey Buckingham—who spent more than 40 years with Fleetwood Mac before being fired from the group in 2018—seems to be getting along just fine without his bandmates, judging by his eponymous latest solo album. Much of it sounds so much like his old group that it could easily be mistaken for a Mac release.
  • Dori Freeman has roots in Appalachian country music, but she has been edging closer to pop-rock with each new release. Her latest and best album, the lushly produced Ten Thousand Roses, comes loaded with upbeat melodies and addictive hooks. 
  • Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ This Year’s Model, which appeared in 1978, was one of the best things to come out of rock’s entire new wave movement. Now its original instrumentation has been wedded to new vocals from 19 Latin pop and rock artists for the recently released Spanish Model. It’s a novel idea that works brilliantly.
  • Today, R&B and pop singer Ruth Brown is little known, but she was a major influence on artists like Aretha Franklin, and there was a time when she a veritable hit machine. Hear why on the bargain-priced four-disc The Queen of R&B: The Singles & Albums Collection 1949–61.
  • The late Fred Neil wrote some classic songs, including “Everybody’s Talkin’” (the Nilsson hit), “The Dolphins,” and “The Other Side of This Life.” Eric Andersen, Rodney Crowell, and other artists tip a hat to him on the excellent Everybody’s Talkin’: A Tribute to Fred Neil, which has just been reissued in an expanded 18-track edition.
  • Bruce Springsteen produced and played on most of the tracks on Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon, an album that should appeal to fans of the Boss. A new 25th anniversary edition of the record—which includes songs co-written by Bruce—adds a high-octane concert that also features him.
  • One of the best and most influential bands in rock’s entire history is the subject of a new documentary film, The Velvet Underground, whose two-CD soundtrack offers an excellent introduction to their catalog. Equally noteworthy is I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico, which delivers superlative cover versions of every track on the group’s debut album by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and others.
  • Superb fingerstyle guitar work, soulful vocals, and beautifully arranged original material help to make Sunny War one of the best artists you’ve never heard. Simple Syrup, her latest offering, is a moody gem.