Oy, it’s been a year. We’re beleaguered. Beaten up. Depressed by the economy, distressed by political dithering, swirled by tornadoes, slammed by hurricanes, shaken by earthquakes. Things must have been better, once — when we were blithely pre-supercommittee, pre-Sandusky, pre-Occupied. Right now we’re on our way to a blue Christmas even Elvis wouldn’t want to sing about.
But there’s unsurpassing joy in giving — and this year, more than ever, the best thing to give is joy itself. Where better to find it than in music, art, books and movies that transport us to sublime heights the real world can’t?We asked our critics for suggestions of bonbons from the worlds of pop culture and art, and they responded with gift ideas guaranteed to provide a flush of sensory pleasure, a glow of humanistic compassion — heck, maybe just an honest laugh.
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When the Buddha Machine first landed on American shores six years ago, it was quickly dubbed “the anti-iPod.” Instead of tucking thousands of songs into your pocket, this crude plastic gizmo played nine lovely loops of meditative electronic music through a cheap little speaker. Since then, America has upgraded from iPod to iPhone to iPad. But true to its contrarian appeal, the Buddha Machine has downgraded. The most recent version offers a mere four tracks of looping classical Chinese music. It’s bliss. www.fm3buddhamachine.com.
Based on every wedding reception I’ve ever attended, nothing rinses the human brain in serotonin quite like the music of the Jackson 5. But Michael and his brothers weren’t the only kids who grew up in the ’70s sounding so innocent and alive. The 2007 compilation album “Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul” unearths 17 forgotten gems crooned by youngsters whose parents sent them chasing after the Jacksons’ fame. Some songs are pure kid joy (“Here’s Some Dances” by Eight Minutes), while others are wise beyond their years (“I’m Not Ready for Love” by Promise). All in all, you’ll smile until your face hurts.
What do you get for the music-loving, iPhone-using Washingtonian who has everything? (Parallel conundrum: You have nothing in your wallet.) Give him or her “The National Mall,” an app created by Washington electronic music twosome Bluebrain. The duo are calling it the world’s first “location aware” album — an app designed for smartphones that uses Global Positioning System technology to trigger different swatches of music depending on your physical location as you dawdle around the Mall. The experience is truly magical. And the app is free. www.bluebra.in.
Somewhere between Chuck Berry and Nirvana, rock-and-roll became deadly serious, training our collective eardrums to flinch at most upbeat rock tunes. French rock troupe Phoenix helped many of us deprogram that reflex with 2009’s “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” a rare, exuberant slab of feel-great rock music. But sadly, not enough people have heard the band’s prior (and better) disc “It’s Never Been Like That” — which, happily, hopefully, probably, includes the rock fan on your shopping list.
I know, I know. Nothing says holiday joy quite like a pair of earplugs. But if there’s a frequent concertgoer in your life, think about stuffing their stockings (and ears) with a pair from Ear Peace. These aren’t the most powerful plugs on the market — they’re about the equivalent of wearing SPF 15 at the pool — but they are the most comfortable I’ve come across. Earpeace.com.