Jackson BrowneL
ooking for some last-minute Christmas gifts for a music lover on your list? I've written about lots of compilations over the past month, and the past of couple weeks have brought even more to the shelves. There's a Best of now out from Fuel, as well as one titled Curtain Call from Eminem.

On the re-issue front:
Rhino Records has issued expanded versions of two classic '70s albums. Jackson Browne's "ode to the road" disc Running on Empty now is issued as a two-disc set. The first CD offers the regular album, and the second is a DVD surround-sound mix of the album, with a couple of songs that didn't appear on the original release.

Patti Smith's seminal album Horses is now out in a 30th edition, with a second live disc tucked inside documenting her performance of the songs from "Horses" this year in London.

Repackaging their hits:
Howie Day offers Live From… on Epic, a seven-song collection recorded at various concerts this year and featuring his hit "Collide," as well as a nice cover of Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over." And Cyndi Lauper offers The Body Acoustic, on Epic. The disc finds Lauper revisiting her hits in an acoustic setting, but with a twist — she performs most as duets, with the likes of Shaggy, Ani DiFranco and Sarah McLachlan, who sings on both "Time After Time" and "Water's Edge." Frankly, the original versions are better, but fans will enjoy hearing an "alternate take" on Lauper classics.

Pop boxBox of hits:
If you're looking for a big box set of hits to give a pop music lover, you cannot go wrong with Rhino's amazing, seven-disc box Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box. This set offers a great mix of Top 40 and alternative pop hits, ranging from M.C. Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" and Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" to Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart" and EMF's "Unbelievable."

And those are just on the first disc. Also included are Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend," Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity," Belly's "Gepetto," The Posies' "Dream All Day," Weezer's "Buddy Holly," Oasis' "Wonderwall," Jewel's "Who Will Save Your Soul?," The Flaming Lips' "She Don't Use Jelly," The Cardigan's "Lovefool" and lots more.

There're 130 songs here, and a fat book with descriptions of the bands and an essay by Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis. In Rhino's typical ultra-creative fashion, the packaging includes a slew of coffee beans behind a plastic window.

If you want to get your giftee a new CD, here are some great new offerings:

 

Madonna Madonna
Confessions on a Dance Floor
(Warner Bros.)

The Material Girl's latest collection finds her looking back from whence she came – the land of swirling, sugary dancepop. Taking a cue from No Doubt, she melds the ambient techno style she's been experimenting with over the past few years with the urgent beat of classic disco, to good effect (the CD cover art even features a disco ball as the O in Madonna's name).

Confessions opens with its first single "Hung Up," which borrows a sample from Abba to make for a galloping pop hit about being fed up in love ("waiting for your call/baby night and day/I'm fed up/I'm tired of waiting on you"). The disc listens like an extended danceflore mix — there are no distinct breaks between tracks. Each song blends into the next.

The synthesizer washes of "Future Lovers" and "Isaac" find Madonna mixing in a touch of Eastern chant, while "How High" features robotically altered vocals. All three offer driving dance floor beats. In "I Love New York," she gets surly, putting down other cities in favor of her home.

In both "How High" and "I Love New York," she offers her most personal lyrics of the album, defending her home in one and herself in the other (it's funny/I spent my whole life wanting to be talked about/I did it/just about everything to see my name in lights" she sings before asking "Was it all worth it?" and "When I'm gone/will any of this matter?")

In "Forbidden Love," she delivers another potential dance floor hit that includes a percussive synthesizer bleep that at times sounds like the '70s instrumental hit "Popcorn." And the smooth pop pound of "Jump" harkens back to her early pop career.

This is not a groundbreaking album by any means for Madonna, but it does offer a solid new batch of dancy, catchy potential pop chart hits.

 

Neil Neil Diamond
12 Songs
(Columbia)
½

Diamond's latest album is a refreshingly stripped-back affair, centering around the singer's trademark pipes and supported by gently strummed guitars and subtle dashes of keyboard work. For most of the disc, he avoids any drum and bass rhythm structures to instead focus on the backporch, confessional nature of the songs (the first six songs don't have a drumbeat at all in them).

On "Oh Mary," he sings to a lover with just a lightly picked guitar and quiet organ strains. And atop guitar and piano on "Hell Yeah," he offers a happy eulogy to a life lived well:

"I think of myself as a lucky old dreamer
if you're asking me to tell
is it worth what I paid
you're gonna hear me say
hell yeah it is … I loved it all."

Eschewing the overproduction that has drowned nearly all of his studio work since Heartlight, the stripped-back production (courtesy of Rick Rubin, who produced Johnny Cash's last studio releases) plays well for Diamond, bringing out the raw emotion of his lyrics.

Often 12 Songs brings to mind the classic Diamond era of "Song Sung Blue." On "Delirious Love," he sounds vibrant and young as the song builds and a slide blues guitar accents his vocal about the "heat of delirious love." Later, he'll sing of "the greatest story told" which is, of course, a bittersweet story of two lovers at the end of a long life of trials and victories.

While often Diamond sounds a bit tired and old on these songs, a troubadour at the end of his days, that lends a quality of honesty and wrinkled beauty to these tracks that would otherwise be washed away in a mix of big keyboards and drums and vocal overdubs. This is a great, simple album of autumn songs, from one of America's best songwriters and performers.