Hilary Duff just released a Best Of collection. Sure, the Disney Channel's Lizzie McGuire is only 21. Only five years and some eight hits into the actress's sputtering side job as a recording artist, this retrospective may be it for the Disneyfied dance-popper and her Gerber glop. So treat it for what it is: a perfect gag gift this holiday season.
But the Best Of Hilary Duff isn't actually the best gag gift of the season. No, for the pen-ultimate gag gift of 2008, you have to turn to a much earlier (and much more successful) teen-pop act, the New Kids on the Block. A few months ago the Boston quintet released a new album, The Block, and even carried out a stadium tour in support of it. But that's not the gag gift I mean. Try Merry, Merry Christmas. Originally released in 1989, Sony, in all its wisdom, has reissued this holiday set. It provide endless laughs, from Jordan Knight's comical falsetto to the factory-made clichéd music and cheesetastic lyrics. Among the baddest of the bad is Donnie Wahlberg, who sings about the original fat daddy. ''Last night I saw Santa Claus,'' little Donnie rasps, trying to be the Boss. ''What you got in your great big bag for me? I wonder what he's got for me.'' Turns out, it's a saxophone! And just wait until he plays it. Oh yeah, it's that bad.
But if you want to get a real gift for someone special - even if that someone is you - don't bother with any of the many new or reissued holiday sets. Not just because, as usual, these time-sensitive sets are not worth much time. For example, Kristen Chenoweth's A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas is too cute and folksy by half, while Sarah Brightman's Winter Symphony is as laughably pretentious as you'd expect. Ultimately, there are just better options out there. Notice the spate of greatest-hits retrospectives? You can't shop at Target and miss them - from Christina Aguilera to Enrique Iglesias to, well, the Best of Hilary Duff. The best I've heard, though, is Closer - the Best of Sarah McLachlan.
This collection, the Canadian's first retrospective, makes you appreciate just how remarkably consistent McLachlan has been over her 20-year career. She's confident in what her sound is, and she has stuck with it. She's worked alongside the same producer Pierre Marchand since her breakthrough in 1991 - none of the chasing-after-the-latest-production-fad that has tripped up so many others. If you like any McLachlan song, chances are you'll like almost all of these. Her repertoire can be a bit too uniformly languorous, and I've always been far more of a fan of her songs once remixed for the dance floor. But studying this 16-track collection, which includes two new songs, made me a believer after all. She has real skill with songcraft, and her very best songs, which include ''Possession,'' ''World on Fire,'' ''Sweet Surrender'' and ''Stupid,'' sound timeless. As consistent as she has been, her songs have actually gotten better as she's aged. Let's hope next year's Christmas present is a set of all-new material to savor.
But you have to look deeper into pop history to find the best true gift to give - or get - this season: the debut album from alternative rock legends R.E.M. Originally released in 1983, Murmur has been reissued as a two-disc 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, with the remastered original album alongside a heretofore unreleased concert from 25 years ago. The set also features essays penned by the album's producers and former label executives.
Maybe your interest in this band, from the queer-friendly rock hotbed of Athens, Ga., has waxed and waned over the years. But if all these years you just haven't been much of a fan of the band fronted by now-out Michael Stipe, it's probably because you haven't heard this. Peter Buck's jangly guitars, Mike Mills' moody bass and Bill Berry's bluesy drumming are all in top form, and Stipe never sounded better - less whiny, more optimistic. Murmur is all the better for wear because the band resisted - fiercely, it turns out - pressure to include what its producer Mitch Easter calls ''early 1980s audio kitsch,'' including guitar solos and first-generation synthesizers. So the new wave-edged Southern rock sound is crisp, and classic, not dated. Stipe, of course, also resisted pressure to create decipherable lyrics, either on paper or in delivery. Good luck making sense of his murmurs, though obviously that's beside the point. Just chant along ''radio, ray-DEE-o-o'' on the set's most popular single, ''Radio Free Europe.'' Or repeatedly cry, ''Did we miss anything?'' along with Stipe and the band on the fantastically spastic ''Catapult.''
We missed a lot, it turns out.