It happens every few years: we look in our closet, attic or garage, or those two boxes we've been lugging around for the past three moves and have forgotten what's inside, and we say, "Damn, I should have listened to George Carlin. I have too much stuff."
The holidays, of course, are all about stuff. "Stuffy stuffy stuff stuff!" shout the holidays, "Buy more stuff!"
For this year's Gift Guide, we haven't eschewed material gifts altogether, but you'll find a healthy mix of experiences along with must-have presents that one can wrap in a box. Most of those experiences are entirely local—and along that thought, we continue to remind readers to seek out the locally owned, independent shops for tactile gifts. (In fact, next week's issue is devoted entirely to that very ethos.)
Here are a few of our recommendations this year.
GLUED TO THE SCREEN
Chromecast ($35) is a tiny, USB-powered HDMI dongle that's inexpensive and streams anything in Google's Chrome browser, from any device, directly to a television. It's a little buggy, and there isn't as much support for it as one might like just yet, but it makes hanging out and watching YouTube videos with friends a whole lot more social. Of course, web-to-TV devices have been around for several years, the two other big ones being Apple TV and the Roku box. . . . Apple TV ($99) does basically the same thing as Chromecast, but it's more of a set-top box designed to replace or augment cable TV. It allows wireless mirroring from any Apple device, and has apps for streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. . . . Roku ($50–$100) does basically the same thing, again, minus the mirroring—it's purely an app-driven box, but it has more choices, costs less and still offers the best interface of the three. . . . The PlayStation 4 ($399), no longer just for video games, can also act as a web-to-TV interface. With an eight-core processor and sleek, modern design, it's a natural progression from the PS3. It plays Blu-Ray movies and games, connects online for downloading apps for streaming services and more. Users can easily record and share up to 15 minutes of game play, which will only add to the amount of popular YouTube videos of in-game play. . . . Microsoft's Xbox One ($500; microsoftstore.com) is a similar gaming console but integrates paid TV service (like cable) and comes with the Kinect motion and voice controller. Instead of a remote, users just flail their arms at the TV and speak like people in old movies trying to talk to natives on a tropical island. . . . It's not available on PS4 or Xbox One just yet, but Grand Theft Auto V ($60) is the hottest game, well, ever. The lives of the multiple protagonists are so detailed, each even uses a different cell phone based on personality type. Up to 16 players can play online simultaneously, and there will be plenty of potential teammates in this virtual world—the game earned $1 billion in sales its first three days on the market. —Nicolas Grizzle
ON THE STEREO
The world's music listeners are spinning records again, as Billboard reports vinyl sales in 2012 to have skyrocketed 500 percent since 2007. There's a chance you've got someone on your list asking for physical albums again, and luckily the music industry has responded. Many major new releases are pressed on LP now, including Lorde, M.I.A., Pearl Jam, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Paul McCartney and plenty more—and reissues of classic material abound. For electronic music fans, the recent Boards of Canada reissues are perfect pressings of very hard-to-find albums, while world music fans will be thrilled with the just-released Manu Chao back catalogue. The Beatles' At the BBC, Vol. 2 is fresh, too, as is Bob Dylan's Another Self-Portrait and the Grateful Dead's One From the Vault (a deluxe three-LP set). The German site Vinyl-Digital carries a number of rare hip-hop bootlegs from Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, and Nashville's Third Man Records has a box set designed to give palpitations to any blues fan: 'The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932 Vol. 1' contains six LPs, a 250-page book, another 360-page book and a USB drive designed to look like a Victrola needle. The whole thing's housed in a quarter-sewn, velvet-lined oak cabinet, and costs a whopping-but-worth-it $400. . . . Shopping for the beginner who needs a turntable? Avoid cheap portable Crosley turntables, or just about any unit sold at Urban Outfitters. A nice introductory record player is the Audio-Technica AT-LP60-USB, priced at around $175 (and available locally at the Last Record Store). It's solid, durable and comes with a USB output to digitize older records. . . . This has been a good year for music books. Questlove, drummer for the Roots, has released two: an autobiography called 'Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove,' and the definitive story of Don Cornelius' pioneering show, 'Soul Train: The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation.' . . . Morrissey's long-awaited autobiography has cross-generational appeal, and no one writes quite as beautifully, or miserably. . . . Stanley Crouch's 'Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker' is a remarkable, in-depth book about jazz's towering visionary, and 'The Riot Grrrl Collection' serves as a comprehensive anthology of a turning point in punk and indie rock. . . . finally, Bernie Krause's 'Great Animal Orchestra' was reprinted this year, and weaves together the sounds of nature with modern music; if you were blown away by that popular Facebook post of a recording of crickets slowed down, sounding like human voices, this book is for you. . . . Much like Miles Scott simply asked "I want to be Batkid," your teenager might simply ask, "I want to make beats." The best new software to realize this wish includes ACID Music Studio 9, which interacts well with MIDI and live instruments; FL Studio, which is perfect for beginners but lacks more specialized editing capabilities; and Mixcraft 6, which has a huge library of sounds. Don't forget headphones—if you want something cheaper (and better) than the ubiquitous Beats By Dre models, go for our recommendation: Audio-Technica's ATH-M50 Headphones, which are crisp, dynamic and should last for years to come.—Gabe Meline
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Every family has one. That relative who'd rather be camped out by a lake, roasting hot dogs over an open fire, than doing anything else. How about a tiny, backpack-friendly Bush Smarts Game Kit ($35; www.bushsmarts.com) to keep them entertained under the stars? It comes with miniature cards, dice and a score pad for dozens of different games, promising hours of entertainment. . . . Don't underestimate the power of a really good lantern. The 1.1-pound Goal Zero Lighthouse 250 ($80; www.goalzero.com) casts a strong light for up to 48 hours and can be hand-cranked back to life in a pinch; a built-in USB hub makes for easy charging. . . . Outdoor adventures in the summer usually involve mucking about in water. The Astral Porter ($85; www.astraldesigns.com) is a water shoe that actually looks cool and dries in the blink of an eye. . . . Anyone who's spent a sleepless night in the woods will appreciate the gift of a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad ($179.95; www.rei.com). Lightweight, warm and packable, this will make the die-hard backpackers on your list very happy. . . . Seriously, what's better for camping or traveling than the Izola Sunrise Travel Cup ($18; www.izola.com), a collapsable vessel that can transform from a shot glass into a two-ounce espresso cup in the blink of an eye? . . . I don't know about you, but I've always dreamed of having a sleeping bag that I could wear. Lucky for lazy campers like me, the dream is alive with Poler's Napsack ($130; www.polerstuff.com). With zippers at the shoulders (the better to stick out your arms), and a cinch at the bottom for easy leg extension, this is a wearable sleeping bag that'll make those cold mornings on Mt. Shasta all the more bearable. —Leilani Clark
'L.A. Son' ($30) reads as part memoir, part cookbook from Roy Choi, the man behind the Kogi Taco Truck franchise in Los Angeles. Credited with helping birth the gourmet food truck scene in Southern California, his original, down-to-earth style is as fun to read as his tacos are to eat. . . . Is life like a box of chocolates? Forrest Gump may have been talking about the Russell Stover Gift Box ($13) when he delivered his famous musing, but the Noir Truffle Box ($26) from Recchiuti Confections offers deeper insight. With each bite of these super-gourmet treats, the meaning of life melts into one's being until the box is empty, and it's time to rediscover it again. Nine chocolates, including four distinct, single-origin squares, delight even the most discerning of chocolate aficionados. . . . Aspiring Alton Browns will certainly get a kick out of Molecule-R's Molecular Gastronomy Kit ($59). With tools like pipettes, tubing and silicon molds, and additives like agar-agar, calcium lactate and soy lecithin, home chef becomes mad scientist in the virtual kitchens of El Bulli. Nobody will judge you for laughing maniacally while turning food into spheres, emulsifications and deconstructed versions of their former selves. . . . If you want food to look pretty, you had best prep correctly. It's easy to do with Fred & Friends' Obsessive Chef Cutting Board ($26), which features angled guides for slicing, grids for dicing and fine lines for assisting with that exact julienne. Ants on a Log becomes exactly seven ants on a 3.5-inch log; baguettes will be cut into one-inch rounds at precisely 45-degrees; and most importantly, when your food and beverage director asks for an equal amount of blueberries in each muffin, he will get an equal amount of blueberries in each muffin. —Nicolas Grizzle
BETWEEN THE LIONS
For the avid reader, nothing beats the gift of a new book or a subscription to a magazine or journal. 'N+1,' a literary journal that's been around since 2004, combines politics, literature and culture into one seamless reading experience (www.nplusonemag.com). For those who enjoy edgy, contemporary writing, there's an abundance of options, including 'Pank' (www.pankmagazine.com), 'The Los Angeles Review' (www.losangelesreview.org), 'The Normal School' www.thenormalschool.com) and 'Annalemma' (www.annalemma.net). Locally, the 'West Marin Review' is always a solid choice (www.westmarinreview.org). Environmentally conscious folks will love a year-long subscription to 'Yes! Magazine,' 'The Sun,' 'Orion' or the 'Earth Island Journal.' . . . Or how about a bestselling book? A decade in the making, 'The Goldfinch' (Little, Brown; $30) by enigmatic writer Donna Tartt, has received rave reviews since its publication last month. Inspired by a painting in New York City's Frick Collection, it tells the story of Theo Decker, who miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother and is eventually drawn into the art underworld. 'Dissident Gardens' (Doubleday; $27.95) by acclaimed author Jonathan Lethem relays the epic saga of a family of radicals in New York. 'The Stud Book' (Hogarth Books; $17.50) by Monica Drake takes a darkly humorous look at a group of friends in Portland as they deal with the onslaught of middle age, marriage and whether or not to procreate in a climate-change ravaged world that will probably end by 2030. 'The Good Lord Bird' (Riverhead; $16.98) by James McBride, narrated by an escaped slave during the John Brown Harper's Ferry era, won the National Book Award for fiction and is a good choice for historical fiction lovers. Out now on Kelly's Cove Press, 'A Raid on the Oyster Pirates' ($15) features an original story by Jack London. First published in 1905 and now in the public domain, the story has been illustrated with new drawings and watercolors by William T. Wiley. An excellent gift idea for kids or London/Wiley fans alike. . . . Finally, the commuter in your life—the one who catches up on all of her book reading with ears instead of eyes—will love a subscription to Audible.com ($14.95; www.audible.com), an audio book repository with loads of literary choices.—Leilani Clark
'SCUSE ME WHILE I KISS THE SKY
Humankind may be kings of the land, but can we conquer the skies and seas as well?
These gifts include freefalling through the skies higher than any bird is brave enough to fly and diving deeper in the ocean than the toughest shark himself. Starting at altitudes of 10,000 feet in the wild blue yonder and flying at up to 120 miles per hour, NorCal Skydiving offers tandem skydiving gift cards ($169–$199) for the more adventurous among one's friends. After the parachute opens, the peace and serenity of canopy flight ensues, with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, steam from the geysers, the glaciers of Mount Shasta, Tomales Bay, the Russian River and the lush valleys of Napa and Sonoma. . . . For a little less speed, but with breathtaking views, California Hang Gliding offers tandem hang gliding ($275) that includes an in-action video of your experience to take home. Soaring off the cliffs of Mt. Tamalpais, your only job is to relax and enjoy the ride full of beautiful birds-eye-views unmatched by those seen from the ground. . . . Perhaps an adrenaline rush isn't what you are looking for but you still seek unbelievable views. Seaplane Adventures ($179–$589) offers a helicopter ride with a Golden Gate tour, sunset Champagne tour, greater Bay Area tour, NorCal coastal tour and winetasting tour. The tours take off from Sausalito and are good to keep in mind for visiting relatives. . . . For an even more hands-on helicopter experience, Sonoma Helicopter ($300-$600) offers gift certificates for not only tours but flight training, during which you'll ride in an R22 helicopter with an instructor, learning and actually flying the aircraft with your own hands. . . . Soaring over the beautiful countryside, hot air balloons are a prime way to float up into the skies. In a wicker gondola high in the air, the serene ride is almost always capped with a glass of Champagne. The North Bay has an abundance of hot-air balloon rides from any of these locally owned companies: Napa Valley Balloons ($215), Napa Valley Drifters ($205), Balloons Above the Valley ($159–$209), Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Rides ($150–$245) and Calistoga Balloons ($219–$349). . . . For an adventure not quite so high in the skies, zip-lining combines adrenaline and speed while gliding through the forest and, in the case of Sonoma Canopy Tours ($59–$99), taking in the beauty of NorCal's coastal redwoods. . . . Maybe you've got someone on your list who wants to "fly through the air with the greatest of ease"? In the shade of an oak grove next to a babbling brook, Trapeze Pro ($40) offers flying trapeze classes, a circus art in a picturesque environment. . . . We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own ocean floor. Under the surface of the sea are entirely new worlds, waiting for us to explore what it has to offer—a kind of mysterious and untouched beauty not found on land. Getting scuba certified is the first step to ocean exploration, and training and open water classes for certification are available at Marin Diving Center ($149), Harbor Dive Center ($315) and Sonoma Coast Divers ($189). — Tara Kaveh
OTHER BOXLESS WONDERS
It might sound like the voiceover in a cheesy commercial, but seriously, why not give the gift of an experience to your loved ones over the holidays, rather than a big, plastic thingamabob packaged in a thousand layers of bubble wrap? For the grandparents, especially the ones that live nearby, a spot in a music class with their favorite grandchild is something they'll never forget. This year, I sprung for a Mini Music class for my mother- in-law and my daughter (www.minimusictime.com). For just $160, they'll get 10 weeks of music, movement, fun and bonding; classes take place in both Sonoma and Marin counties. Grandma's gonna love that much more than another pair of slippers. . . . Another option is a membership to the Bay Area Discovery Museum (www.baykidsmuseum.org). Family memberships are $150 and include year-round admission. Likewise, the Schulz Museum offers memberships starting at $40. . . . Outdoor enthusiasts will love an annual parks pass to either the state or regional parks system. A membership to Sonoma County Regional Parks (parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov) runs $69 and provides year-round opportunity to enjoy the multitude of parks in the area with extra perks. The Marin County Parks (www.marincounty.org) pass is $85 and provides access to miles of gorgeous nature. . . . OK, so you've got a sister who isn't into camping and hates taking classes, but loves getting her hair and nails done. A gift certificate to a happening nail salon, one that offers fabulous nail art manicures, might be just the ticket. Try Nail Art Spa (707.526.3808) in Santa Rosa or Queen Nails (707.255.1826) in Napa. . . . Art aficionados will be happy to receive a membership to the Sonoma County Museum ($40; www.sonomacountymuseum.org), the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art ($30–$35; www.svma.org) or the di Rosa Preserve (Starting at $50; www.dirosaart.org). . . . You also can't go wrong with gift certificates for the movies, a cooking class, a concert or a massage, especially for those who rarely take time out for themselves. The gift of self-care and a night out can be the best gift of all.—Leilani Clark