The Perfect Last-Minute (but Still Thoughtful) Gift for a Music Lover


From your gadget-obsessed sister (who lives for her iPad) to your garden-obsessed uncle (who thinks apple is a fruit) A special report

The BBC has produced the radio show, Desert Island Discs, since 1942. The basic format is to interview a famous cultural figure and ask them, as it was originally phrased, "if you were to be cast away alone on a desert island, which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you, assuming of course, that you had a gramophone and an inexhaustible supply of needles?"

The online archive of the program now features 1,000 people including Norman Mailer, Lady Redgrave, William Gibson, Vidal Sassoon, Jerry Springer, Petula Clark, and a lot of old British stars that young Americans like myself have never heard of. What's brilliant about the series is that there is nothing retrospective about it. These people are picking the stuff of their times, not trying to assemble a list for perpetuity. And even if they were casting an eye towards how history would view them, most of the tracks they pick have long been forgotten by contemporary music listeners. Even in the best CD stores of yesteryear, you would have been hard pressed to find a fraction of the stuff people mention, especially from the early years.

Take the silent film star Bebe Daniels, whose interview was broadcast Monday, April 2, 1956. She picked a Bing Crosby record, some record called 'Coronation Scot' by Sidney Torch & His Orchestra, a piece by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and a bunch of other tracks that belong to the category of music that you and I would call old-timey. It's the kind of music that makes you feel like drinking a highball at nightfall and being a good fellow.

So the entire Desert Island Discs archive is available for free online now, but you need a way to listen to (most of) what the obscure selections they pick. And that's what this gift is all about. Buy your friend or loved one a gift subscription to Rdio, a streaming music service with a huge catalog and a beautiful interface, and then send them a playlist of the songs from people you think they'd find interesting from Desert Island Discs.

This twist on the Rdio subscription will allow you to escape the, "Oh, you got me an online gift card... How thoughtful!" problem. And because they'll get access to Rdio's entire collection, the gift will let them listen to music far beyond your thoughtfully curated selection of old British celebrities. 

If you follow this advice, allow me to suggest that you start looking for music with Alice Cooper's picks. They are all fantastic from The Yardbirds to The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, not to mention the Dylan, Beach Boys, and King Crimson.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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