Everybody's got there year-end Best Of lists and we at Stubby's are no different. Although it's always my intention to post such a list earlier in the season, it never seems to happen that way and this year's list is our latest ever. So be it. We have some added issues for 2012 in that I've listened to fewer new albums that I have in any Christmas for at least the last decade or more. But the fact that its impossible to listen to everything is why I've never thought of this listing as a "Best Of". And, while its one thing to say I haven't listened to Rod Stewart's album or Cee Lo Green's, I also have yet to listen to Tracey Thorn's which, by just about every account, was one of the season's finest. These are just my personal favorites of the ones I have listened to (all the way through). There is no particular order, though, generally speaking, I like the ones nearer the top more than the ones nearer the bottom. Albums that were available as free downloads are not considered here, for these purposes. Album art is linked to a purchase site (generally Amazon).
I don't know that it is possible to be any more effusive about this album than I've already been in our full review. Jillaine is an artist I was already fond of and I admit I had certain expectations going in (and nothing kills an album more certainly than high expectations). "Jazzy Christmas To You II" exceeded even my most unrealistic expectations. She completely blew me away. This album is a Jazz tour-de-force, as far as I'm concerned, and Jillaine proved she could hang with any of the greats. From one of the best, if not THE best, versions of "I Wonder Ar I wander" I've ever heard to a classic original Blues song, "Santa's Blues", that's as well written as it is performed, to a snazzy Jazzy rendition of "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus" worthy of Ella, there's no disappointment of any kind, here. Just pure bliss. Jillaine has announced that there's a "Jazzy Christmas To You III" on deck and I can hardly wait to see how she surprises me and shatters my expectations yet again. Get to know Jillaine; she's truly moved into a class with the great Jazz/Blues vocalists and should become a staple of any radio station library or personal collection.
Once again, I walked the dangerous road of high expectations on "Zuzu's Petals" and lived to tell about it. Lunch At Allens is a supergroup of sorts of 4 Canadian singer/songwriters, each very accomplished in their own rights, whose voices and talents blend together every bit as strongly (IMO) as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. "Zuzu's Petals" was the new album I listened to the most this year. It struck just the chord I needed this year--soft and furry, warm and reassuring, nostalgic and pretty. The original songs were brilliantly written and the old favorites were delivered with both freshness and reverence. And it's hard to think of a weak track from this Folk/Pop set. In fact, the weakest tracks on this album would have been home runs on any other. But my favorites, after so many listens, are fairly clear: "Every Time It's Christmas", "Zuzu's Petals", "Old Tin Star" and "Oh, What A Christmas Eve". I recommend the album without reservation. I think you'll find it fits the holiday season like a pair of cozy slippers on a cold winter's night.
There were two faults I can find with The New Royalty's "Spend Christmas With Me". First, it came way too early in the season and, thus, was missed by a lot of Christmas music maniacs. Second, it was a digital only release, which is a shame since it deserved the permanence of hard copy. Hell, vinyl even. (If there were hard copies available in New Jersey, would somebody please pick one up for me? Thanks.) I love Christmas albums from bands on the rise--new bands are fearless and unfettered when attacking the Christmas genre, full of energy and still in the process of discovering and defining themselves--and The New Royalty did not disappoint. If there was ever any doubt, they put it to rest on the opening number. As I wrote at the time, "Not many bands would have the BALLS to open a Christmas album with "O Holy Night" (easily my favorite traditional Christmas song) let alone to rock it into the next century." With a balance of classic carols, modern favorites, and brand new originals, The New Royalty brought presents to the party for every rock fan everywhere. The young Central Jersey Pop Punk band takes no prisoners as they conquer the Christmas music kingdom and lead vocalist Bree Iafelice is in top form throughout. Aside from "O Holy Night", it's the originals that take center stage--especially "Toys", "I Believe It's Christmas Time" and, for those who'd prefer something a little slower with a little more emotional depth, "One More". Don't wait until the band breaks big, which they're bound to do; grab "Spend Christmas With Me" now. If you love to rock, you'll be digging this one for decades of Christmases yet to come.
Hard to believe, given my love of Blues, that I could find any 2012 Christmas album better than Electro-Fi's long awaited sequel to their 2002 collection, "Santa's Got Mojo". "Santa's Got Mojo 2" was an oasis in a Christmas Blues desert (we get far too little real Christmas Blues anymore) from the Canadian label's extensive roster. To be honest, the original was loaded with unbeatable tracks, including Curtis Whitley's "Lonely Shepherd" which has fast become a Blues Christmas standard. But "Santa's Got Mojo 2" has its share. "Hot Cider Cinnamon" by Harrison Kennedy paints a wonderful picture in Country Blues colors and Shakura S'Aida's "Be My Santa Claus" is delightful. But the late Mel Brown steals the show with a previously unreleased workout on "Merry Christmas Baby" recorded in 1999. If you love Christmas Blues like I do, "Santa's Got Mojo 2" is a must-own.
It might be that the only thing we get less than Christmas Blues is Christmas Ska. And that's exactly what inspired these cool cats from Arkansas to record "Merry, Happy, Jolly, Good Time". The Fayetteville Ska Alliance approached the project with the idea of enjoying the process, having fun, and making a record that they'd want to listen to (as opposed to tailoring an album to some nebulous poll-tested consumer base). And, (I think) because of that, the album succeeds greatly. From the covers of "Jingle Bells" and "Deck The Halls" to originals like "Have Another Piece Of Pie", "Why Can't Every Day Be Christmas" and the title track, the album is a two-tone blast and a half. Yes, I dare say it's a "Merry, Happy, Jolly, Good Time". And that's kind of the point of Ska to begin with. If you're not having fun with Ska, then you ain't doin' it right. The Fayetteville Ska Alliance done did it right. And all proceeds will go to charity, so even more bonus points for that. If your Christmas library has a huge hole where the Ska should be (and even if it doesn't), this album is definitely one to add. A Mrs. Katz favorite, as well as mine (and she hates just about everything).
As much as I looked forward to the Christmas album from the legendary Gary "U.S." Bonds, I kept my expectations low. I've seen far too many of my favorite artists from the past record Christmas albums with voices showing their age and with no heart and, especially, no soul. Mostly, I just wanted a hard copy of Gary's take on "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" which he gave away as a free download a few years back. And, indeed, we did get that. But Gary surprised me by putting together a holiday set worthy of his legend. He was in fine voice throughout, gave nods to both of his hit making eras with fresh arrangements and tight performances, and the original songs were all pretty awesome Rock N Soul tunes. "Christmas Is On" is a terrific rockin' Christmas album. I could have lived without another Doo Wop version of "White Christmas" but, other than that, no Gary "U.S." Bonds fan, no rock and roll fan, could possibly be disappointed. Highlights came, largely, from the originals. I was partial to the R&B "Christmas Is Just A Phone Call Away" and the Classic Rock "Tis The Season To Be Lovin' You", but my absolute favorite, here, was the surprise ballad "Baby, Baby It's Christmas", which is a beautiful Christmas song (IMO) that I hope sees a lot of cover action down the road.
I have to admit that, during the Eighties, I wasn't very fond of the music being made. I was a 60s and 70s fan and, come the 80s, I was exploring Jazz and Blues and Folk. Even so, it was impossible to escape the sounds of Culture Club and the Thompson Twins and Big Country and the other bands that dominated the airwaves and the then fairly new MTV. And I did find some appeal to the bands, then, that weren't scoring huge hits like O+ Positive and Black. But a quarter century later, I find myself quite nostalgic for 80s music. So maybe it was inevitable that "The Christmas Album" from the UK synth-pop duo Scarlet Club would find a warm place in my heart. Based on the little I knew of Scarlet Club, I guess I was expecting a one-note synth samba, but the pair created a Christmas collection that gives nods to ALL the best music of the decade, from hard rocking, guitar driven, near Punk to sounds echoing the New Romantic movement to fluffy Sunshine synth pop to just old fashioned Rock N Roll. This really is a letter perfect 80s Christmas album, though it doesn't sound the least bit dated. My faves from Scarlet Club are "Party Susan" (David Bowie meets The Beatles), "Little Miss Mistletoe", and "The Bauble At The Bottom Of The Tree". But, really, there's not much here I didn't love. (OK, maybe "Robots Need Christmas Too" was a bit outside of my nostalgia zone). Even if you hated the 80s, I think you'll love Scarlet Club.
There were lots of really good Jazz Christmas albums this year, but, for fans of classic Jazz--by which I guess I mean the kind that was being made in the early 60s--"You Better Watch Out" from the B3 Kings was head and shoulders my favorite of the bunch (excluding Jillaine's CD, of course). The B3 Kings had last been preserved on CD on "A Cellar Live Christmas" (also highly recommended) in 2005. Led by saxman Cory Weeds, the band exists solely to jam Christmas tunes in December. Technically, "You Better Watch Out" was released in 2011, but it didn't get a wide release until this year. Aside from Cory, the trio features Chris Gestrin on the Hammond B-3 (and nothing says Christmas like a Hammond B-3) and percussion from Denzal Sinclaire. Part of what separated this one from the pack were Denzal's smooth, smokey and warm vocals. The B-3 Kings bring the swinging bop to such chestnuts as Vince Guaraldi's "Skating" and "Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella", the band gets all after-hours funky on "Angels We Have Heard On High", and Denzal croons a pretty tune on "Christmas Dreaming", "There's A Train Out For Dreamland" and "Ave Maria". There's a nice variety of tempos and sounds and the album is paced extremely well. Hard to pick a favorite track, but "You Better Watch Out" will join my collection of Jazz Christmas favorites for all the years to come.
"The Twisted Christmas" EP from TriBeCaStan was just so...different, I found it impossible not to love. From my perspective, there's a Jazz foundation with World Music crafted over the top, all melted together with a huge helping of chaos. Well, if you dig Jazz and Rock, it's not really chaos--there's definitely a method to the madness. And, at times, TriBeCaStan actually sounds fairly traditional. At times. It's endlessly fascinating, and no less Christmasy for that (at least I didn't think so). "The Twisted Christmas" got repeated spins in the Stubby household and I know I'll return to it again and again. As I said back in November, "This is the disc you'll still be amazing your friends with 50 years from now...or the one you'll regret not having picked up when it was there for you to be had." Favorite track of the 4 here? "Noel Ye Faithful", though it's hard to ignore "God Rest Ye 3 Kings".
There might be a dozen records all bunched up around this point in my new favorites list, and I really would have trouble separating them out. "Holidays Rule" was a solid comp, Jigsaw Seen's "Gifted" was exceptional, I dug the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra and was happy to come across them. But I'm going to give this spot to an album you probably haven't heard anything about this year. "Song Of Simeon" is a concept Jazz album. Will Scruggs, highly in demand as a session sax man, set out on a sonic journey, looking for a deeper (mystical) meaning of the season (and based, at least somewhat, on the biblical Song of Simeon and the message therein). The CD is a suite in two movements. And I have to confess, I'm not a big fan of long form Jazz. I like detachable tunes, myself. Fortunately, you can approach this set from Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship either way. And, when you cut the suite into its component parts, this is really a very excellent Jazz album. The songs, mostly recognizable carols, are all given the greatest respect, but the Jazz arrangements and playing are magnificent. The solos absolutely sparkle. And, sure, there's a huge spiritual component, but taken purely for it's Jazz, this one's a keeper. Sadly, the 30 second clips you're likely to be able to sample won't do it proper justice. So just take a chance. I think you'll enjoy "Song Of Simeon", if you like Jazz at all. Favorite tracks include "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", "Song Of Simeon" and "Twas In The Moon Of Wintertime".