R&B legend Percy Sledge passed away in Baton Rouge, Louisiana this morning following a long bout with cancer. He was 73. Percy's biggest hit and, actually, the song of his life was the unforgettable "When A Man Loves A Woman" which reached number one in 1966. Percy had the song in his head following a break-up with a woman that left him broken hearted. He had originally titled the song "Why Did You Leave Me Baby" and, as he said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, "I hummed it all my life, even when I was picking and chopping cotton in the fields." Working with a group known as the Esquires in the early sixties, two members of the group (Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright) helped him with the chord progressions and a grateful Sledge gave them the writing credits. That decision would come back to haunt him as he never received any royalties from what proved to be his biggest hit and one of the best selling soul songs ever recorded. It even topped the charts again when covered by Michael Bolton.
When we last heard from Percy, around these parts, he was planning on recording not one but two Christmas albums--one secular and one Gospel. He announced that late in 2010. Though those full-length projects were never completed, so far as we know (it was reported that most of the tracks for both had been laid down), he did release a pair of digital Christmas songs late in 2011--"Christmas In Dixie" and a re-recording of his own "My Christmas Wish For You". The latter of the two, backed with "Silent Night", was originally released on a 1969 single, though that single only saw release in the Netherlands. Additionally, Percy can be heard on a 2009 Christmas album from the Tennessee Gospel Society, singing "Jesus, What A Wonderful Child" and "Poor Little Jesus".
Today is Opening Day. I love Opening Day of the baseball season. There is no more hopeful day on the modern calendar. Every team is tied for first and all things are possible. Yes, even the Cubs could win the World Series (as revealed in Back To The Future II). Who knows? Your favorite team could even run out of players and pick you out of the stands to play for them. It could happen. Because all things are possible today.
I know that football has become the nation's sport of choice. Come to think of it, that may be where the whole country went off the tracks. Football is a game of violent collision played in cold and usually miserable weather on a strictly measured grid, and the goal is to demolish the opponent. No wonder we've become a nation of grumpy Gusses. But baseball.....baseball is a game of hope played on a field of green in the sunshine of spring and summer.
I love Opening Day.
A few years back, we ran through a whole bunch of baseball songs and those are still good suggestions (though some of the links may be out of date). This year, I just want to give you three of my personal favorites--a baseball Triple Play, if you will (and even if you won't). First up, David Frishberg's brilliant Jazz piece built upon the names of old time baseball players--"Van Lingle Mungo". Then Orchestra Luna's surreal take on "Heart" (originally from Damn Yankees). And, finally, "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", something of an eighties cult single, by Bruce Springstone (the actual vocalist is Tom Chalkley).
To paraphrase Ernie Banks (who passed away earlier this year)..."It's a beautiful day; let's play three."
Sorry I missed this one at Christmas. Posted to YouTube Christmas Eve. My favorite sad clown singing my favorite Christmas song of all time. And Puddles (aka Big Mike Geier) does not disappoint. Here's hoping he releases it for sale this fall.
I've pretty much given up doing obituaries. As I've gotten older, too many family members and friends are passing with great frequency and I'm much more aware of my own mortality. But Lesley Gore died Monday, just 68 years old. And she was one of my very first "crush" girls--due entirely to her appearance as Catwoman's "hench girl" Pussycat on "Batman" in 1967 ("I'm not the type of girl to kiss a boy on the first crime.").
Lesley is most known for her smash hit "It's My Party", recorded when she was just 16. But her most culturally significant hit was really "You Don't Own Me"--a proto-feminist anthem for women of all ages. I was also partial to "Maybe I Know" and, of course, "California Nights" (introduced on that "Batman" episode). You might not know that her producer, back in the day, was a young Quincy Jones or that her hit "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" was the very first hit song written by Marvin Hamlisch. And you might not know that Lesley and her brother Michael were nominated for an Oscar as co-writers of the song "Out Here On My Own", which appeared in the movie "Fame"; the film's title song, written by Michael, won the award.
As for Christmas music, Lesley didn't record any that I'm aware of during her peak hit-making years. She did record a handful of Christmas songs between 2000 and 2001, including the original "If Every Night Were Christmas Eve", but those remain officially unreleased (though I gather bootleg copies circulate through Lesley's fan club members...and, hey, if anybody wants to send me a copy... ;^) ). Her one commercially released holiday track (that I know of) is a 2004 duet with Clint Holmes (of "Playground In My Mind" fame), "Christmas In Las Vegas" from "Happy Holidays Las Vegas", a charity CD to benefit the Positively Kids Foundation.
You're gone too soon, Lesley. At least we'll always have "California Nights".
Happy Valentine's Day, cats and kittens! "Valentine's Day" from the Dollyrots is a couple of years old, now, but its aging well and its absolutely free (tips always welcome). And we love the group, anyway.
By the way, after your Valentine's Day breakup (or the date that didn't go "exactly as planned", or the date you never got to go on, or.....), you might need some cheering up. The Dollyrots will be web-streaming a post-Valentine's Day gig tomorrow, Sunday February 15 beginning at 4 p.m. (EST). It's their Lovey Dovey Ooie Gooie show, streaming on Stageit. You'll have to get a ticket, but I understand the tickets are "name-your-own-price". There are only about 50 tickets left, so scurry on over. And, btw, tickets may be "name-your-own-price" but the top tipper will win a heart shaped guitar and there are other gifts for other top tippers.
I'm on the hunt for Christmas music year round (usually) and we'll hopefully be active on the Free Page as the year progresses. But there's some clean-up work to be done and you'll have to update your RSS feeds when we start that page fresh for 2015. So, what the heck? It's January. Waitin' on the Super Bowl and Spring Training. We'll drop this freebie on the front page.
And it's a goodun, too.
No doubt, Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" succeeded as well as it did because of its big retro Phil Spector kitchen sink sound. Great...the first 450 times you heard it. Now, its just kind of annoying.
UK Indie artist Charlotte Carpenter has a more low key, modern Indie take on the song that, son of a gun, makes it enjoyable again.
And who can argue with free Christmas music in January anyway? Am I right or am I right (or am I right)? Yeah, OK, we missed it when she posted it last month. But it's still free via Mediafire, so grab it while you can. You might also want to check out "Siren Song"--also free--and, before you know it, you'll be happily trapped in Charlotte's web (ouch). Pay the lady a visit on Facebook or her web site.
I swear, Christmas music comes out all year round, now. But, really, its just that we miss so much because there IS so much. Especially towards the end of the season when things get completely off the hook. So at least let me catch you up with a few I missed--some major artists, too. Hopefully, you found them, even if I didn't. But, if not, here's your chance to pick up a couple of fresh ones for next year.
It's not my favorite post-season find, but I've got to lead with....
Vanilla Fudge is back, in case you didn't know, with three-quarters of the original line-up...Carmen Appice, Vince Martell and Mark Stein. Now 70 years old with health issues, Tim Bogert has retired from touring. Pete Bremy (of Cactus) takes the bass. The group's take on "Silent Night" was released in October and we missed it because no one was talking about it at all (plus it doesn't have any of the Christmasy words in the title that we use in our otherwise random searches). It's alright. The vocals are top notch and the organ is always funky. But they didn't really make it a Vanilla Fudge song for me. I mean, you know, The Fudge was heavy Psych--the kind of thing you'd trip to for days. And when they close it out with some kind of Gospel revival (my guess is it was recorded live), well, they lose me. Might have been awesome live, less so on an mp3. Grab it at iTunes or Amazon.
And let that be a lesson to you kids out there. Make sure I know about your singles before Christmas, because I'm much less forgiving after. Sort of the Bizarro World Scrooge.
Like Vanilla Fudge, Popa Chubby's "There For Christmas" was a Cleopatra release, though this one didn't arrive until December.
A Roots Blues Rocker, Popa Chubby is generally a lot more aggressive than this song portends. "There On Christmas" does have a nostalgic rock flavor, but its rather a sweet track by Chubby standards. It works a lot better for me than the Vanilla Fudge outing. Though it also makes me want to go back and listen to Popa's "Blue Christmas" from "King Family Christmas" (about the only version I can truly tolerate of that godawful "Blue Christmas" thing). As with the other Cleopatra release, you can find this on iTunes or Amazon. The Fudge wins the cover art battle; what's with Chubbs looking like Larry the Cable Guy?
Now here's the reason for this post. And its not even new.
Mary Margaret O'Hara is simply amazing. She's one of a kind with a unique gift of conveying so much more with her singing than just the words and music. And yet she seldom records anything. Outside of soundtracks, we haven't had anything new from her since the Christmas EP, recorded in 1991. And that was disappointing only in its brevity and in the exclusion of such great original Christmas songs as this one, written with her sisters (one of whom you may know as an SCTV alum and the "Home Alone" mom, Catherine O'Hara). (I count "Apartment Hunting", her 2001 release, as a soundtrack...since it was.)
Labels and producers don't like her much, because she is such a unique talent, and that may be why we don't hear more records from her. But that's no excuse. Mary Margaret O'Hara still performs live frequently. So just record her live, if you can't figure out how to package her into those little boxes you like so much.
Mary Margaret manages to sing a lot of Christmas music, even if little makes it to record. This clip of "This Is What I Want" was uploaded to YouTube in 2009. It's from a 2008 Bravo TV program "Christmas At The Concert Hall" (and featured other Canadian musical luminaries such as Holly Cole and Hawksley Workman) We do know that "This Is What I Want" was officially released in 2011....sort of. It was contained on an eBook of Christmas stories, And To All A Good Night (can't say whether the version still offered on Amazon contains the song or not; it was included on the "enhanced" version, though).
All irrelevant now as this mp3 version snuck out on December 20. Go get it now, while you can, or you'll regret it. Now if we could only get "Santa, Old Man, You're Mine" released.
Next up, an Alt Rock/ Shoegaze Christmas song from Tears, a California act not to be confused with the short-lived British supergroup from the early aughts, The Tears.
Of all the Christmas singles I checked out after Christmas, this was the one that most held my attention over repeated listens. We've talked before about sad lyrics being put to happy music (e.g. "Last Christmas"). And I kept thinking, listening to "Merry Christmas", that the opposite could also be true--put some happy happy joy joy lyrics to a Shoegaze beat and you might have something. I don't think that's the case, here. I didn't find the lyrics particularly happy or sad--just a pleading expression of emotional addiction--but still...
Anyway, one of my tests of Christmas music is repeated listens. If you're still drawn in after listening to the same song over and over and over again, then it's one worth hanging on to (or putting on a mix or whatever). Tears' "Merry Christmas" passed that test. Still digging it. This one shows a release date of December 25 (I'll never understand why an unknown band would release a Christmas song on Christmas day, but whatever) and you can buy it from Amazon or CD Baby.
A combination of many of the things I love most in holiday music--a "lost" classic from a Local Artist CD with a sound that's very different from most of what you hear. Unfortunately, I can't swear to the veracity of the story in all its facets; all I can do is tell you what my incessant web surfing has revealed.
Tom Fay is a collector of vintage fruit crate labels (which, in and of itself, is pretty cool) and he also fronted a California band known as the Rhythm Kings for many years in the nineties and aughts (possibly the eighties as well and, for all I know, they're still doing their thing though, if they are, they're not making use of the social media). The Rhythm Kings were a ten piece Swing/Nostalgia outfit loosely inspired by the music and style of Louis Prima (and, as it would have been the dawn of the Neo Swing movement, the pieces fit).
Back in 1994, Tom got the notion to do a Local Artist Christmas CD for charity featuring bands in and around Sacramento. "Believe...A Holiday Wish" featured 16 tracks (allegedly). Dang, now I've got to add that to my list of Christmas music to track down (and you just know its never going to turn up). Among them was "Santa Rhumba (Santa's In The Bag)" by Tom Fay & The Rhythm Kings.
Thanks to the magic of the Internets, we can all now partake of Tom's heady brewski; it's twenty years later but, like a fine wine, age has only enhanced the flavor. We can always hope for at least a digital release of the entire 1994 CD. But "Santa Rhumba" is a pretty good start. You'll find Tom Fay & The Rhythm Kings lost Christmas classic at Amazon.
Another December 25 single release, this one comes from the Netherlands and Indie Alt Rock band Peregrin, an experimental project from Simon van Genderen. Seems as though its something he's looking to continue, at least until he gets a negative review. And that won't be coming from me.
"Christmas Song (25th of December)" sounds to me like twinkle lights reflecting on tinsel. Wha? Available at Bandcamp and Amazon. And lots of free non-holiday mp3s at Facebook.
Wasn't much of a year for Blues Christmas. I know that Ironing Board Sam Christmas album is recorded, but Sam had enough relatively new product out that Music Makers held back on the Christmas release. It happens. At least Joe Bonamassa did his best to give us a Blues Christmas.
This big and bluesy good time anthem was recorded December 8 and released a few days later by The Gold Coast All-Stars and the Chicago Players. Gold Coast is an "entertainment" group--some very talented musicians and vocalists for hire (in Chicago and surrounding areas) to play weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, company parties, etc. Usually, such groups (even the best of them, like Gold Coast) primarily trade in covers. But they wrote and recorded this holiday original, "Santa Rolled Thru Chicago", as a Christmas present for themselves (and, let's be honest, it'll be a show-stopper at any future holiday gigs they have).
There are hundreds of Christmas-in-New-York songs, so it's good to see the Second City get its due. If you know Chicago, you'll likely recognize the highlighted hot spots from this city tour. If you've never been to the Windy City, well, now you know the places you have to hit when you go there. "Santa Rolled Thru Chicago" is available from Amazon, if you're up for it...or down with it...or...you know, whatever.
Oh, joy. Another band with the same name as a dozen other bands. Kids, before you name your band, use the google and make sure its yours and yours alone. Please.
This Dark Horizon is the symphonic Metal band from Italy. And "Christmas Hallelujah" is not just a Power Ballad (just like the ones we used to know), its a Christmas Power Ballad and there haven't been as many of those as you might think. It's also a place holder, to remind Dark Horizon fans that a new full-length album is coming in 2015.
One of the guest vocalists on "Christmas Hallelujah", Mario Percudani, can also be seen on YouTube jamming with his band on a six and a half minute funky "Jingle Bells". Wouldn't mind seeing that as a single either. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing a whole Christmas comp from this Italian label. Just sayin'. For now, though, you can buy "Christmas Hallelujah" from Amazon.
As much as anything else, the holiday season is about putting a big bow on the year gone by (good, bad or indifferent) and starting with a fresh slate. Especially so when coming off a bad year.
Its possible you missed this gorgeous Scottish tune (I think its Scottish) when Alison Krauss recorded it with Natalie MacMaster back around 1999.
The Outside Track is a Celtic Folk group on the come and "Get Me Through December" was their holiday single closing out the year. They've already pulled it down from Bandcamp, so get it from Amazon or iTunes while you can.
Two minute warning, y'all.
I don't know if we ever got around to mentioning the Christmas single from Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, though we did say we were hoping for one. "Winter Wonderland" might not have been my first choice, but lovers of that Big Band Jazz style should not have been disappointed. Lady Gaga definitely has the chops to do Jazz, though its hard not to be overshadowed by a legend like Bennett.
Haven't been able to settle on how to classify "Here Comes Santa" by These And The Other Guy. I guess I'd call it Loungey Pop Jazz. Basically, it's a twist on the "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" theme, the twist being Santa's a she. I like it better musically than lyrically. Kay Martin's twists were much more clever. Just sayin'.
John Lodge of the Moody Blues recorded and released an acoustic version of "The Spirit Of Christmas" for the Wounded Warrior Project. The song, which I believe John wrote, appears on the Moody Blues "December" album. This was kind of an impromptu moment from Lodge and some are going to like it better than others. But the charity is certainly worth dropping a dollar, so pick it up from iTunes or Amazon.
For straight Power Pop Christmas fans, there was a late single release from 4lgernon (I think it's just a cute way of writing out "Algernon"--broken "A" kind of thing). The song's pretty cool, but doesn't quite live up to the coolness of its title--"Dude, It's Christmas!" But cool nonetheless and Power Pop Christmas songs wear well on repeated listens, so it's got that going for it. Which is nice.
We didn't mention it here, but you must have seen it elsewhere. Best Christmas single of the year is "Dear Santa" from Norway's Mr Little Jeans. You can stream it on Soundcloud. But just trust me on this one and buy it immediately at Amazon or wherever you get your digital singles.
And, as far as late season novelty records go, this one's hilarious. It's the kind of song that, finding it this time of year, I'd usually keep to myself...and then never use it anyway because I'm not big on novelty records. So why should I cheat you? "How Not To Make Gravy" starts out Folk Rock earnest enough--a man in prison on December 21st writing a letter home, asking that his kids be kissed on Christmas Day, "please.... don't let 'em cry". With good behavior, he figures he'll be home by July. Then he gives his recipe for Christmas gravy...which just happens to include "a dollop of poison for that sweetness and extra tang". Then he remembers that's how he ended up in prison in the first place. This guy is obsessed with poison and, by the end of the song, he realizes he ain't never going home (Good behavior? The prison just made him the head chef!). Kudos to Benny Davis and Mark Sutton on this one. Surprised me and made me laugh. A lot. "How Not To Make Gravy" is destined to be somebody's holiday mixtape hero next year. Count on it.
I always try to find a song that would make an appropriate closer for these singles posts. And this one is just perfect, considering this is also (almost certainly) the last singles post of this particular holiday season. It comes to us from multi-genre singer/songwriter Kris Acklen of Memphis, TN. It's a real sweet Indie jam that would sound great in most any format; but I was remembering my days in Adult Contemporary radio and I'd have had it in heavy rotation there, I promise you. "(I Got) What I Wanted For Christmas" is available on Bandcamp, at Amazon, and I'm sure everywhere else. And, fortunately for us, the local TV station (WREG) seems rather fond of it as well. Until the next time.....
Welcome to the New Year! Ordinarily, I'd still be posting up a storm, but I'm a bit beat, yo, so I may hibernate with the rest of the Christmas bloggers for a while. You can always subscribe to the RSS feeds to be on the safe side. At some point, my Weeping Willows CD will arrive and I may want to write that one up. Also recently got a new compilation from Japan that I should probably write up for the International page. And we're always scouring the web for new (and old) free stuff. But not today. Probably not tomorrow, either.
A reminder that you've only got a few days left to download "A Stubby's House Christmas 2014". On January 7th, it disappears forever. Click on the cover art to the right to get to the original post with the download links. You know you want to.
My most sincere thanks to my Festive Friends for all their contributions to a musically marvelous Christmas and, of course, to all of you who stopped by and made Stubbys a part of your holiday season.
Since the inventors of the fictional "War On Christmas" were too embarrassed to admit they made the whole thing up, they've declared victory. So let's bid these phony warriors and their phony war a fond adieu (whoops, that's French; that'll tick 'em off) with the 2012 single from the Mockers that features the cover art message "War On Xmas Is Over If You Want It", "There's No War On Christmas When Christmas Is In Your Heart". You can find it on Bandcamp.
The end of the year is populated with "Best Of" lists. Doesn't matter where you go and what the topic. Best commercials, best sports plays, best movies, best albums. So my question always is how would you know what the best movie is unless you've seen them all? Pretty doggone arrogant, if you ask me.
That's why I always call these "favorites" lists. To me, its at least a fraction less arrogant. There's no particular order to my favorites presented here (though, in general, I liked the ones I present at the top half better than those further down). Re-issues are not included in my lists, nor are free downloads. Digital releases are fine, as are compilations (so long as they aren't just recycling the usual suspects). The cover art will link to a purchase site.
We have a couple of anomalies this year. Jazz artist Thisbe Vos recorded a Christmas album which was available to those who helped fund the project this year, but to the rest of the world next year. I actually kind of like that idea but I think it would be unfair to include her "A Jazzy Christmas" in this year's list when you can't officially purchase it until November 2015.
The other anomaly is "Jingle Bell Rocks!", which is not a record of any kind, but was certainly my favorite new holiday release of the year. I have, I believe, included DVDs on this list before. But that's always kind of weird. Let's just say right up top, the "Jingle Bell Rocks!" DVD WAS my favorite release of the year. It exceeded even my own unrealistically high expectations. I wept like a baby over the closing credits--the film was that beautiful. And I highly recommend you see and/or buy the film at your earliest convenience. I may do up a full review for next Christmas season. But, just in case I don't, know that I thought "Jingle Bell Rocks!" was entertaining, enthralling, magical, and pure genius. Just for the record, I purchased my copy of "Jingle Bell Rocks!" from Bullmoose; it was not a freebie provided for promotional consideration.
ROUGH SHOP - LIT UP LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE (full review here)
It's hard for me to think of a better Christmas album in recent years than "Lit Up Like A Christmas Tree" from Rough Shop. "Lit Up Like A Christmas Tree" has everything you'd want from a Christmas album. Covering the entire seasonal pallet, from loneliness to wonder and awe, the album is mostly celebratory and fun. It's also mostly original (with a handful of "uncommon covers"). And Rough Shop makes the most of their particular skill--purely American vignettes that are unique and yet completely relatable to the human being in all of us. Musically, the Indie Folk Rock band brings everything to the table--from the Americana Pop of "Christmas Isn't Like Any Day" to the Novelty fun of "Gimme That Twine" to the Soulful sweetness of "Purple Snowflakes" to the heartland Rock of "Christmas At The Super 8" to the Jazzy Steely Dan Pop of "Soul Of Christmas". The St. Louis area band clearly loves Christmas, in all its facets, and that comes through in every spin of the grooves. "Lit Up Like A Christmas Tree" is available in digital, CD, and limited edition vinyl formats and I fully expect it will become an annual favorite at the Stubby household.
CARLO PODDIGHE - MOLTO GROOVY CHRISTMAS (full review here)
"Molto Groovy Christmas" from Roman Coppola, Alessandro Casella and Carlo Poddighe is an album for all occasions. It's an excellent soundtrack for the coolest of Yuletide get-togethers, a highly entertaining disc to listen to on your own--at home or driving down the highway. For mixtapers and Christmas music collectors, it's a dream come true. And, should you be a radio station production director, "Molto Groovy Christmas" is the best Christmas music bed music since the original Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album arrived 30 years ago. Clearly a loving tribute to the Italian movie soundtracks that inspired it, and yet it surpasses those in every detail. The musicianship and arrangements are impeccable. The whimsy is there, as it would be in any vintage Italian soundtrack, but it's never heavy handed or overbearing. Psych and Soul, Exotica and Now Sound. This is EXACTLY the kind of record Christmas music collectors are always looking for. And here it is. No holiday library should be without "Molto Groovy Christmas".
KAT TINGEY - RING OUT WILD BELLS (small write-up here)
Kat Tingey is a rising star on the Indie season. A musical chameleon, she seems equally at home on a soft folksy ballad, a hard edged Rock song, or a raucous Blues. Her original music is especially beautiful. And her pure and natural voice is a rarity in the modern scene which, as often as not, rewards affectation over depth. I had high expectations for "Ring Out Wild Bells" and, to be honest, I'd hoped for a bit more of Kat's edgy rock persona. While the record is not without such moments, it leans toward folkier arrangements and instrumentation. But, as the actual morning of Christmas came closer and closer, I found myself much more in tune with what Kat had recorded. The sweetness, sincerity, reverence, and "rural-ness" (if you will) were much more appealing to me as the spirit of the season gradually welled up in me. In short, Kat was right and I was wrong (not that that's unusual). There's plenty of variety on "Ring Out Wild Bells". Along side such tender spiritual ballads as "What Child Is This" and "Breath Of Heaven", there's her Bluesy take on "You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch", the fantastic genre-busting title track, and a fairly raucous mash-up of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "We Three Kings". Kat pirouettes nicely from beautiful originals to holiday favorites dressed up in fresh and unexpected arrangements. And there's a flow to the album that makes it a cohesive piece, and enough spirit in the grooves to sustain you on the trip and beyond. I enjoy "Ring Out Wild Bells" more with each listen and I'm excited to see what she does next; and that right there tells me all I need to know. Favorite tracks are the title track, "Grinch", "Sleep Now, Little Baby", and "The Little Shepherd Boy".
THE SMOKE FAIRIES - WILD WINTER
As exciting as it was having Smoke Fairies recording one of the inaugural Snowflakes Singles last year, the excitement multiplied 100 fold when I learned they were releasing a full Christmas/Winter set this year. This is a group on the musical cutting edge, willing to embrace everything from Folk Pop to Fuzzy Psych to Shoegaze. And, with their Dream Pop honey-sweet harmony vocals, it all goes down so well. Smoke Fairies say they have a love/hate relationship with the season. That certainly comes through on "Wild Winter" as they alternately sing of the season's bleakness and of its celebrations. And yet it all fits together like the season itself. "Wild Winter" is as original as the Smoke Fairies themselves. The few cover songs are ones very few would be familiar with--Captain Beefheart's "Steal Softly Through Snow" and the Handsome Family's "So Much Wine". This album would sound every bit as fine any time of year (and you know how tough that is for a Christmas set). I suspect "Wild Winter" isn't going to get a fair shake from mainstreamers, but it's destined to go down as one of the greatest Christmas albums of its era, much as the Phil Spector album is that era's representative piece. I wanted to pick out a few favorite tracks, but they're all so good. So I'll say this to potential mixtapers: if you're looking for the most Rock and most Christmas-themed tracks, I'd suggest "3 Kings" or "Bad Good". But, really, you can't go wrong with any of these.
VARIOUS - CHRISTMAS ON MACK AVENUE (review here)
There were plenty of what I suspect will turn out to be excellent Jazz Christmas releases this year. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten around to listening to most of them. But, enticed by a Christian McBride led jaunt through "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto", I did listen to "Christmas On Mack Avenue" and enjoyed it immensely. The album parries back and forth between the contemplative and the rousing, but does so in such a way that there's a natural flow to the proceedings (not unlike a thrilling toboggan ride). personal favorites of mine include Cyrille Aimee's "Let It Snow" (crossing Exotica with Latin Jazz), Warren Wolf's virtuoso vibe performance on "Carol Of The Bells", the Bluesy "Winter Wonderland" featuring vocals from Sachal Vasandani, an incredibly beautiful "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" featuring star in the making Cecile McLorin Salvant, and the two tracks credited to Christian McBride. Christian absolutely owns the tender "Silent Night" as his bass finds all the hidden music in the silence. And "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto" becomes a group project with everyone in the studio telling Santa which poor streets in their towns need a visit from the fat man. If only for that James Brown cover, "Christmas On Mack Avenue" would be worth the trip. But, as it turns out, there's plenty more to enjoy, here.
MAYSA - A VERY MAYSA CHRISTMAS
Lead vocalist for the group Incognito, Maysa Leak has an amazing voice and an even more amazing style. She blends Smooth Soul with Funk, Gospel and Jazz as though genres were completely irrelevant. No wonder I love her. "A Very Maysa Christmas" surprised me. Soul Christmas albums, these days, have become so predictable. But not Maysa's. From the opening number, "Joy To The World" (which even features some rockin' guitar from Rhon Lawrence), I was hooked. Her voice can turn from silky smooth to gospel shout in a heartbeat. Featuring mostly familiar fare, Maysa gives every song an arrangement designed to have you tingling with seasonal joy and warming from the inside out. It's enough to almost make me wish she'd covered "Blue Christmas" (almost). There's one original--"It's The Holidays"--which is soulful Smooth Jazz with a samba beat. And "A Very Maysa Christmas" closes with her cover of Edwin Hawkins' "Pray For Peace". This is the kind of Christmas album that will make your home sound and feel like Christmas, whether you're decorating your tree or just relaxing in your traditional ugly sweater in the comfy chair.
DTCV - NOEL INTERDIT
We didn't mention this one at all at Stubbys, but pretty much everybody else did. The cover art is fetching enough, but the 5-song EP is a true delight for those who value unique and original holiday visions. In spite of the "Noel Interdit" title, DTCV (pronounced "detective") are an L.A. based Post Punk band. Many of our Festive Friends were wowed by the title track, a cover of a 1973 song from French Pop artist Johnny Hallyday. And the rest jumped on board when the band released the audio for "Sabbath Santa" (a Black Sabbath inspired Mash-Up of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "Last Christmas"). But I confess I was a hold out until I streamed the entire EP at Bandcamp and heard DTCV's cover of Roger Miller's "Old Toy Trains". In a way, that tells you this digital record has something for everybody. Rounding out the EP are "X-Water", a non-holiday track from the band's forthcoming album, and a cover of the Who's "Can't Explain". So, really, it's like a Christmas single, rather than an EP or album. But I don't care. Those three holiday songs are so fresh and powerful that "Noel Interdit" has the impact of a full album. And, by the way, in the spirit of the season, DTCV are giving away their earlier releases "The Early Year" and "Hilarious Heaven" on a name-your-price basis at Bandcamp. Chances are that only lasts until New Years, so stop over today and grab 'em while you can.
CLAIRE LYNCH BAND - HOLIDAY (preview here)
It's rare that a Bluegrass Christmas album can be both beautiful and adventurous, but "Holiday!" from the Claire Lynch Band is both. Claire has been making music for a long time, now--long enough to have been one of the first female artists accepted into the generally conservative Bluegrass field. Clearly, she's at a point in her career where she's confident about the sound she wants and how to get it. From the reverent and gorgeous original, "Heaven's Light", to the extended Jazz jamming on "We Three Kings", Claire and Co. have produced a miracle of a Christmas album. Claire lends her wonderful voice to some seldom covered holiday songs, including "Scarlet Ribbons" and "Snow Day". "Jingle Bells" sounds as though it was always intended as a Bluegrass number. And you'll always get bonus points from me by including a song for Hanukkah--in this case the traditional yet all too seldom covered "In The Window". "Holiday!" should have broad appeal beyond the Bluegrass and Americana markets. It's too gorgeous not to.
DAVID LANZ & KRISTIN AMARIE - FOREVER CHRISTMAS (brief write-up here)
It's been quite a while since there was a new New Age Christmas album I could endorse without reservation. "Forever Christmas" from David Lanz and Kristin Amarie is that album. A proper New Age record needs to be like a gentle snow fall--quiet, beautiful, and glistening. A proper New Age record needs to understand that the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. Unfortunately, over time, everybody who could play an instrument decided they could be New Age artists resulting in hundreds of albums with as much flavor as cardboard (an insult to cardboard, I'm sure). Then the genre splintered, with one group moving towards Smooth Jazz, another group moving toward Ambient, and a third group heading for Pop, leaving actual New Age music without much of a home. David Lanz was always one of the best of the true New Age artists and, on "Forever Christmas", he proves he still is. Kristin Amarie may be a relative newcomer to the genre, but she was born for it. "Forever Christmas" is not only mostly original and beautiful throughout, but the couple did a fantastic job of pacing the album--balanced between instrumental tracks, vocal tracks, and tracks like "Winter Star", here, where Kristin's ethereal vocals give us the sense that we are flying and viewing the beauty of Christmas from above. It's truly heavenly.
DAVID MYLES - IT'S CHRISTMAS
Canadian Folk artist David Myles turned in a stellar effort with "It's Christmas". The album is crisp as a winter's morning. When it needs to be joyous, it's joyous. And when it needs to be reflective, it's reflective. And Myles, like others on our list, here, smartly chose "uncommon covers" to blend with originals and the more familiar songs of the season. Highlights include the title track and "The Gift", an original take on the Dickens theme, where a future version of himself explains how he had it all and lost it because he was too focused on fame and fortune and not focused enough on friends and family. And good luck getting "Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo" out of your head, once you've heard it.
I do want to mention a couple of other albums I really liked, at least in passing.
I absolutely loved the Spartan Records digital compilation. By all rights, "Homesick" ought to be on this list (full write-up here). The reason its not is because I wonder if I'll love it as much after I've lived with it for awhile. I think I will. I know there are individual tracks I will. But I feel I want to spend a little more time with it before I declare it a favorite.
The other album I want to mention is Felix Cavaliere's "Christmas Joy". Let's face it, Christmas albums from the oldies circuit are usually a disappointment. You want them to be at their peak, when that was then and this is now. You want that sound that they had, but you also want something fresh, not a familiar song rearranged to sound like their big hit (although sometimes that works really well as with "Takin' Care Of Christmas" or Earth Wind & Fire's "December"). It's a lot to ask, frankly. Well, Felix, I think, pulled it off really well. His voice may not be 100% of what it was with the Rascals, but it's a solid 92% or more. And many of the arrangements are in a classic '60s Blue-Eyed Soul groove without being the least bit derivative of the Rascals' big hits. Worth checking out. Gonna be big on the Beach Music circuit for sure. Favorite tracks: "White Christmas", "Christmas Is Coming Soon", "Christmas In New Orleans", and "The Bells Of St. Marys".
If you don't see your favorite on the list, here, let us know what it is and why in the comments. I'd truly be interested in hearing what Christmas album excited you this year.
I love Christmas, music, and cats. What more do you need to know?