In which we take you from traditional finger picker John Fahey to death metal shredder J.J. Hrubovcak, from punk rats Bad Religion to Rat Packers Sinatra, Martin & Davis, from the duck dynastyers The Robertsons to the chipmunk clan Alvin & The Chipmunks… and much much more…
BY THE BLURT STAFF & CONTRIBUTORS
From the 2012 Xmas report: “For the initial three years of BLURT’s tenure I purposely steered clear of assigning reviews of Christmas albums, thinking those to be more properly the mainstream domain of daily and weekly newspapers than a national publication. Given the glut of newly-released titles and freshly-reissued titles each year, such features are inevitable when December rolls around, so why add to the noise? Plus – personal disclosure – I had essentially gotten sick of both writing and reading them. Who cares about the latest pop sensation’s Auto-tuned spin on classic Yule fare, or yet another Americana artist heading out to the barn to twang up some ho-ho-hos with the local bluegrass band? I mean, by my way of thinking, the only holiday record you really need is A Charlie Brown Christmas… The fact that I previously spent a couple of decades working in shopping malls, where holiday music now starts getting piped in right after Halloween, may have influenced my Grinch-like attitude. But I digress.”
Herewith, find the 2013 installment. Thanks to our contributors as well as the labels and publicists who submitted titles to us. We weren’t able to cover everything that got sent to us, but I think we’ve got a pretty solid lineup. If you haven’t already filled out your annual list of must-purchase Christmas albums, may this serve as your humble consumer guide. No promises for next year, though. Just ‘cos my tiny heart grew three sizes last year and continues to throb with holiday cheer this year is no guarantee I’ll be in a similar mood in 2014.
The Grinch (aka Fred Mills, BLURT Editor)
9 (out of 10) stars
If on Christmas morning you’re forced to listen to the same hoary old hymns you’ve heard a billion times since you were born, then #Christmas Soli# is the way to go. [Hey, what’s wrong with hoary old hymns, Toland? —Trad. Ed.] Featuring cuts compiled from four of John Fahey’s holiday albums, Christmas Soli gives us familiar titles – “Joy to the World,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” etc. – but filtered through the late guitarist’s distinctive style. These are no radical reworkings, mind – the melodies remain perfectly intact. But Fahey immerses them in the intricacies of his fingerstyle, providing layers and countermelodies that make the songs richer.
Listen to the way he uses harmonics to echo the melody of “The First Noel,” slides to punctuate “Silent Night, Holy Night,” bends to enliven “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” or complex fingerpicking to punch up “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman Fantasy” and that hoariest of hoaries, “Carol of the Bells” (on which Fahey is joined by Richard Ruskin). The three medleys – “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing/O, Come All Ye Faithful,” “Oh, Tannenbaum/Angels We Have Heard On High/Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly/We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – show Fahey’s holiday vision off to its greatest effect, as he ties the threads of one standard to another together so tightly it’s as if they were all written by the same individual. Fahey takes Christmas clichés and gives them a fresh coat of paint, using his considerable skill to remind us why these tunes are timeless.
DOWNLOAD: “Carol of the Bells,” “Hark, the Herald Angles Sing/O, Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night, Holy Night” —MICHAEL TOLAND
VINCE GUARALDI TRIO
A Charlie Brown Christmas
For many children, Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to the classic holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas was their introduction to jazz. And 48 years after it first appeared on the shelf of your local Disc-O-Mat, the mustachioed maestro’s unforgettable collection of yuletide cool is still one of the most beloved Christmas albums of all time (I argue for top banana myself).
The Fantasy label, via its current owner, the Concord Music Group, once again revisits this collection by refurbishing the Columbia Broadcasting Company-sponsored edition, mostly returning it to its originally intended format. (In 2006 there was an expanded Fantasy/Concord edition featuring four alternate takes, a deluxe booklet and limited edition artwork; this adds two Thanksgiving-special bonus tracks.) It is still a marvel to witness how Guaraldi not only took ownership of such Xmas chestnuts as “O Tannenbaum”, “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and “The Christmas Song” but entered a few of his own into the holiday songbook as well in “Christmastime Is Here” and “Skating.”
I’m still transported back to my Aunt Nickie and Uncle Al’s TV room huddled together with my cousins in front of their old Sony Trinitron set every time I hear it.
DOWNLOAD: “Linus and Lucy,” “Christmastime Is Here,” “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” —RON HART
(Yep Roc) www.yeproc.com
Wherein one time pub rocker turned new wave insurgent turned country traditionalist, the inimitable Nick Lowe, now tries his hand at holiday standards of both an old and new order. As always, Lowe infuses a certain nod and a wink into each of these offerings, making this jolly setlist — humbly subtitled A Seasonal Selection For All The Family — a happy soiree to accompany either a supping of spiked eggnog or a sentimental gathering at home and hearth.
Indeed, there’s ample variety in these dozen songs, from rollicking rockabilly (“The North Pole Express”) to a cool croon (“Christmas Can’t Be Far Away,” “I Was Born In Bethlehem”) to light jazz (“Hooves On The Roof”) to rocked-up standard fare (an unlikely “Silent Night”). High humor adds some merriment to misfortune in “Christmas At The Airport” (“Don’t cook me any turkey/I found a burger and a beer”) and affirms the upbeat approach to Roy Wood’s sublime “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” Clearly, it’s a holiday extravaganza.
DOWNLOAD: “Christmas Can’t Be Far Away,” “Silent Night,” “Christmas At The Airport” —LEE ZIMMERMAN
The Classic Christmas Album
(Columbia Legacy) www.legacyrecordings.com
The songs on this Classic Christmas Album actually come from three different Johnny Cash Christmas albums done nearly a decade apart – The Christmas Spirit in 1963, followed by the Johnny Cash Family Christmas in 1972 and Classic Christmas in 1980. Despite the many years separating these recordings – and the absence of any chronological order – this CD’s 16 selections of original and traditional Xmas tunes along with spoken word offerings hold together rather nicely. In fact, Cash’s wonderfully resonant recitations of “Christmas As I Knew It,” “The Christmas Spirit” and “The Christmas Guest” really separate this disc from standard holiday collections.
Among the songs, the Family Christmas material tends to hold up the best, from the homespun charms of “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” to his duet with June “Christmas With You.” The CD does suffer from some now-dated production choices, particularly the heavy use of syrupy, countrypolitan backing vocalists. “Joy To The World” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” (both from Cash’s 1980 album) are two overdone efforts that sound like they come from a generic TV show performances.
Those looking for the gritty Cash of his early Sun Records days or his twilight success with Rick Rubin will be disappointed (and completists will mourn the lack of yuletide rarities), but the Christmas compilation successfully delivers an entertaining variety of holiday gifts from the Man in Black.
DOWNLOAD: “Christmas As I Knew It,” “The Christmas Spirit” —MICHAEL BERICK
This one is neither profane enough to be amusing, sacred enough to be stirring, or bizarre enough to be startling. It’s what you would expect, sad to say, with Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin singing faithfully, as best he can, Christmas carols, most of them of the most traditional sort. So: a revved-up “O Come All Ye Faithful.” a Ramones-y “White Christmas” (that’s the keeper), a martial “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and so forth. Nineteen minutes for eight Christmas songs plus an updated version of Bad Religion’s own “American Jesus.”
Punk rock Christmas songs go back at least as far as the Dickies’ hyperspeed “Silent Night,” and at their best they can undermine holiday sentiment and / or bring a smile out their outlandishness. Bad Religion, unfortunately, accomplish neither of these: Brett Gurewitz’s buzzsaw guitars sound cool, but the blend of punk rock and carols turns out to be too predictable, so you know whether you need to hear this one even without hearing it.
DOWNLOAD: “White Christmas,” “American Jesus”—STEVE KLINGE
Considering that Festivus 3 is so doggedly obscure in its talent selection—I’ve only heard of The Lilys, Dodgy, Piney Gir and Francis MacDonald (of Teenage Fan Club), out of 16 artists—the good news becomes how eminently listenable this collection is. The Lilys’ garage-stomp through “Good King Winceslas” is outrageously good fun, for example, with other left-field delights including Glam Chops’ theatrical rocker “Baby Jesus Was the First Glam Rocker,” Dennis Hopper Choppers’ spaghetti western take on “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” and the strummy jangle pop of Darling Boy’s “Thank God It’s Christmas.” Your appreciation for this mostly-alt-rock-tilting collection will hinge, of course, on how traditionally-minded you are; I’ll confess I tend to take a dim view towards too much modernization, musically speaking. But hey, there’s that whole thing about the heart growing three sizes…
DOWNLOAD: Lilys’ “Good King Winceslas,” Glam Chops’ “Baby Jesus Was the first Glam Rocker,” Darling Boy’s “Thank God It’s Christmas” —FRED MILLS
(Giant Leap Records/Razor & Tie) www.razorandtie.com
Mindy Smith taps ever so richly into tradition with the exquisite Snowed In, a five song EP that offers a trio of sentimental holiday ballads and two songs of her own origin. While a retuning of “Silent Night,” “What Child Is This” and “Auld Lang Syne” may not help bring newcomers into the fold, they do manage to convey Smith’s more sublime conceits and the right reverence that these songs deserve. For those reasons, Snowed In deserves consideration as a candidate for a favored holiday stand-by both now and in seasons to come. And, for those who might be unawares of her up until now, her two original offerings, “Tomorrow Is Christmas Day” and “Snowed In” just might boost her own star status as well. Suffice it to say, they ought to.
DOWNLOAD: “Tomorrow Is Christmas Day,” “Snowed In” —LEE ZIMMERMAN
(Hear Music) www.concordmusicgroup.com
A mixed bag, this one, ripe for cherry-picking for your personal holiday mixtape. Holidays Rule is less a coherent holiday listen than an eclectic grab-bag. So, at the start we get the over-stuffed pop of fun. (covering “Sleigh Ride”), the glossy quirks of the Shins (covering Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”), and McCartney himself, in Kisses On The Bottom crooner mode, with “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).”
But Holidays Rule also has an indie thread (the Heartless Bastards, Calexico, Eleanor Friedberger, Holly Golightly), an Americana contingent (The Head and the Heart, the Civil Wars, Black Prairie with Sallie Ford), and outlier pairings (Irma Thomas with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Rufus Wainwright with Sharon Van Etten). The melancholy songs outnumber the festive ones, but it’s hard to imagine anyone not finding a few tracks to love.
DOWNLOAD: Andrew Bird’s “Auld Lang Syne,” Irma Thomas with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band “May Ev’ry Day Be Christmas” —STEVE KLINGE
Comfort & Joy
(Analog Ghost) www.analogghostlimitedrun.com
Comfort & Joy is released by the Analog Ghost label, and it features the likes of Mike Watt, the Dead Milkmen, Franklin Bruno, Wooden Wand, Pinback’s Rob Crow, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, Quasi, Ida and even Terry Riley, doing holiday classics old and new. According to the label it’s a limited edition (500 copies) on clear vinyl with silver/gold splatter, and “all proceeds from the album will go towards providing resources for homeless youth.”
DOWNLOAD: Mike Watt’s “The First Noel,” Terry Riley’s “God Rest Ye,” The Music Tapes’ “Let It Snow” —FRED MILLS
SHE & HIM
A Very She & Him Christmas
You’re forgiven for assuming A Very She & Him Christmas (originally issued in 2011) would be the hipster equivalent of The Carpenters Christmas Album, a holiday staple for every Williamsburg and Bushwick apartment. Despite the fact that the “She” in She & Him is Zooey Deschanel, hipster chick personified, the album is surprisingly irony free, just an even dozen Christmas standards updated slightly with Deschanel’s charmingly quirky lilt backed by the always impressive M. Ward. Even the ukulele on The Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” sounds a bit alluring, rather than forced. The album is a holiday classic in waiting, even if you don’t own a single pair of skinny jeans and couldn’t grow a beard to save your life.
DOWNLOAD: “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “Little Saint Nick” —JOHN B. MOORE
This two CD set, part of the long running “Now That’s What I Call…” series (though this release has eliminated the “That’s What I Call” part) is an odd mixture of traditional favorites and newer tracks that certainly aren’t traditional, while their status as a “favorite” is debatable. The idea of having such a wide range of tracks, spanning a period of 60 years, is for generating maximum appeal, of course. But Justin Bieber (performing the sentimental “Mistletoe”)? Seriously? And the John-and-Yoko classic “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” (a sentiment that’s sadly always timely) as performed by — Maroon? Not to mention such cringe-worthy entries as “My Grown Up Christmas List” (Kelly Clarkson) and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (Mannheim Steamroller).
Ah, but that’s only four tracks out of 32, and the majority of this collection is classic stuff. The oldies: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”; Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song”; Gene Autry’s “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” When the holidays started rocking: Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock”; Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”; The Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick.” Baby boomer nostalgia: “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late” (Alvin and the Chipmunks); “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
Many of the tracks are holiday essentials you need to have in your Christmas collection. And it should also go down well at most family gatherings. Even though you might have to put up with listening to Mannheim Steamroller.
DOWNLOAD: “Feliz Navidad” (Jose Feliciano); “The Little Drummer Boy” (Harry Simeone Chorale) —GILLIAN G. GAAR
Death Metal Christmas: Hellish Renditions of Christmas Classics
The title pretty much says it all: Death Metal Christmas does indeed put familiar carols through an extreme metal meatgrinder. An idea whose time has come? Hard to say, even after listening to this five-song EP. Journeyman death metalhead J.J. Hrubovcak takes times out from his day job as bassist for Hate Eternal to update a handful of hymns, keeping the melodies intact despite the layers of blast beats and distorted riffage.
There’s apparently a storyline running through these cuts, something about Azrael the angel of death being born into the world of men and growing in influence on world powers behind the scenes. Thus “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” becomes “Unrest For Melancholy Men,” “We Three Kings” becomes “Earthen Kings,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” transforms into (yes) “O Come, O Come Azrael” and “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” and “Greensleeves” become metallicized instrumentals heavier than anything the Trans-Siberian Orchestra would indulge in. Buy into the storyline or not (and it’s easy not to, given Mike Hrubovcak’s unintelligible roars), but there’s some serious musicianship behind these desecrations – the instrumentals are particularly impressive, if not exactly enjoyable. Which fairly describes the whole project – eyebrow raising, certainly, but not setting a new holiday tradition.
DOWNLOAD: “Unrest For Melancholy Men,” “Nutracker: Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” —MICHAEL TOLAND
ELIZABETH MITCHELL AND FRIENDS
The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In & Out Of The Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook
Still on an extended break from folk-leaning indie band Ida, Mitchell started out with her own children’s label (which appropriately featured her own daughter) and later recorded for Smithsonian, where she’s now recorded this tribute to an extraordinary folk and classical composer (who also happened to be Pete Seeger’s step-mother). Seeger arranged folk and children’s songs for the Library of Congress, creating an important treasure of music, including 1953’s American Folk Songs for Christmas. It’s not hard to see how Mitchell drew inspiration from her and decided to use her work as the basis for this holiday album.
Of special note is that the “friends” listed alongside her make up an amazing guest list, mostly drawn from her Woodstock neighbors including Natalie Merchant, Dan Zanes, NYC folkie legend Happy Traum, John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonfuls), His Name Is Alive’s Warn Defever, jazz pianist Marco Benevento and Bowie’s bassist Gail Ann Dorsey among others.
Using minimal arrangements and making good use of her sweet voice, Mitchell makes a homey record that you’d expect to hear a bunch of friends singing at home on a cold winter evening or around a camp fire, not unlike some of the McGarrigle sisters’ early records. As such, when she starts the album off with her daughter, a thumb piano and a flute, instead of sounding hokey, it sounds beautiful. Since Seeger’s (and Mitchell’s by extension) interest was the pre-pop-hit-parade holiday songs, you get carols and spirituals in the song selection but luckily without the dry sanctimoniousness that you’d fear- on “January, February,” you get a spiritual with a wonderful smoky bluesy/soulful feel , “Shine In the Morning” and “Baby Born Today” cross old-school country with bouncy marches, “Joy To the World” goes bluegrass at a calmer pace, “Sing A Lamb” is a little gospel-blues stomp and “Great Big Stars” is a nod to Seeger’s classical background.
Things get so good that you’re a little let down by the second half when the proceedings get a little staid by comparison with simpler, samey folkie arrangements that are a little too reverential and some song selections that are a little obvious (“The First Noel,” “Silent Night”). It’s a shame that Mitchell didn’t use the interesting mix of styles and arrangements she starts the record out with. Still, even later on, the record has an undeniable charm and spirit to it, which puts it way far ahead of the usual holiday dreck that too many pop singers cart out at year’s end to cash in on the holiday. Mitchell is a fine antidote to that sentiment and crafts a record that you could play at family Christmas gatherings- in the spirit of the record, they might even sing along too.
DOWNLOAD: “Oh, Mary and the Baby, Sweet Lamb,” “January, February” —JASON GROSS
Here we have a 2012 edition, complete with fresh sleeve art, of 2009’s 15-song Christmas Harmonies, which itself was a more-or-less expanded take on 1964’s The Beach Boys Christmas Album. As it has jewel box packaging, however, it’s not specifically part of this year’s Beach Boys back catalog reissue series (those titles came in mini-LP slipsleeves). Also worth noting for completists: also in the BB discography is the 26-track Christmas With the Beach Boys, 2004 reissue of 1998’s Ultimate Christmas, which added a handful of seasonal rarities and unreleased tunes.
At any rate, while some fans maintain that the Beach Boys should be holiday perennials, the bulk of this material hasn’t aged all that well. Particularly cringe-worthy are big band Rat Pack-esque extravaganzas like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Blue Christmas,” both of which sound more aimed at the Guy Lombardo Singers set than surfing/hot-rodding youth. There are highlights bearing the Boys’ sonic signatures, including “Little Saint Nick” (it could’ve been a hit single from one of their first two LPs) and the Phil Spectorish “Merry Christmas Baby.” And to be fair, one uncharacteristic (for the band) rendering, “We Three Kings,” has a chorale, orchestral grandeur all its own. On balance, a so-so collection ripe for cherry-picking individual cuts.
DOWNLOAD: “Little Saint Nick,” “We Three Kings” —FRED MILLS
The Classic Christmas Album
There have been a number of Diamond Xmas discs over the years; this one overlaps with all of them, so if you are a Diamond or holiday record fan, chances are you have most of the dozen songs here. As part of Legacy’s The Classic Christmas Album series this year, which includes Johnny Cash (reviewed above), Alabama, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Barbra Streisand, etc., it’s a clear standout. Particularly if you are a traditionalist, for Diamond has always had the perfect touch when it comes to approaching fireside mainstays like “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night,” “Joy To the World” and “Sleigh Ride.” He never veers into kitch (which is saying something when you’re Neil Diamond), and to his eternal credit, he manages to create more than his share of lump-in-throat moments. In short, you’re a goddam Grinch if you can’t listen to this record and not only enjoy it, but want to sing along.
DOWNLOAD: “Sleigh Ride,” “O Come All You Faithful,” “O Holy Night”
Mad Men Christmas
(Concord Music) www.concordmusic.com
What’s the best time of year to release an album of “music from and inspired by” a painfully dull TV show that features thoroughly unlikable, tragically self-absorbed characters (albeit dressed in snazzy clothes and inhabiting stunningly beautiful sets)? Christmas, of course, when frantic holiday shoppers buy stuff without giving their purchases a whole lot of thought. If they did, they’d realize that most of the music contained herein — like Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” and Teresa Brewer’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” — is already included on another Christmas disc they own, one that’s probably sitting on their eggnog stained coffee tables.
What’s left here after clearing away the well-trod Tony Bennett’s and Dean Martin’s — like RJD2’s subtle “Mad Men Theme Song” and Jessica Pare’s kitschy “Zou Bisou Bisou” — is intended to add some spice to the proceedings. But, alas, their trying-too-hard-to-be-cool vibe just plunges the collection into a deeper morass of phony bourgeois.
Yeah, there’s a touch of brilliance about a completely superficial Christmas collection built around a completely superficial TV show. But, whoopee cushions are far cheaper and they’ll bring more applause at your Christmas party.
DOWNLOAD: Dean Martin’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Johnny Mathis’ “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” —MICHAEL VERITY
FRANK SINATRA/DEAN MARTIN/SAMMY DAVIS JR.
Christmas With The Rat Pack
Considering the high-powered, legendary talent assembled here, this is pretty disappointing. Culled mostly from ‘50s and ‘60s recordings and previously collected on a 2002 CD, the 16 songs here break down into three doses of Sammy, 6 shots from Dino and all of the rest from the chairman, with no duets or trios of them together.
Frankie worries too much about flexing his voice, sounding too sanctimonious on his cuts, but Martin’s sweet, carefree “Let It Show” and “Silver Bells” nails the holiday cheer just right, while Sammy gets some of Dean’s spirit on a wonderfully jazzy take on “Jingle Bells.” It’s enough to make you pine for a whole album of Martin, which you can periodically find on “Christmas With Dino.”
DOWNLOAD: Dean Martin “Let It Snow,” Sammy Davis Jr. “Jingle Bells” —JASON GROSS
Duck the Halls: a Robertson Family Christmas
From the unlikely cable TV reality hit show chronicling a Louisiana family business—led by patriarch Phil Robertson, who’s unfortunately made some ugly homophobic comments recently and has now been suspended from the show (the main body of this review was written prior to the controversy, FYI)—comes this holiday entry in the field of novelty albums. While it’s long on redneck humor, luckily it’s not over-the-top tomfoolery like Homer and Jethro (which is hard to match) or the droll yucks of Jeff Foxworthy. Like the show itself, the Robertson’s Xmas album is as funny and charming as you’d hope. With producer Buddy Cannon (Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Reba McEntire) at the helm, the music has a professional touch without sounding glossy.
Being a real family affair, as much of the clan that can fit on an album is utilized here. Family biz CEO and son Willie kicks things off with the good timin’ honky tonk of “Ragin’ Cajun Christmas,” soon followed up in the same vein by Phil’s goofy, swinging number with Strait on “Christmas Cookies,” which sounds like something that Asleep at the Wheel should cover. Willie also provides another highlight with “Hairy Christmas” where they gather the family to watch Christmas specials, shop at Walmart and hand out shotguns as presents. But the real comic genius of the family here is Uncle Si with his knee-snapping recital of “The Night Before Christmas” and gruff take on “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch.”
But after the hilarious title track, which is punctuated by duck calls (aka the family business itself), things get a little sappy with daughter in law Missy’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and her duet with hunk crooner Josh Turner on “Why I Love Christmas” which proves that she’s got a good set of pipes but is also a little too long on sentiment. Also jock grandson Reed’s “Camouflage and Christmas Lights” sounds too much like a bid to be a country star and the whole crew’s take on “Silent Night” is much too snoozy. Still, the first half is worth hearing and replaying not only for fans of the show but also for anyone who could use a shot of glorious lowbrow fun and some ho-ho-ho in their holidays.
DOWNLOAD: “Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Christmas,” “Christmas Cookies,” “Hairy Christmas” —JASON GROSS
BIG BAD VOODOO DADDY
It Feels Like Christmas Time
(Savoy Jazz) www.savoyjazz.com
We’ll have to give ‘em this much: play this back-to-back with the aforementioned Rat Pack disc (or any one of several Sinatra holiday collections), and your Christmas soiree invitees won’t miss a sip of their martinis. Actually, we’ll have to give ‘em this much as well: this swingin’, finger snappin’ set of pep, perk and pop pulls off an admirable tightwire act by managing to sound freshly contemporary yet utterly traditional at the same time.
For yours truly, that means it’s a keeper, even if I still cling to my old classics like a garter belt clings to a thigh. From the big band pump of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and a Stax/Volt treatment of “Run Run Rudolph” to a Dixieland arrangement of “Frosty the Snowman” and a Latinized (mambo, at that) “Walking In A Winter Wonderland,” It Feels Like Christmas Time is an 11-song guilty pleasure. The raunchy, rollicking “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” would even have Boris Karloff nodding in approval.
DOWNLOAD: “Run Run Rudolph,” “Walking In a Winter Wonderland,” “We Three Kings” —FRED MILLS
Tinsel and Lights
Christmas, coming so soon after the shortest day of the calendar in the last month – an often cold and bitter month – of the year, is a holiday as steeped in quiet reflections of mortality as in happiness and joy. Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn, continuing to establish her solo career as one of our most sensitive and mature pop-rock vocalists, brilliantly tackles that existential dichotomy in this lovely, sometimes-melancholy album consisting mostly of contemporary wintry songs by Joni Mitchell (“River”), Stephin Merritt (“Like a Snowman”), Green Gartside (“Snow in Sun”), Jack White (“In the Cold, Cold Night”), Sufjan Stevens (“Sister Winter”), and more. It’s a modern Christmas classic, one that will endure.
DOWNLOAD: “River,” “Sister Winter” —STEVEN ROSEN
The Classic Christmas Album
This collection presents 16 tracks drawn from Cash’s The Christmas Spirit (1963), Johnny Cash Family Christmas (1972), and Classic Christmas (1980) albums. The songs are a mix of traditional carols and original material. Cash’s baritone is perfectly suited for the solemnity of “The Little Drummer Boy” (though the backing vocals sound a bit too chipper), and also brings a sweetness to “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day.”
But it’s the original songs that prove to be the most irresistible. Who can resist “Christmas Time’s a Comin’,” “That Christmasy Feeling,” and “Christmas With You,” which Cash romps through with assorted Cash family members? Not coincidentally, all three tracks are from the Johnny Cash Family Christmas album; conversely, the Classic Christmas cuts suffer from too much instrumental backing.
And if you can listen to the opening recitation “Christmas As I Knew It” without getting a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye, you’re made of sterner stuff than most of us.
DOWNLOAD: “Christmas As I Knew It,” “Christmas Time’s a Comin’” —GILLIAN G. GAAR
ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS
Al-viiiiiin!!!! Okay, give it up for the Chipmunks – you know you wanna. If we’re talking perennials here, this certainly ranks alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas. Don’t scoff. Sure, it’s nowhere near as “listenable” on a repeat-spin basis as Vince Guaraldi’s holiday classic, and in truth, hearing “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” only once or twice a year is plenty for me. Novelty-tilting though it certainly is, Chipmunks Christmas has a certain timeless quality that can turn anyone into a kid again, if only for 2 ½ minutes. And that’s something that not even those ghastly latterday Chipmunks movies (Chipwrecked, anyone?) can take away.
EMI and other labels have repackaged the Chipmunks frequently over the years – as a child, I owned the original 10-song vinyl LP – and this iteration boasts 18 squeaky, freaky tracks guaranteed to put an ironic smile on any hipster’s face while simultaneously making his or her significant other’s skin crawl. Such was the genius of Chipmunks creator Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who originally launched his anthropomorphic rodents in 1958 and took ‘em to the top of the charts, to the Grammys, and to the bank: for better or for worse, the Chipmunks had a little something for everyone, and still do.
DOWNLOAD: “The Chipmunk Song”; other tracks at your own discretion (or risk) —FRED MILLS