Mark Kozelek, Flaming Lips (“tabbed,” above), Over the Rhine, Blind Boys of Alabama, Farmer Jason, Ol’ Blues Eyes and more: not just another tab in the ocean, we return to the holiday theme well one final time. At least until next year. Ho-ho-HO, bitches!
BY THE BLURT CRÜE
Ed. note: We did a wrap-up of recently-issued seasonal albums in 2012 and, against all predictions, it was well-received. So much so that label folks and music industry publicists begged us to do it again in 2013. Well, they just wanna sell records and pimp their clients. But our readers and a number of our writers responded in kind, so despite ye olde editor’s general disdain for the annual deluge of holiday recs — seriously, how many times can “Frosty the Snow Man” be cut without turning it into generic pabulum? and do you REALLY need that Carrie Underwood album of seasonal favorites? — I realized that maybe, just maybe, my ol’ Grinchy heart was growing a few additional sizes each time.. Ergo, our 2014 installment. Enjoy, and go HERE to read our 2013 feature. —FM
An Americana Christmas
New West (www.NewWestRecords.com) 7 out of 10 stars
Giving a nod to both Americana’s elder statesmen and the up-and-comers, New West Records – easily one of the genres best labels going right now – has just offered one of the freshest takes on Christmas albums in years. Despite some solid contributions by Bob Dylan, The Band and Johnny Cash, aside from John Prime’s brilliantly original number “Everything is Cool,” the real standouts here come from New West’s newest artists like Robert Ellis’s cover of “Pretty Paper” and Nikki Lane’s beautifully twangy “Falalalalove You” (Patsy Cline’s heir apparent?). While Christmas albums nowadays are as stale as a plate of Gingerbread cookies left out until April, An Americana Christmas is a refreshing take on the seasonal record. DOWNLOAD: “Everything is Cool” (John Prine), “Pretty Paper” (Robert Ellis) and “FalalalaLove You” (Nikki Lane) —JOHN B. MOORE
BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA & TAJ MAHAL
Sony Masterworks (www.sonymasterworks.com) 8 STARS
A dream team pairing that draws from the roots of soul, gospel, and genuine R&B, this set of specially selected songs featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal is equal parts sacred celebration and holiday happenstance. Although it finds the artists involved testifying to their faith with steadfast spiritual devotion, it’s likely to manifest ample secular appreciation as well. Indeed, even non-believers will find themselves singing along with the infectious refrains of “Christ Was Born On Christmas Morn” and “What Can I Do?.” The holiday harmonies that enrich “Merry Christmas to You” and a stirring read of “Silent Night” clearly proclaim universal appeal, but it’s the soulful sensibility that rings through songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “The Sun Is Rising” and “There’s a Reason We Call It Christmas” which ought to entice even the surliest Scrooge. Considering the unabashed sentiment that ignites each of these serenades, Talkin’ Christmas could be considered a timeless treasure even at the outset. DOWNLOAD: “What Can I Do,” “The Sun Is Rising,” “Silent Night” —LEE ZIMMERMAN
EARTH, WIND & FIRE
Sony/Legacy (www.legacyrecordings.com) 3 STARS
The Philip J. Bailey-helmed iteration of the Earth, Wind & Fire franchise continues apace, here serving up what is apparently the group’s first holiday-themed record. It’s no doubt well-intentioned, as most of these endeavors tend to be, dominated by traditional material given a signature EWF funk/soul spin via lush ‘n’ silky takes on the likes of “What Child Is This?,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World,” etc. If you know the group’s oeuvre, you already know these arrangements, although I have to admit that some of the tracks, in particular the Afro-beat-icized “Little Drummer Boy” was a bit crass and over the top, and the remake of “Winter Wonderland” sounded suspiciously like an outtake that might have originated from the sessions yielding the group’s mega-hit “September.”
Speaking of which, “September” itself has been redone here as “December” and, yes, on that, too, you can figure out before actually hearing it how the lyrics are now specific to the 25th day of the 12th month. Total EWF fanatics will thrill to all this, but honestly, I’ll be hanging on to my Temptations, Supremes and James Brown funk/soul holiday albums and letting this one go. DOWNLOAD: “December,” “Sleigh Ride” —FRED MILLS
THE LIVING SISTERS
Harmony Is Real
Vanguard (www.vanguardrecords.com) 6 STARS
Shades of the Andrews Sisters, the Pointer Sisters and, hell, even Sister Sledge (although not really), the Living Sisters (who are not really sisters at all but four individually adept solo singers, Eleni Mandell among them) deliver impeccable chirpy harmonies that add new meaning to the term “Holiday cheer.” Drawing from a selection of standards (“Jingle Bells,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “Silver Bells,” “Little Drummer Boy” et. al.) and various originals that fit the tone and temperament of the season, they add fun to the festivities with an approach that’s both rocking and reverent. The giddy “Christmas in California,” with its hint of cooing Beach Boys-like harmonies, and the equally sassy and facetious “Baby Wants a Basketball for Christmas” rev things up, but the token bows to diversity via “”Hanukkah” and “Neon Christmas Eve” help broaden the Sisters’ ceremonial stance. Harmony Is Real is pure pop fun. DOWNLOAD: “Christmas in California,” “Silver Bells,” “Jingle Bells” —LEE ZIMMERMAN
Sings Christmas Carols
Caldo Verde (www.caldoverde.com) 10 STARS
“I don’t feel happy… I just don’t understand Christmas,” Mark Kozelek mutters under his breath, in the middle of the Charlie Brown Christmas classic “Christmas Time Is Here,” and considering the tone of Sun Kil Moon mainman’s last several months, which included a highly public beef with War On Drugs and a so-called “meltdown” at the annual Hopscotch Music Festival, it’s easy to presume that Kozelek isn’t exactly a leading candidate for the lead character in a Broadway revival of Elf.
But listen carefully: Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols is a remarkably faithful, utterly transcendent take on what I will humbly submit is the beatific, unadorned side of Christmas music. It’s basically just M.K. and acoustic guitar, and I will further submit that all the folk, country and Americana artists who go into the studio each annum armed with just their guitars but feel compelled to add pedal steel, fiddles and the like in order to “flesh out” their arrangements lest they come across as too spartan simply don’t understand how sometimes “less” can be more than just “more” — it can be “just right.”
From the urgent query of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and the innocently straightforward “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to heart-rending versions of the Pretenders’ “2,000 Miles” and Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas” (which has some additional, subtle keyboard flourishes), Kozelek proves that despite his reputation as a crabby curmudgeon, he’s actually a sentimental bastard who remembers how magical the holiday season can be when rendered in song. I am not ashamed to admit that I teared up listening to his take on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” subtly abetted by backing vocalists and filtered through sweet Peanuts memories.
And “What Child Is This?” has always taken my breath away… no less so, here. Merry Christmas, Mark. You may claim to not understand Christmas, but I suspect you do in ways maybe you just haven’t yet figured out. It’s nice to close out the year with you this way, on such a wonderful note. DOWNLOAD: Every bit of it. This is the holiday release of the year. —FRED MILLS
Christmas On the Farm With… Farmer Jason
Courageous Chicken (www.farmerjason.com) 7 STARS
When my son was about 5 years old I took him and his cousin to a Farmer Jason concert, later queuing up to purchase CDs for the lads and have them inscribed by the popular children’s entertainer. Introducing myself, I told Jason that he and I had had a merry old time one evening in the late ‘80s backstage after a Jason & the Scorchers show, at which point he glanced at my wide-eyed kid, got a very serious look on his face, and informed us that I was probably thinking of his “twin brother,” who had a popular rock band back in the day.
Fair enough, Mr. Ringenberg; you and your “brother” both knocked it out of the ballpark every time I saw EITHER of you perform. As Farmer Jason does with his Christmas album, the latest in his string of engaging kids’ recs. Here, we get plenty of twangy, pedal steel-powered traditional tunes (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” additionally features fellow Nashville icon Webb Wilder) along with several farmer-centric numbers guaranteed to tickle the tykes’ subversive funny bone, like the Ramones/Sex Pistols-referencing “All I Want For Christmas (Is A Punk Rock Skunk)” and the sage advice that is “Eat Your Fruitcake.”
It all makes me long for those lovely, innocent days gone by, when the greatest gift I could receive was seeing the look on my son’s face when he scurried eagerly into the living room on Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought him… DOWNLOAD: “Away In A Manger,” “Santa Drove a Big John Deere” —UNCLE BLURT
The Classic Christmas Album
Sony/Legacy (www.legacyrecordings.com) 8 STARS
As part of its Classic Christmas Album series, the nice people at Sony have collected holiday music by the likes of Johnny Mathis, Barbara Streisand and Perry Como but if that ain’t hip enough for you, they’ve also put together this collection from Ol’ Blue Eyes who sang these Xmas classics for his last few years at Capitol Record in the late ‘40s, just before he started his own label, Reprise.
Indeed, this is Frankie at his prime, when he was truly The Voice, as girls swooned over him after he supplanted Bing Crosby as America’s favorite crooner and before the arrival of one Mr. Presley. Things start out here with a great swinging big band sound on “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and then soon turns to ballads. But even with the slower tempos and the syrupy back-up choruses, Sinatra comes shining through with authority and confidence- listen to him lead and mop up the floor with the rest of the singers on “I’ve Got A Home In That Rock” and belt out “Adeste Fideles (O, Come All Ye Faithful)” full-throated and on his own. With “Christmas Dreaming,” his croon is so sensuous, you can hear the girls melting over him and on “Jingle Bells,” he manages to swing over the strings with ease and joy. While “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” are a little too moist in their sentiment and execution, he turns “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” into an appropriate tear-jerker and does a warm, throaty “White Christmas” that doesn’t replace Bing (what could?) but is still pretty satisfying. Towards the end, we get two real treats too- a wonderful bluesy vocal group take on “Jesus Is A Rock In the Weary Land” and a funny, sexy duet with singer Dorothy Kirsten on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
In all, a much better than average holiday album that has other uses too- not only will your parents and/or grandparents dig it, but it’s a good intro for beginners who wonder what the fuss about this classic crooner is about. DOWNLOAD: “Jesus Is A Rock In the Weary Land,” “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” —JASON GROSS
Xmas-30 Years in the Making
Green Monkey (www.greenmonkeyrecords.com) 6 STARS
So who is Tom Dyer? His singing credentials may be a bit sketchy, but as the proprietor of Seattle’s Green Monkey Records, he ranks up there with Santa in terms of delivering some mighty fine music over the course of the past three decades, including the incredible catalogue by psych-pop greats Green Pajamas. This accumulation of Christmas recordings, a compilation of original holiday-themed music Dyer’s done on an annual basis, is of the decidedly offbeat variety, but as songs like “No Lou This Xmas” and the reggae-worthy “Jingle Bell Ska” prove, this selection also works well as worthy collection of rockers. And while tracks like “It’s A White Mule Christmas,” “Propane Santa” and the Grinch-like “Christmas Time For Sailors” suggest Dyer’s got his tongue planted firmly in cheek, Xmas-30 Years in the Making is a holly jolly collection all round. DOWNLOAD: “No Lou This Christmas,” Jingle Bell Ska” —LEE ZIMMERMAN
FLAMING LIPS (a/k/a IMAGENE PEISE)
Atlas Eets Christmas
Warner Bros. (www.warnerbros.com) 9 STARS
Once upon a time Atlas Eets Christmas was a super-limited edition thingie that the Flaming Lips slid more-or-less anonymously into the hands of fans and friends; this year they gave it a wider release as part of the annual Record Store Day Black Friday event, available either as a vinyl LP or a CD. Whattaya get? Courtesy musicians “Imagene Peise” (piano),”Ominog Bangh” (synth) and “Shineyu Bhupal” (drones, sitar, tambura), a surprisingly affecting, emotional, downright traditional takes on mostly classic tunes. That this is the Flaming Lips, who most recently turned the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s into a freak-a-thon for trainspotters and Miley Cyrus fans, makes it all the more fascinating. Looking for a Yoshimi-ized electronic take on “Frosty” or “Silver Bells”? Ain’t gonna happen here.
Instead, the odes to everyone’s favorite snowman and the seasonal bells are gentle piano/synth renditions, with just a hint of sonic squiggles to signal that we’re not in, say, Irving Berlin or Bing Crosby territory, but contemporary Okie-dokey psychedelia. Admittedly here and there are suggestions of strangeness; “Do You Hear What I Hear?” lives up to its title via echoey shards of sitar, flute and analog vinyl crackles. And original compositions “Christmas Kindness Song” and the title track do in fact sound like contemporary Flaming Lips tunes.
But along with the Kozelek record discussed above, Atlas Eets Christmas seems to most capture the magical, mystical, innocent, gracious spirit of the season. When you hear the utterly guileless, haunting “The Christmas Song” here, you’ll understand what I mean. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but the feeling I get is of musicians discovering their collective inner child and intuiting that at no other time during the year is that childlike quality better expressed than Christmas. DOWNLOAD: “Christmas Kindness Song,” “Frosty the Snowman” —FRED MILLS
OVER THE RHINE
Blood Oranges in the Snow
self-released (www.overtherhine.com) 8 STARS
Holiday albums generally fall into one of two categories — seasonal standards reinterpreted with a pop approach, or original offerings that take a spiritual slant. Blood Oranges in the Snow finds Over the Rhine bridging the divide with a set of tunes that sound like immediate Christmas classics. Although they eschew a wholly religious regimen, they evoke the spirit of the season with crisp images of snow-covered fields and the nostalgic glow of home and hearth. Much of the album is given to wistful reflection — the beguiling title track, a hopeful “First Snowfall,” the quietly yearning interpretation of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” et al — but none so specific as to deter year-round enjoyment. DOWNLOAD: “First Snowfall,” “If We Make It Through December” —LEE ZIMMERMAN
The Classic Christmas Hard Rock Album
Sony/Legacy (www.legacyrecordings.com) 1 STAR
Consumers, beware: if you purchase this — based on its title and the roster of contributors, which includes bonafide “hard rockers” like Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Robin Trower, Ted Nugent, Journey’s Neal Schon, Rush’s Alex Lifeson and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford — expecting the proverbial rock-with-your-Christmas-cock-out, flic-your-Santa-Bic arena-anthem fest, you’re gonna get a stockingful of coal. Only Halford’s blazing, rapid-fire “We Three Kings” and the Nuge’s stomping “Deck the Halls” even remotely qualify here as “hard rock” (in truth, the latter could actually qualify for a Ramones-styled Christmas collection… but I digress).
Everything else, and I say this as a fan of several of these fret wizards, might surface in an alternate dimension’s version of a Windham Hill holiday album. My hero Jeff Beck scores points for his blue note-laced “Amazing Grace,” but what’s up with those sappy chorale singers? Ditto Schon’s “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” with its New Agey keyboards and barely-there puffs of percussion; don’t stop believin’ in the dude’s skills, but if you run into him, feel free to ask him what the hell kinda mistletoe was he smokin’ when he cut the tune. And okay, to be fair, Satch – that’s Joe Satriani to all you Coldplay fans – and his somewhat fiery “Silent Night/Holy Night Jam” is indeed marginally “jamming” in traditional J.S. fashion, but “Surfing With The Saviour,” this is not; it’s just a wank-fest. Only aging bleached blondes with their sagging artificial tits and their bemulleted weightlifter trophy husbands — plus the stray Rush nerd who never got laid — need apply.
A classic example of a record label marketing an angle without actually determining what the “angle” might be, The Classic Christmas Hard Rock Album is part of a larger series that includes worthy titles from Frank Sinatra (reviewed above), Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and even Kenny G. There is a companion released titled The Classic Christmas Pop Album boasting contributions from… drumroll please… Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block and Big Time Rush, along with semi-credible artists Phantom Planet, Glasvegas and Los Lonely Boys. Ironically, the so-called pop community’s take on “classic Christmas” is a zillion times more vital, and inspiring, than the hard rockers. O my once-hero, Jeff Back, how far you’ve fallen.
DOWNLOAD: Bah, humbug. Not a single goddam tune. Merry friggin’ Christmas. —UNCLE BLURT
A Merry Friggin’ Christmas OST
Lakeshore (www.lakeshore-records.com) 6 STARS
One of the final films by the late great Robin Williams, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas leans closer to Bad Santa than A Wonderful Life as far as holiday happenstance is concerned. Nevertheless, the impressive cast that contributes to the soundtrack — participants include Rufus Wainwright, Ben Kweller, the Belle Brigade, and Chuck Meade — plays it straight for the most part in terms of interpretation of various seasonal favorites. As if their name wasn’t cutesy enough, the California Feetwarmers’ jazzy version of “Up on the Housetop” is a hoot, while Kweller lights a fire under the giddy “Here Comes Santa Claus,” although any movie about spending the holidays with a houseful of misfits is bound to get a little frisky at times. All in all, this is a fine soundtrack for the festivities, offbeat or otherwise. DOWNLOAD: ”It’s the Most Wonderful TIme of the Year (Rufus Wainwright”), “Here Comes Santa Claus” (Ben Kweller) —LEE ZIMMERMAN
THE XMAS MEN
Santa Is Real
Rosetta (www.robertearlkeen.com) 4 STARS
It would be Scrooge-like to grouse about a peppy, oh-so-tasteful Western swing/countrypolitan instrumental take on holiday cheer; the operative term here, of course, being “cheer.” And more than a few tracks here are guaranteed to prompt a wry grin, the stray head-bobbing, a casual sway of the hips—the interpolation of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Linus & Lucy,” while not necessarily inventive, is still cleverly patterned for maximum response on all three counts, and a twangy, bluegrass-flavored “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas” connects, for all us roots fans out here, on levels that Burl Ives could never quite muster (or imagine).
But there’s still something about The Xmas Men’s inaugural Xmas recording that leaves you with a feeling of, “meh.” In real life, TXM are none other than Robert Earl Keen and his band, cats who know their way around a few roots, country, swing and bluegrass arrangements. And here, they operate amiably enough, but not to the point that Santa Is Real is destined for perennial favorite status.
Now, if they’d cued off their Louvin Brothers-inspired record sleeve artwork and reworked some Louvins as holiday numbers—“Great Atomic Santa Power,” anyone?—they might’ve had a keeper. —FRED MILLS
It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue 8 STARS
From Charlie Parker’s 1948 version of “White Christmas” to Ella Fitzgerald Wishes You A Swinging Christmas to Vince Guaraldi’s timeless soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, the jazz translation of the Great American Christmas Songbook has always been some of the most enjoyable tunes to dig during the holiday season.
However, not since 1981’s God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen has there been a collection quite like this charming third set of yuletide cheer from Mack Avenue Records. In the last five years or so, the Detroit-born imprint has been busy signing a veritable cornucopia of modern bop greats to their roster. And the Ave.’s present class does not disappoint in the least on It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue.
The Sean Jones Quartet, fresh off seeing his latest title Im•pro•vise (Never Before Seen) garner the number two spot on Wondering Sound’s Top 25 Jazz Albums of 2014, kicks things off with a bouncy, brassy version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that would surely make both Bill Evans and Clarence Clemons smile. What follows is a succession of elegant performances that completely eschews the kind of blaring, over-the-top showboating that renders many Christmas records the bane of the season. Among the highlights peppered gracefully amongst this 12-song set include pianist Aaron Diehl’s wonderful version of “Sleigh Ride”, Beyonce’s saxophonist Tia Fuller and her incredible all-female quartet’s touching wine bar take on “The Little Drummer Boy”, the Christian McBride Trio’s talking soul spin on James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and a version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant that brings the beauty out of the 1944 Ralph Blane/Hugh Martin lullaby in a way that can only be heard by re-watching Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis.
For those who quickly grow tired of the same seasonal sass they churn out hourly on your local Lite FM station, It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue is a sure bet if you love your holiday festivities low key, calm and relaxing. -RON HART
SHE & HIM
A Very She & Him Christmas
(Merge) www.mergerecords.com 9 STARS
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
VINCE GUARALDI TRIO
A Charlie Brown Christmas
(Fantasy) www.concordmusicgroup.com 10 STARS
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