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May 2009 Archives

chbrown.jpgIf you're not from the Washington, D.C., area, Chuck Brown could be anybody (except holiday bluesman Charles Brown, of course). But if you are, or you're an aficionado of soul music of the 1980s, you know Chuck is the godfather of go-go, a funk-soul offshoot that was regionally popular for its danceability. Chuck gigs fairly regularly to this day, and this 1999 CD is his move into holiday music. He sticks close to what made him popular on this CD, mid-to uptempo funky grooves laid over a selection of well-known covers. If you need a "Silent Night" you can fast-dance to, and a lot of us do, Chuck's your go-to guy. He takes a similar tack on "Merry Christmas Baby," "White Christmas," "This Christmas" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," although the latter is between slow and fast, splitting the difference with the slow-dancers on this nine-cut album. The ballad treatment is given to "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Christmas Song" and "That Spirit of Christmas," the last two being duets with the late Eva Cassidy. Chuck has a nice baritone somewhere between Isaac Hayes and Barry White, and the band provides solid support, leading me to believe that the ultimate Chuck Brown experience really is live in front of a crowded dancefloor.

Family Christmas, The Katinas (Gotee)

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katinas.jpgI stumbled onto these guys the same time I did Relient K, discovering their 2004 holiday CD, but although they share a Christian market heritage, they're a different kettle of fish altogether. Where Relient K is a kind of pop-punk band, The Katinas are more a modern R'nB vocal group. Like other R'nB holiday collections, there's lots of gospel and jazz inflections on top of the beats, lots of close harmony singing. They work this combination well on an uptempo "Joy to the World" and turn "O Come All Ye Faithful" into a slow jam. "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" is a vocal workout with handclaps, and they go completely a capella on "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Their own original "Christmas Is Here" is a 70's uptempo funk sound, very nice. They also cover Michael W. Smith's "Emmanuel" in more of a rock arrangement, another change of pace. R'nB fans should like this a lot, and there's a fair number of cuts that will appeal to a lot of different people.

Merry Christmas, The Supremes (Motown)

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supremes.jpgThe superstars of the Motown stable, recognizable not only in the 60s variation of the "hood" but on Main Street as well, nursed along a secret affinity for schlock and schmaltz during their whole existence. Remember such albums as The Supremes Sing Rogers and Hart? Remember their single of "The Happening?" You can therefore guess how this 1965 holiday album turned out -- sappy. Although all the Motown Christmas albums exhibit a certain amount of excessive wholesomeness, you'd never guess this album had anything at all to do with Motown if you heard it in a vacuum. Liner notes of the 1999 reissue make it clear this is Berry Gordy's fault, as he was obsessed with "crossing over" from a black audience to a general audience and felt the Supremes had the best chance of doing so. I'm guessing the notion that "My Favorite Things" was a Christmas song started with this album, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Me" is the fabled star singing about itself (gag), the "Children's Christmas Song" works in the mandatory kid-singing number (the last two songs were actually a single back in the day) and the rest is mostly failed nightclubbery, 60s style. Only "Little Bright Star" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" incorporate much of the Motown sound. Collectors will note the reissue adds four bonus cuts, including an unreleased "Noel" and a remix of Florence Ballard taking the only lead on the album away from Diana Ross on "Silent Night." Update: Re-released in 2004 as part of the Christmas Collection: 20th Century Masters series.
steview.jpgThis album was originally released for Christmas 1967, which means Stevie was still 16 and still taking orders from Berry Gordy as to what and when to record. Which explains why this album has more in common with the other Motown holiday albums than it does with Stevie's later, history-making work. It's a full-orchestra pop album for the most part, pretty sappy across the board, with "Andy Willams Christmas Special" styled versions of "Silver Bells," "Ave Maria, "The Christmas Song," "The Little Drummer Boy," and so on. There are some originals from Motown's staff writers, the nadir of which is "Twinkle Twinkle Little Me," which was bad enough on the Supremes' album without making Stevie do it too. Of course, as long as Stevie's singing, how bad can this album be, right? Fortunately, this album contributes to the canon "What Christmas Means to Me," the only straight-up Motown-style tune on the album and enough to justify the rest, although I wouldn't mind hearing a more muscular version of "One Little Christmas Tree" sometime from someone, too. The title song is rendered in a fairly middle-of-the-road arrangement, but it's a good holiday tune anyway. UPDATE: The 20th Century Masters edition of this album released in 2004 adds two additional cuts, "The Miracles of Christmas" and "Everyone's a Kid at Christmas Time."
smokey.jpgIt would be enough if this group were simply the long-running hitmakers they were, from the 1950s right into the 80s. But Smokey Robinson was one of America's greatest singers, songwriters and producers, responsible not only for much of the Miracles' output but many other Motown records on which you needed a reading glass to find his name. This 1999 compilation pulls cuts from two holiday albums, 1963's Christmas With the Miracles (likely the first Motown Christmas album) and 1970's The Season For Miracles. The first six cuts on the compilation are almost proto-Motown, featuring the more ensemble-based sound of the earlier Miracles with just a few hints of what was to come. Star cut from this grouping is quite obviously "Christmas Everyday," widely covered by dozens of artists since then. The rest, from the later album, are produced by a rotating cast of personalities. Some, like Smokey's production of his own "I Believe in Christmas," are obviously mature Motown, while "I Can Tell When Christmas Is Near" and "It's Christmas Time," both written and produced by Stevie Wonder, push the Miracles in the direction his own music was then taking. Whether talking about the individual albums or the recent compilation, however, there is some inconsistency, with the group ranging widely between classic soul sounds and sugary pop confections -- but that's nothing new for Motown in general.
tempts.jpgThis 2001 compilation does an excellent job of melding this premier vocal group's two Christmas albums into a single CD, and the liner notes help us sort it all out. The Temps did The Temptations Christmas Card in 1970 and Give Love on Christmas in 1980, and they released "Silent Night" as a single several times in the mid-80s from the latter collection, with different B-sides. Different versions of "The Christmas Song" and "Silent Night" appear on both albums, but a changing lineup and changing times probably inspired the decision to record the second holiday album, which includes versions of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," Smokey Robinson's "Christmas Everyday" and The Corporation's "Give Love on Christmas Day," written originally for the Jackson 5ive. The bonus cut on Best of is a version of "Oh Holy Night" from the sessions for Give Love, soulful and snappy but just a little too long. Christmas Card is the classic Temps/Motown sound, although they downtempo some of the tunes a bit too much, but their versions of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" are the most like their classic singles. On Give Love, they revisit "The Christmas Song" with just a bit more snap and the later version of "Silent Night" is more of a slow jams workout than the straight reading on Christmas Card. The lengthy lead-in to "This Christmas" makes you almost think they're singing it to the late Donny Hathaway before they swing into the uptempo version. And though they don't make you forget Smokey on "Christmas Everyday," bass man Melvin Franklin does a great job of selling it. Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s liner notes to Best Of assert that every Christmas needs a little Temptations in it -- a point that's impossible to argue.

Soul Christmas, various artists (Atco)

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soulxmas.jpgAn early collection compiled in 1968 by Atlantic Records from singles and Christmas albums recorded by its R&B roster, including the folks from Stax Records, which was distributed by Atlantic at the time. Most of the tunes are covers, Otis Redding being Otis on "White Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby," Booker T. and the MGs ringing out with "Silver Bells" and "Jingle Bells," King Curtis wailing on "The Christmas Song" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve." But there are some originals, like Solomon Burke doing "Presents For Christmas," William Bell with "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday," Clarence Carter with "Back Door Santa," Joe Tex promising "I'll Make Every Day Christmas (For My Woman)" and Carla Thomas reprising her hit "Gee Whiz" as "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas." A top-notch collection. In recent years, it's been reissued in its original version on CD and in an extended version by Rhino Records, adding several cuts including Luther Vandross with "May Christmas Bring You Happiness" and The Drifters' version of "The Christmas Song."

bookert.jpgOriginally released for Christmas 1966, this is what the holiday sounds like when it's accompanied by one of rock and soul's most accomplished backup bands. Besides playing behind many of the Stax/Watt hits by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and so many others, they had their own instrumental Top 40 hits like "Hip-Hug Her," a cover of the Rascals' "Groovin'," and "Green Onions." And of course, various members turned up in the Blues Brothers backing band over time. In the modern day this may sound tame, but it's all of a piece with the band's other recordings. Notice the bluesy playout on "White Christmas," the guitar that kicks it up a notch on "Jingle Bells," the slinky groove of "Silver Bells," and so on. The medley of "We Three Kings" with an unlisted "O Come All Ye Faithful" seems to go on forever, but it's followed by the funky album closer "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." One of the era's classics.
chrismot.jpgThis 1993 German import is another collection of the famous Motown artists, only this one is heavy on items that are previously unreleased. This includes the only four known Christmas tunes by Marvin Gaye, including "Purple Snowflakes," with lots of carol quotes, although the track was later reused on "Pretty Little Baby." The other three are the collection's title song, an instrumental from 1972, his own "I Want To Come Home For Christmas" and a rendition of "The Christmas Song." A pair by Stevie Wonder, the unreleased "Everyone's a Kid at Christmas Time" and what must have once been on a single, "The Miracles of Christmas." Unreleased from Diana Ross and the Supremes are "Won't Be Long Before Christmas," "Silent Night" with Florence Ballard singing lead and "Just a Lonely Christmas" by Harvey Fuqua. Diana Ross solos Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" sometime between 1974 and '78. The Miracles contribute "Christmas Lullaby," which was released in its time. Kim Weston's "Wish You a Merry Christmas" and session aces The Funk Brothers' instrumental "Winter Wonderland" round out the set. This isn't easily found, but at least some of these cuts have turned up on other Motown holiday albums since this import dropped.

motown.jpgMotown, being a factory label, put out Christmas albums on practically every one of its classic artists of the 60s, and Motown being Motown, a lot of times the backing tracks got recycled from artist to artist. For the best view of a Motown Christmas, an anthology album like this one is the best bet. Some of the renditions here are a little too serious to suit me, but there are quite a few original Christmas tunes with the Motown treatment, making a collection like this worthwhile. Stevie Wonder is the class of this outfit with "One Little Christmas Tree" and "What Christmas Means To Me." Also represented here are Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Jackson 5. The 1999 reissue of this album features among its additional cuts "I Want To Come Home For Christmas," one of the Marvin Gaye holiday cuts that seldom turn up anywhere. Note that there are numerous Motown holiday anthologies out there, and the songs on this one are certain to turn up on at least some of the others.

motown2.jpgAfter years of perfunctory Motown reissues, the newly aggressive Universal conglomerate has set the dogs loose to take better advantage of its assets. In 1999 the first volume of this set was upgraded, and this 2001 sequel offers samples of many great Motown artists and throws in some unissued cuts for sweetener. Three cuts by The Supremes include "O Holy Night" with Florence Ballard on lead; two cuts by the Jackson 5; three more by the Temptations; two by Marvin Gaye, "Purple Snowflakes" and a live at the Apollo "The Christmas Song"; the Miracles, Kim Weston, the Funk Brothers; and the Twistin' Kings with "Xmas Twist," which has a lick very much like "Peppermint Twist." There's also a bonus cut of spoken word Christmas greetings from a parade of Motown artists. Motown compilations have sprouted over the years like topsy, so watch you're not buying the same cuts over and over again on different discs.

chess.jpgThis compilation of Christmas songs covers 1959 to 1969 with artists on the famous Chicago blues label Chess and its various subsidiaries, featuring Chuck Berry's double-sided triumph of "Run Rudolph Run" and "Merry Christmas Baby." Jazz, gospel and soul are also represented with the O'Jays, Ramsey Lewis Trio, Rotary Connection, Salem Travelers, Soul Stirrers, the Moonglows and the Meditation Singers. Good mix of originals and traditional tunes, and great performances. I'm pretty sure this record originally appeared on vinyl in the 1970s and was issued on CD around 1989 with all the original artwork intact.

ray.jpgPart of Rhino's 50th anniversary commemorative reissue series on the Genius, this actually is not among his seminal Atlantic sides but is a latter-day compilation, roughly 1985, originally done for Columbia Records. As such, it's probably a bit too mellow compared with other recordings mentioned on this site; there's more mainstream jazz and soft blues to this than rock or rhythm 'n blues. Still, this is Ray Charles we're talking about; you cocktail music fans out there, this is the kind of music you ought to be listening to. The bonus cut of "Baby It's Cold Outside" is a duet with Betty Carter from a 1962 ABC single, but it fits right in with the later sides. Update: Another Christmas CD, Ray Charles Celebrates a Gospel Christmas With the Voices of Jubilation, is the soundtrack to a Christmas special released on DVD in 2003. Needless to say, it's more in the gospel line, and Ray throws in his highly touted version of "America the Beautiful" too. Ray's non-Atlantic works appear to be available through Concord Music Group now, including this album.

White Christmas, Al Green (Hi)

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algreen.jpgA lot of folks out there believe Al Green can do no wrong as a singer and musician, and while the pipes are here in this 1983 outing, the results are lackluster. Sharp listeners can pick out Al's original Memphis sound, but they have to wade through late 70s disco arrangements to do so in most cases here -- and that sound was already out of style by the time Al made this album. This album's only about 27 minutes long, too, but it's just as well. Considering that Al still turns in his trademark vocal performances here, it's a shame the production and arrangements aren't up to snuff. For serious Al fans only.

take6.jpgtake7.jpgAlthough I express my bias toward acapella music elsewhere on this site, Take 6's two Christmas efforts, one from 1991 (He Is Christmas) and the other from 1999, also fit my general description of 90s R&B. Their singing is derived mainly from jazz, gospel and modern rhythm and blues, and the performances are more seriously intentioned than is the norm for Mistletunes. That said, these guys can still sing and arrange voices to beat the band -- literally -- and they still sound different enough to leaven any Christmas party that's treading on the white bread side of the street. If there's too much Bing in your holiday, you can do a lot worse than Take 6.
boyz2men.jpgThis 1993 album is as much Brian McKnight's as it is the Boyz's, since he co-produces, performs and writes songs throughout. It's mostly original tunes in the gospel-slow jams-90s R'nB mold, with only performances of "Silent Night" bracketing the eight new tunes. Nobody doubts the Boyz know how to sing, and the tunes are pretty good, although "A Joyful Tune" isn't all that joyful. The tempos are a little too reverent throughout, in fact, and this could have benefitted from one or two uptempo gospel rave-ups. This is mainly for R'nB fans. Like most Universal-owned holiday albums, this was re-released under the "20th Century Masters" banner, though it's the same album.

Santa Hooked Me Up, B2K (Epic)

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b2k.jpgB2K is an R'nB vocal group who put this out in 2002 at the same time they were pushing their album Pandemonium. The title song is mostly rap, the usual check out my bling-bling kind of thing. "Rain and Snow" is a snappy number, but it has to be the only Christmas song where the holiday feast includes macaroni and cheese. They do good turns on classics like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," but this really stands or falls on the original tunes, and they're mostly kind of lame, lots of same old same old rap ready-mades strung together. The "bonus track" is "Santa Baby," featuring Jhene in case you were worried about guys singing it. And they refrain from modernizing the song's Fifties-era bling-bling lyrics, which, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.

Naughty Or Nice, 3LW (Epic)

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3lw.jpgMore modern sounds of R'nB with this platinum-selling female group, with less rapping and more harmony singing on this 2002 release. They take an audacious tack by performing all originals, with the exception of album-closer "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which dispenses with all the beats in favor of solo guitar and singing. Speaking of beats, I was never able to parse the beats behind "Naughty on Xmas," which almost seemed to fall at random and really sank the song for me. I was initially taken aback by "Ahh Hell Now," in which the girls bitch up a storm about a botched Christmas, but when you think about some of the heavy attitude tunes mentioned here under, say, the punk category, you have to give them credit for just putting it out there. "Christmas Love," "Shady Holiday" and "Take You Home for Christmas" are slow jams while "Christmas Party" throws in everything but the kitchen sink in terms of hip-hop production.
womack.jpgAn aptly named album from the leader of the longtime R&B dynasty. Unfortunately, it's a bit short of the Mistletunes standard, in that most of the performances are completely traditional; very little rhythm and blues or rock involved in this 1999 performance. His one original, "Dear Santa Claus," appears in two versions, one for adults and one for kids, and it's a straight pop ballad. The children's version is sung by grandchild Cheyenne Womack, who appears to have the family talent in her. Highlights are snappy versions of the late Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and the Gamble-Huff chestnut "Christmas Ain't Christmas," better known in the O'Jays version. Aside from these and his own original, however, there are absolutely no surprises in song choices or arrangements. Bobby still has a good voice and the performances are very good, but it would have been interesting to hear what he could have done with an outside producer and some more inspired choices of songs. By the way, rap may be popular, but there's too much talking over songs here that has little to do with the music.
This was the flip side of the song "I Would Die 4 U," from the "Purple Rain" soundtrack, and if you didn't know it was Prince, you still would be hard pressed to guess anybody else. It's one of The Artist's power ballad/melodramas, and while it's not as good as its A-side, it's still a worthy effort for the Christmas season. Given Prince's prolific tendencies, it's kind of amazing he hasn't done another Christmas song since this 1984 effort. Still available on Prince's B-sides compilation CD.

fats.jpgYou might think this is something from the 50s, but Fats actually recorded this in 1993. It's pretty much what you would expect, mainly Christmas standards like "White Christmas," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Silent Night," "Please Come Home For Christmas," "Blue Christmas" and more done in Fats' inimitable style. The giveaway to the modern era is the instrumentation, in which digital instruments occasionally substitute for their real counterparts. There are two Fats originals, "I Told Santa Claus," which is good, and the title song, which is mediocre, a kind of downtempo Sunday school lesson. Oldies fans should get a special kick out of this one. UPDATE: This disc has also been issued under different covers and titles, including Fats Domino's Christmas Gumbo.
The R&B teen hearthrobs put out this Christmas EP in 1985, and despite its shortness, it still turns up for sale at your favorite record store, possibly since former member Bobby Brown still turns up in the tabloids. Only six songs, you still have to give them credit for not including any obvious choices; in fact, it looks like five of the six tunes were written especially for this project, one by group members Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe. The opener, "Give Love on Christmas Day," is a Jackson 5ive tune by their house songwriters The Corporation. "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Girl)" is the tune that best references the group's hit sound. The rest have that 80s R&B-pop sheen to them, but the whole CD wears surprisingly well; acts that followed into the Christmas market 10 or 15 years later haven't actually improved on what these guys did way back then. Trivia: Michael Sembello -- remember "Maniac" from the "Flashdance" soundtrack? -- gets a co-producer credit on a couple of songs. This collection has been reissued as one of Universal's "20th Century Collections," adding Johnny Gill's solo version of "Give Love on Christmas Day."
This compilation was recorded in 1990 to showcase New Orleans musicians at a time when Storyville was becoming noticed by the major labels, never mind that New Orleans music has been a big part of rock 'n roll and jazz all through history. The overall effect of the project is to deliver the kind of "New Orleans music" a big-name producer would create for a Hollywood movie set there. The musicians are recognizable New Orleans names like Dr. John, Allan Toussaint, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas and Pete Fountain, but the production tends to make them sound more mainstream than the title of the album would suggest. But there are some good moments here: Rockin' Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters do a Cajun "Jingle Bells," Luther Kent's "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" is arranged like a big 60s soul show-stopper, and the Zion Harmonizers stick close to their gospel roots with "Go Tell It on the Mountain." And does Dr. John, heard here on "Merry Christmas Baby," ever cut a bad side? On the other hand, Aaron Neville's "The Christmas Song" is more like his second career as an MOR balladeer and less like his Neville Brothers roots, and the other tunes are well done but not particularly distinguishable as "Creole music." Your call.

Special Gift, various artists (Island)

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specgift.jpgThis 1996 compilation is exactly what I was talking about in the Statement of Purpose when I mentioned rhythm and blues. It's a perfectly listenable compilation of Christmas tunes in that genre, but there's very little of that rockin' spirit in it -- until the last two cuts, anyway, Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'" from 1980 and "Christmas Time is Party Time" by Luke -- you know, formerly 2 Live Crew's Luke. The latter one has some strategically placed scratchin' to cover up some very Luke-like expletives, but I imagine the original version is on one of Luke's albums. The rest of the album is well-performed modern R&B, alternating between ballads and midtempo numbers by Angela Winbush, The Isley Brothers, Dru Hill, an instrumental "Silent Night" by Ronny Jordan and the Island Inspirational All Stars on "Don't Give Up," which doesn't even really tie into Christmas from a lyrical standpoint. Good if you're primarily interested in that kind of music, but kind of slow going for everyone else -- unless you absolutely can't find "Christmas Rappin'" anywhere else.
deathrow.jpgNames like Snoop Doggy Dogg suggest a rap album, but this 1996 CD only has a few rap tunes. Snoop kicks off with his take on "Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto," no relation to the James Brown number, and Operation From the Bottom revisits the theme with "Christmas in the Ghetto." The only other rap tune is Tha Dogg Pound's "I Wish." Danny Boy emotes on "Peaceful Christmas," Nate Dogg sings "Be Thankful," Sean Barney Thomas does "Party 4 Da Homies," and covers of the standards "Silver Bells," "Silent Night," "O Holy Night," "White Christmas," and a few others are all straight 90s rhythm 'n blues arrangements. Danny Boy also covers Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and Guess takes on Smokey Robinson's "Christmas Everyday," sneaking in a sample of the original along the way. For the most part, this is a pretty straight R&B Christmas album, so if you were expecting mostly rap, be advised, especially since this album does carry a Parental Advisory tag.

Snowflakes, Toni Braxton (Arista)

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braxton.jpgToni goes for the holiday market for the first time in 2001, and the album's about what you would expect of an R&B chart diva. A cast of hundreds, just about, put this thing together, including producers like Babyface, Shaggy, Craig Love and others including Toni herself. There aren't any real surprises; the whole point of this CD is to let Toni apply her pipes to the Christmas season. On that level, it's a good album. She takes on standards like "Christmas Time Is Here," "The Christmas Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and also floats some originals like "Santa Please," "Snowflakes of Love" and "Christmas in Jamaica," which doesn't have much to do with reggae or anything else tropical. Two versions each of the latter two songs smack of program padding, by the way. Good voice, good sounds, but utterly predictable.

density.jpgYou've already heard "Opera of the Bells," better known as a carol, underneath the Victoria's Secret commercial. And since this group has become all-pervasive, you probably know just what to expect from this 2001 effort: modern R&B sounds with occasional diva moments. The surprise is that Beyonce Knowles chooses to share them with the other members of her group as well as her sister Solange, given that she snarfs credits for herself as producer of numerous songs as well as author credit for the quite obviously public domain "Opera" and for a not particularly astute rewrite of "8 Days of Christmas." Still, there are some interesting moments, like their versions of "White Christmas" and "Platinum Bells," better known in the silver variety. "A DC Christmas Medley" is about what you'd expect, featuring "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Jingle Bells," "Frosty," "Holly Jolly Christmas," "Deck the Halls" and "Here Comes Santa Claus." They also do an original arrangement of "This Christmas," heavy on the diva moments.

State of the art rhythm and blues circa 2001 is the deal here, mostly of the slow jams variety, with artists from the Epic stable. There are a lot of nice moments here, although I'm not one to listen to the whole 52 minutes in one shot, as there isn't a lot of variation in sound and style; mid-tempo is as up-tempo as it gets here. Macy Grey's "Winter Wonderland," available elsewhere, is my favorite of the songs here. Brad Young does an imaginative reworking of Beethoven's "Joyful Joyful," Jordan Brown really stretches out on "Silent Night," Glenn Lewis is good on Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," and Jhene updates the lyrics on her modern take of "Santa Baby" to take in baby blue SUVs and Rolexes. And Sarai raps through "Here Comes Christmas." For fans of modern R&B, this will go down smooth.

Peace, Rotary Connection (Cadet/Concept)

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rotary.jpgRecord labels specializing in black artists felt a bit left out of the Summer of Love, since it was mainly white artists creating the new "psychedelic" sound. Cadet/Concept, part of the Chess family, thought they had just the thing for the times with Rotary Connection, a multi-racial rock/soul outfit featuring the late Minnie Ripperton, that recorded three albums for the label before breaking up. One of those three albums was this one, a 1968 hippy-dippy concept album for Christmas that, well, has its moments of good music, but those are far outweighed by the dated peace 'n love posturing. Minnie sings mostly backup, stepping out only on "Christmas Love," probably the best song here. Soundwise, imagine The Fifth Dimension if they hung out at the Grateful Dead's house. The psychedelic "Silent Night" that is the second cut on the album is reprised two more times; the last one is followed by a cut called "Silence," which is, in best John Cage fashion, 90 seconds of silence. That probably tells you as much about this album as you need to know. Here's a fan-made video of "Christmas Love":

all4one.jpgThe biracial vocal quartet best known for the 1994 hit "I Swear" put together this Christmas album in 1995. Coming from the typical 1990s R&B groove, the group was the biggest thing going until it dropped out of sight for a while. This album is what you'd expect; traditional close vocal arrangements on traditional carols like "Silent Night," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "The First Noel" and so on, but contemporary arrangements on the modern classics like "This Christmas," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," a medley of "Rudolph" and "Frosty," and "Mary's Boy Child," the latter a fairly refreshing reggae groove while "Town" cops just a few licks from the Phil Spector version to combine with the 90s feel. Their original "Christmas With My Baby" is pretty good, but we could have done without one more reverent version of "The Christmas Song." The group mounted a comeback in 2001, unfortunately a little-noted one. Update: Jeff Mullen, who identifies himself as a former keyboard player for the group, says a previous mention of a band member's trip to rehab was inaccurate. He says one singer needed surgery on his vocal cords, causing him to miss a number of shows.
jackiew.jpgOne of the greats in rock music history, Jackie's Christmas album from 1963 unfortunately is an aberration in his sterling track record of soulful hits. I don't know whether this is because some producer or record executive thought they were doing him a favor by getting him to record such a MOR album, or whether Jackie himself wasn't up to rocking the season. Nevertheless, we are faced with a dozen Christmas standards done in arrangements that would have better suited Andy Williams or Perry Como. Jackie does inject some of his personal style into the vocals, so fans can't miss him, but this doesn't rock out in any meaningful fashion. The original vinyl is probably highly collectible, and for that matter Rhino's 1991 CD reissue (shown above) probably is too, as neither are in print. But there's a reissue of this out on Brunswick with the original cover art.

A Special Christmas, SWV (BMG)

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swvxmas.jpgFrom 1997, the last original album by the female R&B trio famed for "I'm So Into You" and "Right Here/Human Nature" before they broke up. There are no surprises here; straight 90s R&B, mostly ballad and midtempo arrangements of chestnuts like "The Christmas Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "White Christmas," "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night," also including lots of extraneous talking in the beginnings as a sop to their hip-hop roots. Like many R&B acts, they do "This Christmas," and also include the O'Jays' "Christmas Ain't Christmas" and "Give Love on Christmas Day." A slight album, kicked off by, yes, more talking and ended with a self-indulgent "My Favorite Things."

weathrby.jpgDon't know much about the good Lord, but this 2006 novelty is great fun, a slightly less manic Napoleon XIV take on Santa Claus. "It's all so overwhelming for my milk-and-cookie brain," he laments, as he describes how none of the jolly elf's story checks out factually, and yet he wakes up on Christmas morning and there everything is. A look at his MySpace page reveals little else about Weatherby except for what is almost certainly a fictional biography.
archies.jpgFor real music fans, The Archies were shorthand for the whole concept of plastic pre-fab pop rock designed to separate teens from their money back in their late 1960s heyday. Of course, one must put the whole phenomenon in historical perspective. The Archie comic strip and comic book was popular back then, a half-hour animated series was spun off from the comic, and because in the 1960s it was assumed that all teens wanted to be in rock bands, the animated show put the main characters in a band. No doubt inspired by the success of the Monkees (not to mention the producer they had in common, Don Kirshner), the producers released actual records by the band, including such hits as "Bang Shang-a-Lang," "Jingle Jangle" (not a Christmas song) and their biggest hit, "Sugar Sugar." The actual recordings were led by The Cuff Links' Ron Dante and featured such folks as Andy Kim and Brill Building songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, co-writers of, among other big hits, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Skip 40 years later to 2008 and we finally get a Christmas album from "the band," featuring only Dante from the original sessions, augmented by Danielle van Zyl and Kelly-Lynn, no doubt the Betty and Veronica from the album title. With the Archie comic way past its pop cultural relevancy (though it's still drawn), it's questionable whether a new album by The Archies is going to make record buyers lunge for the racks. That said, the album, consisting of 10 evergreen carols and two originals, is actually well-made, relying on any number of 2008 pop readymades for the arrangements. In fact, "Sleigh Ride" and "Holly Jolly Christmas" would actually fit on most folks' Christmas mixes. The two originals, "Archie's Christmas Party" and "Christmas in Riverdale," aren't terrible, but their self-referential nature makes them fit only for an Archies Christmas special that probably isn't going to be made.
kevoctav.jpgNot much to say after I tell you this is a punk rock Christmas album from 2008. These guys are studio players from Cincinnati, Ohio, and this is their first album. There's a dozen tunes here, all rendered with that nice speedy punk beat, but played cleanly. All are classic carols except the original "Christmas Without You," more of a midtempo ballad and a fairly radio-friendly one at that. I found the physical disc at CDBaby, but it's also downloadable from Amazon and iTunes.
beatturt.jpgThis album's from 2002, but I just stumbled over it lately. Beatnik Turtle is a novelty show band with a bunch of albums to their name, plus a sideline creating a "song of the day," a service similar to They Might Be Giants' Dial-a-Song. They've been heard on Dr. Demento's show and have played at Second City, so this should give you an idea what's on offer here. There are strong melodies and hooks with fun-loving lyrics, set off with the occasional pilfered hook -- "Santa Doesn't Like You" starts out with the beat from "Addicted to Love" and the guitar lick that kicks off "Christmas Cake" reminds me of "Peace Frog" by the Doors. "Christmas Is a Vulture" is a take-off on protest music, "Tipped Over the Christmas Tree" is an inebriated-sounding bit of fake jazz, and "Coed Naked Drunk Christmas Shopping" starts out with some Spike Jones-like sound effects riffing before everybody gets dragged before the judge for, well, see title. "Christmastime (Turn to the Children)" is a parody of those songs that render the holiday as a time for children, complete with children's chorus. "Smokin' the Mistletoe" plays around with the "Rudolph" intro before going on to advocate for a holiday high, following the plot, if not the lyrics, from "A Visit From St. Nicholas." (The liner notes point out this is probably dangerous, kids, so don't try this at home.) And "Santa" is based loosely on John Lennon's "God," complete with the litany of Christmas traditions the singer "don't believe in" because "Santa is a concept by which we commercialize the holidays." All told, an enjoyable romp.

This Christmas, Aretha Franklin (DMI)

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aretha.jpgThe Queen of Soul hasn't done much Christmas music before. She sang "Winter Wonderland" during her Columbia Records days in the 1960s, and she did a version of "O Christmas Tree" for Very Special Christmas 2. There's also a YouTube of her singing "Go Tell It on the Mountain." So this 2008 disc is her first-ever holiday album. It's pretty much what you'd expect from an R'nB diva -- scratch that, THE R'nB diva. Which is to say, it's a helping of old-school soul, a helping of gospel, and not a lot of contemporary touches, other than a bit of talk-in and talk-out of the title track, done as a duet with her son Edward. As for that title track, yes, it's the Donny Hathaway classic. She also does the O'Jays "Christmas Ain't Christmas," but that's pretty much it for soul Christmas songs, although she does the David Foster tune "My Grown-Up Christmas List," originally done by Natalie Cole and Amy Grant. The rest is mostly classic carols. She puts her stamp on the traditional "Ave Maria" and goes to church for "The Lord Will Find a Way." She also brings her own perspective to a reading of "The Night Before Christmas" to close the album. This is a disc that older listeners will appreciate more. My wish would have been to cut a Christmas album on Aretha in the early 70s, somewhere between her Fillmore West and Amazing Grace concerts, to get something a little grittier for the holidays. This was only available at Borders in 2008.
karlzen.jpgUpdated post: This 2008 EP was originally offered as a disc called (Not Just Until) The Season Ends with two fewer songs via the artist's website. Karlzen is a longtime solo alt-folk-rock troubadour with several CDs to her credit. Her version of "Run Rudolph Run" appears on the You Sleigh Me compilation, one of the very few, if any, covers of that done by a female vocalist. The version here sounds like a different, heavier rock performance. This EP, released in 2003 and advertised as a limited edition of 200, also includes her own original, "(Not Just Until) The Season Ends," which also made an Atlantic compilation of plain pop performances. The new title song is a country rocker in which the singer complains about having to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." It's a sharp little number, but it's a few years late to be the theme song for the annual "War on Christmas" that, ironically, appears to be advertised mainly by the folks who claim to be Christmas' biggest supporters. Another song on the new version is "It's Christmas Once More," a nice acoustic rocker that appears to be another original. Along with yet another compilation contribution, a slow-drone version of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," she adds rocked-up performances of "Auld Lang Syne" and the Carpenters' "Merry Christmas Darling," both nice crunchy renditions you won't be embarrassed to play to your taste-tipper friends.

Wishing For This, Leigh Nash (Nettwerk)

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leighnas.jpgThe Sixpence None the Richer singer knocked off this extended EP in 2006 during her solo career phase. It doesn't sound much different from Sixpence's work, but those who like one will like the other. Two original songs, the title song and "Eternal Gifts," are achingly sincere, and she does a version of "Maybe This Christmas" from the Nettwerk series of compilations that was originally performed by Ron Sexsmith. Covers include a duet with Gabe Dixon of "Baby It's Cold Outside" and her version of "Last Christmas," fairly faithful to the Wham original. A version of "O Holy Night" rounds out this collection. Update: Ken Ingram flags my lack of show tunes knowledge. I had "Hard Candy Christmas" as an original but it's actually the song from "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."
WildBily.jpgWild Billy is actually better known in his native England as an artist than a musician, one currently going through a bit of critical reappraisal a la Robert Crumb. This is not to downgrade his musical career, though, as he has been around since the late 70s punk upheaval, first in the Pop Rivets and later in such bands as Thee Milkshakes and Thee Headcoats. Out of some 100 albums he's made in that time, this is his first Christmas recording. You garage fans are gonna love this; it's so lo-fi you'll think it was recorded in the 60s rather than in 2007. Most of the songs are original, though there is a cover of The Sonics' "Santa Claus," Link Wray's "Commanche" somehow becomes a holiday song, "Merry Christmas Fritz" throws in bits of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Mary Mary," and "A Quick One" appears to be the Who song with eggnog on the lyrics. The title song was also a single, more punk of the title vintage than garage, concerns his dad kicking in the TV and collapsing into a coma, but not before wishing a merry, eh, Christmas to all. "Knick Knack Paddywhack (Chuck It in the Bin)" concerns the season of commerce, and poverty is examined in "A Poundland Christmas." Play this back to back with The Fleshtones.
flshtons.jpgThese guys go back to the 70s New York punk scene and are still out there bashing out their "super rock" garage sound, adding a holiday disc to their repertoire for 2008. They kick off in style with "Hurray For Santa Claus," the old B-movie hit, and swing into "Six White Boomers," a Rolf Harris song, which sounds an awful lot like AC/DC, appropriately for a song about Christmas kangaroos(?). "You're All I Want For Christmas" is a nice ballad, "Super Rock Santa" is as advertised, "Christmas With Bazooka Joe" means lots of gum in your stocking, "In Midnight's Silence" is about the Nativity, and they also take on "Run Rudolph Run." These guys have really kept the bug-zapper burning in the garage for three decades, and if that's your speed you should check some of their recent discs as well. Update: Martin Johns corrects me on which songs are covers, like "Boomers," "Mr. Santa Claus" and "You're All I Want For Christmas," previously done by such folks as Brook Benton and Frankie Laine.

It's Christmas, Ledisi (Verve)

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ledisi.jpgThis up-and-coming R'nB singer just completed a great year, with several hits, two Grammy nominations, guest shots on TV with the likes of Prince and Sergio Mendes, and an acting stint in the film "Leatherheads." So here she is with a full album of Christmas goodies, a mix of the familiar and five originals. And praise be, "This Christmas" isn't the Donny Hathaway song -- a rarity for a soul Christmas album in the modern day. It's one of the originals, a similar take lyrically with the subtitle "(Could Be The One)." The originals that open and close the album, "I'll Go" and "Thank You," are more religious than holiday-oriented, and "What a Wonderful World" isn't Christmas, though it seems to turn up on Christmas albums more and more. Her version of "Children Go Where I Send Thee" is a strong contemporary gospel performance, and she does a nice job on the evergreen blues "Please Come Home For Christmas" as well. All told, a strong modern soul record.
hotlcafe.jpgOr, as I titled it after first listening, "A Grey's Anatomy Christmas," in honor of the roster of young alternative divas featured here. Not that this is a bad thing, as the "Grey's" musical directors have pretty good taste. But it's the direction you might expect for this 2008 charity compilation benefiting Susan Komen For the Cure, the breast cancer-fighting organization. Hotel Cafe is an L.A. venue that features many of the folks on this record, and wouldn't you know, some of them have even placed songs on "Grey's." Some names here are familiar; Colbie Caillat's "Mistletoe" was reviewed here as a single last year, as was KT Tunstall's "Sleigh Bells," and though Fiona Apple's sweet "Frosty the Snowman" has been around for a few years, I think this may be my first copy of it. Elsewhere on this CD, Nicole Atkins does an imaginative take on "Blue Christmas," Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson team up to write and sing "Winter Song," Lenka offers the sprightly original "All My Bells are Ringing," Meiko's "Maybe Next Year (x-mas song)" may sound more like Fiona Apple than Fiona does, and Katy Perry, the "Ur So Gay" girl, strips down "White Christmas" to the essentials. Also on hand here are Brandi Carlile, Holly Conlan, Alice Smith, Priscilla Ahn, Kate Havnevik and Catherine Feeney, and just about everybody on here appears on "Auld Lang Syne."

Christmas Spirit, Los Lonely Boys (Epic)

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loslonly.jpgThe Tex-Mex trio who are one of Willie Nelson's favorite bands dropped their first Christmas CD for 2008, and if you're familiar with their close harmony and solid guitar playing, you'll be happy to hear that style applied to a CD's worth of holiday tunes, including two originals. "I've Longed For Christmas" starts things off well, even if they resort to the kiddie choir on the very first song, and "She'll Be My Everything For Christmas" is a solid midtempo ballad with a touch of Everly Brothers vocally. Rudolph makes two appearances, once with his red nose in a nice rocked-out rhythm and again in the Chuck Berry classic. Their "Carol of the Bells" is a witty amalgam of the standard arrangement with an overlay of Mexican folk playing and Spanish percussion, with just a touch of the Santana sound on lead guitar. Given their background, you'd probably be disappointed if they didn't do "Feliz Navidad," which they do in a nice shuffle, the same arrangement as the single demo they did a couple years ago but a more finished-sounding version. All told, a nice rocking holiday disc.
psychobl.jpgThis 2008 compilation pulls together a bunch of bands who play in this style -- think rockabilly, add a heaping helping of the Cramps and maybe season with a little Iggy Pop -- to give us their version of Christmas. It gets off to a misleading start with Rev. Horton Heat's "We Three Kings," which isn't bad but also isn't really all that psycho. The second cut by The Tabaltix, "Don't Believe in Christmas," is more in line with the title, applyling that style to The Sonics' classic tune. Los Gatos Locos take on the Kinks' "Father Christmas," The Coffin Draggers medley "Jingle Bell Rock" into "Jingle Bells," turning the latter into a real thrash-fest. That tempo is picked up again by Bamboula with "I'm Getting Pissed For Christmas," an ode to drinking beer on the holiday. Knock Galley West get into the evil elf mode with "Gunslingin' Santa," The Coffin Caddies celebrate "Halloween on Xmas" (paging Tim Burton), and The Vaudevilles "Shot My Baby For Christmas." An interesting compilation with some good tunes, a few weak ones, and a reasonable intro to psychobilly if you haven't been down that road before.
kinghawi.jpgJust discovered this EP on its 2008 re-release, though the band notes on its MySpace page the disc was originally released in 2006. Strangely enough, the title song isn't performed on this brief collection; what is here is surf-rock versions of "Greensleves," "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" and "Our Favorite (Christmas) Martian," which to my ears sounds like a takeoff from the theme to the TV show of the same name. Their "Feliz Navidad" brings in a bit of Latin rhythm, and their original "Road Kill Christmas" has a bit of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks to it. Nicely done.
barcoast.jpgYou know those fake bands you saw playing on the beach in those 1960s surf movies that usually included some of the film's characters? Imagine one of them come to life and you've got the Barbary Coasters. They've got that West Coast small combo pop-rock sound down pat, vintage instruments, cheap organ and all. More remarkable is that this 2008 Christmas album consists almost entirely of originals, though "Twistin' Bells' is just an instrumental "Jingle Bells" and "I Want a Monkey For Christmas" is simply new lyrics to "Roll Over Beethoven." That tune appeared on a Double Crown compilation, in case the description sounds familiar. The band still gets credit for its authentic period sentiment, with song titles like "Frosty's Beach Party," "Wild Snowshoeing Weekend," "Ho Ho GTO," "Apres Ski A-Go-Go," and "Will You Still Love Me (After Christmas Break)?" As I have fond memories of that musical period, I'll probably be playing this a lot.
yulenog4.jpgWe covered Yulenog 3 last year, and sure enough here's no. 4. This year's album adds the conceit of political satire on top of the holiday fare, promising tunes for both sides of the partisan divide. It kicks off with a slapdash "All I Want For Christmas," then goes into "Coal For Christmas," which is about the fossil fuel situation. Santa has a bit of an identity crisis here, as the next two songs, sung by Sam Kulik, are "Santa's From Iran," a bit of dissonant funk, and "Santa Claus is a Jew," a folky bit of satiric irony that revisits the fossil fuel situation. Kuruna returns with "Snoopy's Christmas," Weird Al's "Christmas at Ground Zero," Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster's Holiday," the infamous "What Can You Get a Wookie For Christmas" and a falsetto "Santa Baby." Charles Evans stops by with "Obama For Christmas (Not For President)," the first holiday song featuring our new president as far as I know; it's kind of jazzy but the singing is a bit off-key. Kuruna also does a quick "No Christmas For Old Men," an homage to the Coen brothers, and revisits "Island of Misfit Toys." The satirical aspect isn't all that satisfying to my mind, since they seem to abandon it frequently, but you'll probably enjoy what sounds like a fairly spontaneous attempt to make a Christmas album.

Heavy Mental Christmas, Helix (Vollmer)

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helixmas.jpgThis long-standing metal band from Canada jumps into the Christmas fray for 2008 with a long-player that for now is available only online or at Wal-Mart stores in Canada. It's well-played but fairly monochromatic; mid-tempo to uptempo crunch is the rule here. Song selection is predictable too, mostly rock standards, hitting Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" and John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," though "Christmas Time Is Here Again" is not the Beatles song, but an original. Other tunes include "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Jingle Bells," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Silent Night," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and, possibly the best performance here, a rendition of Bob Seger's "Sock It To Me Santa." Good mainly for metal fans.
wayside.jpgThe proprietor of Twelve Months of Christmas curated this collection of alt-rock-pop to benefit Wayside Waifs, a Kansas City animal shelter. I haven't heard of most of these people, with the exception of the reclusive R. Stevie Moore, who offers a rocked-out "Joy to the World" with the occasional bark from the backing singer. Aside from that, "Christmas Time Is Here" by The Harvey Girls, "Jingle Bell Rock" by Ray Carmen, "Ukrainian Bell Carol" by Lord of the Yum-Yum and what I believe is a Scandinavian carol, "Jolaljosin" by Worm Is Green, the majority of these tunes are originals, starting with the title tune by ShiSho, which is a bit of kid rap-sing that isn't bad for a disc opener. Zen Doggies throw a bit of cheap synthesizer into "Oh Santa," What About Frogs tells the story of "The Cat Who Controls Christmas," and Euchrid Eucrow sticks with animals in "A Horse is Not Just For Christmas." Thee Majesty does "I Like the Holidays," a spoken bit over a "Silent Night" music bed talking about improvised decorations, including a Nativity scene made from an array of cast-off dolls. Mercurial Rage does a neat synth-pop "It's Christmas," and Ethan Waters offers a nearly stream-of-consciousness "5AM Christmas Pawn Groove," a suite of disjointed but catchy tunes that will make you go "hmm." Available as disc or download here, along with samples of all the 20 or so tunes.
badsanta.jpgJones was on the Christmas tip earlier with his own hip-hop holiday joint, and now he's back in 2008 for another go-round with his gang as well as actor/comic Mike Epps. Folks (like me) who were expecting a tie-in with the movie of the same title will be disappointed, as the story line for the album is thuggery on the holidays in general, with no references to Billy Bob Thornton's drunken criminal Santa. Leaving that aside, there's a lot of rapping and singing of standard carols as well as plenty of original material featuring Epps in his own version of a bad Santa, or just a general gangsta on the holidays. It's not bad, but if you've heard a lot of hip-hop, there are no surprises here.
mcknight.jpgThis is Brian's second Christmas album, the first out in 1998 and this one a decade later in 2008. As Brian's a mature R'nB singer, you'll probably find this album to be as much pop as soul, as it relies on pop and older soul readymades to back up his still-considerable voice. He performs mostly classic carols and pop holiday tunes here, with "Let It Snow" and "Most Wonderful Time of the Year" being the uptempo numbers, the rest falling into various shades of ballad, though "The Christmas Song" treads closer to a slow jam. "Christmas You and Me," "Bless This House" and "Who Would Have Thought" are the original tunes on this album. Well made, but more for an older crowd. UPDATE: Forgot to note that Josh Groban makes a guest appearance on "Angels We Have Heard On High."
hanukey.jpgWe've had hip-hop Hanukkahs on the site before, though they were fairly tongue-in-cheek. This one isn't playing the combination for laughs so much, although you can be forgiven for thinking that, as Cohen is the brother of "Ali G" himself, Sasha Baron Cohen. It's a collection of traditional folk songs for the holiday, many rendered in a kind of klezmer-funk fusion, making room for traditional instruments behind modern percussion and bass, and throwing in a bit of reggae and rap as well. "Hanukkah Oh Hannukah," "Dreidel," "Ocho Kandalikas," "My Hanukkah," and more all get this sort of treatment. As this Cohen brother (not to be confused with a Coen brother) is a composer and DJ, it's the approach you might expect. Coming along for the ride are international singing stars like Yasmin Levy, Jules Brookes, Y-Love, Dana Kerstein and Idan Raichel. All told, it's a lively compilation and an enjoyable listening experience.
colbert.jpgAmerica's favorite fake pundit steps away from the desk to host the greatest Christmas special of all time (just ask him). It is quite a hoot, as Colbert takes off on the old-school Christmas variety special that used to clog the airwaves at Christmas time back in the day. As one of the features of such shows was a cast of big stars "coincidentally" wandering onto the set, Colbert follows the blueprint with the help of Elvis Costello, John Legend, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Feist and Jon Stewart. Colbert himself gets things going with "Another Christmas Song," a big-band song about writing the perfect Christmas carol, and wraps up with "A Cold Cold Christmas," a song of lost love. Toby Keith sings "Have I Got a Present For You," which is the ultimate War On Christmas song (listening, Papa Bear?). Feist cracks us up with "Please Be Patient," a take-off on "Angels We Have Heard On High" in which supplicants praying are told "an angel will be with thee shortly," complete with an interlude of tinkertoy hold music. Willie Nelson sings "Little Dealer Boy," which riffs a tiny bit on the Bing 'n Bowie medley while offering some righteous bud to go alongside the frankincense and myrrh. Legend gets in a little Al Green rhythm with "Nutmeg," the perfect accent to your holiday eggnog. At least I think that's what he's singing about. Stewart sings "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah," which triggers the requisite alert, and Elvis Costello gets out of doing a Christmas song by bringing along his show-closer "What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding," here done by the whole cast. I should note that Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne was a co-writer of the original songs from this show along with David Javerbaum of "The Daily Show." The show's on DVD but there's a soundtrack disc as well. From 2008.
fogyhol2.jpgJust got hold of Vol. 1 this year, and for 2008 we get Vol. 2, another collection of Bay Area bands contributing Christmas songs to benefit MusiCares, the Grammy Foundation's fund to aid needy musicians. As last time, these alt-pop-rockers give us a wide selection of covers, some fairly faithful to the originals, others reimagined in a variety of ways. The Lovemakers' "Melekalikimaka" is a cover of the Beach Boys song of the same name, incorporating backing vocals from the Boys' early song "Hawaii." "Do They Know It's Christmastime" by Apside takes the Band Aid song and applies a bit of a country shuffle to it. "Happy New Year" by The Matches covers Tilly and the Wall, The May Fire turn "It's a Marshmallow World" into a dirge, Overview puts a bit of Eastern drone and stomp behind "I Believe in Father Christmas," and Scissors For Lefty lay down a fairly disorienting backing for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Topping things off is a hoedown version of Mel Torme's classic "The Christmas Song" by I the Mighty that turns into a rock rave-up at the end. Another great effort from the folks at Talking House.
fogyhol1.jpgReleased in 2007, this collection from Bay Area bands is intended to benefit MusiCares, which helps indigent musicians with their needs. It's a fairly professional bunch of local bands in the alt-rock vein. The set kicks off with a clattery "Holly Jolly Christmas" from Scissors For Lefty, Built For the Sea takes "Baby It's Cold Outside" out of the cocktail lounge and turns it into a rock anthem, The Trophy Fire builds an alt-folk arrangement around "White Christmas," and Bray gives up the white-boy funk for Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas." More funky beats from Austin Willacy back up "Santa Claus Is Back In Town," Kelly Gulbranson offers up Jackson Browne's "Rebel Jesus," and Mud (not the 70s British band, I'm sure) does an amped-up "Father Christmas," the Kinks song. Most imaginative choice of song goes to The Hundred Days with their version of "Walking In the Air," from the 1982 British short film "The Snowman." The song gets a bit of U2 in the arrangement, though the vocal is buried a bit. Poor Bailey rocks up "The Chipmunk Song," Push to Talk takes the tempo down on "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," and Elephone takes us out with "Auld Lang Syne." Plenty of mix disc candidates here and not too shabby to listen to all the way through.
marthas2.jpgThis transnational folk-rock group (they split their time between Ontario and Alabama) has released its second holiday disc in 2008, and it's more of the same following on from the first, mostly classic carols in their acoustic rock-folk style. That said, their cover of Sir Paul's "Wonderful Christmastime" adds a bit of martial drumming and folky drone that makes this a better-than-average interpretation of this song. The title song is the band's own original, a nice mid-tempo rocker that highlights Jen Slocumb's folk-diva singing style well. The other original is "Christmas in the City," another mid-tempo rocker. Just eight songs, but it's a keeper. As their previous holiday outing had only six songs, I'd bet that a future Christmas season will see both reissued on a single disc, especially if a major label picks them up eventually.
raveonx.jpgPreviously on the Christmas tip with their original "The Christmas Song," the duo returns with four more Christmas songs on this 2008 download-only EP. They make "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" into a dirge, and add three originals. "Come On Santa" fits right with the vibrato- and echo-drenched sound they've honed over several albums, "Christmas Ghosts" is a ballad with whispery vocals that I'm still trying to parse, and "Christmas in Cleveland" rounds things out. Oddly, they left out their previous holiday tune, but it's easy enough to download that while you're downloading this.
substanw.jpgI have no idea who these guys are, other than a bunch of people with access to musical instruments, but this is great fun. There are 28 cuts on this album, including eight different versions of "O Christmas Tree" tagged with various descriptions, from "Midnight Martini Mix" and "Hooked on Xmas Mix" to "Slap My Bass Mix" and "Dead Kringles Mix." Needless to say, they're different musical styles, the Kringles being punk, the Martini being lounge, and so on. "Switched On Bethlehem" is the little town carol done in "Switched On Bach" style, "Good King Wenceslas" wavers from electro-handclaps synth-pop to antique carol style, and "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" sounds somewhere between Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. "Silver and Gold" is basically the voice of your annoying Uncle Elwin as producer, complaining about the band the way he might complain about the check-out girl at the supermarket. Much of this is various shades of synth-pop, but there's enough going on to get your attention and maybe even a few giggles.
strato2.jpgWe've had their EP and previous holiday single "Last Christmas Girl" on the site before, and for 2008 they rolled out this new song, mid-tempo power pop, that is part of a reformulated version of the EP that adds this song and subtracts the cover of the Cowsills' "Crazy Horses." If you missed out on the previous EP, here's another, better, shot at the same thing. They also offer this song free when you sign up for their mailing list.
projec86.jpgNot that familiar with these guys, but this 2008 EP is quite the doomy take on the holiday; I could see Trent Reznor hanging tinsel to this. The title song is portentious, while "Wrought on This Holiday's Eve" is more upbeat musically, but still doomy lyrically. They also cover "What Child" and "Misfit Toys," and throw in another original, "Shiny Skin."
rahsaan.jpgThis is my first time hearing Patterson's work, and I'm impressed. It's very modern R'nB singing and songwriting. Not bad for a former denizen of "Kids Incorporated." "Holiday" and "Christmas at My House" are very Prince-like songs, with synthesizer work harking back to the Purple One's 80s heyday. He gets off an original arrangement on Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means To Me," though the vocal evokes the author's distinctive sound. "This Is the Season," "Peace and Joy" and "First Christmas" are original slow ballads, then he puts together a remarkable jazz-funk arrangement on "Angels We Have Heard on High." Patterson also does a fairly faithful take on Sir Paul's "Wonderful Christmastime," though he wrings the slapdash elements out of the original and puts a studio sheen on the proceedings. And "Little Drummer Boy" emphasizes the percussion, but in a modern R'nB way. This is my favorite of this year's soul Christmas crop so far. From 2008.
xpnlocal.jpgThe Philadelphia home of the popular "World Cafe" radio music series rolls out music compilations from time to time, and this is the second of their Philly Local series, featuring only bands based in Brotherly Love-ville. It appears here because the last three songs on this 2008 disc are holiday-oriented originals. Hoots and Hellmouth offers "A Song For Solstice," a non-Christmas Christmas folk song; Dan May performs "Christmas in My Hometown," a folk-rock meditation on the title by a guy whose voice evokes a little bit of Gordon Lightfoot; and Fooling April gives us the piano-led ballad "Every Single Christmas." Nice work, though all three are on the slow side. The disc also features non-holiday fare from such folks as Mutlu, Amos Lee, Dr. Dog and The Hooters -- yeah, the same '80s band you're thinking of.
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