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November 2017 Archives

When Winter Comes, Sofia Talvik (Makaki)

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talvikwinter.jpgFor the past decade, this Swedish songstress has dropped a holiday single every year like clockwork. So that would suggest this 2017 album was inevitable, but maybe not; her press person said this was scheduled for last year but a household emergency ate up the money she set aside to do the album. Most of her past holiday songs have been on the darker side of the holiday, but over the past few years, as she's toured the US and gotten in touch with her Americana side, they've gotten a little lighter. Still, these are mostly guitar and violin/cello arrangements of these very serious tunes; not a lot of rocking going on here, but attention must be paid to the excellent songwriting on offer here. This year's single, "This Great Old Christmas Night," is based on an old Irish song that touches on everyone's ultimate fate but still manages to celebrate the holiday. Other new songs include "A Second or a Year" "Clothe Yourself For the Winter," and the title song, pensive ballads all, and the collection's only cover, an almost dour version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." The rest of the songs are re-recorded versions of most, but not all, of her past singles; they're all up on Bandcamp if you want to mix and match.

Some Latin music for 2017, courtesy of this fine roots/retro group. The original song takes a lighthearted look at Santa vis-à-vis the immigration controversy, observing that Santa has no green card or work permit, yet everybody loves him. Good fun, and guaranteed to give an aneurism to your Fox News Uncle™. Grab it from Amazon or iTunes, or just check it out here.

"Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer," DMX (Spotify)

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This just dropped on Spotify, and apparently they have a playlist with some exclusive songs, like Sam Smith on "River" and Demi Lovato doing "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Not the most tuneful vocal, but if you need something hip-hop for under the tree, this is 1:37 of throwing down. Apparently there's a YouTube video of him doing it a cappella from a few years ago, but this is a full studio version. If you're not on Spotify, check it here.

dudeyork.jpgThis Seattle rock trio steps up for 2017 with a full-length holiday CD that is unpolished rock 'n roll fun. They're kinda grungy, kinda punky, and they don't take themselves too seriously, which is all to the good. They kick off strongly with "Break Up Holiday," in which the singer tries to avoid an ex at a Christmas party, and swings into a faintly funky "Hollywood Holiday," in which they explore a warm weather version of yuletide celebrations, name-checking landmarks along the way. Another strong rocker is "The Greatest Gift Is You," followed by "My Favorite Part (Of This Time Of Year)," which, spoiler alert, is a significant other. "Long Distance Christmas" is their version of the holiday road song, and "True Meaning" is a boogie shuffle search for holiday verities, with a shout-out to Hanukkah no less. The remaining songs are a hyped-up "Silent Night," and throwaways "Jingle Bells Rock" and "Takin' Care of Christmas," the latter a short takeoff on the Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit; apparently they hadn't heard that Randy Bachman had done the same thing himself years ago. No matter; these guys and gal have added a fine rocking collection to the Christmas canon. 

sia.jpgNot being a hit radio kind of guy, people like Sia, who makes her own music but also lurks in the background writing songs performed by such folks as Beyonce and Rihanna, manage to dodge my radar easily. Maybe I should pay better attention the rest of the year, if this 2017 Christmas album is anything to go by. Sia had help writing this album from disc producer Greg Kurstin, who has produced and written for Adele among other worthys, and while pop is the order of the day, it's modern pop with lots of charm and plenty of rhythm. Things start out promisingly with the jaunty "Santa's Coming For Us," and then "Candy Cane Lane" steals shamelessly from the Phil Spector Christmas album, but with a clean modern sound. "Sunshine" is more of the same. "Snowman" and "Snowflake" change up the tempos, going midtempo and ballad respectively, and the title song is more of a power ballad. "Underneath the Mistletoe" and "Underneath the Christmas Lights" let Sia show off her pipes, and "Ho Ho Ho" makes a bouncy soundtrack for a pirate Christmas, given the lyric "Ho Ho Ho and a bottle of booze...." That leaves the uptempo "Puppies Are Forever" to round things out. Lyrically there aren't any surprises, but that is hardly ever a dealbreaker with holiday music. This is one you can just throw on without worrying about playlists.

More Winter Lives, Matt Pond PA (131)

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Last year Matt graced us with Winter Lives, an entry in the not-Christmas Christmas music sweepstakes, and for 2017 this EP follows up with a remix of the catchy "Whoa" from the original album and four additional tunes. "In Winter" opens with a guitar figure similar to that in Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas" and continues in a folky way extolling love in the cold weather. "Curtains and Eyelids" and "Skiers in the Street" are pensive acoustic instrumental ballads with a little background synth padding adding spice, and "Moon Rose" is an impressionistic ballad that could be for any time of the year. It's a fine collection of music, though not essential for the holiday, but if you're already listening to the original album then these additional cuts will be welcome.
Can't say I'm familiar with Bloom or Bozeman, but here they are with an R'nB holiday EP for 2017. (Bozeman has a role on the music industry soap opera "Empire," as I discovered while writing this.) After a couple false starts with the brief "Chopin Nocture Interlude" and the mostly spoken "Sugar Plum Ghetto," they launch into a slow jam called "Mistletune Hanging," which is pretty much what you'd expect from the title. "Funky Christmas" picks up the tempo just a bit, narrating holiday preparations and running down some holiday verities. The song their label is pushing is their version of "Baby It's Cold Outside," which throws a few R'nB touches over what is otherwise a familiar way to perform the song. Things wrap up with another slow jam, "Ghetto Christmas," telling the story of a tragic holiday. Well produced and performed, but I'm not hearing a breakout tune from this collection other than "Baby."
rymer.jpgThese guys have received Grammy nominations in the past for Best Children's Album, but we've tried to look past the hype if the music's there, and for the most part it is. The songs are lively, accessible, played with lots of vitality and some of them really rock out. As with a lot of music aimed at kids, it may sound a little too well-scrubbed for some of you, so beware. Good candidates for playlists include the title song, "Untanglin' the Christmas Lights," "Can't Sit Still," the almost-ska "Holiday Jam," and if group dancing plays a big role in your holiday, "New Accordions." "It's Christmastime" and "Trim the Tree" lean country, "Hanukkah Rocks" gets the customary alert for being kosher and uptempo, and "Baby New Year" has a taste of New Orleans -- a well-scrubbed one, I might add. Holiday ballads include "Rainbow Candles," "Christmas Wishes," and "Peace Be to All." If you have kids who are playing the soundtrack from "Frozen" over and over again, at the very least this should save your sanity.

Some years ago we all giggled at the unlikeliness of Bob Dylan cutting a Christmas album, though musical history, his Theme Time Radio Hour, and his current direction remaking Sinatra classics demonstrate that was a wrong-headed response. Now if you want unlikely, how about the host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" embarking on a music career? And given his welcoming attitude toward the current president's candidacy throughout 2015 and early 2016, that he would not only end up lashing that candidate daily as president, but that he'd extend his brand into a 2017 Christmas EP poking fun at the guy? Actually, of the three songs, only "The Drumpf," a not-quite but may-as-well-be clone of "The Grinch," is the only one that explicitly hammers the guy, although "Christmastime," a nicely upbeat pop-rocker, makes a few mentions of this being a crappy year that feed into the theme. The remaining song, "This Christmas It's You & Me," is a midtempo bid for the singer and his love to jettison the big family gathering and celebrate with each other. I'll leave it to you as to whether you find this playlist-worthy, but if you use "The Drumpf," don't say I didn't warn you when the family's Fox News Uncle™ launches into a tirade.

girlray.jpgThis teenaged trio from London is getting a lot of notice for an album with a Spoonerism of a name (Earl Grey) that just came out in 2017, and they topped it all off with an original holiday single that is ... well ... I like it, but I'm having to listen to it repeatedly because the myriad tempo changes are giving me vertigo.  It's sort of the "River Deep, Mountain High" of Christmas singles, wildly ambitious and overly long, and I'm not sure if you're going to find this an easy fit in your holiday playlists. It's quite the pastiche of girl group singing via Roy Wood's Wizzard, although the vocals are rather gentle for the busy backing track. On the bright side, they throw in a kid's chorus that isn't self-consciously off-key or excessively cute. Flip is a deliberately lo-fi "I'll Be Home For Christmas." It's on Bandcamp, or you can grab it on vinyl.
bridgers.jpgA new indie singer/songwriter from Los Angeles with her debut album Stranger in the Alps out this year, she took a few minutes to cover this chestnut for 2017 in a spacey rendition that might remind you of Fiona Apple or Tori Amos if they had a serious Velvet Underground jones. Points for the original third verse lyrics. I like this a lot. Listen or buy from Amazon.

#1HappyHoliday EP, DRAM (Empire/Atlantic)

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dram.jpgJust encountered this R'nB singer/rapper for the first time because of this 2017 EP. Two classics and one original, the version of "Silver Bells" features his mother, BigBabyMom as rendered here, and "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)" is just him and electric piano with a spoken interlude; canned strings sneak in near the end. The title song is a smooth slow jam built out of samples that's all about the holiday verities, and all about that sweet lovemaking as well. Cool stuff.

catskill.jpgHey "Bob's Burger" fans, this ad hoc grouping features Chris Maxwell, the show's music composer, alongside Ambrosia Parsley of Shivaree and vocalist Holly Miranda, kicking out an album of original Americana holiday music. This was a late arrival in 2016. "Christmas Aisle" is a country lilt about buying decorations half off after the holiday, as is "Angel Divine." "Christmas Lights" is a mellow shuffle about experiencing the holiday under the baubles of the title, "Going To Get the Tree" is likewise self-explanatory and a bit more upbeat, "James Caan" is a nicely twisted number about a Las Vegas Christmas, and "Too Many Santas" is a stomper about running into too many holiday hucksters dressed as the jolly elf. "Christmas Time" is a gentle ballad, "Ho Ho Home" is a slow rocker about, well, going home, "Christmas Mice" is an almost-polka about the mice getting into the treats, "A1 Instructural Barbering Plus" is a folky strum about spending Christmas at barber school (really), "Naughty Elf" appears to be an ode to giving sex toys for gifts, and "Holy Redeemer" is the album-closing nod to midnight mass. This is quite enjoyable in its unpretentious way. Stop by Noisetrade for a free five-song taste or just click through to Amazon or Bandcamp. UPDATE: Changed the title by removing "Sampler," which is what NoiseTrade calls the truncated version of the album they have.

Another one-man band named Jim Bacon, who used to be a staff songwriter for record publishers once upon a time and now plies the indie side of the street. This new Christmas tune for 2017 is a light reggae lilt that mourns the past but urges us to cherish our memories and live in the present. Warm and friendly. Get it from Amazon.

stefani.jpgSeems like forever since No Doubt covered the Vandals' punk holiday tune "Oi to the World" for A Very Special Christmas 3. Since then, their singer Gwen Stefani has become a household word as a solo artist and "judge" on "The Voice," not to mention girlfriend to country crooner Blake Shelton. Accordingly, her first full Christmas album, out for 2017, is aimed directly at the heart of the network TV audience, and not so much at us insufferable music snobs, as noted in an Entertainment Weekly story, in which she expresses the desire "to be Mariah Carey." Which brings us to the title song of the collection, a duet with Shelton, nicely upbeat but definitely designed to be played outside the window of the "Today Show" studio. It's one of six originals made for this album, of which my favorite is "My Gift Is You," which sounds modern and 60s girl-groupy at the same time. "Under the Christmas Lights" has some of that sound too, "Never Kissed Anybody With Blue Eyes Before You" is more mid-tempo, and "When I Was a Little Girl" and disc-closer "Christmas Eve" are ballads. Of the covers, "Jingle Bells" borrows a bit from Brian Setzer, "Silent Night" has a nice slow rock tempo to it, "White Christmas" gets a lively arrangement, "Santa Baby" and "Last Christmas" are about what you'd expect, and"Let It Snow" is essentially the song cut from the "Today Show" appearance and put up on the website. Not exactly a must-have for rock fans, but I encourage grazing the cuts online or on your streaming service. 

Let It Snow, 98 Degrees (Universal)

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98degree2.jpgUh, wait a minute, didn't this boy band thing happen back in the 90s? Why yes, it did, and these guys were players, nipping at the heels of Backstreet Boys and N'Sync. So when I saw this listed with a 2017 release date, I assumed they'd just dredged up the original 1999 album and reissued it. But no, it's the same guys 20 years on, and they haven't really changed; my take on their previous Christmas album was that it played at R'nB sounds but was a lot more at home in the pop realm, and this album gets exactly the same review. Where the previous album was mostly from the trad carol playlist with one original, this one splits the choices among pop/rock favorites and carols. They do reasonably well with Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means To Me," the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick," and their harmonies are a welcome addition to Joni Mitchell's "River." They just manage to get away with their version of "Please Come Home For Christmas," considering there's not much blues in these guys' background. A lowlight is their "Run Rudolph Run," which sounds like something you'd hear at high school musical theatre camp. The one original here, "Season of Love," is right out of the 90s boy-band craze and is nicely upbeat. The rest of the album is trad carols like "Let It Snow," "What Child Is This," "The First Noel," "Mary, Did You Know," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Away in the Manger" and "Silent Night," all good vehicles for showing off the group's prowess with vocal harmonies and singing, but still more pop than rock or soul.

This group appears to be a one-man production house in England doing commercial and soundtrack work, and this appears to have first come out in 2016. Not surprisingly, it's pretty commercial, a love song set in the holiday with a verse dedicated to "It's a Wonderful Life" references, which you'll discern from the lyric video below. One note: the independent audio of this is a different mix from what you hear in the video. Grab it from iTunes or Amazon or listen on Spotify.

"Mistress for Christmas," AC/DC (Atlantic)

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Another rock giant leaves us behind. Farewell to Malcolm Young, who passed yesterday at the too-young age of 64.

LKMerryXmas.jpgThe Arielle Verinis/Dave Green duo has been doing Christmas tunes since 2015, and for 2017 they cover the Slade classic from the 70s. I'm not quite sure if people have been saying, "This would be great if some earnest singer-songwriter duo did a version of it," but it's a strong song to begin with and they perform it well.

The "Superman" band, or should I say principal member John Ondrasik, did a Christmas song for the second year in a row. He teamed with pianist Jim Brickman for this 2017 holiday single dedicated to The Troops. It's nice enough, if a bit obvious; I usually put my hand over my wallet when I encounter excessively extravagant praise for "our vets," especially if there's a fund-raising component involved. Nevertheless, there aren't many Christmas songs of this variety, so you might as well have this one. Grab it from Amazon. UPDATE: Collaborator's name was incorrect, it was corrected. Jeez, what a mistake that was....

Christmas Christmas, Cheap Trick (Big Machine)

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cheaptrickLP.jpgI was definitely excited to hear this was on the 2017 release schedule, but as it came closer to the time to actually hear it, I started to have a bit of trepidation. How good could it be? Given the band's sterling reputation, would it be just good enough? Or, since they now share a label with Taylor Swift, would this be a cynical money grab? Well, I finally got to sit down with it, and it's good, good enough to listen to all the way through (no mean feat in the age of streaming playlists). There aren't a lot of surprises in song selection, especially if you've spent a lot of time on Mistletunes, but that doesn't take away from the fact they performed them really well. Band original "Merry Christmas Darlings" is a barn-burner of an opener, leading directly into a solid, faithful cover of the Roy Wood classic "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day." Their "Run Rudolph Run" is a strong bluesy take with lots of harmonica, and in that vein they slow things down a bit with Charles Brown's "Please Come Home For Christmas." They also grab Julien Casablancas' arrangement of the "Saturday Night Live" trifle "I Wish It Was Christmas Today," leaning hard into the guitars along the way, and they resurrect the Nilsson ballad "Remember (Christmas)." Covers of Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody" and the Kinks' "Father Christmas" are almost too good, in that some might miss the slapdash charm of the originals, but these amped-up versions are just fine by me. Similarly, Ramones purists might object to them recasting "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" as a mid-70s hard rock cruncher, but that sound has always been a big part of who Cheap Trick is, and I think there's room for both versions. Rounding out the album are two slow-tempo numbers, "Silent Night" and the original "Our Father of Life," and the title song, recycled from a 1995 fan club single. Completists might carp that previous Trick holiday tunes "Come On Christmas" and "I Want You For Christmas" aren't here, but in the download era that's easily rectified.

Holidays Rule 2, various artists (Capitol)

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Rules2.jpgMajor-label Christmas compilations used to rule the season, but in an age when major labels are all but irrelevant, they've become scarce as hen's teeth. So wave hello to an exception, this one being a sequel to a decent entry of the same name from five years ago. For 2017, they've once again gathered up a collection that mixes familiar names with up-and-comers, although the biggest name is a bit of a cheat -- an extremely short "Wonderful Christmastime" as done for an episode of "The Tonight Show" a year or more ago featuring Jimmy Fallon and the Roots backing Sir Paul McCartney, although the mostly a capella backing is nice enough. Sir Paul gets another bite of the apple in MUNA's pensive cover of his "Pipes of Peace." Albin Lee Meldau takes on Mariah's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" in a more 20th century soul music style than the original, Barns Courtney teams with Lennon Stella for a mash-up of old-school jazz and modern synth rhythms behind "Baby It's Cold Outside," and Callum Scott does a mostly American Songbook rendition of "It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas." More jazz is offered by Kandace Springs with "(Everybody's Waitin' For) The Man With the Bag" and Norah Jones takes on Horace Silver's "Peace" in a live take. Grace Potter and an orchestra serve up an original holiday ballad called "Christmas Moon," Rosanne Cash gets swingy with a more mellow cover of Louis Jordan's "May Ev'ry Day Be Christmas," and Judah & the Lion take an indie-pop approach to "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)." A straight-up Eighties synth-pop version of "Blue Christmas" comes from U.S. Girls, Flor de Toloache do a compelling synthesis of Latin and Eastern European rhythms on "That's What I Want For Christmas," and Vera Blue does the indie-girl-singer take over heavy computer beats for "A Winter Romance." The Decemberists pay tribute to Big Star with a faithful cover of "Jesus Christ" and music-school nerds Lake Street Dive go all merengue on a cover of "I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas." As you might expect, the collection goes out with a New Year's song, in this case Andrew McMahon's quite traditional version of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve." Much more pop than rock, but a fair number of highlights.

rocksea8.jpgBack once more from the Florida-Georgia coast, Rock By the Sea has released their eighth nonprofit compilation to help support various charities. The cover tells us that this year's proceeds will be directed to support the fight against pediatric cancer, and if you live close by their stomping grounds, they're always looking for support, as they also host concerts with the folks who play on their albums. As usual, the performers are indie folks in the Americana genre, straddling rock, soul, folk and country. Keaton Simons kicks things off with a snappy soulful original titled "Eyes Light Up at Christmas," FRIENDSWITHBENEFITS breaks out the laptop and rhythm boxes for a Depeche Mode-styled "Ding Dong Merrily On High," and Carly Burruss takes us to Nashville with "Red and Green," the correct colors for a holiday she perceives as trending toward blue. Pat McGee offers an original piano ballad, "No Warmer Place," and speaking of "warmer," Jeff Crosby takes the whole enterprise to California with the folky strum "Christmas in the Palms." Joel Madison Blount performs a spare, slow "O Come O Come Emanuel," The Wealthy West tries an original take rooted in "Carol of the Bells" with just the slightest hint of the original carol, and Brent Shuttleworth takes a country-folk approach to the original "The God In You." The Mrs. does a 70s rock take on Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means To Me," and Lang Freeman wraps it up with an electronic drone version of "Auld Lang Syne." Just 10 songs compared to previous longer editions of this compilation, but that will make it easy for them to do a vinyl version if they want to later. Click the cover to go to Amazon or visit Bandcamp.

"Revolution Wonderland," The Weeklings (Jem)

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Weeklings.jpgThis Beatles-crazy ensemble includes former Styx member Glen Burtnik, and for 2017 they throw their hat into the Beatles Christmas parody playground (it's a thing, poke around this website for more) with this "Winter Wonderland" cover via the Fabs' "Revolution." I can hear a few "meh's" in the peanut gallery, but I'm not impartial when it comes to folks paying tribute to Mersey's finest; I love this.

We had this artist a couple years ago with "The Angel Gabriel," and this time around he gives us this slow funk groove with lyrics inspired by a sermon by the Rev. A.W. Nix, one of those early 20th century preachers who put their sermons on vinyl records, the podcasts of their day. Very cool and distressingly short, I could listen to this for a good while longer. Grab it from Bandcamp. Oh, and a little history lesson is attached below.

"Simple Christmas," Tracy Colletto (self-issued)

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Tracy's an indie-pop singer-songwriter with one album to her credit, and judging from her gig schedule I'm guessing she's based in the Philadelphia suburbs. This 2017 offering is a fine mid-tempo single available from CD Baby with a simple premise: a holiday love song. Definitely worthy of a "Grey's Anatomy" background slot.

Quick notes

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We're still getting ready to post individual reviews of such things as Cheap Trick, Gwen Stefani, Holiday Rules 2, the new Rock By the Sea compilation, a Bloodshot Records comp, Sia, and a handful of singles. In the meantime, here's a few short takes.
  • Sleeping At Last has been gradually building an album's worth of Christmas tunes over the years, and for 2017 what had already been issued as an album becomes a vinyl artifact, two discs' worth in fact. With the additional sonic real estate comes two additional songs, covers of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and "The First Noel."
  • Real Gone Music has a two-CD reissue of the Supremes' only Christmas album for 2017, The Ultimate Merry Christmas. There are 50 tracks featuring three different versions of the album, the original mono and stereo mixes and a 2017 remix, along with all the previously released bonus cuts and a few newly unearthed gems.
  • Rhino has re-re-reissued REO Speedwagon's Not So Silent Night for 2017 with the addition of "We Three Kings" and a new remix of the previously available "I Believe in Santa Claus." Completists, hit the download button.

"I Want A Papadopoulos For Christmas" (YouTube)

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Sorry I'm starting so late this year. Hope to have real posts up within the week.

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