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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.

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.

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.

"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.

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New York singer-songwriter Mal originally posted a version of this song in 2010, but he's re-recorded it with a band for 2016. You can read his blog post to see what he was thinking, and then you can decide for yourself whether it pertains more this year than ever before, or not. Also note that paying to download it from Bandcamp generates money for the Ali Forney Center, which aids homeless LGBTQ kids in New York City.
More artistic expression regarding the soon-gone year of 2016, and just like your Facebook feed it's upset, angry and hopeful all at the same time. Stream it, no download I can see. UPDATE: Stubby found it on Bandcamp, and it's free. (Clean version with the one epithet removed also available.)
 
While stumbling around looking for things to cover, I discovered this, which was actually on the flip side of the vinyl single of 2012's "The Season's Upon Us" but somehow never came to my attention when I covered the A-side back in the day. It's clearly a throwaway, as it's more of a punk thrash than these Celtic-influenced roughnecks usually perform, but heck, you may need a song with this subject for a future holiday playlist.

 

Felice Navidad, The Felice Brothers (Dualtone)

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This Americana band dropped an EP for 2015 consisting of five original songs, although they fall more on the side of country and folk than rock, and on the downbeat side of things lyrically. "Carriage" is a violin-driven complaint of hard times set in the modern day (name-checking 2015 in fact) that drops a couple expletives as it tells its sad story. "Country Ham" is more nostalgic about Christmas feelings, dropping a few song titles and a reference to Bing Crosby along the way. "Clarence," as you might guess, plays off "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Dollar Store" recalls the Christmas-gift venue of last resort, and "Breaking Up Christmas" wraps things up with a hoedown. A fine holiday effort, though not a particularly festive one. They previously did "Murder By Mistletoe" on their self-titled album from 2008, another downbeat number, although one with a bit more rhythm to it. UPDATE: "Country Ham" and "Murder By Mistletoe" are out on a vinyl single for 2016.

Sun Studio Sessions, Jack Skuller (Mint 400)

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sunsession.jpgSeriously old school rock 'n roll for the holidays, 1950s style, on a real live single (current availability uncertain) from this New Jersey guy who specializes in the rock music of this era. "Stuck in This Holiday" is the jumping A-side and "Empty Stocking Blues" is the slower B-side. This is really great stuff.

These guys have been throwing Christmas rock songs at us annually, and for 2016 they give us a changeup with this gentle shuffle. Looks like it's only on YouTube for now.

 

"Mistress For Christmas," Halestorm (Atlantic)

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The popular metal group from Central PA takes on the AC/DC Christmas "carol" for 2016. It's a little odd to hear this from a girl singer, not that there's anything wrong with that, but well, she's not far off Bon Scott's vocal sound. So dig in and enjoy.

"MCGA," Sad13 (self-issued)

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Sadie Dupuis, formerly of the band Speedy Ortiz and currently solo under the name in the headline, is apparently bracing for a big argument over the holiday dinner table with this topical little blast of guitar noises. It's freely downloadable from Soundcloud, where the lyrics are also posted, so as to avoid any ambiguity over what it's about. I'm down with the emotion; hope when this track comes up as a Facebook Memory we'll be able to say the sentiments are dated, but I wouldn't bet money on that outcome.
 

"Blue Christmas," The Lumineers (Dualtone)

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lumineers.jpgThe popular folk-rockers give us their cover of the classic tune for 2016 ahead of their upcoming world tour. No surprises, if you've heard them sing "Ho Hey" or "Ophelia," you'll recognize them doing this song.

"Go Santa Go," Priscilla's Revenge (self-issued)

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So at this point in the holiday season you're saying, "You know, Rudolph, what we really need right at this moment is some serious blues-rocking Christmas music from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories." Why, you read my mind. Check this out.

"Merry Christmastime," Lost Cosmos (Ah-Love)

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Not sure how I stumbled onto this. It's a nice 70s-style rock shuffle celebrating the holiday from an Austin, Texas group. Currently it appears to only be available on Soundcloud, so here it is. It's freely downloadable if you want it.
 
christmas5fight.jpgAs with this act's major 9/11-era hit "Superman (It's Not Easy)," this 2016 Christmas song is a warm piano ballad about being with the one you love. Not much to say beyond that; check it out for yourself by clicking the cover.

PINS is an English band, and their dreamy 2016 holiday tune got added to Amazon's Indie For the Holidays playlist this year. Apparently it's an exclusive for the online store. Listen here, stream it or buy it.

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Michael's the frontman of the indie synth-pop band Passion Pit. For 2016, he's put together a combination audio-video project that celebrates Christmas as a way to respond to the growth of terrorism around the world with "sanity and unity, not panic and division." Proceeds from the record are earmarked for charity, including donations to the Nichols School arts department, which is the singer's alma mater and the location for the shooting of the visual element. I'll point out at the start that not all of the songs are directly Christmas-oriented, such as "Evergreen," "Weather the Storm," "And Never Be Afraid" or "Permission to Audition," though if you listen to the whole thing in one sitting you will get the spirit of the holiday. Possible playlist picks include "December to Remember," "Stained Glass Windows," "Wake Up, It's Christmas," "Christmas in Your Arms," and the title song. These would definitely be change-of-pace tunes in a playlist, as this isn't really party music; it's more inspirational and earnest. You can purchase or stream the album, however you like to roll. As for the video content, that's only on YouTube for now.

Winter Lives, Matt Pond PA (131 Records)

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Matt's been around as an indie rock artist for a long time, and this 2016 album is actually his second offering of "winter music" after 2004's Winter Songs EP, which featured covers of Lindsey Buckingham's "Holiday Road," Richard and Linda Thompson's "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," Neil Young's "Winterlong," and Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the See." This time around, everything is original material. "The Glow" opens up on a folky note evoking children playing in the run-up to the holiday, "Fotzepolitic" uses the guitar figure from "2000 Miles" to great effect on a song that's otherwise unrelated to that classic tune, "Force of Nature" is a full-on rocker, and "Whoa," repeated quite a bit as the chorus, is an impressionistic lyrical take on sled riding. The banjos are brought out for the ballad "Dirty Looks," and acoustic folk is the approach on "Used to Be." That leaves the title song, an impressively orchestrated number that relates daily life in the last season of the year. The rest of the album is short instrumentals. This is a fine album, and though it may not work for you as holiday music, some of the songs may fit as selections on your holiday playlists.

Christmas, Night Flowers (self-issued)

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This indie London band has only been around a few years, but they've got several releases up at Bandcamp. This 2016 single is intended to benefit the Teenage Cancer Trust and Mind charities. "To Rest" is a pensive indie-pop ballad, while "Christmas Eve" is a fine rocker with fuzzed-up guitar driving it along. Listen to great music and help some worthy charities.
Hair metal, y'all! I have been unable to find out much of anything about these guys other than their home is the Bay Area. They have Facebook and Flickr pages, which haven't been updated lately. And Guff.com names them among 20 real life bands with unfortunate names. But this thumping take on the popular carol has only been up for the past 18 days on Soundcloud, so here you go. No independent audio I'm aware of.

deadgwynne2016.jpgKeeping up their string of annual releases, these guys give us two free songs in 2016. "Christmas Time" is an upbeat acoustic ditty with bongos, and "Christmas Flow" brings in some fuzzy electric guitar crunch. As always, these guys' complete Christmas discography is freely downloadable from the link.
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