Another year, another pile of Christmas CDs
One of the few growth industries these days along with second-hand underwear, things you can check out of the library, and cat food by the crate (I er, that is, my cat, Fluffy recommends Friskies Buffet, but I hate when he makes me where the chefs hat to serve it is Christmas and/or other December holiday CDs.Take a guess: How many really good jazz-banjo-Christmas CDs have been released this season? Actually, the answer is just one but if you phrase the question to include both really good and phenomenally amazing albums, the answer doubles. Thats two Christmas CDs, released in one year, by jazz banjoists. There are also rock, soul, vocal pop, country and smooth jazz Christmas CDs; several albums geared not so much toward Christmas, but the winter season; and one reggae Hanukkah CD. So that you dont pick the musical equivalent of a lump of coal in somebodys stocking (and with the price of lumps of coal these days, you dont want to waste money on a gift that not only wont be appreciated, but will also leave a smear mark on the inside of the stocking that is almost impossible to get out), heres a guide to this years pile of Christmas CDs. Bla Fleck & the Flecktones, Jingle All the Way produced by Fleck (Rounder) Most years I praise my favorite Christmas CD with the line: I wish this werent a Christmas CD, so I could listen to it all year long. Its a good line, which is why recycle it every year. This year, however, Im stepping out on a limb: I promise I will listen to Jingle All the Way sometime between the months of April and September. Banjoist Fleck & Co. have a ball of fun with the standards. Sleigh Ride is given an appropriate full-on bluegrass charge, la The Beverly Hillbillies. O Come All Ye Faithful is a masterful string duet between Fleck and guest bassist, Edgar Meyer. A medley of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, My Favorite Things, Little Drummer Boy and more lets the group show off all its skills. But this seasons must-hear track is Twelve Days of Christmas, with the Flecktones coming up with new virtuosic twists each time through the verses. The tune is capped by the Tuvan throat-singing group, the Alash Ensemble, singing five banjo string instead of five golden rings. And this from a Jewish banjo player, gevalt. Alison Brown Quartet, Evergreen produced by the Alison Brown Quartet and Joe Craven (Compass) Banjoist Brown and her quartet are joined by former David Grisman Quintet fiddler Joe Craven for an instrumental run through standards (Silver Bells, Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow), well-chosen obscurities (OCarolans, Christmas Dont Be Late) and a few doses of Vince Guaraldis Peanuts music (Skating, Christmas Time Is Here). Tasteful, even tasty at times but you dont want to listen to this right on the heels of the Flecktones CD. Enya, And Winter Came … produced by Nicky Ryan (Reprise) Irish New Age mistress Enya puts her gentle composing touch, her ethereal voice and those oh-so-New-Agey keyboards to an albums worth of mostly original material, centered around winter: White Is the Winter Night, Trains and Winter Rains. Maybe its the seasons cheer talking, maybe the egg nog, but I have to admit this gives me a bit of a warm glow. Its the rare New Age music that has some bite to it, and I find that soothing, rather than grating the feeling I usually associate with the genre. Ledisi, Its Christmas produced by Rex Rideout and Ledisi Young (Verve Forecast) Singer Ledisi combines old- and new-school brands of soul, funk and r&b on Its Christmas. The New Orleans-born Ledisi Young has a big, rangey voice, and she never lets you forget it. At her best, as on Children, Go Where I Send Thee, that sound is underlined by a Mavis Staples-style gospel feel, making for something truly powerful. Other times, backed by a production shinier than a Mall of America holiday display, it feels more ostentatious. Young adds several original tunes including the sassy Be There for Christmas, and the slow-burning This Christmas (Could Be the One) to versions of Have Yourself a Merry Little, an overblown What a Wonderful World, and a bluesy Please Come Home for Christmas, with Keb Mo on guitar and vocals. The Boxmasters, Christmas Cheer produced by W.R. Bud Thornton & J.D. Andrew (Vanguard) Whatever name he uses, or which artistic medium, W.R. Thornton isnt getting sentimental over the Yule season. As Billy Bob, he played a perverted, alcoholic Mr. Claus in the 2003 film Bad Santa. Here, as Bud, fronting his country-rock trio the Boxmasters, Thornton contributes subversive entries to the Christmas canon: My Dreams of Christmas (Seems like things fall apart about this time of year/ Nothin seems to work out like in them holy songs) and the quite sad ballad I Wont Be Home for Christmas. But Thornton does sing one of those holy songs here We Three Kings of Orient Are as well as John Prines Christmas in Prison and John Lennons Happy X-Mas (War Is Over). As to Thorntons talents as a musician hes far more good tidings than bah-humbug. The man can sing as well as he can scowl. Relient K, Let It Snow Baby … Let It Reindeer produced by Mark Lee Townsend (Capitol) Ohio rockers Relient K are closely associated with the Christian rock scene, but the cleverly named Let It Snow Baby … Let It Reindeer is far more rock than Christian. They go for the secular songs, often with a comic, downbeat twist: the originals Santa Claus Is Thumbing to Town and I Hate Christmas Parties, and the bad-boy anthem Im Getting Nuttin for Christmas (a song which I had forgotten, and was psyched to be reminded of). They can also get sweet (the original Merry Christmas, Heres to Many More) and inventive (a hopping arrangement of Sleigh Ride, with additional lyrics). Martin Sexton, Camp Holiday produced by Sexton and Crit Harmon (Kitchen Table) Not a new record; this dates back to 2005. But I only got it this year a gift from Sexton himself, Im overjoyed to say. The singer-songwriter makes Christmas earthy and soulful on this largely solo-acoustic CD. This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1 (Brushfire) Jack Johnson added a slightly twisted version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer to the 2005 collection, A Winters Night. Now the surfing strummer assembles his own collection, with musicians signed to Johnsons Brushfire Records doing, more often than not, their own songs. G. Love does his rag-mop thing hip-hop, folk, jazz on Christmas Baby; Malaysian singer Zee Avi gives her No Christmas For Me a Hawaiian flair; and Money Mark sings the novelty Stuck at the Airport in an Elvis Costello-esque voice. Johnson leads off with his earnest prayer for peace, Someday at Christmas, and tacks his Rudolph toward the end of the CD. Mary Chapin Carpenter, Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas produced by John Jennings and Carpenter (Zo) Folkie Mary Chapin Carpenter digs deep for material here: No chestnuts roasting, no Rudolphs, no jingle bells. Instead, she goes for Once in Royal Davids City, Still, Still, Still and Candlelight Carol, and adds her own Come Darkness, Come Light and Thanksgiving Song. Throw in Carpenters soft, piano- and acoustic guitar-backing and it adds up to a spiritual take on Christmas, an idea punctuated by her Bells Are Ringing: No presents, no candy, no tree … But bells are ringing all over the world. The highlight is Christmas Time in the City not Silver Bells, but a fond reminiscence on playing a busy street corner one winter day, years ago. Songs in the Key of Hanukkah (New Line Records) Erran Barron Cohen brother of Sacha Borat Barron Cohen presents this collection of songs old (Dreidel, Maoz Tzur) and new (Spin It Up). Some of the tunes may be familiar, but the style a mix of klezmer, hip-hop and reggae, sung in English, Hebrew and the Judaeo-Spanish tongue, Ladino is totally fresh. Artists include Israeli superstar Idan Raichel, world-music singer Yasmin Levy, Brit producer Jules Brookes, and Y-Love, a New Yorker who sometimes raps in Yiddish. The Brian Setzer Orchestra, The Ultimate Christmas Collection produced by Dave Darling and Setzer (Surfdog) Another Jew getting into the Christmas spirit, singer-guitarist Brian Setzer puts his big-band-boogie stamp on songs that are well-adapted to the style (Jingle Bell Rock, Boogie Woogie Santa Claus, Setzers Getting in the Mood (For Christmas) and less-obvious choices (Angels We Have Heard on High, Bachs Jesu, Joy of Mans Desiring, here retitled Bachs Bounce). Ann-Margaret is guest vocalist on a lukewarm Baby Its Cold Outside. Also available: a CD/DVD package with footage of the BSOs live performances. Christmas A Go-Go (Wicked Cool) Thank E Street Bander Little Steven Van Zandt for this rock n roll Christmas collection. Little Stevens Boss isnt here doing his Santa Claus Is Coming to Town but theres some rock royalty present. Keith Richards opens the CD with Run Rudolph Run, Bob Seger does his Motown mojo on the great Sock It to Me Santa, and the Ramones thrash through Merry Christmas (I Dont Want to Fight Tonight). For novelty effect, Joe Pesci sings, Rat Pack-style, If It Doesnt Snow on Christmas, and Soupy Sales rocks out Santa Claus is Surfing to Town. And a group credited as The Fab Four do Silent Night backed by the guitar lines from Norwegian Wood. Spyro Gyra, A Night Before Christmas produced by Jay Beckenstein (Heads Up) Spyro Gyra generally remembers to keep the jazz in their brand of smooth jazz, so A Night Before Christmas is smooth, but not entirely bland. Still, this entire album all the standard standards, from Winter Wonderland to The Christmas Song to Silent Night wouldnt be out of place on an elevator. One decorated with garland. Al Jarreau, Christmas produced by Larry Williams and Jarreau (Rhino) Al Jarreau gives his album the title Christmas, and why not? His vocal pop approach is the essence of the Christmas song. But he avoids the dull middle-of-the-road by giving distinctive accents to his rhythms and phrases. As for the song list Ill bet you can guess at least six of the dozen titles here. Natalie Cole, Caroing, Caroling produced by Fred Salem, Andr Fischer & Tommy LiPuma (Rhino) Natalie Cole takes it to the hilt, production-wise here. Caroling, Caroling opens with The Christmas Song a duet with her late father, Nat King Cole, who is digitally resurrected here. There are strings galore. But its also badly undercooked: a compilation that includes just eight songs, all previously released recordings. What was that about this being the season of giving? firstname.lastname@example.org
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