Friday, November 29, 2013

C'est Noel, Part 1 (Tracks 1-3)

As noted yesterday, my latest holiday mix C'est Noel! – is now complete and ready for your inspection. It's currently posted on my holiday music website, from which anyone who's interested can stream or download it. I probably won't keep it up past Christmas, so if you want a copy, don't delay!

As in recent years, I'm planning to share some background and personal thoughts about many of the tracks on this year's mix by way of this blog. I'll probably cover two or three tracks at a time, starting with the first three tracks today and finishing up just before Christmas. I'll cover the tracks in reverse order within each post so that the final list will appear in true reverse order.

Ready? Let's begin!

Track 3
Holiday Greetings, by Bob Vila (c. 1987)

Each of my previous mixes has included at least a couple of short clips of various celebrities offering holiday greetings to their fans. The first of this year’s "greetings" clips comes from Bob Vila, who made a name for himself as the original host of This Old House, a successful home improvement show that first aired in 1979 on Boston's WGBH-TV and was later picked up by most PBS stations. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the program myself, but I know I’ve seen quite a few of the commercials that Vila did for various businesses after he left the show in 1989. He’s apparently a very handy guy around the house. I marvel at people like that – like my younger brother, for example. This year, he completely gutted and rebuilt his family’s kitchen, in addition to working a demanding job, serving as president of a busy island summer community and vice-president of the quasi-public authority that provides ferry service to several islands in the area, keeping up two separate homes, and spending lots of quality time with his wife and their 11-year-old daughter. He’s an amazingly generous and talented guy, and popular with everyone he meets. Christmas at his home is always a treat, and I’m looking forward to being there and taking advantage of his generosity again this year.

Track 2
Mrs. Claus Ain't Got Nothin' On Me, by Little Jackie (2010)
Imani Coppola (left) and Adam Pallin of Little Jackie
I’ve only shopped at Target a couple of times, and I tend not to be influenced by television advertising – but while I don’t recall seeing any of Target's previous holiday ad campaigns, I'd like to think the one that featured this song by Little Jackie several years ago would have caught my attention if I'd seen it. I first ran across this song a couple of years ago as part of an album called The Christmas Gig, which Target made available as a free download in December 2010. It’s a great collection of mostly indie music that includes tunes from Coldplay, Pomplamoose and The Boy Least Likely To, among others – and, of course, this one, by the group Little Jackie.

Named after Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam's 1989 single "Little Jackie Wants to Be a Star," Little Jackie is actually a duo consisting of vocalist Imani Coppola and programmer/producer Adam Pallin. Coppola’s been around awhile, starting with her 1997 single “Legend of a Cowgirl,” which was a favorite on MTV and in the dance clubs. Signed by Columbia, she was all but overlooked for the next decade or so – producing a string of eclectic but unsuccessful albums and singing backup for Sandra Bernhard. She hooked up with Pallin to form Little Jackie in 2008. Their debut record The Stoop, released on S Curve Records in 2010, featured the song “The World Should Revolve Around Me,” which was a modest hit in Great Britain. Their most recent album, Made 4 TV, is available through Bandcamp. YouTube has pretty good selection of Little Jackie’s music available for those who wish to hear more. I’m especially pleased to have heard this awesome track, as it gets my latest mix going in fine style.  

Track 1
Prologue and Introduction, by Ronald Reagan (1954) and Bobby Sherman (1970)

As I’ve mentioned previously, the two most difficult slots to fill when putting a compilation together are the first and the last. The first track is important because you want to capture the listener’s interest and set the right tempo and tone for what’s to follow. The last track is equally important because it’s the one that will echo in the listener’s ears when the mix is done. I usually like to start each of my holiday mixes with a short track that’s funny, historically interesting or both, and then jump quickly to a strong up-tempo tune that will kick things off in high gear. It’s surprisingly difficult to find just the right opening tracks each year, but I think the two I’ve combined as this year’s opening number work pretty well together. (My website includes a "Samples" page that features clips of the first 10 minutes or so of most of my previous mixes in case you'd like to hear the opening numbers from years gone by.  

The first piece of this year’s lead-off track was taken from an early episode of the General Electric Theater, a popular TV show that aired Sunday evenings on CBS from February 1953 through May 1962. The program featured adaptations of various novels, short stories, plays, and films, which were originally presented without introduction. Beginning in September 1954, however, Ronald Reagan was hired to serve as host. The clip that starts off this year’s mix is from one of Mr. Reagan’s first appearances in that capacity – a special holiday episode from 1954 that featured music by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. My mix includes only about a minute from Mr. Reagan’s introduction; if you were watching the broadcast 59 years ago, you would have seen something like this:

The second piece of this year’s opening track is an unrelated tune recorded some 16 years after Fred Waring and his Orchestra were introduced by Mr. Reagan on CBS. It’s a song by former teen idol Bobby Sherman, and it’s the subject of some confusion because it appears under at least two different titles in the Bobby Sherman discography. Sherman’s first Christmas record was released in 1970 – a long-playing disc titled Christmas Album. Among its 11 tracks was a cut titled “Prologue,” which, inexplicably, appears as the seventh track on the record. It isn’t really a song so much as a comedy bit – apparently put together by Sherman and his Dad. I guess it was considered slightly edgy for its time, which may be why it was pulled on several later versions of Christmas Album in favor of the upbeat song that appears on my mix, "Goin’ Home (Sing a Song of Christmas Cheer).” On at least one of the Christmas Album re-releases, “Goin’ Home” is listed as “Prologue,” albeit with the new song’s corrected (and longer) duration. On the subsequently released The Very Best of Bobby Sherman, the song bears the name “Goin’ Home (Sing a Song of Christmas Cheer).” I’ve opted to skirt some of the confusion by lumping Ronnie and Bobby together in a single vintage mess that I’ve titled “Introduction and Prologue,” which probably only makes things worse. For the record, I edited out a portion of Sherman’s song for my mix – an especially annoying interlude of “Silent Night.” Of course, I also replaced Mr. Reagan’s mention of “Fred Waring” with the name “Bobby Sherman,” spoken not by the former President, but rather by an equally august spokesperson – Mr. Dick Clarkthe late great host of American Bandstand.

Is anyone still with me?

The comedy version of “Prologue” from the Bobby Sherman Christmas Album is available HERE.

The full version of “Goin’ Home (Sing a Song of Christmas Cheer),” complete with the annoying Silent Night interlude, can be heard HERE.

Stay tuned for information on additional tracks, coming soon . . .

Thursday, November 28, 2013

C'est Noel! My 2013 Holiday Mix Is Ready for Your Review

It's Thanksgiving Day, and with Christmas now less than four weeks away, I'm pleased to report that my annual holiday mix for 2013 is completed and ready to share! It's called C'est Noel!, and this morning I posted it on the "LATEST" page of my holiday music website along with this year's special bonus mix, The NOW Sound of Christmas! Both will remain posted for streaming and download for a limited time only, so please be sure to visit the website soon.
C'est Noel! consists of 35 tracks and runs just under 80 minutes. As usual, it's an eclectic mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, and I've tried to include a wide variety of music and other noise to both please and offend as many listeners as possible.* Over the next several weeks, I'm planning to post a few thoughts about each of the 35 tracks on this blog. As in previous years, I'll look at several tracks each day until done, with a day or two off here and there and occasional posts on other relevant or irrelevant topics. I'll start at the beginning, but each day's post will run in reverse chronological order so that the final list will flow from Track 35 to Track 1 rather than jumping a couple of steps back and forth within each post.  I hope these posts will help give you a little useful background about the tracks I've selected for this year's mix.
If you're on my holiday mailing list, you should be receiving a CD version of C'est Noel! sometime during the next week or ten days. With increasing numbers of people abandoning CDs in favor of digital .mp3 downloads, I gave serious consideration to distributing this year's mix electronically rather than preparing physical CDs. Such a switch would be easier and far less expensive for me, but there's something rather special about receiving holiday greetings by old-fashioned mail and to holding a CD package in one's hand with the artwork and track list and all, so I'm mailing them out again this year.
I hope you enjoy this year's mix, and that it adds a little color and fun to your holiday celebrations. Joyeaux Noel!
*If you're not familiar with my annual holiday mixes, I typically add a number of "offbeat" tracks to each release, including a few holiday horrors that many listeners consider to lie somewhere between amusing and excrutiating. Children seem to love them, as do many childish adults. They also tend to make many of the other tracks seem ever so much better by contrast. Check out this track for example. (The "tune" may take a moment to load.)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pentatonix Goes Viral with Beautiful A Cappella Version of "Little Drummer Boy"

I've never been a big fan of a cappella music myself  largely, I think, because of its perceived association with the uberprivileged undergraduates of certain elitist colleges and prep schools. That's nonsense, of course. Sure, the Yale Whiffenpoofs typically include a trust fund kid or two, but today's a cappella community includes people of many different backgrounds and cultures, and they're playing to increasingly large and diverse audiences around the world. One of the leading groups in this new wave of instrument-free music is the Los Angeles-based quintet Pentatonix. The group is comprised of lead vocalists Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, and Mitch Grassi, who attended high school together in Arlington, Texas; vocal bass Avi Kaplan, and beatboxer Kevin “K.O.” Olusola. The group was formed to compete in NBC's The Sing-Off, and after winning the third season of that program they've gone on to a very successful recording and performing career. Their latest video, an a cappella version of "The Little Drummer Boy," was released yesterday and is now going viral, with nearly 2 million YouTube views in its first day of release. This has always been one of my favorite holiday songs, and while I'm still more jazzed by today's release of the new Bruce Springsteen single, this a cappella stuff is beginning to grow on me:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

New British Band Captures the Awesome Power of the Holiday Spirit

Last week, I posted a list of some of this year's major commercial holiday music releases. These are albums made by artists you've probably heard of and released by record companies whose principal interest is making money. The records I wrote about contain some decent music, but it's hard for me to get too excited about many of them. Most of what I go for these days doesn't come from the major labels but rather has to be tracked down and located – on websites, in blogs, by word-of-mouth, or via such services as Soundcloud, Artist Direct, Bandcamp and the like. When it comes to interesting new holiday music, the best way to start looking is to visit the various sites listed near the top of the right-hand column of this blog under the heading "Favorite Holiday Music Sites." Each of these sites has its own unique style, of course, and you never know which one might offer up some beautiful new song on any given day. Today, for example, several different sites pointed me toward a terrific new song by the British band The Disappointment Choir called "A Pretty Good Christmas." It's a beautiful song with a truly inspirational message delivered with classic British understatement. The video's cool, too:

For my money, stuff like this is better than most of the music you'll find on the major label releases. Just saying.

Thanks to Santa's Working Overtime, Elves' Bells, and Chistmas A Go Go.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Duck Dynasty's Robertson Family Celebrates Christmas with a Hit Record

Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas remains the top selling holiday album in the country for the second straight week, according to Billboard Magazine's latest Holiday Albums chart, dated November 30, 2013. The album features music and observations from Louisiana's Robertson Family, who star in the A&E reality series Duck Dynasty. I've never seen the program myself, but I was intrigued by the following YouTube clip, which previews the final episode of the show's second season, "I'm Dreaming of a Redneck Christmas":

For those who'd like another helping, A&E will broadcast the 2013 Duck Dynasty Christmas Special on Wednesday, December 11, at 10 pm (9 Central). (Q:  Please tell me the mother isn't seriously cooking a duck inside a chicken, inside a turkey, inside a pig!)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Can Graham Nash Talk Crosby and Stills Into Reviving CSN's Rumored Holiday Album?

Having now reviewed this year's crop of new holiday releases, let's turn our attention to one group that won’t be releasing a holiday record this year – Crosby, Stills & Nash. I’ve been a big fan of these guys for years, and I’ve been lucky enough to see them play a whole bunch of times in all of their various combinations and permutations, with and without their sometime bandmate Neil Young. Best known for their intricate harmonies and social consciousness, CSN has survived more ups and downs – individually and as a group – than just about any band out there, yet after 44 years they're still playing together and still sounding good. I've always thought CSN is especially well equipped to do a fabulous holiday album, and after watching them play "My Country ‘tis of Thee" on the first episode of The Tonight Show following the 9/11 attacks, I was more convinced of this than ever (see video, below). So I was thrilled when Graham Nash leaked word several years ago that the group had signed a two-record deal with Columbia that called for one album of cover songs followed by an album of holiday material. As Nash explained,
For the last 30 years, I've wanted Crosby, Stills & Nash to consider doing a Christmas record. I think that with our harmonic structure, and our sense of rhythm and our sense of melody – we could do a fabulous Christmas record.
Great minds think alike.

Under the terms of their record deal, CSN was paired with respected producer Rick Rubin, who was also Columbia's president at the time. On paper, it seemed to be the perfect fit. Rubin's production discography includes some of the biggest albums of the past 20 years, and while he's worked with an incredibly diverse group of artists, he is perhaps best known for reviving the careers of such veteran performers as Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. Unfortunately, Rubin's relationship with CSN got off on the wrong foot, and only grew worse. According to published reports, the band became frustrated with Rubin's preoccupation with other projects and felt they weren't getting as much of his time as they deserved. Moreover, the band – particularly Crosby – felt Rubin was being too directive and too often substituted his judgment for theirs. According to Nash: “After almost 50 years of making records, we think we know what we’re doing, so it’s very hard to tell Crosby, Stills and Nash what to do. You can suggest anything you want, but you can’t tell us what to do." With frustration mounting on both sides of the studio, CSN and Rubin opted to part ways before the first record could be completed. Crosby and Nash have each been quoted as saying they remain committed to finishing the album of cover songs with Stills, but nothing much has been said publicly about the Christmas project.

One factor weighing against a CSN holiday album is the many competing demands on the artists' time. CSN has been touring as a group pretty much every summer and they regularly write new songs to add to their performances. In addition, Stills has put together a group called The Rides, which is made up of Stills, bluesman Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Electric Flag’s keyboardist, Barry Goldberg, with support from Chris Layton, former drummer of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Double Trouble, and CSN bass player Kevin McCormick. The group released a fine sounding album this year titled Can’t Get Enough. Stills contributions are especially strong, including the track “Don’t Want Lies,” which was the highlight of CSN’s recent performance at Neil and Pegi Young’s annual Bridge School benefit last month. (You can watch CSN’s rendition with special guest Neil Young HERE.)

It's great to see Crosby, Stills and Nash as active and vital as they've been in recent years, but with each passing holiday, the likelihood of a CSN Christmas record diminishes slightly. Stills, 68, has apparently been dealing with a number of medical issues in recent years. Crosby, 72, underwent a liver transplant in 1994 after years of drug abuse, and he suffers from diabetes. Hopefully, all three will be able to play and record for many years to come, and somewhere along the way we'll have a chance to hear their signature harmonies on such songs as "Silent Night," "What Child Is This?" and "Santa Claus, the Original Hippie."

In the meantime, CSN fans who dig Christmas music can drag out my groovy 2009 mix, I Just Can’t Wait ‘til Christmas, and play the Barenaked Ladies' song “Deck the Stills,” from Barenaked for the Holidays. And then there's this YouTube video (below), which is billed as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young playing "White Christmas" . . . although something seems a little off, wouldn't you say?

Here's Crosby, Stills & Nash performing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" on The Tonight Show following the 9/11 attacks:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Christmas Releases for 2013, Part Two

Yesterday's post offered information about some of the most popular new holiday albums released so far in 2013. Here's the rest of the list:

Christmas Songs, Bad Religion
There aren’t many active bands left out there from the early days of punk, which is one of the reasons Bad Religion deserves mention. Founded in 1979, this Los Angeles band frequently includes holiday songs in their sets, and they recently released their first holiday album, Christmas Songs. Those are two more reasons. The band’s lead singer, Gregg Graffin, has had a thing for Christmas music since he first joined his church choir, and he and the rest of his band do a solid job on this short (less than 20 minutes, total) collection of holiday classics. Bad Religion’s always been on the more mainstream side of punk, and this album doesn't try to change any of that. But if you like your holiday fare delivered with a slightly jagged edge, give this album a spin on the streaming player below. (Incidentally, if you're a fan of punk rock and holiday music, be sure to check out Rotten Christmas, a terrific Punk Rock Christmas Blog by Nice Guy Eddie. I've added it to my list of links on the right-hand side of this page.)

Christmas with Judy Collins, Judy Collins
Originally trained as a classical pianist, Judy Collins changed her musical direction in the early 1960s after being introduced to the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and, through them, the growing folk music scene. Known for her interpretations of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," she's written, recorded and performed music of many different styles, including four Christmas albums. This is the fifth. Released on October 22, Christmas with Judy Collins is essentially a repackaging of her 2000 CD All on a Wintry Night, with the addition of the song "Angels In The Snow" and a different version of "Amazing Grace."  Send in the Claus.

Snow Globe, Erasure
Andy Bell and Vince Clarke, the two principals of the British synthpop duo Erasure, have apparently been wanting to do a Christmas album for years, but, according to Clarke, they resisted the temptation until they could be sure they were able to offer something new and unique. "Everything about Christmas has been written already," Clarke explained. Their first holiday album Snow Globe was released this week, and it doesn't take long to figure out the unusual angle the pair came up with: horror, loneliness and despair. "We thought it would be more interesting to look into the darker side of the season," says Clarke. "For a lot of people, Christmas is not a happy time." Neither, for that matter, is an album with tracks titled "Bleak Midwinter," "Blood on the Snow," and "There'll Be No Tomorrow" – or one promoted with a sinister looking video that takes place in what appears to be a cross between a delapidated monastary and Dracula's castle. Check out the video for "Gaudete," the album's  first single:

When asked about their inspiration for Snow Globe, Clarke told The Hollywood Reporter it was "[t]his idea of someone singing it in the subway [who is] homeless, old and sad."

And a Ho! Ho! Ho! to you guys, too!

Of course, first impressions can be deceiving. Indeed, on further listen, there is considerable beauty on Snow Globe – and a measured amount of holiday cheer as well. If Clarke and Bell wanted to make something different, I'd say they've rung that bell.

Fans of the band will want to check the Erasure Information Service website starting December 1, to access Erasure's holiday advent calendar, which will offer downloads and other specials each day through December 25. More information about the new album is also available in Billboard magazine.

Winter Loversland, Tamar Braxton
Another artist releasing her first holiday record this year is singer and reality television personality Tamar Braxton, the youngest sister of R&B icon Toni Braxton. Although less than 30 minutes long, Winter Loversland features ten tracks, including Braxton's take on such classics as "Silent Night," "Santa Baby," and "Merry Christmas, Darling." It also includes "She Can Have You," an original tune co-written by Braxton that several reviewers say sounds more like a standard break-up song than a genuine Christmas tune. But Braxton disagrees, noting that the song "is about being alone on Christmas and this is a personal experience for me." Singersroom quotes Braxton as saying: "I was the girl who was alone and upset on Christmas because I'm by myself. Every person goes through (it) one time or another in their life. It just seemed like I kept meeting the same man with a different face ... seriously. I'm not male bashing. That's just my experience." Quick! Somebody get this woman a new sprig of mistletoe!

Under the Influence:  Holiday Edition, Straight No Chaser
If you're a fan of a cappella music, you've no doubt heard of Straight No Chaser, the professional a cappella group that got its start in the mid-1990s on the campus of Indiana University. They've previously released two holiday albums, Holiday Spirits (2008) and Christmas Cheers (2009). In 2010, they released a box set called All I Want for Christmas, which included those two albums plus a DVD of a recent concert performance. This year, however, things got slightly confusing. In May, the group released an album of non-Christmas material called Under the Influence, This was followed in late October by Under the Influence: Holiday Edition, an EP that contains eight holiday tunes and appears to have nothing in cxommon with the May release. There's also Under the Influence:  Fan Edition, which includes the contents of the May album plus eight non-Christmas bonus tracks; and Under the Influence: Ultimate Edition, which includes everything on the Fan Edition plus the eight holiday tunes from the Holiday Edition. (I miss the good old days when records were an impulse purchase and didn't require detailed instructions!) Still, the Holiday Edition, while short in duration, is long on spirit. CeeLo Green lends his voice to "White Christmas"; Otis Redding returns to lend his voice on "Merry Christmas, Baby"; and Sir Paul McCartney guests on a new version of "Wonderful Christmastime" that's actually slightly less abominable than the original. (WARNING:  There's at least one version out there that's worse than the original. Naturally, I've included it on my 2013 holiday mix, which will be posted on my website next Thursday.)

Musical Gifts, Joshua Bell and Friends
With his latest album Musical Gifts, renowned violinist Joshua Bell returns to a concept he introduced on his 2009 album At Home with Friends – and it works even better here. Bell imagines himself at home for the holidays and opening his hearth to a succession of talented friends, each of whom adds a unique musical gift to the mix. The result is a collection of bold new takes on a vibrant mix of holiday favorites, featuring a guest list that includes Gloria Estefan, Alison Krauss, Kristin Chenoweth, trumpeter Chris Botti, jazz greats Chick Corea and Branford Marsalis, opera stars Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming, Michael Feinstein and the aforementioned a cappella group Straight No Chaser. Here's a clip of the track "O Holy Night," featuring Kristin Chenoweth:

I'm reasonably sure this list of new releases is incomplete, but hopefully it provides some small sense of the diverse mix of holiday music being recorded and released in 2013. If I've missed anything you think should be added, don't hesitate to drop me a line.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Variety of Popular Music Acts Expected to Drop New Holiday Releases in 2013

This is an exciting time of year for holiday music enthusiasts like me. For starters, we can let down our guard a little. There's nothing odd about listening to Christmas songs in late November, but try the same thing in May and you get some funny looks. This is also the season in which most new holiday music is released, and there’s lots more than you might expect. Much of the new material tends to arrive with minimal fanfare and is often available only on the internet. But there are usually a dozen or more selections each year that attract wider notice, and over the next two days I’ll be taking a quick look at some of this year’s most anticipated holiday releases. I’ve already noted two of this year’s standout new albums in previous posts: Quality Street, by Nick Lowe; and Make Sure the Snow Falls, by The Bowmans. Here are some of the other new releases for 2013:

A Mary Christmas, Mary J. Blige
When Mary J. Blige was recording her first album in 1992, producer, Sean “Puffy” Combs, made plans to market her as the “Queen of Ghetto Love.” He wanted to distinguish Blige from the other leading female R&B artists of the day by emphasizing her urban roots and her sharper, grittier sound. Combs was ultimately persuaded to change the moniker to the “Queen of Hip Hop Soul,” but he had the right idea. Blige’s debut release, What’s the 411?, ultimately went triple platinum and ushered in a new wave of edgier hip hop artists who changed the face of popular music. Her first holiday album, A Mary Christmas, was released October 15, and while it features a smoother, softer sound than her previous releases, it’s earned strong reviews, topped Billboard’s holiday album chart during its first week of release, and has been selling well since then. Produced by the legendary David Foster, A Mary Christmas features 12 holiday classics and includes guest performances by Barbra Streisand (“When You Wish Upon a Star”), Marc Anthony (“Noche de Paz”), and Jessie J (“Do You Hear What I Hear?”).

Wrapped in Red, Kelly Clarkson
It’s been over ten years since Kelly Clarkson won Fox TV’s first American Idol competition, and she’s continued to enjoy terrific success since then with a string of hit records and sold-out appearances. Her first holiday album, Wrapped in Red was released on October 29 and debuted in the number one position on Billboard’s top holiday albums chart. The album was produced by Greg Kurstin, and it consists of five original songs (“Wrapped in Red,” “Underneath the Tree,” “Every Christmas,” “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song)” and “4 Carats”) and nine standards. Country stars Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood appear as guest performers on “Silent Night,” and Ronnie Dunn joins Clarkson for a duet on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” 

Sending You a Little Christmas, Johnny Mathis
After 57 years of making records, 78-year-old Johnny Mathis knows a thing or two about pop music, and with five previous holiday records under his belt (this is his sixth), he’s got a pretty good handle on Christmas music, too. Bette Midler calls Mathis the “King of Christmas,” and his latest holiday outing more than satisfies the royal standard. Sending You a Little Christmas features three original songs and nine well-worn classics, including duets with Billy Joel ("The Christmas Song"), Susan Boyle ("Do You Hear What I Hear"), Gloria Estefan ("Mary’s Boy Child"), Natalie Cole ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), and Vince Gill and Amy Grant ("I’ll Be Home for Christmas"/"White Christmas"). But make no mistake about it, it’s Mathis himself who makes this collection work. His comfy, familiar voice still sounds awfully good with a fire in the hearth and a twinkling tree nearby.

Home for Christmas, Susan Boyle
By now, everybody knows the rags-to-riches story of Susan Boyle, the dowdy Scottish singer who stunned viewers and judges alike with her powerful performance on Britain’s Got Talent in April 2009 and quickly went on to become an international singing sensation. Her first holiday record, The Gift, was released in 2010, topped the charts in the U.K. and U.S., and was certified triple platinum in this country. Her second, Home for Christmas, was released on October 29, and has been lodged in the number three spot on Billboard magazine’s holiday album chart since its debut. Her latest release is rather similar to the first, although it features a notable appearance by Elvis Presley on the posthumous duet “Oh Come All Yet Faithful” and Johnny Mathis joins Boyle for “When a Child Is Born.”

Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas
Louisiana’s Robertson family has been on quite a roll this year. Owners of a successful duck hunting equipment business in West Monroe, Louisiana, they also star in the A&E reality show Duck Dynasty, which, since its debut in March 2012 has become one of the most popular shows on cable TV. Their first holiday album, Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas, was released on October 29, and it’s currently the top-selling holiday album in the nation. I’ve never seen their TV show, but the album’s just about exactly what I expected – a mix of touching, down-home sentiments (“Camouflage and Christmas Lights,” “Why I Love Christmas”) and unrepentant Southern pride ("Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Christmas”). I doubt this one will have much staying power, but it’s certainly fun for a listen or two.

Let It Snow: A Holiday Collection, Jewel
Jewel’s second holiday album, Let It Snow, was released last week, and it follows in the footsteps of her first, Joy, which was released in 1999. Both benefit from her sweet, simple style, and neither strays very far from the tried and true – but like Joy, which has enjoyed steady sales during the 14 years since its release, Jewel’s latest effort is the kind of collection that’s likely to become a comfortable standard. Let It Snow includes two original songs ("It's Christmastime" and "Blue Christmas Glow") and ten classics, of which “What Child Is This?” is among the standouts. Vince Gill is a featured guest, adding some welcome country guitar to a rousing version of “Let It Snow.”

The Complete Christmas Recordings, Andy Williams
Few performers are more closely identified with Christmas than Andy Williams, and the wave of nostalgia that followed his death last year seems to have only strengthened that association. This two-disc set contains 42 of Williams’ best-loved holiday songs, and it’s just the thing for someone who’s looking to start a holiday collection of their own. In his day, Williams was an especially prolific recording artist, and this collection includes material from the five holiday albums he released, including The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963), Merry Christmas (1965), Christmas Present (1974), I Still Believe in Santa Claus (1990) and We Need a Little Christmas (1995). He was always a big favorite in our house, and I'm guessing in many others, too.

The Classic Christmas Album, Barbra Streisand
Released on September 27, Barbra Streisand's The Classic Christmas Album contains 16 songs from her two previous holiday records, A Christmas Album (1967) and Christmas Memories (2001). Streisand’s first Christmas album is among the most popular holiday collections of all time, and this latest release is already selling well this season. While many different styles are represented, it should be noted that beacuse both of Streisand's earlier holiday releases were remastered years ago, most listeners will notice little improvement in sound quality on this new release.

Tomorrow:  Part 2 of the 2013 New Release list

Friday, November 15, 2013

Harry Shum, Jr. and iJustine Pair Up for a Holiday Dance for Charity

A friend of mine sent me a link to this pretty cool video just after Christmas last year, so I saved it for posting this season. According to the profile on her website, iJustine "is an internet personality, avid video gamer and tech obsessed individual" who was once a showcase contestant on The Price is Right. Harry Shum, Jr. is a dancer and actor who stars in the popular Fox TV series Glee! The video was produced as a holiday fundraiser for two worthy charities. Harry's charity was Dizzy Feet, which introduces underprivileged children to dance. iJustine was raising money for CharityWater, which helps bring clean drinking water to developing communities that don't have enough. These two seem to have more than enough holiday spirit for themselves. Luckily for us, they're generous enough to share.

Oh, yes . . . the audio to which iJustine and Harry are dancing is the holiday classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as interpreted by actor and rapper Earl Simmons, better known as DMX. I don't know much about him and I can't claim to be a fan, but he sells a lot of records and seems to routinely be in trouble with the law. That's not the way to get on Santa's "good" list!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"Are You Being Served?" Christmas Episodes Reflect British Holiday Customs

I've always enjoyed a number of guilty pleasures, as evidenced by my interest in offbeat Christmas music, as well as this blog. One of my newer time-wasting enthusiasms is the classic British TV show Are You Being Served?, which ran on the BBC from 1972 to 1985 and was later syndicated in this country on many PBS stations. The program is set in a London department store and it focuses on the different backgrounds and outlooks of the men and women who serve the store's customers. Strictly speaking, it's not especially innovative or groundbreaking  in fact, it's terribly formulaic. It also reflects a significant degree of classism, prejudice and misogyny, as that was the state of some corners of British society during that period (as it is in too many areas of our world today). But it's a funny show that features several hilarious characters and a good bit of the humor is aimed directly at those ugly prejudices, not unlike the American show All in the Family, which, after all, was based on another British comedy. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Are You Being Served? featured five Christmas episodes during its lengthy run, including this one called "Christmas Crackers," which aired in 1975. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Premiere Screening of "Jingle Bell Rocks" Set for November 24 in Amsterdam

I posted an item last year about Jingle Bell Rocks, a film project conceived by Mitchell Kezin about Christmas music collectors like himself and the people responsible for some of his favorite holiday tunes. Well, the movie is now complete, and the world premiere screening is scheduled for Sunday, November 24 at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. Here's the trailer:

Further screenings will be held this season in Canada, but those of us in the United States will have to wait until 2014 before we can see the film in this country. Nonetheless, it looks like a lot of fun, and we are confident the final product will be well worth the wait.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Bowmans' "Make Sure the Snow Falls" Offers Rich, Beautiful Holiday Harmonies

It won't be long before stores, shopping malls and commercial radio begin flooding us with their typical blend of holiday music. I dread that day about as much as a trip to the mall on "Black Friday." It's not that I don't like holiday music obviously. What I object to is hearing the same two dozen or so bland, overplayed commercial tracks over and over again especially when there's so much creative, innovative and just plain beautiful new holiday music available. Take The Bowmans, for example. Their recent indie release Make Sure the Snow Falls offers a mix of gorgeous original songs and old holiday favorites with a unique and undeniably appealing style that's as warm and welcoming as a fire in the hearth on Christmas Eve.

Sarah and Claire Bowman are twin sisters who have been singing and performing together since childhood. Originally from Iowa, they're now based in California, although they've spent a good portion of the last half dozen years performing in venues within and far beyond the Golden State. Sarah is a trained vocalist and cellist, while Claire's principal focus has been the visual arts. Often compared to The Roches and The Indigo Girls, their voices blend beautifully and naturally to create a rich and seamless sound that's especially well suited for spirited holiday gatherings.

And if you're looking for imaginative gift ideas, Claire Bowman has just completed a wonderful book called Mert, the Anxious Evergreen, which tells a compelling Christmas tale with the help of dozens of Claire's unforgettably beautiful color illustrations. Check it out!

I first learned about The Bowmans from Stubby's House of Christmas, an excellent website that's become very popular over the past several years among holiday music enthusiasts like myself. Stubby's has been an especially valuable source for information about new releases, indie artists and less-established performers, and I've learned an awful lot from this blog. Sadly, Stubby's recently announced plans to suspend operation. That's bad news for the site's many followers, but we're grateful for all of the interesting reports that have been posted over the years. I'm hoping "Stubby" may still post occasionally on his companion blog, Labor Quotes, which offers information and comment on labor and political issues from a decidedly progressive perspective.

UPDATE (12/10/13):  The excellent holiday music blog Merry and Bright! recently posted a terrific interview with the Bowman sisters, which I enthusiastically recommend. It's available HERE.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Here's a Special Holiday Bonus Mix to Kick Off the Season on a Groovy Note

In addition to my regular annual mixes, every now and then I put together an extra bonus mix, usually focused on a particular theme or style of music. For example, I've done a couple of mixes of New Year's music, and another featuring holiday music with an outer space theme. Several of these bonus mixes are still available on my holiday music website. Well, I've put together another bonus disc this year and just posted it on my website for your listening pleasure. It's called The NOW Sound of Christmas, and it contains 50 minutes of groovy holiday sounds from the late 1960s, courtesy of the hip cats of the NOW generation.

The idea for this one came from a pair of promotional records I stumbled across several years ago that were made in 1968 by – are you ready for this? – the United States Air Force! The first, A Christmas Party with Sandler and Young, while pleasant enough, was not particularly groundreaking. But the second The NOW Sound of Christmas – was truly out of sight! It features music by the Airmen of Note, the official Air Force Dance Band, with special guests The Free Design, a bunch of starry-eyed Canadian hippies. Not exactly the most natural pairing in the world, huh? But you know something? It works. The resulting material typifies the rich pop style that was so popular in the late 1960s – the sound of The Fifth DimensionThe Association and The Byrds. My special bonus mix includes five awesome tunes from The Free Design and adds 19 other songs with that same sort of feel. Start playing this one, and pretty soon you'll be slipping on some love beads and a pair of bell bottoms. Don't have any? Well, hey! Christmas is right around the corner!

Be sure to check out The NOW Sound of Christmas soon. It's likely to remain available for a limited time only.

Review the Track List for The Now Sound of Christmas

Learn more about, listen to or download The Now Sound of Christmas

Friday, November 1, 2013

Celebrate the Holidays with The Yule Logs as they Tour Northern California this Fall

The Yule Logs
Two years ago, my 2011 holiday mix, Gee Whiz, It's Christmas (Again!), featured a terrific version of the holiday classic "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah," by a band called The Yule Logs from Chico, California. Billed as "the hardest working band in snow business," The Yule Logs keep a low profile for most of the year only to emerge each November for six or seven weeks of live gigs and making spirits bright. Formed nine years ago, they've been remarkably prolific recently, releasing one new album a year since 2009. What's more, these aren't thrown-together albums of holiday retreads, but rather well-crafted collections of original holiday material — a pretty unusual feat! Now, I haven't seen any announcement about a new release for 2013, but the band does have a number of live shows planned between now and Christmas in Chico, San Francisco, Sacramento and environs. If you live in Northern California, you may want to check out their list of upcoming gigs and make plans to see this most festive band this holiday season.