Sunday, November 30, 2014

Is There Really a Santa Claus? Part 2

Now, back to our review of the various tracks on my latest holiday mix, Is There Really a Santa Claus?:

Track 6
Soul Christmas, by Count Sidney and His Dukes (1967)
Count Sidney
All but completely forgotten until recently, this song has lately been riding a new wave of attention following its appearance on the 2011 compilation Santa's Funk and Soul Christmas, from the German Tramp Records label. As a longtime fan of '70s R&B, I bought the CD right away, and I'm glad to have it. The sound quality on most tracks is only fair at best, but the songs are spirited and the performances kick ass. Moreover, the bulk of it will no doubt be new to most, as many of these tracks have been largely ignored for 30 years or more. The good folks at Tramp released a follow-up compilation in 2013 titled Santa's Funk and Soul Christmas, volume 2, which is also a great mix. 

Born in Lebeau, Louisiana, as Sidney Simien, Count Sidney, also known as Rockin' Sidney and Count Rockin' Sidney, first started performing at age 15 as an R&B singer. He also played guitar, keyboards and harmonica. By age 18, he had started to enjoy some modest success in the New Orleans area, scoring a couple of minor hits and beginning to build a growing fan base by playing frequent live shows. In 1965, Sidney and his band The Dukes signed with the Louisiana-based Goldband Records, for whom he subsequently made over 50 records during the next 15 years. "Soul Christmas" was recorded several years into this period, and in many ways it reflects the style he set while working for Goldband. Despite this hard work, Sidney's career never really took off like he'd hoped, and in the late 1970s he shifted his focus toward zydeco, a unique New Orleans musical style that mixes R&B, blues and various forms of indigenous music. This shift coincided with a renewed public interest in zydeco, and his subsequent releases fared better at the register. His biggest hit was a zydeco number called "My Toot Toot," which he wrote and recorded in 1984. Sidney died in 1998 at the age of 59.

Listen to the Instrumental Version of "Soul Christmas"

Track 5
All I Want for Christmas, by Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns (1962)

Huey "Piano" Smith
The name Huey Smith may not mean much to you at first, but I guarantee you're familiar with at least some of his music. Remember "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu"? It's been performed by dozens of artists including Aerosmith and The Grateful Dead, but it was written and first performed by Huey "Piano" Smith. The same with "Don't You Just Know It" and "High Blood Pressure."

Smith was born in New Orleans and was reportedly wrapped up in music from the very start. He wrote his first song at age 8, wrote and played music throughout his youth, and signed his first record contract with Savoy Records immediately after turning 18. For several years, he toured and played piano for artists such as Little Richard and Ray Price, and in 1957 at the age of 23, he formed Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns and signed a long-term contract with Ace Records. For the next several years, the band released a string of hit singles. "Rockin' Pneumonia" was one of the first, and it was followed by "Don't You Just Know," "High Blood Pressure" and  "We Like Birdland."

In 1962, Smith and his band released a holiday album called "Twas the Night Before Christmas," which includes "Soul Christmas" and nine other great holiday tunes. (A subsequent re-released version adds eight bonus tracks.) I used another track from the album on my "Happy New Year" compilation from 2008. The tune I used, appropriately enough, was "Happy New Year."

Smith continues to record and perform and has worked steadily through his adult life. He has enjoyed several "comebacks" over the years, but never attained the same popularity he had in the first decade of his professional life.

Track 4
Come Christmas, by Basil Marceaux (2011)
One of the things that makes our country great is that our elected officials can come from any walk of life. A number of entertainers have successfully leveraged their popularity to win election to high office here. For example, Ronald Reagan was an actor before entering politics. Sony Bono was a singer and television star before he served as Mayor of Palm Springs, California and was elected to Congress. It seems slightly tougher, however, for politicians to score hit records. The late great Boston City Councilor Albert L. "Dapper" O'Neil, who was a personal friend of mine, tried to hit the pop charts 30 or so years ago with his song "The Irish Belly Dancer," but even in Boston he wasn't able to score as big as he might have liked. The latest politician to attempt a career in music is Basil Marceaux, a perennial candidate in Tennessee who describes himself as an inventor, entrepreneur, importer-exporter and historian. He also served in the Marines. In 2010, he waged what might charitably be called an iconoclastic campaign for the Republican nomination for Governor of Tennessee. The following video offers a summary of his platform and a glimpse at his style of campaigning:

Marceaux raised more than a few eyebrows during the 2010 campaign for his unusual positions on key issues. For example, he pledged to outlaw gold-fringed flags and police traffic stops, and proposed that everyone in Tennessee be required to carry a gun. He also promised that everyone who voted for him would be immunized for life against criminal prosecution in the state courts. These novel ideas, together with his unvarnished speaking style, led to increasing media coverage of his insurgent campaign in its final days, when even national media heavyweights like Stephen Colbert began beating the drum for Marceaux:

To see Colbert's additional plugs for Marceaux, see THIS and THIS.

Watch Basil Marceaux on the "Red State Update" Show

Watch Glenn Beck's Interview of Basil Marceaux

Unfortunately for supporters like Colbert — and Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Louis C.K. and the folks at Saturday Night Live — Marceaux came in fifth in the Republican primary, winning only 3,508 votes, or less than 0.5 percent. But from the ashes of this defeat, Marceaux managed to sow the seeds for a new career in music. In late 2011, he released an upbeat (if slightly off-key) holiday song on iTunes called "Come Christmas." Written by Joshua Payne and Jenny Clewer, I knew I'd have to add this to one of my mixes the moment I heard it:

What's Marceaux been up to lately? Well, he hasn't given up on either music or politics. He ran again for Governor of Tennessee in 2014, and more than tripled his vote total from the previous election. Unfortunately, Marceaux finished the race in last place, well behind Mark "Coonrippy" Brown, another offbeat Republican whose principal purpose for running was to regain possession of his pet raccoon, who he claims was improperly confiscated by state authorities on health and safety grounds. You can see Brown's unforgettable announcement of candidacy HERE. (Just what's going on in Tennessee these days, anyway?)

Marceaux has also released several new music videos, although none of this last batch is Christmas-related. In fact, the new videos make "Come Christmas" look like a multi-million dollar Hollywood production by contrast. Sadly, they don't show Marceaux in his best light. Come to think of it, they look as though they'd been filmed after an all-day open bar event.

Watch Marceaux's "politial ballard movie," titled "no no what do you say"

Watch Marceaux's "second politic ballard," titled "You Are A Dead letter"

Stick to the holiday music, Basil. It makes a lot more sense and shows your talents off in a much better light.

Coming up soon, Tracks 7-9 of this year's mix, including a beautiful version of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" by the Front Range Christian School Advanced Band.

Steer Clear of Ouija boards this Christmas, Urges Priest

Sales of ouija boards have skyrocketed this Christmas following the release of the Universal film Ouija in October — up 300 percent over last year, according to a recent Google sales survey. But while this may be good news for toy manufacturers, some are fearful that widening use of the device could open a Pandora's box of unimagined horrors.

Dublin's Irish Independent quotes one unidentified Catholic priest who warns against even the lighthearted use of the classic seance device. ‘It’s easy to open up evil spirits but it’s very hard to get rid of them.

"People, especially young people and teenagers who are likely to experiment with Ouija boards on a whim, can be very naive in thinking that they are only contacting the departed souls of loved-ones when they attempt to communicate with the dead using the boards.

"It’s like going to some parts of Africa and saying I’m personally immune to Ebola, but it does leave people open to all kinds of spiritual dangers."

First introduced in 1890, ouija boards supposedly facilitate communication with the spirits of the deceased. Players typically ask a question aloud after which a small device called a planchette moves among a list of letters and numbers to reveal the spirit's response. The name ouija is comprised of the French ("oui") and German ("ja") words for "yes."

The screen version of Ouija stars Olivia Cooke and Daren Kagasoff. Universally panned by critics, the film has already earned over $65 million against total receipts of around $5 million. 

Watch this blog for further spiritual warnings as the season continues, and please don't say we didn't warn you.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Saturday Night Live Holiday Flashback

There are five Saturday nights between now and the end of December, and on each one we're going to reach way back into the NBC holiday vault in Rockefeller Center for some of my favorite Saturday Night Live holiday sketches — a different Christmas comedy classic each week.

I can't imagine a better way to kick of this series than with one of the half dozen versions of what the show calls its Christmas Treat — "I Wish It Was Christmas Today," as performed by Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Kattan, and Tracy Morgan. This familiar foursome first performed this festive tune back in 2000. This version is from 2011, when I must say each one of the gentlemen looked and sounded at their very best:

(NOTE: The 2011 version is no longer available as of 12.14.16, but here's a decent alternative:)

Be sure to join us again next Saturday evening for another Saturday Night Live Holiday Flashback!

IMPORTANT NOTE TO CHROME USERS (12.13.14): I haven't been able to figure out why, but the SNL videos I've posted no longer seem to be playing in the Chrome browser. They appear to work fine in Internet Explorer and Firefox, and they worked in Chrome until about 36 hours ago, but they no longer seem to. I'm not the most tech savvy guy in the world, but I am looking into the problem and will try to correct it. For now, however, you might try an alternate browser if you have problems with Chrome. Sorry for the inconvenience. 

Watch What Happens when President Obama Drops In on a White House Christmas Tour

Comedian and game show host Steve Harvey visited the White House last December for a sit-down with President Obama during which he had an interesting idea. He suggested to the President that the two of them drop in unannounced on one of the regular White House tours to offer holiday greetings to the participating tourists. Well, the results were not only spirited, but extremely touching, too, as this short video demonstrates:

Friday, November 28, 2014

Is There Really a Santa Claus? Part 1

I make it a strict policy to stay close to home and hearth on the day after Thanksgiving. You won't catch me within five miles of a “Black Friday” event — especially since this madness now seems to go on for a week or more each year. Moreover, there's a special reason to think twice about dashing from mall to mall today. A group of concerned citizens is urging people to boycott Black Friday as a way of protesting the failure on Monday of a Missouri grand jury to indict the police officer who shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown last August. I can't speak to the correctness of that decision as I wasn't on the grand jury and am unfamiliar with the evidence that was presented. But this holiday season will be a lot less jolly in far too many homes as the result of racism and race-based hatred and violence, and I'm ready to back nearly any non-violent means of calling attention to this scourge and demanding equal justice regardless of race. I trust all good people are in agreement on this one, so let's make that fact clear. Thanks for listening. Back now to our regular program, already in progress.

I’ll be using this blog once again this year to share some personal thoughts and background about each of the various tracks on my latest holiday CD. As in previous years, I'm hoping to look at two or three tracks at a time, starting today with the first three tracks and continuing to the last one sometime just before Christmas. I’ll probably post on other topics from time to time throughout the period, and I don’t plan to post every day, but by the time Santa arrives we should have shared a little something about all 39 tracks. I’ll cover the tracks in reverse order within each post so that the final list will appear in true reverse order.

With all that out of the way, what do you say we get started?

Track 3
Holiday Greetings, by Smokey Robinson (2009)
This was Alonso's crackerjack kitchen crew, with Smith 
in front, and me in back wearing the red T-shirt.
I went to college in Baltimore many years ago, and to help cover expenses I worked as a cook several nights a week at a popular neighborhood restaurant called Alonso’s in Roland Park. It wasn't fancy, but they served great food at reasonable prices, so we did a brisk business. It wasn't always easy juggling classes and work, but I was glad for the opportunity to leave campus life behind to spend time with local people, and the free meals helped, too. The kitchen was run by a crusty middle-aged black woman who was known to everyone simply as “Smith.” Raised in the Deep South, Smith was a straight-laced tyrant who ran a tight ship and brooked no nonsense from anyone. She specialized in the sort of home-style fare I’ve always enjoyed, and her soft-shell crabs and crab cakes helped put Alonso’s on the map. What I remember best about Smith, however, was that she was absolutely crazy in love with Smokey Robinson. Whenever one of his songs came on the radio, she’d not only whoop and swoon, but literally start to shake like a parishioner who’d caught the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure, but I think she was occasionally even talking in tongues. It’s been years since I’ve seen her, of course, but whenever someone mentions Smokey Robinson or I hear one of his songs, I instantly think of Smith. I miss those days, and I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.

Track 2
Rock Around the Christmas Tree, by Daniel Johnston (2006)
Daniel Johnston
My taste in music isn't easily categorized, and I've always had a thing for the offbeat and esoteric — much of which would today be called "outsider music." Definitions of this style vary, but "outsider music" is generally said to include material written and performed by artists from outside the established music industry whose work ignores typical conventions either due to the artist's lack of formal training or as an intentional comment on mainstream sensibilities. I've included offbeat music on previous holiday mixes by such outsider artists as Johnny "Bowtie" BarstowWing and Wesley Willisand I've usually done so for comedic effect. In some cases, I've seen nothing wrong with that. In Bowtie's case, for example, I'm pretty sure he works with his tongue in cheek — that is, he deliberately flouts accepted musical norms to be funny. I'd say Wing falls in that same category, as her own website compares her style to William Hung, '60s star Mrs. Miller, and Florence Foster Jenkins, three unconventional artists universally regarded as having little or no musical talent. In certain other cases, however, I'm more conflicted. Consider the late Wesley Willis, for example — and Daniel Johnston. Both of these two men were clearly blessed with a certain amount of innate musical talent. Sadly, however, they both also suffer from mental illness — in Johnston's case, reportedly, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I'm not a clinician, but it seems evident to me that Johnston's music is colored by the effects of these disorders, which makes it difficult to know whether enjoying his songs for their offbeat style isn't in fact making a cruel joke of his disability. I've been following Johnston's career for years, ever since I first came across his song "Christmas in the Loony Bin." I was attracted at first by the title, which sounded sufficiently bizarre to fit in really well on one of my mixes. After listening to the song, however, I knew I couldn't use it. It wasn't funny in the least to me. Indeed, it was sung in a gut-wrenchingly honest voice that obviously understood the tragedy of spending one's holidays in a psychiatric ward, while at the same time falling sway to the redemptive power of the season and the promise of a better day. 

I've learned a good bit more about Johnston and his music since that initial listen, and I've developed a more balanced view of his work in the process. Raised in a fundamentalist West Virginia household, Johnston displayed a natural talent for music and art from a young age. He was something a loner as a child, and he spent long hours alone drawing, playing piano and writing music. After graduating high school, he enrolled in a Texas Christian college, but dropped out before the end of the first semester. From there he moved to Ohio where he started closses in music and art at Kent State University and began making homemade cassette recordings of his songs and music. In the early 1980s, Johnston moved to Austin, Texas, where he got a job at McDonald's and became known for distributing his homemade cassettes. In time, he attracted the attention of the local media and built a significant fan base by playing shows in local bars and clubs. In 1985 he was featured on the MTV program The Cutting Edge, and soon afterward arrangements were made for him to record a professionally engineered album in New York City. Unfortunately, this coincided with a worsening of his mental illness, and in 1990, he was committed to a mental hospital following an episode in a private plane his father was piloting. Apparently believing he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, Johnston removed the keys from the plane's ignition and threw them out the window. His father managed to successfully crash land the plane, but the incident sidelined Johnston's musical career just as it was beginning to take off.

Johnston was eventually released from the hospital, and he's continued to write, perform and release CDs over the past two decades. "Rock Around the Christmas Tree" appears on his 2006 CD "Lost and Found," and while it's a little rough around the edges, I thought it would get this year's mix off to a boisterous and rowdy start. Johnston is a big fan of the Beatles and he loves rock and roll, so it's neat to hear him performing material like this. He's probably better known, however, for his slower, more introspective songs, which are striking for their honesty and lack of artifice. These qualities are evident in the Tiny Desk Concert performance Johnston did for NPR a couple of years ago, so while it doesn't have anything to do with Christmas exactly, I thought I'd add it as an introduction to his material:

Visit Daniel Johnston's Website, "Hi, How Are You?"

Watch the Documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" for free on Cackle

Watch Daniel Johnston at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2014

Listen to Daniel Johnston Sing "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer"

Shop for Holiday Cards Designed by Daniel Johnston

Track 1
A Recorded Message, by Daniel Johnston (1988)

This short track appears on Johnston's album Merry Christmas, which was recorded during a period when his mental health was beginning to show signs of increasing instability. Despite the title, and the fact that it was released in December 1988, most of the material on the album has little or nothing to do with Christmas. I've always found this track fascinating for its endearing self-assurance ("Perhaps you can comfort one another about my absence by consoling each other about it and talking about how much you miss me.") and professed concern for its unnamed intended recipient(s). It certainly seems sincere, and what's wrong with starting things off with words like this:
And so I say unto you, Merry Christmas and a Happy, Happy New Year!
Incidentally, the incredibly talented Bomarr worked up a very special version of this track several years ago with a perfectly groovy musical backdrop featuring the one and only Johnny Largo on the Optigan. You can enjoy it HERE just as if it were 1973 all over again.

Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Johnston altogether, here's a short film he apparently made with some friends approximately 30 or more years ago. I like its message, too:

Back soon with information about Basil Marceaux, the former Tennessee gubernatorial candidate who really likes Christmas a lot but hates gold-fringed flags.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

My Latest Holiday Mix Is Now Available for Your Listening Pleasure

My latest holiday mix Is There Really a Santa Claus? — is now available for a limited time on my holiday music website …  just in time to serve as the soundtrack for tomorrow's "Black Friday" shopping mall adventures. Like my dozen or more previous mixes, this year's collection contains a grab bag of Christmas carols, holiday songs and comedy designed to kick-off your year-end festivities and conjure up just the right amount of Christmas spirit. I've been making these holiday mixes for nearly 15 years now and sending them in CD form to family and friends as my seasonal greeting card. Because I have a relatively diverse and eclectic group of friends and relatives, I try to include a wide array of material on each CD. Most of my mixes contain traditional carols; rock, soul and country tunes; film, TV and radio clips, and the occasional splash of vintage audio and cultural ephemera. You'll also find a few musical train wrecks — "songs" that will transform that third pitcher of egg nog from overindulgence to necessity. These are the tracks I love most.

For more information about this year's mix as well as mixes from previous years, visit my holiday music website at www.marksholidaymixcds.net

Starting tomorrow, I'll be posting a little background information about each of the tracks in my latest collection right here on this blog. Happy holidays, everyone!

Happy Thanksgiving!

As you and your family gather to give thanks today, you might play this wonderful little number (below) to set a joyous tone for the festivities. When the song ends, you'll have one more thing to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

SNL Flashback: Bruce Springsteen Visits Weekend Update for Thanksgiving

Not to be unkind, but Adam Sandler and Kevin Nealon fall near the very bottom of my list of favorite Saturday Night Live cast members. Nealon's tenure as host of SNL's Weekend Update was just plain awful, and the fact that Sandler can command between $20 and $40 million per picture tells me all I need to know about just how morally bankrupt the entertainment industry has become. But the pair did manage to score with the following Thanksgiving-themed sketch, which aired on November 20, 1993, and featured a holiday visit from Bruce Springsteen:

NBC will air a special episode of Saturday Night Live tonight at 9 PM (8:00 Central) featuring some of the show's best Thanksgiving-related sketches of the past 40 years. Sounds like fun.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Louisville's Nick Peay Releases Two New Original Holiday Tunes this Season

A resident of Louisville, Kentucky, singer/songwriter Nick Peay shares my affinity for the music of the 1960s and '70s.  The music of that era meant something, he says. “Nowadays, I don’t feel like musicians stand up for anything. In the society we live in, where everything is so homogenized, being unique is almost frowned upon.” Peay wants his material to reflect who he is and whatever joys and challenges he's experiencing. “I think things would be more interesting if everyone was who they were as opposed to being who they think people expect them to be. I’m just trying to express to people that it’s OK to be who you are.”

Peay has two new holiday songs out this season, the first of which, called "Merry Christmas, Everyone" is slightly reminiscent of John Lennon's early '70s sound  add a children's choir and Yoko Ono and you might think you were listening to the flip side of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." It's a pleasant, upbeat song that suggests all is right with the world, or at least it would be if people took its message to heart:

Peay's second new release, "Santa Plays the Ukulele," is an altogether different animal — a fun, almost silly tune that reminds us that whatever else it may be, the holiday season should be a time of unbridled joy:

I appreciate Nick's letting me know about these new releases, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

"Best Christmas Ever" Unfolds Somewhere Above Austin, Texas

I'm not sure what's in the air in Austin, Texas this holiday season, but it's not only generating a bunch of interesting new holiday music, it's reportedly causing cars to fly and bringing people of all faiths together in an unprecedented cosmic groove. At least that's the vision of the soon-to-be-released holiday single "The Best Christmas Ever," from the Austin-based band Kanude, and it's as hopeful a message as I've heard in a Christmas tune in quite awhile:
We took off in our interstellar T-Bird
Back in December Twenty-Twelve.
As I recall there was a trail of dust
From the memory of heaven and hell.
Down came the pyramids
And the relics of an ancient machine
Down came the miracle lifting us up
Beyond the science, beyond the scene. And we sang …
This is the best Christmas ever
Muslim and Jew, Buddhist, Hindu
Whatever your views.
We’re letting go of anger and angry traditions
We’re rising up high in a joyous rendition
Of “Oh Holy Night.”
©2014 Lightstone Records and Tathata Music (ASCAP), All Rights Reserved.

Founded and led by singer/songwriter Chris Knudson (the band's name is a simplified version of his last name), Kanude has recorded and played with a wide array of notable musician, including folks who have toured with the likes of Robert Plant, Joe Walsh, Edie Brickell and Bruce Hornsby. Knudson's music has been featured on HBO's True Blood, and copies of the band's previous CDs are available on Bandcamp. "The Best Christmas Ever" is set for a December 2 release, but you can preview it now, below:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Roxy Roca Cooks Up a Hot Dish of Texas Soul for the Holidays

I haven't visited Austin, Texas, yet, but if there's a better place to hear original new music these days I can't think of it. I recently heard from an especially strong new Austin-based band called Roxy Roca, who sent me a link to their new holiday single, "Christmas Without You." It's a high-energy piece of dynamite Texas soul that celebrates a mess of colorful holiday traditions while bewailing the prospect of spending Christmas on the road alone:
I love the smell of a Fraser fir
And wassail on the stove
Putting on our favorite record
By good old Nat King Cole
I love the blue lights shining on the snow at night
Bowl games on TV
Christmas carolers going up and down the street
Putting that star upon the tree
There's so much in December that I like to do
But it ain't Christmas without you
Here's the video:

Roxy Roca was founded just a couple of years ago by Taye Cannon, the former front man for the Austin-based punk band Mocktigers. His new band is a whole different kettle of stew, however, for like its new holiday single, Roxy Roca runs on a high-amp blend of Southern rock and soul. Why the switch? Cannon explains that he grew up in Alabama listening to his father's records  soul music by the likes of Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and James Brown. Although he veered off in other directions after settling in Austin, Cannon never abandoned his soul roots, and following a chance meeting with like-minded guitarist Errol Siegel several years ago, the two put together Roxy Roca.

The B side of the new single the "naughty" side  features the band's version of the Clarence Carter classic "Back Door Santa." You can order the single and more from the band's online store, and if you're lucky enough to live in the Southern part of the country you might even be able to catch Roxy Roca at one of the many live shows they've got scheduled throughout December. Check out their tour calendar HERE. If you're as keen on their holiday record as I am, be sure to check out some of their other material on Soundcloud. Their Basement Tapes CD offers an even funkier sound that spotlights their tight horn section, These guys are really going places.

Daniel Mark Baird's "Hey Santa" Offers a Catchy New Christmas Sound

As I mentioned toward the end of last season, this blog's readership increased nearly ten-fold last year, which I find both exciting and daunting. One of the fringe benefits of the higher profile is that I now receive a pretty steady stream of original new holiday songs from a variety of professional and amateur artists and performers. Unfortunately, it's not possible to review or even post all of the wonderful stuff I've been receiving. There's just too much of it, and the principal purpose of this blog is to provide information about the contents of my simple little holiday mixes. But that doesn't mean it's not appreciated, and I'll do my best to post some of these unsolicited submissions from time to time.

Five or six weeks ago, for example, I received a digital single called "Hey Santa" from Daniel Mark Baird, a singer/songwriter from Granger, Indiana. Baird's overall style is an appealing blend of country rock, although "Hey Santa" has more of a pop feel to it, which fits well with this festive season. It's nice upbeat record, and the other day I discovered it's now been released as a music video, which I'm pleased to share here:

"Hey Santa" is currently featured on the PlayNetwork, which provides music to various retail establishments. It will be nice to hear something new in the stores and malls this season! It's also available on iTunes, amazon MP3 and GooglePlay, and it's in regular rotation on Radio Santa Claus, the popular European streaming station. It's refreshing to hear something new for the holidays, isn't it? Thanks to Mark and his wife, Mary, for sharing it.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Comedian Bill Maher Says He'll Lead the Fight to "Save Christmas"

I'm a big fan of Bill Maher, and while I don't always agree with him on everything, I respect his ability to cut to the heart of the tough issues. I also admire his courage in calling out so many of the selfish idiots who currently hold positions of authority in this country. Maher is a staunch defender of the Bill of Rights, which I appreciate, even when those important principles are threatened from the left. Of course, Maher is also one of the nation's most prominent atheists, so when I heard he volunteered to lead the fight to "save Christmas" on last night's episode of Real Time with Bill Maher (Fridays at 10 pm on HBO), I felt obliged to figure out what was up. Maher quickly admitted that many people will probably consider him an odd choice to defend Christmas, but, in fact, he's always had a deep and genuine affection for the holidays -- provided you don't take the story literally. "For me," he says, "Christmas has always been about families, and memories . . . and the looks on the carolers faces when I set the dogs on them." Maher has some interesting suggestions about how to make the holidays easier on all of us, and you can hear the whole sordid story below:

Sleeping at Last's Christmas Collection Is Now Available for Free Download

Sleeping at Last's Ryan O'Neal
It's the traditions that make the holiday season special for so many of us, and each year around this time, the indie band Sleeping at Last marks the season by releasing a new cover of a familiar holiday song. Over the years, of course, these individual songs add up, and this year the accumulated total was enough to fill an entire album, which the band is now giving away as a free download under the name The Christmas Collection (see download box below). It's a bargain at ten times the price, and definitely worth checking out.

Founded as a three-piece band in 1999 in Wheaton, Illinois, Sleeping at Last now consists of a single musician, Ryan O'Neal, who plays guitar and keyboards, and sings. The band released four albums of original material and toured nationally before it was winnowed down to O'Neal, but Sleeping at Last is perhaps best known for contributing songs to various film and TV projects, including Gray's Anatomy, Private Practice and The Twilight Saga. In 2011, the band launched a project called Yearbook, which involved releasing three new songs on the first day of each month for a year. These monthly releases were later collected and released as an album.

If you live in the Los Angeles or Glen Elyn, Illinois areas, you will have an opportunity to see Sleeping at Last perform live this December. Information on their upcoming performances is available on the group's Songkick page. In the meantime, download and enjoy The Christmas Collection (below). While the download is free as the band's holiday gift to you, any donations made through the group's Noisetrade page will be paid to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

I've really been taken this year by the traditional hymn Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel, as you will hear first-hand on my upcoming new mix. The version that kicks-off The Christmas Collection is simply stunning.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Elvis Reigns As Billboard's King of U.S. Holiday Album Sales

Elvis Presley
While they vary in size and not every home has one, the majority of American households have at least a small collection of holiday albums, and once you add up all of the CDs, mp3s and old-fashioned vinyl LPs, you're talking about an awful lot of music. Even casual music buffs can probably name the best selling Christmas song of all time (Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"), but what are the most popular holiday albums? Billboard magazine considered this very question last December, and based on sales figures from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and point-of-sale data from Nielsen Soundscan (for records released after 1991), they compiled the following list of the Top Ten Best Selling Holiday Albums of all time in the United States:

I have to admit that I find this list  upsetting, as I dislike a majority of the top ten best sellers and I actually loathe at least four of them. Of course, there's no accounting for taste, and I'm all for anything that sparks the holiday spirit in someone, whatever the reason. But Kenny G?! Really?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Courageous Tennessee Man Confesses: I Am the "O Holy Night" Singer

Ask a hundred holiday music enthusiasts to name their favorite seasonal song and you're likely to get a hundred different answers ranging from traditional to novelty, and from choral to rock. Poll a similar group about their least favorite holiday song, however, and I'll wager the range of responses will be considerably smaller. The "worst song" surveys I've seen tend to include a core handful of obvious offenders, including: "The Christmas Shoes," by New Song; Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime"; the Singing Dogs' version of "Jingle Bells," and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," by Elmo and Patsy. Sure, these songs all truly suck, and I'd add "Do They Know It's Christmas," by any of the Band Aid collectives and any holiday song by Mariah Carey, as well. But for my money, the most unforgivable atrocity has got to be the little ditty I used as the final track of my 2005 CD mix, Don't Wake the Kids, The song is "O Holy Night," as interpreted by a gentleman who wisely appeared to have recorded the song anonymously. I first discovered this train wreck in 2001 on April Winchell's classic website, and I've watched with interest since then as it achieves greater levels of notoriety and scorn. Imagine my surprise then to discover recently that a Tennessee resident named Steve Mauldin has stepped forward to take full responsibility for this monstrosity. Here is his tragic story:


Sunday, November 16, 2014

All in the Family's Courageous Two-Part Holiday Episode Raised the Bar in 1977

Last year's mix featured an excerpt from what I think was the first holiday episode of the hit television series All in the Family. The episode was called "Christmas Day at the Bunkers," and I included it in memory of Jean Stapleton, who died last year at the age of 90. Stapleton played Edith Bunker on the series from 1971-79. There were several additional Christmas episodes during the series' nine-year run, including a two-part storyline that ran during Season 7 in 1977 ("Edith's Crisis of Faith"). I watched these episodes for the first time last week and was especially moved by the touching story they conveyed. I don't want to give too much away, but the first episode features a guest appearance by Lori Shannon as transvestite Beverly LaSalle, a former passenger in Archie Bunker's cab who had become a good friend of Edith's. Including such a character in a prime-time network series was a courageous move in the 1970s, and the writers and cast managed to tell a very difficult story with sensitivity and grace. The two episodes appear below:


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Band Aid 30 to Release Latest Version of "Do They Know It's Christmas" on Monday

Midge Ury (left) and Bob Geldorf outside Sarm Studios today.
It's now been 30 years since a group of concerned British recording artists first got together as Band Aid under the direction of Bob Geldorf and Midge Ury to support and promote ongoing famine relief efforts in Ethiopia. The song they recorded, "Do They Know It's Christmas," became a worldwide bestseller, raising more than $20 million and inspiring similar efforts by other musicians including USA for Africa. To mark this anniversary, the latest incarnation of the group, known as Band Aid 30, gathered in London this weekend to record yet another version of the song, this time to raise money to fight the deadly ebola virus. 

According to the British-based newspaper The Independent, Geldorf and Ury assembled an array of well-known musicians at a Notting Hill studio today to re-record the holiday staple. Participants include One Direction, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Bastille, Foals, Elbow, Ellie Goulding, Emelie Sandé, Sam Smith, Olly Murs, Bono and Chris Martin. The song is scheduled to be mixed tomorrow and released on Monday. 

While it's hard not to respect the contributions of the various artists involved in this project, I can't say I'm looking forward to hearing a new version of the song – or any of the old ones, for that matter. At the risk of sounding uncharitable, I've never liked this song. Its message has always struck me as patronizing and condescending. To me, it seems to harden the divide between the developed world and "the other ones," who are not only poor but so blinded by their own situation that they don't even realize it's Christmas, for God's sake. As Bono repeatedly sings, "Thank God it's them instead of you."

Monday's release will be the fourth official version of the song, following the original and subsequent re-releases in 1989 and 2004. It's hard to imagine that the song's going to get any better on this latest go-around, but if it helps raise money for a good cause, I'll keep any further criticisms to myself and salute the people who contributed to the effort.

Watch the original "Do They Know It's Christmas (1984)" 

Watch "Do They Know It's Christmas (1989)," by Band Aid II

Watch "Do They Know It's Christmas (2004)," by Band Aid 20

Watch BBC Documentary "Band Aid: Song that Rocked the World," Part 1

Watch BBC Documentary "Band Aid: Song that Rocked the World," Part 2

Watch BBC Documentary "Band Aid: Song that Rocked the World," Part 3

Watch BBC Documentary "Band Aid: Song that Rocked the World," Part 4

Are You a Holiday Music Expert? Test Your Knowledge with these Holiday Quizzes

If you're reading this blog, chances are you're better informed than most people on the subject of holiday music. Of course, nobody can know everything about any particular subject, which is part of the reason that online quizzes are so popular. We all like to know how we compare to others when it comes to the acquisition of useless information. Well, the folks at FunTrivia.com have posted a whole range of online quizzes so you can determine at your leisure just how much of a holiday music geek you truly are. Some of the offerings test your knowledge about holiday music in general, while others focus on specific subcategories, such as holiday rock and roll or religious-based tunes. Each quiz is categorized by degree of difficulty, so you can start with some easy questions and proceed to the most challenging. Good luck, and have fun!

Check-out the Holiday Music Trivia Quizzes on FunTrivia.com

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings Help Kick the New Holiday Season Off in Style

Yesterday's post included a passing reference to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the awesome Brooklyn-based band that's attracted considerable attention in recent years for its enthusiastic celebration of the classic soul/funk sound of the 1960s and '70s. Their 2009 release "Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects" is one of only three tracks I used twice on two separate holiday mixes (Here Comes Santa Claus and Christmas Is Cancelled This Year), and since the others are by Wing and William Hung, I'm not sure they should really count. Well, yesterday's mention led me to do poke around a bit to see what the group has been up to lately, and I was thrilled to discover that they've recently released their own version of the Bing Crosby classic "White Christmas" a raving send-up that has little in common with the plodding and sentimental original we all know so well. The folks at Cole Haan are promoting the song as part of their holiday campaign, so we're likely to be hearing bits and pieces of it as the season moves along. But there's nothing like seeing and hearing a great song from start to finish, so ladies and gentlemen:  Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

My Latest Holiday Mix Is Complete

I'm pleased to report that my 2014 holiday mix is now complete! That doesn't necessarily mean that I won't do a little more tinkering before posting it, but I'm pretty happy with the finished product as it now stands, so there probably won't be too many changes. This year's CD consists of 39 tracks and clocks in at just a few seconds under the 80-minute mark. The tracks cover the now-familiar spectrum, ranging from old to new, from serious to silly, and from sublime to something far worse than ridiculous.

As a reminder, I'm planning to post the entire mix on my holiday music website sometime on Thanksgiving morning, which is just two weeks from today. I like suspense, so I won't be sharing too much more about the contents until it's posted, but I'll be posting lots of colorful background on each track right here on this blog between Black Friday and Christmas Eve. Be sure to check back often during those several weeks to learn more about the tracks I've included.

Oh, what the heck . . . I never was much of a tease. Why not prime the pump a bit right now by sharing a sneak peek at what is currently my very favorite track on this year's CD:  "Sha La Da La La (Christmas Time)," by (the) Sha La Das. This underhyped gem was released last December on Daptone Recordsthe same label that hosts Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, whose holiday masterpiece "Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects" appeared on my 2012 mix, Here Comes Santa Claus. I was introduced to this track last season by what has to be considered the world's preeminent holiday music blog, Stubby's House of Christmas. It was love at first listen, for this track has it all. Infused with the magical sound of early '70s R&B,it paints a vivid picture of Christmas in the urban Northeast and its sweet harmonies drip of holiday togetherness. What's more, the Sha La Das are a genuine family affair, as the group consists of Staten Island Dad Bill Schalda and his three sons:  Paul, Will and Carmine. This track rates among my very favorite holiday tunes of all time -- actually, it's probably one of my favorites songs of any type. I hope you like it, too!

OK, no more news on my latest mix until Thanksgiving or thereabouts. But I'll likely be back before then with another holiday tidbit or two. My neighbor put a wreath on his door two nights ago, so I figure the holiday season has all but officially begun.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Welcome Back for the 2014 Holiday Season!

Three cold facts occurred to me as I started to prepare a pot of oatmeal for breakfast this morning. First, Halloween has now come and gone. Second, Daylight Savings Time ends tonight. Third, for the first time since February I was wearing a flannel shirt and cooking oatmeal in Los Angeles. Taken together, these facts point to a single grim conclusion. That's right, dear friends – once more unto the breach, for another holiday season is nearly upon us!

For many years, the specter of the approaching holiday season filled me with panic and fear. There was always so much to do, so little time, and a mountain of expectations I knew I could never meet. None of that has changed very much, unfortunately, but for the past 15 years or so I've prepared myself for the coming onslaught each year by putting together a unique mix of seasonal tunes and aural ephemera to share with family and friends as my own holiday greeting card. True, this adds yet another item to my annual holiday "to do" list, but crafting each new mix brings back a flood of happy holiday memories and helps to put things in better perspective. In recent years, I've taken to posting my mixes online at Mark's Holiday Mix CDs. I use this blog to provide additional information about the contents of my latest mixes, and to offer some occasional thoughts about holiday music in general. There's a growing community of holiday music enthusiasts on the web, and I'm grateful to them for sharing not only their knowledge but also their holiday spirit with the rest of us.

My 2014 holiday mix is well over half-way finished, and my goal is to once again share it with everyone beginning on Thanksgiving Day, November 27. I'll probably post a few random thoughts between now and then, so check back whenever you'd like. Beginning on Black Friday, November 28, I'll start posting background information and stories about each of individual tracks on this year's CD.

To help launch the coming 2014 Christmas season, here's a clip of a venerable tune that's always brightened my spirits – the Boston Pops Orchestra's version of "Sleigh Ride," which sounds just as cheery in the California sunshine as it does on a snowy New England afternoon. Back soon with more.