[MUSIC REVIEW] 2013 Holiday Music Roundup

Greg Yost - Browsing the Bins

The holidays are here and nothing sets the mood like seasonal music.  One of my favorite activities this time of year is checking out the new Christmas and holiday music releases that will no doubt serve as the soundtrack for shopping, travel and family gatherings throughout the last month of the year.  Here are some of the 2013 releases that caught my attention.

Canadian Brass - Christmas Time Is Here (cover)

Canadian Brass – Christmas Time Is Here (Opening Day Entertainment/Steinway & Sons)

There may be no more prolific purveyor of Christmas music than the talented Canadian Brass.  In the 43 years since it was founded, the ensemble’s tally of holiday-themed releases is up in the double digits.  Despite this tremendous back catalog, the group continues to find new ways to keep those releases fresh.  The new collection, Christmas Time Is Here, is proof.

The members of Canadian Brass have earned recognition the world over by interpreting the classics from both jazz and classical music, but this time around they tackle a completely different kind of classic.  The majority of the 18 songs on the new collection were included in or made popular by animated holiday television specials.

The biggest chunk of the album is focused on the music jazz legend Vince Guaraldi composed or arranged for the seminal soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  Guaraldi and his Vince Guaraldi Trio created a classic by both putting a jazzy spin on traditional favorites while also making catchy new tunes that slipped easily into the Christmas music canon.  Canadian Brass does those tunes justice with great arrangements by former member Brandon Ridenour.

Ridenour excels at capturing the jazzy feel of the original soundtrack recording while also playing to the group’s strengths, thus giving the songs a distinctly “Canadian Brass” feel.  “Skating,” “Christmas Time Is Here,” “What Child Is This?,” “My Little Drum” and “Christmas Is Coming” all maintain the jazz textures at the core of the Guaraldi versions while also taking full advantage of the power and versatility of the brass quintet.   In a sense, Ridenour’s arrangements allow the group to augment and enhance the beloved recordings by adding layers and depth not available to a jazz trio.

Although the album leans more heavily toward the jazz side of things, the group does get to flex its classical muscles a bit on two of the album’s finer moments.  Ridenour’s arrangement of Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” especially the latter half of the recording, showcases the intensity of focused brass playing and the skill of the individual musicians – truly memorable stuff.  Another highlight is trumpeter Chris Coletti’s composition “Bach’s Bells” which smartly blends “The Carol Of The Bells” with familiar Bach melodies.  This is the kind of music that made Canadian Brass the institution it is today.

The collection concludes with some nice lighter moments like a snappy and boozy take on “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a version you could easily hear on Bourbon Street this time of year, and a swinging “Frosty The Snowman” propelled by founding member Chuck Daellenbach’s tuba.  Finally, “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” with some unique vocals and a sly musical nod to Wagner’s famous “Ride Of The Valkyries,” adds a touch of humor to the mix.

Fans have come to expect fun and inventive Christmas albums from Canadian Brass and this new collection delivers the goods.

Leona Lewis - Christmas With Love (cover)

Leona Lewis – Christmas, With Love (RCA Records)

Retro cool is the best way to describe the first Christmas album from British songstress Leona Lewis.  The sweet soul sound is evident from the start as the groovy first single “One More Sleep,” a countdown until lovers are reunited at Christmas, kickstarts the album with a bold arrangement that showcases Lewis’ powerful voice while bringing to mind the holiday hits Phil Spector produced in the ‘60s.

Lewis co-wrote the first single and is also credited as contributing to the album’s other two originals, “Your Hallelujah” and “Mr. Right.”  The former is a tender but powerful ballad offering reassurance of being loved and needed while the latter is another catchy piece of neo-classic soul that feels familiar after just one listen.

In addition to the originals, Lewis nails it on cover songs throughout.  Of particular note is a festive rendition of “Winter Wonderland” and a slow-building take on “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” a glam rock holiday masterpiece that is unbelievably celebrating its 40th birthday this year.

Producers Richard “Biff” Stannard and Ash Howes deserve a lot of credit for the album’s overall feel.  The retro sound is both classic and contemporary and never flirts with being campy, a definite concern when you are clearly inspired by the past.  This one is an easy and enjoyable listen from start to finish – perfectly poppy stuff for a holiday party.

Nick Lowe - Quality Street (cover)

Nick Lowe – Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family (Yep Roc Records)

Without a doubt, one of the hippest releases of this holiday season comes from pub rock pioneer Nick Lowe.  His new 12-song collection is an interesting mix – a classic country cover, covers of traditional carols/folks songs and a few choice originals.

Lowe’s bare-bones rendition of country crooner Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains” is in stark contrast to the twangy acoustic gospel rock sound of “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” while his horn-accented and lounge-like take on “Silent Night” is yet another departure in a completely different direction.

“Christmas At The Airport” showcases Lowe’s considerable songwriting skills as he tells the tale of the weary and unfortunate holiday traveler stuck celebrating the holiday in an airport terminal.

Just like Leona Lewis, Nick Lowe covers Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” but unlike Lewis, Lowe takes a laid-back approach to delivering this usually high-octane anthem.  This track will feel familiar to Nick Lowe fans and is a good example of the collection’s overall aesthetic.

Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends - The Sounding Joy (cover)

Elizabeth Mitchell And Friends – The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs In & Out Of The Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook (Smithsonian Folkways)

For her first Christmas album, folk singer/songwriter Elizabeth Mitchell pays tribute to “American Folks Songs For Christmas,” a songbook compiled and released by Ruth Crawford Seeger in 1953.  In that publication, Seeger kept songs from America’s past alive by interpreting and arranging holiday-themed traditional American folk songs that were previously passed down through the generations via the oral tradition.

Although we still have access to old songbooks, many traditional tunes are being lost or forgotten. Therefore, this album is very much replicating Seeger’s originally efforts by bringing these songs to the public’s attention again.  To help breathe new life into these songs, Mitchell pulled together an impressive list of her friends, including many from the musically-fertile soil of New York’s Hudson River Valley.

The acoustic arrangements are sparse throughout this recording, which is fine because they are ultimately just a vehicle to deliver the stars of the show – the songs themselves and the unique voices of the artists.  In addition to Mitchell’s lovely and understated vocals throughout, notable contributions come from an outstanding cadre of artists including but not limited to John Sebastian, Dan Zanes, Natalie Merchant, Daniel Littleton, Storey Littleton, Amy Helm, Ruthy Ungar, Aoife O’Donovan, Gail Ann Dorsey and Peggy Seeger, daughter of Ruth Crawford Seeger.

A mix of familiar and forgotten, the songs on this collection are squarely focused on the sacred music of the season.  Tunes  like “The First Noel,” “Silent Night,” Joy To The World” and “Christmas Day In The Morning,” a variation of our modern “I Saw Three Ships,” are all still holiday staples, but lesser-known tunes like the plucky “Sing-A-Lamb,” “The Blessings Of Mary,” “Mary Had A Baby” and “Oh, Watch The Stars” are simply not commonly recognized anymore.

The playful clapping and chanting of “Oh, Mary And The Baby, Sweet Lamb” and the gospel powerhouse “January, February (Last Month Of The Year)” are two standout moments that help make this one of the most interesting and unique Christmas albums of the year.

Bade Religion - Christmas Songs (cover)

Bad Religion – Christmas Songs (Epitaph Records)

There are some bands you would never expect to release a holiday record.  The revered punk outfit Bad Religion is definitely on that list, yet here we have a 9-song collection from the California-based rockers on guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s Epitaph Records label.

Most traditional Christmas carols have a basic song structure and catchy melodies, so it should come as no surprise that the band nails this one musically.  The band also impresses with the use of harmony vocals throughout.  That said, there are no huge surprises – just heavy and/or fast versions of traditional favorites.

Although not a Christmas song, the new Andy Wallace Mix of the band’s classic “American Jesus” from 1993′s Recipe For Hate album is a great way to close out this surprising holiday release.

**Although it came out last year, here is one more worth checking out**

The Sweetback Sisters - Christmas Singalong Spectacular (cover)

The Sweetback Sisters – Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular (Signature Sounds)

Just like chocolate and peanut butter and cookies and milk, Christmas and country are two things that just seem to go together naturally.  There may be no better recent example than the 2012 collection from the Brooklyn-based sextet The Sweetback Sisters.  Just as the title suggests, Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular is an outstanding set of contemporary and classic tunes that is sure to have you tapping your toes and merrily singing along.

Guided by the twangy twin lead vocals of Zara Bode and Emily Miller and buoyed by a talented quartet of instrumentalists with steady and sometimes flashy chops, The Sweetback Sisters blends elements of traditional country, barroom honky tonk and rockabilly to create a fresh new voice that pays homage to the past.

Although holidays standards like “The Twelve Days Of Christmas,” “Christmas Island” and a surf guitar take on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” featuring a nice tease of the famous theme song from “Bonanza” are notable, the real gems here are the original and lesser-known tunes.

“The Christmas Boogie,” a song clearly influenced by harmony-driven artists from the past like The Andrews Sisters, gets the album off to a great start.  The brief and suggestive “Santa Claus Got Stuck In My Chimney” closes the collection with a bit of levity and “Nine Days Of Christmas,” a tune penned and sung by Jess Milnes, is an instant Christmas drinking song classic with a chorus proclaiming, “I’m not drinking beer or champagne/The bubbles only make me think of you/I’m cooking up a cocktail for Christmas/And I’m opening up packages for two.”

Enjoy and happy holidays!!

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