Tuesday, December 9, 2014

New CD's - 2014


And when I say "New CD's," I of course mean really old music.

It looks like we're adding an additional 245 songs this year through albums we mainly picked up at used book and consignment stores for between $1 and $3. We bought a handful at yard sales over the summer.

Let's see how much of this year's haul is something I'll ever intentionally put on again.


You Sleigh Me! (Various)
Not a bad start, all things considered. This mid-90's compilation from Atlantic features an assortment of their artists mostly playing classic or traditional songs, along with a couple of original pieces. As is always the case with new versions of old songs, it all comes down a simple question: did they bother to do a distinct version, or did they just copy an arrangement that's been done to death?

In this case, they put in the effort, and some of the results are phenomenal. Mary Karlzen's "Run Rudolph Run" puts a country-rock spin on the song. Likewise, while Collective Soul's version of "Blue Christmas" contains a touch of Elvis's version, they transform it into something new. I'm already familiar with Tori Amos's "Little Drummer Boy", but it's still an awesome version. I also love James Carter's instrumental version of "White Christmas".

A few songs start to feel a little monotonous in a 90's alt-pop sort of way, but there's enough variety and standout tunes to make this one a great find. Hell, even the 90's alt-pop songs are pretty good: I've just already got a tun of music like that.


Ultimate Christmas (Various)
Eighteen tracks of generic pop, R&B, and old holiday tunes is a lot to sit through to reach one Santana song you kind of like, but that's Christmas. Hell, that's a six percent good music ratio: I'm pretty sure that's at least par for holiday compilations.

The Santana song in question is "Posada (Pilgramage to Bethlehem)". The rest... Jesus. You've got Kenny G, Barry Manilow, Elvis, TLC, Britney Spears... you get the idea. I guess if you're only going to buy one Christmas album and you have really boring taste in music, this is a valid option. Bet you could still find something better, though.


A Tejano Country Christmas (Various)
This is a compilation of Tex-Mex versions of classical Christmas songs. Stylistically, the music is fairly diverse, which is always appreciated. There are quite a few genres represented on the album. On top of that, there's a mix of English and Spanish songs.

Unfortunately, not much of it really appeals to me. A few of the tracks are fun, but - for the most part - they're fairly typical holiday music with a slight Tex-Mex flavor. I was a little disappointed by how little it deviated from the versions I'm used to.

I think La Diferenzia's version of "Noche De Paz (Silent Night)" was my favorite on the album, and even that was pretty straightforward.


Starbucks Winterludes: Cool Holiday Notes (Various)
If I were to imagine a soundtrack that codified Christmas as it pertains to a corporate coffee chain, I'm pretty sure this would be it. I don't even mean that as an insult - in my opinion, Starbucks succeeded in producing precisely what they intended to. It's a mix of classics sung by the original artists, classics redone by (at the time) new artists, and a few newer tunes.

I've already got the majority of the classic pieces - stuff by Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, etc. But these are well chosen: they mostly stay clear of stuff that's particularly cloying, and even the exceptions (looking at you "Do You Hear What I Hear" by Bing Crosby) get a pass for being in tone. Oh, this also comes with the Crosby/Bowie track from the last Crosby Christmas special.

The strangest additions are the two Jewish-themed offerings: "Sunrise, Sunset/The Yiddish Folk Medley" and "If I Were a Rich Man". They're good tracks and all, but neither are what I'd consider Hanukkah themed.

The less common stuff includes some jazz pieces and some indie tracks. They're all decent; some are even unusual. But every track fits tonally with the album as a whole. That focus on tone is actually a big part of what makes this work. The songs are laid back and soft: perfect background music, one imagines, for sitting back at a corporate-owned coffee house and sipping an eight-dollar latte.

Now that we're long past the days when anyone cares about an album - particularly a compilation - as a piece to listened to start to finish, it's just a bunch of songs. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself dropping a few of those songs into playlists to hear again.


Christmas With The Supremes and The Temptations (The Supremes/The Temptations)
This album features ten songs in all, starting with five from The Supremes, then switching over to five more from The Temptations. The back advertises that two of these tracks are "Bonus CD tracks". I'm assuming the arrangement was an artifact left over from the original release, which must have been either on cassette or vinyl.

The music is good, of course: both groups were certainly talented. The songs aren't quite as distinct as I'd like, but there's enough of the groups' styles to make them worthwhile additions. In particular, The Supremes' "My Favorite Things" and "Silver Bells" are great tracks, as are The Temptations versions of Rudolph and "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town".

Not a bad purchase at all.


Christmas on the Border (Various)
The cover advertises this as "A Spicy Holiday Recipe of Texas Blues, Hot Country, and Mexican Salsa." I suppose that's as good a description as any. It's a compilation of ten songs from five artists, though 40% of the album is from John-Kevin Mulkey, whoever that is.

It's a pretty cool album overall, though I wish there'd been less from the aforementioned John-Kevin Mulkey and more from others. I really like the instrumentals on most of his tracks, but I find his voice a little irritating. He's not bad; he's just got a sort of generic pop-sensibility that I'm not a fan of.

I love the two tracks from Gary Chapman and the one from Ardelio Gomez. Those three songs are the Texas Blues portion of the CD, and I'd have taken an entire album of that.


Christmas on the Bandstand (Various)
This is a collection of big-band Christmas music, the vast majority of which I appear to already have. It's actually a little difficult to identify which I own and which I don't, since the band names don't match up perfectly. It's a decent album containing tracks from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and plenty of other jazz greats. But, like I've said, I already have quite a few of these tracks.


Banjo Christmas (The Clarke Family)
I'm seven albums in, and this is the first album that's not a compilation of various performers (okay, so the Temptations/Supremes album is debatable). That's just a coincidence - I didn't just get compilations this year.

Anyway, an album called "Banjo Christmas" is likely to be one of two things: a gimmicky gag album or Christmas songs played in a bluegrass style. Thankfully, this was the latter. It's good, too.

The songs are mostly pieces we're used to: "Joy to the World", "Jingle Bells", "Little Drummer Boy"... you get the idea. The tunes are mostly unchanged, but the style and instrumentation give them a unique sound. I like every track on here, but "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", "What Child is This", and "Silent Night" are particularly exceptional. I'll definitely be listening to this one more.

...AND... Hold the phone. Turns out, this ISN'T new to me. All the tracks on this album were repackaged along with another album and released as "Christmas Pickins: A Banjo Christmas", which I bought and wrote about in 2012. Ah well: at least it was a good album. It's a lot worse when I discover I paid money for duplicates of crappy songs.


Acid X-Mas (Various)
This album is essentially a collection of electronic remixes and re-imagined Christmas songs. I don't really know the genre well enough to comment on whether these tracks are technically any good, but I'm always in need of Christmas music with some energy. The music is certainly fun, though it gets repetitive after a while. Fortunately, that's what set lists are for: this album might get old as is, but peppered along other tracks, it should add some appreciated variety.

I like most of these songs, though "Nutcracker Suite (Dance of the Funky DJ's)" is my favorite.


The Sound of Christmas (The Trapp Family Singers)
Huh. So, you know that weird moment when you look up the generic-sounding singing group on Wikipedia to find out if there's anything special about them you might want to mention on the write-up for your blog post, then you suddenly realize that you're listening to a Christmas album sung by the family who inspired the Sound of Music?

There should really be a word for that.

If I had bothered to look closer at the disc, I'd have seen the same info advertised across the front. Regardless, this is THAT Trapp family, which is kind of neat from a historical point-of-view. Other than that, it's a pretty conventional mix of English and German Christmas carols. Not bad, but - aside from the historical footnote - there's nothing unique about the album.


Home for Christmas/The Irish Tenors
In the Venn diagram, there are overlapping circles for good albums and music I really don't give a rat's ass about. This one is firmly in the center of that section.

The singers, I assume, are as talented as they're supposed to be. They sound good, anyway. But there's nothing particularly special about what they're singing. I mean, sure, the point is that they're supposedly singing classical Christmas carols as well as close to perfect as possible. That's cool and all. But I've heard these done similarly too many times to care.


A Jazzy Christmas in Dixie (The Highway Jazzmen)
Like the name implies, these tracks are Dixieland versions of holiday classics - "Jingle Bells", "Silent Night", "O Christmas Tree"... you get the idea. I'm torn on this one. On one hand, it makes for pretty good background music. On the other hand, it's all a little too background. It almost sounds like music being performed in a hotel lobby: the band might be good, but they're dialing it in. In short, it's the kind of music you play quietly while you do something else. It's not something I'd actively seek out.


That Christmas Swing (The Dave Williamson Big Band and Singers)
This is a mix of different swing approaches to classic Christmas songs. While some are relatively straightforward, others go in unusual directions. There's a slow jazz version of "What Child is This" that feels like something on a soundtrack to a 70's detective movie - needless to say, that's probably my favorite song on the album. There aren't any bad tracks: even the more conventional versions are solid. All in all, a good album.


Downtown Christmas (Holiday Cheer Band)
As far as I can tell, this was intended to be played by shops and restaurants. The "Holiday Cheer Band" is made up of two members, who also produced and arranged the album. Judging by the 90's clipart quality of the artwork, I wouldn't be surprised if they did that, too.

The music isn't actually bad: it's just... well... background music. It exists to be inoffensive and remind everyone it's Christmas. I like a few of the tracks. The songs no one screws up, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "We Three Kings", work well in this lounge-style jazz: I might keep those in circulation. I also like this version of "Silent Night" - it's just slow and depressing enough to be interesting. Most of the rest doesn't really stand out.


Garth Brooks & The Magic of Christmas (Garth Brooks)
I'm actually going to go ahead and give Brooks a pass on phoning in generic versions of classic Christmas songs instead of reworking them in his own style, because I rather loathe his music. This album contains a whopping total of two new songs: "Baby Jesus is Born" and "The Wise Men's Journey", one of which is an instrumental piece that's less than a minute and a half long. Everything else is a classic tune, most of which aren't even done in a country style (beyond Brooks' voice, of course).

In other words, this is intended for people who are so enamored by Garth Brooks, they'd pay to hear him sing "White Christmas". Even then, I can only assume most of them were a little irritated he didn't put a little more time into it.

As for me, the only track I have any interest in hearing again is that minute and a half instrumental piece. That was actually kind of pretty.


This Christmas (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John)
Twelve of the thirteen songs on this album are Christmas classics sung exactly the way they've been sung for half a century. Of course, the selling point for this isn't originality: it's that they're being sung by the two leads of Grease.

Screw that noise: this was a waste of time.

The track list should be obvious to anyone who's ever listened to a single Christmas album. We open with "Baby It's Cold Outside," sung in a manner so aggressively sexless the fact they gender-flipped the roles feels utterly superfluous. After that, they move on to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" with special guest Kenny G and "I'll be Home for Christmas" with Barbara Streisand.

It's like this thing was dreamt up by a random Christmas song generator.

I'm certainly not going to list the rest of the songs on this album: you get the point. I will mention the last track, a bizarre amalgamation of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Christmas Time is Here" that ignores the fact the tunes aren't even about the same holiday. Perhaps the random generator needs tweaking.

The one original song is called "I Think You Might Like It." I suspect I might feel a little more charitable towards this one if it was so blatantly pandering to the album's target audience. Imagine a song from a Grease Christmas Special set five years later with a bit of country thrown in, and you'll be far closer to truth than you expect.

Normally, this is where I throw in some kind of caveat about the music not being bad or something, but frankly Travolta kind of sucks at holiday music. Newton-John's a decent singer, but who the hell cares? This album is boring and derivative.


Season's Greetings from Nashville (Various)
I found this at a yard sale and bought it mainly out of curiosity. I wasn't sure if it would actually play: the disc is cut out in the shape of Santa wearing a cowboy hat, and I couldn't tell for sure if that was how it left the factory or if someone had somehow cut the image out as part of a bizarre art project. It turns out the shape was intentional, and the disc does, in fact, play.

The shape is certainly gimmicky, but there's no denying it's memorable. The price of carving up the CD comes in the form of lost space: there's only five tracks on this for less than fifteen minutes of music combined. For what it's worth, the tracks are pretty good.

It contains one song I already have: the Statler Brothers version of "Jingle Bells" (you can find my favorable reaction to their album here). The other tracks are from Faron Young, George Jones, Sammy Kershaw, and Lynn Anderson, and I like them all.


Christmas Time With the Judds (The Judds)
I think I've discussed this before on the blog, so you have my apologies if this is a recycled rant. I grew up in rural Maine. While it's a slight oversimplification to say the conservatives listened to country music and the liberals listened to rock, it was a pretty accurate rule of thumb. Regardless of how true it was, that was certainly the impression I picked up.

And I really hated conservatives.

As a result, I hated country music with a passion. But I haven't lived in Maine in a long, long time, and I've had some time to reflect on music and politics. Of course, I'm old enough to realize the folly in dismissing an art form because of its fans. One unexpected benefit I've gotten from this blog is an opportunity to re-evaluate country music.

I still really hate conservatives, though.

This album is quite good: the songs are all classics, but the Judds instill their own style. The music is soft and sad: really nice stuff. I particularly like their version of "Winter Wonderland," but the whole album is good.


Merry Christmas With Love (Clay Aiken)
This is the kind of music I despise with every ounce of my soul. Like damn near every one of the CD's I listen to, almost all of the tracks are classics. On top of that, there's a new song with the same title as the album: "Merry Christmas With Love."

Ugh. That's the one that really grated on me: the others are more or less just over-produced versions of songs I'm sick of. I'm used to sitting through that kind of stuff, but the original tune is painful. It's the sound the Platonic ideal of the color pink would make vomiting directly into the mouth of the Universal Unconscious.

It's the kind of song that will make you hate love.


One More Drifter in the Snow (Aimee Mann)
Well, this definitely wins the award for prettiest album name. Fortunately, that's not all this CD has going for it.

This is a decent album, but not a great one. The approach seems to be to take classic Christmas songs and tweak their sound slightly. The changes are of course appreciated, but I'd have liked something more drastic. I kept thinking that she sounded like someone who might have appeared on the WB back in the day, and... sure enough... Wikipedia mentions she was in a band which showed up on an episode of Buffy.

My favorite song here is "Christmastime", though her version of "Winter Wonderland" featuring a tropical feel is in the running. I've got more mixed feelings about her take on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch": it's not bad, but it feels uninspired. There are plenty of other solid tracks on here - like I said before: a good album... just not great.


So that's 245 new songs. A reasonable amount of new music, but certainly nothing excessive. Ultimately, it's barely a drop in the bucket compared with the 3200+ we already had.

"But wait," you might be saying, "Isn't Christmas about excess?"

Indeed, it is. Because the above represents our new CD's, not the sum total of new music we're listening to. But that's a subject for another post....

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