Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Christmas Music, the 2015 Edition
Posted by Erin Snyder at 8:00 AM
Our music buying habits changed last year when Amazon added streaming music to Prime membership. We picked up a couple of new CDs this year, but for the most part new holiday tunes are pulled from digital options.
While it's nowhere near as massive as last year's additions, here are the albums I'm listening to, in addition to the 50 or so holiday playlists I've assembled out of the thousands of songs we own or stream.
I want to stress that these aren't intended to be full reviews in any meaningful sense: I don't consider myself qualified to review music. Instead, view these as an opportunity to appreciate the depths I'm willing to sink to in order to experience the holiday season.
A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (Various)
In today's installment of horrible rich people, we've got this collection of Christmas music produced by convicted murderer, Phil Spector.
Spector may be scum, but he was influential scum, thanks to his "Wall of Sound" recording/editing technique that utilized... gah. I'm honestly not 100% clear on what the deal was. I think it had something to do with recording a bunch of musicians playing rock as if they were an orchestra, prioritizing the overall sound over the individual parts or something. But I don't actually understand the details - go read the Wikipedia article, if you care.
Unlike most compilations, this one does bear the producer's signature. There are several artists here - The Ronettes, The Crystals, Darlene Love, and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans are all credited - but all the music has a similar sound, thanks to the aforementioned "Wall of Sound" technique.
It's not at all a bad sound, and my understanding is that it was novel at the time. Now, it's kind of passe: I've heard many of these tracks before. Still, it's good early 60's Christmas rock.
A Farting Christmas (Santa's Farting Elves)
Well, I'm grateful to be getting this out of the way early. This is, of course, exactly what it sounds like: a novelty album of fart sounds playing Christmas music. More accurately, they're fart sounds accompanying synthesized holiday music. It's the same basic idea behind those damned dog and cat Christmas albums, only with fart noises instead barking.
There are twenty-two tracks on this thing, though they're all about two minutes or less. As you'd expect from something like this, the tunes are recognizable Christmas classics, since there'd be even less point in including anything else. Several of the song titles have been tweaked with lazy puns, like "Hark! The Heralds Angels Fart" and "We Three Farting Kings."
For what it's worth, "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fart Fairy" works alright as a sort of subversive parody of the tune. It would work a hell of a lot better if it weren't surrounded by dozens of tracks failing to get the same effect.
Meowy Christmas (Jingle Cats)
I really need to improve the way I collect music, since it tends to result in things like this grouping together. Ultimately, this isn't nearly as idiotic as A Farting Christmas, but it's still a lot to put up with in quick succession. Like that, this accompanies classic Christmas songs with cat meow sounds (and occasionally dogs barking).
The majority of music on this seems to be instrumental, with a few exceptions. This contains twenty tracks, most falling in the two to three minute range, with Waltz of the Flowers tragically drawn out to five minutes and change.
Holiday Harmony (America)
My go-to complaint for holiday albums is that they stick too closely with established conventions without putting the artists' spin on the songs. I'm happy to say this doesn't fall into that pitfall.
Let me save you a trip to Wikipedia: America is that band that recorded the songs for The Last Unicorn. Yeah, them: the seventies folk/pop band. I've got mixed feelings about their music in general, but I'm glad I got them singing Winter Wonderland like themselves than yet another case of someone trying to impersonate Bing Crosby.
In addition to the old songs, there are a couple that are either new or obscure. "Winter Holidays" is particularly good, and not just because it seems to be giving the middle finger to the "Christ in Christmas" gestapo.
Overall, a solid album. If you don't like America (the band, not the country/continents), this isn't going to change your mind, but - as someone who has way to many "classic Christmas albums," this is a nice departure.
Navidad Borincana (Andres Jimenez, El Jibaro)
I'm having a hard time finding out much background info about this album, and I owe most of what I have learned to Google Translate. This is a Puerto Rican folk Christmas album, which is certainly a departure from the norm. It's good music, too, at least as far as I can judge the genre.
It's interesting to hear dramatically different folk Christmas songs than what I'm used to - this has none of the tropes or sounds I'm accustomed to hearing in American holiday classics.
I was torn whether or not to do this - as a rule of thumb, I skip over singles when I'm writing them up. But this contains five different versions of the song, including everything from a dubstep remix to an acoustic version.
The song in question, Miracle, seems to be a religious Hanukkah song, which is novel enough to make it interesting. The performer, Matisyahu, is a Jewish reggae/hip-hop artist, which is as good a description of the song as any. It has a vibe reminiscent of Christian rock, which isn't exactly my favorite genre. Still, it's neat enough to make up for that. The "Beatbox" version is my favorite - I'm sticking that in a couple playlists to listen to again.
I also ended up with another of his singles, Happy Hanukkah, which I prefer. The genre is similar, but it sounds less "Christian rock" to me.
Winter's Majesty (Nox Arcana)
Neo-classical Gothic holiday theme music? Yes, please.
Let's get this out of the way: this stuff feels a tad pretentious, particularly in the melodramatic introduction. But who the hell cares? It's dark, fun music with a wintery sound and a hint of holiday flair. I'll take a bit of pretense if that's the price: I wish I'd had this back when I was writing 25 Christmas Eves.
There's a lot to love on this album - almost every song is original, and the adaptations feel fresh. There's a fantastic spin on Scarborough Fair that balances the spirit of the classic with the group's unique spin.
There's a wide range of sounds and styles, especially considering the focused concept. It's more or less all mood music, but you've got tracks that feel like they belong behind everything from tragedies, fantasy, to outright horror.
I don't think there's a track on here I'm not enjoying. None of the music is groundbreaking, but the unapologetic Gothic tone serves as a fantastic palate cleanser to the piles of cheer we're force fed every year.
Talkin' Christmas! (The Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal)
This is a blues and gospel Christmas album featuring some great arrangements of classical songs along with new songs. Most are religious in nature, of course (I'd expect nothing else from The Blind Boys of Alabama, a gospel group which has been performing for seven decades).
There's a wide range of styles on here: soft R&B, acoustic blues, gospel, and soul are all represented here. It's good music that manages to deliver some holiday cheer without duplicating others' styles. (so far, this year's been a good one for me in that respect).
My favorite track is their extremely original take on "Do You Hear What I Hear?" which completely transforms the classic.
Christmas: Coming Soon - Position Music Orchestral Series Vol. 5 (Various, mostly James Dooley)
This seems to be a concept album of orchestral holiday music arranged to stylistically sound like it's playing in the background of a Hollywood movie. Depending on the track, it could be an action movie, a mystery, a horror, or something else. I think it was intended as a catalog for producers to find background music they could license for TV or film.
If they'd half-assed this, the results would have been obnoxious, but they actually delivered on this thing. Sure, Carol of the Bells always sounds like something that might be playing during an action movie, but they turn Emmanuel into something badass. There's a version of Silent Night that sounds like something you'd hear playing while watching demons crawling out of a lake. They took this project seriously and delivered something worthwhile.
I absolutely love this. It's high-energy Christmas music that delivers a dark tone without shying away from its roots. There are 27 tracks in all, though half are alternate versions of the same songs.
Christmas on the Beach with Harry Belafonte and the Beach Boys
This is a short album - just three tracks from the Beach Boys and four from Belafonte. The Beach Boys tracks take less than seven minutes to get through, too, which is unfortunate: they do a better job retaining their own sound. Even then, their first track, I'll be Home for Christmas, is pretty generic. But their recording of Santa's Beard is more interesting and by far my favorite on the album.
There's nothing wrong with Harry Belafonte's tracks, but we've been down this road before. If you love his voice, maybe his straightforward recording of Silent Night and other classics will appeal to you, but otherwise, just listen to anyone of the dozens of other options out there.
Christmas Spirit (Various)
I can't find much info about this compilation itself, but a disproportionate number of the performers have backgrounds in Christian music. Between that and the title, I'm guessing this was meant to be marketed in that direction.
Despite this, there aren't actually that many religious songs included. Exempting O Holy Night, there's just the title song, performed by Michael English: the rest are secular classics like Winter Wonderland and We Need a Little Christmas.
Oh, that "Spirit of Christmas" song sucks.
The rest are good, though not particularly original, recordings. Each track is performed by someone different, and here's a wide range of styles represented - Selah, Wynonna, LeAnn Rimes, Fernando Ortega, and more. That gives the album some variation, but - again - nothing new other than the worst track.
It's pretty short - eight songs at about a half an hour total. As is often the case, it's not a bad album, but I've got no use for most of these tracks. The two possible exceptions are LeAnn Rimes's All I Want for Christmas and Natalie Grant's Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Neither are completely transformed, but both do just enough to tweak the songs to make them somewhat distinct.
Christmas Songs (Bad Religion)
I'm not entirely sure what to think of this album. I think it was supposed to be a somewhat sarcastic recording of classical Christmas songs in a punk style. But, oddly, this most reminds me of Christian rock albums I've heard. With the exception of White Christmas and American Jesus, all of the tracks are at least vaguely religious Christmas songs. Stylistically, they retain more of the original songs than they change: they're essentially just speeding up the pace, using electric guitars and distortion, and doing them in a punk style. The results sound more reverent than aggressive, though I doubt that was the intention.
It's a short album - nineteen minutes total. A few of the tracks work well, thanks to their energy: I rather like this take on O Come, O Come Emmanuel and The Little Drummer Boy. It's decent music, but - like I said - is oddly indistinguishable from a lot of contemporary religious holiday music. I wish they'd deviated more from the classic melodies.
It's Christmas (Mikeschair)
I get it - I'm being punished for comparing Bad Religion to Christian Rock. When I did so, I meant their holiday album reminded me of atypical Christian rock offerings - Christian Punk and the sort. But this album from Mikschair is quintessential Christian Rock. This is the kind of thing that gets under my skin.
That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad - I'm really not qualified to judge. But, personally, I find it cloying and obnoxious. The music sounds simplistic, and the vocals have that raspy, optimistic sound that makes you want to go knock over a manger scene.
Again - not my cup of tea.
There are two original tracks on here, or at least ones I've never heard of: Redemption Song and It's Christmas. The other three are classic religious tunes that namedrop Christ. The originals are downright painful, and the adaptations aren't much better. There's some relatively interesting instrumental arrangements on Hark! the Harold Angels Sing, but... ugh. Those vocals.
Winter Serenade (Jon Schmidt)
I'm not exactly lacking Christmas piano music, but if I have to listen to yet another album, this is the kind I want. Schmidt experiments with the songs, arranging them in some pretty unusual ways. Pachelbel Meets U2 is a good example, blending Canon with With or Without You.
There's a lot of range here, too, encompassing dark classical, upbeat, and some impressive genre mixing. Fair warning to anyone planning on giving this a try, though: not every experiment is a success. The last track contains a song he does with his young daughter, who.... I'm sure Schmidt's heart was in the right place, but it's painfully obvious she's not ready for this kind of singing. Emphasis on the painfully.
All the other tracks are at least good. I'm not sure there was anything on here I absolutely loved, but with the above exception, I enjoyed listening to the rest.
Good thing, too - I've got a second album from him to listen to later.
Rose of Bethlehem (Selah)
Hey - these guys again. They had a song on the Christmas Spirit compilation I listened to earlier.
It's more Christian music, but - unlike Mikeschair - some of the tracks are pretty good. There's a lot of relatively straightforward slow pop, but several songs almost have elements of World Music. I especially like "Once Upon a Christmas," which features Dolly Parton and Noel, which has heavy African influences. You can also include the song Mystery, which almost sounds like it should be playing over the opening to a Bond movie. I'll listen to those three again.
Their more general holiday songs - Whose Child is This?, O Holy Night, Silent Night - are more generic, but still good performances. Overall, a solid album despite a handful of a generic pop tracks.
Holiday (Earth, Wind & Fire)
So far, this has been a really good year for me, music-wise.
This is a relatively new album, released just last year, from Earth, Wind & Fire. Like the band themselves, this encompasses several different genres - R&B, disco, soul... the list goes on. Different tracks feature very different approaches to the music, many of which aren't intuitive. For example, Jingle Bell Rock is done in sort of slow, lounge style, while Walking in a Winter Wonderland is transformed into disco.
Both of those tracks are fantastic, but that's par for the course: there's not a bad song on this album. In addition to the transformed classical Christmas songs, they also Christmasified a couple of their own classics: Happy Feelin' becomes Happy Seasons, and September was retconned into December.
This might become one of my go-to examples for what holiday albums should be: they're taking classic seasonal music and completely transforming the sound and style without losing the core. It's great music.
Welcome to Our Christmas Party (Band of Merrymakers)
This is an odd album. Apparently, the "Band of Merrymakers" are singers and musicians who wanted to raise some cash for charity. This contains a mix of original and classical music. Some is relatively generic, while other tracks are at least somewhat different. None of this feels extremely experimental - it's basically pop music - but it isn't bad. The standouts include what I assume are new songs Snow Snow Snow and To All a Good Night, as well as an energetic version of Jingle Bells.
I divvied the songs I like into a few play lists. There's plenty of stuff worth revisiting: it's a good album, just not an extraordinary one.
Cool Yule (Bette Midler)
My run couldn't last forever. This isn't a bad album, but it's exactly what you'd expect from a Bette Midler Christmas album: classic holiday songs in a classic style.
Unless you're a huge fan of Midler, hearing her sing White Christmas, What Are You Doing New Year's Eve, or even Mele Kalikimaka offers the same experience you'd get from listening to the versions she's honoring or any of the other countless talented singers who have done the same thing following a misguided urge to produce a classic holiday album, as if there weren't dozens of similar albums produced annually.
Other than the obvious tracks, she throws in a slightly Christmased version of From a Distance, which doesn't really appeal to me any more than the other songs. It's a fine album, but who really cares?
Very Merry Christmas (Dave Barnes)
I think I've listened to this album four times already. I don't actually like it that much: I just keep putting it on as background music and forgetting to pay attention.
Actually, I like three of the tracks quite a lot: the first two are jazz, and they're pretty good. The last song, called Mary and Joseph, is sort of a slow ballad that re-imagines the Bible story in contemporary terms. It's a nice, sad song.
The other tracks skew more towards traditional adaptations and/or pop songs. Good or bad, I've got less interest in those. But I'll gladly listen to those three again.
Jon Schmidt Christmas (Jon Schmidt)
Hey - it's him again. Unfortunately, this album is much less experimental than the one I listened to earlier. Which is another way of saying this is a Christmas album featuring classical piano. There's nothing wrong with that, but I've got more tracks of this kind of stuff than I know what to do with.
The Classic Christmas Album (Barbra Streisand)
Ugh. Name says it all, doesn't it? A Classic Christmas Album, indeed. I've got nothing against Streisand, but I could care less that it's her singing Ave Maria or I'll be Home for Christmas instead of any of the dozen or so other versions I have. Generic Christmas albums are a dime a dozen. Actually, if you have Amazon Prime, they're free.
To be fair, she mixes up Jingle Bells a bit, but then who doesn't? It's a fun rendition, but I have much, much more original versions at my disposal.
Christmas Cello (Steven Sharp Nelson)
This album almost drove me crazy. From the first few bars, I knew I'd heard it before. Not something similar, not the same arrangement: the same track. But a search of my music turned up nothing - I didn't have a single song credited to Steven Sharp Nelson.
As the album went on, I recognized other tracks. These were classical songs, but the arrangements were distinct and interesting. I'd heard most of them before. So I searched the blog for Christmas Cello, and found my answer.
Honestly, all I really had to do with head to Wikipedia - I'd have learned Steven Sharp Nelson is the cello player from The Piano Guys. After pulling up both albums and comparing several tracks, it sounds like many were reused on The Piano Guys album, A Family Christmas.
For what it's worth, both are great albums, but there's a lot of overlap.
Christmas With The Rat Pack (Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis, Jr.)
This is a compilation of Christmas music from Sinatra, Martin, and Davis, Jr. Not surprisingly, I've got the vast majority of these already, though my selection of Sammy Davis, Jr. was apparently lacking.
These are, of course, holiday classics that we've all heard a hundred times. Still, there's a reason they've endured, and it's still early enough in the season I'm not sick to death of them yet.
What A Wonderful World (LeAnn Rimes)
This year's music started out so good, too. Well, once we were past the cat sounds and fart noises, anyway. But now we're getting into the uninspired, generic holiday albums.
This isn't bad, but - rehashing my most common complaint - there's just not much to differentiate from the stacks of other holiday recordings. Rimes does slow several songs down - they're not all precisely the same arrangements - but it's a trivial change for the most part. By and large, I'm hearing the same songs I've heard a thousand times before with a new singer.
On This Winter's Night (Lady Antebellum)
While it may sound like some kind of gothic death metal band, Lady Antebellum is actually a country band, a fact I found somewhat disappointing when I played their album. But I was much more disappointed to find that this album was barely country: for the most part, it's just a mix of unmodified classics and pop songs.
So.. yeah. Really, really boring generic holiday music. Let's move on.
a very merry perri christmas (Christina Perri)
This is a short, melancholy holiday album. One song's original - Something about December - while the others are covers. I like Something About December as a sad Christmas tune: I'll drop it on a playlist with similar downcast songs. Same with her version of Merry Christmas Darling, which is an obscure enough song to come off as original.
There are only four other tracks, though they're fairly faithful adaptations of existing songs. It's a good mix of old and new, at least, and Perri seems to invest at least a little of her style in each of them. I'd have preferred something a little more unusual, but after the LeAnn Rimes and Lady Antebellum albums, this was an improvement.
My Kind Of Christmas (Christina Aguilera)
I'm not a fan of Christina Aguilera, so this one doesn't really appeal to me. That said, I've got to give credit where it's due - Aguilera takes the classics on this album and makes them hers, doing them in her own style. This is an album for Aguilera's fans, not for Bing Crosby's, and as such at least justifies its existence.
The album starts with a couple original songs, which I prefer to the altered classics (though, again, better than unaltered). It doesn't strike me as a bad album; just not for me.
Ultimate Christmas Collection (Jackson 5)
This is essentially an updated version of the 1970 Jackson 5 Christmas Album with a few added tracks and several remixes. It's a good album, all considered, featuring some unique versions of holiday classics like Rudolph and Frosty. The music moves between funk, rock, rhythm and blues, and pop, depending on the track.
That's Christmas To Me (Pentatonix)
Pentatonix is an a cappella group which won a reality TV competition called, "The Sing-Off." It's not hard to see why - they're good.
PTX-Mas was their first attempt at a Christmas album, and - despite being technically impressive - it's not all that interesting. The arrangements are relatively generic (aside from being a cappella, of course), and the song choices are obvious and uninspired - Angels We Have Heard on High, Carol of the Bells, The Christmas Song... you get the idea.
More recently, they released "That's Christmas to Me," which picks things up a bit. Several tracks on this are fantastic - I love their takes on White Winter Hymnal and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This also features a fun mashup mixing Winter Wonderland and Don't Worry be Happy. The last song of the album is Let It Go, which is a bit played out. Still, it's always nice when someone agrees Frozen counts as a Christmas property.
They're both solid albums, but I'm definitely more interested in hearing That's Christmas to Me again.
Overall, this was a great year for my playlists: the majority of music I added, I liked. To be fair, that's partially because, at 3800 songs and counting, I can afford to be more discerning when clicking the "add album" button. I'm still trying to add significant tracks I'm missing and a handful of awful crap I've never heard, but I don't see the point in trying to add every piano track Amazon has streaming - there's simply too many to get through in this lifetime.
I'll continue adding more stuff over time, but I feel like I've amassed a sizable selection. At this point, I'm not entirely certain I'll commit to a similar article next year, but - then again - that's how I felt at the end of the first one of these I did.
I don't so much mind that no one - and I certainly hope I mean NO ONE - is reading these to the end (really - tell me you guys aren't foolish enough to work your way through something like this): it's more that the time I'm spending finding and listening to these tracks is taking away from the time I'd like to spend listening to holiday music I love.
But we'll see - I am a glutton for Christmas.