Tuesday, December 15, 2015
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THIS YEAR'S CHRISTMAS ALBUM ROUND-UP
It's time for the Christmas roundup, with the best (and the rest) of the new or slightly-used releases for this year's holiday purchasing. As usual, new collections have been put together, old favourites given new life, and old standby's are being re-gifted with the same old stuff just given new wrapping.
One of the keys to making a popular Christmas album is having a voice people want to hear singing their favourite holiday numbers. There's a reason Ozzy Osborne hasn't released a Yuletide collection, not that I know of anyway. Jann Arden has one of those voices that fans appreciate, full of warmth and friendliness. That's what she brings to A Jann Arden Christmas, a run through 13 of the usual suspects, from carols to John & Yoko's Happy X-mas (War is Over). While it doesn't break the mold, it sure sounds great, thanks to Arden's voice and Bob Rock's big production. This one leaps out of the speakers with rock band backing, plus strings, horns and lots of voices. The only real surprise is that it took her this long to join the holiday parade.
One of the biggest-selling Christmas albums of the last few years is back, with a little extra in the package in case you loved it so much you need more. Rod Stewart keeps trying to write and record new music (his latest is just out, Another Country), but what his fans keep buying is old retreads, songbook selections and best-ofs. First released in 2012, Merry Christmas, Baby was a huge success, going gold and platinum all over, including Canada, and has sold millions. Why? Don't have a clue. It's a rather lifeless set, built around Stewart's familiar pipes, in crooner mode. Cee Lo Green and Mary J. Blige bring a little life as duet partners, but there should be a label warning on this one, as somebody thought it would be classy to drag the late Ella Fitzgerald's memory through the muck with one of those after-life duets with Rod. Shame. Also, why do I have to be the one to point out that When You Wish Upon a Star is not a Christmas song? The upgrades here are a bonus DVD of five cuts, in case seeing Rod sing these makes them better.
Brian Setzer has been doing Christmas right for over a decade, with four different studio albums, live albums and TV specials, and has become a favourite talk show guest this time of year because of it. With his rockabilly and jump blues styles adapted to the Christmas swing, he's really put a lot of life and effort into the genre. This year, another new one, called Rockin' Rudolph, credited to the Brian Setzer Orchestra. As usual, his guitar is the star, ripping off some great solos along the way. He certainly can do the faves such as Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, and finds a more obscure tune by the same writer, Johnny Marks, called Rockabilly Rudolph, great stuff. I like the way he puts some boogie into normally-staid numbers such as Most Wonderful Time of the Year. But I'm not sold on the need of turning The Flintstones theme song, one of his party pieces, into something called Yabba-Dabba Yuletide. It's the only bum note on the set though.
There's long-running series called Now, which comes from England where it first appeared as Now That's What I Call Music, a hits series that often went to #1 and always sold tons. Now it is used for catalogue collections from the Universal empire, and this year's Christmas-themed set is Now 25 Top Hits Best of Christmas. Spread over two CD's, it includes some old time faves (Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante), the Motown family (Jackson 5, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye), more modern stuff (Sheryl Crow, Lady Antebellum) and some Can-Con (Anne Murray, Arden, The Rankin Sisters, Nikki Yanofsky). These things always have a couple of ringers to warm your heart, such as Bing's White Christmas and Burl Ives' A Holly Jolly Christmas, and some surprises, like a very good Pretty Paper by Glen Campbell. Overall, it won't bug you, but its more likely a background disc for Christmas morning.
Those compilations can be pretty darn good sometimes too. The Number 1 Jazz Christmas Album is a very good listen, Christmas or not. Starting with Vince Guaraldi's Linus and Lucy, where we get the full-length, somewhat unfamiliar version. It's classy all the way through, with many great female singers especially, including Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Kay Starr and more. There are also some grand instrumental versions, by Bill Evans, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, and even Dexter Gordon. This is a real winner.