Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006: The "Singles"

I loved 45’s when I was a kid. If you’re of a certain age, you remember 45’s…singles…seven inches, two songs, warm and inviting sound. There aren’t really singles anymore…just tracks off CDs…but back in my day (he said sounding as ancient as he sometimes feels) 45’s were wondrous things. I had (and have) eclectic tastes in music and 45’s let me sample the breadth of those tastes better than a single LP could (albums too often only had a few good songs thrown in with a lot of disappointing filler…yes, I’m looking at you, Motown…you too, Elvis.)

Great singles became the soundtrack of our lives…they were the insanely catchy pop songs that you knew all the words to, that you turned up loud whenever they came on the radio. There are, of course, tracks (and “CD-singles”) that serve that same function these days but it’s not quite the same as 45’s (I used to love the colorful labels, the familiar soft crackle and hiss of the needle on the vinyl before the music started, and discovering interesting songs on the “b” side.)

That said, there are, of course, still pop songs that are insanely catchy…that you turn up loud whenever they come on the radio…that you sometimes can’t avoid even when you might want to...

The “singles” that got into my head this year included:

Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”
(Absolutely unavoidable and undeniably engaging, this was arguably the theme song of the summer of ’06.)

Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On”
(An infectious slice of summertime pop…it’s hard not sing along to when it’s playing.)

Katie Melua’s “Nine Million Bicycles”
(A lilting, compelling mid-tempo ballad that effortlessly soothes and engages the listener.)

U2 & Green Day’s “The Saints are Coming”
(A delightfully energetic rocker in either its studio or live [recorded at the re-opening of the Super Dome in
New Orleans] versions.)

“SexyBack” Justin Timberlake
(JT brought sexy back…whatta guy! this throbbing, bawdy dance track.)

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown

James Brown
May 3, 1933 - December 25, 2006

James Brown was, by most accounts, no saint…he was a prickly, vain soul, a stern taskmaster, a difficult person to be married to, and someone who ran afoul of the law more than a few times…but, all that said, he was an innovator, a teacher, a tireless entertainer willing to give it all to his awed, wholly appreciative audience.

He was indeed the Hardest Working Man in Show Business…the undeniable Godfather of Soul…and when the lights came up and his crack band slipped into a tight groove and the man in the cape and the pompadour strode gracefully onto the stage you knew what time it was…it was Star Time.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Merry Christmas to You

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
and folks dressed up like Eskimos

Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
will find it hard to sleep tonight

They know that Santa's on his way,
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother's child is gonna spy
to see if reindeer really know how to fly

And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
to kids from one to ninety-two
Although it's been said,
many times, many ways:
"Merry Christmas to you."

- Mel Torme and Bob Wells -


There are folks out there who think that American Idol celebrates and perpetuates the worst aspects of modern pop music. And while some of the music that has come from former winners and contestants hasn’t done much to disprove that notion, it’s unfair to dismiss AI altogether (even if the judges…especially Simon Cowell…seem more concerned with commerce rather than art when it comes to music-making.)

Not that Idol would allow itself to be dismissed...not with this year’s chartbusting success of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood (as well as the credible sales racked up by Chris Daughtry, Taylor Hicks, Clay Aiken, and Kellie Pickler) and the much-lauded performance of Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. It is, for better or worse, a star-making juggernaut.

Third-season winner Fantasia’s first CD wasn’t perfect but it was promising enough to make me really anticipate her follow-up (Kelly Clarkson’s first disc had the same promise and she stepped up and offered up a real winner on his sophomore effort.)

Fantasia’s eponymous second CD kicks off with an infectious banger, “Hood Boy”, featuring a rap by Big Boi…built over a sample of The Supremes’ “The Happening”, it hits the ground running and never stops.

Fantasia is feeling more than a bit frisky (check out the cheeky “Baby Makin’ Hips”)…most of these songs are about making out and hooking up unabashedly…and she is in grand voice throughout.

There are, as is par for the course these days, an array of producers working here but, despite that, the record manages to sound coherent because Fantasia’s soulful, self-assured voice is always in control.

Missy Elliott co-wrote and produced three cuts: the throbbing “I’m Not That Type” (which would fit comfortably on one of Elliott’s own albums), the defiant old school kiss-off “Two Week Notice”, and the inspirational closer “Bump What Ya Friends Say”. Babyface produces (and plays all the instruments) on the self-affirming ballad “I Feel Beautiful”.

(One curmudgeonly aside…”When I See U”, “I Nominate U”, “Only One U”, “Surround U”…look I don’t care what Prince said, the letter “U” and the word “You” are NOT interchangeable homonyms.)

Fantasia is not perfect (“I Nominate U” is awkward and a bit silly) but it is mighty fine and it reaffirms that Ms. Barrino is a pop artist who is true to herself and we’re all the richer for that.

Chris Daughtry also followed his muse as best as he could when he was on American Idol (in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was pulling for him to win…but it’s probably better that he didn’t) and his debut CD, Daughtry (the name of his band, who don’t perform on this CD despite the fact that they are on the back cover), follows continues that path.

Daughtry wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on this disc and they are, true to the way he presented himself on the show, melodic rock and roll (most going from a gruff whisper to a soulful scream.) There is a definite Nickelback vibe here but Daughtry’s earnest vocals still carry the day (he could probably dial it down a bit more often but that’s a minor quibble.)

The musicians on the disc are solid (Slash steps in to play lead guitar on the snarling “What I Want”) and the production (by Howard Benson, who has worked with P.O.D., Motorhead, Less Than Jake, the All-American Rejects, and others.)

Daughtry is not perfect but it is engaging and it’s promising enough to really make me look forward to its follow-up.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dig That Crazy Christmas

Brian Setzer loves the swing music…that was evident even when he was a Stray Cat…and apparently he loves the Christmas music, too. Dig That Crazy Christmas (which came out last year) is the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s second yuletide CD and it is, to coin a phrase, a gas!

This record jumps and jives and just pulsates with energy, life, and the most fun-filled aspects of the Christmas season.

From the percolating title tune to the frenetic “Hey Santa”…from the gently swinging version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” (featuring a guitar riff that sounds like it was lifted from Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”) to the grand instrumental take on “My Favorite Things” (featuring some very tasty fretwork by Mr. Setzer)…from snappy big band workouts like “Getting’ in the Mood (for Christmas)” (a rewrite of Glenn Miller’s immortal “In the Mood”) and “Cool Yule” (which Bette Midler features on her 2006 Christmas disc of the same name)…the spirit of the season is joyfully embraced from the beginning to the end.

Even though their version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” isn’t a gloss on Aimee Mann’s playful take on her holiday CD, it’s a great deal of fun just the same…the same holds true for “’Zat You Santa Claus” (hard to top Louis Armstrong on this one, of course.)

Dig That Crazy Christmas is a fun holiday party record…and what could be cooler than that during a stressful holiday season?

* * * * *
More Christmas celebratin' is goin' on here:
Christmas Annex

And here:
Bread and Roses

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Christmas Music

The Christmas tree is up in the corner of the front room and Christmas gifts are patiently waiting to be festooned in bright paper and shiny bows. Two new Christmas tales are written and waiting to be inserted into this year’s Christmas cards (which themselves are waiting to be handed over to the tender mercies of the US Postal Service.) Despite my advancing age, I retain an undeniable fondness for the season of lights and magic (mindful of the gaudy veneer of commercialism that has become part and parcel of the holidays I still choose to see the season as being touched by wonder and, yes, magic.)

And, of course, there is music. I take unabashed delight in the music of the season. There are some for whom hearing the umpteenth version of “The Christmas Song” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by a pop star is akin to fingernails slowly scraping across a blackboard…but, while acknowledging that there is a fair measure of crappy holiday music, I remain a true fan usually adding 2 or 3 holiday CDs to my collection most years.

Last year, I highlighted some of my favorites (see here) and this year I add a few of my newer favorites (well, one’s not so new but it could be the best Christmas album ever…)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that my favorite Christmas CD is probably Someday at Christmas, a 22-song compilation I burned a couple of years ago and gave out with that year’s Christmas cards to selected friends and family. Kicking off with Patti Austin’s soulful version of “Christmas Time is Here” and ending with a lovely “Auld Lang Syne” by James Taylor, it features Springsteen, John and Yoko, Macy Gray, Lena Horne, The Supremes, Donny Hathaway, Barenaked Ladies, Laura Nyro, and the Jackson 5 (on the title cut) among others. I played it yesterday and it still sounds grand (however immodest that might sound :-) from beginning to end.

This year offers up some new delights including and especially the immortal soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas (arguably the best animated Christmas special ever) by Vince Guaraldi wonderfully re-mastered (it sounds amazing) and bolstered with a handful of alternative takes (all quite lovely.) This sublime music has been the soundtrack of the season for yours truly (and many others of my generation and those that followed) and it’s never sounded better.

Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter in the Snow is a warm, appealing versions of holiday chestnuts (“The Christmas Song”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) along with a couple of new songs (the bittersweet “Christmastime” written by Mann’s husband Michael Penn and the wistful “Calling on Mary” co-written by Mann herself) and a delightfully playful “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” with Grant Lee Phillips ably taking the narrator role made famous by Boris Karloff on the original version from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Sufjan Stevens (who apparently has as much unreleased music in his archives as Tupac did) has a holiday offering, Songs for Christmas, that is chockfull of goodness: 42 charming, witty, reverent songs spread out over 5 CDs (one each for the 5 years in which the songs were recorded: 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006), stories, an animated music video, a quirky, charming comic strip, photos, essays. It’s a groovy collection.

Eventually every pop star who no longer reach the upper levels of the charts will offer up a Christmas collection (even nice Jewish boys like Neil Diamond have made Xmas discs) so it’s not surprising that the Divine Miss M has finally broke out with Cool Yule. While I would have preferred fewer ballads drenched with swelling, syrupy strings (that said, the Christmas version of “From a Distance” is very cool) and more sassy fun (thank goodness for the delightfully jaunty “Mele Kalikimaka”, the charming duet with Johnny Mathis on “Winter Wonderland/Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”, the snappy version of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, and the swinging title song), Bette’s collection finds her in grand voice and it’s a fine addition to the burgeoning pantheon of pop Christmas CDs.

* * * * *
Some Christmas stories by your host
can be found here: Christmas Annex
and here: Bread and Roses