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CDs

Now hear this: musical gift ideas across the genres

Alternative/Indie

Few things are as indicative of the holiday season as fancy packaging. In fact, at this time of year, you can find any number of releases all gussied up for the gift giving, even some old favorites. Take, for instance, the Legacy Edition reissue of the Clash’s London Calling (Sony). In addition to a newly remastered version of the album, the package includes the long-lost Vanilla Tapes (demos, early versions and outtakes from the recording sessions), plus a special DVD, featuring a 40-minute documentary, in-studio footage, and all three music videos made for the album. It’s a doozy for diehard fans and collectors, although casual listeners might not have the attention span for all the ephemera. For those on your shopping list who are just fine with their old, scruffy Clash vinyl, try dropping a copy of Ted Leo + Pharmacists’ Shake the Sheets (Lookout!) in their stocking instead. Leo’s latest and greatest is the first to capture his band’s boundless live energy, while sounding halfway decent at the same time.

One of the nicer-looking collections to hit the shelves this quarter is Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (Anti), the new release from that ol’ bastion of holiday cheer, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Packaged in a gorgeous clothbound hardcover slipcase, this double-disc set finds Cave exploring all of his usual angels and demons with spirit to spare. Speaking of spirits and angels and demons and all that jazz, Rufus Wainwright is back with Want Two (Geffen). Not so much a companion piece to last year’s Want One as a wholly different, but somewhat parallel, line of thinking, Want Two finds Rufus getting fully in touch with his feminine side to produce what the Riverfront Times calls “the gayest album this side of Turbonegro’s Ass Cobra.” I’m guessing he wouldn’t mind so much if you wrapped it in lacy pink paper and tied it with several big, frilly bows. Initial pressings of the album include a 20-track live DVD, recorded at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco earlier this year.

To get in touch with your feminist side, try Le Tigre’s new This Island (Universal). While some purists are crying “sellout” over the trio’s leap to a major label, they should take solace in the fact that neither their sound nor their agenda have been altered in the slightest—the album is both rump-shaking and thought-provoking. I’ll award them extra special bonus points for including a supremely enjoyable cover of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” Equally as danceable, although not remotely as cerebral, is the Killers’ Hot Fuss (Island). You’ve likely heard the singles “Somebody Told Me” and “Mr. Brightside”; rest assured, the remainder of the album is just as worthy, in an ’80s-throwback, Duran Duran-via-Blur way.

It’s entirely possible that you have a prog-rock fan or two on your shopping list; we all know at least one. Try dropping them one of the recently reissued releases from legendary Brit band Nektar. A Tab in the Ocean, Recycled, and Remember the Future (Dream Nebula) are all classics to their genre, but the best of the bunch by far is the band’s 1971 debut, Journey to the Center of the Eye. The space-rock template established on that album is still adhered to today by bands like Monster Magnet and Queens of the Stone Age, and this remastered version—in 5.1 Surround sound, no less—sounds more cosmic than ever. Also on the progressive side, A Perfect Circle raise their voices for change on the unironically titled Emotive (Virgin), which intersperses a handful of politically charged originals with, er, unique reinventions of socially conscious standards like “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” “What’s Going On” and “Imagine.”

Lest we forget, the holiday season is ultimately about commerce, so the majors are rolling out the best-of packages to cash in on those buyers otherwise perplexed as to which catalog selections would best suit their intended. Neil Young’s Greatest Hits (Warner Bros.)—his first such collection, believe it or not—features most of his time-tested radio staples, but the tracklist would have you believe that Young went on sabbatical between 1977 and 1989, and quit altogether after “Harvest Moon.” Perhaps a second volume is in order? Two of England’s finest exports have like-minded packages out for the season: The 20-track Supergrass Is 10: Best of 94-04 (Capitol) aptly summarizes the woefully underrated trio’s development from ragged mod-poppers to assured rock & rollers, while the Verve’s This Is Music: The Singles ’92-’98 (Virgin) compiles the shoegazing hits from their three albums, adding two previously unreleased tracks from the Urban Hymns sessions as sales points. And finally, Pearl Jam fulfill their contractual obligations with rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991-2003) (Sony), which recaps the band’s significant impact on rock radio over the course of two CDs. Those who gave up on the band after Vs. should be pleasantly surprised by how consistent the band’s output has been, and although there’s nothing new here to draw in longtime fans, the set does include “Man of the Hour” (from the film Big Fish) and a number of their more popular b-sides.

—John Brodeur

Way Alternative/Indie

No matter how difficult it may be to describe a particular friend or relative, you can find them a CD that’s equally hard to pin down. Whether this will be a winning combination or not is for others to say, but at the very least this won’t be a duplicated gift and they may have a hard time re-gifting or returning it, always a nice set-in-stone condition to consider.

First up are a few offerings that are downright friendly, stepping across a number of genres with ease and grace. Michael Hurley’s latest is Down In Dublin, brought forth on the Irish Blue Navigator label, an imprint that’s pretty much dedicated to America’s most undercelebrated troubadour. His songs have the casual familiarity of a sweater with frayed elbows and, as I’ve said before, many a combo or solo act would do well to pepper their sets to the hilt with Hurley songs. I Take On Your Days (Hush Records) by Corrina Repp has the comfortable bearing of a winter novel read under quilts by a crackling fireplace. Minimal guitar figures are embellished with judiciously employed electronic beats and washes, over which her unadorned vocals roll forth like whispered secrets.

The Sonic Arts Network from our parent country, England, is a 7-inch-square (although over there they’d describe it by its more logical metric dimensions) periodical and CD combo. The beautifully designed November issue, titled Interesting Results, was assembled by Irwin Chusid, a man whose expertise is tied to the world of Outsider Music, and such players as B.J. Snowden, Lucia Pamela, and Shooby Taylor (also known by the perfectly endearing moniker “The Human Horn”)—all of whom are heard and annotated in this handsome package. The dozen tracks also include Petra Haden, one of bassist Charlie’s triplet daughters, doing an a capella version of the Who’s “Armenia (City in the Sky),” a tantalizing glimpse of her forthcoming album, which is an entirely vocalized rendering of The Who Sell Out.

Wonderfully selected and sequenced, the compilation My Favorite Song Writers is chock full of performers I’ve never heard of, some American, some Japanese, some of indeterminate locales. It’s a perfect 40 minutes, embracing everything from the swirling rhythms and snaky guitar melodies of Jim Ward’s “These Years” to the homemade exuberance of “Birthday #2” by Moonpedro and the New Farm Street Orchestra.

For a better-known oddity, there’s the new CD reissue of William Shatner’s The Transformed Man. At the height of his 1968 Captain Kirk powers he recorded dramatic readings of a half-dozen songs over fittingly grandiose musical settings. More recently he’s similarly teamed up with Ben Folds, but those are done far too knowingly. This original set is a delirious mix of naiveté and pomposity never again equaled. “Lucy. In the sky. With diamonds!”

 

 

 

 

—David Greenberger

Box Sets

I don’t have an iPod yet and I still like collecting stuff I can read, not just hear. So the box sets that have helped define the CD era continue to enthrall, nurture, even comfort me.

Like the vinyl LPs that preceded the CD, these box sets are big enough to house comprehensive booklets—make that books, in some cases—about their subjects, so they become part of the audio library. Audiophile Mosaic box sets, like ones issued this year on the underrated guitarist Tal Farlow and the higher-profile Dinah Washington, collect great, not necessarily commercial, music, and at best explain as well as justify.

Here are my choices of boxes that would make dandy Christmas presents. Information on price can be obtained at Amazon or, in Mosaic’s case, through its Web site, www.mosaicrecords.com.

Albert Ayler, Holy Ghost (Revenant). A troubled genius who spun “outside” saxophone out of his native Cleveland in the ’50s and ’60s, Ayler is memorialized in this staggering, nine-CD box from an Austin, Texas, company that specializes in the exceptional and the underheard. I haven’t listened to all of this but I’ve read the 200-page book and marveled at a gang of tracks spanning yawpy rhythm & blues, unbelievably free blowing, Albert’s troubled kid brother Donald on trumpet, and, occasionally, the gnarly, percussive pianist Cecil Taylor. Mind-blowing material that doesn’t date, Ayler’s music often approached genius. The box itself is beautiful, too—and a steal at $100 list.

Nirvana, With the Lights Out (Geffen), is three CDs and one DVD of demos, b-sides and live takes from the Washington State band that legitimized alternative rock in the ’90s. Nirvana’s studio albums are powerful but are more overtly pop than the material here, which underlines the band’s affinity for heavy metal. Startlingly honest, largely compelling, this explains why Nirvana fans are particularly ardent.

Miles Davis, Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963-1964 is the latest in Columbia/Legacy’s Davis revisions and brand extensions. The package of sessions including and surrounding Davis’ 1963 “Seven Steps to Heaven” date features then-teen drummer Tony Williams, Williams’ near-contemporary Herbie Hancock on piano and bassist Ron Carter. The anomaly was George Coleman, a tenor saxophonist in the unfortunate position of predating Wayne Shorter, one of Davis’ most formidable colleagues. More fiery tracks feature interim saxman Sam Rivers and the more permanent Shorter. This box, which also features great live dates from Tokyo, Berlin and New York Philharmonic Hall, is an intellectually fascinating documentary of musical growth.

The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions on Verve is a glorious, five-CD set featuring blowing sessions recorded between 1952 and 1954. Dropping the names will give you an idea of the quality: Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips, Stan Getz, Wardell Gray—and those are just the saxophonists. Granz was a pioneer in many ways; not only did he help integrate jazz by insisting that hotels accommodate mixed bands and stages showcase them, he paid his musicians well. He also was as much of an impresario for jazz as Bill Graham was for rock.

Michael Jackson, The Ultimate Collection, is four CDs and one DVD of the Gloved One, and you gotta give the guy his props. Unlike his kiddie Motown material with the Jackson Five, Jackson’s Epic era was remarkably innovative and infectious. The DVD features a Bucharest, Romania, concert from the 1992-3 Dangerous tour. Not only does it showcase the tunes that changed the media world, like “Beat It” and “Thriller,” it captures the self-styled King of Pop at his edgiest. Besides, the crowd shots are amazing, even frightening. This box is a perfect soundtrack for Jackson’s tabloid life. Besides, buying it will allow you to offload the individual albums.

Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime, is a fabulous Rhino set featuring the band who made it safe for intellectuals to dance. Pick this baby up along with the widescreen DVD version of Stop Making Sense and you’ll have all you need to grasp the notion that rock can be smart. People can quarrel about the song selection on this four-CD presentation. What’s inarguable, however, is the packaging itself: long-form to the nth, wildly unorthodox, really bright—like the Heads themselves. Rhino pushed the envelope on this one.

Stompin’ at the Savoy, a four-CD box from Savoy, is a crossover at its most organic. Swing, rhythm & blues, doo wop and rock & roll coexist effortlessly in these hot platters from a groundbreaking New Jersey label that was home to everyone from Hot Lips Page to the Ravens to Billy Eckstine. The names of some of these groups are musical in themselves. Cool box, cooler history, it’s a great companion to Rhino’s Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles box from a few years back.

—Carlo Wolff

Classical

More hunkering down in the classical-music recording world as more big labels merge (Sony and BMG) and small labels search for that elusive hit—and everybody still tries to figure out what to do with (or about) the Internet. Nevertheless, there was plenty of good stuff to consider over the past year, some of it from unexpected places. Here’s a baker’s dozen discs I found most worthy of repeated play.

One of those unexpected places was a pianist’s right hand. Leon Fleischer: Two Hands (Artemis Classics) salutes the return of this towering artist’s full capacity after a 40-year struggle with focal dystonia. The centerpiece of this recording is Schubert’s last piano sonata, and it’s no cliché to note that Fleischer now brings a lifetime of experience and analysis to this worthy work, turning in a mesmerizing performance. Short pieces by Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin and Debussy round out the disc.

A 1996 recording by the temperamental pianist Piotr Anderszewski (Virgin Classics) finally saw general release this year, a stellar collection of seemingly contrasting works that gain an impressive through-line in his hands. Bach’s English Suite No. 6, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 and Webern’s Variations, Op. 7 comprise the program.

Is there anything new to say about Bach? It’s a question we’ll ask about few composers in the course of this piece, but you already know the affirmative answer. Bach’s Complete Orchestral Suites, with Martin Pearlman conducting Boston Baroque (Telarc), packs the four suites onto one disc, arranged in what’s now believed to be chronological order, which puts the big one, No. 2, at the end. Taut, joyful performances here.

A warhorse wannabe gets its spirited due when pianist Martha Argerich, violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Mischa Maisky tackle Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (EMI Classics). Recordings of this piece have been appearing like mad lately, but this is the best—and it’s coupled with a Schumann Piano Concerto that finds Argerich in top form.

Although Nikolaus Harnoncourt was one of the period instrument instigators, you’re more often likely to find him in front of large modern orchestras. But he and his Concentus Musicus Wien join forces for a dazzling Mozart Requiem (BMG Classics) that is a study in contrasts, including an awe-inspiring “Dies Irae.” At 50 minutes, it has some brisk tempos, but the overall effect is magnificent.

Mozart gets the period-instrument treatment in René Jacobs’ version of The Marriage of Figaro (Harmonia Mundi), and it’s dazzling, bringing out details in the orchestration I never before noticed. A great cast helps, too, with Lorenzo Regazzo in the title role, Patrizia Ciofi as Susanna, Simon Keenlyside as the Count and Véronique Gens as the Countess. Angelika Kirchschlager’s Cherubino is brilliantly realized, as her “Voi che sapete” will attest.

Moving to a big, Romantic masterpiece, we have the ongoing project by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, who just came out with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (San Francisco Symphony). It’s big, sweeping, kind of loose at the edges but nevertheless very convincing, with an edge-of-the-seat finale that makes you believe that “Resurrection Symphony” subtitle.

Another ongoing symphony project features conductor Valery Gergiev, with Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 5 & 9 (Philips) a recent installment. He proves that it doesn’t take a period-instruments orchestra to bring out inner voice detail, and these symphonies not only sparkle but also make more sense than ever before—especially the much-played fifth.

Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos (Hyperion) have a sympathetic champion in Marc-Andre Hamelin, who joins the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton for powerhouse performances. A bonus is the disc filler, Rodion Shchedrin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which well deserves this kind of exposure.

Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter seems to have a touch (and voice) of gold lately, but she’s heard too briefly in Ravel’s Shéhérazade (DG). But that takes nothing away from this excellent CD, with Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in a Ravel-Debussy program that also includes soprano Alison Hagley in the latter’s Le jet d’eau and Three Songs by François Villon.

Robert Kurka wrote the opera The Good Soldier Schweik just before dying in 1957 at the age of 36. His music deserves more attention, and a collection on the Cedille label featuring his Symphony No. 2, Serenade for Small Orchestra and other works should help bring some of that attention to a distinctive, jazz-inflected voice.

Jazz is also an influence on William Bolcom, whose Songs of Innocence and Experience (Naxos) is an epic setting of Blake’s poems, written by Bolcom between 1956 and 1982. The three-disc set is a study of contrasts, exploring the words of the poet with every device the composer can muster. It may seem a little scattershot at first, but the cumulative effect is profound and convincing.

Finally, Zappa. He resists categorization but probably would be pleased to inhabit a classical list—and Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions (BMG Classics) is another outing by Ensemble Modern into Zappa’s wild musical world (they did it before with the CD The Yellow Shark)—culminating in the 22-minute title piece. A memorable stocking stuffer for anyone who loves music.

—B.A. Nilsson

Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, Celtic

The roots music of the British Isles and North America remains a perennial wellspring of soul-soothing melody. If you need holiday gift ideas for folk, blues, bluegrass or Celtic music CDs, rest assured that this fabulous font has poured out music this year as good as any in recent times. Here are my suggestions for 2004 releases in these genres.

Guitarist extraordinaire Jerry Garcia had played folk, bluegrass and jug-band music before beginning his 30-year tenure with the Grateful Dead in 1965. During the last five years of Garcia’s life, mandolin maestro David Grisman recorded more than 40 acoustic sessions with him encompassing folk, blues, county music, bluegrass and other styles. Almost a decade after Garcia’s passing in 1995, Grisman has issued what he says may be the final set of these collaborations. Folkies will love Been All Around This World (Acoustic Disc), 12 tasty tracks compiled from these sessions. Backed by members of the David Grisman Quintet, the two cover traditional folk material along with songs by country crooners Merle Travis, Jimmy Rodgers, and George Jones. Garcia’s vocals occasionally sound frayed, but his singing is still rich with emotion and his guitar playing stunning. Grisman is in his usual fine form as well.

Another worthy folk release is The Unbroken Circle (Dualtone), a tribute to the Carter Family by contemporary rock, folk and country stars. From 1927 to 1943, A.P. Carter, his wife Sarah, and her cousin Maybelle Carter collected and recorded more than 300 folk, gospel and 19th-century parlor songs, many of which became classics. On these 15 tracks, artists as diverse as Cheryl Crow, George Jones, Willie Nelson, John Prine, and Johnny Cash pay homage to the groundbreaking Virginia trio.

A great pick for blues fans is harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite’s new offering, Sanctuary (Real World). The four-time Grammy nominee has hewed close to Chicago blues for most of his 37-year career, but his recent releases have crossed over into other styles, including country, jazz and Tejano. Although the CD has plenty of blues, guest artists the Blind Boys of Alabama lighten the mood with gospel-tinged harmonies on two of the 12 tracks. Slide guitarist Ben Harper also joins Musselwhite’s backing lineup of Charlie Sexton on guitar, Jared Michael Nickerson on bass, and Michael Jerome on drums for a pair of songs, one of which he wrote. But the laurels here go to Musselwhite’s harmonica, which proves the virtuoso is still at the top of his game.

For a nonpareil introduction to the blues, try the 2-CD anthology The Best Of Southern Blues (Fuel 2000). This 24-track collection features both prewar solo acoustic and postwar electric band cuts, including classics by Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, Arthur Crudup, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, and Ike Turner.

Harley “Red” Allen (1930-1993) was one the greatest yet most overlooked bluegrass singers. Rebel Records has issued two discs of Allen’s 60’s recordings, Keep On Going: The Rebel and Melodeon Recordings, and Lonesome and Blue: The Complete County Recordings, which hopefully will go some ways toward establishing the Kentuckian’s rightful place in the “high and lonesome” pantheon. The combined 48 tracks capture bluegrass at its best and include several previously unreleased cuts. Among the featured sidemen are mandolinists Frank Wakefield and a young David Grisman, fiddlers Richard Green and Scotty Stoneman, banjoist Bill Emerson, and double bassist Jerry McCoury.

Another superb bluegrass offering, You Were There for Me (Rounder), brings singer-songwriter Peter Rowan and guitar champ Tony Rice together for the first time. Rowan is a Bill Monroe alumnus who penned “Panama Red” for the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Tony Rice is of those amazing pickers who makes guitarists want to burn their axes in despair. Rowan, who wrote or cowrote all 10 tracks on the CD, and Rice are joined by Bryn Bright and Tony Garnier on double bass, Billy Bright on mandolin, Larry Atamanuik on drums (one track only) and Robert Emery on harmony vocals.

Mastering the swift dance tunes and plaintive slow airs of Celtic music requires years of solitary practice. Up in the Air (Schanachie) is a unique concept album in which the individual members of the Irish band Danu demonstrate their hard-earned skill by playing dazzling solos on their respective instruments. Of the 18 tracks, only two are songs—one unaccompanied and one backed only by the Irish drum—and the rest are instrumental pieces. The musicians are accordionist Benny McCarthy, Muireann NicAmhlaoibh on vocals and whistle, Tom Doorley on flute, guitarist Donal Clancy, Donnchadh Gough on bodhran and uilleann pipes, fiddler Oisin McAuley, and Eamonn Doorley on bouzouki.

Also recommended for Celtic music lovers is traditional Irish singer Sean Doyle’s debut album, The Light and the Half-Light (Compass). Doyle is the father of John Doyle, who played guitar for the traditional bands Solas and Chanting House. The younger Doyle appears on this straight-ahead traditional CD on bouzouki and mandolin as well as guitar along with fiddler Liz Carroll, Appalachian old-timey banjoist and double bassist Dirk Powell, and others.

—Glenn Weiser

Holiday Music

There is, without doubt, one new holiday album that you must buy this year; if not for a loved one, then for yourself. It’s A John Waters Christmas (New Line). The legendary shockmeister-filmmaker has put together a compilation that not only reflects his bizarre mix of good and bad taste—it also is fun to listen to. Side-by-side, we are presented with ’60s neo-vaudeville camp in the form of Tiny Tim’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and Big Dee Irwin & Little Eva’s “I Wish You a Merry Christmas,” a rocking soul number of the sort that seems closest to Waters’ own heart. For the religious-minded, there’s Little Cindy’s “Happy Birthday Jesus,” a ’50s-era track so sincere it’s almost creepy; for the hipsters, there’s the Coctails’ avant-oddball “First Snowfall.” Seriously, this disc should come with its own premixed bottle of rum nog. It’s that cheerful.

For pure jazz singing of the classic kind, Dianne Reeves offers Christmas Time Is Here (Blue Note). Reeves, the critics agree, has really come into her own in the last few years. Not fearing the comparisons, she showcases her silky vocal dexterity on standards owned by Nat “King” Cole (“The Christmas Song”) and Frank Sinatra (“The Christmas Waltz”).

Vanessa Williams showcases her smooth, pop-meets-R&B style on Silver & Gold (Lava). The song selection is varied, ranging from standards (“The Little Drummer Boy”) to spirituals (“Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow”) to swing (“Winter Weather”).

Much-loved Canadian geeks Barenaked Ladies deliver their usual mix of high jinks and slightly sanctimonious seriousness on Barenaked for the Holidays (Desperation/Warner Bros.). They balance Christmas and Hanukkah selections—and how many people try to do that? Plus, they cover “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” the current all-star Brit version of which is not commercially available stateside. (Or even in Canada.) And speaking of quirky, there’s the Chris Isaak Christmas (Warner Bros.). Can anyone tell when he’s being serious? Ah well, it’s the holidays. We’ll be generous.

Last and least, there’s Jessica Simpson’s Rejoyce: The Christmas Album (Columbia). You must have seen the relentless ads for this on TV. Every time it seems like Ashlee’s older sister couldn’t be that dumb, she proves that she really is—not the least in the way she sings this set of holiday tunes. (Dear Jessica: Marilyn Monroe was not a great singer. Do not emulate her.)

Finally, there are always reissues. Most aggressive, as usual, are Sony’s Essential Holiday Classics series. This year, they’re showcasing the jazzy vocal gymnastics of the Manhattan Transfer on the early-’90s The Christmas Album (Columbia). Tony Bennett joins them on “The Christmas Song.” Both of Andy Williams’ 1960s classics are back on the racks. The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963) is the better of the two, and features the radio perennial “Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season.” Merry Christmas (1965) isn’t any slouch, either, and both albums have the same format: secular songs first (formerly known as “Side 1”) and religious favorites second (formerly known as “Side 2”).

Also look for the laid-back swing of 1965’s Ray Conniff’s Christmas Album (Columbia), and the oldest reissue in the bunch, Frank Sinatra’s Christmas Songs by Sinatra (Columbia). These mid-to-late ’40s tracks find Sinatra in the purest voice of his career—even if these songs don’t swing the way his classic 1950s Capitol Xmas album did.

—Shawn Stone

Holiday Folk Music

If interesting arrangements and newfangled interpretations aren’t doing enough to cover up the fact that you’re listening to the same two-dozen songs that are also piped into the drugstore for months, you don’t have to forsake holiday music altogether. There’s a whole separate world out there of folk musicians who mine both the irreverent English Music Hall tradition and the surviving remnants of pre-Christian (or early, tenuous Christian) celebrations. This includes musical variations on a number of myths from those other gospels that didn’t make it into the current canon. For example, in “The Bitter Withy,” from Nowell Sing We Clear’s Hail Smiling Morn (Golden Hind Music), a young Jesus is rebuffed by some rich kids when he wants to play with them, so he conjures up a magic bridge, and when they’re all at the top he makes it disappear and drowns the little snots. Then sweet virgin Mary gives him a good ass-whupping with some withy rods. Remember, he’s the reason for the season.

Seriously though, all of Nowell Sing We Clear’s four in-print albums (www.goldenhindmusic.com) mix dollops of such fun with truly reverent, but also wicked-old and probably unfamiliar carols; wassailing songs; pagan standards about the hunting of the wren and the death and resurrection of John Barleycorn; and even some newer tunes in the spirit of the old music-hall style. If you like rousing choruses and glorious tongue-twisters of verses, “Chariots,” (informally known as the “Carol of the Alliteration”) from their most recent album Just Say Nowell, will become an instant favorite.

The larger and more commercial version of Nowell Sing We Clear (who have been giving theatrical holiday concerts in this area through Old Songs, Inc. for a few decades) is The Revels, a holiday show started in Boston in 1971. Though the Revels also started in the English tradition (and that’s still their forte), they have branched out to include holiday and winter music from all over the world. Their plethora of CDs includes ones focused on African-American music, Russia and Scandinavian traditions, and early Americana to name a few.

For more secular seasonal music that’s still in the spirit, check out Voices of Winter (Gadfly) by Herdman, Hills, and Mangsen and When I See Winter Return by William Pint and Felicia Dale (www.pintndale.com). Both albums are filled with masterful harmonies and evoke the spirit of winter—its dark sides, cozy sides, and celebratory sides alike—with everything from ancient mnemonic songs that recount the different burning properties of different types of woods (holly burns like wax, in case you needed to know) to a tall-tale lament about a frozen lumberjack lover.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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