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Recordings

Holiday ear candy for a variety of tastes

Alternative/ Indie

Special editions and odds-and-ends records make for great gift-giving, as long as the fanboy or girl on your list isn’t so rabid a completist that they’d already have the stuff. First and foremost in the special-edition department are the Killers, who found an oddly extravagant way to pimp out last year’s Hot Fuss (Island). The smash hit album was recently reissued overseas as a limited-edition box set. The set, of which only 5,000 copies were made available worldwide, features every one of the album’s 11 original songs on a 7-inch vinyl record, each with its own unique b-side. The new sides range from unreleased tracks and remixes of Killers hits, to covers of Kenny Rogers’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (really!) and Morrissey’s “Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself” (which fits ’em like one of those sharp little suits they wear). You’ll have to hit the Web to find either version, but both are well worth it if the intended recipient has a soft spot for this generation’s Duran Duran.

The wonderful Ween have collected up an armload of their most-illicitly-traded tunes for Shinola Vol. 1 (Chocodog). It’s a hazy, crazy look back at the Ween of yore, featuring such inhalant-addled lost classics as “Big Fat Fuck” and “Tastes Good on th’ Bun.” And Fountains of Wayne have produced enough extras to fill two full discs. On the 30-track Out of State Plates (Virgin), they show again why they’re one of the most creative pop acts going, with selections ranging from a great holiday tune (“The Man in the Santa Suit”) that was “written in the studio lobby while they were setting up the drums” to the band’s indelible take on Britney Spears’ “ . . . Baby One More Time.”

With CDs becoming more and more dangerous, there’s still time to turn to that old favorite: vinyl. You might have to throw a new turntable in the stocking, but if someone on your list still takes their music in 12-inch form, consider grabbing them a copy of Plans (Barsuk), the latest release from Death Cab for Cutie. While the production is less expansive than last year’s Transatlanticism, the album still has all the elements that made DCFC the cream of the indie-rock crop. The 180-gram vinyl issue includes a worthwhile bonus song called “Talking Like Turnstiles.” (The CD version of Plans is on Atlantic Records, and you can get that anywhere.) After a spat of legal troubles over the use of a certain superhero’s likeness in the cover art for his latest album, indie wunderkind Sufjan Stevens has finally released the double-vinyl pressing of Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty). Again, there’s a bonus track here that’s not available on CD, and Divya Srinivasan’s bizarre paintings are spread over a double gatefold, so it’s fun to look at.

While we’re on the topic of “other” formats, it’s of note that the DVD market has completely exploded over the last few years. The people have finally figured out that video is cheap, and they’re using it. For instance, who ever thought we’d see a full-length documentary on San Francisco Elephant 6 offshoots Beulah? A Good Band is Easy to Kill (Music Video Distributors) follows the band on their final American tour, just prior to what some have called an untimely breakup. And the always-reliable Flaming Lips teamed up with filmmaker Bradley Beesley for the 15-years-in-the-making doc, The Fearless Freaks (Shout! Factory). It’s a very good film by any measure, and a must-see for Lips fans. There are also new live DVDs or CD/DVD sets on the market from Franz Ferdinand (Franz Ferdinand, Domino), Death Cab for Cutie (Drive Well, Sleep Carefully: On the Road with Death Cab for Cutie, Plexifilm), Pixies (Sell Out 2004, Rhino/WEA), Green Day (Bullet in a Bible, Reprise), Wilco (Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, Nonesuch), and a restored 1982 set from goth legends Bauhaus, coupled with a handful of promotional clips (Shadow of Light/Archive, Beggars Banquet).

Long-standing independent Matador had a strong 2005, releasing Mass Romantic, the great third release by the New Pornographers, and Stephen Malkmus’ Face the Truth, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Malkmus is way better than Lou Reed. Both are among the year’s essential discs, and will not fail to please. Matador also surprised the hell out of people with Closing In, the thrashtacular release by Columbus, Ohio-based shredders Early Man. The album, a slightly less-inebriated Kill ’Em All, ups the ante for all of the in-vogue guitar-drum duos, and practically begs to be played on cassette . . . in a Camaro . . . with the T-tops off, bro. Makes a righteous gift for the hesher in your family.

Shopping for a hipster, not a hesher? Try the self-titled latest from pop-smashing Canadian collective Broken Social Scene (Arts & Crafts). Initial pressings come packaged with the seven-track extra EP to Be You and Me in a sturdy, pretty digipak. For a worldly spin on power pop, take a look at the second release from Australian band Youth Group (Skeleton Jar, Epitaph), or Howl Howl Gaff Gaff (Capitol), the debut by Shout Out Louds, another in a long line of great Swedish pop groups. For something made right here at home, check out the thinking-man’s pop of John Vanderslice on his latest Barsuk release, Pixel Revolt.

And, of course, there’s a relatively weak batch of Greatest Hits packages. Nirvana’s Sliver—The Best of the Box (Geffen) trims a great deal of the fat from last year’s creepy With the Lights Out box, although what’s left still feels intrusive. (The DVD on that set is still worth owning.) Moreover, it abbreviates the timeline delineated by the box set’s three music discs so you can hear Cobain come out of his shell and crawl back in, all in the space of an hour. (It also includes three tracks that weren’t on the box, none revelatory.) Sublime’s two-disc Gold (Universal) set doesn’t offer anything new and should be avoided (unless you’re absolutely new to the band), but Cypress Hill’s single-disc hits collection, due from Sony on Dec. 13, is worth a mention based on the title alone: Greatest Hits from the Bong. Happy holidays, indeed.

—John Brodeur

Way Alternative

When Tom Waits received a Grammy award in the “Alternative Music” category some years ago, his acceptance speech reportedly consisted of the simple question, “Alternative to what?” A good question from a smart man. Here follow a few recent CD releases that don’t fit easily into their particular categories, a circumstance that may also describe a friend or family member who can best be gifted by delivering them something that will give them pause.

Biff Rose was already in his early 30s when his first two albums, The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side and Children of Light were released in 1968. Now they have been reissued on one CD. Rose’s comedic and proto- hippie inclinations are both of their time and transcend it. The arrangements on Thorn are lushly inventive, creating the perfect setting for the character-driven vocals. This album was also the source of his song “Fill Your Heart,” which David Bowie covered on Hunky Dory. Children of Light is built more around just his piano and a small combo, again allowing the vocals to go even further into cannabis-happy hijinks. “Evolution” finds Rose singing in his uppermost register, like a cartoon character, but anchored by music that’s undeniably emotional. “Spaced Out/I’ve Got You Covered” is perhaps the quintessential stoned confessional song. Casually rendered, it’s a thing of beauty and deftly constructed in every regard.

American Primitive Vol. 2 is the last anthology John Fahey worked at assembling for his Revenant label before his death in 2001. It comprises 50 songs on two discs, all from 78s released between 1897 and 1939, oozing with all manner of humanity. Mysterious, they are also rich with righteousness, longing, social reportage, various sorts of entertaining impulses, and unwavering commitment. At one end of the spectrum there’s Henry Spaulding, accompanying himself dazzlingly on guitar for “Cairo Blues.” And then there’s Homer Quincy Smith’s impassioned singing and cathedral organ, wailing into the beyond on “I Want Jesus to Talk With Me.” He’s so wrapped up in the moment, it’s as if he had no other needs or worries about anyone else ever listening to the performance. It sounds like he was doing what he had to, and it just happened to be recorded.

Good for What Ails You is another two-CD set of old 78s, but stands in contrast to the Revenant set. Subtitled “Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937,” it’s the fourth release from the never-to-be-missed Old Hat label. Painstakingly researched and restored, the songs all have a friendly outreach, filled with catchy riffs and rhythms, sing-along melodies and overt humor. It includes such nuggets as “C-h-i-c-k-e-n Spells Chicken,” most recently covered by Geoff Muldaur, and Jim Jackson’s outlandish “I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop,” which Michael Hurley made his own a few decades ago. Also included are such key players as Gid Tanner, Pink Anderson (whom Pink Floyd referenced in their name), and Emmett Miller.

Comedic songs can be a touchy area, losing all their oomph after one play. Sing Along With Mark & Mike (New East Records) is an exception. Mark & Mike are Mark Horn of the Derailers and Mike Granda of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and they know when to lay back on the jokes and when to let the interplay and team spirit carry the friendly laughs forward. Hence, “Hey, Bill” is funny not because it builds to a punch line, but because their calls to this Bill fellow are entertaining. It’s hard to get tired of them calling out to the guy. When they do draw on more overt funny lines, as in “Fall Down, Go Boom,” they keep it catchy—this is an album called Sing Along With, after all.

Saucers in the Sky (Roaratorio) is the latest collection of Rodd Keith’s songs. He toiled under a variety of different names, churning out songs to order in the shady world of song-poems. Customers would send in their lyrics, a letter would come back saying it was a hitbound candidate and to send a check. This would get them a few 45s and not much more for their expenditure. The financial success of these enterprises was predicated on quick turnaround, and most outfits would try to crank out 10 or more songs an hour. Keith had higher ambitions, but unfortunately it was all being channeled through this near-invisible netherworld. Thirty years after his mysterious death, an interest in this musical realm not only has elevated Rodd Keith to the top of the song-poem world, but revealed him to be a gifted writer and arranger by any measure.

—David Greenberger

Box Sets

Here are the box sets of 2005 that I don’t have but I want: The Talking Heads Brick Box (Rhino, eight CDs) and The Band, a Musical History (Capitol, five CDs and one DVD).

Otherwise, I have more than enough such sets from a year in which reformatization figured nearly as heavily as excavation.

The box set, as the name implies, is for the fan who can’t get enough of a particular artist or band. But as the Internet spreads and broadband widens, you can get just about anything you want by downloading, legally or illegally. Websites like iTunes and contextualizer Pandora (www.pandora.com) grant access to virtually any kind of music. And if you run into trouble, there’s always Google.

So why should a fan buy a box set? For the packaging, the tactility, the information, the multiple formats. Take the Ray Charles box, Pure Genius—The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952- 1959) (Rhino, seven CDs and one DVD), a gorgeous presentation of the work of a man who has been lionized ad nauseam since his death in June 2004. Packaged to resemble an old 45-rpm record player, it boasts an expectedly informative booklet by Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun and David Ritz, a biographer who specializes in soul men; a gang of previously unreleased outtakes and interviews; and, of course, tie-ins to the award winning Ray, the movie in which Jamie Foxx made his lasting mark. It’s spectacular but ghoulish: It’s the third Ray Charles box set Rhino has released since 1991. What’s the label going to do when Charles’ death loses its halo effect?

Not to knock Rhino; through its regular boxes and limited edition Rhino Handmades (the Beau Brummels’ Magic Hollow, a four-CD Handmade, is a honey), it continues to set the standard for such offerings. Take Weird Tales of the Ramones (Rhino), a dazzling presentation of the punk forefathers’ oeuvre. Besides three CDs of largely familiar material, the package contains a gang of Ramones videos and interviews with figures key to the band, like producer Ed Stasium and Sire founder Seymour Stein. What makes it notable, however, are the graphics of 26 notable artists including Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith, hysterically raunchy Brit Lorna Miller, and Johnny Ryan, father of gross-out anti-heroine Blecky Yuckerella. Just Say Sire: The Sire Records Story (also three CDs and one DVD) is a good companion, though it omits work by such Sire artists as Boney M (remember their “Rivers of Babylon”?) and Martha Velez, a fantastic New York singer who recorded for Sire in the late ’60s (good luck finding her extraordinary blues-rock Fiends & Angels, featuring burning Eric Clapton and guests from bands like Traffic and Chicken Shack) and early ’70s (Sire released a fine Velez compilation, Angels of the Future Past, in 1989).

Back to the boxes. Here are some pop recommendations:

Try for the Sun: The Journey of Donovan (Sony Legacy, three CDs, one DVD). Appropriately packaged in velvety purple, this effectively organizes Donovan Leitch’s journey from folkie troubadour through pop prince to uncategorizable mystic. I’m a sucker for Donovan’s chocolaty and mesmerizing voice. I also like his pop stuff, particularly “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” the indomitably cocky “Sunshine Superman” and the hard-rocking “Barabajagal.” What I didn’t anticipate was the beautiful, ’90s acoustic material on the third disk, like “Your Broken Heart” and “Please Don’t Bend.”

Heaven Must Have Sent You: The Holland/Dozier/ Holland Story (Hip-O/Motown, three CDs) presents 65 tracks penned by Dozier brothers Brian and Lamont and collaborator Eddie Holland for Motown in the early ’60s. This largely mono package resurrects remarkable tunes by the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and many more (though why the Doobie Brothers and Simply Red are here is a question). The sound is faithful to its Top 40 radio era, and the booklet is OK, though I would have liked more track-by-track information (Hip-O and its limited-edition arm, Rhino Handmade competitor Hip-O-Select, should edit its booklets more carefully).

On the jazz front, get Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964 (Legacy, seven CDs). Not only does this lavish exploration of the Seven Steps to Heaven album feature eight previously unreleased tracks, it showcases rarely heard Davis collaborator Sam Rivers and a young Wayne Shorter, poised to take over the saxophone spot from George Coleman. Davis’ music was always a work-in-progress; its inner workings are expertly laid out here. Another must is Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Riverside, three CDs), a repackaging-plus of Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, records that represent the pinnacle of the jazz trio form. Recorded just 10 days before bassist Scott LaFaro’s death in a car crash, these sessions never fail to astonish; packaged with one additional take, in freshly clear sound, this is a bargain introduction to work of astonishing genius.

For insight into the big-band explosion of the ’50s, when Gil Evans and Shorty Rogers came into critical view, try Mosaic Select: Johnny Richards (Mosaic, three CDs). I knew of Richards from his work with Stan Kenton; this criminally overlooked material is his own. Packed with passionate solos from the best West Coast players, it spans many styles and voicing. This set will remind you how dramatic and majestic and swinging jazz can be.

Finally, there’s Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax (Rounder, eight CDs), an overwhelming assemblage of interviews Lomax conducted with Morton, a jazzman of boundless creativity and ego. Presented with Lomax’s biography of this remarkable Creole, this piano-shaped box features art by R. Crumb and fresh analysis by music historian John Szwed. I’ve worked through only one CD, which is both amusing and heartbreaking. Morton was a great raconteur whose ramblings explain his key inspiration: his native New Orleans, a city long identified with great jazz.

—Carlo Wolff

Folk, Blues, Bluegrass and Celtic

So you need some gift ideas for folk, blues, bluegrass, or Celtic music CDs, eh? I thought you might, given just how good roots music can really get, so I’ve rummaged through some local record bins for you to find hot 2005 releases in these genres. Here’s what worth your Christmas cash:

2005 saw the airing of No Direction Home, Martin Scorcese’s masterful two-part PBS documentary of Dylan’s career up to 1966. A soundtrack album is out, and the 20 previously unissued studio outtakes and live tracks of this Sony two-CD set, No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7), are a well-chosen chronicle of Dylan’s earlier music. The first disc covers Dylan’s beginnings as an earnest, groundbreaking folk songwriter, and the second his controversial switch to playing with electric backing band and writing songs with frequently surrealistic lyrics. (Regarding this shift, John Lennon said Dylan got away with murder. Never was there so glorious a crime).

During the early 1960’s, Peter, Paul, and Mary were America’s top folk act. Even though they were recruited by talent manger Albert Grossman as an expressly commercial venture, the trio nonetheless crooned their way into our hearts and onto the charts. The Very Best of Peter Paul and Mary (Warner Brothers/Rhino) has 25 of their essential songs, and is a great pick for that baby boomer in your life.

For blues fans, there’s Fuel 2000’s seven-CD blockbuster collection, The History of the Blues (87 Authentic Blues Songs). It begins with 1920s country blues greats Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and continues in the prewar acoustic vein with artists such as Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and Mississippi Fred McDowell, Tommy Johnson, and Memphis Minnie, the first successful woman blues singer-guitarist. The latter discs feature the post-WWII electrified blues of Shakey Horton, Johnny Copeland, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Pee Wee Crayton, and others. It’s a lot of great blues in one package.

Best of the Blues—50 Favorites (Madacy) is a smaller, three-disc box set concentrating on postwar and modern artists like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Johnny Otis, and Memphis Slim, as well as more obscure figures such as Baby Washington and Joe Liggins. 1960s boogiemeisters Canned Heat and New Orleans piano professor Dr. John are included to make this one a worthwhile collection.

In the bluegrass realm, one of the best releases of the year is the reissued and remastered 1964 all-instrumental Kentucky Colonels album, Appalachian Swing (S&P). The amazing guitar playing of the then-19-year-old Clarence White established the instrument as a full-fledged lead bluegrass voice with this record, making Appalachian Swing a milestone in history of the genre. Three bonus tracks have been added to the original 12.

If you’re shopping for a bluegrass traditionalista, a good bet is Classic Bluegrass, Vol. 2 (Smithsonian Folkways). The 28 tracks of the second volume are a generous helping of pickin’ and singin’, and include cuts by Bill Monroe, Red Allen, Doc Watson, the Country Gentleman, and Hazel Dickens, as well as lesser known artists like the Friendly City Playboys, Ola Bell Reed, and the Georgia Pals. (The first volume of this series, by the way, appeared in 2003.)

For the Celtic fans, the all-female Irish-American ensemble Cherish the Ladies have a new release, Woman of the House (Rounder), that some critics are calling the group’s best yet. The bandleader, Joanie Madden, is considered one of the finest players of the Irish flute and the pennywhistle, and the other Ladies are no slouches either. Recorded in Scotland and America, the 11-track album consists of five mostly traditional songs and six medleys of dance tunes. Guest artists include Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon, British folkie Kate Rusby and Karen Matheson of Capercaille.

Born in Chicago of Irish parents, Liz Carroll went back to the Old Sod in 1975 at 18 and won the All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Championship. Her new 13-track Compass CD, In Play, reflects a more intimate side of Celtic music—here she performs mesmerizing airs and dance tunes accompanied only by the harmonically edgy guitar and bouzouki ace John Doyle. Unlike most Celtic musicians, Carroll also composes tunes, and many on the disc are her own.

—Glenn Weiser

Classical

We have that rare combo of a composer-pianist in our midst, one whose music I fell in love with before discovering he lived nearby. Joseph Fennimore’s music is performed internationally; his works run a gamut from opera to orchestral works to theater pieces to piano miniatures. His newest CD release, In Concert III (Albany Records) features only one original work, the brief Fantasy from 1963, but it’s deftly positioned between a piece by the 17th-century composer Orlando Gibbons and a Schubert sonata, both of which resonate with Fennimore’s compositional voice. Virtuoso performances of works by Haydn, Chopin, Fauré and Liszt round out the recording, made at the Emma Willard School’s Kiggins Hall.

We were visited a couple of years ago by another composer-pianist who otherwise lives in Brussels: Frederic Rzewski, whose The People United Shall Not Be Defeated has been sneaking into the repertory during the past 30 years. A chamber ensemble called Eighth Blackbird released a collection titled Fred (Cedille) that features the world premiere recording of his Pocket Symphony from 2000, a theatrically rich work that (like many of this composer’s pieces) calls for improvisation. The other two works are the poignant Coming Together, based on a letter from Sam Melville, a prisoner killed in the 1971 Attica uprising, and Les moutons de Panurge, a fascinating piece based on a Rabelais quote about sheeplike behavior that uses a 65-note tone row that becomes increasingly chaotic.

Staying with the piano, Leon Fleischer enjoyed a comeback recording with Two Hands (Vanguard Classics), celebrating a master’s return to two-handed playing after a 35-year-long bout with dystonia. From Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring to a walloping finish with Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960, it’s a joyous, very individualistic recording.

John Browning was a mid- century piano virtuoso best known for championing music by Samuel Barber; he also was the first to record the five Prokofiev Piano Concertos, which enjoyed a re-release after many, many years on the Testament label. During Erich Leinsdorf’s brief stint as Boston Symphony music director, he made many excellent recordings of Prokofiev’s orchestral works, and these have been among the most sought-after. Heifetz student Erick Friedman’s recording, with the same forces, of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 rounds out the two-disc set.

Prokofiev also gets his due—with frequent SPAC visitors Martha Argerich (piano) and Mischa Maisky (cello)—in a recital recently recorded in Brussels (DG). Along with Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata are works by Stravinsky and Shostakovich that add up to definitive versions of this repertory.

Another remarkable area visitor this year was violinist Julia Fischer, whose October recital at Union College was a drop-dead marvel. The centerpiece was Bach’s Partita No. 2, with the famous chaconne, and that’s one of the Six Sonatas and Partitas released as a two-CD PentaTone set. Fischer’s playing is astonishing for a fiddler of any age; that she’s in her early 20s makes it unbelievable.

Violinist Michael Rabin all but gave up playing when he was 25, and died tragically a decade later. He burst on the scene with a recording of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, and they’re part of a six-CD EMI set (Michael Rabin: 1936-1972) that also gives us his smooth, fiery performances of concertos by Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Paganini and others, and two discs of those shorter works violinists adore.

Recordings of early music always abound, and one of my favorites this year was the umpteenth waxing of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Naïve), with Rinaldo Alessandrini leading Concerto Italiano. It’s a lean, tight group that has a great deal of fun with these six wonderful pieces, bringing fresh ideas to weary ears.

You’re hard put ever to find a false note in recordings by Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XXI. Altre Follie (Alia Vox) is a follow-up to a hit recording of variations on the 15th- and 16th-century dance hit “Folia.” Here we’re given 15 more, including the well-known violin sonata by Corelli and works by Vivaldi, Mudarra, Sanz and others.

Celebrating the work of American composers is good for the soul and probably helps fight terrorism. Too bad Conlon Nancarrow was hounded out of the country by McCarthyites; his subsequent work in Mexico was fascinating—and difficult—and got its due with a 1989 collection by the ensemble Continuum, rereleased this year by Naxos.

Naxos also gave us two (separate) CDs of works by William Grant Still, whose career took him from studies with Varèse to arranging jobs with Artie Shaw and Paul Whiteman. Still’s symphonic poem Africa and Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American,” performed some time back by the Albany Symphony) get muscular readings by the Fort Smith Symphony under John Jeter; a collection of Piano Music recorded by Mark Boozer gives a glimpse of Still’s more mystic and jazzy sides.

Naxos also has been hot on the Leonard Bernstein trail, but it was Koch that put together a fascinating recording of that composer’s music for Peter Pan before it turned into the musical with which we’re familiar. It’s a lot of incidental music with a few songs along the way, with lyrics by the composer and the vocal artistry of Linda Eder and Daniel Narducci.

One more local tie-in worth considering: Richard Rodney Bennett’s opera The Mines of Sulphur (Chandos), a grim, brooding work recorded during its excellent Glimmerglass Opera production in 2004. I can’t listen to it without seeing the production in my mind’s eye, but it packs a wallop as an audio experience alone, and will certainly destroy whatever remnants of holiday happiness may be lingering. Reason enough right there for a misanthrope like me to recommend it.

—B.A. Nilsson

Christmas Music

At the top of this year’s holiday music releases are Diana Krall’s Christmas Songs (Verve) and Brian Wilson’s What I Really Want For Christmas (Arista). These aren’t just good for Christmas music, they’re good.

Fairly or unfairly, Krall has taken a lot of heat for her recent nonjazz efforts, but on Christmas Songs, she’s got her license to swing back. Performing with the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Krall is sassy and sultry on a smartly chosen set of traditional, nonreligious holiday standards. Standouts include “Christmas Time Is Here” (yep, the tune from A Charlie Brown Christmas), “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” (complete with the verse) and Irving Berlin’s other great holiday song, the rarely recorded “Count Your Blessings.” Wilson, meanwhile, continues his string of successes with this tuneful collection. With his Smile band, Wilson offers some Beach Boys songs (including “Little St. Nick”), a nice sample of secular and religious favorites and two new tunes. The title track, cowritten with Bernie Taupin, emphasizes orchestral glory, while “Christmasy,” a collaboration with Jimmy Webb, is a radio-friendly gasser. As you would expect, the arrangements and harmonies are cosmic in the Wilson manner.

Three variants of guitar-driven rock & roll figure prominently on a trio of new releases. It’s harder than it should be to imagine the fun-loving Reverend Horton Heat in a holiday mood, but he is on the catchy We Three Kings (Yep Roc). For a pleasingly slick rockabilly/swing experience, try the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s Dig That Crazy Christmas (Surfdog). And for those who like their rock guitar with an old school jazz-fusion feel, there’s Steve Lukather & Friends’ Santa Mental (Favored Nations). The legendary session man, who cofounded Toto and played with everybody from the Pointer Sisters to Cher, even “duets” with Sammy Davis Jr. on “Jingle Bells.” Ring-a-ding-ding!

Once upon a time, holiday music was all about compilation LPs packaged for sale at specific department stores (remember Grants?) or given away with Firestone tires. The variety of artists featured were absurdly diverse, but that just added to the charm. In this tradition, there’s 20th Century Masters: The Best of Santa’s Greatest Hits (Hip-O/Universal). This festive bouquet of musical nostalgia features Brenda Lee, Judy Garland, Gene Autry, Eartha Kitt and José Feliciano performing exactly the songs you would expect; in a particularly thoughtful gesture, Bing Crosby’s original 1942 version of “White Christmas” (superior to the better-known 1946 rerecording) is included. Guaranteed to make you smile. If, on the other hand, you prefer expressions of the misery and pain felt by the dysfunctional, depressed and lonely during this special season, by all means snag Taste of Christmas (Fontana/Warcon). This contemporary collection features such artists as the Used (a mopey “Alone This Holiday”), Bleed the Dream (a mopier “No Smiles on Christmas”) and From First to Last (the ferocious “Christmassacre”) delivering healthy doses of holiday bile. This is best enjoyed with a bottle of rotgut vodka and all the angst you can muster.

Herb Alpert is going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year for founding the A&M label, but he made some great pop records, too. (Not that Jann Wenner cares, the dweeb.) Shout Factory has been rereleasing his back catalogue over the past year, and have just reissued the excellent Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Christmas Album. I still prefer his version of “My Favorite Things” over those by Julie Andrews and John Coltrane, but I’m stupid that way. Meanwhile, over at Capitol, there are new reissues of two definitive Xmas albums: Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole’s The Christmas Song. Except for revamped artwork, Frank’s best holiday album, which features “The Christmas Waltz,” doesn’t differ from the early-’90s reissue. The Cole, however, adds the classic 1945 King Cole Trio version of “The Christmas Song,” which was used so hauntingly in Wong Kar-Wei’s 2046.

Finally, something old and something new in seasonal mood music from our pals at Sony BMG. All your favorite Windham Hill artists—including Jim Brickman, Liz Story and George Winston—figure prominently on the brand new A Windham Hill Christmas: The Night Before Christmas (Windham Hill) and the two-disc greatest-hits package The Essential Winter’s Solstice (Windham Hill/Legacy). No lumps of coal for your electronic stocking here: Neither collection is burdened with the draconian rootkit copy-protection software that’s made this a blue Christmas for Sony BMG.

—Shawn Stone

 

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