After a while, even Bob Rivers' Twisted Christmas
series doesn't seem novel any longer.
Holiday recordings are usually either safe albums designed to maximize annual sales to mainstream audiences or outlandish experiments designed to generate quick (if not lasting) sales through shock and/or wit. Finding quality artistry, or even stuff that's lousy because it misses an adventurous mark, is tough to do at Wal-Mart.
Which is why nearly all of my purchases this year are online. Especially since it's a lot cheaper.
I have nothing against classics. Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas and John Denver's A Christmas Together with the Muppets probably get the most playing time each December. But finding new and worthwhile albums seems like a worthwhile annual habit, and Jessica Simpson's hyperactive vocal calisthenics on Rejoyce isn't what I have in mind.
The Internet has been a huge blessing in recent years because nearly any song can be sampled in 30 seconds snippets, usually more than enough to determine the overall quality of a holiday album. Selection is also vastly superior. A collection of Croatian holiday carols by a guitarist there can be purchased for $10 and downloaded immediately with a few mouse clicks at his site. Sadly, the previews revealed it to be a rather tame set of smooth jazz interpretations (lest anyone accuse me of an anti- smooth jazz bias, I'll note I downloaded Russ Freeman's Holiday last year and consider it an above-average effort for the genre which gets an occasional play).
The following are some of the most interesting, if not always great, albums I've encountered surfing this year. Christmas albums are first, followed by some for other holidays like Chanukah and Kwanzaa. All but a couple can be downloaded immediately from online music stores like iTunes and eMusic (the others are mentioned because buying discs online directly from the source may be the only option). I've heartily recommended eMusic before and will do so again here, since newcomers can pay $20 and get 140 songs ( without copy protection) during their first month. That's enough to grab classics like Guaraldi and indulge in plenty of lesser-known material that may still prove entertaining decades from now.
Not Your Usual Christmas Album
This is one of those rare gems that combines innovation and stellar performances in a collection suitable for background music or the undivided attention of listeners.
Vocalist Judith Kay's Not Your Usual Christmas Album features a combination of well- and lesser-known songs, backed by a piano/bass/bassoon/vibes quartet. Unlike numerous albums where jazz performers essentially lend their accent to traditional holiday fare, this is true jazz with the instrumentalists digging in with spice and flair.
Kay's vocals are low-key and somewhat less than virtuosic on what are mostly somber pieces, yet she warms listeners better than most with her clarity and passion - sort of like a Joni Mitchell-type singing political fare for a heartfelt cause.
"I Wonder As I Wander" is a slow, dark tale punctuated by Chuck Holdeman's almost weepy bassoon and pianist's Ron Thomas' simple yet chamber-like melodies on his lower keys. "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" is a 1587 composition that progresses with hymn-like precision and minimalistic performances, which proves advantageous since the quality of the near-solo passages likely top any group harmonic effort. "Fum Fum Fum" and "Mary Had A Baby" are both bouncy tunes that inject a bit of life, with Kay's low-key singing keeping things in character even as her cohorts take advantage to liven up their contributions.
This ranks with Dianne Reeves' Christmas Time is Here as one of the best female vocalist Christmas albums I've encountered this year. That doesn't necessarily means it's the best holiday album - some other big-time contenders are near the end of this list.
Brent Lewis Productions
As the guys on SportsCenter say, this is just ridiculous.
Ethnic percussionist Brent Lewis' career features up and down work, but Jungle Bells is so strong in concept alone it's a near must-possess for any African drum fan, plus anyone who can fit serious grooving into their concept of holiday music. Lewis scores by sticking to a vital concept: All drums all the time by a talented trio of players, with none of the synths or other background textures that cloy lesser works of his selling in places like New Age bookstores. He claims this is the first drums-only holiday album, which I can't verify or refute here.
Lewis often emphasizes melodic phrases in his playing, so capturing the relatively easy and straightforward lyrics of Christmas songs comes across seamlessly. Most of the eight familiar songs are well-defined, but a few like "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" seem ill-at-ease in this format and are more difficult to follow.