Christmas Craziness: 60 Free Great, Cheesy and/or Freakish Holiday Albums on the Internet
I'm not a huge fan of smooth jazz, but I have a soft spot for percussionist Eric Darken, whose CDs I first saw on sale for 49 cents at the checkout counter of a strip mall fabric store.
For fusion fans, this freebie easily equals or betters mass-market albums like those GRP Christmas collections where maybe 20 percent of the musicians aren't mailing it in.
Darkin works best with strong compositions well suited to creative rearrangements, such as the elaborate percussion he can weave into the odd meters of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "We Three Kings." He's also credible turning "O Holy Night" into a vocal pop-gospel track. The relatively straight rockish "Angels We Have Heard On High" ends the album on an upbeat, if not overly hefty, note.
There's probably an equal number that fall flat. "Carol Of The Bells" is a synth-fest lacking lyrical presence and the arrangement depth of Mannheim Steamroller (remember we're talking relative qualities here). Some attempts to infuse new flavors into familiar favorite are misguided. The slow Latin gait of "The First Noel" is simply awkward, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" sounds like a synthesized rhumba track was substituted as an afterthought.
Similar: Bongobells also has A Merry Little Christmas and the double-disc Cool Jazz Christmas by Darken.
Following Yonder Star
It's a shame more information isn't available about this jazz/rock album, other than being by some "Nashville studio artists," because it's a good one. It's very much like modern-era Manhattan Transfer, with instrumentals of substance conversing with a well-harmonized variety of small ensemble vocals.
"Angels We Have Heard on High has an off-meter beat reminiscent of Dave Weckl," while Joy To The World" goes for organ funk. Many are long enough for an instrumental solo of note, from the relatively straight-ahead modern piano of "Deck The Halls" to the blues/ fusion sax of "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night."
Maybe half the songs lack standout qualities, but that's not an awful ratio for a contemporary albumespecially when it's free.
Twenty Little Drummer Boys
This double-disc set is one of those intriguing projects that nonetheless needs to be digested in bits, unless you really like "The Little Drummer Boy." Variations from strikingly creative to supremely tacky are featured by performers ranging from The Yellowjackets to The Jingle Cats.
Among the best arrangements: Cuba/L.A. combines a sharp-voiced violin and intense hand percussion. Ten Point Ten blends a rich college of complex percussion with an enticing mix of traditional and electric instruments. Kofi does a Ziggy Marley rock/reggae fusion with a few interludes of improvised vocals.
The Yellowjackets' reggae arrangement is OK, but not terribly creative or inspired, in the way songs with alleged commercial appeal tend to be on sampler albums. Daryl Stuermer's lite-fusion is one of the lesser tracks from GRP's first Christmas collection. For rock fans there's an '80s synth hard beat from White Heart, protest rock from Ray Stevens (who calls the drummer an intrusive neighbor who sounds like "the war in the Middle East") and vapid instrumental rock-ability from Bongolong.
Finally, for those who haven't heard the Jingle Catsand those are all real cats with no pitch-shifting appliedtheir one track is all you need to "appreciate" them. Their album is hilarious for a few minutes and then becomes unbearably annoying. Those wanting to fully experience this form of madness can find The Animal Kwackers and The Singing Dogs at Bongobells. Twenty Little Drummer Boys isn't that bad, but the concept is similartoo much of even a good song goes sour on the ears quickly.
Similar: The Bongobells site also has double-disc variations of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "We Three Kings Of Orient Are," both well-suited for a multitude of arrangements.
A Christmas Yet To Come
Bongobells says this 1975 recording was recorded by Joseph Byrddescribed elsewhere as a freakish '60s psycho rock/pop keyboardistusing only an ARP 2600 Synthesizer. "The arrangements are very similar to Walter Carlos' 'Switched-On Bach' recordings, so this is rather vintage stuff and will not be for every musical taste."
That's a fairly dead-on assessment, although I found the album lacking the edge I was hoping for. The mix of thin and fat analogue synth sounds is wide, and the songs go beyond to the usual carols to include pieces like "Taublein Weiss" and "Carillon." But the performances are vanilla beyond the tonal changes, with few flourishes or improvised moments.
Similar: Switched On Santa features 13 songs Sy Mann on a Moog synth. The sound quality is badit sounds like a scratchy old LPbut the playing is a tad more interesting.