Thursday, November 22, 2007

1. Bing Crosby: Christmas Classics
Bing Crosby sings everything better than anyone else. He is, literally, the voice of Christmas. He’s also everywhere at Christmas, so how do you know which album gives you the most bang for your buck? Well, on every Bing Crosby Christmas CD, you will, of course, have Bing singing “White Christmas”. No one else but Bing should sing White Christmas. Ever. This CD has that song on it, along with many other well known Christmas songs, sung superbly by Der Bingle -- including the popular, and fun (though more interesting when it wasn’t played constantly) duet between Bing and David Bowie -- “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”. But, the gem on this album is a beautiful little song called “The Littlest Angel”. This CD can be played any time, anywhere during the Christmas season.

2. Peter Breinholt : Noel
Okay, so this is one of those predictable titles, but, trust me, it works here. Peter Breinholt is a local guy here in Utah, but over the years he has acquired a substantial following outside the immediate area. If I had to classify his music, I would call it folk, but really Peter has a unique sound of his own. His music is an acoustic amalgamation. There are guitars and banjos and fiddles and drums and pianos and cellos and on and on...It is, musically, very rich -- and very original. Nine of the eleven songs on this CD are traditional Christmas songs, but everyone of them feels original. Not in a distracting way though. Actually, listening to this CD makes you think that this is the way these songs are supposed to sound. His two original songs -- “Christmas Eve Song” and “ Wake up Little Child” are typical of Peter Breinholt’s writing : sort of a stream of consciousness collection of wonderfully descriptive sentences, paired with beautiful music. This CD is also suitable for listening throughout the entire season. Actually I could listen to this all year long...I don’t even do that with Bing Crosby.

3. Kurt Bestor: Noel
Two Noels in a row? Yes, but I swear it’s okay. The title of this CD is also apppropriate, but only these two -- no more! Kurt Bestor is another local, with a pretty large following outside of the intermountain area. He has scored music for movies, television shows, even the Olympics, as well as several “new age” albums of his own. But, he made his name with Christmas Albums (he has five) and his yearly Christmas concerts - - which used to be really good, now he’s gotten a little stale (although he’d be the last one to know it - he has a bit of an ego). Luckily, we have recordings of his music. Noel is his third Christmas CD, and he was really hitting his stride. It has a little of everything (this is all instrumental music, incidentally) from new age piano, to quiet traditional, to full orchestral pieces. The prettiest songs on this collection are “Star Carol” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” -- check out the piano solo mid way through the last one.

4. Jimmy Buffett: Christmas Island
Jimmy Buffett was born December 25, 1946. Christmas 1996 was Jimmy’s 50th birthday, and to celebrate he decided to release his first, and only, Christmas CD. This is an unique CD. You see, Jimmy Buffett used to be capable of producing good, entertaining, clever music (just not in the last five or six years). “Christmas Island” is a very fun album. At his best, Jimmy Buffett has many different sounds, and this album has something for everyone: A reggae version of “Jingle Bells”, a very serviceable turn as a crooner on “Mele Kalikimaka”, and a rockin’ surfer version of “Up on the House Top.” He also, perhaps predictably, covers John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” which is a little over done, but all remakes of this tired song are better than the original for one reason -- no Yoko. But, the best songs on this CD are the original compositions. “Merry Christmas, Alabama” is a touching musical Christmas card to friends and places of Jimmy Buffett’s past. It’s buffett at his best, and when that happens, even his more personal music resonates with the listener. The coolest song on the CD, however, is “Ho ho ho and a bottle of rum” - a little ditty about Santa and a well deserved vacation.

5. Michael Mclean: The Forgotten Carols
Most Christmas albums try to include a new song, hoping it will catch on as the “new Christmas classic”. But, most of them, of course, SUCK! But, with “The Forgotten Carols”, Michael Mclean has added to the Christmas catalog the best new Christmas songs in a generation. The songs tell the story of a woman name Constance, a nurse who moves in to the home a kindly old gentleman named John, to help care for him for the Holidays, while his family is away on vacation. Constance, who is uptight, and has very little use for Christmas, gradually has a change of heart, as she gets to know John and learns the stories behind some very special Christmas ornaments that he has in his possession. John may be older than he seems, as he tells of experiences with the Innkeeper of Bethlehem, Joseph the husband of Mary and George Friedrich Handel among others -- from each of whom John has acquired a memento which he hangs on his Christmas tree to remind him of that person’s connection to the celebration of the birth of Christ. All the songs are wonderful, but the most touching song is the story of Joseph -- “Joseph (I was not his father, he was mine)”.

6. Mannheim Steamroller Christmas
This is the first Christmas Album from Mannheim Steamroller (the one with the black cover). This was a groundbreaking album in the Christmas music genre. It was so innovative that it spawned a whole new movement in the field - new age Christmas music. After this album, other artists realized that they could tweak traditional Christmas tunes and not be burned for heresy. The music actually spans quite a spectrum -- from contemporary rockin’ versions of songs like “Deck the Halls” and “God rest ye merry, gentlemen” to more traditional takes on songs like ‘Coventry Carol”. The CD is really known for the jazzier stuff, but the real gem is the final song -- “Stille Nacht” - it’s usually the song I close my Christmas music listening with each year. It captures, I think, all of things which make Christmas the most wonderful time of the year.
Incidentally, Mannheim Steamroller has done several more Christmas CD’s since this one -- with varying degrees of success, but none have been as impactful as the this first album.

7. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Actually, I included this particular Christmas CD, because it is the one that I happen to own. There are several and they are all magnificent. At some point, during the Christmas season, you just get the urge to hear a good choir, and this is the preeminent choir in the world. Actually, this album does not contain it, but I would suggest finding a recording of the Tabernacle Choir singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah -- you won’t find it done any better, anywhere.

8. Elvis Presley: If Every Day was like Christmas
Elvis has become something of a joke -- and for good reason, but, once you get past the sequined jumpsuits and the impersonators, it turns out he could actually sing. Usually Elvis and Christmas means “Blue Christmas” -- which is on this CD -- but there are so many other great songs on this album that Blue Christmas is more of a footnote. Elvis puts his unique spin on several traditional Christmas songs (Silver Bells, The First Noel, Silent Night etc...) but the best songs on this disc have a lonely, melancholy sound to them. “It won’t seem like Christmas without you”, “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees”, and “If I get home on Christmas Day” remind you that Christmas is not always presents and joyful exuberance, sometimes it is loneliness and heartache. I’ll admit, this album probably isn’t for everyone, but don’t judge it too harshly before you’ve given it an honest chance.

9. Harry Connick Jr.: When My Heart Finds Christmas
Harry Connick Jr. is a throwback to the crooners of old. His style takes a classic New Orleans jazz sound, and makes it cool for a new generation. While his up tempo stuff is a real kick, he doesn’t quite have the chops to match up to the old time crooners (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole etc...) on the slower songs. That’s not to say they aren’t worth listening to -- “When my heart finds Christmas” and “What are you doing New Year’s Eve” are the kinds of songs that make you want to make a cup of hot chocolate and stare out the window at the falling snow (if you’re into that kind of thing). But, he really hits his stride with the big band songs. “Rudolph the red nosed reindeer” is a fun new take on an old song, but the best song on the CD is the original tune “It must’ve been ol’ Santa Claus” about a fanciful ride with Old St. Nick, by a young unbeliever.

10. Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong
I used to add several new CD’s to my Christmas collection every year, but as I have become more discriminating, the additions have become smaller. In 2006, I only bought two, this beauty being one of them. Sarah McLachlan sings from loves ragged edges. Most of her music, even the more mainstream songs, have a beautiful melancholy to them. In the song “Angel”, off of her “Surfacing” album, she describes this as “glorious sadness” -- and that is exactly what it is. This CD is full of that glorious sadness. This is a CD to play on that day, that you know is coming, when the pressure of the holidays makes you wonder if we’ve lost all sight of the beauty of a simple Christmas. There are none of the fun kid songs on this album -- no Rudolph, no Frosty, no Jingle Bells. The traditional songs are the quieter hymns of Christmas -- O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, What Child is this?. The other selections are mostly covers of other artists, and they are all better than the originals. There is, no real surprise here, “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” which, like the Jimmy Buffett version is better than the John Lennon original, because, once again, no Yoko. Even better is a version of the Joni Mitchell song “River” -- with a beautiful dobro accompaniment. Best of all the covers though is “Song for a winter’s night” -- originally sung (and written by) Gordon Lightfoot. Sarah, no slouch of a song writer herself, has a pretty little composition of her own called “Wintersong”. But, I’ve saved the best for last -- “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” is not only the best version of this song, it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. The whole CD is gorgeous. It’s the best addition to my Christmas collection in the last ten years.

11. Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band: The Gift
Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band, have a very distinct sound -- it’s bluegrass, but it’s also folk and rock and country and jazz fact, they describe their sound as “Post Hee Haw - Funkadelic - Hip Hop - Newgrass”. That pretty much covers it. This is mostly a fun album (if you ever get a chance to see these guys in concert, they are as much fun to watch as they are to listen to), with bluegrass treatments of many Christmas favorites -- “Rudolph”, “Jingle Bells”, “Silent Night”, and a really cool version of “Carol of the Bells” -- with no bells. The really great songs on this album are original -- “The Gift” (which is sort of a take on “O Come all ye Faithful”) and the unusual -- “Far Far Away” -- which is an original sound for a lesser known Mormon Christmas hymn, “Far Far Away on Judea’s Plain”. The music on this CD is very rich (these guys are close friends of, and often perform with Peter Breinholt) -- banjo, guitar, and Ryan Shupe’s specialty - the fiddle (or violin, if he plays it slower -- yes that is the only difference -- I don’t care what your high school music teacher said.)

12. John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together
Okay! Listen to it before you judge it! This is good stuff. I LOVE the Muppets and, heck I even really like John Denver. Sue me. The amazing thing about a Muppets CD is that it’s really a bunch of guys in a studio singing in funny voices, but what you hear, and what you seen in your mind’s eye, are the lovable Muppets. But beyond the novelty of listening to puppets sing, the songs are very touching, especially when combined with the heartfelt earnestness of John Denver. It seems that back in the late 1970’s John and the Muppets were always getting together, for one reason or another. They blend so seamlessly that I almost think that maybe John Denver was a Muppet. Some of the songs on the CD are only Muppets (and all of your favorites are here -- Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, Rolff) like “The Christmas Wish” -- sung by Kermit, and some are just John Denver -- “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913”. But, of course, the best songs are the ones that they sing together. Highlights are “The Twelve Days of Christmas” -- which descends into madness and “Silent Night” -- which opens with a narration of the story of how that most beloved of all Christmas Carols came to be written.

Honorable mention: Alabama Christmas volumes 1 & 2
These holiday offerings, by perennial country favorites, Alabama, are packed with great -- mostly original -- Christmas songs. In fact, of the 23 songs between the two albums, only three of them are traditional Christmas Carols, the best of which is their version of “The Little Drummer Boy”. Only a couple of the songs are really forgettable, and some are very touching. Alabama has a very warm, heartfelt sound, which really works for Christmas songs. These are songs to listen to while you sit in front of a roaring fire (in the fireplace) and admire the great job you did, decorating your tree. Highlights: “Santa Claus (I still believe in you)”, “Tonight is Christmas”, “Thistlehair the Christmas Bear”, “Tennessee Christmas”, “The Christmas Spirit” and, if you can believe it, a song called “Happy Birthday Jesus” (I cringed at the title, but they pull it off). There are two songs that I especially love, because they remind me of my dad, who passed away just before Christmas several years ago -- “Christmas Memories” and “I was Young Once too”. I’m not sure why I called these albums honorable mentions. Go ahead and think of them as numbers 13 and 14, if you’d like to.
There you go. The essential Christmas Album list. You can’t go wrong with anything from the above selections. Trust me. I wouldn’t lie about something this important.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Whatever happened to...

The answer to this question is probably no, but have you ever wondered what happened to the Peanuts Gang, after they grew up? These are things that I think about. I was watching the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special last night -- because, I like it, that's why -- and after watching Lucy pull the football out from under Charlie Brown (by the way, why is he the only one who is constantly referred to by his full name? At least three other characters have established last names -- Sally (Brown), Linus and Lucy (Van Pelt), I think Peppermint Patty is just a first name), I wondered if they ever ended up as a couple. After much (way too much) consideration, I believe the answer is no.
Let's have a look at Charlie Brown, and the women of the peanuts universe. First we have to rule out Sally -- she's his sister, and we're not going any further with that. Next up -- Violet. A peripheral character, Violet is, in temperment, nearly a carbon copy of Lucy -- high maintinence and bossy. She's never had any tolerance for Charlie Brown, but she is a prime candidate for Karma. I see her hooking up, in the end, with PigPen - another character on the outer circles of the Peanuts Gang. They have a happy family (PigPen does finally clean up), but Violet is a bit of a desperate housewife.
Now, what about Lucy herself? At first this seemed like the obvious answer, she being the alpha female of the gang and Charlie Brown the dominant (?) male figure. But, alas, it was not to be. Charlie Brown only tolerates Lucy because of his friendship with Linus. And you can only call someone a blockhead so many times before it does irreparable damage. Besides, Lucy had a thing for Schroeder, who secretly felt the same way, but his dedication to his music got in the way until Lucy took up the digereedoo and the couple made their fortune by performing unique duets throughout the midwest. Ultimately, they ended up in the same neighborhood as Violet and Pigpen (who became a famous archeaologist).
The Little Red Haired Girl. Charlie Brown, pined away for years for this firey haired beauty, but he never had the nerve to take the next step. After elementary school, she was out of his life, though not out of the spotlight. Her parents enrolled her in singing classes, where she excelled and became an over night sensation in her early teen years, which propelled her into a breakout television role playing Flo on the sitcom "Alice". In the end, the pressure of living the Hollywood lifestyle was too much and she joined a convent in St. Paul.
The one character who unquestionably had a crush on Charlie Brown, was Peppermint Patty, and she just assumed that Chuck felt the same way. It turns out that he just wanted to be friends. When he finally revealed how he truly felt about her, Peppermint Patty (being the undisputed jock of the gang - if not the brightest - she always thought Snoopy was just a real quiet, but effective shortstop) beat the crap out of Charlie Brown. Eventually, they smoothed things over and always maintained a strong friendship. Peppermint Patty went on to play major league baseball, leading her expansion team, the New Mexico Cacti, to the World Series. On a publicity tour, following the World Series win, she met a professional bowler named Baby Ruth and they lived out their days, happily, in a penthouse overlooking Central Park in New York City.
By process of elimination we are now left with the best, if not at first the obvious choice for a companion to Charlie Brown -- Marcie. Spending much of her early years in the shadow of Peppermint Patty, Marcie blossomed, in her teenage years, into a confident, and sometimes opinionated, but always fair, writer. She had always secretly had a crush on the round headed boy, whom only she called Charles. Charlie Brown, failed to notice her awkward affection until after the blow up with Peppermint Patty. That next summer, at camp, Charles and Marcie were both assigned to the camp newspaper --she as a writer, he as a photographer -- and the rest was history. The Browns were married in a small, but nice wedding ceremony, and lived out their early married life in relative obscurity, Marcie working on the local paper and Charlie Brown taking several mid level management jobs, until he finally made his breakthrough as a child and wedding photographer. They live happily, but modestly, in a small community in northern Utah two doors down from Charlie Brown's little sister Sally, and her husband Linus Van Pelt PhD.
As for the rest of the gang, Snoopy finally got the Red Baron, Woodstock became a political speech writer. And as for all of those "Wah wah" speaking, but unseen adults...they all boarded the mother ship and went back to their home planet, as they were obviously aliens, judging by the size of the heads of their children.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The thought for the day...

Don't think too hard about this. Ask the classic, Sheb Wooley song, "The Flying Purple People Eater," is it the monster, or the people that he eats, that are purple? Is he a one eyed, one horned, flying, purple, people eater...or a one eyed, one horned, flying, purple people eater? The coma after the word purple changes the whole meaning of the sentence. For that matter, he could be a one eyed, one horned, flying purple people eater. As it turns out, according to the song, its the people that are purple, but whether they fly is still up in the air. Does that mean that the People Eater is purple? We just don't know, he could be purple, he could be plaid. What about the narrator of the story? We have to assume that he is purple, after all he begs the Purple People Eater not to eat him, and if he (actually I'm just assuming that the narrator is a male, because the song is sung by a man --it's getting deep) had a reasonable expectation that he was going to be eaten, and since the People Eater says that he eats purple people, we must conclude that the narrator of the story is, therefore, purple. Hmmm...