Wednesday, December 03, 2008

2008 Holiday Music a gift in tune with the season

Sixpence None the Richer, featuring guitarist/songwriter Matt Slocum (left) and vocalist Leigh Nash.

It’s not surprising that an ever-growing number of artists release Christmas-minded collections around the holidays. The good news for fans of such recordings is that the past few years have yielded an especially-strong number of albums in tune with the season.
So while 2007 revealed the memorable “Christmas Songs” from Jars of Clay and rollicking “Christmas with the Smithereens,” an equally sharp field of 2008-issued discs seems positioned to blast over the speakers at Santa’s toy factory this year.

“The Dawn of Grace” (Nettwerk Music) features the recently-reunited Sixpence None the Richer-led Leigh Nash revisiting eight traditional Christmas songs, including a stirring rendition of “Angels We Have Heard On High” and tender “Silent Night,” the latter showcasing the artful guest vocals of Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine. Two original tracks, “The Last Christmas” and “Christmas for Two,” highlight the pleasing folk-rock approach of the Grammy-nominated group.

Although not as well known as the aforementioned Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer that she is touring with as part of the Love Came Down: A Christmas Pageant throughout December 2008, Sara Groves’ “O Holy Night” (Integrity Media) is a strong 12-song collection sure to win the one-time Rosemont, Minnesota high school teacher more followers.
Because Groves’ voice works best when singing emotive material in hushed arrangements (think Shawn Colvin), standards such as “O Holy Night” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” are reworked to focus on the lyrics and melodies with refreshing insight.

The fourth full-length album from Texas-based Los Lonely Boys is “Christmas Spirit” (Sony Records) a 10-song collection that features outstanding takes at “Run Run Rudolph” and “Away in a Manger,” as well as a flamenco-flavored instrumental take on “Cancion de las Campanas (Carol of the Bells).”

Rosie Thomas’ “A Very Rosie Christmas” (Sing-a-long Records) will please fans of the Seattle-based indie singer-songwriter, as well as lovers of traditional Christmas albums. Her voice draws comparisons with Joni Mitchell, so it’s no surprise a version of that singer’s “River” works so well here. She brings a nice dose of melancholy to reworked selections of “Christmastime Is Here” and “Silent Night,” making the songs her own.
Thomas is currently planning her first-ever Christmas tour, which includes a stop at Hotel Café in Hollywood on Dec. 9.

Of all the season’s new holiday-minded entries, few are as adventuresome as “Jingle All the Way” (Rounder Records) the latest album from Grammy-winning banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. While the track list includes plenty of well-known standards (“O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Silent Night”), the delivery is all about style and innovation.
Highlights abound, including impressive renditions of the Vince Guaraldi Peanuts gems “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time Is Here.”

The Boxmasters bridge the gap between traditional classics and rockabilly on the trio’s latest, “Christmas Cheer” (Vanguard Records). If you haven’t heard of the Boxmasters, you’ve surely heard of at least one member of the group; actor Billy Bob Thornton handles lead vocals and drumming duties in the band. He is joined by bassist-guitarist J.D. Andrew and lap steel-lead guitarist Mike Butler on versions of “Silver Bells,” “Blue Christmas” and John Lennon’s “Happy X-Mas (War Is Over),” as well as several Thornton-penned originals.

One of the original heroes of the rockabilly revival movement of the 1980s has become a champion of holiday-themed releases in the ‘00s.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra has released the 2-disc “Ultimate Christmas Collection” on Surfdog Records, a best of set that also includes a new recording of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” The release also features a full-length concert on DVD that was filmed at Universal Amphitheatre in December 2004.

If it’s Christmas, chances are Mannheim Steamroller is issuing another holiday offering. The group’s 2008 collection, “Christmasville” (American Gramaphone), includes a number of songs from the “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” animated classic (including “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas”). This release also marks the first Mannheim Steamroller album with vocals on every track.

Although Enya released the 4-song “Christmas Secrets” in 2006, the Irish singer has issued a full-length album of new material in 2008. “And Winter Came…” features a range of holiday material boasting her distinctive vocals and Celtic-tinged new age style.

Christian rockers Third Day released the excellent “Christmas Offerings” in 2006, and completed a full-length Christmastime tour in 2007. One of those full-length shows was videotaped and has just been released on the similarly-titled “Third Day: Christmas Offerings” (Sony Music Videos) a DVD that finds the Georgia outfit performing gems such as “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” as well as their own “God Of Wonders” as part of the 13-song set.

Although Johnny Cash died in 2003, his enormous and wide-ranging body of work continues to be reissued. Several recent releases have special significance this season, with Shout! Factory having issued a 4-DVD box set that includes his annual Christmas specials shown on CBS television between 1976 and 1979. The holiday specials are also available individually.
There are highlights on all four programs, but the 1977 special includes an all-star tribute to Elvis Presley that features Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison playing together.
BilesOnDVD has released “Johnny Cash: Chapter & Verse,” a DVD-CD set featuring Cash’s 19-hour narration of the New King James Version New Testament on DVD with an accompanying CD featuring 14 of Cash’s gospel hits.

With the upcoming arrival of Hanukkah on Dec. 21, Shout! Factory is issuing the perfectly-timed “The Heart and Humor of a People,” a collection of classic Jewish songs newly-recorded for the 13-song disc. An especially eclectic mix of musicians and actors have recorded tracks, including Neil Sadaka, Herb Albert, Max Weinberg (Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band), Dave Koz, Barbara Streisand, Jason Alexander and Adam Sandler.

There are a number of other noteworthy holiday-related collections that have been issued in recent weeks, including Yo-Yo Ma’s “Songs of Joy & Peace,” Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas,” Tony Bennett’s “A Swingin’ Christmas,” Melissa Etheridge’s “A New Thought for Christmas,” Sarah Brightman’s “A Winter Symphony,” Harry Connick Jr.’s “What a Night! A Christmas Album” and Mindy Smith’s “My Holiday.”

1 comment:

scotirish said...

I have read of many churches celebrating Christmas with Pageants that include an actual baby portraying the role of 'baby Jesus'. Our first child Ruth, was born December 12th, 1981 and was chosen to be 'baby Jesus' for our church's (Reba Place Fellowship) Christmas Eve service. Last year, our grandson, Charlie, born on Oct. 19th 2008, was chosen, also at Reba Place Fellowship. But in prison no such ritual exists. I wasn't even thinking about babies being in Christmas plays back in 1972. This was yet another year in prison the difference being this was my first Christmas as a christian. The Christmas service held new meaning for me as we sang the traditional Christmas Carols bringing with it a hope for a new life with a redeemed future. Christian volunteers were a part of our service at the U. S. Medical Center for Prisoners in Springfield, Mo. As our service wound to completion a cry was heard. The faint whimpering of a baby. My first thought was that I wasn't hearing what I thought I had heard. I had been in prison for many years and had never even seen a baby inside of a prison (not counting my infrequent times in the visiting room.) But there it was again, a baby crying. Someone, a volunteer, had brought their baby into the service wrapped in a blanket unnoticed by the guards. I then thought, there was our 'baby Jesus'. The parents of the yet unknown child were the children of an older couple (Lloyd and Nita Colbaugh) who had only a few years previously began their ministry to the prison. Even the great-grandmother (Mom Carter) was a volunteer and had played a significant role in my own conversion, telling me that God had a plan for my life. Life would go on and the incident of 'baby Jesus' coming to prison would fade to a memory, until the baby grew up and now is known throughout many countries far and wide as acclaimed singer/songwriter Sara Groves. I hope this story adds to your appreciation of the life of Sara and her family.John C Thomson