Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

A Very Good Year For Songwriters: I can't remember a year when this list consisted of such strong albums, all of them. Beyond the excellent performances and production, what really made this year special was the songwriting. Each album has remarkable consistency of songwriting quality; the great songs roll one after another. So here are my choices for the best albums of the year.

1. Matraca Berg - The Dreaming Fields

Listen to "You and Tequila"

A Masterpiece: Nashville may be the last bastion of professional songwriters who sell their songs to music publishers to be recorded by the many country stars who don't write their own material. A few of these professional songwriters also occasionally record their own songs. Matraca Berg is such a songwriter and no matter who does the many hit songs she writes, no one sounds better singing them than she does. Take her latest hit song, "You and Tequila"; you can hear the big hit version by Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter here. You can also listen to Matraca's version (above); as much as I like the hit duet, to these ears there is no comparison.

"You and Tequila" was certified platinum (for selling one million copies), and it has been recognized by the CMA awards, the AMC awards, and it garnered two Grammy nominations including Best County Song which is a songwriters' award. This is only Matraca's latest success; Reba McEntire took one of her earliest songs to number one and since then she's been in high demand and has had hits with a huge list of country stars that includes Patty Loveless, Tricia Yearwood, Suzy Bogguss, Faith Hill, Linda Ronstadt, and the Dixie Chicks, just to name a few. Matraca has been inducted into Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, one of the youngest songwriters ever to receive that honor.

The great thing about The Dreaming Fields is that it's loaded with great songs. Matraca is an exquisite songwriter, she has a great voice, and she produced this record with just the perfect arrangements for each song. Matraca wrote or co-wrote everything on the album and she used her many musician and singer-songwriter friends to help her record it. This is her fifth album overall, but it's her first after a fourteen year layoff.

I've known that Matraca was good, ever since 1990 when I saw her sing at a Borders bookstore, playing songs from her first album and when her claim to fame was having written "Strawberry Wine" for Deana Carter. After such a long hiatus between albums, I hadn't exactly forgotten about her, but when I found that she had made a new album, and when I loaded it into the player, it was a happy shock of the highest order to discover that she had made a masterpiece.

2. Rosita Kèss - Northern Sky

Listen to "Where Should I Go"

Italy's Loss is Our Gain: Rosita Kèss is a talented singer, songwriter, and musician, originally from Venice, Italy. For a while she lived in New York City, frequently entertaining the good folks of the Lower East Side with frequent performances at Rockwood, often in tandem with singer-songwriter Richard Jullian. Rosita and Richard recently got married and now live in New Orleans. Rosita has a fresh voice and weaves folk, rock, jazz, Bossa Nova, and even some French cabaret into her mix. Northern Sky is a beautiful album that pairs well-written original songs with superb production that features infectious rhythms and instrumentation that varies from track to track. Richard produced the album, and also co-wrote and played on some of the songs.

There are several great guests appearing on Northern Sky including Jim Campilongo who added his electric guitar to "Where Should I Go". Jim is a frequent flyer at The Living Room where it's a treat every time he takes out his guitar. Jim gives it just enough twang to give the song that cool country sound, and the swing in Rosita's vocal evokes the memory of Patsy Cline. It's impossible to pick just one track as representative of the record because the songs are so different from one another, but what they all have in common is that together they make up one of the best albums I heard this year.

3. Greg Brown - Freak Flag

Listen to "Let the Mystery Be"

A National Treasure: Greg Brown has an enormous repertoire of American music at his disposal, including folk, blues, country, gospel, soul, jazz, and rock; this is perhaps the most encyclopedic collection of songs of any working musician since Jerry Garcia. Greg's primary mode of musical expression is his live concerts. Unlike other artists who draw their concert material from their albums, Greg liberally mixes many cover songs with his own compositions, some of which may even be from his albums. His live show expresses whatever mood or point of view he wants on a given night, no two shows are ever exactly the same.

Once every few years, Greg goes into the studio to make an album and the result is usually cause for celebration among his fans. This is such a time. Freak Flag is so loaded with great songs and ear friendly production that this album should have appeal way beyond his fan base, which is likely why he chose to release it on Yep Roc instead of his own Red House label. Ten of the twelve songs are new originals by Greg, some of which he has done live during the last several years. Of the other two, one was written by his daughter Pieta Brown and the other is one of his wife Iris DeMent's most well known songs, "Let the Mystery Be", which he has been doing live for some years.

Freak Flag was produced by Greg's longtime friend and collaborator Bo Ramsey who also played on the record. There are a few uptempo numbers that have a real nice interplay of two electric guitars (Bo Ramsey and Richard Bennett) along with Greg's acoustic guitar. The slower, more thoughtful songs feature Bo's trademark smoldering and moody guitar leads. Guest Mark Knopfler played a nice electric solo on "Flat Stuff". The electric guitar work sounds great on all the tracks and Bo knows just the right amount to use so that they don't overwhelm Greg or the songs. Greg has done so many great albums in his career that it would be hard to say that this was his best, but it's certainly one of them.

4. Kasey Chambers - Little Bird

Listen to "Invisible Girl"

Her Life in Music: Kasey Chambers spent the first nine years of her life living in the Australian outback with her family, they sang nightly around the campfire. When the family finally moved back to civilization, she spent the second half of her childhood as the lead singer in her family's band; with her mother, father, and brother, they were the Dead Ringer Band, playing country music and alt-country in the style of Lucinda Williams. They recorded seven albums and won every award that the Australian music industry had to give.

When her parents split up, she wrote her first solo album which was recorded with assistance from her dad, Bill Chambers, on guitars and her brother Nash Chambers producing. The album was amazingly good with excellent songs, nicely sung, and great instrumental backing and production that sounded like the product of one of the world's best producers; there wasn't a clue as to the do-it-yourself nature of the recording. In addition to multi-platinum sales in Australia, the album also had worldwide success, including the U.S. where it was released in 2000.

And even though it seemed like she had hit a home run her first time up, she released an even better second album in 2001. The sound of her voice against the well produced electric guitars sounded amazing. Her albums since have all been good but this year's Little Bird is stunning in its accomplishment. Kasey has always been a talented songwriter but she has outdone herself with this collection of incredibly beautiful songs; this time around she sounds very intimate and personal in her writing, and effortlessly so.

In "Nullarbor Song" she opens with "When I was a little girl, I had the biggest backyard in the world, It went on for miles and miles, was wide as it was high, Down to the horizon, all the way up to the sky". Performance and production are still top notch. Both her dad and her husband Shane Nicholson play on the album; Nash engineered while Kasey handled production. Singing backup on the album are Patty Griffin and Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins. This is an amazingly consistent album from start to finish and I do believe it's the best thing she's done yet.

5. Keb Mo - The Reflection

Listen to "Crush on You"

A Great Record: The first thing you need to know is that this is not a blues album. Over his last couple of albums, Keb Mo has become a consummate singer-songwriter doing soul flavored pop/folk/rock. His voice has a very slight weary tone to it that makes it super comfortable like your best pair of old jeans. Although there are too many players to list here, I'll mention two of the six bass players on the record: Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller. Its really good to see Miller doing sessions like this again; in the seventies and eighties he lent his bass, voice, and/or production skills to many great sounding soul/jazz/singer-songwriter projects.

"The Whole Enchilada" is such a catchy tune it was the first single. Keb co-wrote all but two of the songs. "Crush On You" was written by Kevin So who also plays piano and this track features a delightful guest vocal by India.Arie. Keb also does a superb version of the Eagles' "One of These Nights". Other co-writers of note include Melissa Manchester, Maia Sharp, and Vince Gill who not only co-wrote "My Baby's Tellin' Lies", but he plays and sings on it too. Keb is getting a lot of favorable press right now for "We Don't Need It", about a family going through tough economic times. "The Reflection (I See Myself In You)", clocking in at 6:47, is musically a little more complex but no less ear-friendly than the rest of the album which is about as warm and appealing as it gets.

6. John Hiatt - Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns

Listen to "I Love That Girl"

Best Hiatt In Years: John Hiatt's been at it for a really long time, this is his twentieth studio album. Along the way, there have been many great songs, great bands, and great albums, but his creative peak was achieved in the late 1980's with the trilogy of Bring the Family, Slow Turning, and Stolen Moments. These albums, especially the latter two, are just about perfect. Hiatt has done good work over the years since, but none of the albums reached the high water mark of that trilogy, until now. From a songwriting standpoint, Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns is his most consistent set of songs in years.

Producer Kevin Shirley facilitated a great sounding production style that opened up the arrangements to include a good mixture of acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, piano, organ, and even strings. The production serves the songs well by staying out of the way and letting Hiatt's melodies (Hiatt has not been this tuneful in a long time) and lyrics to take center stage. The music actually serves to heighten the drama especially on songs like "Damn This Town", "Down Around My Place", and "Adios to California". There are some beautiful love songs like "I Love That Girl" and "Don't Wanna Leave You Now".

"Detroit Made" is a classic Hiatt driving song that could hold its own alongside "Memphis in the Meantime" and "Drive South". Hiatt writes colorful characters that evoke the south, complete with their own emotional baggage in songs like "Train to Birmingham" and "Damn This Town". As you get toward the end of the album, the drama builds setting up the last song, "When New York Had Her Heart Broke" which is a hugely emotional song about the 9/11 tragedy and perhaps the best song on the subject that I've run across. Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns excels in every way and like the albums in that earlier trilogy it's one that you'll want to hear over and over.

7. Nikki Jean - Pennies in a Jar

Listen to "How to Unring a Bell"

A Songwriting Dream Team: We find new music all kinds of ways these days. With the record industry disintegrating, and radio having become almost a non-factor in discovering new music, the internet has more than picked up the slack with a veritable explosion of sites where you can hear new music, not to mention word of mouth on Facebook. Regardless of how you find it, it is one of life's greatest pleasures to discover something great. In this case I did not know of Nikki Jean, had never even heard the name, when I was given a copy of Pennies in a Jar. I was thrilled the minute I listened to it because I knew that this album was something really special.

Nikki Jean is a sweet voiced singer, a Minnesota native now based in Philadelphia. Although she had previously worked with a couple members of the Roots, and made two EPs, she got the idea that for her first album she wanted to write with her songwriting heroes from the sixties and seventies. She began by enlisting producer Sam Hollander because he had worked with Carole King. Once he was on board, together they approached everyone on her wish list; and they had a remarkable batting average. She wrote with Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Lamont Dozier (of the Motown team Holland-Dozier-Holland), Carly Simon, Jeff Barry, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Carole King who also sang backup on the record.

"How to Unring a Bell" has a classic soul/pop melody and sound; it was written with Thom Bell (The Sound of Philadelphia) using a nice turn of lyric phrase. The first few seconds of the title track are a tip off that Burt Bacharach was involved. Even considering the multitude of songwriting talent on this record, “Steel and Feathers (Don’t Ever)” is maybe the most unusual track on it from a writing perspective. This was a song that Bob Dylan started thirty years ago but never completed; Dylan gave the song to Nikki to finish for the album.

Even though this album sounds at times like a tour through the best songs of the sixties and seventies, this is far from an oldies record; all of the songs are fresh and new. It's all just great material, well produced, and Nikki's vocals make these songs her own.

8. The Damnwells - No One Listens to the Band Anymore

Listen to "Werewolves"

No One Sounds Like This Anymore: It's a simple formula really - crisp guitars, tight bass and drums, strong vocals and great songs. Bands have been using this recipe for years, from the Beatles to Del Amitri. The Damnwells have subscribed to this philosophy ever since their inception in the year 2001. They were good when I first saw them in 2005 (they had the pleasure of opening for Julianna Hatfield's tour that year) and they're even better now. Formed in Brooklyn, The Damnwells consist of a core of Alex Dezen and Ted Hudson with other players rounding out the band as needed for touring and recording. Together they produced No One Listens to the Band Anymore; Alex wrote or co-wrote all the songs.

All the tracks are solid but have a listen to "Werewolves" (above), it's one of the best. "Last Day of the New Age" has a very nice mix of electric and acoustic guitars. "The Great Unknown" mixes acoustic guitar and organ with some great lyrics. "Let's Be Civilized" is more electric and also has awesome lyrics that you'll never hear on the radio, even if you are lucky enough to have a station that plays The Damnwells. It seems like AAA radio stations (stations like WXPN in Philadelphia) and record label release schedules are all dominated by groups that have mediocre singers or vocals buried in the mix (or both). Groups like The Damnwells are few and far between, and that's a shame because albums like No One Listens to the Band Anymore would be a breath of fresh air, both on the air and on new release Tuesday.

9. The Grabs - Political Disco

Listen to "Jerry's Video Store"

A Superb Side Project: In addition to a string of great albums under her own name, Eleni Mandell also has two side projects going; one is a group called The Living Sisters which consists of Eleni with Inara George (The Bird and the Bee and daughter of Lowell George) and Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond). In 2005, she formed a side project band called The Grabs with Steve Gregoropoulis (keyboards, guitars, and vocals) and Nigel Harrison (bass). They released their first album that year called Sex, Fashion and Money; which sounded like Eleni took a vacation from her career to record with these guys in the manner of a garage band. The album didn't sound like a garage band exactly, but it did sound like they were having the fun and freedom of a garage band.

Now The Grabs have returned with album number two and it's a good one. It was recorded in 2010 and I don't think Eleni was all that specific about the reasons for its delay in the email that announced its release, but she did say that they had an enormously good time making the album and that she was happy to release it this year through Bandcamp. To the trio of Eleni, Steve, and Nigel, this album adds Elvira Gonzales on percussion as well as guests such as Clem Burke of Blondie, DJ Bonebrake of X, Probyn Gregory of Brian Wilson, Danny Frankel of k d lang and others.

The record opens with "Come Back" in which Eleni's sweet voiced vocal is multitracked against a guitar riff and the combination sounds like pure pop without a trace of irony. Track two is based on another great guitar line with the same ear-friendly vocals and a nifty guitar solo to boot. Next up is "Jerry's Video Store" (above) which laments the closing of neighborhood video stores and the track with its half-spoken vocal is so much fun that after a couple of spins, it'll have you coming back to this record often. The title track is next with some nice synthesizer accenting the guitar lines and another great vocal from Eleni. The album continues in this fashion and when all is said and done, The Grabs have made a consistently fun and listenable record; one that's on par with any of Eleni's solo albums.

10. Eliza Doolittle - Eliza Doolittle

Listen to "Pack Up"

A Totally Charming Debut: Londoner Eliza Doolittle combines a bunch of seemingly disparate elements to deliver the most original, catchy, and delightful record to be heard on these shores in a very long time. Drawing from diverse sources such as British dancehall, jazz, and brass bands from the forties and fifties, ska from the sixties and seventies, mixed with modern day folk/pop, Eliza's debut injected a breath of fresh air into the British charts upon its release in 2010; it was released here in 2011. Songs like "Skinny Genes", "Rollerblades", "Missing", "So High", and "Pack Up" (above) are so catchy that it doesn't take many plays for them to sink their hooks into the pleasure centers of your brain.

Although this record seems to have been written and produced by committee, there is one big reason that the album is so cohesive and artistically successful, and her name is Eliza Doolittle; she conceived the project and co-wrote all thirteen songs. Her name is really Eliza Caird, her stage name is her real childhood nickname. Eliza had either one or two co-writers per song with a total of fifteen co-writers. Seven of them are also listed as producers, and with the mixer who also produced, the album had eight producers. It's a wonder then that the record is not over-produced; it has a nice, open production style and with Eliza's very appealing voice, the overall effect is most pleasing to the ear. You might think of Lily Allen without the dark side, but Eliza Doolittle is totally original and totally charming.

11. Violette - Simple Is Beautiful

Listen to "Rocking With Angels"

Diamond In the Rough: I get a lot of press releases. The majority have to do with loud indie bands and I didn't mind that most of them went straight to my email junk filter. Luckily, one got through a few months ago from Violette, regarding the release of her third album, Simple Is Beautiful. I was delighted to encounter an excellent piece of work by this fine singer-songwriter who is a native of France, now based in New York. Of the twelve tracks on the record, all are in English except for two, the lovely and atmospheric "Insomnie" (complete with beautiful video), and "La Vie En Rose". The latter is the only hint on the album of Violette's jazz background; and while she does a splendid version, it almost seems obligatory for a French singer to record "La Vie En Rose" at some point.

Violette is a exquisite songwriter as evidenced by tracks like "Silence In My Head", "All I Need", and the title track. "Sweet Soul Music" is. Rocking a little harder but no less sweetly are "Rocking With the Angels" (above) and "Shinin' Your Light". This is an album that is totally enjoyable and will keep you coming back for more. For my part, now I check every press release just to find the next hidden gem.

12. Suzie Brown - Heartstrings

Listen to "Heartstrings"

Prescription For a Broken Heart: Suzie Brown knows all about the heart, literally and figuratively, or should I say Suzie Brown, M.D., Harvard Medical School, Class of 2002. A successful research cardiologist, Suzie gave up the research in 2009 to take a part-time clinical position treating heart attack patients, to allow time for her music career. The aptly titled Heartstrings is her first full length album, following an EP that she made in 2010. Although she has no background in country music, she has a clear sweet voice that sounds like it was made to sing country. The record is mostly country flavored rock with an underpinning of blues.

The title track (above) is her obvious signature song, but the songwriting quality of the rest of the album shows that she's not only good at it, but she was wise to make room in her life to explore this talent. The more uptempo songs like "I'll Be Gone", "Nice Girl", and "Easily Amused" may not be "country songs" but they are so loaded with details and melody that they are virtually begging for country airplay. I first heard Suzie Brown on a compilation that WXPN gave out to their members last Valentine's Day called Philly Local Sings In the Key of Love. The song was "What You Do To Me", a slow bluesy number that featured some fine electric guitar along with a Hammond B-3 organ and it stood out as the best track on the record; it's also on Heartstrings.

There are several more excellent slow lament type songs proving that Suzie can have her way with any type of song. The one song that doesn't sound country at all closes the album beautifully with a tribute to a friend who died; this song falls more into Joni Mitchell territory. In an excellent Harvard Magazine article about her dual careers, she says that she wrote her first song in the wake of a romantic breakup. She has not looked back.

13. James Maddock - Wake Up & Dream

Listen to "Wake Up and Dream"

One of New York's Finest: Two years on from his comeback/American debut album Sunrise On Avenue C, James Maddock's followup, Wake Up and Dream is another solid set of very listenable tunes. On his last album, some of the more anthemic sounding songs suggested comparisons to early Springsteen; those qualities can be heard again on love songs like "Beautiful Now", "Stella's Driving", and "Stoned On You". This album also reminds me a little of British singer-songwriter Chris Rea at times. James' unique sense of humor resurfaces as well on "Mr. Universe", "If what don't kill you makes you stronger, how come I'm so weak it hurts, and if that were true, all that I've been through, I'd be Mr. Universe".

James wrote and sang all the songs and played guitar. John Shannon played guitar, Oli Rockberger played keyboards, and David Immerglück (Counting Crows) added lap steel guitar and mandolin. Leslie Mendelson was there for background vocals. Iestyn Polson produced the album with such skill that it is a complete pleasure to listen. James had a solid rhythm section with Aaron Comess on drums and Drew Mortali on bass; Eleanor Whitmore handled strings when needed. Polson's production skill gave "Step Into the Water", "That's Where You're Wrong", and the title track (above) great sound to match James' awesome songwriting and performance.

The songwriting on Wake Up and Dream has the power to whisk you away and surround you with the people and places described in the songs, helping solidify James' position as one of New York's finest singer-songwriters. Since the last album, James has been doing quite a bit of touring, but he still finds time to play often at Rockwood and other New York venues.

14. Joy Askew - Drunk On You

Listen to "Drunk On You"

From Newcastle to the Lower East Side: In 1996, I bought Joy Askew's first album, Tender City. I didn't know much about her, only that she was a gifted new singer-songwriter from England and that she had made a great album with some really amazing guest musicians. It turns out that she grew up in Newcastle, England and after many unique and interesting musical experiences (read the fascinating bio she wrote on her website), she settled in New York City to pursue a solo career. Little did I know that twenty years later I would have the pleasure of seeing her quite often at The Living Room on New York's Lower East Side. She was a highlight of The Living Room's special nights like Fleetwood Mac Night where she not only laid down a compelling version of an early Mac blues tune, but she was the only one who was able to tell about first-hand Fleetwood Mac encounters back in England.

Drunk on You is her sixth album and it's a beautiful piece of work, every song is finely crafted and memorable. Joy plays a variety of instruments but most songs are piano or keyboard based. The arrangements and production (Joy produced) are perfect. There are some great melodies and lyrics hiding behind deceptively mundane titles like "My Life", "Walk the Dog" and especially "Had a Bad Day" which has some real wisdom in the lyrics. A number of songs such as "AOAO", "Waterfalls" and "All Be Saints" have such haunting melodies and poignant lyrics that the combination has a real dramatic feel that suggests they might be perfect for inclusion in a movie.

The musicians playing on Drunk on You are some of the finest players on the Lower East Side. Steve Elliott played guitar; I've seen Steve play with Chrissi Poland many times and he is always a pleasure to hear. Also playing in her band are Rob Jost on bass with either Robert DiPietro or Tony Mason on drums, Living Room regulars all. Guesting on the album are James Maddock on guitar and backing vocals and Ana Milosevljevic played violin and electric violin. Like many of the all time best albums, this one does not reveal all of its charms on the first listen, but after a number of spins you get to know these songs for the brilliant compositions they are.

15. Jackie Bristow - Freedom

Listen to "Warning Signs"

From Aotearoa to Austin: One of the best things about South By Southwest is the opportunity to see artists from all over the world. The last time I went, in 2009, the first show I saw on day one of the festival was a superb set by Jackie Bristow. Having not been aware of her before, she was my first great find of that year's SXSW. Jackie was born and raised in New Zealand. She moved to Australia to pursue a music career and released two successful albums before setting up residence in Austin, TX.

Freedom is her third album and was recorded in Sydney, Australia and Austin. She co-produced with her longtime music partner Mark Punch. Jackie wrote all the songs except for one that she co-wrote with Mark, and this is a fine set of songs. Jackie's vocals have a nice soulful quality which when paired with the backup singers approaches a gospel feel. The prominent Hammond B-3 organ just adds to the soulfulness. It's clear listening to this, that Mark is an amazing guitarist; whether he's playing tasty leads like on most tracks, or playing soft acoustic like on "River", Mark's guitar is a total pleasure. He even cranks up a chunky sound on "Hightail It Outta Here" that brings to mind the early Doobie Brothers.

The last song, "Aotearoa" is the album's most unusual and maybe my favorite track. The song is about her homeland; "Aotearoa" is the native word for New Zealand. Jackie's heartfelt vocal combines beautifully with a native sounding rhythm and chorus with Mark's ūkēkē giving way to some gorgeously restrained electric guitar leads and the Māori spoken word all works together to make this song a real highlight of the record. Outside the occasional trip back to play Australia and New Zealand, Jackie plays the various venues in and around Austin all the time. She also goes on tour occasionally, so if you ever get the chance to see her, don't pass it.

See The Best XPN Songs of 2011.

Saturday Video Fun: Baz Luhrman-Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) (1999) & Les Crane-Desiderata (1971) & National Lampoon-Deteriorata (1972)

Since it's New Year's, that's a good time for some life advice (hang in with this, it'll all be worth it when you see the last video). Happy New Year everyone.

"Sunscreen" was written in 1997 by a columnist in the Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich. It was not a commencement address given by Kurt Vonnegut as it is commonly miscredited. "Sunscreen" resembles the 1927 poem "Desiderata" which became popular in the late sixties, emblazoned on posters and such. In 1971 Les Crane, a radio (and later television) talk show host, made a spoken word recording of "Desiderata" which was released as a single and became a top ten hit in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. They didn't normally make videos back then, but this is a homemade video, looking good with photos of England's Lake District.

There may never have been a record more ripe for parody than "Desiderata". And there may never have been a group of comics more talented at the art of song parody than those at the National Lampoon. In the early seventies, through record albums like National Lampoon Radio Dinner and a nationality syndicated radio show in 1974, they produced a great many song parodies which were all amazing in their writing (hugely funny), and in their execution; Christopher Guest was most especially good at sounding exactly like whoever was the subject of the parody.

The names of the people who worked at the National Lampoon read like a who's who of comedy: Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Michael O'Donoghue, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Gilda Radner, Harry Shearer, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, Richard Belzer, Tony Scheuren, and Flo & Eddie, just to name a few. When NBC first put Saturday Night Live on the air in 1975, they turned to the National Lampoon to fill their writing and air staffs; Second City TV did the same.

The parody was written by Tony Hendra and read by Norman Rose. Christopher Guest did the music and Melissa Manchester sang the backup parts. "Deteriorata" comes from the Radio Dinner album. There are lots of homemade videos of "Deteriorata" and they're all lame except for this one.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Christmas Mixtape (2011)

This is a digital update of a Christmas mixtape that has been in the works for roughly thirty years. It is a collection of MP3s, the equivalent of a double CD, 36 songs, 2 hours, 18 minutes running time. All through this article you will see references to the Capitol Christmas album that my sister and I listened to as kids. At the time that the bulk of this was written, I had yet to find that elusive LP from 1955, but only few days later, I made that momentous find. You can read all about it and hear some tracks by clicking here.

Through the annotated track list that follows, I have included some of the songs from the mix to listen to while you read. If you would like to hear the mix in it's entirety, drop me an email, wkates@hotmailcom.

The Music: Like that Capitol Christmas album from childhood, the new MP3 mix consists of traditional, popular, and novelty songs. The mix includes all genres of music covering seven decades; from the earliest songs of the 1950's right up to a song recorded this year, all the decades are represented.

This is not meant to be any sort of list of the best Christmas music; it's just a collection of tunes that I've grown attached to over the years. Even though my normal pattern of Christmas listening involves mostly albums, albums are not represented in the mix except for just a few songs. Most of the songs in the mix began life as singles, some have been released on CD, and some of them are rarities. I hope you like it.

1. Dave Cameron - Twas the Night Before Christmas (1975)
In the mid-seventies, I worked at WRHY, Starview (PA). Starview was an FM rock station broadcasting to the Harrisburg/Lancaster/York market; I did weeknights, 7pm to midnight. Dave Cameron was the morning drive-time host and he was multi-talented; in addition to the radio show, he was a singer, he worked weekends as a singing waiter at a restaurant in Valley Forge. He was also a humorist and he wrote and recorded this version of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" which was aired on the station during the Christmas season of 1975. This recording opened the funny side of my old Christmas mixtape. There are lots of pop culture references such as Telly Savalas who played a Tootsie Pop sucking police detective on the show Kojak.

Listen to Dave Cameron - "Twas the Night Before Christmas"

2. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
"It's all cold down along the beach, wind whippin' down the boardwalk..." In the mid-seventies, Columbia Records sent out this live recording to radio stations. They did not put it on record until many years later. At the time the only way to get this, if you were a Bruce fan, was to record it off the radio. Which is exactly how this song ended up opening the rock side of my old Christmas mixtape. Now it can be found on numerous Christmas collection CDs. Bruce is not doing the traditional tune here, this is a cover of the Phil Spector version as done by The Crystals. As you can tell by listening to it, this recording captured Bruce and band at their absolute best.

3. Prelude - A Message From Prelude
Prelude was a classic one-hit wonder band. In 1974, they had a hit with a beautiful a capella version of Neil Young's "After the Goldrush". When the Christmas season rolled around, their label sent this Christmas message out to radio stations on a promo 45. Like their hit, they sang their greeting to the tune of "After the Goldrush".

4. Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song
Considered by many (including me) to be the greatest Christmas song ever recorded, this song was written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells in 1944. I consider Nat King Cole to have possessed the best male singing voice I've ever heard. Here he is graced with the perfect arrangement for a small jazz band with strings. I can only imagine what it would have been like to be in the recording studio when this was cut. I've enjoyed this song ever since hearing it on that Capitol Christmas album we listened to as kids.

5. Mindy Smith - My Holiday
In 2007, Mindy Smith released her third and best album, My Holiday. This record contained about half familiar Christmas songs and the rest were all new songs written by Mindy. The familiar songs are good but what really makes this album great is the quality of the original songs. The songwriting is exceptional and the whole recording has great vocals, instrumental performances, and production. This is my favorite Christmas album of the past twenty years. The songs from this album routinely show up on the most listened to section of my iTunes and since I only listen for one month each year, that should tell you something.

Listen to Mindy Smith - "My Holiday"

6. Chris Rea - Driving Home for Christmas
Chris Rea has had an excellent career in Britain and Europe which is now in its fourth decade. He had a minor hit in the US with a track from his first album, but some mishandling by his American label lead to his inclination not to pursue a career here. The closest his tours ever brought him was Montreal; my brother and I drove ten hours each way just to see him in concert (it was well worth it). In 1988, "Driving Home for Christmas" was the title track of his Christmas EP, released in the UK. It has great British vernacular like "top to toe in tailbacks" which means bumper to bumper traffic.

7. The Whispers - Merry Christmas Darling
"Another Christmas on the road..." This Carpenters classic has not had many cover versions, in fact it is the only one I know of and it works so well in a soul version that I had to include it even though you will hear the original later in this mix. This comes from an album called 'Tis the Season which was released in 1997. It featured a who's who of contemporary sou/jazz artists and even though each track had a different artist, the excellent production by George Duke, Russ Freeman, and Maurice White made the album sound cohesive and it is a true delight from start to finish.

8. Stan Freberg - Green Chri$tma$
"Green Chri$tma$" is a dead-on send up of Christmas advertising by one of the best at the real ad game. Stan Freberg is an author, recording artist, animation voice actor, comedian, radio personality, puppeteer, and advertising creative director. When "Green Chri$tma$" was recorded in 1958, it met with huge resistance because of feared offense to the advertising community; and it wasn't just radio that resisted, his own label, Capitol initially refused to release it. By the 1970s it started getting airplay on FM rock stations which is where I heard it and the record was a much sought after collector's item until it was included in Dr. Demento's Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All Time.

9. John & Yoko & The Plastic Ono Band With The Harlem Community Choir - Happy Christmas
"And so this is Christmas..." This has been a perennial Christmas classic ever since it was first released in 1971. I remember getting a festive green vinyl single when it first came out. Now you can find this on many various artist Christmas CD collections.

10. Leroy Anderson / Arthur Fiedler & the Boston Pops Orchestra - Sleigh Ride
Leroy Anderson was one of the best songwriter/composers in his time. His forte was the super catchy melody, often adorned with sound effects. There is no better example of his work than "Sleigh Ride" which was performed and recorded in 1949 by Arthur Fiedler and his orchestra.

11. Greg Lake - I Believe in Father Christmas
"They said there'd be snow at Christmas..." Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, released this ode to innocence at Christmas back in 1975. Lake, who was never one for understatement, pulled out all the stops for this one including a signature riff by Prokofiev, full orchestra and choir. Over the next several years there were at least three different versions of this song recorded by ELP all with stripped down arrangements. Lake even did a revised version at one point. The version here is the original Greg Lake single with all the orchestral and choral bombast intact. I love this record.

12. Cheech and Chong - Santa Claus and His Old Lady
"Santa Clause is not a musician..." "I can dig, that cat didn't know any tunes..." You don't need to smoke anything to enjoy the humor of Cheech and Chong. This good-hearted look at Santa Claus and Christmas from the standpoint of a misguided musician works every time. The more years you listen to it, the more endearing it gets. This was first released as a single in 1971. Now it can be found on various Christmas collection CDs including the Dr. Demento CD.

13. Yogi Yorgesson - I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas
"Just before Christmas dinner I relax to a point, then relatives start swarming all over the joint". This dates back to that Capitol Christmas album we played as kids. This is as funny now as it was then. Yogi Yorgesson may not actually have been Swedish, but as a Norwegian born comic singer he knew his territory. Yogi Yorgesson was a stage name used by Harry Stewart (born Hans Skarbo) who had several humorous personas of different nationalities. I've been listening to this record for so long that this screwball view of Christmas has been assimilated by my brain as part of Christmas tradition. "I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas" was released by Capitol in 1949, backed with "Yingle Bells". It was his biggest selling record, earning a gold record for selling one million copies; hard to believe, Harry.

14. Billy May and His Orchestra - Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo
Here's another track that dates back to that Capitol Christmas album that we had as kids. The Billy May Orchestra recorded this in 1953 and it really swings. I'm sure that the players had a blast recording it. "What heck is a mambo!"

15. Yogi Yorgesson - Yingle Bells
I first heard this song in the mid-seventies when I finally found the re-released single of "I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas". Even though we already heard Yogi in this mix, the record is too funny to leave out. If you listen to the mix in your iTunes player, you will see the original 1949 picture cover as released by Capitol Records. Just looking at it cracks me up.

Listen to Yogi Yorgesson - "Yingle Bells"

16. Stan Freberg - Christmas Dragnet
Here's another Christmas classic by the great Stan Freberg, a perfect parody of a Dragnet episode. Dragnet was a police drama that began on radio and also became a popular television show in the fifties and sixties. Each episode was based on a real case from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department. Jack Webb was forever associated with his character, Joe Friday. Freberg's parody got the voices and personalities of the characters sounding as real as could be. The story is so well written that if you hear it a few times you won't get through the Christmas season without quoting it. "Love to have ya..."

17. Tom Lehrer - A Christmas Carol
"Relations sparing no expense will send some useless old utensil..." Musical satirist Tom Lehrer released this bit of Christmas cheer in 1959 on a live album, An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer.

18. David Bowie & Bing Crosby - Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth
This delightful duet comes from a 1977 TV special called Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas. Initially released on record only in England, I have an import 12" vinyl single that has the complete long version that includes the dialogue introduction from the show. The song minus the dialogue is now fairly common on American CD Christmas collections. For this mix we had to go with the long version. Bowie reportedly hated "Little Drummer Boy" so the producers had "Peace on Earth" written specifically for the show. Sadly, Bing Crosby died shortly after recording this show.

19. Chrissi Poland - I'll Think of You On Christmas
Back in 2006, a good four years before her wonderful debut album/EP, Chrissi Poland released a Christmas single on iTunes (where it's still available). Even though this song is somewhat different from what she is doing now, it's still a nice slice of pure pop that will surely bring you some holiday cheer. I have the Mariah Carey Christmas album and there's nothing on it any better than "I'll Think of You On Christmas".

20. Elton John - Step Into Christmas
Elton John got into the swing of Christmas with this peppy party single released in 1973. Like most Elton John songs, Elton wrote the music and Bernie Taupin wrote the words. This was on the rock side of my old mixtape.

21. Johnny Mercer - Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town
"Fat man's comin', fat man's comin'..." The forties and fifties were something of a golden age for popular singers and orchestras, and as a result this was also a golden age for Christmas music. Because Capitol Records was so dominant in this period, they wound up with a vault full of Christmas classics by the best artists of the time. This track first appeared in 1955 on that Capitol collection I listened to as a kid. One of the earliest singer-songwriters, Johnny Mercer was also a lyricist and wrote the lyrics to about fifteen hundred songs. He also co-founded Capitol Records. His "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" really swings.

Listen to Johnny Mercer - Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"

22. Mel Blanc - Yah Das Ist Ein Christmas Tree
Mel Blanc is best known as the voice of the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons; he also did characters from The Flintstones and The Jetsons to name a few. He recorded this Christmas song in the fifties as a parody of a certain type of German song that was used as a teaching tool. This initially came out on a 78 rpm record. It was included on that Capitol Christmas album that molded my childhood.

23. Joe Dolce - Jingle Bell Rock
Joe Dolce is a singer/comedian who did straight music for most of his career but he had his biggest hit with a comedy record done with Italian accent and slang, called "Shaddap Up You Face" which was inspired by his Italian grandparents; the record went on to sell 6 million copies. In the wake of that success, he made a Christmas album using the same Italian persona. "Jingle Bell Rock" came out as a single in 1981 which is when John DeBella used to play it on the WMMR Morning Zoo, and it wound up on my old mixtape.

24. Billy Squier - Christmas Is the Time to Say 'I Love You'
This fun Christmas song came out as a single in 1981 and was quickly adopted by MTV for their video Christmas card. The video was shot in the MTV studios with the five original VJs and all the rest of the MTV office staff and technical crew singing along and partying with Squier. This was back in the early days of MTV when they actually played music videos and had VJs to introduce them sort of like a video version of a radio station (hence the name MTV which stood for Music Television). This one was on the rock side of my old mixtape.

25. The Royal Guardsmen - Snoopy's Christmas
"Merry Christmas, my friend..." The Royal Guardsmen first hit in 1966 with "Snoopy vs. The Red Baron", followed by "The Return of the Red Baron". "Snoopy's Christmas" was released in 1967 and is actually the best song of the three. For the mix I did not use my old 45, but instead this is a 1999 remaster for CD.

Listen to The Royal Guardsmen - "Snoopy's Christmas"

26. Larry Saklad (Alan Mann Band) - Christmas On the Block

Alan Mann was a local musician in Philadelphia who developed a following in the 1980s. In 1986 he released this poignant Christmas song as a local single. Larry tells the story behind the song on his website. "… Alan Mann was late getting home to his girlfriend, and somewhere in West Phila-Overbrook, had a vision of the wonderful lights decorating a School For The Blind, feeling both the irony and magic of how that must be for those students, that “their’s is the most beautiful Christmas On The Block”, and had the whole song written by the time he arrived." He did make a video which got some play on MTV. Mann was tragically killed in 1987. His keyboard player Larry Saklad has kept the spirit of this song alive over the years and this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the original, he recorded a new version minus the kid chorus. The original was also part of my old mixtape.

27. National Lampoon - Kung Fu Christmas
"Kung Fu Christmas" originated on the National Lampoon Radio Hour which was a syndicated, comedy radio show in 1974. When NBC first put Saturday Night Live on the air, they used almost all the staff of the Lampoon Radio Hour for their Not Ready for Prime Time Players and also their writing staff; and those who didn't go to SNL all went on to Second City. "Kung Fu Christmas" was written, performed and produced by Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner, and Brian Doyle Murray.

produced a great many song parodies which were all amazing in their writing (hugely funny), and in their execution; Christopher Guest was most especially good at sounding exactly like whoever was the subject of the parody. The names of the people who worked on the NLRH read like a who's who of comedy: Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Michael O'Donoghue, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Gilda Radner, Harry Shearer, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, Richard Belzer, Tony Scheuren, and Flo & Eddie, just to name a few. We carried the NLRH on my college radio station WECI. "Kung Fu Christmas" was released as a single in 1974; it also appears on a CD box set of NLRH, but that is a different version. For the mix I used the single.

28. Martin Mull - Santafly
In all that discussion of "Kung Fu Christmas", we didn't even get into the content of the parody; it was soul hit records of the time such as "Shaft", and also the prevalence of the martial arts/Blaxploitation movies that inspired Kung Fu tin many aspects of popular culture. On the other hand, Martin Mull's Christmas parody is much easier to identify; it was Curtis Mayfield's classic "Superfly" theme from the movie of the same name. Martin Mull is an actor, comedian, recording artist, and painter. At the time of "Santafly", Mull had not moved into acting in movies and television. Back then he was a comedian/singer-songwriter and he was known for his live performances where he set up the stage with living room furniture. In the seventies, Mull released a string of albums containing his songs which were all enormously funny. "Santafly" has never been released on an album or CD, this is the single from Christmas, 1973.

Listen to Martin Mull - "Santafly"

29. Robert Earl Keen - Merry Christmas From the Family
This delightfully dysfunctional Christmas song was recorded by alt-country singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen in 1994. It's the kind of song that even if you don't like it at first, it grows on you like a fungus. This track came from Keen's Gringo Honeymoon album. C'mon down to Texas and hang out with us at the trailer park y'all.

30. Willie Nelson - Pretty Paper
Willie Nelson wrote this song in 1963 when it was recorded and became a hit for Roy Orbison. Willie recorded his own version as the title track for his Christmas album released in 1979. A classic.

31. The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping
This great record has been a perennial favorite for many people ever since it first appeared in 1981 on The Waitresses album A Christmas Record. "Christmas Wrapping" still gets to me after all these years. This was also on my old my old mixtape.

32. Leon Redbone - Christmas Island
No one takes you back to the forties like Leon Redbone who seems to have time traveled here. "Christmas Island" is the title track of his Christmas album, released in 1987. This Hawaiian Christmas song has been recorded by many, but it originated in the 1940's with the Andrews Sisters backed by Guy Lombardo and his orchestra. Redbone's version sounds at least that old, and his warm baritone sounds great for late nights at Christmastime.

33. Joe Williams - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve
There's something about the union of Christmas music and jazz that really works. Longtime jazz singer Joe Williams recorded That Holiday Feeling in 1990. His smooth voice, combines with perfect jazz ensemble arrangements to create the ultimate late night Christmas album. In fact, every year after everyone in the house went to bed on Christmas Eve, I would put this album on while arranging the presents under the tree. There are loads of versions of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve", but I never heard any that I like better than this.

34. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
I originally had a different version of this song at this position in the mix. Hamish Stuart actually made a lovely Christmas EP but his take on this song was a little too straightforward to follow Joe Williams. I needed something a little bit jazzier. So I sampled all of the versions in my iTunes library (49 of them), and I found this jazzy version that fit perfectly between the Joe Williams and the Mindy Smith tracks, from a most unlikely source. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison are two country singer-songwriters who, it just so happens, are married to each other. I've followed Kelly's career for some time now, and if you don't know her, you may have heard of her sister, Shelby Lynne.

35. Mindy Smith - It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)
The original songs that Mindy Smith wrote for her Christmas album are just so good that I couldn't resist including one more. The joy in this song is reflected in the slightly jazzy arrangement, and the feeling is hard to resist, just go with it.

36. The Carpenters - Merry Christmas Darling
"Greeting cards have all been sent..." After Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song", this is my next favorite Christmas record. Many consider The Carpenters to be lightweights or a guilty pleasure, or both. I like The Carpenters (and I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about it) primarily because I can't get enough of Karen's voice which was a magic, one of a kind gift. To my ears, her voice was sort of a female counterpart to Nat King Cole. We can only guess what she might have done with her career, had her life not been tragically cut short due to complications of anorexia. As for them being lightweights, sure they had a lot of top forty hits, and they are known for covering some of the best American songwriters, but this song is a Carpenters original, written by Richard Carpenter and Frank Pooler. It was an immediate hit when it was first released as a single in 1970 and it's retained its popularity over the years. This is another one that gets to me every time.

Listen to The Carpenters - "Merry Christmas Darling"

About the Cover: The photograph at the top of this article is of an ornament that's been in my family since probably before I was born. It's a plastic cylinder with a metal fan blade suspended on a pin so that it can spin freely. By locating it on the tree above a light bulb, the heat generated by the light makes the air rise which makes the spinner turn. We have two of these ornaments and placing them on the tree is always a high priority. When I first planned the mix, I knew I would want a picture of this for the cover. This photo was taken Christmas Eve 2004.

Saturday Video Fun: Greg Lake - I Believe In Father Christmas (1975)

"They said there'd be snow at Christmas..." Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, released this ode to innocence at Christmas back in 1975. Lake, who was never one for understatement, pulled out all the stops for this one including a signature riff by Prokofiev, full orchestra and choir. Over the next several years there were at least three different versions of this song recorded by ELP all with stripped down arrangements. Lake even did a revised version at one point. The version here is the original Greg Lake single with all the orchestral and choral bombast intact.

When it first came out, the video was the subject of some controversy; principally shot in the Sinai Desert and West Bank of Israel, it included some footage of the Vietnam war. We have two bonus videos for you this week. In the first, Greg Lake and lyricist Pete Sinfield talk about writing the song.

Since it's Christmas, we dug up a live version of Emerson Lake & Palmer playing "Nutrocker" which is based on Tchaikovski's "Nutcracker". The reason that they look so incredibly young in this video is because it was shot when ELP first started out as a band, in 1971, this concert was in Belgium.