Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Top 5 CDs Of 2006

Here are the best CDs of a very weak year.

1. The Corrs - Home
When an artist plays music they love instead of going for the gold the musical world is always a better place. By letting their roots show through with Home The Corrs became the Irish folk-rock band they always should have been from the beginning. By doing so I have a sneaky feeling they also became the band they always wanted to be. I never thought I would love a Corrs CD, let alone place one at the top of my list, but as my original review indicates Home deserves this lofty position.

2. Blackthorn - Push & Pull
I'm not Irish but something about Irish rock always grabs me and the fifth CD by Blackthorn, a local Philadelphia band, is no exception. Despite a major loss created by the departure of Paul Moore, their former lead singer and their best and most prolific composer, Blackthorn not only survived but proved they are as good as ever. Blackthorn's combination of songs about the Irish-American experience, Irish jigs done to a rock beat, and a love of their heritage in general make this CD shine. Blackthorn is a big deal in the five county Philadelphia area and down the Jersey shore, but they are virtually unknown elsewhere. Read more about Push & Pull as well as some history about the band.

3. John Mayer - Continuum
After the release of Try! in 2005 I was expecting and hoping for an all out blues album from Mayer. Therefore I was originally disappointed when I first heard Continuum because that wasn't the case. But repeated listens prove that the singer and guitarist has stopped running through the halls of his high school and has transformed himself into a truly adult artist. Continuum does have some blues and a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Bold As Love," as well as studio versions of two Try! songs, "Gravity" and "Vultures." The highlight is the opening track, the low-key, but very catchy, R&B social commentary song, "Waiting On The World To Change." Mayer's combination of R&B and pop-blues make Continuum a really rewarding album.

4. James Hunter - People Gonna Talk
The American debut from this British R&B traditionalist oozes Sam Cooke and Otis Redding but Hunter isn't just an imitator. He truly loves 60s American R&B and it shows up all over People Gonna Talk. The title cut is one of the best songs of the year.

5. Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris - All The Roadrunning
Two stalwarts you can always count on teamed together for some pop, light rock, and country to produce the best work either has released in several years. I never envisioned these two artists working together but the results of their collaboration are never disappointing. I still miss Knopfler as a rock & roll guitar god but if he has to play the roll of singer-songwriter instead it doesn't get much better than this. Harris sounds like she is having more fun singing than she has had in many years.

Numbers 6 through 10 in alphabetical order:
Roseanne Cash - Black Cadillac
Los Lobos - The Town and The City
Los Lonely Boys - Sacred
Allison Moorer - Getting Somewhere
World Party - Dumbing Up

Top 5 lists from past years:
The Top 5 CDs Of 2004
The Top 5 CDs Of 2005

Monday, December 25, 2006

Jewel - Joy: A Holiday Collection (1999)

What a surprise! Joy: A Holiday Collection is superior to all of Jewel's other releases because the singer-songwriter shows what she can do with really good songs that demonstrate her flair as a talented interpretive singer.

Jewel has always demonstrated a wide range in her vocal abilities, singing the low parts as well as she can sing the high ones. Her voice lacks power but her several octave range more than compensates. Nothing proves this more than her treatment of "O Holy Night," a very difficult song to master and the highlight of this CD. Another gem is the rarely recorded "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

The album sags toward the end as Jewel tacks a couple of her own non-Christmas songs on to the disc, although lyrically they seem marginally appropriate within the context of the rest of the album. Why she includes her hit song "Hands" in this collection is a mystery. The Christmas version of "Hands" is only made to seem like a holiday song by the addition of seasonal bells placed throughout the arrangement. Am I quibbling? Maybe, but this album is still worth checking out.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

James Taylor – James Taylor At Christmas (2006)

James Taylor At Christmas is almost identical to the Christmas CD Taylor released during the 2004 holiday season for Hallmark titled A Christmas Album. If you were one of the people who purchased it at your local greeting card store two years ago there is no need to buy this new release because only the artwork is significantly different between the two.

Hallmark's disc did not include the cover version of Joni Mitchell's "River" that used to be available for download on Taylor's website. "River" is included on the new album but "Deck The Halls" from the original Hallmark CD is not. The new album also includes "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" that is not on the original. According to reviewers on Amazon there is now a third version, also on Columbia, including the missing "Deck The Halls" as a bonus track. If you have either of the first two versions you don't need the third but the last one has all thirteen tracks.

I don't know why Taylor's record company, Columbia, altered the track listing. Sometimes I just don't understand how the record companies do business.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Craig Chaquico - Holiday (2005)

Fans of 80s arena rock may remember Craig Chaquico who was the lead guitarist for Jefferson Starship and also its later incarnation, Starship, the two bands that evolved from 60s San Francisco psychedelic icons Jefferson Airplane. Chaquico's best known song is probably Starship's "We Built this City." So considering his pedigree it may come as a surprise to discover that for over a decade Chaquico has forged a career as a respected new age and smooth jazz guitarist. Holiday, Chaquico's Christmas album released in 2005, finds itself easily straddling both genres. His rock 'n roll roots are never obvious anywhere on the album.

Musically Holiday is never less than pleasant and at the same time it is never anything more. A case can be made that this disc proves there is often no difference between smooth jazz and new age music. It's a good disc to listen to as background music or as part of a mix on your CD shuffle player.

Holiday is, except for one track, an instrumental album loaded with lots of electronic keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars, and drum programming. "Angels We Have Heard On High," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," and "Jingle Bells" find themselves firmly rooted on the jazz side while two original tracks can not be considered anything but new age and are only Christmas music by virtue of such titles as "Every Day's A Holiday With You" and the fact that they appear on a Christmas CD.

Whatever opinion you may hold about Chaquico's music he must receive giant kudos for his charitable contributions to the music world. The biography on his website reveals the following: "Chaquico also performs nearly one free hospital concert a week (while on tour) on behalf of the American Music Therapy Association. His charity work is founded on the idea of returning the gift of music that was given to him when he was 12 years old while recovering in the hospital from broken arms, hands, wrist, foot, ankle and leg suffered in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. His doctor encouraged him to play his guitar."

In addition Chaquico is donating royalties from the last track of Holiday, "Nonesuch/Ladies' Bramzel," to a school in Oregon as his annual holiday gift. A teacher and students from the school contribute the only vocal on the album to that song. Find out more at the official Craig Chaquico website.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Top 10 Christmas Albums Of All Time

Every year, new holiday fare is released to the public to satiate their never-ending desire to hear Christmas music. It amazes me how the music industry continues to recycle the same Christmas songs year after year in various packages, by every conceivable artist known to man, and we keep buying. From James Galway, to Willie Nelson, to Clay Aiken, and everybody in between, Christmas music sells and sells and sells. One of the nice things about this time of year is we all enjoy music by artists that we would never otherwise think of listening to the rest of the year. A case in point is my daughter. She knows nothing about Nat King Cole except for his Christmas album and his perennial chestnut (pun intended), "The Christmas Song." While she enjoys this standard holiday tune very much, she would never consider listening to anything else he recorded without poking fun at the old folks who realize that Cole was one of the great jazz and pop singers of his era. At what other time of year do adults voluntarily listen to and sing along with novelties like "The Chipmunk Song" and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" rather than changing the radio station. Keeping the above in mind, following are capsule reviews of my top ten all-time favorite Christmas albums, all worthy of your consideration.

1. Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song (1963)
This album, combining some of the best loved carols and songs with Mel Torme's title track, is sung by one of the 20th century's greatest voices and therefore it easily tops my list. It is one of the few Christmas albums I never tire of hearing. I'd even enjoy it if I listened to it in July. A new expanded version was released last Christmas season with eight additional tracks.

2. Various Artists - Acoustic Christmas (1990)
The CD's twelve tracks includes songs by Roseanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, The Hooters, Harry Connick Jr., and T-Bone Burnette. The album travels all the roads of acoustic music as it alternates between soft and mellow settings with the emphasis on the song and vocals (Art Garfunkel singing "O Come All Ye Faithul" is a great example) to boisterous, fun-filled arrangemnents by Poi Dog Pondering who teamed up with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band for "Mele Kalikimaka." It's all very eclectic and wonderful. It's hard to find this CD in stores but you can easily find it on Amazon, and for a lot less money too.

3. Brian Setzer Orchestra - Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002)
This is one of the most fun Christmas CDs ever. Setzer and the world's most famous rock n' roll big band roar through some holiday standards with hot guitar and lots of brass and woodwinds. It's mostly party time but when Setzer slows it down he shows he can really sing and proves this band is more than just a gimmick. His versions of "Jingle Bells" and "Sleigh Ride" will blow your walls down. See the full review here.

4. Chicago - XXV/What's It Gonna Be Santa? (1998/2003)
This CD was originally released in 1998 as Chicago XXV and re-released in 2003 as What's It Gonna Be Santa with six additional songs. Why is this CD so good? It's the album where Chicago remembers they were a horn band and therefore it's the best disc they've released since Terry Kath died in 1978. "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" features the Chicago horns in all of their glory and shouldn't be missed. If you like the "real" Chicago you'll like this CD. Read the complete review.

5. Michael Buble - Let It Snow (2003)
This five song EP given away free by Borders Books and Music, and now available on the Internet, was my introduction to Buble. When I first heard this CD I was stunned. Nobody sings like the old time big band vocalists anymore and therefore saying Buble is the best 1940s band singer since Sinatra may seem like faint praise. However, one listen and you know Frank would have been impressed. Harry Connick's vocal chords can only be jealous of this guy. You can buy it from Amazon.

6. John Boswell - Festival Of The Heart (1992)
New Age pianist John Boswell has wonderfully arranged these traditional Christmas carols and songs in a manner that emphasizes the beautiful melodies most of the songs possess. These instrumental, all acoustic offerings let the melodies shine through without any gimmicks. This is another CD that is hard to find in stores but you can easily buy it from Amazon.

7. Vince Guaraldi Trio - A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
This is one of the most universally loved jazz albums of all time and one of the most famous albums in history, Christmas or otherwise. Guaraldi's marvelous piano playing and composing are a perfect fit as the soundtrack to the famous TV show. It may also be the most important non-sacred Christmas album ever released because of its influence on our culture. It helped elevate the Peanuts gang to the exalted status they held for decades and that makes this record more than just a Christmas album. A new remastered version with four alternate takes added has been released for this holiday season.

8. Oscar Peterson - An Oscar Peterson Christmas (1995)
There are two truly great elements to this CD. First the musicianship is superb and secondly I've never heard such enjoyable improvisation around the melody without ever losing site of it. Peterson blends vibes, flugelhorn and his piano around a rhythm section with very tasteful arrangements that will make you want to listen to this album closely. As with Guaraldi's work it's far more than just Christmas music. Don't just play this CD as background dinner music because it is top drawer jazz. Peterson never fails to shine and this CD is no exception. All twelve reviews posted on Amazon give this CD five stars.

9. Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra - The Nutcracker (1990 on CD)
What can be said about this disc of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's famous ballet? It's one of the most famous and loved works of music ever recorded performed by what many believe is the greatest orchestra in the world. There may be a hundred versions of "The Nutcracker" available to the public but as this lone review on Amazon indicates Ormandy's version may be one of the best.

10. Chris Isaak - Christmas (2004)
The closest we come today to hearing Roy Orbison sing is Chris Isaak. Isaak is a fine composer, singer, and interpreter of other people's songs and this sixteen track disc showcases all three talents. Eleven cover versions mix with five new Isaak originals. His songs make me wonder how good of a Christmas album Isaak could have produced if he had filled the entire disc with originals. His "Washington Square," a song about being alone without love on Christmas Day, can also be interpreted (at least by me) as referring to our homesick troops fighting in Iraq. Don't get depressed, this album is not without plenty of fun moments. It's available here.