Mostly instrumental and brimming with unique holiday confections cooked up, Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra drops some flavor in your ear and some soul in your stocking with A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats From Santa’s Bag. No ping pong balls were hurt, much less used during the making of this album, relying upon Shawn Lee’s unexpected instrumentation and kicky configurations to carry out this trippy holiday fantasy. Along the way, Lee acts as Parson Brown, marrying an inspired twist of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” to the holiday classic “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. Not the only fresh take on traditional favorites, A Very Ping Pong Christmas also features a scratch n’ sitar-laden take on “The Little Drummer Boy”, sprinkling it with baritone sax, the sonic equivalent of colored sugar on Christmas-shaped cookies. Squealing horns interwoven with guitar-wonk psychadelia gives Lee’s version of “Do You Hear What I Hear” enough street cred to sound like the soundtrack to some long lost, ‘70s Christmas-themed blaxploitation flick. Fun and funked-out to the gills, Lee’s Yuletide effort merits year round replay value, not just during the holidays. While still recognizable as the usual arsenal of Christmas classics, Lee’s reworkings aren’t overtly identifiable as something strictly seasonal. Offering up something for fans of funk, jazz, and jam-session styles, these genres are expertly blended into a category-defying sound. Each piece is head-bobbingly good, invoking a holiday feel without overflowing that proverbial cup of cheer and saturating each track with an overdose of seasonal sentiment.
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Darlene Love has one of the most iconic voices of the holiday season. Come December, her Phil Spector-produced “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” from the classic 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You is a staple on the airwaves. Five decades since that landmark recording, Darlene Love has finally released her own album in tribute to the holidays. It’s Christmas, Of Course stands apart from other similarly themed efforts with renditions of strictly contemporary Christmas compositions. You won’t find “Silent Night” or “The Christmas Song”. Instead, Love tackles songs by Robbie Robertson, Tom Petty, and John Lennon with her full-bodied and gospel-inflected phrasing. Producers Shawn Amos and Kevin Killen have assembled a wonderful group of musicians to back Love. Her take on The Pretenders’ “2000 Miles” is given a slightly jazz makeover while NRBQ’s “Christmas Wish” is lovely and loping. Her voice is imbued with more than just the Christmas spirit. There’s an authentic, joyful soul emanating from each one of these songs making It’s Christmas, Of Course an indispensable addition to anyone’s holiday music collection.
It’s easy to want to dismiss Jars of Clay’s Christmas Songs because, really, the world probably doesn’t need another “boys with guitars play Christmas songs” album. That they haven’t done it to date (aside from an early EP) in their ten-year career, however, might indicate that they were waiting for the right time, when they had enough quality originals and covers to put out something wonderful. Indeed, Christmas Songs is a wonderful little album, with a version of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” that miraculously doesn’t make you want to bang your head against a wall until it bleeds, and a perfectly majestic original called “Peace Is Here”, which sounds like something Lennon might have written were he still around. The crowning achievement here is an electronic take on the standard “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which changes the melody entirely, in the process re-establishing the solemnity and quiet majesty of the song. It’s hard to say that Christmas Songs will be remembered for years from now, but for right now, it’s refuge from the bombast of the season, a perfectly subtle slice of Heaven.
Each year, hundreds of Christmas albums are released. Very few rise to the top of that pile, and even fewer transcend it. But that’s exactly what The 25th Day of December does. It’s a classic album that just happens to be about Christmas. Years before their Stax heyday and a full decade before signature hit “I’ll Take You There”, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, son Pervis, and daughters Mavis and Yvonne were signed to jazz label Riverside. Only their fifth album overall, The 25th Day of December nonetheless feels wise and assured. The dozen tracks, many traditional spirituals, are rendered seriously and sincerely. Even standards like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Silent Night” are stripped down and laid bare. The unadorned backing, consisting of Roebuck’s bluesy guitar along with organ and drums, puts the focus where it should be, on the soulful harmonies and reverent message. The 25th Day of December is not only a great way to put the Christmas season and its music back into perspective, it’s also one of the year’s most essential reissues in any genre.
Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas would be an unlikely candidate for Top Pick in the “Lady Ella” discography, Christmas albums being what they are. You know, all happy and jolly and “you better not pout ‘cause the man with the reindeer will pay you a visit”. Some people, but not me of course, become increasingly blah and “bah humbug” as the Christmas season approaches. In such cases, Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas might provide the right vibe to get you in the spirit. The material itself is decidedly non-secular, which may not have universal appeal, yet the simple beauty and gorgeous technique in this music might have you listening to it over and beyond the holidays. Especially when you consider that these tracks were recorded in July of 1967! Ms. Fitzgerald’s voice is one of our musical treasures, and here, her pure and tender renderings bring magic to 13 of my, I mean your, favorite Christmas tunes. Highlights are “Joy to the World” and the always adorable “Silent Night”. Other standards, like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”, benefit from the backing of Ralph Carmichael’s Chorus and Orchestra, offering a sense of familiarity and togetherness. The world could use a little more of that, right? At slightly under 30 minutes, someone (okay, I admit it, it’s me!) might feel compelled to keep this CD on repeat.
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