Music

A Holiday Mix Tape, YouTube Style

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Who hasn’t sat through those holiday parties with the cozy but yawn inducing classics of Burl Ives playing ad nauseam? I can help with that.

As they say, it’s that time again. Struggling over what to give that someone special? Wallet a little empty? Holiday parties to go to? Give the gift that says you really put some time and thought into it.

Time to channel your inner Nick Hornby. Go all High Fidelity. Yes, it’s the great holiday mix tape. Myself? I’ve been making mix tapes all my life and continue to this day, but maybe it’s been a while for you. Or, maybe you’ve been relying on that genius (sic) shuffle on your ipod. Well, if so, read on. Got your back.

Now for me, the nutty and wacky holiday cover doesn’t cut it. I really don’t need some snot nosed EMO band like Nerf Herder singing “I’ve Got a Boner for Christmas” or Pansy Division’s “Homo Christmas” piping through the speakers. So, while the overly reverential standards pretty much bore me too, I’ll admit, I’m kind of the sap of the century and gravitate toward the stuff that yanks on the heart strings.

Everyone does these holiday covers now. It’s part and parcel of the promotional juggernaut these days, but what’s particularly galling is lack of quality of late. If it isn’t flaccid and banal, it’s cornball schlock. Is there one holiday cover done the past ten years that will be a staple in 100 years?

So here I am, scouring the archives, and I’m looking for the same thing I look for in any cover. Reinvention. Something the artist seizes as their own. Something moving. Something that emits a glorious joy or rakes at the depths of sorrow. Because let’s face it. When you make a mix tape, your ego is involved. Not going for wallpaper music, here. You want it to nose its way into conversation. Insinuate itself into the proceedings. So here we go:

Chuck Berry's “Run Rudolph Run”

Kick off your mix tape with the true king of rock 'n' roll. This song has been covered by everyone from Brian Setzer to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Lemmy Kilmister to Billy Ray Cyrus, but it started with the great enigma himself. The guy who taught everyone from Keith Richards to Marty McFly how to “play a guitar just like a ringin’ a bell.”


The Ronettes' “Frosty the Snowman”

Frankly, if there’s one holiday record that can be played as an endless loop, it’s A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector . This 1963 Christmas album is still the standard bearer for all rock 'n' roll Christmas albums. But if we have to choose one, let's go with The Ronettes’ “Frosty the Snowman”. There’s something so urgent and yearning underpinning all the joy and exuberance in Ronnie Spector’s voice. Phil Spector turned into the whack job of all whack jobs, but he raised the bar to an insurmountable level with this record. Not a dud in the lot.


Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band's “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”

This one is especially poignant this year with the passing of the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, who stars as none other than the captain of the sleigh himself. If you’re not moved by this extraordinary live version, well, I guess you don’t like to smile. Talk about Joyful and Triumphant.


U2's “Baby Please Come Home”

Recorded live during a soundcheck on the Joshua Tree Tour, this is a great example of U2 in a playful and joyful mood. For those that label U2 as unable to get out of their own ego’s way, this is a great example to the contrary. At least for one song.


The Who's “Christmas”

Woven into the fabric of the storyline of The Who’s rock opera Tommy, this track gets a little lost and little mention in rock’s holiday classics. But taken on its own, the urgency and bliss of the music is a fascinating contrast to the lyrics depicting the deaf, dumb and blind Tommy sitting amidst the exciting rush of Christmas morning: “And Tommy doesn't know what day it is / Doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is / How can he be saved? / From the eternal grave.”


Crash Test Dummies' “The First Noel”

Full disclosure: I found this gem on a holiday compilation my band Divine Weeks appeared on called A Lump of Coal that has all sorts of cool folks like Young Fresh Fellows, the Wedding Present and Henry Rollins. But the highlight of the set is this remarkable track from the one hit wonders from north of the border. The juxtaposition of the deep baritone lead vocals of Brad Roberts and the glorious harmonies are sublime.


John Fahey's “Joy to the World”

The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album is brimming with mesmerizing tracks, and other than Phil Spector’s Christmas record, this is the one that I’d play in its entirety at any holiday affair. However, if I had to choose one song, I’d go with “Joy to the World” with Fahey’s trademark open tuned guitar elevating this paean to the heavens even higher. The remarkably inventive Fahey was always too eccentric and experimental for mainstream audiences on his regular recordings, but his Christmas offerings, and there are many, were his biggest sellers. No wonder. These recordings are absorbing, entrancing and enthralling. Shall I go on? Make sure some Fahey gets on your holiday mix tape.


Simon and Garfunkel's “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News”

Time to inject a little social consciousness into the proceedings. Here we have a little performance art piece. The gorgeous and haunting harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel overlaid on a reading of the nightly news: a litany of murder, war, racism and drug overdoses.


Band Aid's “Do they Know it’s Christmas?”

If you grew up in the '80s, Live Aid was such a seminal global moment, but it all began with this song cobbled together by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure of Ultravox in response to a BBC report on famine in Ethiopia. Geldof then proceeded to harangue every major superstar around like Bono, Sting, Simon LeBon, Boy George and David Bowie and lasso them into the studio. It’s important to put in context the era in which this song was released. Reaganomics, yuppies, “Greed is Good.” No one was doing charity singles and benefit concerts. This song reignited that whole spirit and spawned Farm Aid and the Amnesty International alliance with rock 'n' roll, Rock the Vote, and so many others.


John Lennon's “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”

This is a pretty obvious choice, but there’s just something about how the Beatle with the most acidic tongue became such a heart on the sleeve romantic and believer with Yoko. This one tugs pretty hard on the heart strings.


The Pretenders' “2000 Miles”

Big props for holiday themed originals that fit nicely into a band’s own records. This lovely Pretenders tune made for a perfect closing song to their Learning to Crawl record instead of just another Christmas throwaway b-side.


Eels' “I’m Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart”

This is not so much a directly related Christmas song, but a sad address to a long lost lover left behind years before. It’s Christmas Eve, and he wants to make amends to her, even though he doesn’t know where she lives and hasn’t spoken to her for years. It’s a glimpse into what a lot of us feel on a lonely holiday night and the regret and recriminations that have festered come to the surface and the urge to reconnect is overwhelming.


Big Star's “Jesus Christ”

This song appears on Big Star’s very dark Third album sandwiched by such songs as “Big Black Car” and “Holocaust”, so most hipsters refuse to believe it’s the un-ironic paean the lyrics suggest. “Jesus Christ was born today / Jesus Christ was born / Lo, they did rejoice / Fine and pure of voice / And the wrong shall fail / And the right prevail.” We’ll never know. Alex Chilton took the answer with him. Doesn’t really matter. It’s such a great song.


The Dandy Warhols' “Little Drummer Boy”

This swirling groovy stomp is typical of a lot of the Dandy’s work, but it’s a helluva lot better than that turgid version from Bob Seger.


The Raveonettes' “Come On Santa”

Opening with an over-modulated classic Phil Spector beat and vintage tremelo guitars, you are then broadsided by the beautiful harmonies of Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo that carry you along the river and all the way to the sea. Mesmerizing. Definitely include this one.


The Waitresses' “Christmas Wrapping”

This is a pretty inventive narrative about an English girl hustling and bustling about and fighting the holiday doldrums when she meets the fella she’s been smitten with all year at a grocery store on Christmas eve: “You mean you forgot cranberries, too?” Charming and intoxicating.


Frank Sinatra's “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”

As much as Sinatra derided rock 'n' roll, the feeling was never mutual. The chairman of the board has and always will be seen by the rock crowd as the penultimate coolest late night soul-survivor. This is a great example of how Sinatra routinely emotionally elevated a song that lesser mortals couldn’t.


The Kinks' “Father Christmas”

Gotta love a song about mugging Santa Claus. A brilliant, bratty and timely class-conscious take on the inequity between the haves and have-nots at the onset of Christmas: “Father Christmas, give us some money / We got no time for your silly toys / We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over / We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed / Give all the toys to the little rich boys.” And oh yeah, this song just flat out rocks. Regularly called the best of all rock 'n' roll Christmas related songs, and for good reason.


The Pogues' “A Fairytale of New York”

This most atypical Christmas song, may be the best rock 'n' roll has ever served up of the genre. I’m remembering those inane Mariah Carey and Hall and Oates Christmas songs MTV used to show ad nauseum, and then this song would come on and you’d feel in touch with humanity again. Two old broken down lovers reminisce on Christmas Eve. They’ve constructed their dreams around each other, but it was doomed from the start. It’s all gone now to drink and drugs -- all those pipe dreams down the bog with it, too. He’s watching her die in a hospital and he offers up this last wrenching verse: “I could have been someone / Well so could anyone / You took my dreams from me / When I first found you / I kept them with me babe / I put them with my own / Can’t make it all alone / I’ve built my dreams around you. The boys of the NYPD choir / Still singing “Galway Bay” / And the bells are ringing out / For Christmas Day.”


The story behind “A Fairytale of New York” is a great watch, by the way:


Hugo Largo's “Angels We Have Heard On High / Gloria”

Finally, something for when it’s getting late and the hot buttered rums have finally slowed the room down, people are talking in whispers. This brilliant reinvention of the old standard is a jaw dropping transportational device. Probably my favorite of the bunch. Thoroughly sublime.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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