I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas music. It tends to walk the tight rope between the sublime and the unbearable, with many perceptions on those points being pretty wide too.
As such, even though it’s a popular move, I think the idea of releasing a Christmas single, or even a whole album, to me is kind of a risky move artistically speaking. But, that’s what artists do; they push the envelope and they take the big risks. Or they go right for the cheese with impunity, knowing that a lot of people groove on Christmas music, whether they expect it from the artist in question or not! An important aspect of all this is simply that I really want to love Christmas music. So, often it works out for me. It’s amazing what simple willingness will do for you.
So, this year, I thought I’d gather another collection of Christmas songs from the rock and pop and jazz quarters, representing the best of the bunch (or just the most unexpected and weird and completely sentimental) just like last year. Well, ten of them anyway. Some you’ll know, some maybe you won’t. But, either way, here’s hoping that some of these tune will find their way onto your own personal Christmas mixes this year – even if you don’t celebrate Christmas!
Listen to this track by one-time clubhousing musical pioneers and last waltzing quintet mostly from Canada, The Band. It’s “It Makes No Difference”, a classic deep-cut from their 1975 album Northern Lights, Southern Cross, their sixth.
This track features the vocals of bassist Rick Danko, known these many years later as one of his defining moments as a performer. It’s hard to deny. The song itself is heartbreaking, coming from the point of view of a man bereft of joy having lost his love with no hope of regaining it, and when sung by Danko, his very soul along with it. This is all bolstered by writer Robbie Robertson’s lyrical guitar voicings, and Garth Hudson’s mournful lines on the saxophone.
Robbie Robertson wrote the song specifically with Danko in mind, knowing what the possibilities would be. After all, this song is probably one of the most direct and personal songs he ever wrote. So, what is it about Danko’s voice that brings it to life so effectively to the point where all other vocalists covering this song over the years haven’t come near to capturing? Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Anglo-Scot folktronica collagists The Beta Band. It’s “Human Being”, the second single from their second album, Hot Shots II, released in the summer of 2001.
This record was the follow-up to their first full-length and self-titled debut, a record that felt like a false start to the band themselves, who called it “shit” in interviews. That’s a little strong. But, it is an unfocused work, albeit with some great tracks on it (my favourite: “It’s Not Too Beautiful”, with its kind of a wonky nu-psych quality).
I personally think that the lukewarm reaction to their debut was because the compilation Three EPs had done so well, featuring a bona fide hit in “Dry The Rain”, a song that would go in my own top 100 of songs I could play over and over and never get tired of. Needless to say, expectations for their first album were very high when it came down to full-length records.
So how did they do one better with this one, after the lacklustre results of the first? Well, they revealed something about themselves as a band which had been a little lost on that debut record that is noted for its ecleticism, and not much for focus. I’m talking about songwriting. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by psychedelic and progressive rock granddaddies Pink Floyd. It’s “Louder Than Words”, the sole lyrics-based song as taken from their final album under the Pink Floyd name, The Endless River. The album came out of scouring through the tapes leftover from 1994’s The Division Bell sessions, looking for gems that were good enough to release as a new record. After reviewing the tracks in their original form, overdubs were layered on top to make them new tracks by surviving and current members David Gilmour and Nick Mason.
The reasons for the release, after having been hounded by press and fans for so long around the subject of a reunion, are artistic. But, they’re also sentimental. And whose sentiment are we experiencing when we hear this song, so self-referential as it is (although with lyrics not from the band, but a close insider – guitarist David Gilmour’s wife Polly Sampson)? Well, there is something of trace of self-examination over nearly fifty years of existance as a band. But, I think it delivers something else that is more universal, too. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Queen Street West Toronto scenesters and new wave social commentators Martha & the Muffins. It’s “Women Around The World At Work”, a single as taken from their 1981 album This Is The Ice Age, their third.
This album is one that began something of a new phase for the band. First, they’d taken on a new member in bassist Jocelyn Lanois. And second, they hired her brother, Daniel Lanois, to produce their third album recording it in Toronto and in Hamilton where he was based. It wouldn’t turn out to be as big as Peter Gabriel’s So, or U2’s The Joshua Tree, which Lanois would also produce later on in the decade. But, it would prove that the band had plenty in the tank creatively speaking other than their most widely-known song “Echo Beach”.
One of the things that allowed them to expand on their sound, was a new exploration of politically motivated subject matter. This is one of their finest examples, a discussion of an issue that is still very relevant today, unfortunately. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by three-part harmony supergroup CSN, or rather Crosby, Stills & Nash. It’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, and epic length slab of prime ’60s folk rock as taken from the then newly formed band on their self-titled debut record released in the spring of 1969.
The group formed after the three principles David Crosby late of the Byrds, Stephen Stills formerly of Buffalo Springfield, and ex-member of British Invasion favourites The Hollies, Graham Nash met at a party. Crosby and Stills had performed a tune together, and Nash who had been a part of a band who specialized in harmony singing joined in. And the magic happened! I’m sure even they were astounded at the results which have since been celebrated for nearly fifty years.
And this song was their flag in the sand as a statement that would distinguish them even from their work in the bands from which they had come. And along with that, they would usher in a new era for popular music, too. And how would they do that? Continue reading →
Listen to this track by three-cornered rap-rock pioneers from New York City, Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Mike “Mike D” Diamond; Beastie Boys. It’s “Sabotage”, a single as taken from their 1994 record Ill Communication. By this time in their career, their reputation preceded them, and this record debuted at number one.
By this time in the early to mid-90s as well, they had branched out stylistically speaking, including a wide range of musical styles. This included playing live instruments along with samplers, matching a rock arrangement with rap delivery. This would spawn a number of lesser (to say the least) imitators during the decade. That wasn’t pretty. But, the Beasties showed how versatile they were as a unit, doing what most bands who dealt in alternative rock and hip hop could not do; bring out the strengths of both of those musical poles without betraying one for the other.
But a deciding factor as far as the audience was concerned how they were able to hook into an emerging phenomenon in the 1990s; the rise of the “alternative” tag. Continue reading →