Favourite “New” Music – November 2022

Well, it’s December, and that means Christmas music everywhere you turn: on your television, in the shops you attend, at your doctor’s office, on your cab driver’s Sirius XM device. Even in this age of being able to have almost complete control over programming your listening life, it’s entirely unavoidable, which is unfortunate if, like me, you don’t much care for the stuff.

Let’s be honest, okay? A lot of the holiday’s music sucks. It’s saccharine and simplistic and preachy and waaaay too Christian. Yes, I know whose theoretical birth we are meant to be celebrating, but I’ve read a good chunk of the New Testament, and most people calling themselves Christian don’t seem to do a very good job of emulating the big kahuna. For the rest of us, the season is really just an excuse to overeat/drink, sleep in a few times, and have people buy us stuff, which is pretty awesome, but hardly worthy of a whole musical cottage industry.

And everyone sings the same damned songs over and over and over again. You could get from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve just listening to “Silent Night! Holy Night!” (What’s with the exclamation marks?) or variants thereof. That isn’t hyperbole: Second Hand Songs lists 3880 versions (and that’s probably gone up between writing this sentence and posting it), including from such luminaries as Chet Atkins, Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Nana Mouskouri, Can, David Hasselhoff (in German, of course) and the Queen of Christmas herself, Mariah Carey. Another Mariah cover, “O Holy Night”, has 2037 versions, including efforts from Petula Clark, Joan Baez, Andrea Bocelli and Skydiggers. I could go on and on – just like Christmas music does.

My wife, though she may protest a bit as to what degree, loves Christmas music. She isn’t a zealot or without discernment: she knows shit when she hears it. But she could not imagine going through the holiday season not listening to it, while I will likely start Christmas morning this year listening to something like Nirvana or the Sex Pistols.

We needed a compromise playlist, and to that end I offer my year-ending gift to those who are closer to my end of the Christmas music enjoyment level spectrum. Christmas Songs That Don’t Suck is (at this moment) roughly 7 hours of tolerable and sometimes even enjoyable holiday-themed songs. (My definition of a Christmas song may not always match yours.) It’s length varies from season to season, as I get sick of songs or find new ones that I like (I recently added 8 tracks from the Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas special – and, yes, that’s a real thing), and while it is a Mariah-free zone, it includes songs from Boyz II Men, Queen, Tom Petty, Dolly Parton, Fountains of Wayne, Carrie Underwood and – shiver – the Biebs, plus lots more. It isn’t all G-rated – you may choose to usher the kids out of the room when “Homo Christmas” starts up – but it’s a more diverse celebration of the season than what you can find on your usual radio station or Spotify playlist.

My 5 favourite songs on there, in no particular order, are probably:

  • Bare Naked Ladies – Elf’s Lament
  • The Pogues – Fairytale of New York
  • The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping
  • Run-DMC – Christmas in Hollis (To paraphrase Argyle, this IS a Christmas song and “Die Hard” IS a Christmas movie.)
  • Lydia Liza & Josiah Lemanski – Baby, It’s Cold Outside (#MeToo)

Merry Christmas!

Now, on to my favourite listens of the month just passed.

  • The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed (1967)
  • Sly and the Family Stone – A Whole New Thing (1967)
  • Omega – 10000 lépés (1969) (The most successful Hungarian rock band ever. How could I not check them out?)
  • Curtis Mayfield – Curtis (1970)
  • Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come (1972) (My continuing search to discover reggae that I enjoy finally struck oil.)
  • John Lennon – Walls and Bridges (1974)
  • Journey – Journey (1975) (Never much of a fan during their chart-topping heyday, this rookie outing was a very different-sounding band.)
  • The Kings – The Kings Are Here (1980) (Good old Canadian new wavey rock.)
  • Was (Not Was) – Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (1983) (Yet another record that I owned, never played straight through, and now celebrate.)
  • Los Lobos – How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) (On which I discovered that Mexican polka is a thing, and a pretty amazing thing at that.)
  • Cameo – Word Up! (1986)
  • Front 242 – Front by Front (1988)
  • Wendy James – Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears (1993)
  • Guster – Ganging Up on the Sun (2006) (I loved the two albums before this one, but for some reason stopped paying attention to the band, which was clearly a mistake.)
  • Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf (2015)
  • The Ballroom Thieves – Unlovely (2020)
  • JOSEPH – The Trio Sessions: Vol. 2 (2021)
  • Pool Kids – Pool Kids (2022)
  • Armani Caesar – The Liz 2 (2022)
  • Fousheé – SoftCORE (2022) (A delight from start to finish. Already a Grammy nominee as a songwriter, if she doesn’t become a major star, it won’t be for lack of talent.)

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash.

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #7

Sly and the Family Stone – There’s a Riot Goin’ On

At last, a black artist, the only one (I believe) to make the 1971 list. It’s certainly a comment on music criticism in 1971, though not music itself: individual critics cited records from Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On”, ranked the greatest album ever by Rolling Stone voters in 2020), Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and others, but there wasn’t enough collective support for any of these. So, how did Sly & company break through to get noticed in big enough numbers? (Trivia note – the album title is a direct response to Gaye’s query.)

There is soooo much going on in some of these songs – instruments competing with voices, or each other. And some weird stuff – slowed down vocals, yodelling (or a stoned man’s version), an unhealthy attachment to overdubbing. The bass playing (Drake’s uncle!) stands out (I do love a solid bass line) and a lot of it has an improvised feel, but it can also be discordant. (Sly does not care about your comfort.) It’s not a record for distracted listening if you’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Initially, I felt distanced from it, but by the side two opener “Brave & Strong” I was getting caught up in the experience. “Spaced Cowboy” was the most fun (yodelling!), and “Runnin’ Away” is bouncy (don’t listen too closely to what she’s singing if you want to enjoy this feeling) and relatively simple. The closer, “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa”, reworks and (I think) improves on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) by slowing it down, uncluttering the instrumentation and softening the vocals. A great palate cleanser to end a messy and heavily-seasoned record.

UPDATE: As I replayed the album on my morning walk, the sounds no longer unusual to me, I had even greater appreciation for it, with “Just Like A Baby” and “Time” especially standing out. The yodelling remains my favourite bit – had fellow beachfront walkers looked my way as it played this morning, my lunatic grin would have likely terrified them. I think Sly would approve.

(Originally posted on Facebook, March 20, 2021)