Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmasongs: 'Twas The Night Before Christmas

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

(While I first wrote this piece back in 2010, it's always a favorite to repost on Christmas Eve. So, here you go. Merry Christmas, you guys!)

“A Visit From St. Nicholas,” or “'Twas The Night Before Christmas” as it is more commonly referred to, is a poem from the 1820’s that is usually ascribed to author Clement C. Moore. Our modern image of Santa Claus, the one found on wrapping paper and Coke packaging everywhere, draws almost exclusively from this poem. It’s hard to hear these classic verses and not get even a little holiday spark in your spirit. Growing up, one of our Christmas Eve traditions was to read this after we read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible. Wrapped up in some brand new pajamas we had just opened and sipping some hot apple cider my dad had just made, we would sit back and try to somehow keep our cool on in anticipation of the night of excited sleeplessness that lay ahead. I've still got the book my dad read from and you can bet I'll be reading from it one day too. Maybe that’s why this poem always stirs up something in me no matter who’s reading it. Besides, name me another poem or song that has been able to wrangle the following cast of interpreters:

“The Night Before Christmas” – Bob Dylan: For the Season One “Christmas & New Year’s” episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour show, Bob warmly read the poem over a nice acoustic guitar backdrop. His unique delivery and creaky voice fit the reading perfectly and he balances the festive reverence of the well-worn lines with a sly smirk in his voice. I could listen to this version a thousand times over.

"The Night Before Christmas" - Bob Dylan

“The Night Before Christmas“– Louis Armstrong: Satchmo’s infectiously jolly rendition makes you feel like it’s being read by Santa Claus himself. His booming voice, boisterous chuckle and playful inflections create a distinct version all his own. He almost sounds like he’s hearing it for the first time while he’s reading it and there’s no question that he’s thoroughly enjoying himself. Just like with Bob’s version, I never get tired of hearing this one either.

"The Night Before Christmas" - Louis Armstrong

“'Twas The Night Before Christmas” – Henry Rollins: Leave it to punk’s renaissance man Henry Rollins to whip up the most off-kilter arrangement. He kept the original lyrics but fashioned a backing track of air raid sirens, helicopter blades, gunshots and a bomb drop. It’s not quite as “yuletide fuzzy” as the other two, but for a teenager in the 90’s looking for all things irregular, unconventional, sarcastic and ironic, this one fit the bill like few else. This one is a matter of quality over quantity for me because eventhough I don’t listen to it as much as the other two, it hits me just the same.

"'Twas The Night Before Christmas" - Henry Rollins

“A Christmas Sighting ('Twas The Night Before Christmas)” – Star Wars Christmas: If Henry Rollins' reading wasn't left-of-center enough for you, how about the reworking from Christmas in the Stars: A Star Wars Christmas Album that is read by C-3PO and takes place in a droid-run toy factory. I make no bones about it that this is legitamitely one of my most favorite Christmas records and each track on it holds such a nostalgic niche in my heart. This one deviates the most from the original poem - at least in setting and atmospheric elements - but the heart and overall theme are still there, so it can certainly still be included on this list amongst the more traditional heavyweights.   

"A Christmas Sighting ('Twas The Night Before Christmas)" - Star Wars Christmas

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Christmasongs: Stink, Stank, Stunk!

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

For all the classic, engrained-in-our-upbringing holiday television specials of yesteryear (i.e., before the 80’s), not many of them contain an actual villain. Sure, Hermey and Rudolph had to watch out for the Abominable Snow Monster and Frosty was always looking over his shoulder for the sun. But for the most part, everywhere was pretty peachy keen in Christmas cartoonland. Everywhere that is, except Whoville! 

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! was always fascinating to me as a kid because of the dread and terror from the Grinch that balanced out all the syrupy sweetness of the Whos. I mean the guy has yellow eyes and has termites running through his teeth! It’s no surprise that everything ends well for all parties involved, but the first two-thirds of the story is a one-man maniacal reign of terror that keeps me coming back year after year. Eventhough Dr. Suess wrote How The Grinch Stole Christmas! all the way back in 1957 and the televised special came out in 1966, the Grinch still seems as popular as ever. I believe it's because to be truly memorable, a villain needs a really good theme song and “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” fits the bill perfectly. The song was originally sung in the animated special, not by the narrator Boris Karloff as many believe, but by the equally gravelly-throated and equally devilishly-named Thurl Ravenscroft. It’s a 6-verse, no chorus, occasional speaking part romp of stink, stank, stunk goodness.

"You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” - Thurl Ravenscroft

Throughout the years, everyone from Mojo Nixon to RuPaul has tried their hand at covering “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” to varying degrees of success. Some really rock and some are pretty ho-hum, but here are a few of my most favorite versions:

"You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" - Whirling Dervishes

"You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" - Tracy Bonham

"You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" - Sixpence None The Richer

As a Grinch-related bonus, here’s a version of “Little Drummer Boy” by Jars of Clay dubbed the “Grinch Mix” from their 1995 EP, Little Drummer Boy. Colder and more abrasive than their straight version of “Little Drummer Boy” from the same EP, this one is definitely a 3-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce compared to the other one.

"Little Drummer Boy" (Grinch Mix) - Jars of Clay

Friday, December 11, 2015

Christmasongs: A Totally Rad 80's Christmas

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

Yes, Virginia, that is Mr. T getting some sweet Nancy Reagan sugar for Christmas.

Can we all agree that there seemed to be something extra special about the Christmases of the 1980’s? Whether it was due to my age (born in 1980), the special marketing relationship between TV and toys, the rise of video game systems, the plethora of McDonald’s holiday commercials, or the awesome toys that were created under the Cold War climate (G.I. Joe, Rambo, Hulk Hogan vs. Nikolai Volkoff action figures), it seemed to always be a ‘roided out version of Christmas, at least for us kids. Luckily there was also some great music to go along with all of the Cabbage Patch Kid stampedes and claymation California Raisins. A bunch of 80’s Christmas songs have appeared in my previous “Christmasongs” posts and they are more to come after this, but here's a nice chunk of goods ones to mention. Let’s jump in the DeLorean and take a trip shall we…

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – Band Aid: You can’t talk about Christmas music from the 80’s without starting here. In 1984, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure gathered together a huge collection of some the biggest musical acts of the time to record a single that would raise money for the Ethiopian Famine. Leading the way for other charitable efforts like Live Aid and the “We Are The World” single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” serves as an important milestone in the ongoing relationship between music and relief efforts. Watching the video for this one is like a “Where’s Waldo” of the musical landscape of the 80’s.

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Band Aid

“One Year On” – Band Aid: Sure, everyone's heard "Do They Know It's Christmas?" a million times since 1984. However, when they repressed the single the next year, they added a pretty interesting B-side titled "One Year On." It opens with a spoken message from Bob Geldof and then features Midge Ure reading out on everything that the Band Aid money went to over the last year since the single was first released, all played over the musical bed from "Do They Know It's Christmas?" It's a pretty interesting track and serves as a really nice follow-up to all the attention that was garnered by the single and Live Aid. Without a doubt it's a "do not miss" piece of 80s pop culture that shows just how impactful the whole Band Aid movement was (and why it continues to still be so impactful three decades later).     

"One Year On" - Band Aid

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – U2: It’s hard to believe that only one of the A Very Special Christmas compilations were released in the 80’s, but it was at least a really good one. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Run DMC, Madonna and Bon Jovi all appeared on it and U2 performed one of the best loved covers of Darlene Love’s classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It was recorded during a soundcheck on one of the stops on The Joshua Tree tour, so it has that iconic mid-80’s U2 sound. This one shows up every year on radio playlists and retail store overhead speaker, but for very good reason.

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" - U2

“Thanks For Christmas” – XTC: Under the moniker “The Three Wise Men,” XTC released “Thanks For Christmas” as a non-album holiday single in 1983. XTC has always been one of the better bands to emerge from the New Wave/Alternative genre and it speaks a lot about them that they can even pump out an original Christmas tune as well. This one feels super upbeat and festive and I really love the overall musical tone of the song. As a side note, the appearance of this song (along with “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses) in the first season Christmas episode of Gilmore Girls helped Amanda get me hooked on the show. I’m totally down with any show the exhibits such incredible musical taste. I’ve said too much…

"Thanks For Christmas" - The Three Wise Men (XTC)

“All I Want For Christmas” – Timbuk 3: Timbuk 3 is a unique band that is mostly categorized as a one-hit wonder for their irony laced “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” single. However, my favorite song of theirs is “All I Want For Christmas” from 1987. Written as somewhat of a protest song against the vast array of “war toys” that were available to kids, the chorus of “All I want for Christmas is world peace” sums up the song pretty well. The verses name drop a lot of toys like Transformers, G.I. Joes, Rambo and Thundercats and there’s also a reference to Stars Wars 1, 2, and 3 and VCRs. Add in a drum machine and a “We Three Kings” harmonica solo and you’ve got one decidedly 80’s socio-political Cold War Christmas song.

"All I Want For Christmas" - Timbuk 3
“Give Love on Christmas Day” – New Edition: Before there was Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown's solo career, there was New Edition - one of the most ridiculously talented teenage R&B vocal groups since the Jackson 5. Their 1985 Christmas All Over The World album is one of my favorite go-to holiday albums every year and I was so happy to finally upgrade it from cassette to CD a few years back. While the song "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Girl)" is my favorite song from the album, their cover of the Jackson 5's "Give Love on Christmas Day" gets the highlight here for it's old-school throwback move of throwing the each band member's name into the lyrics: "Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, and Ralph too/Give all the love that we feel to you." Classic cheesy goodness, every single time.     

"Give Love On Christmas Day" - New Edition

“Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You’re A Lovely Guy)” – Max Headroom: 80’s icon and “New Coke” spokesman Max Headroom’s voice causes an instant flashback for folks like me. His humor, sarcasm, electronic voice and stuttering delivery brought an erratic vibe to everything he was involved in. Hearing him sing this song takes me right back to a childhood Christmas playing Super Mario Brothers in my Karate Kid-esque pajamas that oddly enough had a Ghostbusters logo on them.

"Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You're A Lovely Guy) - Max Headroom
“Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” – Billy Squier: Man, this pop-rock holiday gem from 1981 is so over the top cheesy that I can’t decide if it’s genius or just ironic. Either way it’s a guaranteed spirit lifter and it’s pretty much impossible not to sing along with a goofy grin on your face. I’ve got such a special spot for this one and I have no idea why. If you really want the full affect of this song though, you’ve got to watch the studio video from MTV’s first Christmas on the air. All 5 original VJs can be seen and the clothing and haircuts are priceless!

"Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You" - Billy Squier

Non-80s, 80s-themed Bonus: UK post-punk band The Futureheads seem to agree with me that there was something special going on with the Christmases during the Reagan Administration. They released “Christmas Was Better In The 80s” as a holiday single in 2010 and I absolutely love it! While there aren’t exactly any lyrical references to anything specific to the 80s, I completely agree with the sentiment and the music is awesome. They came up with some pretty killer artwork too!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (Album Review)

When it comes to album reissues packed with a treasure trove of previously unreleased material, few come as close as Bruce Springsteen to giving fans more than their money’s worth. His newest reissue, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, remasters and reframes his 1980 double album The River with a stunning collection of old and new material in 4CD/3DVD or 4CD/2Blu-Ray packages with a 148-page coffee table book featuring rare and unreleased photos. As The River celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, the time is definitely right for this massive and meaningful box set.

The River: Single Album – Along with a carefully remastered version of The River, the sprawling 20-track double album follow-up to his 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town album, Springsteen has finally given fans an officially sanctioned release of The River: Single Album. This album is extremely significant to Springsteen fans (and to his overall career catalog), as it was turned in to Columbia Records as a finished album (originally titled The Ties That Bind) and then taken back by The Boss before it could be released. At only 10 tracks, The River: Single Album turns out to be a related-yet-altogether-different album that tells an alternate story with only half the sonic space. While many of the songs appear on both albums, there were a few that didn’t make the cut from the smaller The Ties That Bind to the bigger The River, such as “Cindy,“ “Be True,” and “Loose End.” There are also different versions of “Stolen Car” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” on the single album that were re-recorded for The River. Hearing the album as Springsteen originally pictured it (and as he originally turned it in) offers new insight into his mindset and songwriting themes at the time. For fans who have only heard these songs together on bootleg releases, or for ones who have never heard some of these songs at all, The River: Single Album is a really nice addition to anyone’s Springsteen collection. 

The River: Outtakes – Also included in this collection is The River: Outtakes, a disc of 22 songs that were recorded during the 1979-1980 The Ties That Bind/The River recording sessions. While half of the songs on The River: Outtakes had been previously released as b-sides to singles, the mammoth 66-song Tracks box set from 1998, or The Essential Bruce Springsteen from 2003, the other half are previously unreleased tracks that are available here for the very first time. Of the songs that have already appeared on other release, “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” is one of my hands-down favorite Springsteen songs and I absolutely love seeing it get a release amongst the other songs it was recorded with from that era of Springsteen’s career. Of the previously unreleased tracks, “Meet Me in the City” and “Chain Lightning” are two of my favorites, both of which are simply quintessential Springsteen and are headscratchers as to why they didn’t make the album in the first place.    

The Ties That Bind (Documentary) – As with Springsteen’s previous reissues, director Thom Zimny crafted an intimate documentary that compiles archival footage, vintage photographs, and a brand new long-form narrative interview with Springsteen holding an acoustic guitar in his hand, drifting in and out of songs and lyrics as he discusses the writing and recording of The River.  Hearing Springsteen discuss what he was thinking about and writing about as he was entering his 30s, experiencing his first true hit (“Hungry Heart”), and exploring his adult relationships is an eye-opening look into this period in the legendary artist’s career. Especially interesting is to hear Springsteen discuss the more raw-sounding recording direction he took for The River, including moving E Street guitarist Steve Van Zandt into a producer role, as he was “looking for an antidote to the sterility of ‘70s recordings” by adding back “the noise that creates mystery.” As Springsteen puts it, “The records we liked were noisy records… and we need that now. We need the noise of our live show.” 

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: The River Tour, Tempe 1980 – Speaking of their incendiary live show, a 24-song, 2 hour and 40 minute concert film is included in the box set as well. Recorded with a 4-camera, multi-track audio setup at Arizona State University on November 5, 1980, this show has been a much-ballyhooed about touchstone in Springsteen circles for its lightning-in-a-bottle energy and atmosphere. Watching Springsteen’s unending showmanship and the E Street Band’s electrifying performances, its easy to see why this show and The River tour hold such a special place in fans’ heart. There’s even an additional 20 minutes of tour rehearsal footage from September of the same year that fans will be really excited to get their hands (and eyes and ears) on. 

To see a little bit of the magic captured on this concert film, check out the video for “Ramrod” from The River Tour, Tempe 1980 below:    

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Christmasongs: Merry Punksmas!

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

(While I initially wrote this piece back in 2010, it's one of my absolute favorites to re-gift to you guys with another song or two added each year.)

For me, Christmas and punk music are a combination straight from heaven. Mixing together two of my all-time favorite ingredients, punk rock Christmas songs get me in the spirit as much as A Christmas Story and a real tree do. Being that they hold such an important place, I’m pretty discerning of which ones I hold in high regard. There are some definite duds out there, but there are plenty of amped up chestnuts that float to the top of the holiday punch bowl. It’s always fun to hear an old classic sped up and shouted out, but I really like the originals the most. Here are a few of the keepers:

“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” – Ramones: You can’t talk about Christmas punk rock without starting here. Opening with Joey’s nasally snarl and immediately kicking into that iconic Ramones sound, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” is so awesome on so many levels. Johnny’s down-stroked guitar leads the holiday charge and Joey’s somewhat confident/somewhat pleading vocals ring out over Dee Dee’s bass and Marky’s drums. This song was released at the end of the 80’s and if VH1’s “Pop-Up Video” is to be believed, a young Liv Tyler appears in the music video for it.

"Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)" - Ramones

“Silent Night” – The Dickies: From late, great 1978, it's campy, pop-punk legends The Dickies with their super fun take on the old 19th century Christmas hymn. This is the band that also released singles about Gigantor and The Banana Splits, so you know what you're getting with a Dickies song. Goofy, fast, loud, big bassed '70s punk never goes out of style with me and thankfully I don't have to put that on hold during the Christmas season thanks to The Dickies!

"Silent Night" - The Dickies

“Punk Rawk Christmas” - MxPx: In 2009, MxPx compiled all of their fan club Christmas singles and added a few new tracks to release the incredibly awesome Punk Rawk Christmas. The title track was a new recording and perfectly captures the desire to have a good Christmas in the midst of whatever issues, financial or otherwise, that may be going on. One of my favorite bands plus my favorite holiday equals an album that pumps even more yuletide awesomeness into the season.

"Punk Rawk Christmas" - MxPx

“Merry Christmas” – Face to Face: While I must admit that my favorite Face to Face song is probably their cover of "I'm Popeye, the Sailor Man" from 1995's Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits, this one totally comes in at a very close second! "Merry Christmas" appears on Christmastime in the 909, the 2004 version of KROQ's yearly Christmas CDs from Kevin & Bean. Face to Face actually released an early Christmas song - their swinging' lounge-take cover of "Blue Christmas" from 1996's O Come All Ye Faithful - but "Merry Christmas" is quintessential '90s skate punk gold.  

"Merry Christmas" - Face to Face

“It’s Always Christmas At My House” – Huntingtons: It’s no secret that the Huntingtons are deeply in love with, and are masters at paying homage to, the Ramones. They were even lucky enough to be Joey Ramone’s backing band for a couple of shows at CBGB’s before he passed away. They wrote “It’s Always Christmas At My House” for Tooth and Nail Records’ first Happy Christmas compilation and it’s definitely a crowd pleaser. The lyrics playfully reference National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and describe that crazy Christmas over-the-topness in all of us. Okay, most of us…some of us…just a few of us? Well, at least we have an anthem!

"It's Always Christmas At My House" - Huntingtons

“Christmas Eve (She Got Up And Left Me)” – Rancid: After wearing out my copy of …And Out Come The Wolves my sophomore year of high school, I’ve always had a soft spot for Rancid. Their unique mixture of punk, reggae and ska has always stood out to me and they always get me moving. The Christmas part of this song pretty much boils down to just being the date the girl left, but I still count it as a Christmas song.

"Christmas Eve (She Got Up And Left Me)" - Rancid

“Christmas on Mars” – Groovie Ghoulies: Is this the best Christmas 7" vinyl single of 1992? Probably so. I mean, sure, Bon Jovi released "I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas" on the flip side of their "Keep the Faith" single that same year, but "Christmas on Mars" is at least the best A-side, right? I really love listening to this one on dark morning commutes to work during the Christmas season to pump me up for both the day ahead and also the season in general. At least than 2 and a half minutes, this one doesn't run the risk of overstaying it's holiday welcome. Plus, there's not enough "Christmas in space" songs out there You just can't lose with this one!     

"Christmas on Mars" - Groovie Ghoulies

“This Time Of Year” – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Great punk rock usually carries a message right? With “This Time Of Year,” The Mighty Mighty Bosstones remind us that all the “stuff” associated with Christmas is nice, but the real meaningful things are spending time with friends and family and letting all the peace and goodwill towards men come out in your attitude. I love, love, love this song and the bouncy rhythm and lyrical focus always put a huge smile on my face.

"This Time Of Year" - The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

“Oi To The World” - No Doubt: I included The Vandals’ original version of “Oi To The World” in my personal favorites post and I really like No Doubt’s cover too. Gwen does a good job handling such a rowdy vocal and I love the dancehall “Frosty The Snowman” breakdown in the middle as well. Besides adding that and a few horns, they keep it pretty much the same. Why mess with a good thing right?

"Oi To The World" - No Doubt

“Santa Claus Is Thumbing To Town” – Relient K: I first heard this song on Tooth and Nail Records’ Happy Christmas Volume 3, but it can also be found on Relient K’s two Christmas releases, Deck The Halls, Bruise Your Hand and Let It Snow Baby…Let It Reindeer. I love the humor and chaos in the lyrics and the image of Santa trying to hitchhike after his sleigh breaks down is great. Funny, boisterous and still so festive, it should be on as many Christmas albums as it can.

"Santa Claus Is Thumbing To Town" - Relient K

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ethan Luck - Ethan Luck & The Intruders (Album Review)

For the third EP of his solo career, Ethan Luck has lit the fuse on a breathtaking explosion of heartland punk that the veteran musician has been building towards for quite some time. While his previous two solo EPs (Wounds & Fears and Hard Seas) have contained more intimate, roots-oriented fare built around punk and classic country influences, Ethan Luck & The Intruders boasts a loud, full-band bravado with Luck’s multi-instrumental prowess and his wide-open vocal swagger.

The five-song EP kicks off with “Leave You Behind,” a thundering romp that addresses one of Luck’s oft-visited- yet-unintended muses: his struggles with anxiety. This song is everything you want in an album opener and I absolutely love the bass tone in the dropped-out second verse, the hope-infused bridge, and the opening noise collage that brings to mind some of the more experimental influences of The Clash. “Coming Out Alive” follows suit with more huge guitars, overdriven bass, a singalong chorus, and a some really tasty organ ringing out over the sonic assault. Luck’s new version of “Damned” is up next, transformed from the rootsy sashay of the original single he released for Record Store Day this year into a Social Distortion-flavored country-punk saloon song that would’ve felt right at home on Social D’s Prison Bound. The same could be said for the barroom stomp of “Live ‘Til I Die,” a song that is more country-influenced punk than punk-influenced country (which is how I would describe his previous two solo EPs). Closing out the EP is “Long Gone,” a rumbling kiss-off of a tune with some gorgeous guitar work, a fiery solo, and some of Luck’s best gruff-voiced vocal work.

As a long-time fan of Luck’s work (both in solo work and his involvement with an impressive list of bands), I absolutely love the growth and energy that is pulsing through Ethan Luck & The Intruders. While he is truly proficient in working within a wide variety of musical genres, this punk-roots-rock hybrid seems to fit his voice, lyrics, and instrumentation in a really unique way. For this new chapter in Luck’s expansive catalog, I don’t think he could’ve crafted a better and more appropriate collection of songs. With this being his first solo release to be pressed on vinyl, I’m even more excited to hear this blasting from my speakers in warm analog come March.

Ethan Luck & The Intruders releases today through digital retails and vinyl pre-orders (set for March 2016 delivery) can be completed through

Monday, December 7, 2015

Nirvana - Nirvana [US Vinyl Debut] (Album Review)

When Nirvana’s self-titled greatest hits album was first released back in 2002, fans were beyond excited to finally get their hands on “You Know You’re Right” from the band’s final recording session from eight years prior. However, if you wanted to hear “You Know You’re Right” and the rest of the album on vinyl, the only option was an expensive UK pressing. Thankfully, that has now changed with the recent US vinyl release of Nirvana in both a glorious 200-gram 2xLP 45RPM pressing and also a standard 33RPM single disc pressing.

Let me start this review by saying that the 200-gram 2xLP 45RPM pressing may be the best sounding pieces of vinyl in my entire collection. While I don’t descend too terribly much into “vinyl quality geek out” mode for my reviews, this high-quality pressing deserves the gush. From the first few seconds after dropping the needle on the opening bass/drum thump of “You Know You’re Right”, I could hear the lush low ends and clear highs that the heavier vinyl afforded. The added weight not only adds a more consistent richness (and stability) to the overall warmth of the audio, but it also gives the record more longevity against the normal wear that transpires over time with continuous plays. So it not only sounds better now, but it will also sound better for longer as well. Plus, the heavyweight vinyl over two discs feels really great in your hands. For a release like Nirvana, this definitely feels appropriate for the gravitas of the music it holds.            

The tracklisting on the new US pressing of Nirvana differs slightly than the original UK pressing, as it remains consistent with the CD version that was released here. Therefore, the two import bonus tracks (both “Something in the Way” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” from MTV Unplugged in New York) are not present here, leaving the remaining 14 songs to be spaciously laid out over four sides (with the single disc 33RPM version splitting seven tracks apiece on each side). Along with featuring the first release of the then-previously-unreleased “You Know You’re Right,” Nirvana also contained a couple of other somewhat-harder-to-find gems, such as “Been a Son” from their UK-only Blew EP, “Sliver” from Incesticide, and the rare “single remix” of “Pennyroyal Tea” that was made exclusively for the song’s proposed release as a single in April of 1994 (which was eventually cancelled in light of Cobain’s death and finally released for Record Store Day last year). 

The rest of Nirvana is comprised of singles and deeper album cuts from their more well-known releases, as the album was intended to tell the story of the band within one album. Their debut album Bleach is represented with “About A Girl,” both their multi-platinum breakthrough smashNevermind and caustically beautiful follow-up In Utero boast four cuts apiece (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come as You Are,” “Lithium” and “In Bloom” from the former and “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Rape Me,” “Dumb,” and the aforementioned single remix of “Pennyroyal Tea” from the latter), and their MTV Unplugged in New York album provides the two closing cuts (“All Apologies” and “The Man Who Sold the World”). While every Nirvana fan has their own personal omissions they would’ve loved to see included (“Molly Lips” for my two cents), Nirvana unquestionably delivers the best you can hope for in a greatest hits package. The fact that this inclusive retrospective can now be heard on such a superior medium makes it all the better and maybe, just maybe, even worth the wait.     

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Christmasongs: Happy Hanukkah!

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

(While I first wrote this piece back in 2011, it's always a favorite to trot out again each Hanukkah with another song or two added each time.)

According to the Hebrew calendar, today is the 25th day of Kislev, more commonly observed as the kick off to Hanukkah. Don’t feel bad if the eight-day Festival of Lights snuck up on you again this year. Since Jewish holidays aren’t based on the internationalized Gregorian calendar, they actually fall on different days each year. Due to the differences in marking the passage of time and days, Hanukkah can actually be celebrated as early as late November or as late as the end of December. I say we all do our own part to demystify the aura of the menorah and I’ll start with a “Hanukkah Crash Course” and some awesome Hanukkah-inspired tunes.

While I’m no scholar (or the Holiday Armadillo), here’s goes… In 175 BCE, Greek ruler Antiochus IV invaded Judea, recaptured Jerusalem, outlawed Judaism, and desecrated the Holy Temple. Not only could Jews no longer openly practice their beliefs and customs, but Antiochus IV went so far as to ransack the Holy Temple and to sacrifice pigs on the altar. This caused a giant backlash of uprising and guerilla warfare (commonly referred to as the Maccabean Revolt, “maccabean” being taken from the Jewish word for “hammer”) that allowed the Jewish people to reclaim the city and the Holy Temple. They had to repurify the temple by creating new holy vessels and by building a brand new altar. They were only able to find one undefiled container of oil for the temple’s menorah and it was only enough to last through one night’s burning. However, the oil burned for eight days straight, which was the exact time it took for the priests to prepare more oil for the menorah. Hanukkah was established to celebrate, among other things, the rededication of the temple and the miracle of the oil.

While there certainly aren’t a plethora of rocking songs about Hanukkah (punk covers of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” nonwithstanding), there are a few out there that find themselves right at home in my annual holiday festivities. Here are a few of my favorites:

Adam Sandler first introduced “The Chanukah Song” in 1994 on Saturday Night Live during an episode of “Weekend Update.” They played it a ton on the radio stations where I lived and I learned the simple chords and lyrics to earn some cool points with my school and church friends. Adam’s currently released three different versions of the song with an ever-revolving cast of Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities. Although they are all hilarious, the first version will always hold a special place for it’s sheer out-of-nowhere awesomeness.

"The Chanukah Song" - Adam Sandler

Stephen Colbert released his holiday special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! in 2008 and it is filled with ridiculously funny songs and guest stars. Among them is the holiday invitational duet, “Can I Interest You In Hannukah?” sung with Jon Stewart. Much like Sandler’s song, this one is incredibly clever and the first few times you hear it you’re guaranteed to miss a line or two from laughter.

"Can I Interest You In Hannukah?" - Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart

Save Ferris was one of those third wave ska bands from the 90’s that I thought should’ve gotten more recognition. I loved their It Means Everything album from 1997 and it’s a shame that there was apparently only room for No Doubt in the “girl-fronted ska band” category. Save Ferris’ “Christmas Wrapping” is a fun take on The Waitresses’ song that changes all the lyrics by subbing in Hanukkah references.

"Christmas Wrapping" - Save Ferris

When members of Guster and The Zambonies got together to form The LeeVees, they had only one goal in mind; write an entire album’s worth of Hanukkah songs. They succeeded and Hanukkah Rocks was released in 2005. The album has a great sonic sound to it and songs titles like “Jewish Girls (at the Matzoh Ball)” and “Gelt Melts” should tell you all you need to know. May favorite song takes on the spelling dilemma that surrounds Hanukkah and is appropriately titled “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” to help confuse things even further.

"How Do You Spell Channukkahh?" - The LeeVees

Long before they hit it big with "Stacy's Mom" in 2003, Fountains of Wayne were just a quirky alt-pop band with an amazing ear for singalong melodies. Their 1996 self-titled debut alone contained a wealth of gems like "Leave the Biker," "Radiation Vibe," and "Sink to the Bottom." This little Hanukkah ditty was tucked away as the second b-side on their "I Want An Alien for Christmas" single from 1997. It may only be 16 seconds long, but the swinging lounge-vibe is a perfect slice of Fountains of Wayne goofiness and it compliments the other two Christmas nuggets on the single (the title track and "The Man in the Santa Suit") really well.   

"Chanukah Under the Stars" - Fountains of Wayne

I know Barenaked Ladies can be a bit of a polarizing band, but I've always kind of enjoyed their left-of-center, tongue-in-cheek approach to songwriting. They released Barenaked for the Holidays in 2005 and it's mix of Christmas and Hanukkah songs provides a really festive mix of holiday favorites. Out of their handful of Hanukkah songs, I like the folksy stomp of "I Have a Little Dreidel" just a tad more than "Hanukkah, O Hanukkah" and "Hanukkah Blessings." Although it clocks in at just under a minute, it's infectious melody is guaranteed to have you singing/humming/whistling it for the rest of the day.  

"I Have a Little Dreidel" - Barenaked Ladies

Friday, December 4, 2015

Christmasongs: Christmas with The Killers (Ranking Their Christmas Singles)

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

It's December and that can only mean one thing! Well, actually it means a few things... but ONE of those things is the return of Christmasongs!

What better way to kick off a new year of my pah-rum-pum-pum ramblings than with a ranked run-down of The Killers's Christmas singles? Last week, they just released "Dirt Sledding" - their tenth consecutive Christmas single - so a full decade's worth of seasonal singles is certainly deserving of a (completely arbitrary) arrangement based on a (completely arbitrary) set of factors and calculations. Between the merry merit of the musicality, the inclusion of special guests (in the song and/or the video), the video's wealth of tacky Christmas apparel, and each song's overall level of "Christmasness," there's a lot to be dissected regarding the band's yearly yuletide singles.

As a side note, it's also important to note that, along with actually writing some really amazing Christmas songs year after year (even during seasons of inactivity), The Killers also donate the proceeds from the sale of these Christmas singles to the Product Red campaign to help fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, so go buy all of them RIGHT NOW! Peace on Earth and goodwill to men, indeed.

10. “Boots” (2010)

Guests: None

With any ranked list, you've got to start somewhere, right? Their 2010 offering "Boots" is by no means a bad song, there's just something about it that doesn't quite seem to stir the Christmas spirit in me like their other singles do. It's actually pretty surprising, seeing as the song does it's best to set the seasonal scene. It opens with a snippet of dialogue from It's A Wonderful Life (which also gets a lyrical shout out) and includes mentions of "cinnamon candles burning/snowball fights outside" among its lyrics. There's even a snow globe on the cover art. "Boots" was released during a time when the band was on a brief hiatus, so there's nothing bad you can say about a song that shows their devotion to their yearly commitment, their fans, and Product Red.  

9. “I Feel It In my Bones” (2012)
Guests: Ryan Pardey

"I Feel It In My Bones" is the second song in the band's "Murderous Santa" trilogy and it continues the story that was started in their earlier "Don't Shoot Me Santa" single (more to come on that song later). Ryan Pardey reprises his role as the vengeful Santa in both the song and the video and he nails the maniacal jolly fat man role perfectly. The pulsing thump of the track's musical bed makes "I Feel It In My Bones" sound like a Battle Born outtake, which is no surprise as it was released between the album's second and third singles ("Miss Atomic Bomb” and “Here with Me”).  

8. “Dirt Sledding” (2015)
Guests: Richard Dreyfuss and Ryan Pardey

Just released last week, "Dirt Sledding" is the newest entry in The Killers's Christmas canon and it sure is a fun one. After a low-key, piano-led intro, the song turns into a rockabilly rave-up that ends up being a little Elvis, little Queen, a little Grease, and a little 80s sitcom opening ditty. Ryan Pardey returns to complete the "Murderous Santa" trilogy and cinema legend Richard Dreyfuss even contributes a voice-over (which includes the surprisingly significant lyrical nugget that Brandon Flowers weaves into many of his Christmas tunes: "There's something to be said for being present/Not just getting one"). Bonus points for the Sixteen Candles reference ("Red Porsche 944 like Jake"), which shows up in the video as well. After everything that Brandon and Santa have gone through, it's really nice to see the two ride off into the sunset together.   

7. “Joseph, Better You Than Me” (2008)
Guests: Elton John and Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys)

First off, this song thrills me just for the fact that it tackles one of the most non-tackled elements of the Nativity story: the difficulties that Joseph must've faced in regards to public scrutiny ("Are the rumors eating you alive, Joseph?"). I also appreciate how The Killers approach the issue with more questions than statements. Second, the fact that they brought in two of my favorites singers, Elton John and Neil Tennant (Pep Shop Boys), to sing on this song makes it even more special. Having three vocalists with such unique, crystal clear vocal tones sing together is such a nice touch on this track and the sparse piano-driven instrumentation really lays back to let the trio's golden voices shine in all their glory. Third, the video for "Joseph, Better You Than Me" is really interesting as it is almost entirely comprised of scenes from The Living Christ Series from 1951, a mini-series that should be recognizable to most anyone who attended a church in the 70s or 80s, where it was a good seasonal Sunday School staple.

6. "¡Happy Birthday Guadalupe!" (2009)
Guests: Wild Light and Mariachi El Bronx

Possibly feeling that "Feliz Navidad" had a stranglehold on the merry-achi (nailed it) side of Christmas for far too long, The Killers joined up with Wild Light and Mariachi El Bronx to bring a little fiesta feel to their 2009 Christmas single. Apart from setting the scene with the opening line ("Well, I woke up Christmas morning and what did I see?") and a trio of Christmas song references ("Baby, It's Cold Outside," "Deck the Halls," and "Silent Night"), there's not too terribly much of a holiday feel to "Happy Birthday Guadalupe!". However, the song is written really well, it's super fun to listen to, Mr. "Dylan from Beverly Hills, 90210" Luke Perry is in the video, AND the song appears in a new Christmas movie coming out this year (Christmas Eve with Patrick Stewart). That's what you call a win-win-win-win!    

5. “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” (2011)
Guest: N/A

This song is so fun and festive that if you catch me on the right day, I might tell you that it's my favorite Killers's Christmas single. If the song sounds like it's the best John Denver song he never actually wrote, it's because the lyrics are taken from an old cowboy poem written by Larry Chittenden all the way back in 1890. Apart from a few geographical tweaks made to honor their Las Vegas roots (Texas references are updated to Nevada ones), the lyrics are essentially the same as you would've heard them back in the late 19th century. In the same way they started with the old lyrics and updated the music for a more modern flare, the music video follows suite. It starts as a typical Wild West scene with desert landscapes, horses, cowboys, and townsfolk... and then the robot aliens show up. This one makes it onto a lot of my Christmas playlists every single year.

4. “Joel the Lump of Coal” (2014)
Guest: Jimmy Kimmel

I'm not going to lie, no matter how many times I've heard it, this one gets me pretty verklempt almost every single time. "Joel the Lump of Coal" is a perfect example of the quirky-yet-meaningful message that The Killers weave into a lot of their songs, especially the Christmas ones. Once again, just like with the "Murderous Santa" trilogy, Ol' St. Nick is painted in such a light that a different type of Christmas message gets through all the normal "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" nostalgic rhetoric that's prevalent in most Christmas songs. Jimmy Kimmel pulls off the scumbag Santa vibe perfectly for his few lines and if you're not stifling a tear or two by the end of this "good naughty boy" and his coal-turned-diamond tale, well, I don't know what to tell you. I think we could all learn a thing or two from Joel's words and example and I wouldn't mind hearing a few more Christmas songs like this one every year. *sniff* 

3. “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” (2007)
Guest: Ryan Pardey

"A bullet in your what?!?" Ah yes, the wonderful beginnings of the "Murderous Santa" trilogy and possibly the best combination of oddness and greatness you'll ever encounter in a Christmas song. I remember hearing this song for the first time on the radio and having my mind blown wide open to the option of a whole different type of Christmas song to fall in love with, namely ones by The Killers. The lyrical back-and-forth between Brandon and Santa is downright hilarious and the various musical left turns all flow together so naturally for such diverse non-traditional elements. What shouldn't necessarily work on paper delivers in seasonal spades in the finished product. The music video amps up the quirky awesomeness even more and the arresting visual of Ryan Pardey's maniacal Santa is so good that it almost demanded that it not be a one-time thing.         

2. “Christmas in L.A.” (2013)
Guest: Dawes

Oh man, I love a really good, sad Christmas song. Where we usually have to rely on bluesman Charles Brown to fill that holiday hole, The Killers really stepped up to the plate with "Christmas in L.A." in 2013. Featuring a little help from Dawes, especially the sublime vocal performance from Taylor Goldsmith, "Christmas in L.A." channels a '70s country rock ballad vibe and it chronicles a disconnected actor's decision to stay in L.A. for a lonely holiday. With such poignant lines as "I've played so many parts, I'm not sure which one's really me" and "Another burnout in a tank top, who seems to bask in his decay," the lyrics perfectly paint the isolating and depressing scene. However, the line that always hits me the most is: "There's a well-rehearsed disinterest in the atmosphere/I don't know if that's what this town gave me or if it lead me here." Man, so gorgeous. The music video is pretty amazing as well and it features Owen Wilson as the song's narrative focus and veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton in a cool cameo and video-only voice-over. Apart from the 'White Christmas" inclusion at the end (which was enough to get Irving Berlin a co-writing credit), this song can be queued up at anytime of the year, another sign of a perfect song, that just so happens to be a really nice Christmas as well.

1. “A Great Big Sled” (2006)
Guest: Toni Halliday (Curve)

I know it can be pretentious to claim that the first of something is the best, but seriously, The Killers absolutely nailed it right out of the gate on "A Great Big Sled," their very first Christmas single from 2006. From the writing to the recording to the instrumentation choices to the lyrical content and every other element in between, "A Great Big Sled" is a perfectly-hitting-on-all-cylinders Christmas song. The pulsing energy and heavy dose of holiday spirit in the song make it must-have on any Christmas playlist and its huge chorus is so much fun to sing along with. The female voice on the song is Toni Halliday (from Curve), wife of the legendary uber-producer Alan Moulder (who produced this track as well). I can still remember hearing this song on the radio during my morning commute the day it debuted and being immediately enthralled by it. While I was super excited to hear a band that I dug so much doing such an awesome Christmas song, I had no idea that it was just the start of them delivering an incredible entry for each following season. I still love "A Great Big Sled" just as much as when I was first struck by it and try as I might to not judge each new Killers's Christmas song by this first template, it's really hard not to. Until they find a way to top it, "A Great Big Sled" is holding hard at #1 for me. If you ever find yourself receiving a Christmas mixtape from me or if you attend one of my famous "Ho-Ho-Hodge Holiday Hangouts," you can count on a heaping helping of "A Great Big Sled" to spike your Christmas spirit.