Christmastime is coming ’round again

An old college buddy of mine, Budd Bailey, sends me a Christmas card every year that includes a CD full of new and unusual Christmas-related recordings — everything from new takes on old carols to hard rock tracks with new twists on the Yuletide traditions.   CHRISTMAS-MUSICHe’s been doing this for a dozen years now, and it turns out he’s been nobly carrying on the tradition started by one of his friends who passed away in 2006.

I asked Budd where he finds these festive, fun holiday jewels, and he turned me on to several websites that specialize in this sort of thing:  Stubby’s House of Christmas, Santapalooza, Christmas Underground, Hip Christmas and Mistletunes.  I’m sure there are others.

Three years ago, I posted a blog that singled out 15 classic Christmas songs by rock and pop artists, and I still enjoy hearing those each year (and have therefore included that setlist at the bottom as a bonus).   But it’s always good to broaden one’s palette and try new things, so I have compiled a selection of some of the newer great rock/pop Yuletide stuff that Budd and others have exposed me to recently, and I offer a little background on the artists and the songs they’ve recorded.  Have a Rockin’ Yule!


“Christmas Time is Coming ‘Round Again” and “Santa Wants to Take You For a Ride,” The Mavericks, 2018

10253891_479436998823601_3049556431287933516_nFormed in 1989 in Miami, The Mavericks made their mark writing and performing an eclectic mix of Tex-Mix, rockabilly, country and Latin, releasing a half-dozen albums between 1991 and 2003, three of which reached the Top Ten on the US Country charts.  They also won a Grammy for their single “Here Comes the Rain” in 1996.  They reunited in 2013 and continue to make waves on the Country charts, most recently with “Hey!  Merry Christmas!” released last month.  The Mavericks released the rousing “Christmas Time is Coming ‘Round Again” last year as a single, and it did so well that they chose to put together an album’s worth of material for this year.  I’ve selected two tracks from that LP — last year’s hit for the family, and another one with a more naughtily suggestive message.

“Merry Christmas Darlings,” Cheap Trick, 2017

p01bqtqmIllinois-based Cheap Trick formed in the mid-1970s, and first became successful in Japan before hitting it big here in 1979 with their “Dream Police” LP.  Singles like “I Want You to Want Me” and “The Flame” and covers of Elvis’s “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel” were big hits on the singles charts during the 1980s as well.  They have continued to tour and release new LPs well into the 2000s, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.  From “Christmas Christmas,” a 2017 holiday collection, I’ve selected “Merry Christmas Darlings,” an original by veteran members Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander and Tom Petersson.

“This Christmas Day” and “The Man With the Bag,” Jessie J, 2018

jessie-j-this-christmas-day-album-stream-downloadHailing from Essex outside London, Jessica Cornish got her start as a child actress and then a songwriter before adopting the stage name Jessie J and signing as a recording artist.  Her 2011 debut LP, “Who You Are,” spawned five Top Ten singles in the UK, including “Do It Like a Dude” and two #1 hits, “Price Tag” and “Domino.”  The latter reached #6 on the US charts and pushed “Who You Are” to #11 on the album charts here.  Her superb voice has brought her continued successes through the decade, and this year she dropped “This Christmas Day,” a holiday album featuring a number of guest artists.  I was particularly taken by two songs — the title track, a Jessie J original, and her rendition of the 1950 Dudley Brooks-Irving Taylor classic, “The Man With the Bag.”

“The Pagans Had It Right,” Devil in a Woodpile, 2017

bg_cached_resized_1c9728d70808a805712bfd66f3dcec88Rick Sherry, Joel Patterson and Beau Sample formed Devil in a Woodpile in the mid-’90s, playing country blues and jug music, most of it covers of traditional tunes with a few originals scattered in.  They played in and around Chicago for most of their existence, and just last year, they reunited and came up with “13 Day of Xmas,” which included “The Pagans Had It Right,” a whimsical, cynical look at the crass commercialization and drunken revelry so prevalent in the Christmas season these days:  “Baby Jesus shoulda lawyered up, put a trademark on his brand, the pagans had it all figured out, debauchery through the land…”

“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” The Smithereens, 2007

MI0001326948The Ramones, never a commercial success but hugely influential as a New York punk rock band, released 14 albums in 19 years between 1976 and 1995.  Their 11th LP, “Brain Drain,” included “Pet Sematary,” featured in the Stephen King film of that name, and also “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” Joey Ramone’s ragged attempt at a holiday tune.  In 2007, The Smithereens, a Jersey-based rock band with a few modest hits (“Only a Memory,” “A Girl Like You”), did an admirable cover of the Ramones’ Christmas song, and I’ve included it here.

“O Come Emmanuel,” Kaskade with Skylar Grey, 2017

Kaskade-Hakkasan-ProfileA producer, remixer and DJ named Ryan Raddon took on the stage name of Kaskade in 1995 when he was living in San Francisco, where a genre known as “deep house” was taking hold.  By 2001 he became a recording artist in his own right, focusing on house, electronic and dance music.  Kaskade’s albums and singles became popular on the dance club airplay listings, and by 2013, he was being nominated for multiple Grammy awards and co-headlining the Coachella festival.  Last year, he Skylar-Grey-press-image-2017released “Kaskade Christmas,” on which he rearranged traditional Christmas music and invited excellent vocalists to collaborate with him.  My favorite track features the superb Skylar Grey singing “O Come Emmanuel.”  Grey had a 2013 Top Ten LP, “Don’t Look Down,” has been a featured singer on many other artists’ hits, including Dr. Dre, Eminem, Moby, Fort Minor and Macklemore, and turned in a memorable 2017 performance on Saturday Night Live with Eminem singing a medley of “Walk on Water/Stan/Love the Way You Lie.”

“You Make It Feel Like Christmas” and “Christmas Eve,” Gwen Stefani (with Blake Shelton), 2017

1280_gwen_stefani_blake_shelton_kiss_twitterDebuting as the 17-year-old singer in her brother’s ska band No Doubt in 1986, Stefani has built a formidable career in the 30 years since.  No Doubt’s 1995 “Tragic Kingdom” LP, with its international #1 smash hit “Don’t Speak,” put Stefani at the top of the heap, and she made multiple chart appearances with No Doubt, as a solo artist, and in various collaborations over the next two decades.  She has also appeared in films, launched fashion lines and been active philanthropically.  Last year she released her first holiday LP, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” the title track of which emerged as a popular duet written and recorded with her current romantic interest, Blake Shelton.  I’ve included it on this setlist, and also added the lovely ballad, “Christmas Eve,” co-written by Stefani.

“Finally It’s Christmas,” Hanson, 2017

Hanson Portrait ShootHanson will no doubt forever be best known for the 1997 international #1 single “MMMBop,” and its multiplatinum album “Middle of Nowhere,” which put the trio of teenaged brothers at the top of the pop music business for a spell.  They had success with a Christmas album recorded that year (“Snowed In”), but then a corporate merger saw their label swallowed by Island Def Jam, where they were neglected and ultimately cast aside.  The trio eventually started releasing independently produced albums that helped them resume their career throughout the 2000s, with chart appearances in the high 20s.  Last year’s “Finally It’s Christmas” was among several holiday albums receiving high critical marks, largely for the catchy title track, released to commemorate the trio’s 25th anniversary.

“Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas,” Gaspard Royant, 2017

field4Although recognized as a musical prodigy at age 7, Gaspard Royant struggled in his efforts to become a professional musician until he was nearly 30.  Originally from a small French town on the Swiss border, he ultimately moved to Paris, where he began composing for film, receiving prizes at choral festivals and eventually recording and performing his own material on tour.  On the strength of successful Christmas singles on European charts in 2014 and 2015, Royant released the “Wishing You a Merry Christmas” LP last December, which gained him his first US radio airplay.  The track I found most distinctive was “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas.”

“Happy, Happy Christmas,” Ingrid Michaelson, 2018

C1dTVPFyNqS._SL1000_.pngNew York-based singer-songwriter-pianist Michaelson emerged from New York state college theater environments to write and record music in 2005, ultimately charting three Top Five albums in the 2010s, including “Human Again” (2012) and “Lights Out” (2014).  When she began work on a Christmas album earlier this year, she wanted to focus on traditional holiday songs as performed by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and others from the 1940s-1950s period.  She completed a set of 11 cover versions but couldn’t resist including one original, “Happy, Happy Christmas,” which was dedicated to the recent deaths of her parents.  Having lost my mother a couple of months ago, I was moved to include this track for the same reason.

“Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Acting Nice),” Grace Potter, 2011

Grace_Potter_001Grace Potter is a Vermont-based multi-instrumentalist who formed Grace Potter and The Nocturnals in 2002 and has periodically released albums with the band and on a solo basis.  The group’s strong 2010 LP, “Grace Potter and the Nocturnals,” reached #19 on the US album charts and #3 on mainstream rock lists.  The following year, Potter was asked to be the voice of Carol in an animated Disney project, the holiday-themed “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice,” for which she also wrote and recorded “Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Acting Nice).”  Although it’s highly derivative of Chuck Berry’s classic “Run Rudolph Run,” it has a new millennium feel to it that I found compelling.

“Bring Me Love,” John Legend, 2018

111915-shining-stars-3Born John Stephens in 1978, Legend was an instant success with his “Get Lifted” album debut in 2004, and his multiple talents since then have earned him kudos as the first African-American recipient of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) designation.  In 2014, Legend co-wrote and sang the Oscar-winning “Glory” for the film “Selma,” and had the second-best-selling song of the year (“All of Me”).  In 2016, he won an Emmy for performing the title role in the live TV special of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and then this year, he released his first holiday LP, “A Legendary Christmas,” which includes eight traditional songs and six Legend originals, most notably the Motown-ish Christmas track “Bring Me Love.”

“Happy Xmas (War is Over),” Emily Hackett, 2018

EmilyhackettJohn Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s musical call for peace at Christmastime 1971 was released as a single that year but didn’t get much airplay.  Once Lennon was assassinated during the Christmas season nine years later, it became a haunting, ironic reminder of the senselessness of violence and war, especially in a time of peace and good will.  Since then, this revered song has been covered in a wide variety of arrangements by dozens of artists, ranging from Carly Simon to The Moody Blues, from Jimmy Buffett to Darlene Love, from Celine Dion to Pat Travers, from Josh Groban to REO Speedwagon.  I happen to be partial to the gentle treatment that singer-songwriter Emily Hackett gives to it, and I think you’ll agree.



Are you with me, Doctor Wu?

This is the tenth and final (for now!) in a series of posts that feature analysis and commentary about some of my all-time favorite albums and artists.

To recap:  The following albums and artists have been singled out:  Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young)’s “Crosby Stills and Nash” and “Deja Vu”;  The Who’s “Tommy” and “Who’s Next”;  Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick”;  Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” and “Born to Run”;  The James Gang’s “Yer’ Album” and Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get”;  The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “The White Album” and “Abbey Road”;  Dire Straits’ “Making Movies” and “On Every Street”;  Joe Jackson’s “Night and Day” and “Blaze of Glory”;  and Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin” and “Led Zeppelin II.”  This final installment lauds Steely Dan’s “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Katy Lied.”

At some point, several months from now, I will again offer analysis and commentary on more of what I consider some of my all-time favorite albums, but I felt it was time to get back to addressing other topics and milestones in the world of rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Rock on! 


My introduction to the wondrous talents that comprise the curious musical entity known as Steely Dan came as it did, I suspect, for most rock music listeners:  the hypnotic salsa beat of the hit single “Do It Again,” which reached #6 on the US pop charts in late 1972/early 1973.  (I was a senior in high school then, and our basketball team featured a hot shooter named Jack, and whenever he made a basket, those of us in the stands would cheer, “Go back, Jack, do it again…”)

Six months later at graduation time, Steely Dan returned to the charts with “Reelin’ in the Years,” which provided a marvelous soundtrack for us to reminisce about our transition from high school to college.  At that point, I decided the band was worthy of d324f5cc4a16c309e75b5bc4200c6079.1000x1000x1further exploration and bought the debut LP, “Can’t Buy a Thrill.”  I was pleased to find a very appealing array of styles, textures, arrangements and lyrics contained in the ten tracks, especially “Dirty Work,” “Only a Fool Would Say That,” “Brooklyn” and “Kings.”

Soon enough, though, I turned my attentions elsewhere for the next year or so, concentrating on other stuff, mostly progressive rock, as I recall.  It was freshman year, after all, and I lived in a dorm full of like-minded stoners.

Then in May of 1974, I became aware of a new single by Steely Dan called “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and, remembering how much I had enjoyed the first album, I raced to the record store to pick up their new LP.  To my surprise, I found not one but two “new” Steely Dan albums in the bins.  There was the just-released “Pretzel Logic,” featuring “Rikki,” but there was also “Countdown to Ecstasy,” their second album which had apparently been released with little fanfare, and no hit single, nine months earlier in  July 1973.

What a treat to suddenly have two Steely Dan LPs to delve into!  I found the accessible three-minute pop songs on “Pretzel Logic” to be instantly likable, catchy and captivating, especially “Night By Night,” “Parker’s Band,” “Barrytown” and “Charlie Freak.”  Donald Fagen’s enunciated vocals, embellished with rich harmonies behind them, brought the quirky lyrics to life, and the songs seemed to gallop along on the strength of sizzling guitar parts, sax solos and horn sections packed into each arrangement.

But I was much more intrigued by the longer tunes heard on “Countdown.”  Here, I thought, were some really substantive tracks on which the musicians could really stretch out.  Fagen and songwriting partner Walter Becker had come up with some more cover_4538717112009-1diversely challenging material that was at once accessible and more sophisticated, and the band members responded with obvious enthusiasm.

Take, for example, “My Old School,” an exuberant number about the duo’s days at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where they met in the late ’60s.  They weren’t exactly fond of the place (hence the line, “California tumbles into the sea, that’ll be the day I go back to Annandale”), but nonetheless, many college reunions I’ve attended in the years since have featured old friends joyously singing this track at the top of their lungs.  The horn charts are, to my ears, among the most spectacular you’ll ever hear on a pop tune, expertly captured by producer Gary Katz, who manned the boards for all of Steely Dan’s albums.

Another impressive track is “Bodhisattva,” basically a blues-rock structure with jazz


Baxter (left) and Dias from a 1973 TV appearance

underpinnings and a swing beat, and lots of room for some amazingly fluid guitar solos from Steely Dan’s original axemen, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.”  Baxter also shines on the delightful “Pearl of the Quarter,” an irresistibly heartfelt tribute to Louise, a New Orleans hooker, where he offers some sweet pedal steel guitar.


The song I can never get enough of is the album closer, “King of the World,” which utilizes Dias’s dexterous guitar and Fagen’s middle-break synthesizer on which to build a riveting work about what it might feel like to survive a nuclear apocalypse.  Few bands have ever come up with lines like these:  “No marigolds in the promised land, there’s a hole in the ground where they used to grow, any man left on the Rio Grande is the king of the world as far as I know…”

Although “Countdown to Ecstasy” really grew on me, to the point where it stands as one of my all-time favorites, none of its eight songs grabbed the denizens of 1973 pop radio.  “My Old School” and the celebrity-centric “Show Biz Kids” stiffed at #63 and #61, and the album managed to reach only #35, although earning gold-record status eventually.

Said Baxter at the time, “I think the diversity you hear on ‘Countdown’ makes it much more interesting for us and, we hope, for the people who buy the albums.  There are a lot of things you can grab on to, but that doesn’t mean we’re so predictable that you can instantly associated one cut with the next.  We’d rather have people looking forward to a song that might be completely different than looking forward to a song they know is going to sound the same as the last song.  It’s not the accepted commercial formula, which we think is usually a big mistake.”

As most observers now know, Steely Dan began in 1972 as a six-piece rock group that


The original lineup (L-to-R):  drummer Jim Hodder, vocalist David Palmer, guitarist Denny Dias, keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter” and bassist Walter Becker

could take the embraceable music and profoundly weird lyrics that Fagen and Becker were writing and turn them into solid recordings and play them convincingly in concert. And for two years, they did just that.  Fagen on keyboards and vocals, Becker on bass, Dias and Baxter on guitars, Jim Hodder on drums, and second singer David Palmer worked reasonably well as a unit, and racked up the early hit singles.


But Palmer proved to be an unnatural element and was dismissed, and Fagen and Becker quickly found that they loathed touring, largely because, as fussy perfectionists, they couldn’t rely on the notoriously unpredictable sound quality of concert venues and their often sketchy equipment and technicians.  Steely Dan soon became the first major pop group to openly defy their record label by refusing to tour at all, and rarely doing interviews, concentrating all their efforts instead on songwriting and recording.

That decision may have irked the guys in the suits, but it fascinated critics and fans, who liked what they heard and were satisfied to let the music on the albums do the talking.  The other casualty was Baxter, who made his money from touring and couldn’t afford to hang around for the periodic studio gig, and instead joined The Doobie Brothers, a hard-working touring band for the remainder of the ’70s.

Fagen and Becker, who both tended to prefer jazz music over rock, thought they could AR-AK759_DEACON_8S_20150904180010bring that sort of loose-formed sensibility to what they were doing in the studio.  In a 1975 article, Fagen described it this way:  “We find that we want to pick musicians we think will fit a particular song.  Sometimes we’ll hear somebody on a record and hire them for the date, and if it works out, great.  Jazz musicians are always playing with different people, and I don’t see why that can’t happen here.  Of course, some rock musicians don’t like that.  We might have chords that constantly modulate, and they don’t know what’s going on, and they freak out and leave.  That’s okay.  We find somebody else.”

Beginning in 1975 with the stunning “Katy Lied,” that’s exactly what transpired.  Seven different guitarists are used on the album’s ten tracks, from Becker and Dias to jazz greats Larry Carlton and Elliott Randall and rock stalwart Rick Derringer.  Future vocal superstar steelydan~~_katyliedj_101bMichael McDonald beefs up the background voices, and eventual Toto founders Jeff Porcaro on drums and David Paich on keyboards bring muscle to the arrangements as well.

Even though there were technical problems in bringing the album to realization, and Fagen still has regrets with the final mix, I was among those who was completely floored by how amazing it sounded through a good sound system in 1975.  And Side One (remember when the songs were divided into Side One and Side Two?) remains, for me, one of the all-time best album sides ever recorded.  “Black Friday,” “Bad Sneakers,” “Rose Darling,” “Daddy Don’t Live in New York City No More” and “Doctor Wu” are five back-to-back killer Fagen-Becker masterpieces, each expertly performed by some of the best musicians in the business.

Which is not to detract from Side Two’s fine moments, including Derringer’s solo on the bluesy “Chain Lightning,” McDonald’s prominent voice on “Any World That I’m Welcome To,” and the cheesy funk of Fagen’s keyboards on the perverse “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” wherein a local weirdo delights in showing stag films to the neighborhood kids in his den.  Such a motley stew of sounds and themes coming at you in Steely Dan’s albums…

The trend toward multiple guest musicians and lyrics about fringe outcasts continued with 1976’s “The Royal Scam,” hailed by some critics as Steely Dan’s finest achievement, and there are certainly tracks found there that rank among the true gems of Steely Dan’s catalog, like “Kid Charlemagne,” “Don’t Take Me Alive” and the harrowing title track.

Their commercial peak was “Aja,” which reached #3 on the album charts and sold many millions of copies on the strength of its three hit singles (“Deacon Blues,” “Peg” and “Josie”), and it often served as the go-to album played at concert venues as the roadies changed equipment from the warm-up act to the headliner.  Its impossibly slick production values were held up as the gold standard by many, while others criticized that perfection as the antithesis of what rock’s dirty rebel soul was supposed to sound like.


“The Dan,” circa 1974

And sure enough, the tipping point came within the next couple of years, as the sound that eventually became pejoratively known as “yacht rock” gave way to a quirkier New Wave vibe, injecting fresh ideas into what had become a relatively ho-hum scene.   “Gaucho,” Steely Dan’s last album for three decades, explored the decadence of LA like never before on ear-candy tracks like “Babylon Sisters” and “Glamour Profession,” more slick sounding than even anything on “Aja.”  It’s unquestionably a worthy entry in the Dan catalog.

But I will always prefer, and invariably return to, what I heard from the Fagen-Becker team in their 1973-1975 period than what followed.  There was something so radical and yet comforting, so inventive and yet familiar, in the songs they made at that point in the evolution of their song crafting.  I invite you all to wrap your heads around these albums and breathe deep.  This is amazing stuff.


The Spotify list below offers “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Katy Lied” in their entirety, but I couldn’t resist sneaking in another couple of tracks from “Pretzel Logic” in between, just to remind you of the stellar quality of Steely Dan’s work found elsewhere during that period.