Saturday, December 31, 2016

It's New Year's Eve!

In anticipation of this evening's festivities — and tomorrow's holiday — here are several of my favorite New Year's tunes:

Happy New Year, by Charlie Weaver

Happy New Year, by Spike Jones and His City Slickers

Happy New Year, by The Glad Singers

I've also got three Happy New Year mixes on the Extras page of my holiday music website, HERE

Whatever you do and however you do it tonight, have a safe and enjoyable New Year's Eve tonight!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Let It Snow!, Part 12

Well, we didn't do it in time for Christmas, but at least it's done! Here are a few notes about the final two songs in my latest holiday mix, Let It Snow!:

Track 37
Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas), by Greg Trooper (2003)
Looking back over the list of public figures who died this past year, the name of Muhammad Ali stood out as perhaps the most widely known and most influential of them all. He's a man I greatly respected — not so much for his boxing skills as for his principled opposition to the Vietnam War and subsequent positions on public issues. I was hoping to find a suitable audio clip of Ali wishing people a Merry Christmas or some such thing, but when I googled Ali's name along with the word "Christmas," many of the resulting links were to this song by singer/songwriter Greg Trooper. I wasn't aware of the song at the time — in fact, I'd never heard of Greg Trooper. I'm not sure why I hadn't because he's been around at least as long as I have and several of his records were produced by Garry Tallent of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, but them's the facts. So I listened to it on YouTube, and instantly liked it. In fact, I thought it would be a great way to end this year's mix, as it's the kind of thoughtful, quiet and reflective track that I like to use to close out each CD. Yet if I had to explain the meaning of the song from Trooper's point of view — just what is he trying to say? — I wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to do it. I'm not even sure I have a valid interpretation of what it means to me. Clearly, Trooper was a fan. He seems to admire Ali for defying the odds and remaining true to himself regardless of what anyone else believed.
Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas)
I saw Muhammad Ali
Talking to me
From the TV
Teaching me
The meaning of Christmas. 
Float like a butterfly
Sting like a bee
How could this be?
Him teaching me
The meaning of Christmas?

His hands were shaking
His knees were weak
But listen to this old warrior when he speaks
I am the greatest he said with a grin
But he was talking about you
Not about him
And he was teaching me
The meaning of Christmas.

I remember they called him a clown
But then Sonny went down
In no more than six rounds
And he was teaching us all
A new day was coming.

And I remember this Louiseville kid
Wouldn't do what they said
Found his own God instead
And he was teaching us all
The meaning of Christmas.

There are kings in the east
There are kings in the west
There are kings all around
But not every king knows
The meaning of Christmas.

It seems clear that Trooper's references to Christmas are to Christmas in the broadest sense of the word — not only to the day of Jesus' birth, but to the spirit of the holiday and the rich and diverse group of qualities and ideals people ascribe to it. Still, it's not the most comfortable fit. The Ali brand of bravado and trash talk might be a useful model for someone lacking in confidence or self esteem, but it's hardly the kind of quality we associate with Christmas. To an awful lot of people, Ali's abandonment of Christianity and his adoption of the Muslim faith should disqualify him from a seat at our holiday table. He did more than change parishes, he "found his own God instead," a rather clear violation of the First Commandment. Yet still somehow this song sounds appropriate. Perhaps because here on earth, each of us is free to set our own moral compass and to worship the God of our own understanding, and because tolerance for these truths, so long as others are not disrespected or hurt, is indeed part of the holiday spirit. Ali refused to be drafted at a time when the majority of the Christian people of our country were probably quite opposed to his position. The power establishment certainly was. And whose position turned out to be the more moral stand? I don't know, I can see where Muhammad Ali could teach me a thing or two about the meaning of Christmas. The whys and wherefores will likely come, as all things inevitably will, in time.

Listen to Greg Trooper's "Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas)"

Track 36
Another Lonely Christmas, Prince

I was a big Prince fan going back to his very first commercial releases. I was amazed by the brash openness of his third album "Dirty Mind," and his flaunting of conventional morality on his follow-up release, "Controversy." His 1982 album "1999" hardly left my turntable for the first five or six months after its release, which is quite something considering it came out around the same time as Michael Jackson's "Thriller." I was blown away by the song "When Doves Cry," even though it kept Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" from reaching the top spot on Billboard's Hot 100. I didn't care too much for the movie "Purple Rain," but the soundtrack was awesome, and I remained a big fan of Prince's music throughout most of the 1980s. I didn't follow him too much after that, although I was luck enough to see him close up at NBC's Burbank Studios in 1999 and to attend special performance of his at the Key Club in Hollywood that was just incredible. His death this past April came as a real shock. I had no idea he was in such pain and so close to the end of his endurance.

I confess that this song was never one of my favorites. The lyrics are beautiful and sobering, and they always struck me as a message to enjoy each day to the fullest. I would have preferred to include something else of his, but I'm not sure Prince ever recorded anything else about Christmas. In the end, he seems to have been a very private and possibly lonely soul. I can identify with that. Many people are. He certainly left a rich musical legacy behind, and he did a great deal of good while he was here. Those things, too, reflect the meaning of Christmas.

Listen to Prince's "Another Lonely Christmas"

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Let It Snow!, Part 11

Three days left in 2016 and five songs left to examine from this year's holiday mix, so let's have at it!

Track 35
The Christmas Song, by Natalie and Nat "King" Cole (1998)
We seem to have lost an awful lot of entertainers and cultural icons this year; in fact, I'm beginning to brace myself each time I look at the news for fear of hearing about another death. Singer George Michael died on Christmas Day, followed by Carrie Fisher yesterday, and, remarkably, Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds, this afternoon. It seems kind of odd sometimes to feel so affected by the passing of some celebrity we never met and know so little about, especially when so many very special unsung heroes and non-celebrities die without any fanfare nearly every day. But many of the popular entertainers whose deaths attract wide notice have become a common point of reference whose works serve as mileposts as make our own clumsy ways through life, "I remember seeing her first movie in college," we might think, or "I remember listening to her music when we drove up the coast that summer." Well, we've lost too many this year, and I'm afraid we'll need to get used it with so many from the post-WW II generation entering their 70s and 80s.

Natalie Cole died on New Year's Eve of 2015 at the age of 65. As the daughter of popular entertainer Nat "King" Cole, Natalie's career got off to an easier start than many, and I remember her best for her first several albums, which included hits like "This Will Be," "I've Got Love on My Mind, and "Our Love." After several years of great success, however, Cole apparently become heavily involved in drugs and her career hit the skids. In time she was able to recover somewhat, although she seemed to have to struggle each step of the way. In 1991 she released an album of duets with her late father, which became her biggest record ever. This track, released in 1998, is in that mold. "The Christmas Song" has been released by hundreds of different artists, but it will always remain most closely associated with Nat "King" Cole, which is a big part of the reason this version is so special.

Listen to "The Christmas Song" by Natalie and Nat "King" Cole

Track 34
O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Tyler Joseph (2013)
My friend Eddie turned me on to Tyler Joseph and his band TWENTY ØNE PILØTS shortly after the release of their first major label album last year, and they quickly became one of my very favorite groups. The band originated in Columbus, Ohio in 2009 as a collaboration between Joseph and two college friends. In 2011, the two friends were replaced by drummer Josh Dunn, and it's remained a two-person operation ever since. After self-releasing a variety of material and touring for several years, the band signed with Fueled by Ramen, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. They've released two albums for the label thus far, the first of which, Vessel, was well-reviewed and attracted considerable notice. Additional interest was generated by the group's busy touring schedule, so that by the time they released their second major studio effort, Blurryface, in May 2015, it debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200.

This track is an excerpt from a program found on Vimeo titled "Christmas with the Stars," which appears to have been produced by the Five14 Church in New Albany, Ohio. The program is cast as old fashioned variety show, with some kidding on either end of the song between Joseph and the master of ceremonies. But there's nothing funny about the performance of the song itself, which showcases Joseph's fine voice, a quality that's sometimes overlooked in his work for TWENTY ØNE PILØTS:

For those who aren't familiar with them, here are several songs by TWENTY ØNE PILØTS:

The song "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is a beautiful carol that appeared twice on my 2014 mix, "Is There Really a Santa Claus?" in versions by the Front Range Christian School Advance Band and Boyz II Men.

Track 33
KJR Rock and Roll Christmas, Ric Hansen and Julie Miller (1975)
From one of my favorite songs on the mix we turn next to the one I probably dislike the most. This is a promotional track put together in the mid-1970s for Seattle radio station KJR, featuring two of its former DJs: "Rockin'" Ric Hansen and Julie Miller. I certainly don't mean to be critical of Ric and Julie personally, but this whole business of radio stations creating "morning teams" to "entertain" listeners with crappy jokes and talk about what they did over the weekend has always struck me as one of the lamest acts around — and schlock like this, which is about as edgy as a ball of yarn, simply underscores how far from its moorings commercial radio has slipped. There were lots of good independent radio stations around in the mid-'70s with announcers who had genuine personalities and playlists that reflected the popular tastes in their communities, and for all I know KJR was one of them. In fact, I've read about some of the fallout following Clear Channel's acquisition of the station several years later that suggests Hansen was a good guy with a considerable following during his tenure at the station. But I have an instinctive negative reaction to anything involving business marketing and commercial radio these days, and this track makes me gag every time I hear it. So why in the name of God did I include it in this year's mix, you ask? Well, life involves a certain amount of suffering, and why should I have to endure this on my own? When I first started these mixes at least half of the tunes I included were dreadful monstrosities a normal person could barely stomach and now we're down to only a couple of them per disc and I pulled the other one of those intended for this year's disc* at the last minute so please just listen to this, cringe with me for a moment, and be grateful for the progress we've made. 

Listen to "A KJR Rock 'n Roll Christmas," by Ric Hansen and Julie Miller

*For those masochists among you, my last-minute deletion this year was "Christmas Season" by the inimitable Little Suzi, and you can listen to it HERE. Good luck to you.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Let It Snow!, Part 10

Our goal, as it is every year, is to offer a comment or two about each of the tracks on my latest holiday mix, and after the two we take care of today we'll have commented on 32 of this year's 37 tracks. Hang in there for just a few days more, my friends, and we'll all be better off for having made the effort.

Track 32
White Christmas (3:00 Weather Report), Steve Baron as "Bobby the Poet" (1967)
Political parody, satire, and comedy have always attracted sizeable and enthusiastic audiences in this country, going back almost to the earliest days of our Republic. Of course, the form in which it's presented has evolved over the years — from printed essays, newspaper cartoons and sheet music to Saturday Night Live sketches on YouTube  — but the aim hasn't changed too much. Americans like to see powerful people taken down a peg or two now and then. We detest hypocrisy, and we like to see how our would-be leaders react to the occasional sharp elbow or smart jab.

The right to poke fun at public figures in this country is solidly grounded in our Constitution, thanks, in large part, to the unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1988 case titled Hustler v. Falwell. Hustler is an adult magazine that likes to include shocking material in its pages, and back in 1983 it ran a parody ad that suggested that the ultra-conservative religious leader Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse while drunk. Falwell sued, claiming Hustler was guilty of the intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, the Supreme Court, in an 8-0 decision written by conservative Chief Justice William Rhenquist, held that the magazine was engaged in protected political speech, regardless of how offensive it might be to some:
The sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office or those public figures who are ‘intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions, or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large. 
Such criticism is essential to the protection of a free society.

"White Christmas (3:00 Weather Report)" is a silly little track that isn't particularly funny or insightful, and I'm not saying that because it pokes fun at my greatest hero, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. This is one of a handful of similar numbers recorded by comedian Bill Minkin, who primarily made fun of Kennedy's accent. This was hardly a new idea. Several years earlier, comedian Vaughn Meader recorded an entire album of material about the Kennedy Family called "The First Family" that became the largest and fastest selling record of all time shortly after its release. "Bobby the Poet," of course, is supposed to be Bob Dylan.

I was able to find a clip of Minkin's 1967 appearance on ABC's "Hollywood Palace" variety show, in which he performs another of his Kennedy parodies, "Wild Thing":

Track 31
O Come All Ye Faithful, Cast of The Brady Bunch, featuring Florence Henderson (1970)
If you grew up in the 1970s, as I did, you're surely familiar with "The Brady Bunch," the story of a widower with three sons who marries a widow with three daughters to form a large and lively brood that appeared on our family room TVs every Friday evening. It's a show that's somehow become more popular and iconic years after it first aired — primarily, I think, due to the nostalgia factor. The show debuted in September of 1969 and ran for five seasons. This track is from the show's one and only holiday episode, "The Voice of Christmas," which first aired on December 19, 1969. Mrs. Brady, played by the late Florence Henderson, loses her voice shortly before she's scheduled to sing a beautiful Christmas carol in church. Her youngest daughter, Cindy (Susan Olsen) makes it her mission to intercede with Santa to make sure her voice returns in time. Florence Henderson died last month at the age of 82. The relevant clips from the episode appear below:

Five more tracks remain, so I won't be away too long.

Brace Yourself, Friends, for Our Annual Boxing Day Horror Show

As if real life isn't scary enough these days, it's time for the latest installment in an ongoing project we started three years ago — our annual Boxing Day Horror Show. What's it all about? Well, it's based in large measure on the notion that, unlike our European brethren, too many Americans are eager to head right back to work, or worse, to the malls, on the day after Christmas. We thought it would be a neat public service if we could somehow do something to encourage folks to stay home an extra day to enjoy one another's company and scarf down all the various leftovers. Of course, the lure we chose had to be both fast-acting and short-lived. It had to both keep folks home on the 26th and then kick them out hard the following day. After all, we're Americans. One day's worth of playing hookie is fiercely independent, while anything much longer than that could create another generation of "welfare queens and kings," and there will be none of that around here, thank you very much. Alright then, how about bad holiday movies? Not just bad, you understand — but rather the worst holiday movies we could find. You don't believe it? Check out the Boxing Day posts for each of the past three years, and, assuming you survive the experience, you'll quickly discover that I'm not f*@#ing around here.

This year's winner is the quintessential bad holiday movie, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" (1964). This one's a classic. True, if you scout around a bit you'll discover that I've used the movie's theme song to kick off one of my previous holiday mixes. Of course, there's no reason why a really bad movie can't have a pretty cool opening track, right? Now, on with the show: