Christmas Music Wrap-Up 2012

With the inescapable return of the holiday season, another eclectic batch of Christmas music releases is heaped upon us, for better or worse. Some of these Christmastime offerings may fill you with comfort and joy, while others could have you wishing for an early spring and pondering if this really is the most wonderful time of the year.

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Colbie Caillat: Christmas in the Sand  Colbie Caillat’s full-length holiday collection is everything you could want from a contemporary Christmas album. Christmas in the Sand is synchronously fresh, bubbly, and sentimental without sounding maudlin. Caillat has cleverly succeeded in crafting a delightful mix of old and new coastal California breeziness sure to warm the cockles of your heart throughout the entire Yuletide season. Christmas in the Sand is a surprisingly charming stocking stuffer and essential addition to any pop music fan’s Christmas music collection.

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Cee Lo Green: Cee Lo’s Magic Moment  – This soulful and funk-a-licious holiday romp will absolutely spice up your present and future Christmas playlists. Even an overwrought version of “Baby it’s Cold Outside” with Cee Lo’s overzealous diva and fellow The Voice judge Christina Aguilera can’t ruin this irresistible modern day classic. From the bouncy opener “What Christmas Means to Me” to the heartfelt rendering of “River,” Cee Lo’s Magic Moment sounds like the kind of Christmas album Elton John wishes he would’ve made before he turned into a cynical, acid-tongued, blowhard.

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Lady Antebellum: On This Winter’s Night – After dominating the airwaves and claiming the spot as country music’s best new trio, Lady Antebellum is teetering on the brink of overexposure with this unnecessary release of holiday standards. However, On This Winter’s Night sufficiently achieves its ultimate goal as a holiday gift surprise for Lady A fans, which simultaneously whets musical appetites for new music and further endears them to the country music masses.

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Richard Marx: Christmas Spirit – Although the idea of Richard Marx recording a Christmas album at this point in his career may at first seem pointless and a little desperate, surprisingly Marx delivers a lushly layered and gratifying effort. These 13 tracks cohesively make the perfect romantic holiday soundtrack for sipping warm cider by the fireplace with the one you love most.

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Scotty McCreery: Christmas with Scotty McCreery – This futile and obligatory exercise of holiday blandness falls flat. McCreery sounds emotionless as he mindlessly and effortlessly bleats out 11 dispassionate renditions of holiday ditties. Don’t bother unless you’re completely enamored with the 2011 American Idol winner or in need of a short winter’s nap.

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Blake Shelton: Cheers, It’s Christmas – Despite Shelton’s renewed enthusiasm from his run on The Voice, endearing duets with Reba, Kelly Clarkson, (and of course Miranda Lambert), aren’t quite enough to make this holiday album exceptionally good or bad. While there are some noteworthy highlights that are more than just typical holiday fare (“Santa’s Got A Choo Choo Train,” “Time for Me to Come Home,” and “The Very Best Time of Year”), ultimately, Cheers, it’s Christmas ends up sounding like little more than a mediocre country Christmas collection targeted specifically towards hardcore Shelton completists.

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John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John: This Christmas (Universal Music) – No, this isn’t a joke. Obviously a marketing department’s attempt to appeal to fans of Grease, this dismal holiday collection (grossly marred with auto tuned vocals by Travolta) is better suited as a gag gift than as a tree trimming soundtrack, despite guest appearances by James Taylor, Tony Bennett, and Barbra Streisand.  This embarrassingly bad addition to Newton-John’s catalog sounds like a Donny and Marie holiday album gone horribly wrong.

Very Special Christmas

A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years – Bringing Joy to the World – This series has continued to wane and become a bit of a disappointment since the first volume debuted in 1987 with notable performances by Sting, Madonna, Eurythmics, and U2. Unfortunately this latest mixed bag of various artist holiday filler is no exception, but at least a portion of the proceeds benefit Special Olympics. A few album highlights include tracks by Train, Michael Bublé, and Jason Mraz, but overall this collection is rife with non-essential holiday fodder that leaves you hoping Santa has something better loaded on his sleigh.

© 2012 ForASong Media, LLC

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Coldplay: ‘Live 2012’

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Coldplay’s Live 2012 (the band’s first concert film since 2003), is a visual and aural experience unlike anything attempted during the group’s previous treks around the world. Coldplay Live 2012 was filmed in Paris, Montreal, and Glastonbury and was directed by Paul Dugdale, fresh from recently lensing Adele’s Live at The Royal Albert Hall.

Coldplay Live 2012 documents the band’s current and massively successful Mylo Xyloto Tour, which is still in the midst of galloping across the globe. The tour, which is the band’s most dazzling spectacle yet, is meticulously captured here on this live DVD/CD/Blu-Ray and undeniably demonstrates Coldplay has matured into world class live performers. Raising the bar by leaps and bounds above their previous outings, Coldplay Live 2012 is destined to go down in music history as the moment when the band fully hit its stride.

Rich with larger-than-life performances (most notably “Yellow” and “Charlie Brown”) ranging from intimate theatres to gargantuan sold out stadiums, the tour film is a visual color-fest highlighting the band’s luminous paint-soaked stage and featuring throngs of passionate fans drenched in neon confetti and armed with computer controlled, multi-colored, LED wristbands. The film also incorporates black and white documentary style footage (divided equally between each group member), which profusely enhances the experience instead of merely being an inessential diversion. Coldplay’s Live 2012 succeeds in creating what U2 attempted to achieve with Rattle and Hum.

Although Coldplay will be on hiatus in 2013 before beginning work on their sixth studio album (tentatively scheduled for 2014), this 96-minute concert film (plus the two bonus performances “The Scientist” and “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart”), along with its accompanying live CD, is visually stunning and musically remarkable enough to keep your eyes and ears enthralled for unlimited repeat plays during the interim. Coldplay Live 2012 manages to forever capture the moment when Coldplay rises above mere greatness to become one of the world’s best live acts.

For those not fortunate enough to possess a ticket to the Mylo Xyloto Tour, this is the next best thing to being there for all of whom are willing to eagerly follow the band’s musical evolution. Coldplay Live 2012 may very well be considered paradise indeed.

© 2012 Popmartzoo

Tori Amos: ‘Gold Dust’

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Performing since age 13, singer-songwriter-pianist Tori Amos’ prolific recording career bleeds into four decades and includes 13 studio albums, 33 official bootlegs, 40 singles, 65 B-sides, 27 music videos, and a five-disc box set. All of which have served to carve out her own unique musical niche as one of music’s most original and influential sonic architects. On her latest endeavor Gold Dust, Amos again returns to the classical music realm with her follow-up to 2011’s song cycle, Night of Hunters.

Each track of this majestic, career spanning collection (from the cryptic “Cloud on My Tongue” to the soul-baring “Maybe California”) was chosen by Amos herself and has been reinterpreted and framed anew within a classical setting. Accompanied by the Metropole Orchestra (conducted by Jules Buckley with new string arrangements by long-time Amos collaborator John Philip Shenale), the inimitable songstress breathes new life into each song as she dusts off the cobwebs of some of her most treasured tunes. Attempting to meld the past with the present, more times than not, Amos successfully improves upon many of the original versions (“Flavor” and “Flying Dutchman”), while simultaneously maintaining their true essence.

Titled after the closing track of Scarlet’s Walk, Gold Dust commemorates the 20-year anniversary of her solo debut breakthrough Little Earthquakes, and collects material from Amos’ earliest hits (“Silent All These Years”) and newer pieces of work (“Star of Wonder”). Offering up musical morsels for Amos fans of every era, Gold Dustserves as a musical memory box as opposed to merely a best of compilation.

Produced by Amos, this lushly orchestrated set is at times equally compelling and dynamic, plus effectively demonstrates Amos’ acumen as a musician, vocalist, and tunesmith (a scarce commodity these days). The album also underscores the classical methodologies often hinted at in her previous works. Gold Dust doesn’t merely look into the past of Amos’ musical legacy; it also displays flickering glimpses of what lies ahead, while reminding us Tori Amos has been anything but silent all these years.

© 2012 ForASong Media, LLC

Carrie Underwood Blows Away Twang Town

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(Photo by: Eric Allen)

I was completely blown away (pun intended) by Carrie Underwood’s most recent appearance at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Not only was her Blown Away Tour amid the best country concerts I’ve ever seen, but the country music sweetheart’s extraordinary gig was without a doubt the best vocal performance this eager music enthusiast has ever had the pleasure of hearing in my many years of attending live shows.

The show began with a video displaying a house swept up and swirling into the air and concluding with a replica on stage, which provided a red doorway Underwood used to make her grand entrance. Dressed to the hilt in a sparkling, flowing blue and black gown (analogous to the one which adorns the diva’s most recent platinum album), Underwood emerged with a radiant smile as she waved to admiring fans and tore into her recent number one single “Good Girl.” The evening’s nearly 2-hour concert was jammed pack with greatest hits from the Grand Ole Opry member’s entire catalog, along with a healthy dose of tracks from her latest album, Blown Away, as well as a surprisingly rocking cover version of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.”

The set list was loaded with enough hits to satisfy casual fans and die-hards alike, which laudably demonstrated Underwood’s diversified catalog and growth as both an artist and songwriter. The multiple Grammy-winning vocalist’s musical arsenal tackled some hard hitting subject matter including: cheating, abuse, murder, and of course, love during the evening, all of which had the enthusiastic crowd singing along.

Halfway through the set, a portion of the stage was converted into a makeshift hot air balloon, which rotated as it hurled Underwood and her band mates through the air and over the crowd, giving everyone in the venue a bird’s eye view of the country superstar as she belted out several numbers. Underwood was later joined on stage by a surprise guest appearance from country crooner and resident comedian Brad Paisley for a version of the duo’s hit duet “Remind Me,” which caused Underwood to tear up with emotion.

Throughout the performance, various rural images (akin to Underwood’s own hometown of Checotah, Oklahoma) filled the stage’s multi-angled screens, augmenting each number with a three dimensional effect, yet never overshadowing the music or Underwood’s dominant, pitch-perfect vocals. The evening’s encore was a gut-wrenching performance of latest hit single and album title track “Blown Away” (complete with video footage of a house being destroyed by a twister as smoke and debris blew across the stage, a la a virtual tornado), after which Underwood exited into what looked like a storm shelter, then the sexy siren disappeared from view.

Way to go Carrie, as you undoubtedly made an unforgettable impact on a legion of lifetime fans (including this one) in Music City.

© 2012 Popmartzoo

Alanis Morissette: ‘Havoc and Bright Lights’

On Alanis Morissette’s first release since ending her 13-year tenure with Maverick Records, the singer-songwriter (and sometimes actress) teamed up with co-producers Guy Sigsworth and Joe Chiccarelli on Havoc and Bright Lights with winning results. Obviously, being freed from the restrictions of a long-term recording contract has propelled Morissette into a euphoric ataraxia, which comes through loud and clear throughout the 52-minute set.

The former queen of pain is now a devoted wife and mother, but that doesn’t stop Morissette from intermittently cranking up the fuzz of electric guitar when necessary, most notably on the crunchy and chaotic “Numb” and lead-off single “Guardian” (easily her most melodic tune in years). Morissette’s poetic discourse of intimately describing her feelings still abounds, but is elegantly emoted here with cool restraint. Her mezzo-soprano pipes and songwriting continue to improve with age, like an uncorked bottle of Bordeaux hidden away for a special occasion.

Unavoidably this, like all of Morissette’s work, will unfairly be compared to her epochal Jagged Little Pill, but Havoc and Bright Lights is just as intelligent and inspiring in its own way. Kudos should be given to Morissette for continuing to move forward instead of merely trying to duplicate musical ghosts from her past.

Bonus tracks:”Big Sur,” “Guru” (featuring Morissette’s husband and rapper SoulEye) “Tantra,” and “Permission” are worth seeking out.

© 2012 ForASong Media, LLC

Matchbox Twenty: ‘North’

After teasing anticipating fans with the mediocrity of lead-off single “She’s So Mean” (which confirmed trouble was afoot with the group’s latest effort), Matchbox Twenty’s first proper full-length since 2002, North, has finally landed. After waiting a decade to follow up the radio friendlyMore Than You Think You Are, we find ourselves wondering if this really is the best Rob Thomas and crew have to offer following a 10-year hiatus?

Regrettably, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. North is teeming with sub-par radio fodder (the Maroon 5 sound-alike “Put Your Hands Up”) and uninspired tunes full of lyrical clichés (“Sleeping At The Wheel” and “Radio”). The ballad “Overjoyed” and the acoustic “I Will” sound dissonantly like Matchbox Twenty has become trapped inside an endless loop of writing the same ballad repeatedly, ad nauseam. Thomas actually sums up the album best with his own words in the monotonous “Like Sugar,” when he sings: “This ain’t my finest hour.”

Still, North does manage to produce a few brief moments of promise (the brooding opener “Parade” and the picturesque “English Town”), but it mostly smacks of a desperate attempt at a comeback, blatantly rehashing trite lyrics and the bathetic emotionalism of Rob Thomas’ solo efforts. North seems destined to forever relegate Matchbox Twenty into the next generation of unremarkable dad rock.

© 2012 ForASong Media, LLC

Susanna Hoffs: ‘Someday’

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Susanna Hoffs: Someday

Susanna Hoffs may be best known as founding member of the all-female group The Bangles and wife of film director Jay Roach (famous for the Austin Powers films), but her latest self-released effort marks a long overdue return to her own pop music career with triumphant results. Someday is Hoffs’ third solo set and her first since 1996’s much ignored eponymous release. The honey-voiced songbird delivers a solid album with a feel-good vibe, which sounds authentic in its union of 1960s simplicity and 2012 sophistication (à la Dusty Springfield meets Adele).

The majority of Someday was co-written by Hoffs along with Nashville indie-artist Andrew Brassell, and helmed by veteran producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt). The 10-track song cycle is a sentimental, but compelling musical billet-doux to sixties-style melodies and emotive lyrics. The picturesque prose and folk-like sound of the infectious “November Sun” and the playful bounce of “One Day” instantly reel you away and find you yearning for simpler times.

Someday is the perfect soundtrack for a summertime rainy day that doesn’t overreach or become self-indulgent, but fulfills its goal of a delightfully enjoyable pop record. Here, Hoffs at long last mends her musical fences by making up for her promising but disjointed previous solo efforts (1991’s uneven When You’re A Boy and the forgettable banality of 1996’s Susanna Hoffs). This is easily and undeniably Hoffs’ most definitive musical statement to date.

© 2012 ForASong Media, LLC