WE’LL GIVE HIM GOLD AND FRANKINCENSE. BUT WAIT…THERE’S MYRRH! (PART ONE)
A SPILL MAGAZINE BREAKDOWN OF SOME OF THE TOP 2020 CHRISTMAS RELEASES
Perhaps it is a sign that we need more light and more hope in our lives, but Spill Magazine received an extraordinary amount of Christmas and Holiday music to review this year. It was difficult to cull through. There were lots of compilation albums and many singles, loads of cover songs, and some awesome originals. Hopefully, our hot takes on these tunes might help to guide your holiday listening and gift-buying. Happy Holidays! ~Bryan Williston
A Christmas Cornucopia
November 20, 2020
Marking the 10th anniversary of this album’s release, Island Records has re-issued this stunning album of mostly traditional Christmas music, by one of the true icons of rock and pop. With creative and tasteful instrumentation and production, this collection is incredibly varied, within the canon of traditional carols.
A Christmas Cornucopia also contains one Lennox-penned song, “Universal Child”, and this rerelease also includes her rendition of Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”. Amid the variations in style and creative presentation, Annie Lennox’s amazing voice is the star of this show. From the simple intro and slow, steady build of “See Amid The Winter’s Snow”, to the soaring layered counter-melodies and harmonies of “The First Noël”, and the nod to indigenous and African sounds of “As Joseph Was A-Walking”, this collection takes the listener on a wonderful holiday journey. It is a must for your holiday album collection.
A Very Trainor Christmas
October 30, 2020
As a pop star and writer of commercial music, Meghan Trainor’s success cannot be denied. Still, listening to this album brings to mind the old phrase: some albums are released, while others manage to escape. Fans of Trainor will probably love this music, but the album does little to imbue warm feelings of holiday spirit. A Very Trainor Christmas does have a few high points in the form of guest artists such as Earth, Wind & Fire (“Holidays”) and Seth MacFarlane (featured on a tight arrangement of “White Christmas”), but these moments are fleeting. Trainor’s version of “Winter Wonderland” is saved somewhat by the charming rootsy presence of ukulele, giving hints of what might have been. While she is a talented person, it would be refreshing to hear Meghan Trainor’s authentic voice, rather than one stylized for commercial consumption.
The Ultimate Christmas Collection
Universal Music Canada
November 20, 2020
What comes to mind when you think of the music of Anne Murray? Chances are, you answered “pleasant, melodic, tasteful, safe”, or some other such descriptors on either end of the politeness scale. Whatever your view of the icon and her music, you get it in spades on this best of Christmas compilation from Canada’s snowbird. Murray is nothing if not dependable with this offering – a mixture of traditional carols and modern classics. There are not a whole lot of surprises here, but the arrangements are beautiful, and the playlist provides a taste of trad jazz, a few gospel turns, and a spirited Irish romp. Notably included in this collection is the wonderful “This Season Will Never Grow Old”, by the late, great Rita MacNeil (good call!). There are plenty of lovely moments on this album, all pulled off in the effortless Anne Murray style. Enjoy.
Rock By The Sea Christmas 2020 (Volume Eleven)
Rock By The Sea
November 16, 2020
Imagine a world where you can groove to your favourite holiday songs, and help children in need at the same time. Well, that world is here and the time is now, with Rock By The Sea Christmas 2020 (Volume Eleven). This compilation album in support of pediatric cancers (featuring various artists playing traditional songs and originals) contains more great moments than we can mention here. Styles range from instrumental guitar and piano pieces, Americana, punk-pop, big band electronica, and straight-on rock. There is just so damn much variety, it’s like putting your player on ‘holiday shuffle’ mode. Despite the genre-diversity, the high-quality sound on this album is consistent throughout (kudos to the recording and mastering engineers!). Trust me and go buy this.
Home For The Holidays
Arts & Crafts
November 27, 2020
Home For The Holidays is another compilation of winter favourites and originals, this time by a variety of Canadian artists. I was really looking forward to this, because of the many great artists who contributed tunes. Honestly though, it’s a pretty introspective and melancholy collection. Of course, Christmas is not a happy time for all, but that downer theme permeates the overall vibe of this album. There are high points, including the sardonic humour of Charles Spearin’s “The Christmas Box”, the energetic holiday power pop of Zeus’ “Marching Through Your Head (Christmas Edition)”, and the honest warmth of Sloan’s “Kids Come Back Again At Christmas”. Still, despite the few bright spots, the listener is left feeling a little sad. That’s just one person’s opinion. Listen and decide.
Christmas Songs Of True North
December 4, 2020
Trust True North to gift us with a truly awesome and diverse collection, from their extensive roster of artists. This album kicks off nicely with Bruce Cockburn’s rollicking, rootsy “Early On One Christmas Morn”, and just keeps getting better. There are so many great artists and songs here, from established acts as well as some relative newcomers. Uplifting and positive holiday spirit is the order of the day, featuring the likes of Jimmy Rankin, Lunch At Allen’s, and Craig Cardiff (to name a few). No matter the artist or genre, this album hangs together well. My only complaint would be that, with the exception of the cute young folk of the MacMaster Leahy Family, and Beverly Mahood’s cool turn with Randy Bachman on “Takin’ Care Of Christmas”, there is a definite lack of female voices on this release. Next Christmas, True North!
The Hello Darlins
Heart In The Snow
November 6, 2020
Although it is simply a four-song EP, Heart In The Snow, by Calgary-based folk/roots outfit The Hello Darlins, sounds like much more. The band notes that this project “came together spontaneously this past summer as a response to the constant negative news surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. For at least a few days while recording these songs, The Hello Darlins could imagine they were with those nearest and dearest to them.” That sentiment really comes through on record, whether in their version of the classic “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, or on self-penned songs such as the title track “Heart In The Snow”. The clean and pristine instrumentation, coupled with the pure voice of vocalist/co-founder Candace Lacina, makes this collection worth listening to again and again.
Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets
December 4, 2020
Let me begin by professing my undying love for the artistry and production skills of the redoubtable Nick Lowe. In spite of that, this two-song mini-EP is merely pretty good: a safe and dependable sound from elder statesman Lowe, with masked American surf rockers Los Straitjackets. Here they offer spirited renditions of two holiday standards, “Winter Wonderland”, and “Let It Snow”. “Winter Wonderland” bounces along in near-ska fashion, with the band playing tightly, and featuring some shiny vintage rock ‘n’ roll guitar work. Lowe and the ‘jackets seem to have a bit more fun with the Cahn/Styne classic, “Let It Snow”, with the Brit taking cheeky liberties with the lyrics, in his inimitable fashion. Is it essential listening? Perhaps not, but it is light and fun. Not quite Quality Street, but certainly up that alley.
2020 Christmas Singles
“Back Door Santa”
The Black Crowes
November 23, 2020
The Black Crowes resurface this holiday with their take on this a 1968 Clarence Carter song. The Crowes’ single, a 2005 re-issue, emulates the funky Muscle Shoals sound of the original. While it is not markedly different, the band is tight and the performances are spot on, leaving fans hankering for more. Forget the turkey this Christmas – serve ’em Black Crowes with all the trimmings.
“Run, Rudolph, Run”
December 15, 2020
It’s nice to have the chance to write about some actual rock ‘n’ roll in this space. In the piles of middle of the road holiday pop, it is refreshing to hear music with a simple and clear motive: to rock everyone’s faces off. The Foos really give ’er for this live take on Chuck Berry’s seasonal favourite. There is no shortage of power in a three-guitarist rock band, and this performance is supercharged. The guitar solo honours Berry’s original, and also gives it a few edgy 21st century turns. The entire band is on point. The rhythm section is strong, and as a vocalist, Dave Grohl is at the top of his game. While “Run, Rudolph, Run” is not a huge departure from the original, this tune is worth a few spins.
“Christmas Will Really Be Christmas”
November 18, 2020
“The time will soon be coming/When Christmas will really be Christmas/And the whole world will smile again.”
So sang Lou Rawls in 1967, and so sings Eric Burton of Black Pumas in 2020. In a year that brought us all manner of unrest, the strong message of “Christmas Will Really Be Christmas” makes it the ideal song for 2020. With a lush and intensely beautiful arrangement, and an amazingly soulful performance, Black Pumas drive home this simple wish for peace. Although times are tough, this song of hope and promise is the beacon that people need.
“One Wish For Christmas”
November 13, 2020
In what could simply be perceived as a tourism jingle for London at Christmas, 1980s pop star LIMAHL gives us “One Wish For Christmas”. This song is deeper than some of its lyrics might suggest. In fact, it is an updated version of a song he released in 2012, this time with the global pandemic in mind. Lush, urbane and smooth, and with performances and production values that harken the listener back to stylish ’80s synth-pop, LIMAHL delivers us a Christmas gem. “December is that time of year,” he sings, “When memories become souvenirs. One wish for Christmas with you.” At a time when holiday activities have had to be curtailed, this song is a much-needed tonic.
“Merry Christmas, Darling”
November 12, 2020
Lennon Stella has released a simple and fairly stripped-down version of this holiday staple, originally recorded by The Carpenters. With an arrangement that consists of voice and electric piano with synth embellishments and layered vocals, Stella’s voice is up front in the mix, but I feel as though she could be more assertive. Simple dynamics are at play here as the music’s intensity swells, but then all instruments drop out, save for voice and keyboard. While it is interesting to hear a different version of this song, it’s hard to improve upon the original.
November 12, 2020
This holiday homecoming song from one of Canada’s great rock bands is all about giving thanks for being together with friends. With the emphasis on celebrating fun and friendship, this song–sort of a Springsteen-meets-Meat Loaf-meets-musical theatre track–is both cool and interesting. The melody takes some nice turns, the vocals soar, and the guitar solo is glorious. Listen for the slowed-down boozy call-and-response in the final verse. If you must hear a new and original holiday song, let this be the one.
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”
Crush Music/Thirty Tigers
November 27, 2020
Bold move, Alanis. I really wanted to like this cover of the John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band 1970 classic, but the original cannot be touched. Popular music seems like the only creative realm where artists take liberty to create their versions of other artists’ work. The whole concept is really quite bizarre, when you think about it. It begs the question ‘why?’. While this version of the song is a technically better recording, it contains none of the soul or conviction of the original. If Alanis has an idea to revolutionize, to change the world for the better, we’d love to hear it. Anything else is just imitation.
“Lonely Star (Christmas Song)”
December 1, 2020
“Lonely Star (Christmas Song)” is a bright holiday light from this band of queer feminist punk witches out of the UK. Production on this single is ragged but clean, and the arrangement is bombastic in much the same way that early Green Day were. The music in the verses is musically reminiscent of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, but this gives way to driving punk power and changes in the pre-chorus and chorus. Melodic and clash-y, the energy is high and the sentiment is sincere and inclusive. “Find a lonely star tonight and tell them ‘WE SEE YOU!’” Lovely.