Gift Tunes: Hoping to give albums for Christmas? We’ve got some advice.
The Jam, In the City
The Larksong Trio, "Homeward Bound"
A Very Scary Solstice
Paul McCartney, New
The Goldberg Variations
Who Is William Onyeabor?
We asked Monitor readers and writers to tell us about music that would make good holiday gifts for friends and family this year. Here’s what they told us:
Giving a copy of The Jam’s album In the City to a friend for Christmas is the perfect way to say, “I want to change your life through music.” And not just music – 12 songs of the most pulse-beating, leg-shaking, mind-blowing music you’ll ever listen to. I first heard In the City in high school, and any song that includes the lyric, “Don’t need permission for everything that you want,” is one to grab hold of and never let go. From “Art School” to “I Got By in Time,” and from “Non-Stop Dancing” to the title track, The Jam’s three band members pack a universe of life into 32 minutes. Listening to In the City for the first time is like finding an entire galaxy of sound in a phone booth.
In the City has only one song that’s more than four minutes long, and the focused, frenetic energy that Paul Weller (guitar and vocals), Bruce Foxton (bass) and Rick Buckler (drums) blast into space would make any Christmas morning unforgettable Their cover of the song, “Slow Down,” most famously covered by the Beatles, is perhaps the greatest single cover of an original work of art ever, excluding, of course, Charlton Heston’s retelling of the Bible. Give In the City to that person who is still in high school, went to high school, will one day go to high school or who has ears – you will be a hero, someone who changed a life with the gift of music.
Rich harmonies, stunning rhythm
I’ve always been drawn to a cappella music. I love harmonies and vocal blends. I have fond memories of many standing-room-only performances on college campuses around the Boston area.
A few years ago, NBC launched The Sing-Off, a vocal competition for a cappella groups. Now there’s a show I could get behind! Last year’s winners, Pentatonix, have taken the music world by storm. Several of their videos have made the rounds on Facebook and other social media sites, with the latest being their version of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
The quintet features four men and one woman, and their rich harmonies and stunning bass and rhythm (yes those are voices, not machines) will knock your socks off!
Their music is available via iTunes and other digital outlets, or you can order CDs from their website, ptxofficial.com. For ’80s fans I highly recommend their version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” from their time on The Sing-Off.
I also like their interpretation of “Carol of the Bells” on PTXmas, their 2012 holiday release. Their latest release PTX Vol. 2 features covers of “Can’t Hold Us” (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis), a tribute to Daft Punk and three original compositions.
For a sample of their talents, be sure to check out their 4-minute, 29-second, 36-song video “Evolution of Music” on YouTube. It’s an awesome trip through musical history starting in the 11th century and winding its way to the hits of 2013.
A newly released CD by the eminently local Canterbury Singers, Celestial Praises: A Celebration of Shaker Spirituals, would make a great gift.
The Canterbury Singers, directed by Kathryn Southworth, have recorded this collection of Shaker songs, hymns and rounds, accompanied by recorder, violins and piano, and features a 1908 Weaver reed organ. The Shakers loved music, and this CD embodies the qualities of Shaker joy, imagination and hope.
Featured soloists include Karol Carroll, Jim Miller, Susan and Annelise Papinsick, Ruth Smith, and Richard Cowing, with Steven Lundahl on the recorder. Our own Canterbury Shaker Village was the inspiration for the beautiful hymn “My Shaker Home,” attributed to Sister Lillian Phelps, who died in 1973.
This tribute to the Shaker heritage will bring you joy in this holiday season and is available at Gibson’s Bookstore and the Canterbury Shaker Village gift shop and from the producer, Roger Lee Hall at www.amer icanmusicpreservation.com/CelestialPraisesCD.htm. Or call Kathryn Southworth at 783-4632.
Here’s a plug for great local music that suits the holiday mood! Larksong Trio’s new recording Homeward Bound on Big Round Records, available at Gibson’s Bookstore locally and widely on the web, is a gem. The Larksong Trio infuses American, Irish and original folk tunes with warmth, extraordinary musicianship and an inviting instrumental twist. Peggo Horstmann Hodes, soprano; Calvin Herst, piano; and Jennifer Yeaton Parris are well known to local audiences and will now be widely heard in their rare blend of voice and flute supported by a great pianist. The songs range from Copeland to the Beatles and local composers Bill Fletcher and Richard Gardzina. The recording captures a spirited ensemble playing with grace and vitality. Highly recommended.
‘A Very Scary Solstice’
All right, I’ll admit, this will appeal to a small fraction of the reading audience, but that fraction will adore it.
Are you weary to nausea of the same old Christmas carols? Are you a horror fan, or more specifically, are you waiting with eager anticipation for Great Cthulhu to rise from the deep? Then I highly recommend the Solstice albums of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Start with A Very Scary Solstice, which includes such classics as “It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Fish-Men” and “The Carol of the Olde Ones.” Each song is fully orchestrated with professional performers. Styles range from classical to contemporary. The lyrics are very clever and scrupulously researched. Put this CD on at your next party and see how long it takes for your guests to notice it ain’t your usual chestnuts roasting. You can find this unusual and eldritch holiday gem lurking on the internet at www.cthulhulives.org.
The album I would recommend is Paul McCartney’s New for the simple reason that this man is still going strong after 50 years of writing some of our generation’s most memorable songs.
Why not Bach?
Here’s a pair of treats that any classical music fan will enjoy, one in print, the other in sound. First, the audio part. Pianist Jeremy Denk’s latest recording is a sharply original interpretation of that most familiar of classical standards: Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This work, a series of 30 variations on a lovely, simple melody, is well represented on recordings, and most listeners already have their favorite version. But Denk’s set makes this well-worn composition sound flexible and fresh – almost improvised in places. It does what only the greatest performances can do: make us hear the music as if for the first time.
While the Goldbergs reveal Bach at his most intimate and small-scale, John Eliot Gardiner’s new book focuses on the other extreme of the composer’s output: his numerous choral works.
In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner, a world-renowned conductor, gives us a rich blend of biography and analysis, and the result illuminates both the life and the music.
The reading is not always easy-going, as Gardiner assumes a fair amount of familiarity with the works under discussion (the cantatas, Mass in B Minor, and other large-scale religious pieces) and musical theory.
But, like Denk, Gardiner shows how much energy Bach’s masterpieces retain nearly 300 years after they were first heard.
‘Who is William Onyeabor?’
When was the last time you heard music that was truly original – like nothing else you’d ever encountered before? The songs of William Onyeabor deliver that thrill. And a new collection of his music from the 1970s and ’80s provides a strong dose of funky, mysterious and very weird sounds.
Onyeabor, a Nigerian singer and keyboardist who released a handful of albums in the late ’70s and early ’80s, abandoned the pop scene years ago to become a born-again Christian and businessman. But he’s remained a cult figure among fans of African music for decades and has long refused to permit reissues of his earlier recordings – until this year.
In Who is William Onyeabor?, a new compilation released on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, this decades-old music sounds like a time capsule from the future, delivered via Casiotone keyboard and drum machine.
The album’s title plays on Onyeabor’s willful obscurity, and the music itself is both odd and totally danceable at the same time – full of synthesizer-heavy melodies and looping rhythms.
This album will leave you wondering what other strange music you’ve been missing.
Try some Rachmaninoff
My recommendation for a great gift to anyone who might appreciate a moving musical experience is a recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor.
This composer’s music is more modern than the three B’s, and his most popular symphony envelopes the listener in wonderful heights and sorrowful lows, and ends with a statement of power and forward thinking that always leaves a big smile on my face. My brother’s girlfriend in college suggested he give it to me if I was anything like him (and I am). And she hit the nail on the head. Fifty years later, it still gives me goose bumps when I listen to it.
A ’60s girl group for the 21st century
Have you heard of a group called Lucius? I hadn’t, until the members were interviewed on public radio recently, and I rushed home to buy their album from iTunes. What a treat!
The album, Wildewoman, will make you think of the best of those ’60s girl groups, but somehow fresher and more exciting.
What makes Lucius so cool? Maybe the main thing is this: two lead singers for the price of one. Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig sing in unison or, sometimes, close tonal harmony.
And, boy, can they sing, as they show off in a variety of styles and arrangements: There’s some pop, some soul, some blues, some Phil Spector-ish big, loud sound – and lyrics that will stay with you beyond the holidays.