Ahhhhhhhhhhhh! It’s finally, FINALLY December! You hear Christmas carols wherever you go, the streets are more decorated than Boy George’s outfits, and the Christmas markets are getting underway. But are you one of those people who doesn’t like Christmas? Don’t worry, I’m not crazy about it either, and if I could, I would escape to some tropical beach far away from family celebrations. Since I can’t, I’ll settle for a new column for all of you, because you deserve it, even though I don’t know you, really. Let’s start by trawling the music news. The challenge this month lies in choosing between so many releases proposed by the record companies, using a single useful filter: what to buy for Christmas presents. So let’s get organised and take it section by section (although you’ll see there are albums that would fit into several at the same time).
1. Jingle Bells Section
Here we aren’t going to talk about opportunists who jump on the bandwagon and put out a single, miserable song to celebrate the holidays. There are a few people trying to take advantage like that every year (this time, we’ve run into Coldplay, The Killers, Hurts and Kylie), so the fair thing to do is to talk about the people who really work on it and dedicate an entire album to the Christmas theme. Annie Lennox, for example, who was born on Christmas day in 1954. Taking advantage of this, the former Eurythmics figure wants to sell us her return to the recording market with “A Christmas Cornucopia”. What a pretty word “cornucopia” is (it means “horn of abundance,” for those who don’t know Latin), and is very seldom used. The press release assures us that Annie has been singing Christmas carols since she was six years old (how precocious), the tender age at which she was already singing in the church choir in her native Aberdeen. It also says in the same press release that she had been thinking of doing this album for years, but knowing how the record industry is, we’re inclined to only partly believe that. I bet that the people at Decca-Universal, who in previous years have “delighted” us with Christmas albums from Andrea Bocelli and Sting (which sold like hotcakes, especially the first one, especially in the United States), coincidentally took an interest in Annie when they heard about this project of hers. The thing is that Lennox found herself without a record company and has taken advantage of the dry spell to record these Christmas classics. The volume includes “Universal Child”, which has nothing to do with the name of her new record company (it is a song created for one of her charity projects), and it’s a good option to buy for parents, particularly if you can’t stand Susan Boyle, who is counterattacking these days, and we hope that she will be quieter after the craziness of her worldwide media success.
Others who have launched an album of Christmas carols include Pink Martini: theirs is titled “Joy to the World”, and it contains the usual (this combo from Portland doesn’t change, it seems): pleasant lounge versions sung in various languages (this time they dare to sing in eight languages in total), an eclectic repertoire, and all applied, of course, to Christmas songs: “Silent Night”, “Little Drummer Boy” and “White Christmas” but also oddities in Japanese with the collaboration of Japanese superstar Saori Yuki (that way you also make sure of that market, don’t you, you naughty crew?). Others who are taking the safe route are “Glee”: in November, they put out their “Christmas Album”, in advance of the Christmas episode that they’re finishing and which will soon air. I’m one of those people who think that “Glee” is really looking good with its latest, fantastic round of special episodes (I admit that the Rocky Horror episode was maybe a little only for fans) and its plot line about bullying, which includes the story about Kurt and Blaine’s appearance in the episode with the first kisses. By the way, the cover of “Teenage Dream” by the choir of the posh school has been a real hit on digital sales charts, and it is clearly a love song sung by one boy to another. But it isn’t only “Glee”, there’s more: the stellar, triumphant appearance of Gwyneth Paltrow, who was thrilled (ha!) that she fits into the role of the substitute for Shue, and who does a perfectly good job both singing and speaking in Spanish. Her version of “Forget You” by Cee Lo will remain a highlight. Returning to the album of Christmas carols, there aren’t many surprises: it includes the usual hits and even “Last Christmas”, which has already become a classic, and along the way, k.d. lang appears as a guest star. Everything else is just to sell, and sell like a machine: iTunes has already registered 15 million songs downloaded.
2. Diva Section
Christmas is the time of year for albums of standards and different styles of classics. Many divas know this, and their record companies also know that they can be a gold mine, and this is why they concentrate all of the releases in the last quarter of the year, to increase their chances of getting lucky. One of these sharp divas is Liza Minnelli, of whom little has been heard since the series “Arrested Development” was cancelled: lately she had only been heard or seen in “Sex and the City 2” and on the covers of “Single Ladies” (Beyoncé) and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”, the Cole Porter classic. Her new album—the first studio album in 15 years!—follows the course of the Porter cover. According to her, during her recovery from a knee operation, she kept singing, at home, accompanied only by her pianist, Billy Stritch. And from this came the release of “Confessions”, which includes 14 warm standards: just Liza and the piano, accompanied by a small band on some songs. It must be said that she still sings well, although her voice falters at times, and when she exaggerates the vibratos, it makes you want to tell her not to bother, that she doesn’t need to. My favourite is her version of the jazz vocal classic “You Fascinate Me So” .People were betting on her as a favourite for a Grammy, but in the end the poor thing wasn’t nominated at all. To make matters worse, it seems that she is more gaga than Lady Gaga herself. If you don’t agree, read the memorable (and controversial) interview with her in the November issue of The Advocate: she doesn’t recognise a special attraction for the gay public and she constantly dodged the issue. Liza either doesn’t get it, or she doesn’t want to get it. In the interview, they went straight for the jugular with the comment that of course she would have a lot of gay fans, since her father and her first husband were both gay. Cue, more dodging. Whatever, that’s how Liza is: she hasn’t got a clue, while other divas are very aware of what’s going on, like Madonna, who made it very clear on Ellen’s program (“I wouldn’t have a career without the gay community”) or Cher, who in the middle of the promotion of “Burlesque” came out with something like “gay men either adore you, or they don’t even notice you’re alive. If they adore you, they will stick with you through thick and thin, even when you aren’t popular anymore. I think that they recognise kindred spirits who don’t really fit into society. And of course, the sequins also help.” Score one point for Cher, showing that all that plastic surgery hasn’t affected her mind. So let’s see if you take a page from her notebook, Liza.
3. Duet Section
A common play among artists is to release an album of duets. This year, two stand out: the first, from Norah Jones, called “...Featuring;” in a display of modesty, it is she who appears as the guest of the others. In reality, Jones is releasing a compilation of her collaborations in recent years with figures such as Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Foo Fighters, or Outkast. There’s a little of everything; if you like Norah, you’ll love it. Her ballad with Belle & Sebastian, “Little Lou, Prophet Jack, Ugly John” is curious. The second album is from Ronan Keating, former member of Boyzone, who seems to be more successful in Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else—he has even been on the panel of the Australian “X Factor”. As a result of this, and in order to capitalise on his popularity, he has released an unusual album of duets called (check it out) “Duet”. There are many local stars (for example, “Believe Again”, the first single—which on top of that is a cover of last year’s Danish Eurovision song!—is sung with a woman called Paulini, a contestant from “Australian Idol”), although there is also the other random international presence: we have Lulu, Elton John, Cat Stevens and LeAnn Rimes.
4. French Variété Section
For those of us who like to be sung to in French, the season brings us some new pleasures. The return of Etienne Daho is the first, back with the first album on his own label, Radical Pop Music, a record company that, as the name indicates, comes with the intention of putting out projects that are at least curious. The album consists of “ Le Condamné À Mort”, a song based on a long poem by Jean Genet (it was his first work, in fact), which tells the story of Maurice Pilorgue, a young, 25-year-old murderer imprisoned and guillotined in 1939, whose story fascinated the writer. Daho sings and Jeanne Moreau, no less , recites this erotic-dramatic manifesto put to music by Hélène Martin in the 60s. Of course, there is a luxury edition with a booklet including the original poem. With less culture and more entertainment, Mylène Farmer is also back. I know of someone ( Kate Ryan) who’ll be happy: more songs to cover moronically. But the tacky Belgian isn’t the only one who is happy about Mylène’s return. The French diva par excellence is presenting her eighth album, “ Bleu Noir”, more electropop in its form, and this time with stellar collaborations in the composition: Red One (producer of Lady Gaga’s hits, who writes the catchy single “Oui Mais... Non”), her friend Moby, and Archive. In the video of the single, the nearly fifty-something Mylène displays her usual eccentricity, with a bizarre, hypersexual choreography and dance troupe. It might be that this already seems old after Gaga has made it into something habitual in show-business... What can we do?
To finish up this mini-section for fans of francophonie, another important alert: we finally have something new from Nouvelle Vague. Marc Collin’s project, as you well know, focuses on reinterpreting new wave and similar songs from the period in acoustic or bossa nova tones, and almost always sung by whispering female voices. They have changed labels and this time, for their fourth album, “Couleurs sur Paris,” they have focused on songs from the French new wave: classics like “Marcia Baila” (Les Rita Mitsouko), “Amoureux Solitaires” (Lio) or “Weekend À Rome” (Etienne Daho, a song that Saint Etienne later transformed into “He’s on the Phone”) transformed also thanks to the help of French luminaries like Vanessa Paradis, Camille, Coralie Clement and Yelle herself. There is even “Mala Vida” (Mano Negra) sung by Olivia Ruiz. Don’t miss the webisodes with the making of the album: a real review of the history of French pop. Collin is a smart guy and knows what he is doing, and once again he plays with songs known outside of France, making it easier for him to succeed around the world with his approaching tours.
5. Greatest Hits Section
The mix thing has always been a classic for the Christmas season on the shelves of record stores. This year, of course, is no exception. Pet Shop Boys, for example, are doing it again, and “Ultimate” is the third greatest hits album to appear in their discography. Besides, it isn’t at all generous: there is only one new song, “Together”, and it’s nothing to write home about, even though it gains something with its nice promo video in the style of “Fama Revolution”. In fact, we fans are almost struck more by the bonus tracks of the single: the Football song “Glad All Over”, which is a version of an old Dave Clark Five song made into Blackpool’s hymn when it went up to the Premier League (Chris Lowe is a fan of that team, don’t you forget) and “I Cried for Us”, a version of a song by Kate McGarrigle, Rufus Wainwright’s deceased mother. The deluxe version of “Ultimate” does have plenty more meat to it, though: it includes this year’s Glastonbury concert and performances on Top Of The Pops… from 1985! Collectors already know what they have to do: spend.
P!nk also thinks, who knows why, that the time has come to put all of her hits together. And so “Greatest Hits… So Far” is reaching the shelves, including two new songs to cover for it, “Raise Your Glass” and “F***in’ Perfect”. Both new songs are in her usual line: fake pink punk.
Continuing to stroll among greatest hits: Dead Or Alive are putting out their umpteenth re-release ( “That’s the Way I Like It: The Best of Dead or Alive”), Suede has a “Best Of”, Bette Midler is doing a compilation of previous compilations… It’s hard to find something really new, but there is something. We find it in The Art Of Noise, who are putting out “Influence: The A Side Singles, Hits, Soundtracks and Collaborations”, a box that recovers all of their singles –of course, there is “Moments In Love”– but also all sorts of oddities. And if we’re going to dig around in old things, we’ll end this section with David Sylvian, who is compiling in “Sleepwalker” his songs of the century, both in projects of his like Nine Horses, and in well-known collaborations with people like Ryuichi Sakamoto, plus a new song in collaboration with Dani Fujikura, “Five Lines”, which finds him as intriguing as always.
6. Tribute Section And we’ll wrap up with tributes, always so irregular, but which once in a while offer us a few pearls. This is the case of “We Were So Turned on: A Tribute to David Bowie”, a double benefit album for War Child. More excessive than other albums (42 songs in total), it contains a little of everything and has many names that are unknown even for people more in the know: there are reappearances, like that of Duran Duran –who are preparing a new album– with “Boys Keep Swinging”, plus French divas who could have come into the previous section but who look better here (there is Keren Ann with “Life On Mars?” and the first lady Carla Bruni whispering “Absolute Beginners”), the near-debut of Jessica 6 (the project of Nomi, ex-Hercules and Love Affair), and the most curious piece: “Sound + Vision”, by Megapuss with Devendra Banhart, and added embroidery...in Spanish! And there are even more strange tributes, such as that made to Inxs and “Original Sin”, halfway between an album by the band and homage, it is full of hits reinterpreted by members of the band, and surprising guest stars like Tricky, Nikka Costa, and Ben Harper in a duo with Mylène Farmer, with a new Anglo-French version of “Never Tear Us Apart”. Ooph. Have we come to the end? Which ones have you picked? The ideal thing would be to make a cocktail of all of them and we would have a good overview of what’s cooking for these loveable holidays. But I’m going to confess something: more than buying compilations, what I really want is to get through the Christmas season and delight you, if you feel like it, with my first column of 2011, and to be able to talk about new things, as everything is really slow right now. But for the next month, there’s nothing to do. Like they say, good things come to those who wait. Happy New Year!