Merry Christmas!

I’m proud of the Christmas music collection I’ve curated over the years – dozens of albums covering all the classics and spanning every conceivable genre. But there are a few songs in the collection, my “alternative classics”, that I need to hear for the season to really be complete. Hope you enjoy them. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

At the top of the list is “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” by James Brown. The song is from the Funky Christmas album, an incredible set all around from the Godfather of Soul, full of great grooves and great lyrics.

The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” is a bouncy piece of fun that hooks you, ’cause you just have to hear how the story ends.

The special harmonies of the Beach Boys make for creative takes on Christmas classics. But if you live in a cold winter climate, like I do, and wonder how Christmas feels when palm trees are outside you window, “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys is what I imagine.

And finally, the most bizarre Christmas song every recorded, “Christmas at K-Mart” by the late Root Boy Slim. K-mart sued to keep this song off the radio for many years, though it’s 7-11 that really takes it on the chin in the lyrics. And if this is your first exposure to Root Boy, do root around on YouTube to hear his madness and political commentary, 70’s style, with tremendous backing musicians.

Tainted Love

A friend and reader turned me on to a great musical arc that is right in Music Now & Then’s wheelhouse. Thanks, David!

In 1964, Motown singer Gloria Jones recorded “Tainted Love”. The song was a B-side and didn’t get much attention (nor did the A-side), but in the early 1970’s it started to turn up in British “Northern Soul” dance clubs.

Marc Almond, half of the synthpop duo Soft Cell, heard the song in such a club and made it part of Soft Cell’s live sets after the group formed in 1977. When Soft Cell released the song as a single in 1981, it catapulted the band to fame. It was a No. 1 hit in 17 countries (No. 8 in the U.S.), and spent a then record 43 weeks in the top 100.

The song was later covered by an unlikely collection of musical acts ranging from Marilyn Manson to Pussycat Dolls. Check out this article for a sampling. The Soft Cell version was also the driving sample for Rihanna’s first #1 single in the U.S., “SOS”, released in 2006. Believe it or not, this video has been viewed 115 million times.

If you have another five minutes, hear the story of “Tainted Love” as told by Gloria Jones herself, and learn about her relationship with one of last week’s 2020 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees.

The Old Guard Still Bringin’ It

They say that Rock is dead, but don’t tell that to the bands that have been in the game for decades and are still delivering new music.

At it for thirty years, with three of four original band members on board, Smashing Pumpkins will release their eleventh studio album, Cyr, on Black Friday. The thick guitars of their earliest hits like “Cherub Rock” have been replaced by synths, but Billy Corgan’s voice is as distinctive as ever. Here’s the music video from the album’s title track.

Foo Fighters formed in 1995, after the release of the album Foo Fighters on which Dave Grohl played every instrument on every track, save guitar on one song. Grohl has been a standard bearer for guitar rock, from the first track of that first album “This is a Call”, to “Shame” performed for the first time on Saturday Night Live last night.

Though founding member Malcolm Young passed away in 2017, brother Angus, long-time lead singer Brian Johnson, and original drummer Phil Ruud, will release Power Up this week, with tracks that sound like they were made in their early days. Here is “Shot in The Dark”, the first song released form the new album.

Top of the heap of artists who still bring the rock and roll is “The Boss”, Bruce Springsteen. Letter to You was released on October 23rd and it made Bruce the first artist to have a top 5 album in 6 consecutive decades. The title track has gotten a lot of airplay in the past few weeks, but here is the second video released from the album, “Ghosts”, that is vintage E-Street Band. You know you want to see this live!

Joni Mitchell’s Archives

My last post was about Elton John’s Jewel Box collection due out in two weeks, but this past Friday Joni Mitchell beat him to the market with a 5-disk box set of her own. Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) features her very earliest recordings and wraps up before the release of her first album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull.

Rolling Stone has a nice article on the box set that links to an August 1965 recording of Joni’s first original composition, “Day After Day”. Joni had been singing folk songs in cafes in her native Calgary, and this song, her vocals and guitar playing sound very much born out of that background.

Less than two years later, in March 1967, Joni recorded this performance of “Both Sides Now”. It was not long after Mitchell had written the song and about the same time Judy Collins released her Grammy Award winning version. Witness Mitchell’s rapid evolution as a writer, lyricist, singer, and musician with a unique style as you compare this performance to “Day After Day”.

Apologies to Joni for bringing up Elton John twice in her post, but since announcing his Jewel Box collection, Sir Elton put out a really special recording not included in that set. “Come Down in Time” from Tumbleweed Connection, an album celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is a personal favorite. This jazz version apparently was recorded before the album version, and it features an extended jazz improvisation.

Vibes Master Gary Burton Calls It A Career

A few weeks ago jazz vibes player Gary Burton announced he was staging the final tour of his 50-plus-year career, and this past Friday he played his last show at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis.  Not many artists have devoted themselves to this unusual instrument, and I wonder if anyone will ever again play it with Burton’s virtuosity.

According to a feature by NPR, the first use of the instrument in a jazz recording was by Lionel Hampton in 1930 on “Memories of You” by Louis Armstrong.  Legend has it that shortly before this recording, jazz drummer Hampton had come across the instrument at NBC studios, where it was sometimes used to play the network’s distinctive 3-tone identifier chime.

Thirty years after Hampton introduced the instrument, a 17-year-old Burton began his career recording with guitar virtuoso Hank Garland.  Here’s a track from that era with Burton right up front.  The drummer on this track is Joe Morello, Dave Brubeck’s longtime collaborator.

Here are some pure shots of Burton from 1966 and 2010.  Jaw dropping.

And here’s a duet with frequent collaborator Makoto Ozone from 1995. Burton chose Ozone to accompany him on his farewell tour. And if you haven’t had enough, here’s a link to a post from a couple of years ago featuring Burton and  another frequent collaborator, Chick Corea.