Song: Fairytale of New York
Artist: Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl, England
Notes: Bittersweet genius and never a hit in the US - a sweeping, timeless melody, uplifting feel-good chorus, terrific orchestral arrangement, a beautiful Celtic backdrop and achingly authentic vocal stylings. Rather than blandly celebrating just the joy of the season like another trite Hallmark card, this Christmas classic neatly documents the reality of life, its ups and downs, new love and old pain, giving and receiving - all wrapped up in a snow-covered mini movie of seasonal magic (and check out the video on YouTube a little black and white film featuring the band with Kirsty and an intriguing cameo by actor Matt Dillon playing a cop). A sad side note however: this recording is made all the more poignant by the untimely passing of Kirsty MacColl who died in a freak boating accident in 2000 while saving the life of her son, Jamie - she was just 41 and is still hugely missed by the music community.
Song: Wishes Come True
Artist: Amy Stroup, Nashville, TN
Notes: This track is only available through http://noisetrade.com/amystroup/christmas-forever on a five-track seasonal treat. Boston born, Abilene TX-raised but long based in Nashville, she's one of the most underrated singer-songwriter, musicians of her generation. A frequent collaborator with another Nashville tunesmith, Trent Dabbs, they occasionally pair as Sugar & The Hi Lows and played a Christmas gig in Music City last week. Her outstanding 'Tunnel' album released earlier this year will be featured on L&F's Best of 2014 show coming up soon. More at amystroup.com.
Artist: Andrew Belle, Nashville, TN
Notes: This A+ interpretation of the 1944 classic first performed by Judy Garland in 'Meet Me In St. Louis' somehow manages to make the normally happy standard sound pleasingly morose - an unknown treatment by another L&F alumnus. Completely reconstructed, he changed the chords and some of the signature melody and cooked up such a humble, thoughtful, winning treatment. The Wheaton, IL native, real name Drew Forston, is yet another non-country musician drawn to Nashville where he's lived for five years - his freshman album from 2010, 'The Ladder' is a must-have effort. He'll be on the road in February and March supporting Joshua Radin. Details at andrewbelle.com.
Artist: Chris Rea, England
Notes: Described by its composer as 'a car version of a carol', the singer-songwriter from the north-east of England wrote this song in his wife's old Austin Mini while sitting in a traffic jam on a freeway heading out of London to his home in Middlesbrough - just trying to get home for Christmas. Although he's not released anything new since 2011, he still hits the road every now and then, and in fact is just wrapping up a major European arena tour. Virtually none of his sterling catalog is available in the US.
Song: Stay The Holiday
Artist: Rebecca Roubion, Mobile, AL
Album: Christmas Lights, 2014
Notes: One of the standout cuts on her recently issued seasonal album which is one of the year's finest new yuletide collections, a deft mix of newly-arranged standards and fresh seasonal newbies. Alabama born, Nashville based, Roubion studied public relations at Louisiana State University, and has been focusing on her music career since 2012. Influenced by the music of Carole King and Eva Cassidy, she's a gifted pianist and singer-songwriter who released a couple of EPs in 2012/2013, funded by a 164% crowdsourcing effort. She says of her song craft: 'Every composition is a child, born of (my) oversized heart and raised by (my) hands and voice with nothing but the best of intentions.' More at rebeccaroubion.com.
Song: A New York Christmas
Artist: Rob Thomas, Germany
Notes: The trademark vocal style of Matchbox 20 frontman never disappoints, particularly on this his first ever solo single, recorded some four years before his debut solo album emerged. How it failed to chart anywhere remains a mystery, but it remains a choice cut in the L&F vault. Rob and his wife Marisol set up a superb charitable foundation in 2003 called Sidewalk Angels dedicated to providing funds and support to grassroots groups across the country with a noble focus as supporters and sponsors of a number of no-kill animal shelters and animal rescues. If giving rather than receiving is your thing, check out their website and consider a donation: www.sidewalkangelsfoundation.org. If you want to see him live next month and live in the New Jersey area, he's playing three dates in Atlantic City. Details at robthomasmusic.com.
Artist: Rachael Yamagata, Arlington, VA
Notes: A winsome, warm-hearted romantic proposition from the thirty-something Arlington, Virginia singer-songwriter. She has matured through each of her three long-players - her last outing, 'Chesapeake', is essential listening. No new material since then, but she's 2% shy of funds to record her latest record. Details at rachaelyamagata.com. She'll also been on the road supporting Joshua Radin in February and March, although on different dates from Andrew Belle.
Song: Human Spirit
Artist: Amy MacDonald, Scotland
Notes: Although not written as a Christmas tune - in fact the song was inspired by the Copiap' mining accident in Chile in 2010, when 33 miners were rescued after 69 days underground - its sentiments couldn't be more appropriate for the season. 'All the while we're still thinking about ourselves, worrying 'bout money and stressing about wealth, but there much more, much more to live for, Human spirit is alive and well'. The track was hidden away on one of the most overlooked albums of 2012. More at amymacdonald.co.uk.
Artist: Paul Simon, Newark, NJ
Album: So Beautiful Or What, 2011
Notes: With a spoken vocal sample thrown in from a 1941 sermon by the Reverend J. M. Gates, the now 73-year-old Paul Frederic Simon with a fascinating contemporary groove. He's the only writer, other than Randy Newman perhaps, capable of writing a Christmas song which makes mention of both Iraq and Pakistan. The accolades keep piling up for Simon as he enjoys the twilight of his career. He was the recipient, along with Yo Yo Ma, of the prestigious 2012 Polar Music which has been awarded annually in Sweden to music icons. The official notes in the program when Simon was honored stated: 'For five decades, Paul Simon has built bridges not only over troubled waters but over entire oceans by joining the world's continents with his music'. Next month he'll be performing at a benefit concert with James Taylor and Bobby McFerrin in New York. More at paulsimon.com.
Song: Bring Me Home
Artist: Garrison Starr, Hernando, MS
Album: Not available
Notes: An alumnus of Sarah McLachlan's all-female Lilith Fair touring collective, she's been making music for two decades, in fact her maiden album was released shortly after leaving high school in 1993. She's now running a parallel career with her friend Adrianne Gonzalez as The Silent War. More at garrisonstarr.com and thesilentwarmusic.com.
Artist: Parachute, Charlottesville, VA
Album: Winterlove [EP], 2009
Notes: One of the best pop rock bands to emerge from Charlottesville, Virginia in recent years, led by Will Anderson, which originally went by the name Sparky's Love. They switched their moniker to Parachute in 2008, have opened for the likes of Matt Nathanson, O.A.R. and the Goo Goo Dolls and will be on the road with Mat Kearney in March. For details go to weareparachute.com.
Song: Christmas All Around
Artist: Shelly Fraley, Nashville, TN
Notes: Originally from rural Kansas, before studying at Southwestern College, the perky singer-songwriter has had her material featured on TV and film in 'Private Practice', 'Pretty Little Liars', 'One Tree Hill' and 'Good Deeds' and many more. Since this delicious Christmas morsel, she has released her second album 'Hush' and just a couple of months ago, 'Tides'. More at shellyfraley.com, where another Christmas tune, 'For The Holidays', is available for download.
Song: In Love For Christmas
Artist: Tony Reyes, Macon, GA
Notes: A real toe-topping pop-soul festive winner from a much in-demand writer and producer, who has worked with the likes of Joss Stone, Elliott Yamin, Christina Agueilera, Gwen Stefani, Shakira, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, Leona Lewis and others too numerous mention. A top-notch R&B/pop demo which has, remarkably, never been released.
Artist: World Leader Pretend, New Orleans, LA
Album: Punches, 2005
Notes: A 100-second instrumental treasure from a combo which took its name from an R.E.M. song. They cut one album, 'Punches', in 2005 and then split up on the verge of recording of their second album in 2008 citing the usual 'artistic differences'.
Artist: Oasis, England
Notes: A remarkably restrained and tasteful update of the raucous original by Slade and interestingly the final recording made by the rancorous Gallagher brothers before they imploded in 2009. The original version has now sold over one million copies in the UK - and is as much a part of the annual holiday celebration in Britain as the Queen's Speech and mince pies. It's re-charted in Britain no less than 17 times since first hitting pole position in 1973 and has been covered by the likes of R.E.M., Kate Nash and the Mission.
Artist: Sarah McLachlan, Canada
Album: Wintersong, 2006
Notes: The only self-penned track from the songstress' exquisite Christmas album, a desolate and self-poignant piece of magic, framed around a simple piano part. She begins her 'Shine On' US tour at the end of February, promoting her latest album. Details at sarahmclachlan.com.
Artist: Joni Mitchell, Canada
Album: Blue, 1971
Notes: With a piano intro of 'Jingle Bells', this song of lost love ('I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and I'm sad, Now I've gone and lost the best baby that I ever had') still tugs at the heart-strings more than four decades after it was written. Often covered, never bettered. 'It's coming on Christmas and they're cutting down trees; Putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace, but I wish I had a river I could skate away on - I made my baby cry.' More at jonimitchell.com.
Artist: Smashing Pumpkins, Chicago, IL
Notes: Billy Corgan's ace contribution to the worthy album series benefitting the Special Olympics leads off with the sound of Christmas chimes, with a nod or two to Mike Oldfield and a delicious ending featuring bassoon and oboe. There have been eleven different fund-raising 'Very Special Christmas' albums since the first one emerged in 1987 - the brainchild of record industry honcho and producer Jimmy Iovine, who runs his own mighty Interscope Records label and who made another billion or so this year selling his Beats Music streaming service to Apple. Corgan's Smashing Pumpkins released a new album, 'Monuments To An Elegy', last week. More at smashingpumpkinsnexus.com.
Artist: Rebecca Roubion, Mobile, AL
Album: Christmas Lights, 2014
Notes: Religious faith has for centuries been responsible for inspiring some divine music and add this little chestnut to the list. A delightful gospel-kissed number from her magical new Christmas mini-album which offers four original songs and four Christmas classics. More on her dazzling talent at rebeccaroubion.com.
Song: Universal Child
Artist: Annie Lennox, Scotland
Album: A Christmas Cornucopia, 2010
Notes: The feel-good final track on her 2010 Christmas collection, which was otherwise filled with her updates of standard seasonal hymns and carols. Once half of Eurythmics, Lennox has recently released an album of standards called 'Nostalgia' and a couple of weeks ago took part in 'Carols By Kindelight', with Alfie Boe and Imelda May among others, and recorded at London's Abbey Road Studios. The carol service was filmed live and is available through Amazon's Prime Instant Video.
Artist: Barry White & The Love Unlimited Orchestra, Galveston, TX
Notes: A minor hit for Felice Taylor back in 1967, but this definitive version from the simplicity of the opening lines 'when the temperature dips, I'm in my baby's arms' by its co-writer, the Walrus of Love, and his female vocal trio and 40-piece orchestra, stands the test of time almost forty years on. The Love Unlimited Trio of his wife Glodean James, her sister Linda James and their cousin, Diane Taylor were of course the backing vocalists for many of his magnificent solo recordings.
Song: Sleigh Bells & Reindeer
Artist: Act As If featuring Lucy Schwarz & Brian Fennell, Los Angeles, CA
Notes: A cute West Coast festive ditty from an LA-based act with some added vocal tinsel by guest vocalist Lucy Schwarz. This indie-rock quartet is fronted by Peter Verdell and features Sara Lindsay on keyboards, and have been together for about seven years, with a couple of cracking albums to their name, including this year's 'Steady'. More at actasifmusic.com.
Song: 2000 Miles
Artist: Pretenders, Akron, OH/England
Album: Learning To Crawl, 1984
Notes: Written for her former bandmate in the Pretenders, guitarist James Honeyman Scott, who died from a drug overdose in 1982, this Christmas gem was originally thrown away as the B-side to the group's 'Middle of the Road' single in 1983. It truly has stood the test of time, with several other top artists covering it over the years, including KT Tunstall, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Natalie Imbruglia, but nothing touches the original.
Song: Christmas Lights
Artist: Coldplay, England
Notes: It's been another banner year for Coldplay, but this is a sensational Christmas cracker by them from four years ago. When Chris Martin and his chums wrote the song no doubt they were trying to emulate the classic anthemic nature of the Pogues' 'Fairyale In New York' and they nearly pulled it off. A terrific Christmas tune nonetheless, about being in London at this time of year, following a guy who is slightly inebriated and missing his one true love - some great, deeply sad, opening lyrics. 'Christmas night, another fight, tears we cried, a flood. Got all kinds of poison in my blood, took my feet to Oxford Street, trying to right a wrong, just walk away, those windows say, but I can't believe she's gone'.
Song: The Christmas Song
Artist: Gemma Hayes, Ireland
Notes: A sweet, overlooked duet ditty, a cover of Danish indie-rock duo The Raveonettes' original, by Irish singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes with Richard Egan, which came and went as a digital single in 2012 - but used in an Irish SPAR supermarket TV commercial. Hayes has recently returned home to Ireland after spending a couple of years in Los Angeles, recording and releasing her latest album 'Bones + Longings'. More at gemmahayes.com.
Song: Wait Til It Snows
Artist: Emilie Mover, Canada
Album: Le Pop Fantastique, 2010
Notes: An adorable, innocent folk/pop gem from the Montreal-born daughter of jazz saxophonist Bob Mover. The Juno Award winner was actually born during a snow storm one November up in Montreal but grew up in Toronto, where she's still a popular staple on the club circuit. More at emiliemover.com.
Artist: Now The Rabbit Has The Gun, Los Angeles, CA
Notes: An entirely overlooked pop-rocker, tucked away on their splendid self-titled debut album. Now The Rabbit Has The Gun is a now-defunct wacky California-based trio of talented songwriters (Michael Seminari, C. Todd Nielsen and Dwight Baker - they wrote 'Save The Day' for American Idoler David Archuleta) and if you head to their bandcamp web page you can still download this fab track, indeed the entire album for free. Details at NowTheRabbitHasTheGun.bandcamp.com.
Song: Christmas Carol
Artist: Lindi Ortega, Canada
Notes: Authentic nu-country music from a superb Christmas EP released a couple of years ago, a tender tune bearing more than a passing resemblance to Dolly Parton's 'Me And Little Andy'. Indie Lindi as she's affectionately known, is a rootsy indie country-folk songstress from Canada. Nominated for two Juno Awards in her native country earlier this year, and after touring as a back-up singer for the Killers' Brandon Flowers in 2010 and 2011, she's now based in Nashville.
Song: Christmas Presence
Artist: Bella Ruse, Columbus, OH
Album: Welcome Christmas, 2012
Notes: This is all you need: a piano, thoughtful non commercial-themed lyrics and the antique vocal beauty of lead singer, Kay Gillette - the poignant lead-off cut from their 2012 seasonal collection. Bella Ruse is actually a duo comprising Katy and keyboardist Joseph Barker and is based in Columbus Ohio. The quirky folk-pop pairing tour around the country in a van powered by vegetable oil and employ a suitcase organ, kazoos, a glockenspiel and even a typewriter in their instrumental arsenal. More at bellaruse.com or facebook.com/bellaruse.
Song: Season of My Memory
Artist: Max Gomez, Taos, NM
Album: Run From You [single], 2012
Notes: An earnest tunesmith, who earned his musical spurs playing blues and country covers in local bars around his hometown of Taos in New Mexico, with a backing track reminscent of an old John Prine number called 'Big Ol' Goofy World.' Do check out the the 20-something singer-songwriter guitarist's freshman set. More at maxgomezmusic.com.
Song: Put My Little Shoes Away
Artist: Billie Joe & Norah, Oakland, CA/Brooklyn, NY
Album: Foreverly, 2013
Notes: The dying words of a gravely sick child speaking through the innocence of his youth to his grieving mother and as he says goodbye quietly asks her to give away all his toys - requesting only that she keep his little shoes so that one day they might be worn by his baby brother. An impossibly depressing and beautiful recording of a vintage composition inked by the then popular songwriting team of Samuel Mitchell and Charles Pratt in 1873, a typically sentimental Victorian parlor ballad which survived in country music long after its initial popularity waned. Recorded by the likes of Bill Monroe in the 20th century but divinely updated here by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones from their utterly blissful re-interpretation of The Everly Brothers' 1958 album 'Songs Our Daddy Taught Us'.
Song: New Year's Resolution
Artist: Camera Obscura, Scotland
Album: Desire Lines, 2013
Notes: Their trademark innocent simplicity still intact, the indie pop reflections of the veteran Glaswegian band with one of the better moments on their fifth long-player, which was recorded in Oregon. As with past efforts, the offering is wholly directed by the literate compositional skills and distinctive vocal stylings of front-woman Tracyanne Campbell. More on them at camera-obscura.net.
Artist: Amie Miriello, Stamford, CT
Album: I Came Around, 2008
Notes: A rather bleak but beautiful track from a Stamford, Connecticut native, but now based in New York City. She used to be in a band called Dirtie Blonde - even though she's a dedicated brunette, and evokes a pleasingly mature sound which belies her young age - as she writes in that song 'I'm older than my skin is in this life'. She's an in-demand songwriter and also a member of a new band called So & So. More at facebook.com/AmieMiriello.
Artist: Tracey Thorn, England
Album: Tinsel And Lights, 2012
Notes: Those piano chords could only belong to composer Randy Newman. First covered by the late great Harry Nilsson, the female half of Everything But The Girl brings just the right amount of nuance to this simple gem. She's been releasing solo material since the duo began what is now a very long hiatus back in 2000. Her 2012 mix of new Christmas fare featured her treatments of obscure and more literate yuletide nuggets, and also included thoughtful tunes by the likes of Ron Sexsmith and Sufjan Stevens.
Artist: Sweet Talk Radio, Los Angeles, CA
Notes: Soft and low, sweet radio indeed and only available from their website. A lovely short bio on the group's site reads: 'Boy plays music he writes. Girl plays music she writes. One day girl goes over to boy's house and they start to sing together. Boy smiles. Girl smiles back. Flash forward to their wedding day a few years later. Soon after, Sweet Talk Radio is born. Boy smiles. Girl smiles back.' The boy in question is Tim Burlingame, the girl - his lovely wife Kathrin Shorr - and they're based in Los Angeles. More at sweettalkradio.com.
Artist: Hurts, England
Album: Happiness, 2010
Notes: The synth pop-rock pairing of Adam Anderson and Theo Hutchcraft from the always-fertile music breeding ground of Manchester in the north of England singing about 'the worst Christmas of our lives' - amid the perfunctory bells, both sleigh and tubular and clearly in a hurry to get through Christmas. Their sparkling debut album, 'Happiness' was issued in 2010 - this track was added to the deluxe version of the record and was followed last year by 'Exile'. More at informationhurts.com/us/home.
Artist: Kristina Train, New York, NY
Album: Dark Black, 2012
Notes: An end-of-year lost classic from the peerless Ms. Train, yet another A+ pearl buried on her impeccable sophomore opus. Born in New York, raised in Savannah and now living in London, this superlative singer-songwriter released a gorgeous debut album in 2009 that died a death. After touring with Herbie Hancock as his lead singer and without a record contract, she flew to London and began co-writing songs with Martin Craft, Simon Aldred, Justin Parker and L&F favorite Ed Harcourt. More at kristinatrain.com.
Song: New Year
Artist: Kate York, Nashville, TN
Notes: Co-written with the ever-reliable composer Ross Copperman, York is yet another sterling non-country performer who makes her home in Nashville, helping to make Music City less linear. She initially got a job as a recording engineer on Music Row, before deciding she preferred writing songs to recording other people's. After being spotted at 12th & Porter, she recorded half a dozen songs in late 2003, followed by a further six in the summer of 2004. Her first album 'Sadlylove' was released in 2006, her second - 'For You' - came two years later. This track can only be found on the 'New Year's Eve' original film soundtrack which also features choice cuts by Katie Herzig, Bon Jovi and the Goo Goo Dolls among others.
Song: New Year's Eve
Artist: Greg Laswell, Long Beach, CA
Album: Landline, 2012
Notes: Starting out with a simple piano-backed vocal, the song takes on anthemic qualities that owe a nod to Coldplay. Taken from his fourth album, which was recorded in a converted church in a small fishing town in Maine, it's a typically top-drawer New Year's Eve misty lost bauble: 'For the rest of your New Year's Eve's, I'm free' - too true for any lonely soul missing his or her loved one at this time of the year. More at greglaswell.com/site or facebook.com/greglaswellmusic.
Song: Silent Night
Artist: MercyMe, Greenville, TX
Album: The Christmas Sessions, 2005
Notes: A jaunty country/pop rendition of a carol written in Austria in 1818, its lyrics by Father Joseph Mohr, the priest of St. Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, where it was first sung that Christmas Eve, and melody by Franz Gruber, a schoolmaster and organist in nearby Arnsdorf. This lovely version sees lead singer Bart Millard joined by guest vocalist Amy Grant.
Artist: Darlene Love, Hawthorne, CA
Notes: Still going strong at the age of 76, despite a heart attack a couple of years ago, the 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Famer comes out every year and blows the roof off the dump on the Christmas edition of the 'Late Show With David Letterman' - and this year will be for the last time with Letterman recently announcing a May 2015 date when he hands over the reins to Stephen Colbert. She recently said 'This would be my 28th year in a row. They never told me not to, but it was an unspoken thing. They couldn't ask me not to sing 'Christmas (Baby)' on another show, but after 10 years, then 15 years, of doing this one song on this one show, I felt I had an obligation to be true to them.' Death Cab For Cutie recently cut a nice version of this Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry classic, which they wrote with producer Phil Spector, who won't be coming home for Christmas.