Elliott Yamin, “My Kind of Holiday” (Three Ring Project)
For a Jewish kid, Yamin sure does have a lot of Christmas spirit. Venturing far from his recent pop stylings, the “American Idol” veteran throws back to raw, soulful roots on his second holiday disc, which smolders with old-school grooves and brazen beats.
Minimal doses of sleigh bell jingling make Yamin's bass-drenched covers of seasonal classics like “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells” palatable by even the scroogiest of bah humbuggers. Armed with upbeat brass and juggernaut vocals, the former Richmonder shines as he takes a chance on Clarence Carter's spicy “Back Door Santa” while “Let's Be Naughty (And Save Santa the Trip)” is not exactly your grandma's kind of Christmas carol. But, as the disc's title suggests, this is Yamin's kind of holiday and it's definitely one that's poised to liven up the yuletide. — Hilary Langford
Various artists, “Little Steven's Underground Garage presents Christmas A Go Go” (Wicked Cool Records)
After a ho-hum Halloween compilation, garage rock fanatic Little Steven Van Zandt bounces back with a Christmas party mix chock full of rarities.
Starting with the solid one-two punch of Keith Richards jamming through “Run Rudolph Run,” followed by Bob Seger and the Last Heard ripping the James Brown-inspired “Sock it to Me Santa,” Van Zandt clearly digs deeper into the crates this time. He doesn't dwell on the traditional, either, instead choosing to have demented fun with the Ramones (the pop punk “Merry Christmas [I Don't Want to Fight Tonight]”), the Kinks, with their memorably catchy ode to poor thugs, “Father Christmas,” and Rufus Thomas dropping gritty '70s funk on “I'll Be Your Santa.”
Of course, E Street guitarist Van Zandt also features blues singer Clarence Carter, providing a highlight with the instantly recognizable horn slide of “Back Door Santa” (forever known as the sample in Run DMC's “Christmas in Hollis” and apparently pretty popular this year; see the Elliott Yamin review above); Darlene Love and the E Street Band deliver “All Alone on Christmas,” once available only on a hard-to-find soundtrack. There's also a vaguely threatening tune by mafia kewpie doll Joe Pesci (“If it doesn't snow this Christmas / How's fatso gonna use that sleigh?”) and a downright goofy “Santa Claus Came Surfin' to Town” by TV show host Soupy Sales. All this rock, soul and weirdness should keep the eggnog flowing. — Brent Baldwin
Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition” (Sony BMG)
A half-century after its release, “Kind of Blue” remains one of the best-selling jazz recordings of all time for good reasons. The playing is soulfully beautiful. The combination of talents — Coltrane, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley — is amazing. And the music is a Rosetta Stone of mid-20th-century genres: a case can be made for tracing threads from this seminal recording to the modal improvisations of the Grateful Dead, the modern impressionism of Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, even the syrupy commercialism of smooth jazz.
A pristine, 24-bit digital version of the five songs on the LP (plus an alternative take of “Flamenco Sketches”) lists for $11.99 (though widely available for less) with a dual disc super audio CD version available for roughly $20.
This latest release, timed for Christmas giving, is a triumph of packaging over common sense. The four-disc set includes 26 redundant selections: the five original songs, both in a dual disc and a blue vinyl LP, a grab bag of breakdowns and in-studio snippets, a live CD with six selections featuring the band, only one — a speedy version of “So What” — not previously released. All of this material, minus a few studio sequences and the aforementioned live cut — is available for a few dollars less in the far more expansive 45-cut “The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.”
None of this takes away from the beauty and importance of the original, but this is not the most economic way of enjoying this masterpiece. Buy the Coltrane box instead, or use the money to create a basic library — adding Coltrane's “A Love Supreme,” one of Evan's 1961 Vanguard trio recordings, Adderley's “Something Else” (featuring Davis in a rare sideman appearance), the Ashley Kahn book about “Kind of Blue” and still have enough left for a Thai dinner for two. — Peter McElhinney
Julian Koster, “The Singing Saw at Christmastime” (Merge Records)
If we must hear traditional holiday classics, wouldn't it be nice to have them played on a ghostly instrument that cuts to the core of the melodies and, more importantly, would stop a Black Friday stampede in its tracks? That's the idea here: Julian Koster (the banjo player from Neutral Milk Hotel) performs 12 Christmas oldies on the eerie yet strangely beautiful singing saw — making your cozy hearth sound more like midnight at the asylum in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.”
But several songs are as bewitching as a quiet, moonlit flurry; you'll rarely hear more ethereal versions of “Silent Night” or “O Holy Night.” Like a Theremin, the musical saw can take on human vocal characteristics but still sound otherworldly.
Koster relies heavily on solo saw playing that might be too lonely or grating for some; hearing the normally jaunty “Frosty the Snowman” played deathly slow can be nerve-wracking. But this instrument is not easy to play — held between the knees and contorted by a player simultaneously navigating the sweet spot using a bow or mallet — and the yawning notes aren't meant to be perfect. When Koster layers saws, he gets a lovely choral effect that, during “Jingle Bells” for instance, conjures everything from high lonesome whistles and metallic sleds to the “Psycho” shower scene.
It's probably best to avoid this if you're depressed, though, because it will almost certainly make things worse. — B.B.