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Bill Binkelman's 2013 Holiday Music Review. Part 1
By V/A
Bill Binkelman's 2013 Holiday Music Review
This year I decided to review not just 2013 holiday releases but past recordings I had not yet reviewed, so there is a mixture of the old and new in this year's column. There is also a more variety than last year when almost every album was solo piano. I also decided not to rate the holiday CDs this year because rating a holiday CD feels way too Scrooge-like to me. After all, can there really be BAD holiday music? I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone out there a wonderful, peaceful holiday season filled with love, laughter, and time spent with family and friends. May the new year bring you your heart's desire and may all of us discover more of what matters in 2014 and come together to celebrate our shared humanity at every chance we get.

Perpetual Motion
Christmas Time Is Here

Perpetual Motion is an acoustic world fusion ensemble headed by guitarist Tom Carleno and his wife, violinist/mandolin player Josie Quick, with fretless bassist Michael Olson and drummer Rob Chamberlin. They've been a staple of the Denver music scene for years and this wonderful collection of both holiday standards and solid originals shows why such is the case. Their simpatico sense of musicianship is the key to this album. Nearly every track has a different combination of the four players and two songs also feature the sultry jazz vocals of guest star Alyson Hayes-Myers: the Vince Guaraldi classic "Christmas Time is Here" and "Silent Night." The four originals fit in perfectly with the other seven carols. Style-wise, the group's music is a cross between folk, swing, jazz and the early instrumental works from Windham Hill. The group's take on "The Little Drummer Boy" (here titled "The Little Drummer Boy (from Ipanema)" features Quick on electric violin and spices up the album with some bossa nova flavors. All in all, Christmas Time Is Here is a delight and a great addition to your holiday music collection.

25 Greatest Christmas Hits

Electronic keyboardist KevOz (Kevin Osborn) has managed to pack 25 songs on this CD so if you sometimes find a holiday album is lacking one of your favorites, that's unlikely to happen with this rambunctious assortment of carols (including four originals). KevOz loves his assortment of synths and keyboards and I'd wager you can hear them all on this recording. He also doesn't mind taking the roots of a traditional Christmas song and seeing what he can do with it. For example, "The First Noel," starts off more or less as expected but he slowly brings in Mannheim Steamroller-ish drums and drama. "Joy to the World" duplicates this motif, ramping up the tempo and getting a liberal sprinkling of synthesizer embellishments. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" has a snazzy break beat to it (and even some scratching!), juxtaposed with angelic choirs and characteristic Christmas bell tones. You have to give KevOz credit. These are not "ordinary" renditions of holiday standards and they will best be enjoyed by folks who like a healthy dose of fun and whimsy with their carols (and they better love synthesizers, too!).

Paul Adams
This Christmas

Before he concentrated on his flutes, Paul Adams played a lot of guitar, the instrument prominently featured on This Christmas (subtitled A Holiday Journey for Guitar). Adams also contributes on dulcimer, synth, Native flute, whistle and (wordless) vocals. He is joined on some tracks by Doug Knecht (mandolin) and Gretchen Church (piano). The front and back pictures on the CD of rural scenes give a good indication of the "feel" of Adams' approach to these twelve holiday standards. Liner notes state "My wish for This Christmas is to offer an acoustically serene atmosphere for the holidays" and he accomplishes this goal with sincerity and talent to spare. His take on "Carol of the Bells" has become one of my favorite versions. This Christmas is a great late night listen, because eve the more spirited carols get a low-key treatment. You should pick up a copy This Christmas in time for this Christmas!

Celtic Christmas

Govannen is a Celtic band fronted by multi-instrumentalist Chris Conway and featuring five other members. The title of the CD is self-explanatory – this is a collection of carols all given a Celtic spin (one of the eleven tracks is literally a Celtic carol: "Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil"). Govannen is a seasoned troupe and they play together as if born to it. Five of the tracks are actually medleys of carols, e.g. "The Holly and the Ivy" segues straight into "The First Noel." Instrumentation leans heavily on characteristic Celtic instruments, e.g. whistle, fiddle, bodhran and recording quality is flawless (you’d expect that from the Paradise Music label). While there are some sedate spots here and there, lots of the music is uptempo and takes on the styles of jigs and reels. In short, if you want a bit of the Green with your Red and Green, spin this album for a festive holiday gathering.

Ken Elkinson
Christmas Ambient (part of the ambient holidays series)

Ken Elkinson made a name for himself as a talented visionary of unique solo piano in the new age music genre, but lately he has turned his attention to synthsizers and waded into the waters of ambient and electronic music (with success, I might add). The Christmas version of his "ambient holidays" series is appropriately titled Christmas Ambient and the emphasis here is firmly on ambient, folks. This CD makes Jonn Serrie's assorted holiday spacemusic recordings sound like Lawrence Welk! That's not to say this is unpleasant, but more to convey that these sixteen selections are awash with layers of synthesizer, chorals, and ambient textures that sometimes mask the carol's main melody unless you really strain to hear it. If you are looking for a combination of star-gazing ambience with Christmas classics, this is your ticket to holidays among the cosmos. Christmas Ambient gets my vote as one of the more unusual, but not annoyingly so, holiday music releases in recent years.

The Piano Guys
A Family Christmas

I get the impression that some folks think The Piano Guys are a gimmick because of their successful videos on YouTube. I actually haven’t watched a single one of their videos, but this is the third album of theirs I have reviewed (the other two were for Retailing Insight) and I think The Piano Guys (Jon Schmidt, Steven Sharp Nelson and Al van der Beek, with producer and videographer Paul Anderson) are fantastic. Schmidt, Nelson and van der Beek are hugely talented musicians and their arrangements are always creative and mighty entertaining. As a result, I wasn't the least bit surprised to discover that A Family Christmas is every bit as enjoyable as their previous releases. Two originals and an assortment of standard carols, both spiritual and secular, are treated to imaginative and either spirited or sensitive treatments. A Family Christmas is the ideal holiday dinner party soundtrack – a true crowd pleaser from start to finish.
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 12/6/2013
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