Various artist holiday/Christmas CD’s can be tricky propositions, mainly because it’s pretty damned difficult to find one that’s aurally exciting from start to finish. As a matter of fact, 1991’s Yuletunes (featuring Shoes, Material Issue and other Midwest pop titans) is one of the few that’s ever pushed my buttons from beginning to end. Now, almost 20 years later, comes another awesome Christmas-themed CD in the same power poppin’ spirit as Yuletunes – A Kool Kat Kristmas.
Kool Kat is a way-cool power pop label out of New Jersey, and label head Ray Gianchetti has assembled many of the artists on the label’s roster to contribute to this 11-track disc that is sure to get any self-respecting power pop fan in the holiday mood. All the cuts are original compositions, and each and every one is very good or better, with the best song on the collection leading things off – Maple Mars’ “Christmas Time in the City.” Over a sea of guitars that simultaneously ring, crunch and chime, Rick Hromadka plaintively spins a holiday tale of Christmas in California, set to an absolutely unforgettable melody with superb backing vocals. One of the finest songs I’ve heard this year in any genre, to be sure.
Elsewhere, the listener is treated to jangly treats such as The Smith Brothers’ “Every Day is Like Christmas” and the Goldbergs’ cheeky “Channukah Guy,” as well as Parallax Project’s propulsive, snappy “All I Want for Christmas (is a Chance),” the Britannicas’ country-fried “Chris Hillman Christmas” (complete with the touching holiday message, “I’d rather go back to jail if I have to see the Eagles reform again”) and William Duke’s wonderful, Matthew Sweet-like ballad, “Say Hello to Christmas.”
There are also a couple of punky pop winners in Keith LuBrant’s “The Christmas Spirit” and The Strand’s reckless “The Christmas Gifts,” along with John Wicks’ shimmering, synth-driven “Star of Bethlehem” and solid efforts from The Sun Kings and Frank Royster. It all adds up to a near-perfect collection, and one that also aids a great cause: a portion of the proceeds from the sales of A Kool Kat Kristmas will benefit the Susan Giblin Foundation for Animal Wellness and Welfare, which was formed to honor the memory and continue the good work of Susan Giblin, a noted animal advocate (and wife of Parallax Project’s Mike Giblin) who sadly passed away from leukemia at the age of 46. Great music and an even better cause = a CD not to miss. This one will most definitely rank very high in my year-end top 10. (Available from www.koolkatmusik.com)
Another various artist holiday treat comes to us courtesy of the good folks at SideBMusic, titled Rockin’ the Mistletoe. Ironically, this 17-track effort doesn’t really rock much at all; rather, it’s a low-key, eclectic collection with Beach Boys and soft-pop influences abounding, with a little bit of what we used to call disco (hello, Nicola!) and soulful singer/songwriter sounds (nice to meet you, Paulina Logan!) thrown into the mix.
While Alan Boyd, label co-head Brian Battles and (especially) Richard Snow & the Inlaws all offer up Beach Boys pastiches that are well-done and welcome, the shining stars on Rockin’ the Mistletoe are the piano-based numbers. Scott Bennett (from Brian Wilson’s band) contributes the sincere, pretty “Getting Ready For Christmas” and Chris English’s “Christmas Isn’t Christmas” is lyrically heartbreaking and musically heartwarming, while Rob Bonfiglio’s “Warm, Lovin’ Christmastime” is more upbeat and instantly likeable. Nicholas Alan’s downcast, haunting “Cigarettes in Snowmen” is another memorable number, but the blue ribbon goes to James Carter Cathcart’s amazingly warm and beautiful “Christmas Morning.” Cathcart, who cut his musical teeth in 1980s major label new wave act The Laughing Dogs, sings the living hell out of this one, with everything from the gently poetic lyrics to the ebb and flow of the classic-sounding melody screaming “HOLIDAY STANDARD!” A superior achievement, and a must-hear tune.
While a few of the tracks don’t fully succeed – former Dennis Wilson collaborator Stephen J. Kalinich’s meandering poetry reading falls flat and Eric Matthews’ dusky take of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” seems poorly mixed – overall, this is a mighty fine release with lots to recommend. (Available from www.sidebmusic.com)