The Kingston Trio – The Last Month Of The Year
Although handfuls of new holiday albums are released each year, there are few that rise to the level of “classic” status. The Last Month of the Year, an LP originally released in 1960 by The Kingston Trio, is one that truly deserves that label. The new reissue from Real Gone Music is the definitive version of that seminal collection.
A mixture of new arrangements of traditional songs and adaptations of carols from different countries and cultures, The Last Month of the Year is a true folk music collection. It is also the perfect vehicle for The Kingston Trio’s signature tight harmonies. The close vocal connection between Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, and Bob Shane is evident throughout and exemplary performances include the group lead vocals on “Somerset Gloucestershire Wassail,” the lovely and languid “Bye, Bye Thou Tiny Little Child” and The Weavers-inspired rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Other standout tracks include the haunting “The White Snows of Winter,” Nick Reynolds’ lovely interpretation of an old Welsh song on “All Through the Night” and the muted up-tempo Christmas Eve lullaby “Goodnight My Baby.”
The interesting thing about The Last Month of the Year is that it was initially considered a failure by Capitol Records – so much so that the label took it out of print not long after its original release. Despite that setback, the album has endured and is now considered an essential holiday release.
It is also an atypical holiday collection because it is both a meditation on and reflection of the season – not a simple recitation of secular and sacred seasonal hits. People seeking well-sung versions of their favorite carols and holiday songs should look elsewhere, but those who are open to songs that set a somber and peaceful winter mood will be delighted by this 12-song set.
This Real Gone Music reissue is further bolstered by the extensive liner notes from folk music expert Tom Pickles. Not only does Pickles put the album in its proper historical place, but he also gives insights on the album’s tracks and the members of The Kingston Trio.
The Living Sisters – Harmony Is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday
The Los Angeles-based supergroup The Living Sisters, comprised of Inara George, Alex Lilly, Eleni Mandell and Becky Stark, has produced one of the most charming holiday music collections in recent years with its Harmony Is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday. Part of the album’s appeal can be attributed to the quartet’s retro four-part harmonies, which harken back to The Andrews Sisters and other vocalists from a bygone era, but ultimately the sunny mood and variety of styles showcased throughout the 12-song set steal the show.
“Kadoka, South Dakota,” a plunky and cheery piece of ear candy that you will have you humming for days, is the album’s most obvious nod to The Andrews Sisters – an almost winterized version of the group’s classic “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” “Baby Wants a Basketball for Christmas” is a snappy and piano-driven pop gem with saucy blues breakdowns throughout and “Christmas in California” is as saccharine as it sounds – a song more reminiscent of holiday classics from The Beach Boys than any of the popular music from the World War II era.
Another nice new song on this collection is “Skip the Sugar (Good Girl).” This tune, with jazzy horns and a vibe that hints at reggae/dub, really stands apart from the usual holiday fare.
In addition to the great original songs, there are a few old chestnuts on this set. The ladies stay fairly faithful to the most common arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy,” but they use some nice little vocal touches to put The Living Sisters stamp on both “Silver Bells” and “Jingle Bells.”
With Harmony Is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday, The Living Sisters join The Sweetback Sisters and their 2012 collection, Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular, on the list of recent folk and Americana holiday releases worth checking out.
Pentatonix – That’s Christmas to Me
As with the previous standout 2014 holiday releases, the new collection from the Arlington, TX-based Pentatonix is a vocal showcase. The thing that sets this release apart is the lack of any other instruments.
For those not familiar, Pentatonix is an a cappella quintet that first came to the public’s attention by winning the popular NBC show The Sing-Off, an annual showcase of vocal-only groups. Not only do the five members of Pentatonix sing all of the parts, but they also vocally replicate percussion, other instruments and production effects.
Of the three holiday releases profiled, this is the poppiest of the bunch. It also contains more traditional holiday classics than the other two albums combined. But thanks to the a cappella format, this one features the most innovative and creative arrangements.
An excellent example is “Winter Wonderland/Don’t Worry Be Happy,” a vocal mashup of the Christmas classic and Bobby McFerrin’s biggest-charting single. The lazy reggae groove of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” fits nicely with the “Winter Wonderland” lyrics until the group eventually transitions fully to the ‘80s hit. This is a fitting choice for Pentatonix since McFerrin’s tune was the first a cappella song to reach the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
The group’s considerable vocal skills and the best attributes of the a cappella genre are showcased on “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” By performing an instrumental song, the group highlights its arrangement skills, the importance of dynamics and the vocal range of the different performers.
Another nice surprise on this set is a cover of the popular Fleet Foxes song “White Winter Hymnal.” Although this is not the first song that comes to mind when you think of a holiday music collection, Pentatonix nails this arrangement with gorgeous harmonies that elevate the track to standout status.
With “That’s Christmas to Me,” the only song on the set written by Pentatonix, the group proves that it doesn’t have to rely solely on clever arrangements and vocal wizardry. This simple and modern composition allows the group to just sit back and sing a pretty song.
Until next time, Happy Holidays!