Holiday Hits for Solo Singers: Contemporary Arrangements of 11 Popular Holiday Songs

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Here, the pop and jazz critics of The New York Times select notable releases, familiar and odd. Still, Mr. The first ones were whimsical, lads-around-the-microphone mixtures of thank yous, pun-laden banter and bits of songs in loose four-part harmony. But by , the Christmas discs were getting a full-fledged studio production, with skits and snippets of music. A deluxe reissue — as seven seven-inch vinyl singles — arrives on Dec. As early as , the Beatles mention the war in Vietnam; by , each member was recording his part separately.

Cheap Trick has always excelled at not taking things too seriously. The singer and pianist Liz McComb, originally from Cleveland, has been an emissary of American gospel, living in Paris for the last three decades. In every setting, her voice is soulful and forthright. Moore sings in the clipped syllables of Atlanta rap.

Look them up at your peril: These are people whose crimes will give you nightmares. It begins with a thudding kick drum all alone, with the central guitar riff ambling in murderously after two bars — a figure that lurches methodically through three five-note patterns to resolve on three descending chords that land like boulders being dropped on a house.

My iTunes play count shows that I listened to it more than I listened to any song in except for drafts of songs I was writing myself. Scott Carlson of the legendary Repulsion sings it; the incarnation of the band was essentially a reboot, with Mikami the only original member. It has a cowbell. You can bang your head and sing along.

30. Vern Gosdin

I have spent a fair bit of idle time over the years wondering what it says about me that I want to indulge this mood at least a few times a week for the rest of my life, occasionally at earsplitting volumes in clubs. When I was young, if I heard something that sounded too celebratory of death, it terrified me.

How much time can I spend with it? What part of me is it? What does it look like up close? The cheap answer is something about the cathartic value of transgression, etc. The truer answer, for me, is that sometimes you really wanna kill somebody.

It would be wrong. You try not to do wrong. But if you spend a little time in the presence of a perfect groove contemplating the wrong directly without moralizing about it, you can ride the feeling in safety and go in as deep as you want, emerging later not wanting to kill anybody. Coates sat on the edge of a couch; Levi took a chair; each looked expectant, borderline anxious. It had been a busy year.

Levi is also a producer and D. Coates has scored films, too, but is better known for his work as a cellist. Its 13 tracks, some less than a minute in length, jump from beat-heavy, densely layered and looped orchestrations to atmospheric and spacey noodlings. It is a sketchbook in which every figure gestures toward newer, more exciting ideas to come, outlining musical rules a key, a beat, a melody one minute only to abandon them in the next.

Before they listened to the record, Coates reached into his backpack and pulled out a coloring book. He showed Levi one of the images he had colored in, a mandala filled with bright blues and greens, thin wisps of gold, bursts of coral pink. Levi leaned in for a closer look, drawing her finger across the page.

Available Songs

It was a visual cantus firmus, she said: a fixed melody providing a structure for a limited range of improvisation. The pair sat in silence, pleased enough but also distracted. A few tracks later, Coates looked up at Levi, who was looking at his mandala. It seemed like a familiar conversation. Levi massaged her temples, thinking, listening. Maybe, Levi said, you set up the rules and then find a way to break them; color inside the lines, so to speak, and then scribble a face over the results.

Coates liked it. In fact, he added, his coloring was loaded with mistakes already, but the mistakes were what made the thing come together, in a subtle way. He turned the page, exposing the blots where the pen ink bled through to the other side and the sharp lines of the pattern were barely visible. Coates and Levi met almost a decade ago. Coates had come to perform student string quartets for a class Levi was taking, and he was struck by her compositions. Coates sent Levi a video by the electronic producer Daniel Lopatin, also known as Oneohtrix Point Never; Levi sent Coates a mixtape she made with some tracks by Harry Partch, a composer who created new musical scales and built his own instruments.

He wanted an experienced composer who had never written music for a movie, someone who would come at the task differently. For 10 months, she worked on almost nothing else, worried that if she listened to anything — particularly another soundtrack — she would unintentionally steal from it. The soundtrack is unsettling, but also strangely empathetic. Levi describes much of her work as mixtapes. She was thinking of music not in terms of classical or hip-hop or any other genre, but in terms of people.

Some music was Oliver Coates music. Some music was Mica Levi music. I f you buy a record on brownsvilleka. Every few days, Ka sits in a study in his home near Prospect Park in Brooklyn and goes through the orders on his site. He was there on a morning not long ago, with a MacBook propped on his knees. On the floor were cardboard boxes holding copies of his five full-length albums. He placed five CDs in a padded envelope. There was a time when Ka took a guerrilla approach to promoting his music.

I still had, like, CDs left. So I started giving them away. This has become a tradition: On the day that Ka drops a new album, he tweets, turns up on a street corner and sells a few dozen records out of the trunk of his car.


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It would be hard to find a more thoroughgoing D. Ka is the rare rapper who handles both rhymes and beats, writing his lyrics and producing the music that accompanies them. He has directed most of his videos, and he self-releases his music, on his own label. It is not a profitable venture. Over the past several years, Ka has released some of the most gripping music in any genre. His records offer a poignant, distinctive take on classic New York hip-hop: vivid stories of street life and struggle narrated in virtuosic rhymes over music of bleak beauty.

His output has won him a small but passionate fan base and critical raves in Pitchfork and Spin. In , the Los Angeles M. For Ka to have won even modest recognition is an improbable underdog triumph. He spent much of the s trying to make it as a rapper, quit music altogether and returned a decade later, releasing his solo debut at age Today he is This career trajectory defies one of the seemingly immutable laws of pop, and of hip-hop in particular, a genre in which the cult of youth and novelty is especially pronounced.

And when I come home, I try to make some dope music. Last Aug. With me, they had all three. Ka grew up poor, in Brownsville. As a teenager, he drifted into the drug trade, dealing crack and selling firearms. If Ka is not in the music business, his wife definitively is. Today she is chief creative officer for i am OTHER, a multimedia company founded by Pharrell Williams, the superstar rapper-singer-producer. But a commercial breakthrough is far-fetched, and a prospect for which Ka seems constitutionally ill equipped. He has performed just a few live shows and professes little interest in playing more.

Those records are, in the best sense, strange. His songs are unnervingly quiet and still; they hold a listener in thrall because they hold so much back. Often the songs discard drums altogether, opening vast spaces that are filled by samples in brooding minor keys. It is an unshakable voice of experience, delivering hard-boiled tales and hard-won wisdom.

Ka excels at this kind of writing, brisk storytelling that unfolds in a pileup of rhymes and puns. So I speak about the things that I did, the things I pray I never have to do again. How do I finish my life in grace? She has performed it many times, and at least once, 10 years ago, someone filmed her in a church. About midway through the nine-and-a-half-minute video, the band and the organ, which riff all the way through, fall quiet. The band kicks in again, and a slew of sonic histrionics, pyrotechnics and acrobatics follows.

This was the moment that stood out to a musician called DJ Suede the Remix God, who just before Thanksgiving took that snippet — just eight seconds in all — and laid it over a trap-style hip-hop beat of his own making. Suede then offered the beat to the internet, calling it the U Name It Challenge and inviting others to put their own spins on it.

The singer Chris Brown recorded a video dancing to it. Countless other dancers and rappers followed him. The challenge went megaviral. The trick was that the snippet Suede chose had Caesar talking about food — and about giving thanks for that food — convincingly, joyously and at the exact right time of year. Her ecstatic cry made it universal. Grey is a vegan, unlike Shouting John, but a quick jaunt through his social media identifies him as every bit the evangelist of his philosophy that Caesar is for Christ. But I grew up going to church, dancing and singing to raucous gospel bands and choirs nearly every Sunday.

Once, after a particularly rousing concert, I walked from my seat to the front of the auditorium to be baptized and join the church, only to come to my senses once I got to the altar. For more than a year now, I have listened to little else in my car other than the albums of Rufus Wainwright. This obsession began when my husband and I bought a car for weekend trips: a AWD Subaru hatchback with what in retrospect seems like an ancient playback machine, a 5-disc CD player.

We pulled all our old CD wallets out to the car, loaded the changer and set off for our first drive. And what had been my self-imposed exile from music came to an end that day. Sometime between and , without ever noticing it was happening, I stopped listening to music regularly. Around the same time, my doctor told me I had mild depression, which would respond to exercise and a change in habits. But this mild depression did not feel mild. I felt trapped at the bottom of a swimming pool, immobilized. Everything I had to do, everything I needed to take care of, was up at the surface, and the soundtrack to this situation was silence.

In my year of carbound listening, I played through his songbook over and over. I gained a new appreciation for his extraordinary voice, and the way its nasal timbre humanizes him, as if someone ordinary had been given extraordinary powers, midnote. I never care. Wainwright is a storyteller, and his albums work on my imagination the same way short-story collections do — poetically, dramatically. Singing along with his secrets became like telling mine to myself, and somehow, this helped me up from the bottom of that pool. For me, looking for new music from favorite musicians is also a sign of life.

This fall, I finally thought to look for a new Wainwright album. He is on the cover in full Queen Elizabeth I drag, flowers in his hair. His misogyny too.


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  • Wainwright knows this territory well. Now, for the duration of this song, he is the reluctant lover. As a storyteller, Wainwright has always been more of a memoirist than a novelist. He made his reputation singing wise songs of impossible loves and rejection, turning personal pain into public art.

    His next project is an opera about the Roman emperor Hadrian, who, out of grief at the death of his lover Antinous, created a religion around him. I intend to be there when it opens, wearing a tuxedo in an opera box — no Subaru this time. F ifteen minutes after finishing an acoustic concert one evening in January, the Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry was backstage talking about his great-grandfather. The man had lost his own father and grandfather to post-Civil War skirmishes in Missouri, McMurtry said, so he and his wife fled the state.

    They settled in Denton County, Tex. McMurtry, who has released 12 albums over a year career, has a reputation in some quarters as a political songwriter, in part because one of his most popular songs is an angry-lefty anthem. Released shortly before the election, the song swept through an America hollowed out by departed manufacturing jobs and the middle-class stability that went with them. A few years after its release, the critic Robert Christgau named it the best song of the decade.

    He has been on tour almost constantly since the late s, and he just takes note of what he sees through the windshield, he said, like banners welcoming home soldiers in small towns. At an upscale barbecue restaurant near his hotel in Dallas, where we met before his concert, our talk turned to tribalism and anti-intellectualism. McMurtry had ordered black coffee and a plate of fried oysters. In a few hours, he would take the stage alone with his guitar, and in a few weeks, he and his band would leave for a European tour that would carry them from Ireland to Italy, playing 33 nights in a row.

    Other singers have smoother voices. He has written about Cheyenne, Wyo. His songs tap into resentments about things like coastal attitudes of superiority and political correctness. His narrators are often white men who know the Bible, own guns and give their kids a nip of vodka in their Cherry Coke to get through long road trips. A Texan friend of mine likes to say that McMurtry writes as though he has spent time eavesdropping on conversations in every Dairy Queen in America. McMurtry has seen things change in rural America over the last few decades, he said, the curdling of patriotism and self-reliance into something uglier.

    Gun ownership, for example, has become an identity, or even like a cult. The narrator is a hunter, a fisherman and a small-business owner. Still rarer is a song that identifies its audience in explicit, demographic terms. Once this metaphorical point of entry is closed, an important conversation ensues. Not every black person can hear it in a song and feel the exultation that Knowles intends. For many of us who were young and black, or young and black and Southern, like Knowles, during the years when he dominated the rap charts, his story has always been inspirational. Art finds who it finds, and the white gaze lands where it lands.

    The more you try to ignore it, the more it seems keen on dissecting you. Knowles is aware of this. The deliberate rejection of white scrutiny is part of a long tradition of black art-making. If white people are pleased, we are glad. This is the sonic equivalent of shaking out your hair after long hours of wearing it pulled back and tied down for work, putting on your sweatpants and calling your girlfriend to tell her about the day you had. The warbled notes of the piano and organ sounded muffled, as if underwater. The featured artists are a nod to R. The backing vocals by Tweet are a special treat for those of us who sometimes shake our fists at the sky, wondering what ever happened to that singer and her hypnotizing voice.

    Its measured cadence and dragging bass are perfect for a spontaneous, low-key house party. Its boisterous horns call to mind the New Orleans second line, those musical parades marched both for celebration and for mourning. Her mother, Tina Lawson, has said that her family was essentially run out of town following a salt-mine collapse involving her father. In the contentious aftermath, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window of their home.

    Hasty separation leaves a generational longing all the same. What makes these moments so cringeworthy is their self-seriousness, their declaration that to be adult is to be sexy — and to be sexy is to be straight-faced, preferably with a well-oiled body, writhing and pining for male approval.

    Her songs are brassy, retro numbers that deal with gushy PG love, and she has a tendency to oversell them with the zeal of a collegiate a cappella singer, her impressive vocal range pushing against the edges of her bubble-gum hits as if trying to pop them entirely. Grande, still straddling the line between child star and adult hitmaker, is in the prime risk group for hypersexed transition songs. The song, in which Nicki Minaj coolly raps about riding a bicycle as if it were a male member or vice versa , as if she were starring in some psychosexual Cronenberg horror film, has more than million plays on Spotify.

    Does this song sound ridiculous? But it was a half-minute in, at that first unmistakable rip of bass, that I lost my mind. That track, along with a handful of others, marks a seminal moment in the history of deep house — a rich and criminally neglected chapter in the book of black music. New York won the contest handily, and now hip-hop has so thoroughly subsumed mainstream black culture that it often feels as if earlier artistic forms have either been eradicated or retrofitted to its preferences see: funk, R.

    House music — much like West himself — is unabashedly black and Chicago-bred, but somewhere along the line, it grew cozy in Europe and came to be seen as catering to white people. And though it has only ever managed to find significant audiences overseas, this transfixing style of minimal electronic dance music was pioneered by Midwestern D. While trailblazers like Mr. Fingers — a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist — are worshiped in London, Paris and Berlin, they are barely remembered back at home.

    West has always displayed a rare encyclopedic and intuitive grasp of both mainstream and regional black sounds, from traditional gospel and R. He knows that, glimpsed from the proper vantage, these are but facets of the same, constantly shifting whole. It also serves as a bittersweet thought experiment: Things could have been otherwise.

    Imagine, if you will, a world in which Mr. Fingers got his due. H ow can you tell the singer from the song? I like how she listens. I like how she tests herself and learns as she performs. Salvant has a supple, well-trained voice with spot-on pitch. No vibrato-teases; no meandering warbles passing as melisma. Her low notes go from husky to full-bodied; her high notes float purely and cleanly.

    The risk? Sounding decorous and derivative. Like some other young jazz singers, she does the black vaudeville hits of Bert Williams and Bessie Smith, even some of the exotica that female musicians once tossed out to keep their fans tantalized. Here the risk is archness: the knowing postmodern wink. But mainstream success has other traps. And while it has been a long time since jazz was at the center of pop commerce, the star- or cult- making machinery still labors to produce familiar types. Especially for women, and even more especially for black women.

    For black women in pop music, the dominant and preferred model remains the Diva. Racially and socially, this figure is considered lower and lesser. In the old days, that meant she was literally bigger, louder, bossier.

    All Arrangements by Category

    My favorites are Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner because of their contradictions. Their social, financial and cultural riches are vast; they command global kingdoms. But they share a mandate: The Black Diva must flaunt, court and rule. Jazz divas have tended to have alter egos. Dinah The Queen Washington was also a salty good-time gal. Our heroine is thinking and feeling her way, note by note, word by word, into exuberant infatuation, fashioning a romantic-comedy monologue in which the woman surprises herself with each turn of phrase and tempo.

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    Salvant, like all counter-divas, constructs her look with care. Hers is gamine glam: Her face is round, her hair close-cropped. The black counter-diva is now making her way into the culture at large. Freed from period dramas that stretch from slavery to the Empire galaxy, she will bring her talents to a here-and-now comedy of morals and manners. And it means that the performer must know what age she is performing in, and why.

    Along with a merry band of counter-divas, Salvant is thinking hard about what conventions, habits and desires need revising — in her art, and in her audience. Fireworks shows and rip-roaring acrobatics and dancing in front of a group of second-rate backup dancers in capes are the kind of broadly appealing theatrics that generate awe without shock, intrigue without the threat of controversy. Y oung M. It finds the confident East New York-born newcomer relaxed, but not sedate.

    A rides the beat with an energy that is at once frenetic and hazy. A slew of clever punch lines invite you to rap alongside her — to feel yourself too. When you hear it in the club, muscle memory takes over. Like some of the best New York rap that preceded it, the track emboldens. The original song is full of references to M. A raps what she knows. Queer women in particular must grapple with intersecting axes of misogyny and homophobia. Still, M. A seems refreshing, and quintessentially New York, in her frankness. She is who she is.

    A may be a commanding, bite-her-lip-when-she-looks-in-your-direction queer woman, but her music neither starts nor ends there.

    Holiday Hits for Solo Singers: Contemporary Arrangements of 11 Popular Holiday Songs

    If you know, you know. When the woozy accompaniment hits, his deep-creased face wrenches; he shakes his head, places his palms together and gazes Godward. After three albums spent forging heavy metal in the unglamorous English Midlands, Sabbath was afforded a Bel Air mansion to record its fourth. She left her 8-month-old son to move from Gainesville, Fla. He left at 14, saying she was abusive. Decades later, she begged him to come home to Brooklyn and take care of her. By , when Bradley released the first of three top-shelf albums for the Brooklyn label Daptone, he was 62 and badly scarred by his own misfortunes.

    Even his ensuing, 11th-hour success has come at a cost: He has been pressured to support family and friends, and because his artistic method demands a deep emotional connection with his material, he has found himself revisiting buried memories of homelessness and violence. Late last year, he underwent a debilitating operation for stomach cancer. When I spoke with him in February, he was making plans to sing again, but his voice was practically a whisper. I used to think my mom was evil, but we were able to find forgiveness at the end of her life. Now I can go out into the world without animosity or anger and show people the love in my soul.

    Whether you have the emotional bandwidth to admit it or not, all of us, at some point in our volatile existence on Earth, want to be acknowledged by another human being — seen, touched, heard and paid attention to, and not just platonically. Maybe those two lines jolted me because I live in an ebb-and-flow of denial about my own romantic relationships.

    The other is the logical, dead-on explanation for this — I am a coward. I refuse to take my guard down and open up. Cowardice is also something you innately recognize in another. Has self-confliction ever sounded this divine? Feelings run up against one another: vulnerability and intimacy, the possibility of love. I am yours, but only when the lights are low and no one is looking. But Ocean has always seemed so unafraid to me, both in his personal life and in the way his music emerges from the inside out.

    Maybe he has become more of the man he has always wanted to be in the years since the summer of Harness it. Hold it close. G rowing up in America, I experienced two puberties.

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    The first opened me up to the possibilities of adulthood. The second reinforced that for someone like me — an immigrant, a minority, an Asian-American — there were limits. In this second coming-of-age, I had to contend with the pain of wanting a beautiful white body, not out of some misguided vanity, but because I saw over and over how whiteness conferred an instant legitimacy. Coming from someone like Mitski, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father, the title alone was powerful enough to reopen a wound that had been rotting inside me ever since I came of age as an Asian girl in America: an old hatred for myself, my culture, the way I looked and the way I was raised.

    Mitski murmurs and sighs and sings about a lover. My mother had two unshakable beliefs that she tried to drill into me. The first was that I had to study and work twice as hard as my white peers if I wanted to survive in America, and the second was that it was delusional and dangerous to believe I possessed the same freedom white people had to pursue my dreams.

    But it was clear which Americans we were referring to. For over a decade, she and my father worked two and sometimes three jobs, on top of night classes, until they saved enough to move us into an upper-middle-class, mostly white neighborhood. When I told my mother I wanted to be a writer, she reacted as if I had said I wanted to kill myself. She vowed that she would do everything humanly possible to stop me. Compared with how she had behaved as a teenager, I was ungrateful; compared with the white mothers I knew, she was a dictator. At that point in my life, kids were still shouting my last name back to me in the hallways as if it were a punch line and asking me if Chinese people really ate dogs.

    But she cannot. That world is not for her. Racism thrives when the people being harmed by it blame themselves and one another. As a teenager, I blamed my parents for failing to secure me admission into whiteness, which I was certain was a prerequisite to being loved.

    I was mad at them, not at the cruelty of the American dream or the ways in which white supremacy had warped each of us. My privileged upbringing and education and linguistic fluency gave me such proximity to whiteness that it stung all the more to still find myself outside of it. My mother, on the other hand, not only accepted that she would always be an outsider in this country but also believed it to be a finer fate and home than any other she could have had.

    As I grow older, I find myself trying to turn to her more, to ask the questions I never asked when I was too busy feeling sorry for myself: why she came here, what it was like to uproot a life and move across the world, whether it was hard to raise me here. People who go to clubs regularly are usually there to work — whether they make or manage or write about music or just labor to look great.

    SATB Arrangements | Contemporary A Cappella Publishing

    You spend more money than you have and try not to think about it, because late at night, positive energy is the most valuable currency. The trio records constantly and has worked the live circuit hard. The song is nearly six minutes long, and these noises are like souvenirs collected by everyone who has traveled through it, a trip that usually happens at the pinnacle of a night out, when the dance floor is packed and the women in the crowd are ready.

    When its bass shakes, people do, too; you could cut the music off and everyone would still be yelling in unison. Surrounded by that kind of collective precision, you might find it difficult not to feel less alone. The song offered a sanctuary: Settle in, stay a while, belong here for as long as you need.