sat 13/07/2024

theartsdesk on Vinyl Christmas Special 2023: Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand, Oasis, Robb Johnson, Jimi Hendrix and more | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk on Vinyl Christmas Special 2023: Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand, Oasis, Robb Johnson, Jimi Hendrix and more

theartsdesk on Vinyl Christmas Special 2023: Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand, Oasis, Robb Johnson, Jimi Hendrix and more

A festive extravaganza from the most extensive regular record reviews page in the galaxy

Deck the halls with books and records© Vecstock

Welcome to the annual seasonal one-off, in which theartsdesk on Vinyl dives into festive releases, as well as the boxsets and reissues that will make fine presents. Grab a glass of something and dive in!


Various Stax Christmas (Craft)

staxWho’s going to argue with a new collection featuring Stax artists tackling festive fare, mostly dating from the late 1960s and early Seventies? That it features a previously unreleased and impassioned version of “Blue Christmas” by Carla Thomas, as well as an alternate take of Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas Baby” only adds to the appeal. Other highlights include the funkin’ raunch of Albert King’s “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” and Rufus Thomas’s outrageous “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby” (“I’ll slide down your chimney and bring lots of joy/What I got for you, mama, it ain’t just a toy”), while The Staple Singers’ “Who Took the Merry out of Christmas” brings righteous protest to the festivities. The whole thing, also featuring Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, The Temprees and others, is well worth a Baileys-induced boogaloo.


Robb Johnson & the Xmas Irregulars Murder at the Grange (Irregular)

murderRobb Johnson is best-known round my way as the south coast’s answer to Billy Bragg, in that he’s a socialist who writes and performs songs that tear down the Tories and their ilk. However, last Christmas Johnson presented his seasonal play Murder at the Grange at Shoreham Ropetackle, just down the coast from theartsdesk on Vinyl Mansions. It’s a light-hearted Yuletide “locked room” mystery spiced with 12 songs written by Johnson. These are seasonal and jolly, with themes ranging from “Christmas Bells” to the Christmas Day present-opening ritual. Sung by Sian Allen, Fae Simon and Robb himself, accompanied by double bass, violin, trumpet, guitar and drums, it's a crisp, playful mingling of jazz and folk. Probably best consumed with the show, these studio versions still give a cinammon flavour of an entertaining night out. Comes with a densely written 12” x 12” insert containing photos of the performers and a densely written explanation of the background.

Mackay & Manzanera feat. The Players Christmas (Expression)

christmasScroll down this page and you’ll come across a pile of reviews focused on Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay, but this one’s their Christmas record. Originally released in 1989, it sees the pair, with a bunch of folky accomplices playing accordion, mandolin, penny whistle, banjo, fiddle, etc, swiftly render 26 carols as folky instrumentals. There’s a flavour of droney minimalism too, and the way they never let any song stay around very long is smart. It’s background music, but approaching these well-known pieces from a different angle undercuts their familiarity and adds interest. Comes in photo/info inner sleeve.

Danny Elfman Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Walt Disney)

nightmareTo celebrate 30 years since the release of Tim Burton’s animated Halloween vs Christmas fantasy, Disney Records releases a double album gatefold set. The most immediately appealing aspect is that all four sides have zoetrope animations which can be viewed by using bright light and a phone camera. But once it hits the deck and the needle’s down, the music is flighty fun. More than the usual soundtrack fare - incidental music that only works with the film - Danny Elfman sets loose a bunch of frolicking songs, such as “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” and actor Ken Page hamming it up on the Dixieland “Oogie Boogie’s Song”. Ostensibly, from the art on the gatefold, this one’s for the dark Christmas crew, but, really, it’s elated, theatrical and full of bubbly musical pep.


Various Arthur Baker presents Dance Masters: Arthur Baker (Demon)

bakerFollowing on from the John Luongo boxset last month, New York original Arthur Baker focuses on his own spectacular remix career. This arrives in a six disc set with notes by Baker himself, as well as a signed insert, and a 12” x 12” booklet featuring a bunch of photos and an essay by NYC club music all-rounder Bill Coleman. Baker was ahead of the curve. In the early Eighties his studio style moved away from straightforward disco extensions, although he was well capable of that, as proved on cuts such as Ritz’s "I Wanna Get With You”. Instead, he moved into terrain that foreshadowed the club explosion of the next decade, as on his own stunner, “Walking on Sunshine” by Rockers Revenge. Electro was initially his thing, as on his classic “Planet Rock” with Afrika Bambaata & Soulsonic Force, but later he took on all comers. The boxset stays away from New Order, but unearths lesser known cuts, notably belting divas of another era such as Roberta Flack, Jennifer Holliday, Junie Morrison and Cyndy Mizelle. It doesn’t always work, of course; Baker’s unlikely mid-Eighties Bob Dylan collaboration, “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky”, is a decent song but doesn’t benefit from its strikingly Eighties digital production and drum machine. But there’s plenty here, an eclectic selection that runs from big hits by Neneh Cherry, Fleetwood Mac, Fine Young Cannibals and others, to forgotten mixes such as his funky take on The Colourfield’s “Running Away”, to epics like “Dreamtime” by Daryl Hall, whose sound makes me wonder what Baker would have done in if he'd got his hands on Queen. This one will have everyone dancing around the Christmas tree.

Various ...And You Don’t Stop: A Celebration of 50 Years of Hip Hop (Tommy Boy)

tommyHad enough dancing upright, maybe time to hit the mats for some breakdancing. Iconic hip hop label Tommy Boy joins the celebrations for hip hop’s 50th with a six-album set, broken down chronologically. The 1982-1983 record is an electro-soul block party with cuts such as Planet Patrol’s “Play at Your Own Risk” and Pressure Drop’s “Rock the House”, and sounds little like a 2023 youngling's idea of hip hop; 1984-1985 continues this with cuts such as Force M.D.’s “Itchin’ for a Scratch”, but more rapping is present until, by the time of closer “Just Say Stat” by Stetsasonic, it’s central. 1986-1989 of course, sees the rise towards a golden period for the label, with the opening run of De La Soul, Queen Latifah and Digital Underground (the latter’s “Doowutchalike” is present and correct). 1989-1998 maintains trajectory with “Me, Myself and I” and the appearance of House of Pain with the now unlistenably overplayed “Jump Around”, as well as Naughty By Nature, and bullish cuts such as Apache’s “Gangsta Bitch”. 1993-1996 sees expansion in multiple directions, into the breakbeat ragga pop of K7’s “Come Baby Come”, sex-rap on LaShaun’s “Wild Thing”, and the massive crossover of Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise”. Finally, 1997-2001 is summed up by Noreaga’s “Superthug”, with hip hop’s contemporary gangster/businessman’n’bling template now fully formed, albeit Handsome Boy Modelling School showcase where things would go next at the more interesting end of hip hop. Full of classic cuts, this one’s for that uncle who still drops the occasional freestyle after an Irish coffee too many.

Aretha Franklin A Portrait of the Queen 1970-1974 (BMG)

arethaOnce the high-kicking dancing’s done, time to slow down with a fine brandy and a slower groove. The new boxset containing Aretha Franklin’s first five studio albums of the 1970s should do the trick. All but one were created with the dream production team of Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler, and are painstakingly remastered from analog. The albums in question are the earthy-sounding rhythm & blues of This Girl’s in Love with You from 1970, which contains her celebrated version of “Let it Be”, released two months before The Beatles one; Spirit in the Dark from the same year; Young, Gifted and Black from 1972, which mostly has smoochier material, alongside the absolute funker that is the single “Rock Steady” (perhaps all a counterpoint to her contemporaneous Amazing Grace gospel live project); Hey Now Hey (the Other Side of the Sky) from 1973 is the only one produced by Quincy Jones, whose imprint is not drastically heavy, giving a clean soul sound touched with light jazz; Let Me in Your Life comes full circle with Dowd/Mardin/Wexler and is the most boisterous of the set, a return to the vivaciousness of her Sixties fare. There’s also another disc, Pledging my Love: Session Tracks, which contains demos, alternate mixes and offcuts such as “Sweetest Smile and the Funkiest Style”, inarguable, percussive sexy-dance funk from the Quincy Jones sessions redolent of Nina Simone’s superb “Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”. Comes with a 12” x 12” booklet of photos, background and notes.

Various Produced by Tony Visconti (Demon)

tonyFor what seems like ever, Tony Visconti has been behind-the-scenes in popular music, deftly doing his studio thing. But he seems happiest out of the limelight, not one for shouting to receive the plaudits. On this new boxset he curates 73 tracks from across his long career. These are laid out chronologically over six records and there’s a plethora of familiar names such as U2, Sparks and The Moody Blues, but the biggest, Ziggy-est name of all is notable by his absence. Covering that off is a solid cross section of his work with Bowie’s peer and rival Marc Bolan, as well as others from the late-Sixties and early Seventies (when Viscntio first arrived in London), such as The Move, Strawbs, Procul Harum and Joe Cocker’s once ubiquitous version of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From my Friends”. Prog is clearly big with Visconti. There’s a bucolic Gentle Giant song but also preposterous – and entertainingly silly - stuff such as Rick Wakeman’s “March of the Gladiators” (the choral “All God’s Children” by Yes’s Jon Anderson is the worst thing here). He brings his prog production tricks to another generation as punk and new wave hits and the Eighties arrive, successfully on songs as varied as those by Altered Images and Les Rita Mitsoukou, but less so with flash-in-the-pan new wave act The Photos (“Life in a Day”). But, as Bowie knew, Visconti also has a proper rock’n'roll side, as on The Polecats' “Marie Celeste” and, especially, the raucousness of Adam Ant’s “Apollo 9” (admit I’d forgotten what a blast this is). More recently he’s brought his older statesman skill sets, in whatever style is required, to everyone from Kaiser Chiefs to Manic Street Preachers to The Good, the Bad and the Queen. He even has The Dandy Warhols’ channelling T. Rex on “Hit Rock Bottom”. The set comes with a 12” x 12” 60-page booklet with words from many of the artists involved, as well as from Visconti, and more background by rock journo Mark Paytress.

Black Sabbath Hand of Doom 1970-1978 (BMG)

sabsThose who want to headbang under the mistletoe are directed towards Hand of Doom, which gathers together Black Sabbath’s first eight albums, the ones from the band’s initial run with Ozzy Osbourne, and, inarguably, containing most of their best work. The sell with this box is that the whole lot are on picture discs of their original cover art. Limited to 3000 copies, each bearing a numbered foil stamp, the package also includes a 24” x 24" poster. While there are ups and downs along the way, given the band spent the entire 1970s slobbing around L.A., drowning in booze, drugs and money, the quality of the songs is remarkably high, right up to and including 1976’s Technical Ecstasy, with only 1978’s Never Say Die phoning it in. Sabbath are rightly associated with down-tuned heavy riffage; less remembered is their capacity to experiment and build pop into their songs, as on the AOR radio sections of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’s title track, the flutey, prog balladry of “Solitude” from 1971’s Master of Reality, and the Lennon-esque “It’s Alright” from Technical Ecstasy. I am guessing the sound transfer here is from digital rather than analog, which brings it’s own sonic problems, but it’s still a fine-looking set to put a smile on the face of relatives who’ve been wearing their hair shoulder-length since, well, since Paranoid appeared in 1971.

Tim Finn & Phil Manzanera Tim Finn & Phil Manzanera (Expression) + Andy Mackay & Phil Manzanera Roxymphony (Expression) + Andy Mackay & Phil Manzanera AM PM (Expression)

finnRoxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera has been mates with Tim Finn for decades, ever since the latter’s band Split Enz supported Roxy in the 1970s. During COVID lockdown the pair put together a couple of albums Caught by the Heart and The Ghost of Santiago, which are now gathered together for the first time on vinyl, with a third album of never-before-released material they’ve entitled Viento en Popa. Caught by the Heart opens with the excellent “Mambo! Salsa!..” a delightful Latin pastiche of hip-shaking pop, but then the set settles to a prog-tinted collection of more contemplative songs. Ghosts of Santiago is a more expansive creature, ranging from the electronic barrage of “Space Cannibal” to the flamenco “Esperando la Caida”. The third album, of offcuts, is a match for the rest, especially the harmonica-fuelled title track. Manzanera’s twinkling guitar is delicious throughout and, roxyI admit I wasn’t expecting much from this box, but it’s often lovely. The two other albums reviewed here are not boxsets but are lumped in since both are Manzanera-related. I'm staunchly against orchestral reimaginings of popular music. They are usually dull recreations for the middle-aged/old to relive their past in a safer, duller way. Thus, I came to Roxymphony, which Manzanera created with Roxy’s saxophonist Andy Mackay, a 20-piece orchestra and the Owl Parliament Choir, with a good dose of cynicism. Again, I was am pmsurprised. Recorded at a concert in Queen Elizabeth Hall, it may not become a go-to listen, but it doesn’t simply take the tunes and lushly array them in predictable orchestral raiments. Instead, Roxy classics are imaginatively deconstructed, opened out, given space, a less-is-more approach that rewards. An ear-interesting set. Even more so is the pair’s new album AM PM, which veers between sounding like The Orb in full dub-dance flow to more "Maggot Brain"-ish ambient spacing. This whole bunch of Manzanera fare is a pleasant surprise.

Nirvana In Utero: 30th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition (Universal)

nirvanaBy the nature of things, Nirvana’s oeuvre is limited, but this box of their third and final album digs out as much music surrounding the 1993 release as possible. Famously, following Nevermind, Kurt Cobain was keen to return the band to their punkier underground roots and hired lo-fi iconoclast Steve Albini to produce the new record in the raw. There were later issues when some songs were remixed but, in essence, In Utero combines the wilful noisiness of “Scentless Apprentice” and the like with Cobain’s inability, however hard he tries, to avoid catchy songwriting. But Nirvana fans will not be looking to the original album; they’ll be onto this for the extras. These are plentiful, from previously released B-sides and offcuts such as the cacophonic, prophetic “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” to the slow-rolling “Marijuana”-shouting grunge of, oh yes, “Moist Vagina”. The main body of these six records, though, is previously unreleased live material, from a gig in Los Angeles in December 1993, and Seattle in January 1994, including speeding versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and wired-up takes on Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”. Both sets are clearly recorded and offer fresh takes on Cobain’s unique vocal manner, running from cynicism to desperation to rage. The box also has a 48-page hard-cover book, full of photos, and there are stocking fillers for Nirvana-philes, such as an acrylic panel of the “angel” cover, a mobile of it, a goofy fanzine and reproduction gig flyers, tour poster, ticket stubs, tour laminates and backstage passes.


FUSE Dimension Intrusion (Warp/Plus 8) + Speedy J Ginger (Warp)

warpFor the old raver in the family, how about these reissues of two groundbreaking 1993 techno albums from Warp Records “Artificial Intelligence” series. Richie Hawtin, then a shaven-headed, self-confessed nerd, was at an initial peak of his powers. Taking a break from his Plastikman persona, FUSE is still very much in the mode of early Plastikman, the album pinging back’nforth between warm but mind-mangling analogue electronic psychedelia and more visceral dancefloor stonking. The Speedy J album was a bigger sensation at the time, introducing Dutch producer Jochem Paap to an international audience. Personally, I prefer his later, more evil techno assaults, notably the Public Energy No.1 album, but there’s still appeal here. On Ginger he goes further into percussive minimalism than the Hawtin album and creates a persuasively hypnotic set. Both come on double with 12” x 12” info inserts.

The Redskins These Furious Flames! Redskins Live! 1985/86 (London)

redThis one’s a Christmas present for me. The Redskins were a Thatcher-loathing skinhead band from York whose energetic combination of socialism, Motown and The Clash was a musical tonic in the mid-Eighties. I was lucky enough to see them live during the period this album covers and these two discs, with inner sleeve notes and background from the band, reflect just how tight they were. Their doctrinaire Marxism is from another age but the music exudes a timeless spirit of righteous rebellion. Since they only ever released one album and a bunch of singles, these live cuts, from concerts at the Polytechnic of Central London in 1985 and the Town and Country Club in 1986, are an invigorating addition to the catalogue. It sounds great and haemorrhages energy. “If the Supremes had been three steel workers from Petrograd they’d have sounded exactly like this,” singer Chris Dean says before one song. Quite so!

Jimi Hendrix Experience Hollywood Bowl August 18 1967 (Sony)

jimiJimi Hendrix’s career was short but still so musically varied that there are aficionados for particular periods within it. If pushed, I’d plump myself in the camp that enjoys best his earliest, most energized sound, the raw rockin’ we see peaking in the Monterey Pop film, rather than the later fret-widdlier, jazz fusion stuff. This set, then, is peak Hendrix for me. Despite fluffing the lyrics of “The Wind Cries Mary”, it matters not a jot, due to wild squalling versions of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” alongside blistering takes on “Purple Haze”, “Foxey Lady”, “Purple Haze” and “Wild Thing”.

Bob Dylan Another Budokan 1978 (Sony)

dylanAnother Budokan and also another album for Sixties refugees of all ages. Dylan’s two night stand at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall on 28th Feb and 1st March 1978 resulted in a Top 5 UK album later that year. Another Budokan offers up a variety of cuts that weren’t included on the original, whether taking alternate versions (ie, versions of songs recorded on the other of the two nights) or songs that were simply not included before. It comes in double on gatefold with 12” x 12” four-page insert rammed with background and photographs. It sounds fat, well-pressed to plastic. Dylan, in fine voice, utilised the same band he’d had for his recent Street-Legal album, as well as a brass section, which gives these numbers an unexpected pop shine, including biggies such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Girl From the North Country”. Given Dylan’s propensity for set-list obscurism, anyone at these gigs must have gone away very happy!

Johnny Marr Spirit Power: The Best of Johnny Marr (BMG)

marrWith his involvement in everything from Electronic to Modest Mouth, Johnny Marr has proved himself a musical polymath since leaving the Smiths all those years ago. This collection gathers cuts from his four solo albums, as well as the punchy stand-alone electro-pop-ish single “Armatopia” and the 2017 piece “The Priest”, a socially gritty narrative about homelessness spoken by Maxine Peake over a chugging instrumental. There are also two new songs, the somewhat forgettable jangle-rocker “Somewhere” and the more entertaining smash-rocker “The Answer”. Overall, this is an ideal present for the BBC 6Music dad-rockers, although Marr’s musical inquisitiveness belies the sonic conservatism of his likely audience

Siobhan Donaghy Revolution in Me (London)

siobhanA present for the Sugababes completist, the 20th anniversary edition of Siobhan Donaghy’s debut solo album now reappears. Back then, Donaghy had just undergone a difficult parting with the band she co-founded. For her comeback effort she heads in an acoustic-electronic direction, where the bones of the songwriting pleasingly show through without too much additional production. Her next album, Ghosts, drew more plaudits but Revolution in Me is the sound of a songwriter re-finding her feet and, while it doesn’t force itself on the listener, it quietly makes itself felt.

The Ophelias Bare Bodkin (Independent Project)

bodkinFans of elegant design and presentation will be drawn to the output of Independent Project Records. In this case, it would also be helpful to be a fan of Eighties psychedelia. Not to be confused with a much more recent all-female Ohio band, San Francisco’s The Ophelias existed in the 1980s. Their music sits somewhere between early Robin Hitchcock, Bevis Frond, Julian Cope, Cardiacs and rustic Brit Sixties psyche. Limited to 1000 vinyl copies, Bare Bodkin is a collection that includes five previously unreleased songs and arrives in art/info inner sleeves on gatefold double, in classic Independent Project envelope packaging, and featuring detailed history by Rolling Stone writer David Fricke. They are one of those bands that have slipped through the cracks of history but if off-the-wall-but-approachable is your thing, they’ll likely win you over.

Pearl Jam Vs. (Sony)

vs30 years ago Nirvana may have been the face and heart of grunge but it was Pearl Jam, much as they resisted, who, especially in the US, reaped the commercial whirlwind. Vs., their second album was a complete monster, in terms of sales, and here reappears on double vinyl in gatefold. It’s easy to see why mainstream America took to them and, also, why so many “jock rock” accusations were thrown their way. Their hearts may have been in the right place, as Kurt Cobain, one of the critical accusers, eventually admitted, but the music does have a fratboy-friendly jam-rock fluidity and bounce, faintly redolent of hoary and very un-punk Seventies bands, as well as the sports metallers who were just round the corner. Nonetheless, it contains the US chart whoppers “Daughter” and “Dissident” and a plaid-shirted distant cousin may welcome it.

Suede Suede (Demon)

suedeIf, on the other hand, your 50-something relations are after music that was making a stand against grunge, then Suede are a one-stop shop. Their debut album was an independent record label No.1 UK hit in 1993 (for Nude Records). Buoyed by singer Brett Anderson’s Bowie-channelling smacky decadence, it relies mainly on melodramatic songs that flit between the arch glam Seventies-ness of Steve Harley and ilk, and something darker, more genuinely felt and broken inside. Whether Suede like it or not, it contains a good percentage of the core songs they'll always be known for, such as “Metal Mickey”, “She’s Not Dead”, “Animal Nitrate”, “The Drowners” and “So Young”. Comes with a four-page 12” x 12” photo/lyric insert.

Oasis The Masterplan (Big Brother)

oasisBut it would be a couple of years after Suede before British indie truly exploded into a national phenomenon: Oasis. The Masterplan is, arguably, the band’s best album after their first two studio albums. It’s not really a fair comparison as the 1998 collection is simply a compilation of the B-sides. Be that as it may, it’s rife with the unforced ebullience, catchy songwriting and bullish communality that made Oasis Britain’s biggest band. “Half A World Away” went on to achieve fame as the theme to The Royle Family, but the pleasures here run the gamut from the punkishly noisy “Cigarettes and Alcohol” flip “Fade Away” to more fully constructed epics such as “Acquiesce”, while the album’s title song is a cast-iron Oasis belter in the vein of “Wonderwall” (for which it was the B-side). Comes on double, well-cut to vinyl, in photo/info inner sleeves, and a gatefold containing reflections by the journalist and cultural arbiter Paul du Noyer.

Barbara Streisand Evergreens + Yentl: 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Columbia Legacy)

barb80-year-old American music perennial Barbra Streisand has recently released her near-thousand-page autobiography and, in a similar spirit of reflection, for Evergreens, she’s picked four sides of songs to represent her whole long career. She starts with her take on Rogers & Hart’s “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street” from her 1962 debut album and runs all the way through to "Lady Liberty" from her very gently political 2018 album Walls. Then the album closes with a new 2023 mix of "Evergreen" from her 1976 film of A Star is Born. Her foghorn cabaret style doesn’t change – you like it or you don’t – but with the 1983 film Yentl she certainly pushed buttons. Based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story about a Jewish girl in Poland at the start of the 20th century who disguises herself as a boy so she can learn the Talmud, it contained a subtext of homosexual love, the whole sweetened by the string-laden Oscar-winning music, including songs such as “Papa, Can You Here Me?” and “The Way he Makes me Feel”. This one’s for the granny or (old school) gaylord in your life.

Bryan Ferry Mamouna (BMG)

bryanMamouna was released in 1994 and was Ferry’s first album of original material in seven years. He had been working on it almost as long and the reissue arrives with an entire second album called Horoscope, which was this original version (they only have two songs in common, in different versions). They are paired on double in gatefold and, in fact, the Horoscope set is often the equal of Mamouna, with cuts such as “The Only Face” and “S&M (Midnight Train)” emanating the supremely polished fretless bass sex-funk that Ferry had, by this point, made his own. Assisted by a who’s who of guests, including Nile Rodgers and Brian Eno, it’s an easy-on-the-ear bedroom soundtrack but doesn’t stay long in the brain afterwards.

Altered Images Bite (Demon)

biteAltered Images' impish singer Claire Grogan was the only female sex symbol of my early teens who seemed to be permanently grinning. That she was in a new wavey pop outfit made this all the more surprising. By the time Bite came out in 1983, they’d lost a couple of members and, despite reasonable success, it didn’t match their previous two albums (one of which contained their most famous song, “Happy Birthday”) and they called it a day. Bite also birthed a couple of hits, notably the electro-poppy Eighties nightclub staple “Don’t Talk to Me About Love”. There are other catchy tunes too, especially the delicious, Orange Juice-ish “new pop” slowie “Love to Stay”. The band reformed a couple of years ago and finally created their follow-up to this album. Apparently the perform live too but I just checked their website, and not this Christmas.

James Taylor Quartet The Money Spyder (Acid Jazz)

jamesBack in the Eighties, before relentless post-modernism took over everything, James Taylor was into Sixties film themes and old library music. He channelled this into his Hammond-fuelled garage good time music with snappy mod class. His concerts were a top night out. His second album, The Money Spyder, appeared in 1987 via the proto-Acid Jazz label Re-Elect the President. Imagined as the soundtrack to a sharply dressed old flick, it also feels like a bridging piece from punk and psychedelia to the sampling and dance music of the 1990s ahead. If they're old and own a Lambretta, they’ll dig this.

Goo Goo Dolls Live at the Academy 1995 (Warner)

gooMost famous in the UK for the 1998 Top 5 single “Iris”, Goo Goo Dolls had already been around for over a decade by that point. They were and are a playful band who haven’t taken themselves or their image to seriously. As such, and because they’ve sometimes dabbled in musical styles that bemused their fans, they’ve not been rememberd as well as some of their peers. This album, on double in gatefold, captures them at The Academy in New York. It opens with an acoustic-led “soundcheck” which makes their grunge side explicit, before ploughing into a full punkin’ show that snaps at-a-pace though many of their most-beloved songs (to that point). It’s a vivacious snapshot of a band at a peak.

The Cranberries To the Faithful Departed (Island)

cranTo the Faithful Departed was Irish rockers The Cranberries’ third album and a global smash that followed the even bigger global smash that preceded it, 1994’s No Need to Argue. The band’s making was the striking voice of singer Dolores O’Riordan, alongside their ability to combine spiky, grungey guitar with pop hooks (despite some famously dreadful lyrics; “I Just Shot John Lennon” from To the Faithful Departed is a renowned contender for the worst lyrics of all time but, since it’s the season of good will, we’ll swiftly move on). Although popular, the band were never hip but, listening to the likes of slowies “When You’re Gone” and “Joe”, you’d look foolish to claim they couldn't write a tune. This reissue comes on double in gatefold with three previously unreleased demos recorded in Paris in 1995.

Labi Siffre Labi Siffre (Demon)

labiIt’s long struck me as odd that, back in the Seventies, Labi Siffre wasn’t more successful. It’s not that his strummy pop is massively my thing, but it has an uplifting immediacy akin to Cat Stevens and John Denver, both of whom were massive stars around the same time as Siffre’s initial run of albums. This is his first and, while funkier than those aforementioned singers, he also catchily blends cheerful acoustic guitar uplift and easy listening instrumentation. He’s a post-Dylan wordsmith too, but with a groove. His own songs stand up here beside his covers of Harry Nilsson and The Bee Gees. And that’s it for this Christmas, a suitable chirpy ending by the fireside with Labi Siffre. Theartsdesk on Vinyl wishes all readers a brilliant seasonal bit, full of spiced ale and merriment, and also a fantastic 2024. Bring it on!

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