Andrea Bocelli - My ChristmasLike any crossover star, Andrea Bocelli has his detractors, particularly opera purists who dismiss him for vocal deficiencies. But the Italian tenor is laughing all the way to the bank: his pop and light classical albums have sold more than 70 million copies, and the unassuming star easily ranks among the world’s most popular singers.

    Blind since the age of 12, Bocelli grew up on a Tuscany farm and earned a Doctor of Law degree before pursuing music. After a stint performing in piano bars, he was discovered in the mid-1990s and launched his recording career. His breakthrough came in 1999 when his Sogno album, featuring his duet with Céline Dion of “The Prayer,” sold more than 10 million copies. Now he has released something different: My Christmas. Says Bocelli: “I have long dreamed of recording a holiday album that captures the beautiful traditions of the season.”

    Although his detractors will hate it, My Christmas is destined to become a holiday favorite. Bocelli’s charisma shines through in his duets with Natalie Cole (“The Christmas Song”), Reba McEntire (“Blue Christmas”) and Mary J. Blige (“What Child is This”). His sonorous tenor rings out strong and clear on the joyous “Angels We Have Heard on High” and with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on a gorgeous rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” And while he might have been better advised than to team up with the Muppets on a raucous “Jingle Bells,” Bocelli’s playfulness proves he’s a tenor for the people, not for purists.

The Rolling Stones - Get Yer Ya-Ya's OutStones fans often rank this recording of the band’s two-night stand at Madison Square Garden in 1969 as the greatest live rock album of all time. Now remastered with extra unreleased tracks, performances by opening acts B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner and never-before-seen film footage, this CD-DVD set will be on many Christmas wish lists. Highlights include Mick Jagger’s fiery performance of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Keith Richards’ and Mick Taylor’s red-hot guitar duel on “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Tom Waits - Glitter & DoomWith his gruff voice and often dark musical accompaniment, this idiosyncratic American legend is certainly a master of doom of sorts. But Tom is also a dazzling performer, conjuring up a modern homage to vaudeville, carnivals and old-time minstrel shows. This double CD live set captures plenty of glitter, from the colorful characters of “Live Circus” to the driving railroad rhythm of “Get Behind the Mule,” with percussion from Tom’s son Casey. The spoken-word Disc Two is a wonderfully wacky tour de force.

December 2009

Il Divo - Live from BarcelonaThe Armani boys brigade is back with another collection of operatic-pop weepers, just in time for Christmas. Recorded on their worldwide tour of 81 cities and 32 countries, this CD-DVD package includes the handsome, multinational quartet’s typically over-the-top renditions of classical hits and pop classics sung in English, Italian, Spanish and Latin, including “Somewhere,” “My Way,” “Amazing Grace” and “Nights in White Satin.” Best of all is Il Divo’s suave Spanish version of Leonard Cohen’s glorious “Hallelujah.”

December 2009

Bruce Cockburn - Dancing in the Dragon's JawsRounding out the 1970s and completing a trilogy of acoustic jazz-folk albums that included In the Falling Dark and Further Adventures Of, Bruce Cockburn’s Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws stands as both an era-ending album and a cumulative release that neatly built on the strengths of its predecessors. It also serves as a high-water mark for Cockburn in several respects. Featuring some of his finest guitar work ever, the album was voted an “essential” recording by Acoustic Guitar magazine, putting Cockburn in the prestigious company of such revered pickers as Django Reinhardt, Andrés Segovia, Bill Frisell and Mississippi John Hurt. It also provided Cockburn with a commercial breakthrough on the strength of his buoyant “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which became a Top 40 hit in both Canada and the United States.

    With its colourful cover painting by Norval Morriseau, an Ojibwa artist who revitalized the iconography used in traditional rock drawings and birchbark scrolls, Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws boasts a bright, celebratory tone. The album, Cockburn once said, was about “being joyful in the face of everything.” But, as the title suggests, it also alludes to danger and hardship. “I wanted to give a concrete expression of the suffering,” he admitted, “that’s all too evident in the world.” Once again, as with Further Adventures Of, Cockburn’s worldview was deeply influenced by the writing of several Christian freethinkers, including English poet, lay theologian and novelist Charles Williams, whose metaphysical thrillers featured vivid, Holy Grail-style imagery. Overall, the album is fuelled by the elation of Cockburn’s deepening spirituality.

    The album opens with a pair of spiritual songs. “Creation Dream,” with Pat Godfrey’s bubbling marimba, is Cockburn’s vision of the Earth’s genesis. But the more inspired—and inspiring—of the two is “Hills of Morning.” Over a loping guitar, Cockburn paints a intriguing portrait of a street scene in which “a bunch of us were busy waiting.” Waiting for what? The answer is hinted at in his description of someone coming down the road, with “dust motes [dancing] around [his] feet in a cloud of gold.” A joyous chorus provides more clues: “Let me be a little of your breath,” Cockburn sings to the oncoming figure. “I want to be a particle of your light.” The scene suggests Jesus—something Cockburn confirmed when he explained that, in writing the song, he imagined himself “a street person in first century Jerusalem.”

    If “Hills of Morning” exemplifies Cockburn’s imaginative skills, then the next track, “Badlands Flashback,” offers proof of his guitar virtuosity. He sings the song’s lyrics in French, but his real fluency shines through on the lengthy guitar solo, which features intricate fingerpicking and dazzling runs up and down the fretboard. More evidence of his fleet-fingered work is found on the similarly jazz-inflected “After the Rain” and on “Bye Bye Idi,” one of two bonus instrumental tracks on this remastered version of the album. The latter, written after the overthrow of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, features so many lightning-fast notes that you’d think Cockburn was playing a 21-string African kora, rather than a six-string guitar.

    A meditative mood pervades the other bonus track, the chime-filled “Dawn Music,” as well as “No Footprints,” which reflects awe at the beauty of nature. In stark contrast, “Incandescent Blue” finds Cockburn going up against the chaos of the world. Written in New York City, it describes masked couples, kids practicing Kung fu and, metaphorically, the sound of people beating their heads against the wall.

    The laid-back, reggae vibe of “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which Cockburn performed on TV’s Saturday Night Live, belies an even greater tension. “The world survives into another day,” he sings, backed by the rhythm section of Jamaican legend Leroy Sibbles’ band. Turns out that Cockburn wrote the song the morning after a worrying conversation about the threat of nuclear war. He explained that he’d also had a nightmare in which lions were threatening at his door. His palpable relief comes across in the line, “I’m thinking about eternity, some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me.” Only an artist of Bruce Cockburn’s considerable gifts could score a light and breezy hit singing such weighty lyrics.

Nicholas Jennings

(Nicholas Jennings is the author of Before the Gold Rush, a critically acclaimed history of the Yorkville era of Canadian music in the 1960s)