Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Great Christmas Music You Might Not Know

I know, I know - the grocery store has been playing Christmas music for a month now and you're sick of it already. But in my house, Christmas music starts in early November and by Thanksgiving week it's all Christmas music, all the time. Of course, when you start that early, you need a huge variety of music so you don't get bored. And with our family's eclectic taste in music, we listen to all kinds of stuff that you might not be familiar with. So here are some suggestions of Christmas tunes from all genres that you should consider adding to your Christmas playlist.

Gaudete - The King's Singers
The King's Singers is a primarily a cappella male sextet founded at King's College in Cambridge, England, in 1968. Despite many changes in membership over the years, they always have a distinctive crisp sound with minimal vibrato, tight harmonies, spot-on pitch, and impeccable diction. Although their repertoire leans heavily toward classical and renaissance music, they cover all kinds of pop tunes and novelty numbers as well. They have multiple Christmas albums with both accompanied and a cappella pieces, and some with other choirs. One of my favorites from their Christmas repertoire is this lovely medieval Latin hymn, the refrain of which translates to, "Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ is born of the virgin Mary." This piece is from their album "A Little Christmas Music."

Similar songs you might also like include: In Dulci Jubilo - Guilford Cathedral Choir; Veni, Veni, Emmanuel - Calmus Ensemble; Resonet in Laudibus - Chorus Salvatoris

Somerset Gloucestershire Wassail - The Kingston Trio
I grew up listening to this album over and over all Christmas season, and there's not a cut I don't love, but this particular song so beautifully features the instruments, the harmony, and the simple repetitive melody. If you enjoy this song, be sure to check out the entire album, released in 1960.

If you like this song, you might also like: Silent Night - Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Comfort and Joy (God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen) - Simon and Garfunkel; The Virgin Mary - The Chad Mitchell Trio

12 Days to Christmas - from "She Loves Me"
This track has a special place in my heart since it's a part of a Christmas revue my family performs in every year. The musical is based on the same source material as the film "You've Got Mail," and this particular scene fast-forwards through the Christmas season as the two clerks begin to fall in love in person. As Christmas nears, the customers and the clerks become increasingly frantic and panicky, and the music speeds up accordingly. It's a funny scene and a funny song, and it's completely true to how most of us deal with Christmas approaching.

Similarly light-hearted Christmas songs include: The 12 Days of Christmas - John Denver and the Muppets; The Christmas Can-Can - Straight No Chaser; Pine Cones and Holly Berries/It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas - The Osmonds

Still, Still, Still - The Cambridge Singers
A chamber group originally formed by renowned composer and choral director John Rutter, these classically trained voices have released a number of Christmas albums: "Christmas Night" (1987), "Christmas with the Cambridge Singers" (1989), "Christmas Day in the Morning," (1993), "The Cambridge Singers Christmas Companion" (2000), "The John Rutter Christmas Album" (2002), and "A Christmas Festival" (2008). I love the sweetness of the boy sopranos and the contrast between the older singers' richer voices. This track, from their 1989 album, is a particular favorite of mine.

If you enjoy this piece, listen to: Coventry Carol - Westminster Cathedral Choir; In the Bleak Midwinter - The Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Adeste Fidelis - Choir of Christchurch Cathedral

A Tender Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant
This may seem like a strange choice for a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander like myself, but the longing for the kind of Christmas you remember from your childhood is universal. Grant's mellow voice, with its hint of southern hospitality, strikes the right emotional chord for me. This track is from her first Christmas album, "A Christmas Album" (1983), but she has released 10 (!!) other Christmas albums since then, including "The Animals' Christmas" (with Art Garfunkel, 1986), "Home For Christmas" (1992), and "The Christmas Collection" (2008). Her holiday albums are a mix of covers of traditional songs and original compositions.

If this style appeals to you, try these similar recordings: Do You Hear What I Hear? - Carrie Underwood; Christmas Waltz by the Carpenters; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Kelly Clarkson

Cool Yule - Louis Armstrong
Backed by a rockin' jazz orchestra, Armstrong's distinctive raspy vocals and wailing trumpet will snap you out of the worst holiday funk. His laugh at the end is my favorite part. If you like this number, be sure to listen to the rest of the album, "What a Wonderful Christmas," featuring other great jazz artists like Lionel Hampton, Mel Torme, Lena Horne, and many others.

Other terrific jazz favorites for Christmas you might want to give a listen to include: Sleigh Ride - Ella Fitzgerald; The Man with the Bag - Jessie J; and Shake Hands with Santa Claus - Louis Prima, which gets its own entry below.

Shake Hands with Santa Claus - Louis Prima
You may not think you know who Louis Prima is, but if you've seen the Disney movie "A Jungle Book," you know him as King Louie, the king of the apes who kidnap Mowgli. Recorded in 1951, "Shake Hands with Santa Claus" was released as a single, but it's been included on multiple collections since, including "21 Jazz Christmas Favorites," "Jingle Bell Swing," "Christmas Don't Be Late...Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Breaking It Up!", and "The Sound of Christmas," among others.

This song is in the same category as Satchmo's Cool Yule, so check the list above for similar songs.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - Harry Belafonte
Belafonte's slow, sweet version of this well-known carol reminds me just how glorious and controlled his voice was. This is a perfect song to play on Christmas Eve after all the presents are wrapped, the kids are asleep, and you're sitting back on the couch with your feet by the fire and your sweetheart by your side. Close your eyes, sip your mulled cider, and remember the peace and calm of Christmas. This song is the final track of his first Christmas album, "To Wish You a Merry Christmas," recorded in 1958.

Other soothing, relaxing Christmas songs featuring similarly mellow vocals include: Christmastime is Here - Diana Krall; My Grown-Up Christmas List - Natalie Cole; O Holy Night - Josh Groban

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year - Harry Connick, Jr.
Harry Connick, Jr. takes the classic chestnut made popular by Andy Williams and jazzes it up with a swinging band backing him up. The album, 'What a Night!" (2008) was Connick's third Christmas album, and contains a mix of Christmas standards and original songs.

For other jazzed-up arrangement of Christmas classics, check out these options: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen/We Three Kings - Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan; Up on the Housetop - Pentatonix; We Wish You a Merry Christmas - New York Voices and Helsinki Swing Big Band

All Is Well - Voctave
Arguably one of the most beautiful a cappella albums ever recorded, the purity and harmony of the voices in this group gives their 2016 album, "The Spirit of the Season," a distinctive sound. Their recording of "Mary, Did You Know" (featuring lead vocals by the composer, Mark Lowry) may be the most well-known cut from this album, but the whole album is full of gorgeously scored traditional and lesser-known Christmas songs.

Other fabulous a cappella Christmas songs include: Christmas Carol Medley - The New Swingle Singers; Do You Hear What I Hear? - Home Free; Children, Go Where I Send Thee - Little Big Town

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Red Carpet Review: The 2017 American Music Awards

Unlike the recent 2017 Country Music Awards red carpet, the 2017 American Music Awards red carpet featured some spectacularly good and a few spectacularly bad outfits. In general, the looks at last night's AMAs were more dramatic and less traditional than the average red carpet. Asymmetry was the almost universal trend, with high-low and handkerchief skirts and one-shouldered looks very popular. Here are some of the more memorable (and a few rather forgettable) looks of the night.

Pink had worn a ruffled tulle gown to the CMAs, but that one was a relatively sedate white version with less voluminous ruffles and a simple black belt. This frothy, bubble-gum pink gown with its mismatched layers of ruffles looked messy and thrown-together, although I did love the purple morning glories embroidered on the bodice. More even layers and a little less volume would have vastly improved this look, but as is, it didn't work for me.

Julia Michaels also opted for a brightly-colored tulle gown with multiple layers, but hers was much more successful - with the notable exception of the weirdly tied printed belt sticking out of the keyhole cutout, which broke up the line of the dress and felt completely out of place. But the long layer of ruffles made a beautiful, not too voluminous line, and I loved the way the tulle stood up in a graceful arch across the bodice. Lose the belt and this look is a real winner.

Demi Lovato was channeling Morticia Addams with her long, middle-parted, sideswept locks and fitted black gown. I liked the hint of ruffle across the sweetheart neckline, and the sheerness of the fabric as it gathered into the bottom of the bodice created some interesting texture and lines.

Kelly Rowland has worn some pretty terrible gowns on the red carpet over the years, but this was definitely not one of them. I absolutely adored her black gown with gorgeous, colorful embroidery on the bodice, criss-cross lacking across the not-too-deep v-neck, sheer puffed sleeves ending in velvet cuffs, and straight skirt with a deep thigh-high slit. It was feminine, graceful, and just a little bit unusual. One of my favorites of the night.

I don't love Kelly Clarkson's new blond locks, particularly in this starkly straight style paired with dark lipstick, but her off-the-shoulder black and gold gown was terrific. The black panel across the center with the flared gold inserts at the sides was slimming, and the curved panels and angled neckline created a lovely and flattering silhouette.

Alessia Cara opted for an oddly casual look in nylon cargo pants, heavy black boots with white laces, and a satin v-neck top with sheer sleeves and neckline inset. At least she looked comfortable?

Kehlani followed the trend of a sheer but patterned gown over a miniskirt. I loved the whimsical pattern of jellyfish along the hem, and I appreciated that the underlayers of short black miniskirt and bra were feminine but not too revealing, and the texture of the fabric made the look less bare but still sexy.

Ciara wore a shiny black leather jacket dress with square shoulders and an asymmetrical hem, paired with matching stiletto boots. Her nude makeup and simple stark hairstyle made for a stylish and dramatic look that worked well for her.

Selena Gomez also opted for a black leather jacket dress, in her case a studded biker jacket extending into a micro-miniskirt. Paired with simple black pointy pumps, her legs looked miles long. A good look for this venue.

Bebe Rexha wore a skin-tight column of sheer black textured fabric over a white underdress. It was a pretty dress, but not particularly well-suited to her curvy figure. The fabric tended to bunch at the waist and hips, and the bodice appeared to be slightly too tight. Not the best look for her, sadly.

Although I liked the concept of Sabrina Carpenter's long, flared, plaid shirt dress, the execution had a few flaws. The sleeves were too long, the neckline was a bit too low (or even perhaps too high - I think it would have worked better in either extreme), and the plaid looked crooked at the hem. I did love the thigh-high tan boots and her pulled-back-at-the-top hairstyle, though. An okay look, but not great.
The top of Nicole Kidman's strapless black column was bland, but keep looking down and you spot a cool asymmetrical hemline and fabulous thigh-high laced black stiletto boots, and wow. This outfit also makes her look about 9 feet tall. Terrific.

I'm not generally a fan of jumpsuits, but Maia Mitchell's lacy black one-shoulder number really worked for me. I love the flare of the sleeves and the pantlegs, and the black leather wrap belt with just a hint of peplum below it softens the line just enough to stop it from being too stark. The sleek hairstyle and giant hoop earrings are just the right finishing touches.

Rachel Platten, on the other hand, was not quite as successful with her sheer black striped jumpsuit. The pants were cute; I didn't even mind the semi-granny-panty look. But the "suspenders" with a sheer panel that comprised the bodice was unflattering to the extreme, and although I thought her softly waved hair was lovely, it was a look for a retro 40s or traditionally cut gown, not the jumpsuit she was wearing.

Sadie Sink wore a simple white cocktail dress with a boatneck and a silver mesh overlay. Not everyone could pull off this color, but with her sideswept strawberry blond locks and just a touch of bright lipstick, she made it work.

Yara Shahidi was selling me this look right until the knee socks under her silver sandals. The zebra striped collar under a black vest, short trench, and slim grey shorts with beautiful sparkly panels is kicky and cute. But knee socks with sandals, even fancy silver ones, doesn't fly. She's still pretty adorable, though.

Lea Michele looked washed out in her pale pink halter gown with sparkly corset top and softly draped skirt. It wasn't bad, it just didn't have any personality. And judging by the expression on her face, she knows it.

Kat Graham brought plenty of personality in this fun ensemble with a white long-sleeved shirt with plunging neckline and shoulder bow paired with an asymmetrical, black-lined, bubblegum pink skirt with short narrow side train. Her black pointy pumps and cute round silver tasseled bag were cute accessories. Crazy, but not too crazy.

"Too crazy" is just the right description for Diana Ross's wild getup. She wore a satin cap with weird tulle rosettes that stuck up over her head and descended into a sheer capelet, and the gown was gathered into lumpy points at the bust and had way too much volume at the front, creating an unflattering silhouette. The clunky silver shoes weren't helping, either. But her hair and makeup were sheer perfection, and when it comes right down to it, she's Diana Ross. She can wear whatever she wants and we'll still adore her.

Hailee Steinfeld also found a good balance between wild and flattering in a tuxedo-inspired look. Her pegged, cropped pants and open double-breasted tux jacket with upswept shoulders was worn over a funky-cut bra-like top that was not too revealing. A good take on this look.

I didn't love Jessie Decker's look quite as much as I loved her cranberry gown from the CMAs, but it's still a cute look. Her off-the-shoulder, fitted, short mauve maternity dress with above-the-knee slit looked comfortable and flattering, and her maternal glow is the best accessory.

Patrick Starr went all out for fun in these fringed, lime-green cha-cha pants and top. The turban is a little bulky, but the look is light-hearted and fun. Shake what your mama gave ya, Patrick!

Tracee Ellis Ross went for a relatively conservative deep burgundy sequined column with long sleeves, high neck, and tall slit. I'm not sure the bright red strappy sandals are the right color for this gown, but the style is certainly perfect. Not a bad look, just not a particularly noteworthy one.

Kathryn Hahn's grecian-inspired orange column with criss-cross bodice is simple and flattering on her slender figure. But her droopy hair and overlong bangs are not quite right for the look. Add some volume or sweep it back, and this would be much improved. But you can't improve on her happy smile.

It's hard to see in this photo, but Camila Mendes wore a pale pink and yellow gown with plunging neckline and slightly flared skirt. The silhouette of the gown is lovely, but the colors just vanish on her, and her dark hair looks too severe with the washed-out colors. This same dress in more vivid tones would have been terrific.

Chrissy Metz, like many larger celebrities, sometimes struggles for flattering red carpet looks, but she really made an excellent choice with this black dress with round neck and bright purple fringe at the shoulders and along the criss-cross hemline. The wide line of the neck with the pop of color at the shoulder draws the eye out and balances her figure, and the length of the hem is really flattering on her. I love the dark eye makeup and nude lips. A really great look for her.

Garcelle Beauvais also opted for a menswear-inspired look in this wrapped long jacket with no pants, paired with fabulous silver sparkle boots and a couple of oversized sparkly rings. A simple but really great look.

Heidi Klum wore a pretty but not especially memorable pink, silver, and white swirl patterned gown with a plunging neckline. I liked the way her wavy hair mirrored the pattern of the dress. Good, but not great.

Jenna Dewan Tatum went all out for the va-va-voom factor in this silver halter column with deep v-neck, thigh-high slit, and short train. I loved the texture of the fabric and the overall lines, and the cut is perfect for her slender figure, not appearing too tight or revealing. Just a hint of retro and a lot of sexy elegance.

Keltie Knight's funky white minidress with short train had beautiful, crisp lines and structure. The curve of the flounce on the bodice broke up the straight lines, as did the hint of puddled train, and the silver strappy sandals were great. Nicely done.

Lydia Hearst was all about the asymmetry in this black gown, with a slightly ruched top with a single wide shoulder strap, a slightly angled short underskirt, and a sheer textured overlay that draped to the ankle on one leg and gathered at the opposite hip. Even the heavy slingbacks worked for me, and I especially loved her sideswept hair and gorgeous eye makeup with barely pink lips. Everything was in balance. A dramatic and unusual look, very well executed.

While I loved the cut of Renee Bargh's dress, the olive drab cotton fabric, so evocative of army uniforms, didn't quite work for me. The off-the-shoulder bodice with wide lapels and little shoulder straps, the full skirt with broad pleats and asymmetrical hemline, and the wide buckle belt were all a great take on vintage 1940s styling, but the color took it a step too far.

Skylar Grey wore a simple black column with a slightly wrapped skirt with thigh-high slit and a deeply plunging neckline, but something about the way it fit her looked droopy and unflattering. I think the waistline needed to be either a little higher or a little lower, and the overall hem needed to be either shortened to just brush the floor or lengthened into a true train, and it would have worked much better for her.

What was YOUR favorite look of the night?

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Best Lentil and Sausage Soup

Today is a dreary, chilly day that is just begging for soup. This particular soup is an especially wonderful thing on this kind of day, because the way it makes your kitchen smell is simply amazing. I'm pretty sure I've posted this recipe on my blog before (probably more than once), but here are some more complete instructions (with pictures!) if you're a more hesitant cook. It's a great recipe for an inexperienced cook, because the only real skill you need is cutting the vegetables in reasonably similar sized-pieces.

The full recipe is at the bottom, but here's a step-by-step walkthrough.

First, gather your ingredients: butter, onion, garlic, thyme, cumin, salt and pepper, chicken broth, carrots, celery, dried lentils, sweet Italian sausage, and grated parmesan. You can make a vegetarian or vegan version by substituting olive oil for butter and vegetable broth for chicken broth and omitting the sausage and the parmesan.

I like to start by cutting up all my vegetables. The recipe calls for half an onion, but I like onion, so I use a whole small onion. My family doesn't like chunks of stuff, so I chop it fairly finely, but it's fine if you just slice the onion and let it separate as it cooks.

You can use either minced garlic from a jar (1 tablespoon) or mince some fresh garlic cloves. I use about four to get a tablespoon.  I don't worry about mincing it too finely, since it basically dissolves into the soup anyway.

Next, you need 1-1/2 cups of thinly sliced carrots. One medium-sized carrot is roughly half a cup of slices, so I peel and slice three carrots. It doesn't matter if you're a little short or a little over. It's soup; it's very forgiving. Also, if you hate chopping, or if your knife skills aren't so hot, get yourself an inexpensive kitchen mandoline. (This one's currently on sale at Kohl's for 12 bucks.)

Ditto on the celery: each stalk is about half a cup, so use three stalks and don't worry about it being over or under. Again, I chop the celery quite finely for my picky family's sake, but leave it chunky if you prefer. You can use a mandoline for the celery, too.

Now you're ready to start the actual cooking! Melt three tablespoons of butter in a Dutch oven (or a really large saucepan) over medium heat.

When the butter is fully melted, add the onion and garlic and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until translucent. (This is when your kitchen will start to smell really good.)

Next, stir in your seasonings: 1 teaspoon thyme, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. I use a grinder for my pepper, so my measurement is not so much "1/2 teaspoon" as it is, "eh, that looks about right." You can always adjust the seasonings later. (Also, this is when your kitchen will start to smell even better. Cumin is magic.)

 Slowly stir in 6 cups of chicken broth.

Dump in the chopped carrots and celery and give the soup a good stir. 

Add a generous cup of dried lentils. The packages I get at my local grocery are about 2-1/4 cups, so I just eyeball half the bag. Remember? Soup = forgiving. We're cooking, not baking. Approximations are fine. 

Now slice open a pound of sweet Italian sausage - just slash them from end to end with a sharp knife. Peel off the casing like you're peeling a banana. (Discard the casing just like you'd discard the banana peel.) Pull the meat into pieces and drop it into the soup. Obviously, if you're making a vegetarian version, simply omit the sausage. The spices are so wonderful that the soup is equally delicious without it.

 Give the pot a good stir, then turn the heat up to high and bring the soup to a boil.

Reduce heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 50 minutes or so. Feel free to adjust the seasonings to taste, and add a little water or broth if the soup seems too thick. Sprinkle each serving with grated parmesan, if desired. Add a side of cornbread or hearty Italian bread and you've got yourself a complete (and delicious - and reasonably healthy) meal.

Here's the complete recipe:

3 tbsp butter
½ onion, sliced thin
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
6 cups chicken broth
1-1/2 cups carrots, sliced
1-1/2 cups celery, sliced
½ package dried lentils (~1 cup)
1 lb. sweet Italian sausage (optional)
Grated Parmesan-Romano cheese

Melt the butter in the bottom of a dutch oven or large saucepan. Saute the onions and garlic for a few minutes. Stir in the thyme, cumin, salt, and pepper. Slowly add the chicken broth. Stir in the carrots, celery, and lentils. If desired, remove the casing of the sausage and crumble into the pot. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 50 minutes (covered). Sprinkle with cheese before serving.


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