The holidays have never really been Idina Menzel’s favorite time of year.

Idina Menzel

During an intimate concert for iHeartRadio Live in New York last Thursday, the Tony Award-winner and voice of Elsa in Disney’s juggernaut Frozen recalled how, when she was fifteen, she learned on Thanksgiving morning that her parents were getting a divorce. She remembered the turkey getting thrown in the garbage, the potatoes being tossed down the drain, and canceling on all the guests who were supposed to enjoy all that food. Moving forward, she’d have to split holidays between her mother’s and father’s homes, making the holidays a more stressful than festive time of year.

Idina Menzel

So when it came time to curate the track listing for her Christmas album, Holiday Wishes (released on October 14 by Warner Bros. Records), Menzel originally chose a series of depressing songs to encapsulate a feeling of loss during the holiday season. She joked to the audience that the record she first submitted to her label could have been titled A Slit Your Wrists Christmas. This was just one of the many times that she kidded with the iHeartRadio crew by suggesting that they edit out what she just said for the broadcast of the concert online later that evening.

But the final version of Holiday Wishes is far less morbid that Menzel had originally imagined. After she received pressure from Warner Bros. to include some more uplifting material on the album, the Broadway legend turned to her five-year-old son Walker for inspiration. Through him, she has been able to “rewrite what the holiday season means” to her, and found a sudden passion and desire to share that rejuvenated excitement through her record.

It was that newly rediscovered affection for the holidays that was on full display during Menzel’s concert. “Merry Christmas! Happy Halloween! Let’s get started,” she said when she stepped out onto the stage. “Happy Thanksgiving! Happy holidays,” she chuckled, acknowledging that perhaps not everybody was quite ready to get into the holiday spirit quite so early yet. But over the course of the next hour, she more than overcame any resistance from the skeptics in attendance.

She opened the show with the classic “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a song she’s been inspired to sing ever since hearing Whitney Houston’s version of it. The mezzo-soprano wasted no time belting at full-force, highlighting the stellar talent that explains why there’s a giant billboard in the middle of Times Square that describes her as “Broadway’s biggest star.”

While introducing “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas,” Menzel told a humorous story about how her son was supposed to sing with her on the track, similarly to how Harry Connick Jr. featured his daughter on his holiday album. She recounted recording the album during the hot summer weather and trying to convince Walker to get into a Christmas frame of mind in the studio. Originally, he was supposed to do a spoken word intro where he tells his mommy what he wants under the tree that year. Instead, Walker couldn’t get into it and the most he would do was sing “have a holly jolly butt-butt,” no matter what toys she bribed him with. As a result, Menzel tried to speak in Walker’s voice during the opening of the song, showcasing more of the hilarious sparring she did with the audience that was a big part of what made the evening so enjoyable.

Idina Menzel

Menzel’s setlist included a series of holiday classics, including a booming rendition of “White Christmas,” a beautiful take on “Silent Night,” a stunningly serene cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and a unique and jazzy interpretation of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But perhaps the most interesting of all of the songs she performed was “December Prayer,” an original song that she penned for Holiday Wishes.

“I wrote this song so that everyone would have a song during this time of year,” Menzel said before performing the hope-filled ballad, clearly channeling some of that sense of loss she previously discussed.

“Hear the song within the silence, see the beauty when there’s nothing there. Sing a song within the silence that hope and love are everywhere,” she gorgeously sang. “And when the quiet night is falling, watch an angel dancing in the air, to the song, the song within the silence, a December Prayer.”

As poignant as it was lovely, “December Prayer” showed off Menzel’s talent as a fully-rounded musician, further demonstrating why the crossover Broadway star has achieved so much mainstream success following the release of the seminal Frozen track, “Let It Go.”

Of course, no Menzel concert would be a complete without a show-stopping rendition of that song, and the songstress delivered with the same power that would help it win the Academy Award. This time around, she performed an acoustic version of “Let It Go” featuring two back-up vocalists, who added impressive harmonies to the gargantuan hit. Before beginning the song, she thanked iHeartRadio for including her in their special concert series and laughed at the fact that prior to “Let It Go,” she was never even featured on the radio. Today, the song has made Menzel the only Tony Award-winning actress to ever crack the Billboard Top 10.

Idina Menzel

With Holiday Wishes, Idina Menzel has solidified herself as a contemporary musical powerhouse. Between promoting the album (with numerous upcoming appearances including Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade), preparing for her just-announced world tour, and performing eight times a week in the Broadway hit If/Then, she’s one of the busiest and most versatile artists around.

And with Holiday Wishes having just debuted at #1 on the Billboard Holiday Albums chart, it’s a safe bet that Menzel’s reservations about this time of year have now melted away faster than Elsa’s ice kingdom.

Idina Menzel | Holiday Wishes


Originally published on PopBytes


kellywrappedinred_zps322aae99There are two types of people in this world: those who love Kelly Clarkson and those who haven’t been blessed enough to see her light yet.

But thanks to the release of Clarkson’s first Christmas album, the number of unfortunate souls in the latter category is about to shrink rapidly. Hitting stores on Tuesday, Wrapped In Red is that rare record that you know is an instant classic before your first listen is even over.

“I’ve been dying to make a Christmas album,” Clarkson told Billboard for the magazine’s current cover story. “The thing about Christmas is that it almost doesn’t matter what mood you’re in or what kind of a year you’ve had—it’s a fresh start. I’m going to clear the air and take stock of the good that’s happened.”

That feel-good sentiment dominates Clarkson’s sixth studio album. Wrapped In Red also perfectly celebrates the artistic versatility that has made Clarkson one of today’s greatest pop stars. The record finds Clarkson belting out her signature pop/rock sound while also highlighting her country and musical theater talents. Then, of course, there are her unstoppable takes on American standards – something that lent itself heavily to her winning the inaugural season of American Idol eleven years ago.

A collection of brand new songs (all co-written by Clarkson), a breathtaking contemporary cover and an array of gorgeous renditions of Christmas classics, Wrapped In Red has all the makings to be an evergreen holiday season essential. And if your inner Grinch needs a little more convincing, you can tune into Clarkson’s upcoming Christmas special on NBC this December to melt your icy heart. Titled “Kelly Clarkson’s (Cautionary) Christmas Tale,” this one-night (but forever on my DVR) event will feature the singer performing selections from the new album, and will tell a full narrative story—while simultaneously continuing to demonstrate why Clarkson is the gift that keeps on giving.

Wrapped In Red reunites Clarkson with songwriter and producer Greg Kurstin, the man behind some of the singer’s finest tracks on her album, Stronger, and recent single, “People Like Us,” from Greatest Hits – Chapter One. In addition to producing the entire record, Kurstin also co-wrote its lead single, “Underneath the Tree.”

One of the album’s five original offerings, “Underneath The Tree” is that type of smash that comes around once every 10-15 years and immediately becomes a timeless holiday anthem. Not since Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has a new Christmas song been so explosive, unforgettably catchy and radio-friendly. The sugary, up-tempo track not only guarantees Wrapped In Red’s addition into the holiday album hall of fame, but will also keep the paychecks coming to Clarkson year round for decades to come. I mean, those infectious vocals mixed with sleigh bells, a soaring chorus and a saxophone solo?! You couldn’t go wrong with that formula if you tried.

But while “Underneath The Tree” may be the album’s golden ticket, the other four original songs don’t exactly pale in comparison. “4 Carats” is a cheeky “Material Girl”-esque jewelry wish list that Tiffany’s would be remiss to not use in their next holiday ad campaign. Clarkson’s lyrics are seldom this playful, and the song’s glittery chorus is sure to imprint itself into your shower setlist. “Every Christmas,” a bluesy throwback to the big band era, goes down like a full-bodied glass of red wine by the fireplace. The album’s title and opening track is an adorable ode to new love, and smoothly sets the warm and festive tone for the remainder of the record. And “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song),” featuring a 50-piece orchestra and written for Clarkson’s new husband (as of last weekend! Mazel tov!), serves as that fuzzy, romantic fairytale ending to the tumultuous love life that the singer’s been writing about for the past ten years.

Another standout from Wrapped In Red is “Just For Now,” a stunning rendition of a track from Imogen Heap’s immaculate 2005 album, Speak For Yourself. In typical Clarkson fashion, the songstress makes the song completely her own, and the result is the most somber and hauntingly beautiful track on the album. While the lyrics, “it’s that time of year,” are the only blatant qualifying markers for the song’s inclusion on a Christmas record, Clarkson’s equally vulnerable and powerful vocal delivery make it clear that to her, the song is about putting aside differences with loved ones in the spirit of the holidays.

Through her brassy twist on the showtune classic, “My Favorite Things,” Clarkson channels the inner jazz house sensation that she’s previously exposed on tracks like “Walking After Midnight” and “Lies” (from her flawless The Smoackstack Sessions EPs, which I reviewed here and here). This unique and masterful take on the Rogers & Hammerstein staple is sure to give fellow Idol Carrie Underwood a run for her money when she tackles the song in her upcoming starring role in NBC’s live Sound of Music telecast. It also serves as a nice preview of Clarkson’s rumored 2014 Broadway album.

With the exception of two tracks, Wrapped In Red is a largely secular release. The only exceptions come in the form of the chilling, almost mystical “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and the country-tinged rendition of “Silent Night,” featuring mother-in-law Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood.

As far as the classics go, Clarkson takes a fairly conventional approach. There’s of course some of her signature flair sprinkled into places—like a deliciously unexpected octave leap in “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”—but for the most part, the songstress knows that people like to sing along to these songs the way they know them. That being said, I dare you to try to find a more gorgeous version of “White Christmas” or a toastier take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

In fact, certain songs sound so authentic and timeless that it wouldn’t be difficult to believe that they were recorded back in the 1950’s and ‘60s alongside their original counterparts. Clarkson’s rendition of the immortal “Blue Christmas,” for example, breathes new life into the country holiday essential, while her energetic spin on Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” effortlessly shows off just how rock-and-roll the singer can be.

Meanwhile, “Please Come Home For Christmas (Bells Will Be Ringing)” feels like you’re watching the heart-tugging climax of your favorite holiday movie. And even though Clarkson’s inevitably angelic vocals make for a nice distraction, the Ronnie Dunn-duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” unfortunately remains as date-rapey and uncomfortable as ever…so it, too, is just like you remember it!

While Christmas may still be two months and two other major holidays away, it’s not difficult to be instantly transported into the mistletoe mindset with Clarkson’s new seasonal masterpiece. What else will you find under your tree this year? The answer: it doesn’t matter. With the release of Wrapped In Red, Clarkson has bestowed the greatest possible gift upon all of us.

Wrapped In Red is available for pre-order from iTunes and Kelly Clarkson’s official web store.

kelly-clarkson-2Originally published on PopBytes


If you thought you saw Karmin’s festive side when they appeared at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last week, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Earlier this morning, the YouTube-sensations-turned-actual-popstars invited fans into their own winter wonderland with their energetic and glittery cover of the holiday classic, “Sleigh Ride.” And in the spirit of the season of giving, the platinum-selling musicians have teamed up with Coach to make their modern interpretation of the song available for free download on the fashion retailer’s website.

“Coach has actually been a fan of ours since we started posting cover videos on YouTube and of course we have always been a fan of Coach, so it was the perfect match!” Karmin stated about the collaboration.

For the song’s cheeky accompanying music video, Coach recruited superstar stylist and reality show personality Rachel Zoe to help band members Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan pick out their favorite holiday wardrobe items. And while the song and video rely on a less-than-subtle camp factor, the looks that the duo model in the video are as chic as they are diverse. So if you’re bummed that Nick is wearing clothes at all (thanks for nothing, Santa), you can at least rest assured that he’s still just as pretty to gawk at in a cashmere cardigan as he most likely is in nothing but a Christmas bow.

In addition to Karmin’s “Sleigh Ride” music video, Coach has also posted a behind-the-scenes video of Zoe’s creative process while styling the shoot. Showing off a vibrant array of outerwear, bags, shoes, accessories (I mean, did you SEE Amy’s furry winter hat and suede boots?!) and more, the posh looks Zoe created for the colorful video are also being sold in Karmin’s Coach holiday gift guide (talk about cross-promotion!). There may have once been a time that Zoe fantasized about carrying Chanel in her vagina for nine months, but this year, her contributions to Coach’s Holiday 2012 collection have birthed what can only be described as ferocious Noel realness.

Coming off a year that included their first Top 20 hit (“Brokenhearted”), Saturday Night Live performance and Rolling Stone magazine cover, Karmin had a lot to celebrate in 2012. In “Sleigh Ride,” the band’s excitement, energy, and signature affinity for surprising rap verses is alive with a yuletide glow that will surely flicker on your holiday playlist this season. Head on over to Coach to download the song, check out Karmin and Zoe’s videos, and kick off your celebrations in style.

Originally published on PopBytes


“I want to kill you in the backyard and bury you in snow,” Ingrid Michaelson sang over an upbeat piano freestyle on stage. “This is a holiday song, right?” she asked the audience at her fifth annual Christmas concert (or as she calls it, the “holiday hop”) in New York City last weekend. “It’s got the word ‘snow’ it is so … there you go! That’s all you need!” she rationalized.

“I like to think all these horrible songs are going to be on Grey’s Anatomy or something,” she continued when the freestyle was over, teasing the television show whose soundtrack has unofficially dubbed her its go-to featured musician.

The fact that she is featured on shows like Grey’s, however, has given Ingrid a visibility that many singer/songwriters can only dream of. Her music has been used to accompany various mediums – whether film, TV dramas, reality shows or commercials – and her star doesn’t seem to be dimming at all. Last year, she was even invited to perform her holiday duet with Sara Bareilles, “Winter Song,” at the White House’s National Christmas Tree lighting. Not bad for a ukulele-strumming girl from Staten Island, right?

Opening the Holiday Hop this year was … well, Ingrid Michaelson. Concealing her natural long and voluptuous auburn hair under a short silver wig, she came on stage with her equally disguised band and backup singers as part of an Italian Staten Island caroling choir. Together, they sang holiday standards with lyrics made over to be about food and gave holiday twists to some 2011 chart-toppers (i.e. the Maroon 5/Christina Aguilera parody, “Moves Like Santa”).

That’s one thing you can always expect from an Ingrid Michaelson concert: unabashed humor. For a lyricist whose songs are often rather melancholy in tone, Ingrid without fail manages to inject each of her shows with a degree of humor that few musicians are capable of doing – making her one of the most pleasurable, memorable and relatable artists to see live.

“We just got engaged at your show!” a couple screamed to the chanteuse from the back of the Music Hall of Williamsburg after the audience had just surprised Ingrid by singing her “Happy Birthday.”

“That’s great but I think we were talking about ME,” she joked back before congratulating them. “Anyone else have any big announcements while we’re at it? Next someone is going to be like ‘Oh, we left for a little because “The Chain” is boring and we had sex in the bathroom and now I’m pregnant.’”

On January 24th, Ingrid will be releasing her highly anticipated fourth album, Human Again. At the show, she gave fans a sneak peek by performing two tracks off of it: the gorgeous and haunting lead single, “Ghost,” and the catchy song that she debuted while performing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year, “Blood Brothers.”

If these songs are any indication of what Human Again will sound like, Ingrid may be following in the footsteps of friend Sara Bareilles and should prepare to be the Billboard chart’s favorite new “indie” girl. After all, her last album (2009’s Everybody) debuted at #18 on the U.S. charts – a testament to the power of her fans (especially considering that she hasn’t had a mainstream crossover radio hit – yet).

“You guys just screamed like Justin Bieber fans!” Ingrid laughed to the crowd, which was literally roaring with delight upon hearing the opening notes to her song, “Parachute.” She has such die-hard fans, in fact, that this year’s Holiday Hop sold out entirely from an exclusive presale provided to people on Ingrid’s virtual mailing list. Plans to release the tickets a few days later to the general public had to be scrapped because there were none left.

Embracing the quirky and festive nature of the evening, Ingrid alternated her set list between tracks from her previous releases and covers of songs that define the holiday season for her. In between fan-favorites like “You And I,” “Maybe,” “The Way I Am” and “Soldier,” she played “Sally’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas and an upbeat rock medley of holiday tunes like “White Christmas,” “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” “The Dreidl Song” and “Jingle Bells.” She closed with a traditional hymn, “In The Bleak Mid-Winter” – which also happened to be written by Ingrid’s father and was performed as a surprise early Christmas gift to him (awww).

Then of course there was her cover of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” the song she sings every year before leaving the stage prior to her encore. Originated by Judy Garland in the film Meet Me In St. Louis, Ingrid has always called the song her favorite. “I have such a love for her,” Ingrid said to me of Garland when I interviewed her a couple of years back. Her cover of the song was just released for purchase on iTunes last week and as part of an exclusive digital holiday EP in her official web store.

For the last five years, I’ve attended each Holiday Hop that Ingrid has put on. There’s just something about seeing one of your favorite musicians decked out in green and red (and glittery golden stilettos that her “podiatrist would not be happy about”), tossing Christmas candy from the keys of her piano to her audience. It’s something that has become a quintessential part of my celebration of the holidays each year.

When I left the venue, I immediately craved hot apple cider. I wanted to watch Elf and write holiday cards and wrap gifts. I wanted to go ice-skating, take a stroll through the Union Square holiday market and go check out the window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue and the Rockefeller Christmas tree. I was so annoyingly festive that even I wanted to murder me in the backyard and bury me in snow.

So as it is every year, Ingrid Michaelson’s Holiday Hop was not just a terrific concert to attend. It was also the best possible way I could think of to kick off this holiday season. See you at the Holiday Hop in 2012!

“Human Again” is available for pre-order on iTunes and from Ingrid’s official web store now.

Originally published on PopBytes



So here’s the thing.

Christmas is easily my favorite holiday. There’s nothing that gives me a greater sense of warmth and joy than walking along Fifth Avenue and being mesmerized by the stories the window displays at Saks and Bergdorf. When I was little, I always insisted on trying to count the lights on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and taking pictures with the FAO Schwarz employees dressed as Nutcrackers. Trust me, they loved it.

However, when it comes to holiday music, I usually want to Van Gogh my ears off. There’s really only so much “cheer” you can get from Julie Andrews narrating the birth of Jesus before you want to burn down the manger, you know?

Then came along Zooey Deschanel. Cute, quirky, perfect little Zooey Deschanel. Just cozily sitting there on the cover of her band She & Him’s new Christmas album, gazing somewhere to the left with her Powerpuff Girls eyes open wide enough to seem like she was watching old Claus make his way down her chimney. “Goddamnit,” I thought to myself the moment I saw the image. “She’s going to exorcise the Grinch right out of me.”

And I was right. You literally need to be the world’s most soulless human being to put on A Very She & Him Christmas and not have it immediately melt your heart. I guarantee that if someone had just played one track off the record for Ebenezer Scrooge, he could have bypassed that whole time-traveling ghost fiasco.

From the moment the album kicks off with Zooey’s illustrious vocals singing about “frosted window panes” in “The Christmas Waltz,” a glow is ignited warm enough to feel like you’re sipping hot chocolate by a burning Yule log in a Zales commercial.

A Very She & Him Christmas is comprised of 12 Christmas standards. And while most Christmas albums are filled with songs with countless references to religion, this record is (thank god!) made up entirely of holiday songs sans any shout outs to Bethlehem or the big J.

Instrumentally, the album uses little more than a ukulele. The result is a refreshingly organic take on music that has been recorded and re-recorded by countless artists for decades. Yet somehow, Deschanel and Ward have crafted a unique spin on these classic songs while simultaneously injecting them with that vintage flair that makes them so familiar.

Not since Judy Garland debuted it in Meet Me In St. Louis has “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” sounded so sweet and honest. Deschanel proves that the song doesn’t need to be “decorated” with riffs every two seconds to showcase the singer’s vocal strength (sit down, Christina Aguilera). By stripping it back to basics, She & Him have returned the tenderness that has been lacking from contemporary interpretations of the song.

Most people discovered Zooey’s enchanting voice when she crooned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the film Elf. On A Very She & Him Christmas, she revisits the song – except she switches verses and takes over the male part while Ward sings the female’s. The most up-tempo track on the album, this twist on the classic song had me hankering for Zooey to drug my eggnog and take advantage of me so badly.

The tranquil quality of tracks like “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” provide for a soothing soundtrack to enjoy while quietly cuddled up under a warm blanket. But if that’s not really your thing and you’d rather try to score under the mistletoe at your neighbor’s ugly Christmas sweater themed party, crank up the more upbeat cuts like “Sleigh Ride,” “Little Saint Nick” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and your bells will be jinglin’ in no time.

There’s really no word that describes A Very She & Him Christmas better than “snuggly.” Listening to the record is like being given a Golden Labrador puppy on Christmas morning that you name Kisses because he can’t stop crawling all over and licking you. It releases the same endorphins you would get as a kid when you realized that the cookies you left out for Santa on Christmas Eve were gone in the morning. It’s just the perfect holiday treat from start to finish.

While it may only be the beginning of November, Deschanel and Ward have released an instant classic that has me counting down until Christmas with the same giddy gingerbread glee I haven’t felt since I was a child.

A Very She & Him Christmas was released on October 24. (iTunes)

Originally published on MuuMuse