Category Archives: Music

Great Album Retro Review: Suzanne Vega By Suzanne Vega

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Returning to the ’80s, which is where a very sizeable chunk of my favorite music originates, so get used to it, I will once again review what I think is a great album. In this installment, I will tout Suzanne Vega’s first album.

Released in 1985, the album is self-titled and is beautiful and melancholy. Vega’s singing and songwriting are as graceful as they are thoughtful and poignant. The songs are mainly acoustic and have a folksy feel. They are quiet, simple, and straight forward in their production.

I must have discovered this album at a point in my life at which I most needed it, because it really dug its way into my psyche. I love this album. It is in my Top Ten All Time Favorites.

The tracks:

Cracking –  This song opens with my favorite acoustic guitar riff on the album and uses a  lilting synthesizer to fill in the sound as Vega talk sings much of the lyrics. It’s a moody piece that sets up the album very well.

Freeze Tag – There’s a lilt to this song as well, as Vega appears to reminisce on playful times with a flame from her past. And a song that drops a reference to Bogie and Bacall can’t be bad.

Marlene On The Wall – My favorite track on the album, this is a more up tempo song about getting romantic advice from an ever-observing poster of Marlene Dietrich. At least, I think Vega means Dietrich.

Small Blue Thing – This song returns to the moody atmosphere of the first track. To me it seems to be about obsession and being controlled by the object of that obsession. She becomes a small thing being held in her obsession’s hand.

Straight Lines – A little up tempo again, Vega sings of a woman changing herself. Cutting her hair, casting away lovers, simplifying her life until she is finally alone. With that accomplished, I can’t help but to feel some sadness for her.

Undertow – Still on the slightly up tempo side, I’m not entirely certain what this song means. But, like much of the album, there is a feel of melancholy filling every corner.

Some Journey – This song has some nice jangly guitar accents along with a flowing electric violin. Vega sings of what might have been had she met a certain person. Would they have been lovers?

The Queen And The Soldier – This song is a fable of a young queen, isolated, impetuous, and powerful, and a loyal soldier who had finally decided he couldn’t continue to do battle for her. Instead, he offers her a chance to end the constant violence and to find love. To break her out of the trap of her royalty. Does she accept his offer?

Knight Moves – I’m not certain if Vega intended this song to be about the same queen in the previous track, but I always thought it was. The melancholy continues as the queen is questioned as whether she loves one, many, any, or me.

Neighborhood Girls – This closing track is the most bouncy of any of the tracks on the album. It almost feels out of place, it’s practically jaunty, but it still works. There are plenty of excellent popping guitar lines throughout this song about neighborhood sex workers.

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Great Album Retro Review: Abacab by Genesis

41sSESitKELI read an article reporting on the psychology behind why people tend to favor the first album they’ve heard by a musical artist over the rest of that artist’s output. It has to do with familiarity. Since it’s the first album you picked up, it’s probably the one you’ve listened to the most and so it’s your favorite. Makes sense.

I can think of a some albums that weren’t the first I’d owned by a particular band, but are my favorites (XTC’s Skylarking, for instance). However, when I give it some thought, there are plenty of favorite albums in my collection that fit in the “first heard” category. This month’s album is one of those.

It’s Abacab by the prog (becoming more pop) rock band Genesis. Released in 1981, it wasn’t my first exposure the UK band. I knew and liked the song Misunderstanding from their 1980 release Duke. That song had gotten a good deal more radio play than anything from the band’s previous nine albums. But I didn’t buy Duke.

When Abacab’s title single hit the radio, I was impressed enough to buy the album. So, my first Genesis album was the band’s eleventh! Abacab was more pop than their previous albums. The songs were simpler and more direct, which was intentional so as to stay fresh in their sound. Not being much of a prog rock fan, the poppier aspect was more attractive to me.

The tracks:

Abacab – Named for the sections (A, B, & C) that make up the song, when creating the song the band would move the sections around until they found the one configuration they liked, Abacab was one of those section configurations, but not the final one. Still they liked the way the letters made a “word” and used it for the album title. This song (and album) also had that big Phil Collins’ drum sound, a sound that would influence much of pop music through the 80s. As I said, I was really impressed with the song. Still am.

No Reply At All – Oh, boy! This song just jumped off the record for me. I loved the horns, provided by the horn section of the R&B giants Earth, Wind & Fire. There’s just something about a good jaunty horn section to boost a song. And the lyrics of a lonely guy pining for love struck a chord with my high school self.

Me And Sarah Jane – When I got to learn more about the history of this band and of Peter Gabriel, their original lead singer, I could hear more of their prog roots here and I can also hear why the band picked Collins as their new leader singer. There’s quite a lot of Gabriel’s sound in this song. A quieter song that builds and gets quiet and builds and gets quiet.

Keep It Dark – My favorite track on the album. I love the guitar riff and the lyrics of a man who had been abducted by a gang of thieves. Or were they aliens? The protagonist decides not let on exactly what happened to him. He decides to keep it dark. Great song.

Dodo/Lurker – This one is probably the most prog of any of the songs of the album. I enjoy the flow of the song as it makes time changes and discusses the plights of dodos and minxes.

Who Dunnit? – I don’t know about this one. I do like it. However, it feels a little like a throwaway song. On the other hand, the song also seems a bit tongue-in-cheek and shows the band to have a sense of humor. It’s also just plain weird. I don’t know about this one… But, I like it.

Man On The Corner – This one is a start out quiet and build until it’s hitting the ceiling song. It is a tried and true (and sometimes overdone – see Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton) style of song delivery. Genesis makes it work here. I think because the whole build up is so slow and the ceiling isn’t too high.

Like It Or Not – Another quiet song that builds well, but it still holds back just enough. I like that. Sometimes that holding back makes a song more powerful (don’t see Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton).

Another Record – The album started with a big drum sound and it ends with big drums. Yeah, I know, there were big drums pretty much the whole album, but this track sounds as though the drums are the lead instrument. The song is a little of an anticlimax – good, but not quite as powerful an ending as the album’s beginning.

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Great Album Retro Review: This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship By Love Tractor

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I’m going a little hipster here by looking at an album by one of the lesser known bands to come out of Athens, GA in the ’80s. Also, as this series continues, you will probably notice quite a few of my picks are from the ’80s. What can I say? I guess I’m stuck.

It was 1987 and my friend John, who was my cohort in the discovery of music that matters, not that crappy pop and hair metal getting all the radio airtime, found out about this band. They’re called Love Tractor. I hadn’t hear of them before John discovered this their fifth album: This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship.

I have to admit, I don’t know much of anything about their other musical output. I will try to remedy that, but I just love this album.

If you need an example of lilting guitars, this is it! Along with the lilting guitars is plenty of excellent melodies and hooks. This album just feels so good.

The tracks:

Cartoon Kiddies – This is my second favorite track on the album which is an ode to TV cartoons, most particularly Top Cat. Now, Top Cat wasn’t one of my favorites, but this song is a great kick off

Small Town – There’s just something about Mark Richmond’s vocals. There’s an ease to them as well as just the merest hint of snarl. Nothing threatening though. And his frequent forays into falsetto really work for me.

Chili Part Two – This song is more of an instrumental, which touches on the band’s roots as they started out an instrumental band, with a few bits of lyrics thrown in. And I find it so effective when the lyrics come rolling in – “Heeeeeere cooomes that feeeeliiing agaaaaiiin!”

Night Club Scene – The lilting guitars glide over the big ’80s drumbeat as this song opens. It’s a slower song that contains the line that gives the album its title. What does the song mean? I dunno.

Outside With Ma – For me, this is the weakest track on the album. That’s not to say it’s a bad song. It has a darker feel than the rest of the album. It also has a funky feel, which doesn’t quite work.

Rudolf Nureyev – Returning to their roots, this is the album’s first of two fully instrumental tracks. Plenty of lilt and I can almost see the dancer after whom it is named dancing gracefully along.

Beatle BootsHands down, my favorite song on the album! It just feels so good. It’s got a great ’80s dance vibe. The lyrics speak of an emotionally complicated woman who is both a hero and a mess. I love this song!

Amusement Park – This song sounds like Summer. It’s about hanging out and seeking thrills. “Meet me here. Meet me there.” Let’s go downtown, to the record store, and, of course, to that amusement park.

Party Train – A fun, rockin’ yet still funky cover of The Gap Band hit. Love Tractor makes it their own. And it’s pretty good.

We All Loved Each Other So Much – On the original vinyl release, this was the last track of the album. It was also the second fully instrumental track. It’s a quiet contemplative tune and, at just over seven minutes, the longest track on the album. Lilting to the very end.

Got To Give It Up – This bonus track is another funky cover song. This time the band covers the great dance party track by Marvin Gaye. Lots of falsetto and lots of fun. It’s a nice bonus.

Wanna give it a listen? Of course, you do! It’s available on iTunes and Spotify. Check it out!

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This Is XTC! This Is Pop!

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Andy Partridge simply hates rock documentaries. That’s what he tells us in the opening moments of a new rock documentary called XTC: This Is Pop, which began airing on Showtime in January 2018.

Andy Partridge is the leader of a rock/pop band called XTC and he finds himself taking part, a large part, in that very thing he hates: A rock documentary. And XTC fans are so glad he did.

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Andy Partridge

Placed in the One-Hit Wonder bin in the American music market, I’ve often stated that it is criminal that XTC never got as big as their contemporaries The Police. It’s about time the greater public learn about how good this band really is and this documentary will help. Musician Stewart Copeland of The Police and actor Harry Shearer, along with other musical artists and fans, are there to heap praise on this excellent band from Swindon, England. XTC may not have found a big audience, but they had a far reaching influence on many of the pop bands that followed them.

The documentary is as much about Partridge himself as it is about the band. And that’s a drawback, because we’re not given much of a backstory about the other members of the band: Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Terry Chambers, and Barry Andrews. Moulding, Gregory, and Chambers do contribute to the film (and the three of them all have an odd whispered, raspy tone to their voices).

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L to R: Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Terry Chambers

Andrews is missing from the film. That may be due to the friction between him and Partridge while they were in the band together. Partridge’s attitude was – “This is my band!” Andrews wanted it to be his band. The friction led to Andrews leaving and then co-founding Shriekback. In later years, the two headstrong artists did work together on Partridge’s 2007 album of improvised instrumentals – Monstrance.

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Barry Andrews

As we learn about the band’s formation in the ’70s and growth through the ’80s, ’90s, and into the ’00s; going from glam to punk to rock to lush and beautiful pop, we also learn about Andy growing up an only child having a mother with OCD, his drug-addiction that began to develop when he was 13, and we get a deeper explanation of his crippling stage fright that turned XTC from a touring band into studio artists in 1982. The stage fright was a double-edged sword. It prevented XTC from breaking through just as they were on the verge of a major American tour. But, it gave the musicians a much, much larger “box of paints” to use to create such wonderful music.

It’s a fascinating look at such an intriguing artist and his awesome band. However, clocking in at a mere hour and fifteen minutes, to quote XTC’s song All Of A Sudden, “there’s plenty missing in the middle.” There is barely any mention of XTC’s last two albums: Apple Venus Vol. 1 and Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2. And I would have liked to learn about the seven year strike the band went on, from 1992 until 1999, against their record label Virgin. But, as it is said in show business, always leave them wanting more.

Give it a watch. Your new favorite band is just waiting for you to find them.

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Great Album Retro Review: Quadrophenia By The Who

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I should say that I’m no musical expert. I’m not some music critic who can dive deeply into the artistry (or lack thereof) of a musician’s work and poetically explain its merits to the reader. But, I know what I like. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d start a (perhaps monthly) series of retro reviews of what are some of my favorite albums.

Here’s my plan: Pick an album, give a brief overview on why I think it’s great, and then give an even more briefer review of each song on that great album. Sound like a plan?

I’ll start with my favorite album by my favorite band: Quadrophenia by The Who.

Released in 1973, Quadrophenia is the second rock opera released by this seminal band. It is the follow up to their classic Who’s Next (1971) and the use of a synthesizer, introduced on Who’s Next, continues to play a large part in the band’s sound. Quadrophenia also continues with the harder rock style that would influence the heavy metal of the later 70s and 80s.

Quadrophenia is also the only Who album entirely composed by Pete Townshend. He had always been the main songwriter, with John Entwistle as the second songwriter of the band, but this one was all Pete. That may contribute to why it’s my favorite.

The story is about a teenager who is having an identity crisis. The main character, Jimmy, is a Mod (it was a British thing dealing with fashion, drugs, and a certain attitude) who is staring ahead at adulthood. And he’s scared. He doesn’t know who he is, what his life is about, where he’s headed. He doesn’t know why he should care.

Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

I know. Wrong band, but it still applies.

According to Townshend, Jimmy may be messed up, but he gets better.

This album helped me out as a young adult and I’ll always be grateful to Townshend and the boys for that.

Now the tracks! It’s a double album, so be prepared.

I Am The Sea – This isn’t really a song. It’s an intro using the sound of the sea crashing against the rocks, in which we can hear snippets of Jimmy’s four personalities. These  personalities are expressed through four theme songs, each of which also represents a member of the band, which are peppered throughout the album. This is the first time The Who had used sound effects on an album. The sound effects (crashing waves, rain, trains, birds, etc) were recorded by Townshend.

Sitting on one of the rocks, Jimmy is at a crisis point as he contemplates his life…

The Real Me – Damn! What a great song! It has the fantastic bass work of Entwistle, Roger Daltrey’s voice is in fine form, and Keith Moon is out of his mind. In fact, listen closely, you can hear Moon shouting as he plays, something The Who have included on several songs, beginning with Substitute. The song presents Jimmy’s self-perceived craziness, his anger, and his frustration. And it rocks!

Quadrophenia – The title track is the first of two instrumental songs on the album. The synthesizer comes into play as this song explores the musical themes we’ll be hearing as we listen to the rest of the album.

Cut My Hair – The lyrics set up the conflict Jimmy was having with himself and with his parents. Townshend works in lyrics from early Who and High Numbers (an early name for the band) songs to help bolster the Mod connection. He does this throughout the album. And great drums with Moon yelling as he plays.

The Punk And The Godfather – Fighting against the system is difficult, because the system has all the power. Again Townshend uses early Who lyrics, this time from their legendary hit My Generation.

I’m One – This is one of my favorite tracks on the album. Townshend takes on the lead vocals as Jimmy acknowledges his shortcomings, but declares he will overcome them. “You’ll all see!”

The Dirty Jobs – Townshend’s ode to the working man. Some nice use of violin (or is that synthesizer?) And, seriously, Moon ought to get a backing vocal credit for all the shouting he does on this song.

Helpless Dancer – Listed as Roger’s theme, this song continues the theme of working against the system. It’s the struggle of the common person against the power. Nice piano and acoustic guitar.

Is It In My Head? – Ever conscious of his band’s history, Townshend precedes this track with a snippet of The Kids Are Alright, another early song from The Who’s catalog. The song describes a particular low point for Jimmy as Daltrey sings about numbering all those who love the protagonist and “finds exactly what the trouble is.”

I’ve Had Enough – This is the moment Jimmy breaks from his life and hops on his Vespa scooter to revisit places that remind him of better times. And, for the first time since the intro, we hear the phrase “love reign o’er me” from the final song of the album.

5:15 – This classic rock radio standard is fantastic. The horn fills provided by Entwistle give this song an extra punch right into your ears. It starts with the sound effects of Jimmy at the train station at the beginning of his journey to find himself. This one kicks ass!

Sea And Sand – Jimmy arrives at the beach on which he had participated in the riots between gangs of Mods and Rockers. A time of triumphant fun, but now he’s thinking of his hypocritical parents, his unrequited love, and his failure to be a leader in his gang. Lyrically Townshend again draws upon early Who and High Numbers songs.

Drowned – This was a sleeper track for me. It just didn’t grab me at first, but after multiple listens it became a stand out track. That rolling piano provided by English session musician Chris Stainton (he also plays piano on The Dirty Jobs and 5:15) is infectious. It’s a rollicking song about Jimmy contemplating drowning himself. I love it!

Bell Boy – Adding to Jimmy’s feelings of depression is this song in which he discovers his hero, a Mod leader in the days of the riots, is now a lowly bell boy, resigned to the job to earn a living. Well, what are ya gonna do? Gotta pay the rent. The song features Moon’s wonderful Cockney vocals as Jimmy’s fallen hero. Keith was never much of a singer, but he doesn’t do too badly on this his theme song on the album.

Doctor Jimmy – This is John’s theme and it’s my least favorite track. I still like it, but it’s a bit too long. The song is filled with blustery bravado as Jimmy tries desperately to convince himself that he is strong, but his self-doubt continues to plague him.

The Rock – We’re back on the rock surrounded by the crashing sea for this excellent instrumental. Will Jimmy give into despair? Will he take his own life? Is he going to be OK?

Love Reign O’er Me – Of course, Pete reserved this song to be his theme. Daltrey’s vocals are at their peak on this cathartic song, in which Jimmy has a break through. He realizes he needs to allow himself to love and to be loved. He is worthy. What do you know? The kid’s going to be alright.

After all, love is all you need.

I know! Wrong band, but it still applies.

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Pods Looking Back 2: Another List Of My Favorite Nostalgic Podcasts

A year ago I recommended a few podcasts that have a nostalgic theme to them. (Click here to get that list.) Since new podcasts are always popping up, I thought I should list a few more as suggestions for your listening pleasure.

These are podcasts and the rules of terrestrial radio do not apply. These shows may have adult language and themes, so you should check them out first before sharing them with your kids or more sensitive folks.

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The Dollop with Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds The hosts are comedians who dive deep into an historical topic and mine whatever comedy gold can be found. Dave is the “historian” who finds the topics and gives the information to Gareth, who doesn’t know what each show’s topic is until they start recording. The two will then riff to their hearts’ content. Some of the show are absolutely hilarious.

They get very bawdy as they work their way through each show’s topic. The Dollop has over 300 hundred episodes and I’ve just started listening to it, so I have a long way to go to catch up, but I find it very entertaining and informative.

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My Favorite Murder Odds are pretty good that, if you’re familiar with podcasts at all, you’ve heard about this one. Hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark are two comedians who discovered that they both really like murder stories. They decided to do a podcast discussing various real life murders. Their first show dropped in January, 2016 and the podcast has taken the world by storm. Combining their regular shows with their “minisodes” Karen and Georgia are closing in on 180 episodes.

It is a comedic show about murder, but the hosts are careful to respect the victims and the families and friends. They also try to give sound advice on preventing oneself from being a victim. It’s a very funny podcast with a big heart that reminds us to “stay sexy and don’t get murdered!”

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Friendly Fire In my first podcast suggestions blog I recommended The Greatest Generation podcast. It’s a podcast about the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, they have gone through all that classic sci-fi program’s episodes and they have since moved on to discussing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (I still recommend it!) Well, the hosts of The Greatest Generation, Adam Pranica and Benjamin Harrison, have teamed up with John Roderick to examine war movies.

Each week they examine a different war movie (and who doesn’t like war movies?) for its accuracy and cinematic value, and they manage to get some laughs along the way. Although, so far, most of their reviewed films have been WWII-based, they will cover other wars. They’ve talked about Saving Private Ryan, of course, but they’ve also reviewed Master & Commander: From The Far Side Of The World, First Blood (yes, they considered that a war movie), and they will be watching Braveheart for an upcoming installment.

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Du You Remember? A Podcast About Husker Du And, finally, I’m recommending this podcast to anyone who is a fan of alternative music. It’s just five installments (with two extras, one a short introduction to the series, the other a tribute to drummer/singer/songwriter Grant Hart) and it is a fascinating look at one of alternative rock’s founding bands.

Husker Du came from St. Paul, MN in the late 70s and created their own tremendous presence in the 80s hardcore/punk/underground music scene. The podcast has interviews with all three members (Hart, Bob Mould, and Greg Norton) done just prior to Hart’s untimely death in September, 2017. The band members and others who worked with them or were fans and friends tell the story of the music scene in the 80s, how Husker Du was formed, how they embraced the “do it yourself” ethic, their rise and abrupt fall, and how very important they were to the music world. Without Husker Du, there would have been no Pixies, no Nirvana, no Green Day.

It’s all good stuff!

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My Favorite Christmas Songs

It’s Holiday again.

I mean, it’s Christmas time again. For the purposes of this blog I can call a ceasefire to my part of the War on Christmas and acknowledge the holiday that occurs every December 25th. Actually, there really isn’t a war on Christmas. I know, Bill O’Reilly is turning in his grave hearing me say that. (Is he dead?) But, seriously. The majority of Americans still celebrate it. We still get the day off of work and school. The specials still run on television. So retailers are opting to be more inclusive when giving Season’s Greetings to their customers. Big deal. Is that a war?

Be that as it may, I thought I’d list five of my favorite Christmas songs. As always, this is my list. Your results may vary.

In no particular order, here they are:

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Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt (1953)
Oh, yeah, it’s cheesy and the string breaks get a little annoying, but Kitt’s sultry gold-digging is quite enjoyable. It would be difficult for Santa to deny her requests when put the way she does it. Others have covered this song, but this version is the best. And the “boom-boom, boom-boom’s” are a nice touch.

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Snoopy’s Christmas – The Royal Guardsmen (1967)
This Christmas song was The Royal Guardsmen’s follow-up to their Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron hit from the year before. In fact, musically the two songs are virtually identical. I had to do quite a bit of digging through YouTube to find the first hit from 1966. Many people seem to think Snoopy’s Christmas is titled Snoopy Vs The Red Baron, but they are different songs. Apparently, this band had a thing for Snoopy.

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It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year – Andy Williams (1963)
Yes, I know. This song is almost cliche, but I have to include it. It reminds me of all those Christmas specials that would play on TV in the lead up to the big holiday. Those specials helped mark of the days until Santa came and, at the same time, ramped up the anticipation of the arrival of that generous and jolly old fella. Andy Williams also came up with the only version of Twelve Days of Christmas, normally an incredibly tedious song, that I like. (I’ve linked to it as a bonus.)

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A Holly Jolly Christmas – Burl Ives (1964)
I first heard this one the way I’m sure most of the rest of you have: From The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas Television Special. Yes, plenty has been said in recent years about what a terrible message that special taught American television-viewing audiences in the mid-60s and beyond. The message was if you’re different you’re a freak and unwanted, even by Santa! And that only when that difference can be exploited are you then worthy of inclusion. Well, despite the horrible treatment of misfits, the song is quite rousing.

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Christmas Time Is Here – Vince Guaraldi Trio (1965)
This might just be my favorite Christmas song. As with most of the others, this one comes from a television holiday special – the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. I think the music for this program is what makes it so darn good. The Vince Guaraldi Trio really did something special here. In fact, the entire soundtrack is fantastic!

Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

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