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Queens Chronicle

PRIME TIMES The avant-garde and the standard for Christmas

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Posted: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 10:30 am

Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for a fan of pop music, or having a hard time shopping for a follower of late punk legend Lou Reed, who died in late October? Either way, there are albums out that are just what you’re looking for. Maybe you even know somebody who’d appreciate both!

The Velvet Underground & Nico

“45th Anniversary” (UME)

The attention that Reed’s Oct. 27 death generated may have surprised some because he was never a big-selling artist, though he was well-known, particularly around his native New York City. Rolling Stone Magazine put him on its cover last month and its publisher, Jann Wenner, doesn’t do that for just any performer.

I have to confess that I wasn’t familiar with most of Reed’s work, with the exception of his gritty 1972 single reflecting his years of hanging around Andy Warhol and his crowd, the hypnotically jazzy “Walk on the Wild Side,” whose R-rated lyrics managed to get by Top 40 radio station programmers at the time, including WABC’s legendary Rick Sklar.

Last year UME Records reissued 1967’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” The Velvet Underground’s debut album. The Underground was Reed’s first band, and it was backed financially by Warhol, whose cache immediately gave the group hip cult status. Reed served as the Underground’s chief songwriter and lead singer, while JJ Cale, who would achieve fame in his own right, handled the lead guitar riffs. Christa Paffgen, whose nickname was Nico, was one of the many starlets and models Warhol was able to attract to his posse and would occasionally handle the singing chores.

Reed, like Bob Dylan, seemed more interested in speaking his lyrics, accompanied by music, instead of singing in a traditional style. Under his aegis, the Velvet Underground went for a softer, easier-on-the-ears sound, than the psychedelic acid rock that was popular both in San Francisco and in the United Kingdom, as exemplified by their songs “Sunday Morning” and “There She Goes Again.” Reed would experiment with more cacophonous sounds as well. “Venus in Furs” and “European Son” were clearly avant-garde — and are still just unlistenable noise to me all these years later.

The catchiest song here is “Femme Fatale,” in which Nico, with her heavily accented lyrics, sings Reed’s words about Warhol’s most famous ingenue, the flirtatious Edie Sedgwick. She also nicely handles the leads to another song on the album, “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”

One major drawback to the music industry getting away from physical product in favor of a downloading digital consumer is the loss of album artwork. Warhol designed the cover of the Velvet Underground’s debut album, a simple banana.

Various Artists

“A Very Special Christmas” (A&M)

In 1987 a number of rock stars were given a chance to record their favorite Christmas songs for an album that would benefit the Special Olympics called “A Very Special Christmas.” Among the memorable tunes were U2’s brilliant take on the rousing Darlene Love classic, “Christmas (Please Come Home)”; Madonna’s tribute to Eartha Kitt on “Santa Baby”; Whitney Houston’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?”; and Bob Seger’s “Little Drummer Boy.” Also included was a RUN-DMC original, “Christmas In Hollis.” Five years later a sequel album was released, and several more followed.

This holiday season has a new “Very Special Christmas” album on the market. It’s a less ambitious, 11-song CD that includes such well-known fare as Elvis Presley’s clever use of colors to describe his holiday heartbreak in “Blue Christmas”; John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”; and Wham’s “Last Christmas.” Rod Stewart channels his inner Dean Martin on “Let It Snow,” while Sheryl Crow does justice to Chuck Berry’s “Run, Rudolph, Run.”

Making a repeat appearance from “A Very Special Christmas 2” is Bon Jovi’s “Please Come Home for Christmas.” No artist will ever top the Eagles’ 1978 hit verison of that Charles Brown tune, but Bon Jovi gets the job done.

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